Yes, I realize the Browns' season isn't technically over, but after one of the most deflating losses of the expansion era – or one of the more expected – the sense of finality is more than suggestive. And so it goes with another lost Browns' season, which is about to be followed by what could be a landmark offseason.
And before the Browns as we know them are no more, let's take a look at some deserving 2012 honorees.
The Careful What You Wish For Honors
Over ten years ago, it wouldn't seem that difficult for a Browns' owner to do a better job than Art Modell. Yet a decade removed from the passing of his father, Randy Lerner ultimately proved that perhaps the only positive contribution he made as Browns' owner was not actually moving the franchise to another city. Throughout Lerner's tenure, his inability or unwillingness to structure the team's front office continually held the Browns back and created the most dysfunctional and unsuccessful run of football in team history.
Throughout his time at owner, the Browns desperately needed a strong front office leader to arrange a basic and competent structure. And now with Lerner's exit and Jimmy Haslam's arrival, it appears the Browns have found such a leader in former Eagles' Team President Joe Banner. So, we should be happy – right?
The Right Guy at the Wrong Time
In most respects, the arrival of Banner couldn't have come at a worse time. The proverbial rose in Lerner's garden of decay has proven to be Heckert. Heckert somehow prospered during Mike Holmgren's money grab, which was Lerner's final stab of indifference as Browns' owner. Despite Holmgren never establishing an actual role with the Browns, besides being an occasional draft meddler and crisis control spokesman, Heckert delivered three solid drafts and managed to makeover what was one of the league's oldest and least talented rosters.
Along with overcoming Holmgren, Heckert also was dealt a sinister hand in turning over his players to an ill-equipped coach in Pat Shurmur. Despite Shurmur's inadequacy as a Head Coach, it was obvious that Heckert had landed some talented core players.
Of course, he picked the absolute worst time to be the most competent presence in the league's most pathetic front office.
The Best Actor in a Comedy
Meet your new Browns' General Manager – or at least your new Director of Player/Pro Personnel, or whatever inflated title it is that Lombardi will assume. Knowing his history and penchant for self-promotion, it seems appropriate that Lombardi would serve in a role that perfectly suits his talent for both assuming credit for positive work and deflecting blame for personnel mistakes. After all, as a pseudo-GM, Lombardi can absorb much of Heckert's foundation and eventually take credit for any future Browns' success. Or, once a string of subpar drafts occur over the next several years, Lombardi can essentially pin any failures on Banner – who of course is the one really pulling the strings in Cleveland.
The False Hope Award
Pat Shurmur and Tom Heckert
Looking back, how could any of us even remotely think that either Shurmur or Heckert would be retained for 2013? The Browns' three-game winning streak – a collection of wins over badly flawed teams – only allowed the illusion that Banner had not made up his mind weeks ago. Although Shurmur's fate was likely a foregone conclusion, there was at least some genuine hope that Heckert could survive an offseason purge and continue his work in Cleveland.
Now we know better.
The Best Supporting Actor in a Comedy
I'm still waiting for someone well-connected to reveal that this is all a bad joke.
While Mallett was certainly a talented college quarterback, there is a good reason why he both fell to the draft's third round during a particularly quarterback-starved year in 2011 and is now being deemed expendable by New England's Bill Belichick. Or perhaps people have forgotten about Matt Cassell and/or all the other flawed players that Belichick has used to burn his former proteges over the years.
And since Lombardi and Belichick have a significant history with each other – after all, no NFL media member has pimped more Belichick trade bait over the years than Lombardi – look for the Browns to once again become a landing spot for former Patriots on the field and possibly even on the sidelines.
The Gone But Not Yet Forgotten Memorial
It's once again worth stating that there is a significant reason why the Browns are in this mess. Even though some of us saw it years ago, it seems obvious that Lerner's ownership tenure will go down as the absolute worst non-Baltimore chapter of Browns' history.
The Soon To Be Gone and Forgotten Pre-Memorial
Regarding that final chapter of Lerner's legacy, Shurmur could either be considered as a major detriment to the progress of a talented, young roster or simply a casualty of both Lerner's incompetence and Holmgren's excess. Under no circumstances should the unqualified Shurmur have been given an NFL Head Coaching job. Yet the ties of nepotism and sharing the same agent promoted Shurmur one rung above his natural ceiling in life.
This particular narrative could have produced a better feeling among fans and media if only Shurmur didn't hide the reality of being completely overwhelmed within a poorly veiled passive-aggressive exterior. Shurmur continually acted as both perpetually scared and completely oblivious to the situations unfolding around him. While some genuine sympathy could have been mustered towards Shurmur, the embattled coach continually lashed out and grumbled at media while routinely throwing his players under the bus.
Speaking of Shurmur's penchant for putting his players into terrible positions, then blaming them for failure, the Browns' top 2012 rookies displayed the professionalism of veterans throughout a long season. Yet over the past few weeks, both Weeden and Richardson have offered subtle jabs at both Shurmur's play calling skills as well as his coaching talents. It took nearly an entire season for words to be said, but both Weeden and Richardson – each operating under a short NFL shelf life – had to have realized that their efforts were being wasted.
Richardson has absolutely destroyed his body, yet his accomplishments were essentially wasted in Shurmur's predictable offensive attack. Similarly, Weeden was boxed into an offense that barely fit his skill set and has actually regressed in recent weeks. For an already "old" quarterback and the league's most physical runner, their contributions seem wasted in the scope of Shurmur's failures.
The Best Supporting Cast
The Rest of the Browns' Roster
There are multiple ironies involved in being a Browns' fan. This season, the Browns featured an inherently likable roster led by a pale imitation of a Head Coach. The same young talent was procured by a General Manager who is about to be replaced – all the while the Browns have played a series of entertaining, yet ultimately unsatisfying games. The Browns' rookies have led the team, but some veterans have turned in career years and in a very weird sense, a decade of losing has still created a sense of longing for the past.
Lost within most of this general franchise turmoil have been the contributions of several players – including some young veterans who are emerging as some of the top players at their positions. Besides Joe Thomas – who struggled with early season injuries – Alex Mack, Ahtyba Rubin, D'Qwell Jackson, Joe Haden and T.J. Ward turned in very good seasons. Younger players such as Greg Little, Phil Taylor and Buster Skrine improved, while rookies Weeden, Richardson, Mitchell Schwartz and Josh Gordon were impressive.
Gordon in particular has been revelatory. The supplemental draft pick from Baylor has gone from being labeled as an early season "diva" to getting thrown under Shurmur's passive-aggressive bus to dropping a key fourth quarter touchdown in Indianapolis to becoming perhaps the most intriguing Browns' wide receiver prospect in years. Along the way, Gordon was labeled as "a wasted pick" by none other than Lombardi – the presumptive new Browns' GM.
With another – and possibly more permanent – round of offseason change comes the possibility that the two-longest tenured Browns will return to Cleveland in 2013. Dawson, the only link remaining to the 1999 expansion team, will likely not be offered a long-term contract, given the relatively low contract value assigned to kickers. While financially, such a move makes sense – we won't really know how good we had it until next year's kicker misses his first field goal.
And really – talk about a hard act to follow. Dawson has been the most consistent kicker in Browns' history, but unfortunately his efforts have been buried under a decade-plus of futility.
Similarly, Cribbs has turned in a brilliant Special Teams career for some remarkably bad Browns' teams. Although it's easy to forget, there was a time in Cleveland when Cribbs was the ONLY exciting player on the Browns' roster. Now, the slow improvement of the Browns' roster combined with the league's de-emphasis on Special Teams have reduced Cribbs' overall value – which is a sad way to remember one of the best all-around players in Browns' history.