It's the time we wait for all year. Real football returns to Cleveland. And, for the first time since The Return, there has been legitimate reason for optimism.
Then the preseason came.
While you don't want to ever get too worked-up over the gridiron version of a funhouse mirror that is the NFL preseason, there were things we saw on the field that are concerning. Back at the start of camp, I said that we probably would not learn the answers to the nagging questions that surround the 2008 Cleveland Browns before the start of the season. The strategy of this camp was different than in past years; namely, evaluating talent was the name of the game. Injuries also played into the whole equation. The starters played little and, let's be blunt, they didn't take it very seriously, etiher.
So, as I reflect on the 2008 Cleveland Browns, there are still more questions than answers. Let's examine where things are heading into the regular season.
One of the biggest questions that begs to be answered is if Derek Anderson has stepped up his game. After a great start in 2007, the league adjusted and caught up with him. Can Anderson elevate his game and adjust back? Can he make the shorter touch throws as well as the long ball? Can he avoid the overconfidence that led to critical mistakes last year? We got very little data on those issues in the preseason, so it's hard to know.
A related question: Is Brady Quinn ready to step in if necessary? We saw evidence both pro and con.
Answers to both these questions, I think, lay in the offensive line. The key to the turnaround of the Cleveland Browns in 2007 was the rebuilt line. Likewise, I think how the line plays in 2008 will be the key to whether the quarterbacks will have success. The line looked fantastic in cameo appearances against the Jets and Bears. It looked less than ordinary in terrible outings against the Giants and Rams. Right now, I'm believing that the poor performances were more about wanting to bypass the preseason than about problems with talent. Granted, the right guard situation is unsettled heading into opening day because of the injury to Rex Hadnot, but Seth McKinney did OK in the first eight games on 2007 and can do a solid job again. But the Browns really miss Ryan Tucker. I hope he can return soon.
I think the preseason showed us that if the Browns are without Jamal Lewis, Jason Wright and Jerome Harrison can fill in solidly. Then again, I shudder to think what Lewis would have done with the holes we saw against the Bears as opposed to what Wright did. Wright is a valuable member of this team. But he's also no Jamal Lewis. I hope this is the year the Browns finally stop the doubletalk and let Harrison play. The way Romeo Crennel has handled this situation reminds me of how a former Browns coach (who has had some success since leaving Cleveland) handled Keenan McCardell. Harrison makes things happen. Let him play.
The Browns really did not answer the question regarding the third receiver position. Then again, as little as Tim Carter provided last year (8 catches for the season), anyone could match that. Last year I felt that Kellen Winslow and Steve Heiden gave the Browns a better chance on third down. Adding Donte Stallworth to the mix, that should be a good option again, at least until Martin Rucker can contribute or if Joe Jurevicius is able to contribute. The Browns will sorely miss Jurevicius. I often read that Heiden is a blocking tight end. While Heiden is a decent blocker, he was known more as a pass catcher early in his career. He has good hands and will often be ignored as teams pay attention to Braylon Edwards and Winslow. Don't discount Heiden's value in the passing game.
I was hoping to see some creativity in the use of Josh Cribbs on offense, but that will have to wait until his ankle is ready to go.
The Browns fielded a top-ten offense last season. The defense played better late in the season, but it was a bottom-of-the-league outfit. Had the defense been middle of the road, the Browns might have really made some noise.
It is clear that the key to the defense will be Shaun Rogers. He has shown in limited duty in the preseason that teams will have to account for him on every down. When he played, suddenly the Browns could stop the run. For the first time since Crennel arrived in Cleveland, we saw the 3-4 defense work the way it is supposed to. Linebackers were actually free to flow to the play.
This, I think, is the biggest question mark the team faces: Is the back eight up to the task?
While we saw some good play from players like rookie linebacker Alex Hall and backups like Kris Griffin, the starting linebackers did not do a lot to inspire me with confidence. Kamerion Wimbley was largely invisible. His most visible play was a weak attempt at an arm tackle against the Lions that resulted in a 30-yard-plus touchdown run. Both Andra Davis and D'Qwell Jackson missed plays, including a huge whiff by Jackson that allowed the Bears to convert a third-and-17. Antwan Peek missed most of camp after a knee scope. Leon Williams struggled at times last season and he was trailing far too many plays in the preseason. The Browns were forced to release promising Shante Orr in a numbers game.
As many problems as there are among the linebackers, at least the starters in the secondary should be solid. Sean Jones had a good year in 2007. Brodney Pool is probably the weak link among this quartert, but he has been good at times and needs some consistency. I love Brandon McDonald. Eric Wright was a good performer last year, especially down the stretch, but he's had some issues in the preseason.
Behind these players, though, things get interesting. Far and away the best among the backups is Mike Adams. He can step in and do a good job. The Browns brought in veteran Terry Cousin, but he has struggled. I am still scratching my head over trading a pick for Travis Daniels as he looked awful in game action. Nick Sorenson is a fine special teams player, but a liability on defense. Gerard Lawson is probably around only until Cribbs returns. One of the backups who impressed me was Travis Key, but he is on the practice squad.
I'm afraid the Browns will stop the run for the first time in years, but they will be vulnerable to the pass. This was a pattern that we saw in the preseason. Playing real defensive schemes may help, but I'm skeptical at this point. I guess the bottom line for the defense is whether a stiffer front line will cover over the problems at the back of the defense. I'd like to think the answer is yes, but we will see as the season unfolds.
Without Josh Cribbs, Syndric Steptoe looked above average on kick returns. I am concerned that even if healthy, his small size will make him a target of opposing teams and that he may not be able to stand the pounding. If he is injured, the return game drops off even more. Cribbs was a huge key to the success of the 2007 team in terms of both field position, but also a spark that got the offense fired up when they took the field.
But more than that, the Browns saw how valuable Cribbs was on kick coverage throughout the preseason. There were repeated breakdowns on both kickoffs and punts. I realize that many of the players who manned those units are gone now. But injuries to reliable special teamers like Griffin and Darnell Dinkins could lead to problems. I am very concerned about this area.
Rob Chudzinksi was a huge key to the success of the 2007 team. The offense is now in the second year of his system; this continuity should help the team. Mel Tucker has been elevated to defensive coordinator. He's had success as the DB coach for the Browns, but it is hard to say how he will do as the coordinator in real games. Given the things that we heard about former coordinator Todd Grantham, Tucker's steady hand should be an improvement. Initially, I was very concerned about the fiery Ted Daisher, but he did a nice job with special teams last year.
It is year four for Romeo Crennel. While the team had success last year, it often came out flat at the beginning of games. The team also showed a tendency to choke when they needed to win a particular game, especially at Arizona and Cincinnati. The lack of discipline at times is puzzling, but I think these things are a reflection of leadership. I hope Crennel does the best coaching job of his career. In many ways, this is his make or break season. If the Browns fail to live up to lofty expectations, Crennel could end up unemployed.
I've had good sense of what I felt the Browns would do the last two years, even though I was off both years. In 2006, I predicted a 6-10 finish and the team went 4-12. Last season, I said 7-9 with the chance that if things broke in the right way, 9-7 was possible. The team won 10 and could have probably won more.
Going into 2008, I see this team at a crossroads. It could continue to ascend into the NFL elite; It could be mediocre; or, it could fall apart under the pressure of such high expectations.
The Browns could be better than last year and still go 8-8 due to a difficult schedule. At least the Browns face Dallas, the Giants, and Indianapolis at home. But they will have to travel to Jacksonville, Washington, and Philadelphia. One bonus is that there are no games west of the Mississippi. And let's face it, until this team beats Pittsburgh, it isn't going anywhere.
As I look at the schedule, the first two games are key. The Browns must at least split these games. If the Browns win both, I think a playoff season is in the offing. If they lose both, they will head into a difficult October 2-2 at best. A 2-5 start would not be out of the question in that case, and things could get ugly.
While my head cautions me, I'm going to say the Browns steal a game and finish 9-7. That just might be good enough to get into the playoffs given that the other teams in the AFC North also have to face 14 of the same teams. The Steelers play New England and San Diego where the Browns play Denver and Buffalo. And Cincinnati and Baltimore have to play Dallas, the Giants, and Indianapolis on the road. The season could hinge on the final game at Pittsburgh.
The Browns open against the Cowboys in a nationally televised late start.
The season is short. Bark hard!