Unless you were alive in 1964, LeBron James’ announcement July 11 that he’s “coming home” was one of the more exciting days in Cleveland sports history.
The news has dominated all topics of conversation. Here at the Orange and Brown it has been no different, but let’s be honest, that’s basketball. This is Browns Town.
Training camp opens in less than two weeks. Here are five things I’ll be watching. Let me know what story lines or position battles you are most excited to follow in the comments below.
Hoyer vs. Manziel
As the quarterback goes, so goes the 2014 Cleveland Browns. Once again, this team enters a season with a new coach and a battle at the quarterback position.
Does the team go with Brian Hoyer, who is technically undefeated as a Browns starting quarterback (3-0), or the flashy first-round draft choice Johnny Manziel, who has the potential to be either an exciting playmaker or another Heisman bust?
To the Browns’ credit, they did not hand Manziel the starting job as soon as the draft concluded last May. In the offseason OTAs and minicamps since, Manziel has been impressive. Everyone — from players to coaches — are encouraged about the rookie’s ceiling. Meanwhile, Hoyer’s reps have equally impressive — if not more. It appears Hoyer is back and better than ever from his ACL injury suffered last October.
This will be a difficult decision especially considering the season opener is at Pittsburgh. No doubt the preseason games will be must see TV and hopefully this conundrum is cleared up quickly.
Wide Out Worries
Whoever is quarterback needs to throw to wide receivers and we can all agree Josh Gordon will not be catching any of those passes. His story has gone from bad-to-worse this offseason. A year-long suspension is expected to come down at anytime.
Gordon led the league with 1,646 receiving yards last season ahead of Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown (1,499), Detroit’s Calvin Johnson (1,492), Denver’s Demaryius Thomas (1,430) and Cincinnati’s A.J. Green (1,426). Gordon’s yards per game — 117.6 — also led the NFL ahead of Atlanta’s Julio Jones at 116.0 and Johnson (106.6).
Gordon was a dynamic playmaker and something the Browns have rarely — if ever — seen since the team’s return in 1999. Yet the Browns still won only four games, and Cleveland wasn’t alone.
Think about how the teams of those wide outs mentioned a few paragraphs ago. Brown’s Steelers, Johnson’s Lions and Jones’ Falcons were a combined 19-29 and all missed the playoffs. Green’s Bengals were out in the Wild Card round (again) and Thomas’ Broncos reached the Super Bowl, but a lot of that had to do with Peyton Manning.
Moreover, can you name the No. 1 wide receiver on this year’s Super Bowl champ Seattle Seahawks? It was Golden Tate and his pedestrian numbers (64 catches for 898 yards and five touchdowns). Grant it, he was injured for a considerable amount of time, but his absence didn’t hurt Seattle.
Think back over the last decade of Super Bowl champions. Do any elite wide receivers come to mind when you think of the New York Giants in 2011 or 2008? How about the Baltimore Ravens in 2012, or Tom Brady’s top wide outs when the New England Patriots won Super Bowls in 2001, 2003 and 2004?
Top wide receiver talent is a luxury, but it isn’t a direct correlation to winning.
It’s going to be tough not to have Gordon’s playmaking abilities on the field this season, but if Hoyer and/or Manziel are the real deal, the team just might be OK with the likes of Andrew Hawkins, Jordan Cameron, Nate Burleson and Miles Austin.
Manziel aside, the Browns drafted five other players, most of whom are expected to contribute. First, cornerback Justin Gilbert was the team’s first selection at No. 9. He is expected to accomplish what Leon McFadden couldn’t — be a lock-down cornerback opposite all-pro Joe Haden.
From there, offensive lineman Joel Bitonio was the team’s second-round pick (35th overall) who is penciled-in starter at right guard. Even third-round picks like linebacker Christian Kirksey and running back Terrance West are expected to contribute.
Every draft class comes with high marks and this year’s is no exception. Can they live up to the hype?
New head coach Mike Pettine is a defensive-minded coach. The Browns have talent on that side of the ball thanks to plenty of first-round selections over the last few draft classes. Under previous regimes, this defense has shown flashes of brilliance, but it was unable to put together consistent outings.
Pettine just might have the chops to be able to corral this talented defense — complete with new additions in veterans Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby — into one of the best in the NFL. If it’s one thing we’ve come to understand playing in the AFC North, you’re going to need a top-flight defense to compete. The Browns may finally have the right combination of talent and coaching to shut down the team’s top rivals.
Which brings us to…
On-field talent is one thing. The Browns roster has been upgraded with that much-needed talent, but as we are all too familiar, proper coaching has been lacking.
From what we know of Mike Pettine and what we’ve seen and heard early into his tenure, this finally may be the right guy for the job. It appears he has the skills to be able to relate to today’s player and push the right buttons to motivate them to the best of their abilities.
How he handles things like the Josh Gordon situation, the quarterback conundrum and the defense will be telling. Is he over his head? Is he right where he needs to be?
LeBron James is where he needs to be, back home in northeast Ohio poised to win a lot of basketball games.
It’s time the area’s football team follows suit.