BEREA—With six games to go, what can be accomplished in the final stretch of the season?
We predicted the Browns would be 6-10, so unless they were to go 4-2 under the direction of Johnny Manziel, it appears we were a bit optimistic. Many pundits and experts had the Browns winning only 3-6 games before the season with the type of schedule that lay before them.
So what’s the point?
The most important aspect of the final games is to see the young players and even if the Browns only win one or two of the remaining games, the biggest question is does the team look like it’s finally heading in the right direction? Not in the way of Eric Mangini’s 2009 season where the 1-11 Browns won their final four games to finish 5-11. Despite winning the final four games and saving Mangini’s job, there wasn’t a sense the Browns were heading to the playoffs in 2010 and the Browns finished 5-11.
I’m thinking more back to the 1985 Browns team that made the playoffs, despite finishing just 8-8 with rookie quarterback Bernie Kosar taking over the reigns in the season and the way they played down the stretch, including a playoff loss to the Dolphins. You just felt the arrow on the team was clearly pointing upward.
Browns fans all know what happened in three of the next four years as the Browns made it to the AFC Championship game. Browns fans yearn for those days when the team was going to the playoffs on an annual basis and had a chance to win it all.
Here are 10 questions that need to be answered over the course of the rest of the season:
1. Are Mike Pettine and Ray Farmer the right men to get the Browns turned around? Both Farmer and Pettine have indicated they feel the Browns are close to being successful and they just need to stay the course. Is it because they don’t know what else to do or they are convinced of that. There are many questions to be answered in the final six games among them, can Pettine and his coaching staff make the adjustments to stop the run on defense and find a running game on offense. Will the team continue to play for Pettine, despite having nothing to play for? Can Farmer shake off some shaky personnel decisions and find the players that can help the Browns win? If not, Jimmy Haslam will have to decide if he should blow it up again and start over. The only thing consistent about the Browns since 1999 is they have started over every couple of years and it has not worked. No team can build any continuity doing so. Romeo Crennel is the only coach to finish at least four full seasons as Browns coach.
2. Is Johnny Manziel the answer at quarterback? Six games might not be a big enough sample to make the determination, but the Browns are likely to be drafting at the top of the NFL Draft once again and they have to decide if they move forward with Manziel or once again try to find that ‘Franchise’ quarterback in the draft. The Browns almost need Manziel to either be dreadfully bad so it becomes obvious he isn’t the answer or lights out good so they can proceed with him. If he’s just ‘so-so’ it will be hard to go into the draft not knowing clearly what to do at the game’s most important position.
3. Can Duke Johnson be the long-term answer at running back? The Browns were hoping Terrance West would be the answer and he wasn’t. The Browns are hoping that Duke Johnson will be the answer but they need to give him the ball on a consistent basis. Johnson seems to make plays when he gets the ball, particularly in the passing game, but they need to find a way to use him as a runner in early downs between the tackles and not just put him out there when they are in passing situations. Isaiah Crowell doesn’t seem to have the burst he did as a rookie for whatever reason and Johnson is one of the few explosive weapons the Browns offense has.
4. Can Travis Benjamin continue to be a top-tier wide receiver? Travis Benjamin was pegged by most as a return man/gadget play player since joining the Browns, but took advantage of the opportunity to be a starting wide receiver this season. Benjamin has been the Browns best wide receiver this year and has displayed that he can make tough catches and avoid big hits. If and when Josh Gordon can return to the field in 2016, Benjamin could continue to be a nice weapon for the offense. However, in recent weeks Benjamin has not been as big a factor in the passing game as he was early in the season. The Browns need to figure out how to get him in space more frequently and not let teams take him out of the offense.
5. Will Danny Shelton start to show that he can be a force on the interior of the Browns defensive line as a primary run stopper? Shelton has not had the impact that was expected when he was drafted 12th overall. He has had his moments but he does have energy and it seems he has the desire to live up to his pre-draft hype. The Browns defense needs the light to come on for Shelton to help the run defense move out of the bottom tier of the league.
6. Will Nate Orchard live up to his billing as a legitimate pass rusher? Through 10 games the answer is ‘No’ as he has zero sacks after being drafted in the second-round after leading the nation last year in college at Utah with 18.5. Orchard has played pretty well, but he was drafted to be a pass rusher and until he is able to produce, he will be compared to Barkevious Mingo, who is not being used much as a pass rusher, despite being picked 6th overall to do just that.
7. Can Justin Gilbert play or not? The 8th overall pick of the 2014 NFL Draft seems to have free fallen off the depth chart. After being a big disappointment as a rookie, the coaches and front office talked positively about Gilbert entering the 2015 season. However, after injuring his hip in Rochester practicing with the Bills, Gilbert has not been a factor throughout the season. They finally decided to use him as a kick returner but last week decided they didn’t even need him at that position. With Joe Haden out with a concussion and several cornerbacks dinged up, the Browns used rookie sixth-round draft pick Charles Gaines and converted safety to cornerback Johnson Bademosi over Gilbert. Of the seven cornerbacks on the active roster, Gilbert is currently No. 7. As bad as the cornerbacks have played, it seems that Gilbert should at least be given extended playing time in the final games.
8. Will Xavier Cooper be a force in the front seven? Cooper showed a lot of flash in the preseason with three sacks from the inside. He started the season being inactive before breaking into the rotation. Cooper has one sack and has shown he might be able to be a solid defensive tackle with the ability to pressure the quarterback from the inside.
9. Is Cameron Erving going to live up to his first-round draft status? It’s hard to call Erving a bust for not starting immediately as a rookie. However, when you’re a team that has as many needs as the Browns, you assume when they draft an offensive lineman in the first round that he would step in from Day One and start or contribute in a big way. Erving started his first game last week against the Steelers only because Joel Bitonio was injured. Erving didn’t play like a first-round pick and likely will get another start against the Ravens. If the Browns really drafted Erving to be the center if and when Alex Mack opts out after this season, they need to play him the rest of the season.
10. Will Ibraheim Campbell be the answer at safety? With Donte Whitner having a less than stellar season and Tashaun Gipson scheduled to be a free agent after this season, the Browns need to find their possible replacements. Campbell has shown some promise and has filled in for Whitner, as has Jordan Poyer. The Browns need to see more of him to know if he can be a long-term key player in the secondary.
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