As the second-longest tenured player on the roster and unofficial team leader of the Browns, Josh Cribbs can easily offer the most valid of any criticisms regarding his team.
After another depressing AFC North loss on Sunday, Cribbs was asked how far away the Browns are compared to the rest of the division.
"A big gap," Cribbs said. "It's a big gap."
It's possible that Cribbs' statement was as pure as any critique that could be flung at the Browns – especially after a performance in which the Ravens exhibited complete domination. Of course, Cribbs would know, given that the Kent State product is now experiencing his third tour of rebuilding with the Browns.
Despite some occasional glimpses of progress shown throughout the season, the Browns were easily manhandled by the Ravens in a physical manner that belied any inherent progress shown just a week ago against Cincinnati. Instead of at least contending with their divisional rival, the Browns were simply embarrassed by a Ravens team that boasted the kind of competence and experience not seen in Cleveland for quite some time.
Simply put, at times Sunday, the Browns resembled a semi-pro team. Even in the face of a contest where the Ravens were one-dimensional on offense and sluggish at inopportune times, the Browns simply couldn't compete.
In the grand scheme of retooling, of which the Browns are now hardened professionals, such a result again reinforces the idea that the Browns have a long road to travel in order to at least contend in their own division.
But again referencing Cribbs' reply, haven't we already seen this before as Browns' fans? And if so, is right now the lowest point in expansion history?
Let's take a look.
The slow death of Chris Palmer's Cleveland tenure began soon after Tim Couch's thumb injury – or in the mind of some, immediately after Dwight Clark assumed GM duties. Palmer's fate was tied to a hastily thrown together roster that featured a mix of decaying veterans and raw rookies.
Heading into Baltimore for a December match-up with the eventual Super Bowl champion Ravens, the Browns were 3-9 and led by journeyman quarterback Doug Pederson. Featuring the likes of Travis Prentice and Kevin Johnson on offense, the Browns managed five first downs and gave up twice the amount of yardage in sacks then they produced on the ground.
The quarterback combination of Pederson and Wynn combined for 138 passing yards, most of which came on a 67-yard completion to Johnson. In the end, the Browns lost 44-7 to what was then a severely limited Raven offense.
Butch Davis still remains an anomaly in Browns' expansion history. Davis is still the only coach of the expansion era to lead the Browns to a playoff berth – taking advantage of a relatively slow time in the AFC North. Davis actually enjoyed some modest success against the Browns' divisional rivals – going 9-14 within the division – which was a relative boon compared to the coaches who followed him in Cleveland.
However, Davis' final game as Browns' coach also represented another divisional low-point marker. Heading into a matchup against Cincinnati in 2004, the Browns were 3-7 and reeling from two years of quarterback indecision and poor personnel decisions. While the offense generated 462 total yards and journeyman Kelly Holcomb tossed five touchdowns, the Browns were still outscored 58-48 in an embarrassing final call for Davis.
In a direct contrast a year later, then new head coach Romeo Crennel ended his first season in Cleveland with a 20-16 victory over Baltimore. The Browns, led by a cadre of veteran defensive talent and the running of Reuben Droughns, ended the 2005 season at 6-10, but an upswing heading into the next season.
In most respects, the 2005 Browns offered the most realistic measure of hope for Browns fans, as Crennel was a seasoned coach and Phil Savage was a departure from Clark's ineptness and Davis' attempts to concentrate power in his hands.
Of course, we all know how the Crennel/Savage pairing worked out.
In terms of sheer Browns' Misery Index numbers, the season finale against Pittsburgh in 2008 possibly represented the lowest point of the expansion era.
After being showered with national television dates and Super Bowl projections following a surprise 2007 run, the 2008 Browns fell victim to both expectations and the cruel weight of their of own inadequacy. The mercurial rise of both Derek Anderson and Braylon Edwards came to a crashing halt in 2008 – just as the beleaguered defense of 2007 actually improved.
However, the Browns' historical deficiencies along the offensive line again caused enough quarterback injuries to force journeyman Bruce Gradkowski into action at Pittsburgh. Gradkowski completed 5 of 16 passes for 18 yards and two interceptions, while veteran running back Jamal Lewis limped to perhaps the saddest 1,000 yard season in NFL history. All the while, the playoff-bound Steelers played at half speed, yet still thoroughly dominated the talent-deprived Browns.
Mere minutes after the loss, the exodus of GM Phil Savage was complete, with head coach Romeo Crennel soon to follow. In terms of a satisfying omen for the future, the familiar names of Bill Cowher, Jon Gruden and others were bandied about and hope again sprang eternal for the eternally rebuilding Browns.
Almost a year later, the Eric Mangini-led Browns delivered to Cleveland what was probably the most thoroughly enjoyable win of the expansion era. On a brutally cold Thursday night, Mangini and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan devised an exotic scheme that brutally attacked Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger.
Meanwhile, the offense produced little – but just enough to squeak out a rare divisional win. In some respects, the win garnered Mangini enough currency to remain Browns' coach for another year.
Of course, a little more than a year ago, Mangini's Browns faced Baltimore at home and produced an effort not unlike the one witnessed on Sunday. Yet, at that particular moment, most Browns fans were still enraptured by Team President Mike Holmgren and his impending decision to bring in yet another coaching savior.
If we look solely at numbers, it's easy to make a case – albeit a depressing one – that the 2000 Browns and this year's model aren't that far removed. Against the Ravens, both teams were physically dominated. The sight of a fleeing Colt McCoy is an upgrade over Pederson and Wynn, but the same problems that haunted all previous incarnations of the expansion Browns are still found today.
Beyond the suggestion that a franchise quarterback has yet to materialize in Cleveland, the expansion Browns of both today and yesterday simply cannot stand physically with the rest of the AFC North. Just like a year ago, five years ago and ten years ago, the Browns struggle to run the ball, stop the run, protect the quarterback and make big plays.
Although there are a few keepers among the current roster – the talent is still expansion thin. And unlike in previous years, there is no savior waiting to again restore hope to a lost franchise.
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