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The only 'same old Browns' thing about 2014 is the losing

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Jason Miller

Losing sucks.

And yet it's the most prominent thing every single Cleveland Browns coaching staff has had in common since expansion.

So then, sitting at an all-too-familiar losing record of 1-2 and both losses coming in division, why has this team felt so different during the last three weeks of football? With the exception of the final scores and two heartbreaking closing moments, this team has appeared to be anything but the "same old Browns."

On the surface, even losing close games seems to be something these Browns share with those of previous seasons. Despite a combined record of 19-48 from 2010 to now, Cleveland has never averaged a point differential greater than a single possession going against them. However, almost no teams have in the NFL. It speaks to the league's parity. In that same time period, only about four teams per season average a negative point differential larger than a touchdown. The Browns were usually on the cusp of that mark, though still among the bottom of the barrel.

But again, even by that measure, this year has been different.

At the end of the day, does it even matter that it has felt differently for the first 58 minutes when the game is still lost in the final two?

So what if the big fat "L" is the only thing this team has in common with the "same old Browns." As head coach Mike Pettine himself admitted, this is a pass/fail league. By that standard, the "L" is the only thing that matters.

He's not wrong, but it's important to keep that analysis within the context of which it was said. Pettine and the Browns have a goal every week, the same goal as the other 31 teams in the NFL: win. They have failed to reach that goal in two out of the last three outings. There are no moral victories to find by that measure, nor should there be.

This we already knew. But it doesn't answer the question at hand here: Why then have the last three weeks still not felt like the "same old Browns" ?

There is an answer. And depending on your perspective, it can be either simple or complex.

Here's the short version: This team is different.

More specifically, this team has at least been different in the first three games. Albeit a very small sample size, the 2014 Browns have had very little in common with the teams that have come before it.

It wasn't just a gut feeling, it's been statistically evident.

The Quarterback

Given the ever-increasing importance of the position in the NFL, when looking to figure out what's so different about a team from year-to-year, QB is a good place to start.

There's a reason Brian Hoyer is the only quarterback to lead the Browns to a winning record in games that he played the majority of the time at quarterback, 3-2, from the entire expansion era.

As stated above, the sample size is incredibly small. But it's also all we have to analyze thus far.

Based on those five games, Hoyer has played fairly well, if not quite good at times. And since his first outing last season against the Vikings where he tossed his only three interceptions in a Browns uniform, he's been surprisingly consistent and has yet to have a complete meltdown.

In fact, he's not turning the ball over at all, something that cannot be underestimated with respect to the offense's success. Call it merely "game managing" if you wish, but Hoyer has largely been doing what's asked of him in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme, and is still notching a 97.5 passer rating.

Not throwing picks is an important part of that. When you consider the sheer numbers, Hoyer's gone 156 pass attempts without an interception, it's even more impressive. Among active quarterbacks, this puts him in elite company, behind only one other player, his former mentor, Tom Brady.

While Hoyer falls to the middle of the league in passing yards per game this season, it's important to keep in mind that he's playing without the explosive threat of Josh Gordon and a banged-up Jordan Cameron.

When we compare Hoyer to the Browns' QBs that came before him, it suddenly becomes abundantly clear why the last three weeks have felt so different.

Statistics based on totals while with the Browns, via Pro-Football-Reference.com:

QB ATT CMP YDS TD INT RTG
Derek Anderson 1109 587 7083 46 45 69.7
Brady Quinn 353 184 1902 10 9 66.8
Colt McCoy 702 409 4388 21 20 74.8
Jason Campbell 317 180 2015 11 8 76.9
Brandon Weeden 784 483 5116 23 26 71.8
Brian Hoyer 191 118 1331 8 3 90.0

The Defense

It's not all good news.

The Browns' defense is different than prior recent years as well. The problem is that they've gone in the wrong direction, at least statistically speaking so far.

Now, this is based on an incredibly small sample size too, and it's a sample that happens to contain only games against very good offensive opponents this season.

It's important to note just how productive Pittsburgh (4th in total offense), New Orleans (3rd), and Baltimore (9th) have been in 2014. Granted, with only three games to go off of, one could argue, at the very least, 1/3rd of that success can be attributed to playing against Cleveland.

Regardless of whether the chicken or egg came first, this Browns defense is posting remarkably bad numbers almost completely across the board, even when compared to the double-digit loss teams from before. While it is reasonable to acknowledge that these numbers should balance out over the course of the rest of the season, the play on this side of the ball has not inspired much confidence.

Cleveland's all-pro playmakers need to step up. Joe Haden was made one of the highest-paid CBs in the league over the summer because he'd earned it. His regressed play so far this year, however, has many scratching their heads. We know just how talented he is, but he's been blown up by just as talented players on offense, such as Antonio Brown, Jimmy Graham, and Steve Smith Sr. According to Pro Football Focus, Haden has the league-high passer rating against, and according to Football Outsiders, the Browns are dead last against #1 WRs.

The rush defense leaves a lot to be desired as well, currently ranked in the bottom five. The front seven, which on paper looks stacked, has been severely underperforming well-below what one would expect from a unit this deep.

Again, the sample size is small, but simply put, the defense has never recently been this bad statistically:

YEAR RANK YD/G PASS RUSH SACK INT PT DIF TO
2014 31 425.7 272.0 153.7 1.66 1 -1 +4
2013 9 332.4 221.1 111.3 2.5 0.87 -6.1 -8
2012 23 363.8 245.2 118.6 2.37 1.06 -4.1 +3
2011 10 332.4 184.9 147.4 2 0.56 -5.6 +1
2010 22 350.1 220.7 129.4 1.81 1.19 -3.8 -1

The Exceptions

There are two categories in the above chart that are exceptions to what is otherwise a universal decline.

Both of them are things that the offense and defense have an equal part in. And both were already, to some extent, mentioned in this article.

Those categories are point differential (PT DIF) and turnover ratio (TO).

When you compare how Cleveland has performed in these two areas thus far this season compared to previous years, it also illustrates again just how unlike the "same old Browns" this 2014 team has been.

The games are measurably closer.

And in just three weeks the team has created the largest positive turnover ratio they've had in a long time. Based on how well the offense has protected the ball, there's reason to believe more games should allow the Browns to build on it. Although it's not the be-all and end-all stat, winning the turnover battle is an extremely important key to success in the NFL.

The team still needs to learn how to translate these positives into actual wins. They have to learn how to maintain the lead when they've got it and finish games out strong.

They should be capable of doing that. There are promising young players on this team as well as strong veteran leaders. They, especially the coaches and vets on defense, have to utilize this bye week to fix their issues and play up to their talent level.

We can compare numbers all day, but the truth is, Pettine was right about this league. It's pass/fail and there's only going to be one way to change the narrative away from "same old Browns."

They have to turn the L's into W's.