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In today's edition of "The Sunday Five," we take a look at four reasons to be optimistic that the Cleveland Browns can rebound from their 0-4 start to finish the season out strong.
Heading into Sunday, the Cleveland Browns are the only team in the NFL guaranteed to be without a win. In his second season, Pat Shurmur's team has gotten off to an 0-4 start. Even amidst the years of struggles that Browns fans have endured, besides Eric Mangini's magical finish the one year, fans are used to the team hovering near .500 for the first several weeks, only to tank completely in the second half of the season. Even last year, the Browns were 2-2 after four games under Shurmur, and 3-3 after six games. Did this team take a step back in Shurmur's second year, despite all of the talent added in the offseason? I don't think so. I look at ten day stretches as being another "bye week" for a team. In the next four bullet points, let's take a look at four reasons to be optimistic that the Browns will rebound in the coming weeks and finish the season out strong.
The first reason: CB Joe Haden. The team's best performance of the season defensively came in Week 1 against the Philadelphia Eagles. In Week 2, Haden began serving his four-game suspension. He will miss next week's game against the Giants, but he'll be back in Week 6 against the Bengals. Getting the rest of the defensive backs back to their natural positions will be huge. Even though we saw Dimitri Patterson with tight coverage against Anquan Boldin a week ago, we saw Boldin win the matchup almost every time. It's no secret that Patterson goes from average at cornerback to "superstar" when he is a nickel back. Everything just seems to fall into place. The Browns could even toy around with the long-rumored idea of putting Sheldon Brown at safety if they really wanted to.
The second reason: DT Phil Taylor and LB Scott Fujita. This actually highlights the return of one player and the removal of another. Fujita met with Roger Goodell on Friday to make his case. According to ESPN, Goodell is expected to make a ruling this week.
Goodell is expected to announce by Monday or Tuesday what punishment -- if any -- should be imposed on Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith, Anthony Hargrove and Fujita, according to two sources. If Goodell imposes suspensions again, a source said it's his understanding they will not take effect until the players have exhausted their rights to appeals, though nobody is certain who is responsible for hearing the initial appeal.
If Fujita is suspended, it would gives the returning James-Michael Johnson a chance to make showcase his talent. That could possibly mean better pursuit to ballcarriers and better coverage downfield. The earliest that Taylor can return is October 21 against the Colts, and I have a sneaking suspicion that he'll return sooner rather than later. Don't underestimate the value the big-bodied Taylor brings to the defense -- remember, he was the team's top draft pick in 2011.
The third reason: the Browns' offense looks so much more threatening than it was a year ago. For anyone who is still calling for Colt McCoy...well, I'll just laugh and chalk it up to the fact that you didn't pay attention to or don't remember a single game in 2011. We've seen progress from Brandon Weeden each week. Two of my biggest knocks on him in the preseason was that he didn't seem comfortable stepping up in the pocket, and that he was a dead duck any time he tried to be mobile. He has already changed my tune on both matters, and we're only four weeks into the season. Weeden even connected on a deep ball to Greg Little against Baltimore, and he had another nice long ball that was dropped.
The next step is to find a way to script the offense better in the first quarter. This was something the previous regime, under Brian Daboll, excelled at. It's been terrible under Pat Shurmur and Brad Childress. Last year, the Browns scored 26 points all season in the first quarter, an average of 1.6 points. This year, the Browns have just 6 first quarter points, an average of 1.5 points. When that gets better, the defense won't face as much pressure, and we'll see the Browns start coming away with big victories, even against contending teams.
Finally, we need to see a personnel change with Joshua Cribbs. We saw the Browns had every intention of finally playing Cribbs on offense against the Ravens (with Mohamed Massaquoi out), but he was knocked out with a concussion early. Brandon Weeden does a good job throwing the ball over the linebackers to his receivers down the field, but the receiver needs to have good hands to go up and get the ball. Cribbs can do that. Additionally, even though I'm still supportive of Cribbs' return abilities, he doesn't get as good of blocks as he did during the Brad Seeley era. What the Browns need is someone with some more speed who can outrun the coverage on punt returns, and that guy is Travis Benjamin. His 40-yard return against the Ravens got the Browns back in the game without taking up much clock. That is an asset the Browns used to rely on, and they can do it again with Benjamin.