Every season, the bye week is usually a time for evaluation and reflection. It is a natural time to pause and consider where the team has come from and where it is headed. As the brain trust does this in Berea, I have been thinking along these lines as well.
This year, I find myself looking quite a ways back. So much has gone wrong for the Browns. As I look back now, it really started with a Monday night game at the old stadium against Buffalo in 1995. The Browns were being picked as a legitimate contender. They had just come off a 3-1 September and a big win over the Chiefs. For some reason, the Browns played a clunker of a game against the Bills and lost a close decision at the end. Little did we know that this was the week when the players began to learn of Art Modell's plans to move the team.
The season quickly fell apart, there was a firestorm of reaction, and the rest is history. I, like many of you, played no small part in that history. The NFL took their sweet time awarding the promised replacement franchise, using Cleveland as leverage to extort other cities to build stadiums or make economic concessions. By the time the team was awarded, the Browns had trouble with staffing. The team was doomed to a slow start despite extra draft picks. Questionable personnel decisions were made in the front office and on the field. The Browns have had just one winning season since The Return, and that was a 9-7 season in 2002 when all the bounces seemed to go the right way in the second half of that campaign.
Finally, though, 2007 has given us hope that the leadership of the team just might be making the decisions that are allowing the Browns to finally turn the corner. The offense has been nothing short of amazing in the first six games, and that is including the fact that the opener, started by the now departed Charlie Frye, was a disaster. The Browns scored 24 points three times in all of 2006. In 2007, they've already done in four times in six games. In three games, the Browns scored 24 points by halftime. The Browns have scored 40 or more points twice for the first time since 1989. They are averaging 32 points per game, the most since 1968.
But forget all of these numbers, I think the biggest difference is that the Cleveland Browns are actually interesting and enjoyable to watch. The offense has not looked like this since the days of Lindy Infante 20 years ago. The fans are responding to this.
We're seeing signs that Braylon Edwards and a less-than-100% Kellen Winslow are the players we are thought they might be. They've made some great plays. Joe Jurevicius has contributed as well. Derek Anderson has been showing improvement week by week. While he has made some terrible plays in the two losses he started, he's also shown improvement – enough to stave off the advent of Brady Quinn.
All the above being said, I believe the offensive renaissance begins with the offensive line. The line has done a masterful job in the passing game, and it has shown steady improvement in the running game, allowing Jason Wright and Jerome Harrison to make plays in place of the injured Jamal Lewis. Lawrence Vickers and Steve Heiden have also contributed in no small way to the ability to protect the quarterback and allow the skill players to make plays.
Special teams have also been a huge help to the team. The kick return of Josh Cribbs has been a constant source of great field position. He is a threat to score on every return and opposing teams know it. While punting contributed heavily to the opening loss against the Steelers, the Browns were fortunate enough to find Scott Player to fill in for the injured Dave Zastudil. Of course, punts have been a rare sight for the Browns so far, unlike the previous seasons during the expansion era.
But then, there is the defense. There is no other way to say it – it is bad. Just as the offense is one of the best in years, the defense is on a pace to be the worst in team history, and considering what has happened since 1999, not to mention the disastrous 1990 season, that is saying something. The personnel issues along the defensive line are so severe that they spill over into the linebackers and secondary, preventing the 3-4 scheme from working like it is designed to work. The result has been breakdowns everywhere. Combine that with a complete inability to tackle, and it is a recipe for a lot of scoring.
The bye week will show us what the leadership has been able to come up with to plug holes. There aren't a lot of Pro Bowlers sitting around by the phone, so personnel changes from outside seem unlikely. The Browns will have to look at scheming and shifting to try to fill gaps. There was some of this happening in the last two games. Perhaps rest will help some of the older players on the line, particularly Orpheus Roye. If he could play effectively, it would really help.
That leads me to the leadership. One can't help but be impressed with what offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has done with the offense so far. The biggest problem he is dealing with is the lack of depth at wide receiver and running back. Still, the offense has done some amazing things. On defense, though, it is another story. While the Browns have serious personnel issues, if I ask myself if coordinator Todd Grantham is getting the most out the talent we have, I still find myself believing that he is not. Given the background of head coach Romeo Crennel, you would expect that he could also contribute some creativity here.
Let me put this another way: In the past, the offense has been so bad, the defense had to hold the opponent to 14 points to have any chance to win. This year, if the defense could just hold opponents to 24 points per game, the Browns will probably win their fair share. While the defense has allowed opponents to get a lot of yards after contact and receivers have too often run free, I will admit that they have come up with plays at key times in the last two games.
Looking at the remaining schedule, the Browns face a lot of teams that simply aren't that good. In my opinion, the next five games will make or break the season:
- At St. Louis. The Rams are winless and are playing terrible football. Injuries along the offensive line have derailed a once potent offense. Some key players like running back Steven Jackson are returning in time for this game, though. Can the Browns win a game they ought to win on the road and on turf?
- Seattle. The Seahawks were in the Super Bowl not that long ago. They have fallen on hard times. Shaun Alexander, once the heart of the offense, has had a rough time. Can the Browns knock off a playoff contender in a late start at home?
- At Pittsburgh. The Browns have a lot to prove after opening day, but the Steelers defense is a tough test. The game at Denver this weekend proves the Steelers can be beaten, but a lot of that came because of good defensive pressure. Do the Browns have the horses to finally knock off the Steelers?
- At Baltimore. The Ravens will be looking for revenge from the earlier 27-13 pasting they took in Cleveland. They play better at home. Still, the Ravens don't scare anyone on offense and their defense can be beaten. Can the Browns sweep the hated ratbirds?
- Houston. The Texans are showing that David Carr may have been part of the problem, not the solution. They got down big this past weekend but mounted a furious comeback. Can the Browns knock off their expansion brethren?
After this, the Browns play some teams that are facing big injury challenges and may be looking to play out the string after falling out of the race early. The Browns should have a chance to be in every game in December. So the big question is what the Browns can do through the end of November?
Back before the season, I was looking for six wins, but hoping for seven. As I survey the remaining schedule, I think an 8-8 finish is a very reasonable goal. If the Browns can at least shore up the defense, there is the potential here to do a little better. If the offense continues what it has shown so far, a below average defense will allow the Browns to win a lot of games. At the risk of cueing Jim Mora in the background, it is possible the Browns could sneak into the playoffs if they can improve on their showing so far.
Despite these lofty possibilities, if the Browns could win eight games, I think 2007 would have to be considered a great success. And for the first time since that fateful Monday night game against the Bills 12 years ago, the future truly looks bright.
The season is short. Bark hard!