For a team that just completed another year of abject futility, the Cleveland Browns seem awful giddy at the moment. Head coach Pat Shurmur had a real bounce about him at his year end press conference, in contrast to his usual dour demeanor. All the post-season stories being written focus solely on the great future this team has, according to players and staff alike. Of course, the post-season stories being written after the last several seasons said pretty much the same thing from a different but similarcrew, but why quibble?
If the Browns are happy with their direction, then why spoil the party? Would it really do any good at this point to talk about the 4 wins this season, which is one less then in either of Eric Mangini’s two miserable seasons? Is it really necessary at this juncture to talk about a team that scraped the bottom of the barrel once again on offense and approached scoring touchdowns like teenagers approach taking the SATs?
When it comes to the Browns, cynicism easily prevails. Fans have heard so many versions of the same warmed over rhetoric about new directions, building the foundation, patience, time, draft picks, development and the like that they’ve become jaded to any process.
Need proof? How many fans were at Cleveland Browns Stadium this past Sunday to watch their team play the hated Pittsburgh Steelers? Unless they were disguised as orange seats or decided to wear black and gold just to blend in, then not many.
I doubt that Randy Lerner noticed but perhaps Mike Holmgren did, but only if he has an attendance bonus clause attached to his contract. It was the most visible sign yet that the fans aren’t yet buying what he’s selling, perhaps because they still aren’t sure at this point exactly what he is selling except an amorphous concept of patience that thus far has resulted in Holmgren squandering one season in order to keep a coach he never wanted and allowing a rookie head coach to take on two jobs instead of concentrating on the one he’s never had.
As I sit here again dissecting another season, I still have no idea what this team stands for, and that's been true now for years. I understand that a new offense is still in its infancy and that there are a dearth of players on the current roster that could execute it anyway, but as practiced this season it all seemed like just such a big mess.
On defense, it’s a mixed bag. There was significant improvement when you consider the overall stats but yet this team still can’t stop even mediocre running backs from gaining huge chunks of yardage each and every game. The defense isn’t particularly physical as all the missed tackles each week will attest. And while the pass defense was fairly stout, particularly inside the red zone, they still allow way too many big plays to be considered an upper echelon unit.
But those are the details. What’s the bigger picture? What’s Mike Holmgren’s vision? What kind of team is he really looking for? What’s Pat Shurmur’s vision? What kind of team is he really looking for?
Those answers to those questions are just as mysterious today as they were the day Holmgren arrived and as near as anyone can tell, outwardly this team has made no progress in essentially two years of Holmgren’s leadership. I guess when you don't have a specific destination, any path will do.
All that said, though, perhaps we should take some solace in the words of defensive back Sheldon Brown who expounded at length Monday in a story written by the Plain Dealer’s Mary Kay Cabor on how close this team is to being significantly better. When his playing days are over, the front office should grab him if for nothing else then team spokesmen. He offered the most cogent and articulate explanation on the state of the team that I've heard in years.
Brown dispelled two related notions up front. First, this team is not a mere key draft pick or two from changing its fortunes. Second, using a first round draft pick on Heisman trophy winner Robert Griffin III with the thought that he’d be the team’s savior is “crazy.”
Brown’s right. Fans are rightly frustrated but that doesn’t mean they’re not crazy. There a fair number of them at the moment that have gone off the rails in trying to find the appropriate target(s) for their frustration. It may very well be that Colt McCoy isn’t a franchise quarterback, for whatever that means anymore, but anyone who suggests that this year provided enough evidence of that is as loopy as Michelle Bachman.
The Browns’ offensive line, particularly the entire right side, was as weak as any team in the league and perhaps the weakest of any team not the Chicago Bears. When Eric Steinbach went down, general manager Tom Heckert did an awful job of finding credible backups. Tony Pashos, as brittle as a porcelain tea cup, couldn’t block a cold at this point in his career. Shaun Lauvao? If he wasn’t false starting or holding, you wouldn’t have even noticed him on the field, except as the one with his hand on his hips as he looked at his man draped on top of a prone McCoy. As for their backups? I defy anyone to name them without looking at the Browns’ depth chart.
The weakness in the line manifested itself in poor pass protection and a poor running game, the two keys for any quarterback to be successful. And that’s before we even stop to consider that the number one receiver on the team didn’t even play his senior year in college, the number two receiver catches like Braylon Edwards and runs like Bob Golic, and the third receiver is a converted quarterback.
There isn’t a quarterback in the league, and I say that without any intent to exaggerate, who could have turned that chicken stuffing into chicken salad, not a one. So even if Andrew Luck somehow fell to the Browns (or they traded up), absent any other change on offense the only change you’d see next year is that the Browns would go from 30 to 32nd in the league in scoring and the team would once again be staring down the barrel of a four or five win season.
What the Browns need far more than a quarterback at the moment are receivers, offensive linemen and running backs, in that order, assuming Steinbach can play next season. If Steinbach cannot come back, then it’s a toss up between linemen and receivers as to where the need is the greatest.
Where Brown was particularly insightful, however, was in talking about the youth on the team and the need to let it mature rather than simply blow things up as the Browns tend to do every two years. Brown believes that the additional experience that the young players on defense have gotten this past year will pay huge dividends, assuming the players are willing to do what it takes to take the next step in their own development. That’s a big assumption, perhaps, but it is true that the biggest leap for most professional players is between their rookie and sophomore years.
Finally, Brown talked about Shurmur and had nothing but praise for him. It’s become popular of late to blast Shurmur, at least when fans have taken a break from blasting McCoy, for the ills of the Browns. It’s misplaced.
Shurmur, like McCoy, is very far down on the list of things that went wrong with the team this year. Mostly the top 20 spots of that list are populated by things such as a lack of credible players (blame the general manager) and the impact on the lockout on a rookie coach installing a new system.
Shurmur, like the young players on defense, has to step up his game, but to suggest that he can’t progress as a head coach or that he’s in over his head is to ignore all evidence to the contrary. As Brown noted, though he didn’t have to, the one thing you could definitely say about this team in a positive way is that it didn’t quit at any point during the season.
There were low points and blow outs but those weren’t sustained. Usually the team kept it close even as they were usually overmatched and often by a huge margin. Both Pittsburgh games provided the best example of that, particularly this past Sunday’s when it would have been far easier to have gone through the motions then to put any effort into it.
I don’t necessarily share Brown’s optimism that this team is close, mostly because it’s a mantra that I’ve heard before and partly because it’s exactly what you’d expect an aging player looking to hang on would say in order to stay in the good graces of a club he hopes will employ him again next season. I do admire his candor nonetheless.
And irrespective of whether I or anyone else share’s Brown’s optimism, it doesn’t mean he’s not speaking the truth. He is. The only way for this team to get good enough to make the playoffs on a regular basis is to pick a true course and stay it for more than a year or two.
But that’s not what the fans want to hear, mostly because they’re fed up with hearing the truth and don’t trust that anyone associated with the Browns has the ability to do anything meaningful about it anyway, as two decades of futility demonstrate.