Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Questions seeking answers . . . and getting them

(Part one of three)

The Browns’ 2016 season officially kicks off Thursday with the opening of training camp in Berea. The opening is accompanied by a long list of questions as a new regime takes command – again – in an effort to restore the kind of prestige this franchise began with when it was born 70 years ago.

In this three-part series, those questions will be raised and answered as we break down what fans can expect.

Perhaps the biggest mystery entering the season for the Browns is new head coach Hue Jackson. So let us begin with him.

What kind of a team can the fans look forward to after so many seasons of inept coaching?

First of all, the Browns in Jackson finally have a head coach who knows what he is doing and whose reputation as a solid National Football League coach is certain to garner respect from the players.

Yes, most of his coaching has been as an assistant on this level. But the gravitas he has accumulated over the years will serve him well. The only possible impediment would be front-office interference.

Not saying that will happen, but the journey toward respectability under Jackson requires extreme patience, an attribute the Browns’ hierarchy has shown far too little of in the Jimmy Haslam III era. Suffice it so say, the Browns finally got it right in the head-coaching department. Don’t screw it up.

The Browns will not get off to a good start this season. Bank on it. In fact, it is quite probable they once again will bring up the rear of the AFC North. Oddsmakers in Las Vegas have embarrassingly made them underdogs in every game this season. That, however, does not mean they will be winless.

What Jackson brings to this franchise now is a fresh look, a fresh attitude and a fresh outlook on the game. The current roster will not translate into many victories at first, but the groundwork the coach constructs in the first season will have a positive effect on the future.

He will not let his players get down on themselves. He knows how to win and, unless I miss by guess, will eventually instill that attribute in them. He will get off to the slow start, in large part, because of a relative paucity of talent on the roster

The front office went for quantity over quality in the last college lottery in hopes of getting lucky. Sashi Brown & Co. threw 14 darts at the draft board and if as many as half of them pan out, that’s a good start. And they’ve got the right man in Jackson to get them started.

Don’t pay too much attention to how the season starts – five of the first seven games are on the road – as to how it finishes. Ever since the resurrection in 1999, the Browns have logged just one season with a winning road record (2002, when they were 6-2 away from home).

Outside of that season, they are 31-97 (a winning percentage of .242) when they travel. They are 7-33 in the last five years, racking up a 1-7 mark in four of those seasons. But I digress.

Use the game-to-game improvement this season as a barometer of the direction in which this team is headed. Judge the Browns by how they finish the season rather than how they begin it.

Now then, on to other questions with shorter answers.

Who will be the opening-day starter at quarterback?

Barring any unforeseen problems, it will be Robert Griffin III. No matter how he plays in training camp or exhibition games, he will be the man with Josh McCown and rookie Cody Kessler backing him up.

Why? Because it has to be that way. The Browns brought him in in hopes he can recapture the brilliance of his rookie season with the Washington Redskins. Unless he gets hurt, which to be truthful is a distinct possibility given his history of injuries, he will be under center or in pistol or shotgun formation against Philadelphia.

So what kind of an offense can the fans expect?

One that is far more balanced than last season’s, when nearly two-thirds of the plays were passes. Jackson’s offenses are much more successful when the ground game complements the passing game or vice-versa. The likely run-pass ratio will be more 51-49 this season.

But won’t that be difficult with an offensive line that will feature new starters at center and right tackle? And won’t Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz be missed?

Yes and yes. Yes, it will be difficult and yes, Mack and Schwartz, lost in free agency, will be missed. It will be hard to run the ball with only 60% of the starters returning. But the Browns had problems moving the ball last season infantry style when relatively healthy.

An awful lot of the line’s success this season depends on whether first-round pick Cameron Erving’s switch to the pivot is successful. He played soft last season when injuries hit both guards. Center is supposed to be his best position. It better be.

The Browns drafted Shon Coleman and Spencer Drango, a couple of large interior linemen, in hopes one will be able to fill the hole left by Schwartz, arguably the Browns’ best lineman last season. The return to health of left guard Joel Bitonio, who missed a significant portion of last season, will help.

Turning to the wide receivers, now that Josh Gordon has been conditionally reinstated from his one-year banishment, where does he fit into Jackson’s scheme?

Two thoughts: Even though he will be allowed to participate in training camp and exhibition games, he still must sit out the first four games of the season because of more current violations.

And how long has it been since he has played a real game of football? And I don’t mean exhibition games, where the speed and quickness of the game is not nearly as fast and quick as it is in the regular season. There is no guarantee he will step right back in and play as though he had never been away for more than a year.

How does Gordon’s return impact the very young, very inexperienced receiving corps and what kind of struggles can we expect from them?

Gordon’s return definitely takes some of the pressure off the four rookies taken in the last draft and reunites him with Griffin, his teammate at Baylor. That is a plus. Provided, of course, the veteran receiver – he is still just 25 years old – stays clean.

Jackson and his offensive staff still will pin their hopes on rookies Corey Coleman, Jordan Payton, Ricardo Louis and Rashard Higgins. Figure at least two of them will become vital contributors. From all reports, Coleman has starter potential with speed and good hands, while Higgins and Payton were productive in college.

Expect them to struggle at first in their transition to the NFL, but that is to be expected for a position that has proven most difficult to master quickly for rookies in the adjustment process.

What about Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, Darius Jennings, Marlon Moore and Terrelle Pryor? Where do those veterans stand?

At least two of them, maybe more now that Gordon is back, will not make the final roster. The most vulnerable are Jennings, Moore and Hawkins, who has had numerous concussions. Pryor’s size gives him an edge.

Tight end Gary Barnidge turned in a Pro Bowl type season last year with 79 receptions for 1,043 yards and nine touchdowns. What are the chances he duplicates those numbers this season?

Slim to none, although he will play a big role in Jackson’s attack. The new coach loves to throw to the tight end – look at the great season Tyler Eifert had last season in Cincinnati with Jackson as his coordinator – and will do well.

But the wide receivers will play a bigger role in the Cleveland offense this season than last year, thus limiting the number of targets Barnidge logs this season (he had 123 last season). Expect him to be a favorite target, though, in the red zone.

Part two tomorrow.

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