One has to wonder.
One has to ask oneself: "What is it the national media thinks it sees in the 2009 Cleveland Browns that has them projecting the team for much less success than is foreseen by those truly close to the situation?"
How can they predict only 2 or 3 wins when local commentators imagine 6 to 8?
Is it the uncertainty at QB? The chronic inability to defend the run? The absence of a pass rush? Deficient team speed and quickness? The overhaul that occurred in the front office? Lack of confidence in the new coaching staff? The presence of both Pittsburgh and Baltimore in Cleveland's division? The notorious shortage of team leadership? Serious doubt that both health and luck will ever coexist during a Browns' season?
Maybe it is not one or two of these things, but the overwhelming combination of them all.
But a 2- or 3-win outfit is one virtually bereft of offense and of defense, as well. The Browns aren't really that bad, are they?
For example, last season's squad possessed most of these same flaws, but was a nationally-televised spectacle for major networks, as it was five times slated to appear in prime time, coming off a ten-win season.
Even that ‘08 disaster—the one that lost both its top two passers by Thanksgiving and went without an offensive touchdown for six full games at season's end–achieved four wins.
How could this year's club, a contingent that on-paper seems markedly superior and will be challenged by a less-imposing schedule, be considered less able to win than even last year's disaster?
The popular national assessment just doesn't make any sense. Yet, there are the Browns on everyone's list of worst NFL clubs. Power polls regularly identify the Browns among the bottom five without exception, despite the replacing of both head coach Romeo Crennel and GM Phil Savage, neither of whom had been performing his responsibilities with particular distinction.
With a new regime of decision-makers and the inherent fresh start such an upheaval creates, one might expect some optimism, a honeymoon period, some benefit of the doubt.
But, alas, no. The Browns are seemingly destined to reside among the dregs of the sport, one of the worst of the worst.
How can things be perceived as so weak?
The Browns are not talent-laden, but they do have some skilled personnel. LT Joe Thomas was a Pro Bowler after both of his NFL seasons. NT Shaun Rogers is another of All-Pro vintage. ILB D'Qwell Jackson led the league in total tackles. WR Braylon Edwards has had a 16-td campaign and is among the sport's premier deep threats. LG Eric Steinbach is another among the best at his position. Young CBs Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald comprise a respectable tandem with upside. Josh Cribbs is among the very best anywhere for special teams' excellence, as are PK Phil Dawson, punter Dave Zastudil and long-snapper Ryan Pontbriand.
There are enviable elements within the roster, though surely not in proportions similar to San Diego's, New England's, Pittsburgh's, Indianapolis', Philadelphia's or the Giants. The Browns are not an elite team, no doubt.
But a 2-3 win outfit? How can that be believed?
Perhaps what is held as true about the Browns has less to do with talent or coaching or management but more to do with a prevailing culture of losing.
Consider how well the Browns competed during the first half of their opener versus the visiting Vikings. The Browns actually led the highly-regarded Minnesota club 13-10 at halftime. No sooner did the guests emerge from their lockerroom than they marched briskly to a go-ahead score, never to be threatened again by the Browns, who seemed to roll over and disintegrate very quickly. The characteristic self-destruction of turnovers and penalties followed.
What became of that feisty, active, energetic, attacking defense that characterized Cleveland's first-half efforts? Where did that spirit disappear to?
So stark was the contrast between halves that stellar Viking RB Adrian Peterson ran for 155 of his game-high 180 yards after the break, as if the contest ended as soon as the Browns' opponents decided to quit toying with the hosts, tightened their chin-straps and got down to serious football playing.
Is this type of reaction to competitive pressure what really is to blame for the national perspective of the Browns? Are the Browns simply too soft? Too malleable? Too compliant? Cooperative? Too timid and cowardly to pose a real threat to any self-respecting NFL assemblage?
Do the league's insiders, experts, commentators, analysts and talent assessors recognize that Cleveland is much too short with the intangibles winners possess? Is it an infectious, insideous, losing attitude that pervades all things Browns these days, causing the opinionated to write-off the Browns as illegitimate pretenders, afterthoughts and insignificants?
Understand that a team forecast to total but 2 or 3 wins is one neither respected nor feared. For so many to foresee such ineptitude does not speak well for the team, its coaches, its administrators, its scouts, its ownership, its home-field fan base or what exists within each as battlers, fighters, competitors or challengers. Even bad teams win more than 2 or 3 games during a 16-game NFL campaign, as we in Cleveland should well know.
It has long been suspected that free-agent talent with options will avoid rustbelt teams that lack winning traditions. Such seems to be the fate of outfits representing Detroit, Buffalo, Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis and Kansas City. Only tradition and winning spare Pittsburgh, Chicago, Green Bay, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Minneapolis. Coveted athletes may tolerate a shortage of warm temperatures or regular winning, but few will overlook both.
Today came the whispers that player agents are steering their clients away from Cleveland, though the site leaking the report, ProFootballTalk.com, provides little detail as to why. One would be left to guess it has to do with mis-management or an inevitable sensation of losing, surrender, inadequacy.
Only a loser would gravitate to a loser, right?
Consider the headline play of last Sunday's contest. The Vikes worked themselves into a favorable set that isolated CB McDonald and FS Brodney Pool against Peterson and lead-blocking WR Sidney Rice, who has six inches of height and 30 pounds of weight on McDonald.
Because of the set employed, McDonald is forced to set the edge, meaning he will try to deny the runner access to the sidelines, forcing him inside, from which the help is to arrive. Though he is easily six yards downfield and essentially being steered backwards by Rice, McDonald struggles to maintain outside leverage. Help in the form of Pool arrives without consequence, as he's run-through by Peterson.
By now, Rice is holding McDonald at the shoulders, with the DB unable to disengage. McDonald spins free, trying not to fall. He flails at Peterson who, at one point, is running backward himself downfield, fending off McDonald, pushing the CB to the ground and away from his legs.
Peterson later calls that 65-yard td jaunt his best-ever, if only for effort. But the reasonable question persists: "With all the hand-fighting between McDonald and Rice, with all the flailing and diving and reaching and pushing, with Peterson running backwards for nearly ten yards, where were the rest of the Browns' defenders?
Why did no others insinuate themselves into the play? Where was the NFL-caliber pursuit? Where was the hustle? The desire to make a tackle, to make a play, to save the game, to remain competitive for a full fourth quarter?
Were McDonald's teammates all inexplicably blocked away expertly? Or might they be less than enthused about making a hustle and effort play against Peterson so late in another lost regular-season game?
Could it be they quit on the play, quit on each other, quit on themselves?
This one is wondering if what ails the Browns above all other considerations is the attitude that defines them as losers rather than winners. The same intangible poisoning that has few in the sport taking them at all seriously, even against a winnable schedule and armed with new hires and a collection of infused personnel.
Whereas local assessors focus upon individual additions, newly-appointed coaches and the relatively-easier schedule when forecasting predictions, outsiders are overwhelmingly distracted by the persistent presence of deficient attitude, commitment, courage, concentration, sacrifice and fortitude.
Whereas many of us see upside potential and promising newbies, maybe the rest of the NFL world sees an organization rotten to its core with something undermining whatever good it intends.
This would account for why only 2 or 3 wins are expected from the ‘09 Browns. This would explain why the team is rated with the absolute have-nots in the game, as well as to why agents would steer clients from the club's Berea headquarters.
And it would constitute the type of affliction that will require more than a few years of housecleaning to alleviate.
If true, this would be a consequence far more disturbing than a mere season-opening loss to a Super Bowl contender. And would seem to portend a things-figure-to-get -far-worse-before-they-can-get-better scenario for months to come.
The Browns played well during the early portions of the new campaign. They attacked the backfield defensively. They worked to close-off the corners defending the run, stringing out sweeps, funneling things inside. They tackled better. They seemed anticipatory, active, awake, alive, eager, energized, alert, swarming to the ball. They looked as if they had the makings of a decent defense.
But, once adversity hit—as it usually will during an NFL game—demoralization descended as if a shroud. A blowout ensued. Surrender was complete.
It is always enlightening to discover who among the 53 members of the active roster will be designated as pre-game inactives. This is perhaps especially true on Opening Day, when most players are healthy and raring to go.
Athletes acquired just last week—DBs Marquis Floyd and DeAngelo Smith, RB Cedric Peerman—were anticipated, since they are so new to the system. Swing tackle Phil Trautwein, however, just as new, dressed-out to back-up starters Thomas and John St. Clair.
RB Jerome Harrison and G/C Rex Hadnot were inactivated, owing to their leg ailments. Fourth-year ILB Leon Williams, the only vet depth at his position, was also inactive. Therefore, it was not surprising he was this morning released.
Second-year man Martin Rucker, the player Savage envisioned succeeding the departed Kellen Winslow, Jr., as the club's pass-catching TE, completed the inactives, suggesting there is much to his game that remains desired by the coaching staff.
As for Peerman, expect to see his pass-catching skills put to significant use by the staff as it labors to add quickness, speed, separation and play-making to its bland and pedestrian offensive approach.
Scatbacks able to maximize smaller creases than Jamal Lewis requires figure to seize more of the carries. On that count, Peerman, Harrison and Clemson rookie James Davis should be key to whatever progress is shown by the Cleveland offense.
Weapons dangerous in space are rare on the Browns' roster and must be assimilated into the attack if the club is to maximize its promise and optimize its potential.
More must be had from second-round wideouts Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi. Regardless of who quarterbacks, the ball must be distributed quickly, decisively and generously, as this team's chances of winning lie moreso in its collective strengths than in its virtuoso skills.