Good day, Browns fans!
It's been the most eventful off-season since The Return. If you are like me, you are ready for the return of football. The Browns have made a lot of changes, both on and off the field. Will these changes help the team improve on a disappointing 5-11 finish in 2003? We are about to find out!
This is part 1 of 3. In this installment, we'll look at the offense. Part 2 will examine the defense, and part 3 will look at special teams and other issues.
The offense was largely to blame for a poor 2003 season. The team managed just 15 points per game, and in three games, one score would have won the game. Perhaps the most memorable of these were a game at eventual Super Bowl champion New England and a game at home against the Steelers where the inability to score from the one yard line cost the game. The Browns had problems with everything from a bitter quarterback controversy that lasted the entire year, the suspension of William Green for over half the season, the demotion and eventual release of leading receiver Kevin Johnson, predictable play calling that led to the ouster of offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, and lack of production from players like Quincy Morgan, Andre Davis, and the tight end position as a whole. Just one of these problems would cause disruptions to any team. But the worst problem was an injury to left tackle Ross Verba just before halftime of the final preseason game. With a lack of depth on the offensive line, this led to a domino effect that killed the offense all season long.
The Browns have tried to address many of the problems listed here. I noted in my review of the 2003 season that it was doubtful whether all of the problems could be fixed before opening day of 2004. It remains to be seen if the team has do so successfully. Let's look at each position. An asterisk next to a player's name denotes a rookie.
Key Departures: Tim Couch
What To Watch:
All eyes will be on Jeff Garcia. Rumor has it he will run the game with a faster tempo. Certainly I am anxious to see how he adjusts to the new offense and gains chemistry with the receivers. But I will also be interested to see if Kelly Holcomb learned from the failures of 2003 and will make changes in his game. His failure to look off receivers and tendency to force the ball cost the Browns dearly (Indianapolis, St. Louis games). With his injury during the offseason, he may not have been able to work much on improving in these areas. Holcomb will also have to adjust to a new system, something he has not had to do in years. McCown was drafted in the fourth round.
Butch Davis, after saying Couch could carry the Browns to the Super Bowl, finally decided it was time for a change. While Couch handled the fiasco of 2003 fairly well, it was unlikely he would raise his play significantly in 2004. It remains to be seen how much gas Garcia has left in the tank. He has been injury prone and his arm strength is questionable. Hopefully, his experience and savvy can make up for these deficiencies. How much Holcomb learned from last year is more that an interesting question. With Garcia's health concerns and potential problems upfront, Holcomb will likely see action in 2004. The Browns didn't draft McCown to cut him. He'll be carrying the clipboard this fall. McCown's college numbers aren't exactly awe-inspiring, and I have my doubts about his potential. Hybl was awful last preseason and didn't do much to impress in NFL Europe. Husak only has a chance if there is an injury.
Key Departures: Jamel White
What To Watch:
The season finale set the stage for a position battle similar to that of Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb in 2003. Lee Suggs ran for 186 yards behind an inexperienced line. Add to that the intrigue of William Green's off-the-field problems, and this training camp should be interesting indeed. Butch Davis has backed off some on statements that Green will have to earn the job back from Suggs, but Green will need to show he can do the job between the line and beyond. James Jackson had his best pro season, but injury wiped out a chance to show more of what he could do. Jackson showed some flash as a receiver from time to time. Maddox was a late-season addition who fumbled his first touch on a kickoff return. Reynolds is a similar player. Echemandu is the kind of flyer one picks in the seventh round.
Look for Green and Suggs to in essence share the job unless one clearly outplays the other in the preseason. Green needs to keep his feet after first contact more. Suggs needs to prove he is not a one-hit wonder. Green needs to keep his nose clean. Suggs needs experience. James Jackson will likely be a change of pace back and might become the third-down back the Browns lost when Jamel White went to Tampa Bay. One of the other three players might land a job, especially if they contribute on special teams.
Key Departures: none
What To Watch:
The Browns will employ a true fullback for the first time since Marc Edwards left the team. There were failed attempts to field a player like Mike Sellers or R. J. Bowers, but these did not amount to much. One wonders if the Browns had used a fullback, if they might have converted in some short-yardage situations last year.
Smith is considered an excellent blocker. Miller was in the Air Force, but showed flashes in limited past preseason duty. One big question will be how many fullbacks the Browns keep.
Key Departures: Kevin Johnson (midseason)
What To Watch:
After a contentious contract situation in which his agent missed an important filing date, Dennis Northcutt eventually returned to the fold. He has been assured he will get the chance to compete for a starting position. As a third receiver, Northcutt easily outplayed incumbent starters Quincy Morgan and Andre Davis. Andre King continues to hang on as a "good hands" type player, but he is a fifth or sixth receiver at best. Quarterback-turned-receiver Frisman Jackson has potential, but an injury wiped out almost all of last season. He did have a key catch in the final game. C.J. Jones was spectacular in the preseason, but after being on the practice squad and an abortive attempt to play defensive back, he may get a chance this year. Richard Alston had a big play last preseason and followed that up with a solid NFL Europe season.
Quincy Morgan is in the final year of his contract. This is his last chance to show he can actually catch the ball. I don't expect Morgan to show anything different, but contract years have a way of bringing out the best in a player. I'm really hoping year three will be the one where Andre Davis makes the leap to being a star. Dennis Northcutt has talent, but playing him every down might end up getting him injured. How much of his success came from mismatches against nickel backs? Would he struggle starting against better defenders? King is a fifth or sixth receiver at best. He played pro baseball, so he is already 30. Miami alum or not, he may not stick this time around. Jackson has potential, but it remains to be seen how much. I'd really like to see what Jones can do. Alston may be a talented player auditioning for a job elsewhere unless there is an injury. The others are very unlikely to make the team unless perhaps someone can help on special teams.
Key Departures: none
What To Watch:
Can Kellen Winslow get into camp on time? While this smells of a holdout, the Poston brothers have had some other high-profile clients in camp from the start. Beyond that, the question is how fast Winslow can contribute. Heiden was a late camp pickup in 2002 and the designated starter in 2003. He did not look good until an injury ended his season. Darnell Sanders has been a disappointment, both as a blocker and a receiver. Aaron Shea showed some good potential to be a receiving threat his rookie year, but he has now ended three consecutive seasons on injured reserve. He is a good special teams player. Keith Heinrich was a pleasant surprise late in the season, especially catching the ball. He reminds me of Mark Campbell – an overachiever who makes some plays, especially in a pinch. Chad Mustard is like a guard at the tight end position.
Opposing teams could safely ignore the tight end the last few years, allowing them to key on the run or the receivers. Hopefully, Winslow will force opponents to commit a defender to him, opening up the middle of the field. I don't see in Heiden what Butch Davis sees at all, but perhaps he can do better with the pressure off as the second tight end. Sanders has all but played his way off the team. Shea provides little value except on special teams. He has done little as a receiver and is horrible as a blocker. I'd like to see more of Heinrich, but he is currently injured. I believe he is scheduled to return before the start of the season. Mustard has had several chances and has shown little to date.
Any production from the tight end position will be a vast improvement over 2003.
Players: Ross Verba, Ryan Tucker, Jeff Faine, Kelvin Garmon, Paul Zukauskas, Juaquin Gonzalez, Enoch Demar, Melvin Fowler, Chad Beasley, Chuck Klabo, Craig Osika, Scot Osborne, Kirk Chambers*, Lewis Dawson*, Sterling Harris*, Anthony Oakley*
Key Departures: Barry Stokes, Shaun O'Hara
What To Watch:
Ross Verba returns at left tackle. Ryan Tucker was the lone point of stability last year at right tackle, and he played through minor injuries. Center Jeff Faine had half of a promising rookie season wiped out by an injury. Guard Kelvin Garmon was brought in from San Diego for help in the running game. While Paul Zukauskas started at right guard a year ago, his spot is wide open, with Enoch Demar holding the inside track going into camp. Backups Juaquin Gonzalez (tackle) and Melvin Folwer (center) saw significant playing time last year. Project players Beasley, Klabo, and Osika return and the Browns drafted Chambers (tackle) in the sixth round.
I've often stated that I believe that football is won in the trenches. Between the two lines, I believe the offensive line is the heart and soul of the team more than the defensive line. The Browns suffered a huge blow when Verba was lost. Verba is a decent tackle, and perhaps a better guard, but he was the elder statesman of the line. Another clear line was when Faine was lost. That was in the home game with the Steelers, and you can draw a line at that play and see the drop off afterward. Tucker had a solid season and really cut down on the penalties that plagued him in 2002. Zukauskas was no star, but when healthy, he at least did better than I expected, though that isn't saying much. I thought both Demar and Gonzalez did surprisingly well when pressed into service. Both got valuable experience that could pay off this year, though they still have a lot to learn. While I respect writers on the boards here that disagree, I saw nothing of Melvin Fowler that changed my opinion of him as a bust. He had a lot of playing time to show something, too.
The second-tier players are largely projects. The book on Chambers is that he is a backup in the NFL at best. Maybe the Browns will luck out there, but don't bet on it. While I've heard a lot of promising talk about converted defensive line player Chad Beasley, Craig Osika, and Chuck Klabo, I see that mostly as wishful thinking. The other players are likely there to consume practice reps, but perhaps the Browns will find someone worth looking at.
I guess that's really the problem. The Browns didn't have tons of options to address the line in free agency, and opted to pass on some admittedly overpriced players to settle for a single next tier player in Garmon. Garmon was no star on perhaps the only NFL offensive line worse that the Browns. Can he help? Maybe. I'm skeptical. The Browns once again did not draft a lineman until the sixth round, and then they got a player who is unlikely to contribute this year or perhaps in any year. Stocking the team with a bunch of projects is fine if your starters are top notch. The Browns don't really have that luxury, so they are rolling the dice again in 2004. Perhaps after coming up snake eyes in 2003, the team is due for some better luck, but counting on that is foolish. Hopefully, Butch Davis will also abandon his insistence on linemen playing multiple positions. Every team needs a swing man on the line, but having jack of all trades players has contributed to the failures up front.
Without a decent line, all the offensive talent in the world is worthless. Watch this closely during the preseason.
Respected assistant Terry Robiske replaces Bruce Arians as the offensive coordinator and will go to more of a run-to-set-up-the-pass type of offense. This will likely hinge on the offensive line, which is a question mark. On the other hand, the Browns fielded a patchwork line in the final game and Lee Suggs got 186 yards and Jamel White ran also ran well. The Browns played more of the Robiske philosophy in that game. Perhaps that bodes well for this season. With all of the changes, it's hard to say how things will go. Garcia needs to get comfortable and the Browns need to settle on five offensive linemen and let them start playing together to establish chemistry. Robiske has some talented players. Arians failed to get the most out of them. Hopefully, Robiske will fare better.
It will also be interesting to watch how much autonomy Butch Davis allows Robiske. Despite Davis saying he gives free reign to his assistants, it doesn't ring true to me. Butch has not always been truthful with the press and the fans.
While the Browns added some pieces to the puzzle, there are still holes. The offensive line has not truly been addressed, though the return of Verba and Faine should help. Garcia, Winslow, Green, Suggs, and Northcutt will all be key players in determining whether the anemic offense of 2003 will improve. It is always possible that a dark horse player will come out of nowhere and contribute. It is unlikely, though.
A look at the 2004 defense.
The season is short. Bark hard!