Now, in the homestretch of the season with the Browns going nowhere fast, we have the opportunity to look back at questions which surrounded this team at the start of the season. Surprisingly, the main areas of concern last Summer are not significant causes of the Browns unsettled and last place standing in a very average AFC North division.
Despite releasing plenty of experience on the defensive side of the ball, the Browns defense has been a pleasant surprise. When fully understanding and realizing the defensive schemes and responsibilities, this Browns team has been solid. With the amount of youth and inexperience injected into the lineup, the play of the defense and coaching on the defensive side of the ball has to be a highlight to the 2003 season.
"Everyone was making this team out to be a bad defensive football team when we made some of the moves we made. We know some of the moves we have made to enhance the roster has not been popular, but the game is about building the team, competing, and winning football games. This has been our objective," Simply Speaking recently told us, "Our coaches believed with a scheme that utilized the talents of the players we kept here, using the speed, quickness, and recognition qualities many of these players possess, we would make some marked improvement, in time."
"Granted, we had some rocky moments this season as we learned and grew together. This is something which was expected. Throwing some young guys into the fire and learn on the job is always a tough task, but we were comfortable we had the talent in place to achieve, and we have."
Led by emerging star Andra Davis, at middle linebacker, the Browns defense has played reasonably well under defensive coordinator Dave Campo. As the defense has improved, the room for growth is apparent, as the defense still struggles at times with the fundamentals. With almost any defense in the game today, chinks in the armor can be expected, the Browns have their fair share as well.
"Davis has been every bit the player we thought he was. Let's remember, he was a very good player at Florida until he tore a knee up, and still played reasonably well, though he was far from 100-percent. His recognition on any given play has improved, he'll get caught inside still, but he is learning to shed those blocks better, and has really picked-up on the anticipation facet of the game," Simply Speaking continued. "Ben Taylor and Kevin Bentley have been up and down, this is to be expected in a young player. At times they play very quickly, at other times they are a count slow to recognize and react, this is where a defense gets into trouble. They've improved, along with the great veteran leadership provided by Brant Boyer, the linebackers have been solid. Actually, the play of these young guys is a notch above what we had gotten from the veterans we had in here."
"Year-three for these guys will be an important one. If a player does not roll into a position by then, the chances of that player achieving at the highest level in a starting role begins to diminish. Another guy we didn't mention is Chaun Thompson. The 2003 season has been a learning experience for him, he really thought he could come in and make it happen, on this level that is difficult, but expect good things from him next season."
As well as the perception has been regarding the play of the defense, the state of the offense could be the story heading into the off-season. Again, the quarterback position is in question, throw in uncertainty at the running back and offensive line positions and we have the making of an interesting and potentially active off-season.
With money to spend under the league mandated salary-cap, the Browns could again be a player in the free agent market, but realize they will need to do a better job in procuring talent.
"We are looking at the opportunity to supplement this roster with a few key acquisitions this off-season. Positioning ourselves for future financial stability in regards to the cap, this off-season we will begin to see the reward for the unpopular roster moves we made last season," Simply Speaking said. "Knowing what our minimum dollar amount is heading into the off-season, we feel pretty good about there we are and the potential exists for us to open-up significant additional cap dollars, if you choose to go in that direction."
"A decision must be made about the direction we will go in at quarterback. Simply, we are not comfortable with Tim Couch's salary number, whether he is playing at an All-Pro level or not. If he stays, it will have to be at a seriously reduced cost in his base salary. Also, the salary is just one level to this situation, we have to look at where this team is with he (Tim) and Kelly Holcomb both battling and wanting the starting job."
Running the football, a facet of the game which this Browns team has struggled with will again be an area of focus for the organization. With second-year running back William Green suspended by the league for substance related issues, the team is evaluating two other backs on the roster, James Jackson and rookie Lee Suggs.
A knee injury to Jackson has opened the door for the team to take a longer look at Suggs, a favorite of some of the personnel members of the Browns organization. From what we've been told, Suggs will see increased opportunities in the closing weeks of the season and is viewed by the coaching staff as a player with a refreshing attitude and a serious knowledge of his position.