The team that has made a habit of reinventing itself will try yet another reinvention in 2011. The Cleveland Browns begin 2011 with their sixth new coach since 1999. Hold up the cue cards; the lines have all been used: This is the guy ... We are on the right track ... It is a process ... We have the system ... and on and on and on.
This time, the faithful are trusting the judgment of Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert, who hired Pat Shurmur after dismissing Eric Mangini. The same fans who a few years ago were repeating “In Phil We Trust” when Phil Savage was general manager now are putting their faith in Holmgren and Heckert, which isn’t a bad pair in which to place faith.
In hiring Shurmur, the pair has turned to one of “their own.” Shurmur comes from the St. Louis Rams, where he was the team’s offensive coordinator. He previously worked under Andy Reid in Philadelphia when Heckert was in the front office. He runs the offensive system Holmgren operated and employs the 4-3 defense that Heckert saw in Philadelphia and that Holmgren used as a head coach. In short, he’s more part of “the team” than Mangini was.
This sounds good on paper. But as Browns fans can attest, nothing on paper means much without wins on the field.
Shurmur brings the West Coast offense to Cleveland with the hope that it will help quarterback Colt McCoy be more effective. McCoy’s forte is not throwing down the field, but he was asked to do just that quite a bit in the system run by Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. As a rookie, McCoy completed 65 percent of his throws that went 1-to-10 yards, and 62.5 percent when the passes were between 11 and 20 yards. The completion percentage dropped precipitously, though, when McCoy was asked to throw long. He was 6-of-23 when throwing 21 yards or more, or 26 percent. His rating when throwing short was 89.1, but throwing long it was 50.3. McCoy — theoretically at least — will benefit from an approach better designed to take advantage of his abilities, which would be to emphasize the short-to-intermediate passing game and take chances down the field more judiciously.
One major concern of the Browns’ offense lies in McCoy’s targets. The team lacks a big-play, dependable threat at wide receiver. Mohamed Massaquoi has shown potential, but Brian Robiskie looked lost in Daboll’s offense. The pair started 25 games between them in 2010 yet ranked fourth and fifth on the team in receiving, respectively, and they combined for only 65 catches — 24 NFL receivers had more on their own. Ben Watson is a viable target at tight end, but the Browns need an outside receiving threat. There is hope for second-round draft pick Greg Little, but there are also some concerns. Little was suspended for all of 2010 after blatantly violating NCAA rules while at North Carolina. Also, Little is hardly polished — he played the position for only one full season at UNC after moving from running back.
The Browns’ running game belongs to Peyton Hillis, who came out of nowhere to rush for 1,177 yards after being acquired for quarterback Brady Quinn. He is a bruising runner with amazingly quick feet, which makes him a lot shiftier than most guys his size. He wore down in 2010, and the Browns hope Montario Hardesty returns from a knee injury that cost him his entire rookie season. Brandon Jackson, who rushed for 703 yards with the Packers last year, was signed in the offseason to provide some depth.
Despite Hillis’ success, and despite the growth of McCoy, which was impressive, the Browns’ offense remained inept in 2010, ranking 29th in the league. The offensive line is led by All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas, easily the team's best player. Still, the hope for improvement rests with the new system. At least there is ample proof the West Coast attack has worked in other places.
By almost any measure, the Browns’ defense needs a lot of work. In 2010, the team “improved” to 22nd overall. Cleveland was 18th in pass defense but gave up 26 touchdown passes, the ninth-worst total in the league, and had only 29 sacks, which tied for 25th. The Browns also continued a longstanding tradition by failing to stop the run. They gave up 129.4 yards per game, which ranked 27th.
Amidst all these numbers is this bit of reality: Cleveland now must improve while trying to make the transition from a 3-4 defense to a 4-3, handcuffed by an offseason lockout that limited player movement and acquisitions.
Gone is Shaun Rogers, the mammoth defensive tackle. In is first-round draft pick Phil Taylor, another man-mountain who stayed on the field all downs for Baylor. If Taylor lives up to first-round billing, he and Ahtyba Rubin could form a potent tackle duo. The rest of the line is up for debate, though it would be a surprise if second-round pick Jabaal Sheard did not start at end.
Cleveland’s linebacker corps is in flux. The Browns expect Scott Fujita to start outside, perhaps along with D’Qwell Jackson, who is coming back from a torn pectoral muscle, and Chris Gocong. Marcus Benard showed pass-rush ability outside as well.
The secondary is in good hands at corner with rising star Joe Haden and 10th-year pro Sheldon Brown. Haden’s emergence last season as a rookie made Eric Wright expendable. The safety position needs upgrading, a fact the team concedes.
One thing the Browns have done well since their return in 1999 has been to put outstanding special teamers on the field. Last season was no exception. Phil Dawson remains a reliable placekicker, to the point that the team made him its franchise player in the offseason — a move designed, no doubt, to ensure that Dawson would not jump to the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. Punter Reggie Hodges suffered a season-ending injury early in camp and was replaced by Richmond McGee. Josh Cribbs remains a threat every time he touches the ball. Also, nobody in the league covered kicks the way the Browns did under Mangini, a coach who loved to stock his roster with special teams standouts.
The lockout hurt some teams a little and a few teams a lot. Put the Browns in the latter category. Teams that were installing new schemes lost valuable teaching time. Critical evaluation time was missed, as was the chance to build offseason camaraderie.
The Browns were not a good team in 2010, though they do believe they found a quarterback in McCoy. Still, McCoy needs time to grow and the Browns need to surround him with more playmakers.
This team could improve its win total — the Browns went 5–11 a year ago — but doesn’t figure to be much off a factor in the top-heavy AFC North.
OUTSIDE THE HUDDLE
Head coach Pat Shurmur will be his own offensive coordinator. This is not unprecedented, and in fact in many West Coast offenses the head coach has been the de facto coordinator. Browns president Mike Holmgren called the plays when he was coach in Green Bay and Seattle. Andy Reid calls the plays for Philadelphia. Norv Turner is his own coordinator in San Diego. Shurmur called the plays in St. Louis, and he will keep those duties in Cleveland. His challenge will be doing both jobs in his first year as a head coach.
The West Coast offense heralds back to the Browns’ glory days. Bill Walsh credited legendary Hall of Fame Cleveland coach Paul Brown with developing the offense — though Walsh clearly refined and enhanced it. Brown ran the offense when he coached the Browns, then took it to Cincinnati as the Bengals’ head coach. Walsh learned it as an assistant, then brought it the 49ers, where he passed it on to Mike Holmgren, who passed it to Andy Reid, who passed it to Pat Shurmur.
Stuffing the Ballot Box
Few fans can respond to a call to arms like Cleveland Browns fans. Their ire brought the organization back when Art Modell moved his team to Baltimore, and their devotion put Peyton Hillis on the cover of the Madden 2012 video game. Hillis won an online competition, earning 66 percent of the vote and beating Mike Vick for the honor, such as it is. Hillis will now have to contend with the Madden cover jinx, a tale that has dogged previous players on the cover — including Vick.
Late Season Blues
Did Hillis wear down as the 2010 season went on? Consider the numbers. Through 11 games, Hillis had run for 905 yards and a 4.5-yard average. In the final five games, he ran for 272 yards on 71 carries, an average of 3.8 per carry. The Browns played some good defenses during that stretch — Baltimore and Pittsburgh — but also played teams like Cincinnati and Miami. Much was asked of Hillis, and he gave much. But it’s not difficult to understand why the Browns are hoping that Montario Hardesty can return this season — Hillis needs breaks, and the two could complement each other well.
A New ’Tude
GM Tom Heckert does not seem to mind players who bring some attitude. Consider his two second-round picks, Jabaal Sheard and Greg Little. Little was suspended last season at North Carolina. Sheard was suspended for his role in an offseason fight but was reinstated and named a Pitt captain. Clearly talent with attitude is no longer an issue in the Browns’ front office.
Since they returned in 1999, the Browns have had constant turnover. Pat Shurmur is their sixth head coach, following Chris Palmer, Butch Davis, Terry Robiskie (interim), Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini. In that time they have had nine offensive coordinators, including Shurmur, who will be his own coordinator. The others were Palmer, Pete Carmichael, Bruce Arians, Robiskie, Maurice Carthon, Greg Davidson, Rob Chudzinski and Brian Daboll. Defensively, it’s not pretty either. Dick Jauron’s hiring this season makes him the seventh coordinator on a list that includes Bob Slowik, Crennel, Foge Fazio, Dave Campo, Todd Grantham, Mel Tucker and Rob Ryan. Jauron is the fourth defensive coordinator in the past five years.