When we left the last installment of The Browns: the Next Generation, we ended the season on the note of getting our arses handed to us by the hated Sucklers, who were cruising into the playoffs assured of home field advantage, with no tangible reason to play hard. The Browns basically failed to get off the bus and into the house ketchup built in a fashion that would have made Coach Palmer proud to point at charts. The offense, buoyed by its best performance since the resurrection the week prior in the stirring comeback against Tennessee, was shades of Black Sunday by the snowy confluence. Statistically, the Browns' O ended the season staring up at every team's offense from Cincinnati to Detroit to Carolina. On this occasion, the stats were no mirage.
Even the most casual Browns' fan knows the issues that keep the offense metabolically challenged. These include an ineffective offensive line that can neither pass protect very well nor run block, the absence of any productive and consistent receivers except for KJ, the not ready for prime time runners, and a young quarterback who shows flashes of brilliance who is prone to inconsistency and the costly error with too few counterbalancing big plays.
The off-season saw few quality offensive linemen change teams to be sure, but of this lot the Browns landed only one former NFL starter released by his team, ostensibly for salary cap purposes, and a bench player not presently in the starting lineup. A center was drafted in round 3. A talented and promising prospect arrived at running back via the top draft choice, and a speedy but raw wide receiver was next. A few odds and sods in the way of late draft choices and undrafted free agents, a "value" free agent, and players obtained for conditional choices entered the mix.
During the off-season, however, fans became excited by either hype or the Indians' penny-pinching and implosion. On paper we were looking forward to a team with its first continuity of head coach and both coordinators in years, a young group arriving off of a four game record bounce arguably a few freak plays removed from the unthinkable: a 10 win season. Everything else we knew was hidden from memory.
So now we fast forward to the present: after a whole week of training camp when we traditionally know the D is ahead of the O at this point, complete with the rookie rusher practicing perhaps twice, we face defenses both intra-squad and in the form of Buffalo and we expect what, the 1981 San Diego Chargers?
I am optimistic about this season and this team, but I am not one of the denizens planning my playoff party. I think if there are many fans who will be disappointed by anything less than 10 wins this year, there will be a lot of disappointed fans. I don't think this offense will be the worst case scenario showcase of Terry Kirby and Leslie Shepperd, but I also believe a commitment has been made to build it around young players and this will take a bit longer than we starving fans might prefer.
The offense no longer revolves around Tim Couch. It is clear from his past Davis will demand balance if not run first. But Couch will always be the fans' focus. You hear a lot about how this is Tim Couch's make or break year. That doesn't make it so. We may want it to be. We may be tired of waiting. We may harden to rational explanations of what it takes to be a successful NFL quarterback. But what we want doesn't impact the process.
The Class of 1999 will always be as intertwined as the Class of 1983. There is no greater Couch fan than I, but by now it is painfully obvious that he lacks what Donovan McNabb – never seriously considered by the "brain trust" of Palmer and Clark - brings to the game. By the same token, if Akili and Cade are the two headed Todd Blackledge of this draft, albeit doofuses compared to the solid man Todd is, Tim is no bust. The only question remaining is whether he is Ken O'Brien or Jim Kelly. Tim Couch as a Brown is the Bizarro-World UK Tim Couch. Wildcat Tim displayed almost otherworldly field vision and pocket awareness, and took a collection of far less than average surrounding players and hoisted them on his back to produce wins at a poor program playing the toughest teams in college football, although never winning the marquee game to get full credit. Cleveland Tim locks on to his receiver, mostly KJ, is prone to the big mistake, more or less plays to the level of the surrounding talent, back-peddles into sacks – and then often steps up to win big ball games including season splits with Pittsburgh when out gunned and sweeping the hated Ratbirds. When and if UK Tim Couch ever crosses the Mason-Dixon, all doubts will end. On the other hand, I can never see Couch owning this team like a Favre or a young Elway even if he could. Davis won't have that. Tim will be a Troy Aikman type if his career peaks. That means Davis' Browns will be balanced if not run oriented, and it will be up to Tim to play consistently and step up big when the team needs the big play to win.
This is making the fantastic assumption based on the last three seasons that the Browns will be able to run the football effectively.
Until that happens, how does one assume you can judge an NFL quarterback?
What we do observe is that Couch is not often a good practice player. He's yearly struggled in training camp and often in X season. Every preseason fans overreact. You think by now we'd all know. Tim may or may not "breakthrough" this year, whatever that means. He did throw for over 3,000 yards last season – still good in the modern NFL – and became only the 3rd Browns quarterback to do so. Besides requiring a running game, Couch first and foremost needs to cut down on the big mistakes, the interceptions, and make the big play when it is there. Then, like every other quarterback, he will need the players around him to step up.
William Green may one day take his place in the line of the talented runners Butch Davis has been around or recruited. In his brief time as a Brown, he's been dinged an uncomfortable amount and held out just long enough to be thrust into two scrimmages with essentially one day of hitting reps. The most important addition to the team hasn't been here long enough to know whether he's driving past B-W or Harvard Yard on the way to practice, yet we wring our hands over the Buffalo scrimmage.
The receiving corps is different from last year in talent and composition, but not really experience. That cannot be rushed if you don't sign veterans. It would not surprise me to see the lone vet brought in fail to make the club. Morgan remains inconsistent, Northcutt is flashing now that he's finally healthy and in camp, but his stature suggests a role presence. It appears Dawson will look at the J-ville game his rookie season like Bogey did Paris, and King still hasn't created a lot of believers, although he may be channeling a young Keenan McCardell.
The plan for the O-line remains organic. Apparently Davis is bound and determined to grow his own, mostly from compost and recycling rather than prime soil and seed. There will be no shortcut for this group based on the off-season. This group must grow together rather slowly and deliberately, with Fowler one day slated to step in at center.
What all of this adds up to is the obvious – the offense is unlikely to be one of the better units in the NFL this season, and it will perhaps exceed expectations if it is average (based on statistical rankings this would be a huge jump). Any other analysis basically ignores the sum of the parts. Oh sure, we'll bitch at Ariens' deliberate play calls and horizontal attack, swearing he knows nothing about football. Some of us will pronounce Couch a bust, and long for McNabb, ignoring that both have been mercurial and Donovan has a good OL and a rushing attack in the top half of the NFL to go along with his spectacular plays. Some of us may or may not offer final judgment on William Green after an X game or two.
We need to keep in mind that Davis knows he is secure, and in place for as long as he wants to be here. We need to recall that it took him a good five seasons to turn the corner at Miami because he took no shortcuts. While many of us have visions of us playing the role of the last three Super Bowl champs, most of the signs I see on O suggest a more incremental path. And fifteen years removed from 1987 – the last time we had a great O, after 3 years of The Hiatus, a year of Tampa Bay-style expansion, and a following year devoid of hope, that's still good enough for me. I'm willing to wait and see about this offense and be patient for at least a full season, perhaps more, as long as I believe we are headed in the right direction. I'm sure not going to grip over training camp scrimmage sputters.
Whether we like it or admit it or not, we've got a long way to go.