I've been writing about the Browns on the Internet in one form or another since 1993. Many of you have read what I've written for years. What you are about to read is definitely a departure from the norm for me.
You see, over the last 16 years, writing about the Browns has often been, well, therapeutic. Let's face it, in that span this team has had just three good years. We endured The Move and The Hiatus and The Return. We've watched as this team we love has wandered aimlessly through bad leadership, bad decisions, bad public relations, and just plain bad football.
As Ellis "Red" Redding says toward the end of the movie The Shawshank Redemption, there's a harsh truth to face.
I'm feeling more apathetic about the Cleveland Browns than I have ever felt in my entire life.
There, I said it.
It feels good to admit it. Maybe some of you are feeling the same way, too.
I've searched my soul quite a bit to decide why I am feeling this way. As I've spoken to fellow fans about it, they start to ask me questions. Many of them feel exactly the opposite, brimming with optimism for a new season and a new beginning. Fair enough. I certainly get that.
They ask, "Is it the new coaching staff?" I suppose at least some of it has to do with skepticism about Eric Mangini and his staff. I actually feel like Mangini's approach and thorough preparation have been sorely lacking and can't be anything but an improvement. He had promising results in New York without always having top-notch talent. He gets blasted for not being touchy-feely enough. Was Paul Brown? Perhaps the comparisons to the Belichick years in Cleveland are enough to give one pause, though.
But other than special teams coach Brad Seely, the coordinators don't inspire me with confidence. Rob Ryan talks a good game, but his bottom line results elsewhere have been questionable at best. Brian Daboll is new at this. I guess I'm jaded from some of the other first time offensive coordinators like Marc Trestman, Steve Crosby, Maurice Carthon, and even Rob Chudzinski. I'm looking for evidence on the field. I'll believe it when I see it.
Others ask me about the players. "Are you upset about the Winslow trade?", they ask, or, "Don't you think the talent has improved?", or maybe, "Didn't you like the draft?" While Winslow has talent, he was more of a distraction than an asset. I personally feel like the Browns have gotten more out of Steve Heiden. Heiden certainly played well in the Giants game last fall with Winslow out. And Winslow's best game of 2008 statistically was against Denver, when he had two key penalties that killed drives and dropped a very catchable pass on fourth down. He pretty much killed any chance to win that game. The rest of the season went downhill from there.
The rest of the roster, I admit, does seem to have improved depth, at least in spots.
Let me start by saying that I am unconvinced that the players added on the o-line are absolutely better than the departures. There's talk about Eric Steinbach falling out of favor with the staff? I'm just not buying into that. I know that Hank Fraley has had his problems. I am not sold on Rex Hadnot, scheme change or not. I love Ryan Tucker and see him as a key to the success of the line, or lack thereof, the last two years, but can he stay on the field? Maybe one or more of Floyd Womack or John St. Clair or George Foster will be a pleasant surprise. Maybe not.
I'd like to believe Jamal Lewis will return to form, but history says backs at his age don't do that. He has a lot of miles on him. I'd like to see him used in a more Jerome Bettis-like role at this stage in his career. I love Jerome Harrison and hope he can improve on what he has shown in very limited chances given more opportunities. Maybe he can, but we don't know. Maybe James Davis will be all we hope and more. It's hard to say.
The receiver corps could be improved. Braylon Edwards may return to his 2007 form. We certainly all hope so. The rookies may step up, though once again, history argues against it. Maybe one of the vets, Mike Furrey or David Patten, will emerge as a key contributor. I hope so. Maybe this is the year Josh Cribbs finally contributes meaningfully either as a receiver or in the flash formation. I'd certainly love to see that.
On defense, I hope Robaire Smith can come back strong, but at his age, can he overcome an Achilles injury? Will a healthy Corey Williams be able to contribute? Can some of the new players like Kenyon Coleman step it up? How about the linebackers? Other than D'Qwell Jackson, there are question marks pretty much everywhere. Perhaps the Jets imports will be difference makers. Maybe Kamerion Wimbley will finally break out. I personally like the changes in the defensive backfield and feel that Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald are underrated. But can imports like Roderick Hood and Abram Elam step in and play at a high level? Will at least some of the depth players pan out better than some of the castoffs the Browns have used the last few years?
With both Phil Dawson and Josh Cribbs sparring with the team over their contracts, will the special teams continue to help overcome deficiencies on offense and/or defense?
I personally liked the draft a lot. I feel like Alex Mack can't miss. You have to figure that at least one of Robiskie and Massaquoi will pan out. The Browns got some intriguing players in the lower rounds. But can they contribute right away? Can a walk-on like Jordan Norwood make a move?
Of course, everyone asks about the quarterback derby. While Derek Anderson has some interesting skills, he has maddening flaws. He's proved over and over that he is pretty much the player he was at Oregon State. His gambling style can have high rewards, but to me, the high risks aren't worth it. I like Brady Quinn, but he has yet to prove he can do it at the NFL level. The Denver game was encouraging, but considering the finger injury the next week, that one game is pretty much his entire body of work. It's not much to go on. There are reasons to think he can do it, but many will point out his flaws at Notre Dame. Hope springs eternal, I guess.
In my opinion, the 2008 Browns were a better team than 4-12, especially if you throw out the final four games with essentially no quarterback. At least three games could easily have gone the other way. I know that most of the boneheaded leadership that contributed to those losses is gone. It has to be better, right?
The schedule does not favor the team building confidence. The more difficult games come early, and that could crush a young team under new leadership. Can they overcome that and stay strong until the second half of the season? Can they make a move late? And, will the fans hang with this team if it starts badly, or will they turn on the team as we saw at times last year.
When I analyze all of this, I guess the "been there, done that" factor is what is getting me down. We haven't seen a lot to be enthusiastic about for a long time. I've had my hopes dashed so many times.
All of that being said, I'm guessing that when I see those orange helmets take the field, a lot of these feelings will fade away. But for now, I'm still trying to talk myself into showing up outside that gate in Berea at 8:00 AM on Saturday. I'm telling myself that it is really worth the effort to go.
And maybe, just maybe, I'll see something there that will light that spark in my heart one more time.
The season is short. Bark hard!