It’s time to define what "one piece away" means. The phrase is used far too often when describing the Cleveland Browns’ status leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft (perhaps because it’s been so long since anyone’s watched the team play?). Some teams have certainly been "one piece away" in the past, and they look nothing like the 2014 Cleveland Browns.
More often than not, the phrase is associated with being either one piece away from competing, presumably for the title. Teams typically have to make the playoffs to compete for the championship, correct?
Accordingly, it would mean that after acquiring this missing piece that particular team would then make the playoffs. Additionally, as they’re only "one" piece away, they must already have a team loaded with talent or other "pieces."
With the above requisite particulars in mind, several teams in recent history fit the mold for being only one piece away heading into a draft. Unfortunately, the Browns do not come to mind.
Some who advocate the Browns’ selection of a QB in the first round of this year’s NFL Draft point to Pittsburgh the Pittsburgh Steelers of 2004 (the Blake Bortles-Ben Roethlisberger comparisons has been exhausted). An uncharacteristic 2003 regular season record of 6-10 (only two wins more than the Browns of 2013!) led to the Steelers capturing the number 11 pick in the spring’s NFL Draft. Subsequently, they selected Big Ben and the rest is history.
It seems like every radio show in Cleveland has someone who believes the Browns are just "one pick away" from competing, or "aren’t far from contending." Like the Steelers of 2004?
Not so much. While Pittsburgh had missed the playoffs and uncharacteristically lost 10 games the season before he was drafted, Roethlisberger was added to a Steeler team that had averaged 9.5 wins per season from 1999-2002. This included two consecutive playoff appearances in the two seasons preceding 2003. Big Ben was selected by a team that finished 10–5–1 only 15 months before his draft day.
One piece away? There’s probably no such thing. But, if there is, history provides far better examples of teams who come closer to that definition (right here in the AFC North) than today’s Cleveland Browns.
In 2007, the Baltimore Ravens went 5-11. In the aftermath, Brian Billick was fired and John Harbaugh became the new head coach. After acquiring several free agents, Pro Bowler Brendon Ayanbadejo among them, the Ravens selected future Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco and future Pro Bowler Ray Rice in the 2008 NFL Draft. They went 11-5 that season, losing in the Conference Championship.
Several factions that cover the browns would like to believe that the Browns are just two draftees away from "competing." Unlike the 2014 Browns, Flacco and company were added to a core group that had won the division only one calendar year before their arrival, with a 13-3 record in 2006 (averaging 9.5 wins over the four year span leading up to 2007).
Unlike the Steelers and Ravens in the draft years described above, the Browns are 11 years removed from their last playoff appearance. They didn’t just miss one post-season, and need to reload at one position. They have several needs. They’re in a rebuild, something completely different than aforementioned teams that require "one piece" to be back in contention.
Looking for teams that are perhaps a draft selection away from contending? While they’re only two or three spots away from the Browns in this draft, Atlanta and Houston more so resemble the 2004 Steelers and 2008 Ravens situations (13 and 12 win teams, respectively, that made it to at least the divisional playoffs in 2012).
Many pundits, like those on ESPN 850’s The Really Big Show, tout that Johnny Manziel or another messianic draft prospect is all the Browns need to compete in the division.
It’d be nice if one could argue that the Browns are analogous to the 1998 Indianapolis Colts or 2011 Carolina Panthers teams whose fates were also turned around by two transcendental talents in Peyton Manning and Cam Newton, respectively. But even those two quarterbacks were added to rosters that had averaged more than 7 wins per year in the 4 seasons leading up to their selection (with at least one playoff appearance in that time).
Conversely, the Browns haven’t won more than 5 games in the last 4 seasons, with zero playoff appearances. The addition of a top quarterback prospect (which many are skeptical as to whether there’s a viable one in this draft) to the current situation in Cleveland would be more reminiscent to the 2013 Buffalo Bills’ selection of E.J. Manuel in 2013 after averaging 5.5 wins in the four previous years.
Whether selecting a QB like Bortles, Teddy Bridgewater, or Manziel at number 4 overall can help a fledgling team like the Cleveland, immediately or down the road, is yet to be seen. One thing’s for certain, these Browns are not "just one piece away from competing."