Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Getting a good feeling

When the National Football League realized its mistake in permitting the venerable Cleveland Browns franchise to move to Baltimore in 1996 and allowed the city to reenter the league in 1999, one of the sport’s greatest fans bases in sports rejoiced.

Football was back where it belonged. Back where passion and emotion made the sport the No. 1 topic of conversation 12 months a year. The three-year absence made the heart grow even fonder.

That passion has been tested severely – sometimes maddeningly, often times brutally  – in the 19 seasons since that joyous day when the NFL announced football was returning to Cleveland.

Losing football, the likes of which hasn’t been seen in the league for too long a time, became a constant on the lakefront. Year after year, season after season, optimism reigned on opening day only to disappear by midseason, if not sooner.

Next year became next year became next year until it became apparent the constant losing wasn’t going away. It became a withering annual journey into misery and disappointment.

Front offices came and went. Frustrated fans, looking to glom onto anything that was different from what had preceded it, blindly put their faith in whomever the dysfunctional ownership chose to seek a new direction.

The team meandered aimlessly in the desert of desolation on an annual basis. Losing became commonplace. It was, in fact, expected as Cleveland became the perennial laughingstock of the NFL, taking up almost permanent residence in the basement.

That once passionate, emotional Cleveland fan base began shrinking. The only things that changed from year to year were the names and faces of the players. Losing was the only constant.

Now we embark on year 20 of the resurrection and for the first time since that inaugural expansion season all those years ago, I am experiencing a strange feeling. It’s strange because it is filled with optimism.

The realist in me finally sees a Cleveland Browns football team this year with more talent than probably since they were the old Cleveland Browns a generation ago. It sure looks like the beginning of a turnaround.

I am a pessimist by nature. My glass is always half empty. But I have that feeling about this team after General Manager John Dorsey reimaged it with some savvy moves.

Still not crazy about his selecting quarterback Baker Mayfield with the top overall pick in the last college draft, though. But Mayfield most likely won’t see the field this year, anyway, so that doesn’t color my thinking.

All that talent needs now is a good head coach. And that is where my optimism stumbles somewhat. Not a Hue Jackson fan at all, which shouldn’t come as a surprise.

We know he can’t coach a team with a roster whose talent quotient arguably was the worst in the league the last two seasons. This season, he will not have the luxury of leaning on that excuse.

I get the feeing he will be awarded little latitude with this front office this season. Dorsey knows this is a far better football team than it was seven months ago and will not tolerate a slow start out of the gate.

This is now a football team that needs to hear a different voice calling the shots. Not someone dragging along the reputation of a loser as a head coach.

I’m still trying (and failing) to understand Jimmy Haslam III’s rationale for bringing Jackson back. The hope here is he doesn’t screw it up so badly in the first month that it would be difficult to recover.

Nevertheless, my optimism remains. It’s not the kind of optimism that envisions a .500 season, which would be borderline remarkable after last season’s winless efforts. But the competitive level of the 2018 Browns will be exponentially higher.

If nothing else, this season will serve as a springboard for – and fuel – the comeback the great fans of this franchise have dreamed of for 20 years.

For the first time in two decades, I finally feel it in my aging bones.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Q&A Part 3 (continued)

It has been nearly seven months since Browns owner Jimmy Haslam III shocked just about everyone in the National Football League universe by assuring everyone that Hue Jackson, his head coach, would be back for the 2018 season.

The shock of sticking with a coach who racked up an astounding one victory in 32 cracks at winning a football game has not worn off completely. It probably won’t until Jackson’s eventual departure.

The shock undoubtedly stunned Jackson, who probably wondered, “what do I have to do to get fired?” The scars of that one will linger for a long time.

The mind-numbing, illogical thinking behind the billionaire owner’s decision, made in spite of what had to be (guessing here) strong, private attempts by General Manager John Dorsey to change his mind, will hover over training camp later this month.

Unlike Jackson’s first two seasons, when he doubled as the team’s (very) offensive coordinator, he will ostensibly concentrate on the team and coaching staff as a whole rather than minding the store on offense.

To that end, the Browns convinced Todd Haley that Cleveland should be his next coaching stop almost immediately after being dismissed as offensive coordinator of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Haley has one of the sharpest minds in the game on that side of the football and his split with the Steelers was almost as surprising as Jackson’s return.

In a perfect world, Haley will have autonomous control of the vastly improved Cleveland offense. That essentially means Jackson, who has offensive coordinator blood coursing through his veins, must resist and keep his hands off the offense.

With a quarterback who throws interceptions roughly once every four or five games, an offensive line missing only one member from last season (OK, it’s Joe Thomas), a vastly improved receivers corps and a trio of running backs who might be the best group in the AFC North, Haley’s creative juices should be up to the challenge.

We have been led to believe Jackson and Haley have shared thoughts and ideas on what the offense should look like this offseason. But these two men come from different philosophical schools and I do not for a moment buy the notion these strong-willed men are on the same page.

The defensive side of the ball, which displayed more progress than the offense in last season’s winless journey through the schedule, is even better this season under defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.

With Dorsey drafting, trading and taking advantage of free agency to strengthen a very weak secondary, Williams now has more bullets in his arsenal to play the aggressive kind of football he was unable to last season.

Sacks in 2017 were up nearly 33% from the previous season and that was with his two best pass rushers, Myles Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah, missing about a dozen games with injuries.

Williams yearned last season for a press-coverage cornerback and Dorsey accommodated him by making Ohio State corner Denzel Ward the fourth overall pick of the last college draft. His abundant talent was rewarded almost immediately with his elevation to the starting team.

His biggest challenge will be to neutralize, if not shut down, peerless wide receivers Antonio Brown of the Steelers, Cincinnati’s A. J. Green and whoever is No. 1 for Baltimore (probably Michael Crabtree), whom he will face six times this season.

The key to a good pass rush lies in the secondary’s ability to cover receivers tightly enough and long enough to force opposing quarterbacks into mistakes, elements that were sadly missing last season when the Browns picked off a measly seven passes.

So the big question(s) entering this season revolve around Jackson. Questions such as . . .

How difficult will it be for Jackson to be strictly the head coach?

Not as simple as it sounds. His main job will be to coach his coaches during the week as they prepare for the 16-game grind. He didn’t do that the last two seasons because he was too busy being his own offensive coordinator.

This season, he will be responsible for such duties as thinking at least two or three plays ahead at all times; stand ready to make command decisions at a moment’s notice; make certain every member of the coaching staff is on the same page; make intelligent decisions on penalties; be keenly aware of the clock; and be judicious with replay.

In other words, be a head coach.

How much rope does he have with Haslam?

Less than he had at the beginning of last season and possibly more than many fans hope. One thing is certain, though. Haslam will not tolerate the losing like he did last season because he knows this is a much more talented team.

And that places Jackson firmly on the hot seat, right?

Someone wise man once said assistant football coaches who become head coaches are either generals or lieutenants. The generals last a whole lot longer and are more successful than the lieutenants, who usually return to being assistants.

So what is Jackson?

There is no question in my mind he is a lieutenant and will return to being an offensive coordinator somewhere else next season.

How long does he last?

My over/under is six games. I’ll take the under.

Next: Where are the Browns headed?

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Questions seeking answers Part 3

When evaluating special teams in the National Football League, one must take into account that one of the aspects of that part of the team might disappear in the not-too-distant future.

It is difficult not to think the NFL is well on its way to legislating the kickoff out of existence. Numerous tweaks of the rules the last few years to what used to be one of the staples of the game of football have reduced it to a joke.

It won’t be long before the league, once it decides to stop fussing around and just do it, declares that after touchdowns and successful field goals, the opposing team automatically starts at its 25-yard line on the next possession.

That way, the concussion scare that has swept through the board rooms all around the NFL will diminish after it was determined too many such injuries occurred on kickoffs.

The only part for kicking specialists that remains the same are attempts for field goals and points after touchdowns. The only change there was moving the PAT attempt back several yards.

The punting game is an entirely different matter. That aspect of special teams hasn’t been touched. It remains the same . . . until owners find something wrong there, too.

That said, let’s examine the Browns’ special teams, which haven’t been special since Josh Cribbs left after the 2012 season. Not only was he a terrific gunner on coverage, he amassed more than 11,000 yards in returns over a 10-year career, mostly with the Browns, scoring eight times on punts returns and three times on kickoffs.

Any Josh Cribbses on this year’s team?

Not even close. It was thought Jabrill Peppers, a solid return man in college at Michigan, would be that guy. He disappointed in both categories last season, averaging only six yards a tote on 30 punt returns and just 22,7 yards on 14 kickoff returns.

It’s likely Peppers will get another shot at both duties again this season along with a few other newcomers in an effort to shake this team loose from its special teams doldrums.

Is there any good news regarding special teams?

Not unless punter Britton Colquitt’s 47.6-yard average qualifies as good news. He dropped 24 of his 80 punts (five a game) inside the opponent’s 20-yard line with only two touchbacks. Does that qualify?

Yep, which kinds of makes you wonder why General Manager John Dorsey claimed second-year pro Justin Vogel off waivers. He’s slightly bigger than Colquitt and about 10 years younger . . . and a whole lot cheaper. Training camp fodder perhaps?

How safe is placekicker Zane Gonzalez?

A whole lot safer than Colquitt with only rookie Ross Martin pressing him. Martin is another Cleveland area kid (Walsh Jesuit High School in Cuyahoga Falls) who is on board to give Gonzalez an occasional rest from the every-day grind of training camp.

Gonzalez had a wobbly rookie season in 2017, hitting on only 15 of 20 field-goal attempts and missing one of his 26 points after. He missed two field goals from 30-39 yards, two from 40-49 yards and yet connected on two of his three attempts from beyond 50 yards.

What about new special teams coach Amos Jones?

It’s still a head scratcher why Jones was hired after the Browns chose to let Chris Tabor rejoin the Chicago Bears. Jones was a favorite of Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians the last few seasons, but the Cards’ special teams were awful last season. When Arians retired, the door leading to the Browns opened.

Rick Gosselin, a Dallas-based NFL writer who has ranked special teams for many years and is considered one of the foremost experts in that area, ranked the Browns 27th (tied with Chicago) overall last season. Arizona was ranked 30th.

Gosselin arrives at his final rankings using 22 categories. The Browns and Cardinals did not wind up in the top five in any of those categories, but the Browns finished last in number of field goals, worst starting line following a kickoff and tied with many teams for last place in points (not including kicks) and takeaways.

Now Jones might have been a good coach several years ago when the Cardinals under Arians became a force in the league, but he can’t brag in the what-have-you–done-for-me-lately department.

Next: The coaching staff

Q&A Part 2 (continued)

Whenever the opposition needed a big play on offense last season against the Browns, they knew they could get it through the air. It was almost an automatic.

In actuality, that has been the case the last three seasons – Cleveland secondaries have surrendered a combined 11,692 yards and 98 touchdowns via the forward pass.

It is a weakness immediately discovered by General Manager John Dorsey after taking over midway through last season. There was a dearth of talent in the backend of the defense and he quickly and methodically addressed it.

So how much of a difference will the new faces make or is it just cosmetic?

Eight of the 14 defensive backs on the roster at the conclusion of last season are gone. Dorsey has replaced them via trade, free agency or drafting with young veterans and a stud rookie. As a result, the secondary this season will look almost entirely different.

In what way?

Second-year safety Jabrill Peppers is the lone returning starter, but this year, fans will find him playing much closer to the line of scrimmage as strong safety rather than in a different zip code as he did last season at free safety.

Peppers’ game is creating havoc and sure tackling. He had little opportunity to do either last season as defensive coordinator Gregg Williams stationed him anywhere from 30 to 40 yards off the ball. It robbed him of utilizing his greatest strengths.

What about the other three positions back there?

One of Dorsey’s goals – maybe his main goal – was to tighten up the backfield, give the front seven more time to get up close and personal with opposing quarterbacks, working in tandem to slice into those embarrassing figures of the last three seasons.

To that end, he brought in cornerbacks T. J. Carrie, Terrance Mitchell and E. J. Gaines, drafted corners Denzel Ward and Simeon Thomas and traded for Damarious Randall, switching him from corner to free safety, his natural position.

Briean-Boddy Calhoun, Justin Currie, Derron Smith, Mike Jordan and Derrick Kindred return from last season and will find making the final roster much more challenging.

Dorsey wasn’t just throwing darts at a board hoping to hit a few bull’s-eyes. In less than four months, he has ostensibly turned the Browns’ biggest weakness into a budding strength.

It was quite obvious he targeted the secondary when he made Ward, the Cleveland-area kid (Nordonia High School) and Ohio State All-America, the team’s second draft selection (No. 4 overall) after quarterback Baker Mayfield.

Ward was one of the nation’s premier press corners with the Buckeyes, and the main reason Dorsey selected him over defensive end Bradley Chubb in the draft to the surprise of many draft gurus.

So assuming Ward starts, who plays opposite him? 

Right now, the depth chart at the other corner is flexible with a trio of five-year veterans battling for playing time. Carrie is the prohibitive favorite with Gaines and Mitchell offering his greatest challenges.

It is conceivable all three make the final roster with Williams favoring many sub packages. And Boddy-Calhoun, whose aggressive style won him points last season, might survive.

How much of a difference will there be at safety?

Plenty with Randall now playing his more natural position at free safety after working his first three seasons in Green Bay at cornerback. In 30 starts with the Packers, he swiped 10 passes, four last season. That figure would have led the Browns, who totaled only seven picks. That is not a typo.

Peppers, meanwhile, will be allowed to be the player the Browns believed they drafted last season, often playing tight to the line of scrimmage as a box safety and blitzing off the edge.

When breaking down why the Browns were winless last season, one doesn’t have to dive too deeply to discover the Cleveland secondary was one of the main culprits, helping sustain opposition drives by failing to get off the field on third down.

With ball hawks like Randall, Peppers and Ward, that will change. It’s a virtual certainty the Browns’ interception total in 2018 will be significantly higher than last season’s disappointing number.

So how would one paint the overall defensive picture?

With a lot more optimism if only because the run defense vastly improved last season and should get better this season and because it can’t get any worse in the secondary than last season’s random strafing.

Next: Special teams and the coaching.

Questions seeking answers Part 2

The defense . . .

An oversight before delving into the better side of the football for the Browns this season . . .

Missed the tight ends entirely when previously looking at the offense. And that is an important part of said offense that will be key in both aspects of its execution.

David Njoku, Darren Fells and Seth DeValve provide a wide variety of specific abilities at a position that has been lacking for that talent for many seasons.

Many observers of the National Football League are quick to recognize Njoku as one of the promising young group of tight ends this season even though he caught only 32 passes last season as a rookie for just 386 yards and four touchdowns.

They like his size (6-4, 250 chiseled pounds) and athleticism and believe he can flourish with the reliable Tyrod Taylor at quarterback more so than with the unpredictable DeShone Kizer, his fellow rookie, last season. He balanced his low reception numbers with improved blocking.

DeValve, second to running back Duke Johnson Jr. in receptions, caught one more pass and had 11 more receiving yards than Njoku, but scored only once and probably won’t see as much playing time this season.

That’s because of Fells, a 6-7, 280-pounder who will provide most of the grunt work in the blocking game. His one job is to block. In his previous four NFL seasons, he was targeted only 84 times. He makes a perfect target for Taylor inside the 10-yard line.

One of the reasons the ground game failed last season was lack of an effective blocking tight end. That is why General Manager John Dorsey signed Fells as a free agent. He will make a significant difference.

Now the defense . . .

The defense presented a better pass rush than the previous season. How much better can it get in 2018?

A whole lot better now that Emmanuel Ogbah has recovered from his season-ending broken foot last season and can team up with Myles Garrett, who sparkled when healthy as a rookie, at defensive end.

Garrett and Ogbah played 11 games each, but played together in only five games last season, Garrett racking up three of his seven overall sacks with Ogbah, who tallied two of his four with Garrett in the same lineup.

Overall, the Browns improved their sack total from a paltry 26 in 2016 to 34 last season. If these 6-4, 275-pound pass-rushing specialists can stay healthy all season, there is no telling what 2018’s sack total will be.

On the bubble at end are Nate Orchard and Carl Nassib, who excelled at creating havoc in the pocket in college but have failed to make a successful transition to the NFL. It wouldn’t surprise if both are playing elsewhere this season with veteran free agent pickup Chris Smith and rookie draft pick Chad Thomas pushing them out

What aboutd the interior on the defensive line? The run defense made major strides last season.

It sure did. After being bruised for 2,283 yards in the ground (143 a game) in 2016, Gregg Williams’ defense surrendered only 1,566 yards (99 a game) last season. They permitted 100 yards or more in 12 games in 2016 and halved that total last season.

One of the reasons was strong performances at tackle from youngsters like Jamie Meder and Trevon Coley and rookies Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley. Underachieving Danny Shelton was shipped to New England. Addition by subtraction.

The linebackers were major contributors to that run stat.

They certainly were, especially Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert, who surprised just about everyone last season by thriving after successfully moving inside at middle linebacker. Both men finished in the league’s top 10 in tackling. All of which makes this season’s linebacker story line worth watching.

Easily the best overall unit on the club last season, it got even stronger with the free- agent signing of Mychal Kendricks, return from injury of Jamie Collins and drafting of Genard Avery.

Add to the cast James Burgess, who filled in more than capably when Collins went down early last season. He finished fourth on the team in total tackles. This is clearly an area that should excel.

The only problem – if one can call it that – is Williams has so much talent there, it will be interesting to see how he uses it without griping from those who might see as much of the field as last season.

If you are searching for a weakness in the linebackers, you’ll find it in pass coverage. Tight ends and running backs have hammered the Browns the last two seasons in the passing game, a red flag that needs to be addressed in training camp.

Next: Strengthening the weakest area: The secondary.

Q&A Part 1 (continued)

The quarterbacks and running backs . . .

Why are most pundits and fans so head-over-heels with Tyrod Taylor?

Probably because he is the best quarterback this club has had since, well, since they reentered the National Football League in 1999. In a relative sense, that is, considering just about everyone else who has quarterbacked this team over the last 19 seasons has mediocre at best.

There is nothing spectacular Taylor, who threw just 14 touchdown passes for Buffalo last season and only 51 in three seasons with the Bills. His value to the Cleveland value lies in his ability to, as the coaches like to say, protect the football.

The 6-1 Taylor has thrown only 16 interceptions in 774 pass attempts in those three seasons. Prolific, no. Not even close. Protective? One of the best in the NFL. He rarely makes mistakes.

About the only negative with that style of play is Taylor’s inability to avoid sacks, having been dropped 124 times with Buffalo. And the Browns’ pass protection might be the weakest aspect of the offense.

He will not win games with his arm. He will win them with his head and the ability to keep defenses honest as a potential runner in a run/pass option scheme. He will make the Browns something they haven’t been on offense in many seasons – competitive on that side of the ball.

He is not a great quarterback. He is barely a good one. But he arrives in Cleveland as the perfect quarterback to shepherd this joke of a franchise out of the morass it has occupied for nearly two decades.

He gives them respectability and provides a gravitas that should serve as a great learning experience for Baker Mayfield as he acclimates to the NFL.

So is Mayfield pretty much ensconced as Taylor’s backup?

Sure looks that way with coach Hue Jackson not budging from his stance of anointing the veteran as his starting quarterback. The brash rookie will have to wait his turn.

Unless he has the kind of sensational rookie training camp Russell Wilson had with the Seattle Seahawks on 2012 and forces Jackson to name him the starter, the overall No. 1 pick in the draft earlier this year will be a spectator this season.

He’ll get some reps in exhibition games just to get his NFL feet dampened, but they will dry off during the regular season.

What about Drew Stanton?

The 10-year veteran most likely is there to help Mayfield with his transition to the pro game. Be there when the kid has questions. Be a sounding board.

Now the running backs. Is it too optimistic to call this corps one of the strongest the Browns have had in years?

Absolutely not. Carlos Hyde, Nick Chubb and Duke Johnson Jr. give the Browns easily the most versatile set of backs in not only the division, but arguably the conference, if not the league.

That’s a bit hyperbolic.

Not really when you break it down. Let’s start with Hyde, a four-year veteran who put up some decent numbers with San Francisco the last two seasons. He is a legitimate 1,000-yard thread on the ground with a nose for the end zone and proved last season he could catch the football with 59 recep4tions.

The former Ohio State star, only 27 years old, most likely will open up as the No.  1 back after offensive coordinator Todd Haley fiddles with his rotations during training camp.

Johnson is the Swiss Army knife of the backfield. He is a slashing runner with great outside speed, owns the best pair of pass-catching hands on the team and is probably the most difficult runner to bring down in the open field.

The best position for Johnson to play, as former Cleveland GM Ernie Accorsi liked to say about Eric Metcalf, all those years ago is “just get him the ball.”

Chubb is the unknown quantity, but if he is anywhere like he was in three of his fours seasons with the University of Georgia, he will be a dynamite addition to the Cleveland backfield.

The rock-solid 5-11, 230-pounder (he has squatted 600 pounds) averaged more than 100 yards a game on the ground in 47 games for the Bulldogs. What kept him from putting up more spectacular numbers was a devastating injury (he tore three of the four ligaments in his left knee) midway through his sophomore season.

While it’s still too early to say, there is a good chance Chubb could supplant Hyde as the No. 1 back before the season und. The only negative with the kid is whether he can be effective in the pass game.

The Bulldogs did not require their running backs to catch the football, Chubb gathering in only 31passes in his four years. That will be the X factor as training camp commences later this month.

Any way you slice it, the Browns’ offensive backfield this season is a coordinator’s dream.

Next: The defense

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Questions seeking answers Part 1

 For the offense . . .

Who will replace Joe Thomas at offensive left tackle?

Whoever wins this battle will be the ultimate loser. Why? How do you adequately replace a Hall of Famer? You don’t. No matter how he does, the winner will always be held to a standard impossible to reach because of his predecessor.

The combatants: Shon Coleman, Austin Corbett, Desmond Harrison, Greg Robinson and maybe, just maybe, Joel Bitonio.

Coleman, who played right tackle in mediocre fashion last season, should win the job, mainly because he returns to his more natural position. Corbett, the rookie second-round pick, played the position in college and is a long shot because he doesn’t have the heft to play there in the National Football League.

Harrison is strictly a project and Robinson, a major disappointment since being the second overall selection in the 2014 college draft, also belongs in the long shot category. That’s where Bitonio enters the picture. If no one steps up and takes command, the coaching staff could use him as a fallback solution.

Arguably the best offensive lineman with Thomas’ retirement, the left guard played left tackle in college just ahead of Corbett at Nevada. It would be easy to move him over to tackle and slip Corbett in at guard. Or would it?

Offensive line coach Bob Wylie disagrees. “(Bitonio) is an elite guard,” he says, “one of the top four or five in the league. You put him tackle and he becomes what . . . just a tackle.”

Not really, He becomes your best bet at left tackle, a position he couldn’t play with the Browns coming out of college because Thomas was already there. And Corbett could duplicate what Bitonio did coming out of school by moving to guard.

It might not happen coming out of training camp because the coaching staff is dead set on Coleman winning the job, but it won’t take long to discover the error of their ways and Bitonio very likely will eventually wind up protecting the quarterback’s blind side.

The rest of the line is set with JC Tretter at center, Kevin Zeitler at right guard and newcomer Chris Hubbard at right tackle.

What about Tretter? He played well in the ground game, but had problems in pass protection. Austin Reiter played well at the pivot, but couldn’t stay healthy.

And that’s the problem. Tretter has a larger contract and played every snap last season after some injury-riddled seasons. The job is Tretter’s. Reiter provides solid depth. Corbett can also play center if needed

Speaking of depth, who provides it elsewhere along the line?

Robinson and Harrison will likely stick around as insurance at tackle, along with Spencer Drango at guard and Reiter.

It all sounds like a stronger line with regard to the running game, right?

Definitely and with Todd Haley on board as offensive coordinator, count on the Cleveland infantry game to better balance the offense, which passed the football nearly two-thirds of the time under head coach/offensive coordinator Hue Jackson the last two seasons.

Also count on better production with newcomers Carlos Hyde and rookie Nick Chubb running behind that line. Both are churners and north/south runners who get to the line of scrimmage quickly and combine brute strength with that quickness.

What about the passing game?

The need to drop back into pass protection lessens significantly, providing, of course, the ground game clicks. It is much harder to protect the quarterback than it is aggressively attack the opponent on the ground.

Ideally, the run/pass ratio of a good offense, even in today’s pass-happy NFL, is in the 50/50 neighborhood, a neighborhood Jackson failed to visit in spectacular fashion the last two seasons. It won’t take Haley long to balance that scale.

How healthy is the passing game?

As healthy as it has been in many, many seasons. The Browns had, not even arguably, the worst set of receivers in the league for the last several seasons. When a running back is your top receiver, you have problems.

What is the difference?

A clean Josh Gordon and Jarvis Landry, one of the best possession receivers in the league, that’s what. If the spectacular Gordon remains free of his off-the-field problems, and Landry continues his 100-catch-a-season pace, that right there is scary enough.

Anything else?

Lots of ifs. Corey Coleman faces a make-or-break season, having failed to live up to his first-round draft status in his first two seasons. Hopefully he has learned to run the route tree by now and catches the ball with his hands.

Rookie Antonio Callaway’s off the-field problems cost him a shot at being taken in the first round of the draft and General Manager John Dorsey is clearly gambling the kid has straightened out his life. If so, he’s got a shot at jettisoning Coleman.

Returnees Ricardo Louis and Rashard Higgins are as good as gone with veteran Jeff Janis and late-round pick Damion Ratley on the cusp if Coleman somehow discovers how to play wide receiver in the NFL.

Next: Breaking down the quarterbacks and running backs.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

The window is opening

It has been nearly a generation since the National Football League discovered the errors of its ways when it allowed Art Modell to relocate his Cleveland Browns to Baltimore following the 1995 season.

In the 19 seasons since the grand return of professional football to northeast Ohio in 1999 of what once was considered one of the greatest and strongest NFL fan bases and franchises, Cleveland Browns football has become a national joke.

Those fans have been subjected to the most embarrassing exhibition of football this side of the amateur ranks. The definition of bad football took on a whole new meaning when the new Browns played.

Over those 19 seasons, only the faces changed. The miserable results season after season after season was enough to erode the fan base to the point where it was no longer fashionable to be seen at a Browns game.

The terrific new stadium that replaced the old relic Municipal Stadium was supposed to be a place of joy and happiness in the final four months of the year. Football was back. Instead, it became the aptly named Factory of Sadness.

Fifteen times the Browns landed in the division basement, taking up what has been laughingly referred to as permanent residence. Picking the Browns to finish there became the easiest pre-season prediction.

Since the return, Cleveland has racked up two winning seasons – 9-7 in 2002 and 10-6 five years later – and qualified for the playoffs just once, losing the 2002 wild card game in agonizing style against Pittsburgh after blowing a sizable lead.

Piling on, the Browns have played 304 regular-season games since 1999, winning 88. That’s right, 88 victories in 19 seasons, a winning percentage of .28947368.

To put that in perspective, it took Pittsburgh only nine seasons since 1999 to win 88 games. More perspective: The Steelers have won 85 games the last eight seasons, during which the Browns check in with 29, including the embarrassing 1-31 under Hue Jackson the last two miserable campaigns.

Last season’s ultra-embarrassing 0-16 record was good enough to warrant Jackson’s return. That’s Cleveland Browns football for you. 

In those 19 seasons, coaches, general managers and players responsible for all that misery have come and gone. Only the uniform changed. And not necessarily for the better.

That bright light of hope that shone brightly before every season turned out to be, well, you know what it’s been proverbially. It is suffering, NFL style, at its best. Or worst.

But all that is about to change. For the first time in nearly two decades, that beacon of hope is more this season than just a symbol. It is a genuine feeling that a window of opportunity has been found and is beginning to nudge open.

New General Manager John Dorsey has given this heretofore moribund and dysfunctional franchise more than just a nudge. His reshaping the roster – it’s really more of a massive massage – will feel more like a jolt to the rest of not just the AFC North, but the rest of the league.

For the first time in three decades – or since the Bernie Kosar era – there is a legitimate feeling that this finally, finally, will be when Cleveland’s football sleeping giant not only stirs, but awakens.

In the next few days, I’ll list more than two dozen questions with regard to the 2018 Browns and the direction they are headed as they ramp up for training camp on July 26 in Berea.

Hopefully, the answers to these questions, as I see them, will unlock what is now a team of mystery, one loaded with way more talent than their predecessors of the last 19 seasons.

A brand new era of professional football is about to begin in Cleveland, the one Browns fans have been waiting and yearning for for the last 19 years.