Fan View Commentary -- Ryan Jones, Special to theOBR
Something odd transpired recently as I sat at work and returned emails. I happened to glance down towards the bottom of the screen and I noticed that, somehow, we were nearing the end of July. I paused for a few seconds, trying to figure out how this happened without the normal explosion of excitement and anticipation of the Browns opening up training camp.
I wasn’t sure I’d ever experienced anything quite like it. The Browns were mere days away from beginning training camp and the level of excitement in and around Cleveland seemed to be on par with the ten minutes you sit in the doctor’s waiting room before going in for a physical. And that might even be generous.
I mean, this is Cleveland and our days and weeks are normally overflowing with Browns talk and excitement year round. Add to that, the team is coming off a very competitive, seven win season where we had both a rookie coaching staff and below average (see also: normal) quarterback play. And yet, there’s been nothing.
Maybe I’ve lost touch.
Maybe I don’t know this city anymore. Maybe the Cleveland that I grew up in isn’t the Cleveland I’m growing old in. Maybe, just maybe, this relatively quiet, unexciting offseason has been just what the doctor ordered for this moribund franchise. Who knows. But there is one thing that I can do for you. For Cleveland. It may just be the one thing I was put on this Earth to do. I can give you reasons to get excited about this upcoming Browns season. Sure, it may end with a soul crushing, horrific (see also: normal) losing streak, but right now there are reasons for all of us to be optimistic about what we have in store. I promise you there are.
And here are five of them!
Although this list will not really be in any particular order, it makes perfect sense to start with what is probably the single biggest thing that gives me hope for the Browns going forward: the franchise’s current Head Coach. Now, if any of you have read anything I’ve ever written dating back to when the Browns tapped Pettine as the fifty or sixtieth or whatever Head Coach since the team returned, you’ll probably know that I have an almost unexplainable and probably irrational confidence in him.
Granted, I tend to have similar tendencies for just about every coach, GM, or player that rolls through Berea, but this one is different. It’s hard to quantify because we only have one full season to go off of, and it’s hard to justify given the Browns penchant for hiring horrible coaches. All I can do is make a Butch Davis style gut decision with what I’ve seen on the field and heard off of it, and tell you that I believe in Mike Pettine.
I see a Head Coach that has a crystal clear vision for what his team will be, and also possesses the leadership qualities and intelligence to actually attain that vision. I see a man that not only can inspire his players, but is capable of earning and, more importantly, keeping their respect. I see someone who has confidence in his abilities, but not to the point that he won’t acknowledge shortcomings and mistakes, and has the ability to learn and grow from them. Essentially, I see a legitimate NFL Head Coach. To summon the words of the last true one we had here in Cleveland, there’s a gleam, men. There’s a gleam.
The Running Backs
As much of a shock as it may be given the quality, I do actually sit down with a pen and paper and write up an outline for each and every one of my articles. In doing so for this particular one there were a few subjects that I knew I would not be broaching. As you can probably imagine, quarterback was at the top of that list. I may be an unabashed optimist, but not even I can sell you on being excited over the Browns QB situation. I don’t care if you get a twelve pack of Great Lakes in me and then sit me down in front of a Bernie Kosar and Kardiac Kids highlight reel on loop. There’s no amount of irrational (or drunken) Browns fandom that could make me bullish on our current crop of quarterbacks.
Initially, that reality seemed like a kind of a roadblock to being able to write this article. How could I possibly make the case to be excited about this Browns season with what appears to be such a disaster at the most important position? Teams generally have to score at least some points to be successful in the NFL. How would the Browns accomplish that lofty goal of finding the end zone a few times each game if the guys they have under center are painfully below average at best? Then it hit me! I remembered that this team was going to be built on defense (more on that later) and running the ball. The Seattle Seahawks of the Midwest! Just without the recent division, conference, and Superbowl championships. And, I suppose, without the great quarterback, too. Just, whatever. Shut up and let me finish.
The Browns offense is going to clearly center around running the ball. There is absolutely no denying that. If the offense is going to go, it’s going to be predicated on the ability to control the ground game. We saw that emphasis on the run last year and we saw it yield very positive results, especially early in the season.
The so called baby backs are, well, back this year after a season where we all saw flashes of their talent. Add to that a guy who has grown into what might just be my favorite pick of this most recent Draft, Duke Johnson, and I would contend that the Browns have an overall stable of running backs that just might be among the best in the entire league. Sure, there’s no Adrian Peterson or Marshawn Lynch as that clear, elite number one, but from top to bottom I don’t know if there’s another team who will field a set of backs like the Browns will.
That’s how the Browns are going to score. That’s how they’re going to match up with their AFC North foes and the rest of the league. They’re going to run the ball, run the ball again, and probably run the ball some more.
Funny enough, that goes hand in hand with another of the things that should give us all optimism for the 2015 season.
The Offensive Line
Or as it also could be known, the return of Alex Mack and the offensive line. When last season had finally run its course and it was time to reflect on yet another season ending, month long losing streak, I surmised that Alex Mack was the MVP of the 2014 Cleveland Browns. This was based on the fact that his season ending injury during the 31-10 trouncing of the Steelers in Cleveland (still smiling thinking of that game) had such a clear and enormous impact on the team going forward that there wasn’t a single player who I could say was more valuable. Better players? Sure. There were a few. But not more valuable in the truest sense of the word.
Up to that point of the season, the offensive line was the most impactful unit for a team that could have been 5-0 had a few things gone differently. After Mack went down with what turned out to be a broken leg, the offensive line wasn’t nearly the same. The coaching staff scrambled to fill the hole at center for the next several weeks, but nothing really worked. How could it? There is no way to replace one of the best players at his position in the entire league midseason.
The only cure is getting that player back healthy, and that’s exactly what we’re going to have this season. Alex Mack is back, and there’s a talented first round pick joining the group in Erving. The unit that just might be the best on the team will be getting back its signal caller, and adds another talented player who will be an upgrade on the right side.
The performance of the O-line is absolutely vital for how the Browns are going to try and win games in 2015. And that’s good news for Browns fans. If you have to put your money on something, putting it on a unit filled with Pro-Bowlers and Pro-Bowl type talent is probably a good bet.
If you could go back in time and tell the Cleveland Browns fan base circa 2001 that there will come a day that our offensive line is loaded with premier talent and is a strength of the team, you would be received as a conquering hero and could probably win some kind of county wide office based solely on that prophecy. And then you could probably buy a really big house in the suburbs and take extravagant trips to Las Vegas. Because Cuyahoga County circa 2001. But that’s neither here nor there, I suppose. Also, I’m not opening up that Pandora's Box. I love you Cuyahoga County. You’re perfect. Forget I said anything.
If I had to come up with a key to this upcoming Browns season it wouldn’t be the quarterback. It wouldn’t be the running game or the offensive line, despite how many words I just devoted to them. No, if I had to come up with the thing that will most significantly impact how the team will fare in 2015, I would have to say it will be the defense. As a whole. For the past few years, the Browns have devoted significant resources, in terms of both salary and draft picks, to the defensive side of the ball.
Those investments haven’t exactly yielded the results that most of us would have hoped. That’s not to say that the defense is bad. Far from it, actually. The team might just have the best secondary in the NFL, and there some very good contributors among the front seven. That’s just to say that the expectation would logically be that the defense would be elite, given the resources devoted to it. And you know what? I’m betting that we’re going to see something more along the lines of elite this year.
I won’t spend a ton of time on the secondary. It’s most likely going to be among the best in the entire league. I’m crossing my fingers and hoping that Justin Gilbert takes a Joe Haden like leap of maturity, but even without Gilbert realizing his phenomenal potential this unit is going to be very, very good.
Granted, there is one gigantic elephant in the room for the Browns defense that needs to be addressed. They couldn’t stop the run last year. We all saw it. We all know it. I may not be the go to guy for explaining defensive line play, but I can pretty confidently say that ours wasn’t great last year. That’s where one Danny Shelton would come into play. You may be familiar with him. He’s the gigantic defensive tackle that the Browns scooped up with the first of their two first round picks in the draft. He just may be the cog in the front seven that makes everything else hum like some kind of an old muscle car engine that is working very well. Or something. I’m not a car guy.
If Shelton can be that guy in the middle that can set up the rest of the front seven to wreak havoc and stop opponents from running the ball, then this defense could be scary good. With the stable of linebackers and defensive backs that the Browns have, as well as some really good defensive linemen (injuries withstanding), this defense could be formidable and could absolutely shut down just about any offense that they go up against.
I’m getting fired up just thinking about it. Really fired up. Probably too fired up. Yeah, definitely too fired up. Let’s bring this back down for a minute.
Alright, here’s something that will bring me back down. The thought of the Browns special teams in recent years is akin to dropping a large boulder on your foot. In 100 degree heat. While wearing flip flops. And then stepping on a rusty nail with your uninjured foot as you hop around, screaming in pain and clutching your other swelling foot. Or maybe that’s just the entire Cleveland sports experience. At this point, it’s hard for me to discern the difference between the two.
The special teams have been atrocious. Times about a million. Of course, Chris Tabor still has a job because he apparently knows where all the bodies are buried, but in the absence of getting rid of the special teams coach that has overseen abysmal unit after abysmal unit, let me give you this small morsel of optimism.
Billy Cundiff is gone. And he took his 39 yard range with him. The Browns will have an open competition for a new kicker, and the winner will one hundred percent not be named Billy Cundiff. That right there is a legitimate reason to be excited for this season. Sure, we don’t have Phil Dawson lining up and nailing just about every kick no matter the distance or location, but there’s a real possibility that we may end up with a place kicker that is of actual NFL quality. I know Joe Banner would probably wretch at the mere notion of that, but I’m pretty excited with that thought.
In addition to that, we might actually be able to field a professional caliber return man on both kickoffs and punts given the fact that Travis Benjamin is now a year removed from tearing his ACL, and if that doesn’t work we also have several options that could emerge during training camp.
I don’t know for sure, but taking a look at last year and taking into account who will and who won’t be here, I have to imagine that things are going to be better.
And that’s the prevailing reasoning for all of this, I suppose. The Browns started building something last year, and now are moving forward based on the results of that season. Do we have our “franchise” quarterback? No, we probably don’t. Do we have an elite playmaker on offense? Well, technically we do, but he had a beer or something on a plane so he’s suspended for the season. So, no. In actuality we do not have that guy. But that doesn’t mean that we’re doomed.
I know it’s become customary and fashionable to throw the towel in on the Browns season before it even begins, and to predict two or three or four wins per season. But give it some thought. Look at last year and look at the actual players that we’re going to break camp with. There’s talent here and there’s a guy in charge that’s more than capable. Those two and three and four win predictions last season didn’t pan out.
Close your eyes, let go, and take a leap.
You know why? Because those two and three and four win predictions aren’t going to pan out this season either.