Last year at this time as training camp approached, the Browns and their fans were thinking Super Bowl.
Now, after a nightmarish 4-12 record that caused head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Phil Savage to be fired, the goal is merely to become respectable as Eric Mangini and George Kokinis take over. A lot of players are already gone from that 2008 team, and more will certainly go before the Browns kick off the regular season on Sept. 13.
To get ready for the visit by the Minnesota Vikings that day, though, the Browns have a lot of work to do. That will come in training camp, which begins on Saturday, and during the ensuing four-game preseason.
Here's a list of 10 things the Browns must accomplish during that time, in the order of importance:
1. Passing thoughts. Everybody knows the Browns need to do this, but the important thing is that they need to do it as soon as possible. For until they decide between Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, that open competition will dominate every second of every day. It will dwarf everything else that's going on. It will be the monster of all distractions, something that football coaches hate almost as much as losses. If you have two players vying for the starting right guard job, no one really cares that much. But a battle at quarterback is football's version of Armageddon. The guess here is that Mangini already knows who he thinks will win – who he wants to win. Now he needs to go out and prove it.
2. Discipline, anyone? Last year at camp and in the preseason, it seemed more like a country club than a football team. Players were running around in their sock feet – and getting spiked – and they were excused for the day at a drop of a hat. Veteran outside linebacker Willie McGinest missed three times as much work as he put in. This team needs a no-nonsense, let's-get-to-work attitude in the worst way, which is why Mangini was hired. Anyone who doesn't want to roll up his sleeves and get serious won't be long for this team. Already Mangini waived a rookie defensive back with some ability because he tried to show up the coach by shuffling along as he "ran" a lap around the field as punishment for making a mistake during a mini camp. This guy means business.
3. Double duty. The Browns are committed to rebuilding. That's understandable with a new regime coming in. But you can't just throw away a season. The object is to win. That's what you play for. It's what the fans pay to see. How do you balance the two? Mangini and his staff need to do a good job of evaluating the talent and determine how to make the Browns the best they can be now, and in the future as well. Keep in mind that this fan base has already waited too long for a consistent winner. How much more patience can the team ask those people to have?
4. The missing link. The 3-4 defensive scheme that will be employed by the Browns once again is built on linebackers being freed up to run sideline to sideline making plays. But in the four years the Browns went to the 3-4 under Crennel, they struggled to find a set of linebackers who could contribute consistently. It's why the defense underperformed overall. That has to change, or else the Browns will have to scrap the 3-4, which Mangini absolutely will not do. He's committed to it. The Browns are hoping that Kamerion Wimbley, if they can move him around enough to create opportunities, will do a lot toward solving the problem.
5. Give the big fella a hand. Nose tackle Shaun Rogers was outstanding last year, enjoying one of the best seasons ever by a Browns defensive lineman. But he was on an island. No one else on the line stepped up. Thus, teams were free to double- and even triple-team Rogers whenever they felt like it. That will stop if another lineman emerges, even simply to the point of being an average player. And if Rogers faces fewer blockers, then how much more effective could he be?
6. Creative writing. Joshua Cribbs has been incredible on special teams, whether it be on returns or in coverage. It's on offense where he has the most untapped potential. The previous regime never found a way to get the ball into his hands enough, and in situations where he could be successful, either as a wide receiver, running back or quarterback. Altering that is the challenge facing first-year offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. Cribbs is the kind of weapon who scares defensive coordinators to death – he's the most explosive weapon the Browns have -- but only if the offensive scheme and the plays that are drawn up are creative. Get out that pencil and paper and get busy.
7. Back to the future. In 2007, wide receiver Braylon Edwards had the best season ever by a Browns receiver. but he wasn't anywhere close to that in 2008. Will the real No. 17 please stand up? On a team that lacks an experienced, top-flight receiver to go along with him, the Browns have to get him back on track or else this offense is sunk.
8. 2 No. 2s going for No. 2. To find that second receiver to play opposite of Edwards, the Browns will pick between two rookies, second-round draft picks Mohammed Massaquoi and Brian Robiskie. Edwards can't do it by himself. He needs help, someone to take some of the pressure off him in the passing game and spread the defense out a bit. Which one of these two players will step forward to get the job?
9. Rush to judgment. The Browns appear to have two competent backs they like in Jamal Lewis and Jerome Harrison. Lewis, a power runner coming off two 1,000-yard seasons with the Browns, and Harrison, a quick, darting runner who has never really been given a chance, have styles that complement each other and will keep defenses off-balance. Now Daboll has to come up with a rotation that keeps Lewis productive – he gets better as the game goes on -- and at the same time gives Harrison enough work. The Browns seem committed to using Harrison more. We'll see how much more and in what proportion to the workload of Lewis.
10. DNA. In the old days, the Browns always had an overall team personality. You knew what they were and how they would play each week, even each season, season after season. That has been non-existent in this new era. It's one thing one year, and another thing the next. And in some years, that personality has changed halfway through. This is something that transcends offense, defense and special teams – even coaching. It's something that is indelibly linked to the team. It's the identity of the club. See the Browns and you think of this, whatever it is. Chart a path, start walking and don't stray. Stay with the plan. It may not be easy at times.