If we learned anything from last weekend's Super Bowl, it is that the NFL has morphed into some sort of post-modern era that solely rewards teams for throwing the ball. In what has become a decade-long shift toward increasing offensive production, the role of traditionally physical defense has been reduced to an elaborate game of cat and mouse. Or, when it comes to the Browns, it's more of a game of "chasing your tail," as they attempt to join the rest of their counterparts.
The last three Super Bowl champions have all featured dominant passing attacks. Only recently, the Browns have begun to focus their efforts on improving an offense that has annually ranked among the worst outfits in the league. New coach Pat Shurmur has spent his NFL career grooming young quarterbacks within the parameters of the West Coast offense. It's obvious by Shurmur's presence that the Browns are rapidly shifting away from the more traditional power principles of Eric Mangini's Cleveland teams.
The stark reality is that the talent on the field dictates NFL success. In the Browns' case, the main components of a re-focused approach to simple throwing and catching require that some new playmakers emerge in 2011. At quarterback, Colt McCoy showed some flashes of promise after being thrust into the starting lineup midway through the 2010 season. However, mystery lurks through the depth chart at wide receiver.
Many draft analysts and fans alike have targeted wide receiver as a major area of need for the Browns heading into April's draft. However, with a roster littered with multiple needs, it's probable that any future help at the position will come from a player already in Berea.
On that note, it's worth citing the old adage that wide receivers usually need at least a season or two before they fully adjust to the NFL game. In the Browns' case, both Mohamed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie now have two years of NFL experience under their belts, while a potential gem in Carlton Mitchell prepares for his sophomore campaign.
I spoke with Mitchell last week. Last April, he was the Browns' sixth-round draft choice. He admitted that his rookie season was defined more by the time he spent studying rather than playing. A physically gifted 6-foot-3 wideout from South Florida, Mitchell's first taste of NFL life came when he dove into the Browns' immense playbook.
"When I first got it all I could say was ‘Wow,'" Mitchell said. "There was so much information."
However, Mitchell quickly realized that there was a method to this madness of endless terminology and scheming.
"You have to know not only your own spot, but everyone else's," Mitchell said. "In college, I just had to worry about my own. In the NFL, learning the playbook is so important. You have to know what's going on before you go to meetings. Basically, the more you learn, the more you can do on the field. There's a lot of different plays, different formations, but you have to know it. I would go home every night and study for about an hour and a half."
Beyond his late-night study sessions, Eric Mangini's further sharpened Mitchell's awareness of NFL life by the former coach's now legendary pop quizzes. In an attempt to create a system of accountability, players were routinely drilled on the minutest aspects of the Browns' organization. Of course, the team's rookies were not spared.
"At first, I was a little nervous," Mitchell recalls. "It was like being in a classroom. Sometimes I wanted to look away – like man, don't call on me."
"I remember back in OTA's, Mangini called on Mohamed (Massaquoi). ‘All right, name me all the core values posted in the locker room. What's the first third-down protection scheme in the playbook?'"
"One time he called on Colt (McCoy)," Mitchell continued. "'Name every single person in this room.' Colt had barely even had time to get settled. I don't even know if he had a chance to look at the roster. But he stood up and he nailed everyone in the room. Doing things like that - it's about accountability."
Before arriving in Cleveland last year, Mitchell had already done his own homework on the Browns. After realizing that the shores of Lake Erie are a polar opposite from his own Florida upbringing, Mitchell went to work.
"I knew about Tom Heckert," Mitchell said. "Actually, my agent gave me info on all the team's general managers in the league. Heckert was actually the first name I studied. Then, I already knew about Cleveland from Donte Stallworth. Plus, I trained with Brady Quinn and Brian Robiskie in the offseason."
Once Mitchell learned the team's playbook and adjusted to the routine of NFL life, he began to focus on refining his technique and learning about the tendencies of opposing defensive backs during daily film sessions.
"We watch a lot of film," Mitchell said. "I try to look at certain coverages, see what the tendencies are, what the team's base coverage is. That's what we do with our receivers' coach. As a team, we look at a lot of different stuff. We look at two-minute drills, certain situations. When it's just our receivers' coach, I look at what defensive backs do – whoever we're playing that week. Like (Steelers' defensive back) Ike Taylor, I'll look at his hands. If his hands are rolling forward, I know he's playing man. With Ike, he likes to play a lot of man coverage. With a cornerback, it's certain looks – little things are really important."
During the current offseason, Mitchell has kept up a workmanlike routine by training with the likes of Bears' tight end Greg Olsen and the Lions' defensive back Louis Delmas back in Florida. Mitchell's offseason workouts consist of some speed and strength training, along with mixing in boxing, which targets both his agility and hand-eye coordination. In addition to his daily routine, Mitchell is working with former NFL wide receiver Mark Carrier to develop some West Coast specific skills, including a focus on timing and route running.
Mitchell's desire to improve is obvious. Despite the Browns' limited depth at wide receiver, the second-year wideout is taking nothing for granted.
"The NFL is a 24-hour business," Mitchell said. "If you don't get it, who will?"
This type of passion extends to the team's training facilities, where Mitchell and fellow 2010 rookie McCoy developed a bond in the weight room.
"He's a hard worker," Mitchell said of McCoy. "Even in the weight room – I'm like ‘Colt, if you do more one more pushup, you're going to have some problems (from other position players)'. He's a beast."
Regarding McCoy, Mitchell is sold on the Texas native's ability to lead the Browns.
"He's the real deal," Mitchell said. "He's got a lot of passion for the game. He's the kind of person you want to be around. I remember watching him at Texas. Me and some of my friends from back home always used to watch Texas with McCoy and (Jordan) Shipley. The way they played – I thought, that was so tight."
As for the lingering Cleveland media question regarding McCoy's lack of arm strength, Mitchell gave a dismissive laugh.
"He's in the NFL. That says something right there."
"It's not a problem at all," Mitchell said. "All the times in practice when I would run a route – he never underthrew me. He's very accurate. I remember a few times, we would be playing around after practice. We set up a garbage can from about forty yards away. He just nailed it."
However, for the Browns to evolve as a passing offense, Mitchell admits that a possible labor lockout could affect the team's offseason progress. The arrival of both a new head coach and offensive scheme could prove detrimental.
"A lockout is never good," Mitchell said. "We need the time as a team. Not just us, but all teams. It's going to affect all teams."
In the event of a lockout, Mitchell seems to be prepared – both on and off the field.
"I can just stay ready," Mitchell said. "Always stay ready. I'll get with the receivers – get with Colt. And financially, I'm good. I'm always aware of things with money. I'm real tight with money. My agent set me up with a good plan. So, at the end of every month, I know exactly what's in my bank account."
In the meantime, Mitchell plans to continue refining his skills and will make his way to Cleveland in the coming weeks to meet with the new coaching staff. Entering his second year in the league, Mitchell hopes that the groundwork for future success has already been laid.
"It made me a better man," Mitchell admits. "All the work last year paid off and I'm ready to contribute more."