The Cleveland Browns have not proven themselves adept at doing a whole lot well since the team returned to the field in 1999. The only thing the Browns have done consistently in these last 14 seasons is change. Front office to front office, players to players, coach to coach — the constant change has been the only theme with a team that can’t win.
Yes, there may be a correlation.
Because every time the Browns have had an organizational change, the coaches change and the players change and the approach changes. Fans have been treated to a never-ending carousel of people telling them that the right person has been hired and the right player acquired, only to hear the same thing about the next person hired and next player acquired.
The Browns have averaged 5.2 wins per season in the 14 they’ve been back. They’ve won 23 games the past five seasons. Rob Chudzinski will be the seventh head coach, Norv Turner the 10th offensive coordinator.
Tumult is the theme, epitomized by the fact that even the ownership changed in the past year, as Randy Lerner sold the team to Jimmy Haslam.
But in typical Browns fashion, Haslam’s Knoxville, Tenn., company — Pilot Flying J — became the subject of a fraud investigation that had the FBI and IRS conducting a raid on the business in April.
As they say in Cleveland … only in Cleveland.
Athlon Sports AFC Power Ranking: 11th
New CEO Joe Banner and GM Mike Lombardi did some tinkering with the offense but did not perform an overhaul. Banner’s thinking was that the offense has some young talent, and it’s worth giving them an opportunity to grow. Translation: Brandon Weeden and company are on a one-year “show me” basis. If Weeden does not succeed in his second season, he won’t get another in Cleveland.
The Browns’ former brain trust of Mike Holmgren, Tom Heckert and Pat Shurmur saw little to be excited about in the 2013 quarterback class. So they took Weeden in the first round in 2012, no matter that he was 28 (and will be 30 this fall). The latest regime will give Weeden a chance, and they will give him a chance running an offense that is more vertical and down-the-field than Shurmur’s West Coast system. Also, the Browns will put Weeden in the shotgun more. He proved in college that he was comfortable working from that spot.
Weeden had moments last season, but they were too few — and he faded as a long and depressing season continued. But he also showed ability that prompted the Browns to draft him. If Weeden falters, however, the Browns will look to the draft to take yet another “franchise” quarterback.
Weeden has a solid offensive line in front of him with left tackle Joe Thomas a consistent standout. Running back Trent Richardson played much of ’12 with cracked ribs, so he should be more consistent — and better able to live up to the expectations of a third overall pick. Richardson has to learn when a play is over, though, because he took too many extra shots fighting for yards that weren’t there. Richardson's health and durability is even more important with backup Montario Hardesty expected to miss the first two or three games because of a knee injury and Dion Lewis, who the team acquired from Philadelphia in a trade in April, also sure to miss time after breaking his leg in the second preseason game.
The Browns are justifiably excited about their young receivers. Josh Gordon had a solid rookie season after not playing college for two years because of issues with marijuana use. Greg Little struggled early but had a strong second half. The Browns added veterans Davone Bess and David Nelson to round out the receiving crew.
The biggest question on offense — other than relying on young players to grow — is at tight end, a position Chudzinski and Turner like to use a great deal. Jordan Cameron appears to be the choice to start, but he has only 26 catches and eight starts in his two seasons, with most of the starts due to injury to Ben Watson. Cameron has ability, but he also has to show more toughness and the willingness and ability to block.
The Browns spent two years drafting and building for a 4-3 defense. With new management and coaching, Cleveland moves to a 3-4 alignment with Ray Horton trying to implement a Pittsburgh system without Pittsburgh players.The coaching staff shrugs off the change to a “hybrid” 3-4 with different fronts and blitzes, but it’s complicated. And it might not be that beneficial. The one element of the team that Heckert built was the defensive front. Now that front has to transition to a two-gap system. And Jabaal Sheard, a pretty good 4-3 end, has to transition to a stand-up linebacker. Free agent signee Paul Kruger, Sheard, first-round draft pick Barkevious Mingo and free agent signee Quentin Groves will be the rush linebackers, as Horton will try to mimic the Steelers’ zone-blitz scheme. Horton tried the same approach as coordinator in Arizona a year ago, and the players loved the system. Arizona finished 12th in total defense, 17th in scoring. Mingo sustained a bruised lung in the Browns' second preseason game, so his Week 1 availability could be in doubt depending on the severity of his injury.
Horton’s biggest challenge is finding a cornerback to start opposite Joe Haden. Haden has grown into one of the better cover corners in the league, but he needs to stay away from off-field problems. The Browns hope Leon McFadden, the team’s third-round draft choice, can step in. If he can’t, the Browns would have to rely on Buster Skrine, a young player who struggled in 2012.
The one thing the Browns had going for them since 1999 was the consistent excellence of placekicker Phil Dawson. Not anymore.
Dawson, weary of losing and being franchised, signed with the 49ers as a free agent. The Browns never explained why they let their most popular player walk, and the decision looked more odd when they signed 35-year-old Shayne Graham (formerly of the Texans) to replace the 38-year-old Dawson. The Browns also let returner Josh Cribbs leave via free agency. The departure of Cribbs and Dawson took two of the most popular players from the team. Popularity doesn’t win games, obviously, but the loss of those two was emblematic of the change in regimes.
Final Analysis: 4th in AFC North
Expectations for the 2013 Browns were set by their owner in March. At the NFL’s spring meetings, Haslam said (candidly) that the Browns would not go 13–3 this season. Give him credit for candor, and for accuracy. The Browns aren’t close to a 13–3 team. There are new systems on both sides of the ball and new playbooks. The Browns have talent, but they also have the uncertainty of their owner’s legal situation and the uncertainty of how committed the new front office and coaching staff are to these players. As the Browns have often proven, uncertainty rarely wins in the NFL.
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2013 Athlon Sports NFL Team Previews:
Kansas City (8/21)
New England (8/30)
San Diego (8/20)
NY Giants (8/30)
St. Louis (8/23)
Green Bay (8/29)
New Orleans (8/26)
San Francisco (9/3)