Times are grim for the Cleveland Browns. Winless on the season and with a trip to the Miami Dolphins looming in Week 3, the team has not only been remade over the past months, the 53-man roster has also seen a makeover thanks to the rash of injuries in the last two weeks. Already, the calls for Hue Jackson’s firing are amplifying, as are the desires for the so-called “analytics-heavy” front office to be sent packing. Signing Robert Griffin III (injured, naturally), rostering up almost all of their 14 drafted rookies, wanting to trade (or not trading, depending who you ask) Joe Thomas, giving a third chance to Josh Gordon, imploring patience (or asking for permission to tank, depending who you ask): It all points to another chapter in the continued downward trend of the Browns.
Except, that may not be true after all.
Oh, injuries: The Browns have a few. Griffin is out until at least Week 10 at the earliest—medical re-check pending—while his backup, Josh McCown has finally been confirmed to have suffered a broken clavicle in Week 2. Broken clavicle? Where has Jackson heard that before? Regardless, we sit upon the cusp of the Adam Schefter-reported “not close to being ready” Cody Kessler taking over under center, however brief it may prove to be. Yes, the Browns have continued their trend of starting three quarterbacks a season early this year, to the point where we could see a fourth, the recently-signed and totally unfamiliar Charlie Whitehurst (Chucky Dubs) in short order.
Beyond that, Cleveland must wait until the return of Tom Brady for the return of Josh Gordon, are lacking safety Ibraheim Campbell for this Sunday’s contest, along with Corey Coleman (hand), Carl Nassib (hand, yep) and center Cameron Erving (lung). Cornerback Joe Haden, as of late showing up healthy and thus making plays, has a groin injury that could cost him the week. And kicker Patrick Murray suffered a walkthrough knee injury that has landed him on injured reserve and led the team to sign free agent Cody Parkey—48 hours before Week 3’s kickoff.
A team that was already destined to struggle, as a byproduct of the difficult process the Browns are undertaking, has its back even further against the wall. Each season, there are a handful of teams that suffer early rashes of injuries that sometimes do and sometimes do not dictate the direction their seasons take. The good news for Cleveland is that many of these are short-term injuries. The bad news is that, injuries or not, this wasn’t going to be a winning team—as in above .500—in 2016.
That’s okay, though.
Stop relying on the win-now mentality that permeates the NFL today, particularly among new head coaches trying to rework their teams. Stop trying to think about immediately being a contender in the AFC North. Stop comparing the Browns to the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Baltimore Ravens. Instead, look to the Cincinnati Bengals as a source of inspiration, as a touchstone for what the Browns franchise can become.
Between the time the venerable Sam Wyche served as the Bengals head coach until Marvin Lewis came along, Cincinnati had winning seasons just three times. Doing the math: That’s three above-.500 years from 1984 until 2003. This included numerous two, three, four and five-win seasons. Under Lewis, the Bengals have had seven positive seasons and two others at 8-8. He’s never won a playoff game, and it doesn’t matter—he was able, through the trust of his owner, through savvy drafting, through player development, to have the necessary time it takes to craft a whole lot of something out of what looked like a bunch of nothing.
It’s no coincidence that Jackson’s latest rise in the NFL world came after a stint with the Bengals and Lewis—one he sought out, it must be noted, in order to do anything to work there, which is why the offensive-minded coach began that leg of his career working as an assistant in the defensive secondary of all things. It is also no coincidence that Jackson’s first tenure as a head coach was with the Oakland Raiders, the last appointed by the late and great Al Davis, an outside-the-box thinker by nature and necessity, someone who saw the potential in Jackson. This is not your typical NFL head coach.
This is not to imply that what has happened in two short weeks doesn’t—to be frank—suck. To editorialize even further: I’m not from Cleveland, but I have covered this team in what I believe to be a fair manner over six seasons and it’s shocking to me to see this many unfortunate things happen in such a short manner of time, and I don’t like it. But there needs to be a parsing between the incidental, coincidental and the intentional, and to understand that the combination of the three isn’t a conspiracy to induce failure. It was going to be a rough year, regardless; it’s about what comes next that matters. That’s not tanking—that’s finally, actually having a long-term plan for the Browns that, if allowed to progress, can actually produce positive results.
The best teams in the league are built from the ground up. Granted, few have to be plowed down completely and reseeded in the way the Browns have, but ultimately, it’s no different from the Green Bay Packers, the Ravens and especially—in this case—the Bengals. The problem is, being at Step 1 of a 10-Step process is uncomfortable to NFL fans, and that 10-Step Processes are rarely seen to the end for an NFL team. Keep in mind, though, that Jackson has promised a championship for the Browns. This is not the Rex Ryan-type of bluster; this is a covenant. And even if he doesn’t get there, a turnaround, in his mind, is coming. Which means he believes he will be getting the time to turn things around, in a way that Rob Chudzinski and Mike Pettine never would have. So, credit where due to Jimmy Haslam, in that regard (though, of course, only time will tell).
That it was already preordained to be a season of woe for the Browns only magnifies how much the recent injury-stacking feels like overkill. But it is what it is. Jackson keeps saying it when asked of injuries: “It is football. Those things happen.” It’s not the end, but only the beginning. Faith may feel impossible when it comes to the Browns, but there are tangible reasons for it. Forest for the trees, and all that.