For about as long as any of us can remember, the constant state-of-being for the Browns’ fan involves lamenting the putrid product existing on the field while casting a glance longingly into the future for the time when the non-stop losing will finally end. Unfortunately, that elusive time has been forever promised but never delivered (save for 2002 & 2007) going all the way back to the terrible year of 1995, when our beloved team was ripped away from the city. While it may be eyeroll-inducing to say so now, it still must be said: it actually IS different this time around.
Now surely the jinx-monsters will find that statement (and the ensuing analysis) to be delicious, but I don’t care. The campaign to bottom-out so hard (which wasn’t all that far from where we were to begin with) has been completed. As with the Houston Astros in MLB or the Philadelphia 76ers in the NBA, we’ve endured historic losing (like, even more so than usual for us) in order to come out on the other side with an influx of top-notch talent for the ultimate purpose of going on a serious run. We are officially on that other side.
For the better part of the entire last generation, the Browns have been mired in a perpetual state of unsightliness ranging from terrible to mediocre depending on the year. What never ended up happening was a turning-of-the-corner allowing our lowly franchise to ascend to a more respectable place in the NFL. We’ve been bad for a long time is what I’m saying (not that you are unaware of this).
However these last few years were even beyond that, and I don’t just mean the previous three. For some perspective of how bad we’ve been and for how long, let us once again enjoy this tremendous piece or Cleveland sports’ lore given to us by the inimitable Mike Polk, with the unofficial anthem for Browns’ football:
(Incidentally, perhaps the thing I love most about this is the wearing of the Ryan Pontbriand jersey. Pontbriand of course was our long snapper for several years, and very likely Butch Davis’ best draft pick).
Now everything said here - albeit in rage and frustration - is absolutely justified. The day it was recorded was November 6th, 2011. On that day we lost to the Houston Texans 30-12 (and it wasn’t actually that close). Of course, it wasn’t about that day; the inspiration behind the video sprung about due to a long spell of terrible play. In the 104 games prior to that video being made (about six and a half seasons) the Browns’ record was 37-67. That’s pretty bad. However, our record in the 104 games since the video was made is 21-83 (source)
As pointed out in the video, it’s almost mathematically impossible for us to have been as bad as we have been for as long as we have been, but we are special. In a league designed for parity we have managed to remain at the bottom of the heap regardless of the schedule or draft advantages. None of it has mattered, we’ve just been terrible.
A New Approach
Following the 2015 season in which Cleveland tied a team-worst record (3-13), the decision was made by the powers-that-be to try something radically different. After firing former GM Ray Farmer and replacing him with new Executive Director of Football Operations Sashi Brown, the Browns went into the 2016 offseason with a healthy supply of draft picks and cap space. Also added into the mix was a new Chief Strategy Officer Paul DePodesta, who had enjoyed a successful MLB career employing a strategy of building baseball teams that was actually depicted in the movie Money Ball.
Instead of spending the lavish resources we had at our disposal, we charted a different course. With the second pick overall we were in a position to rebuild the conventional way, and were poised to select either Jared Goff or Carson Wentz with the #2 overall selection. Instead we traded the pick to the Philadelphia Eagles, a move which caused a great deal of consternation among Cleveland faithful at the time (and given Wentz’ success at the pro level, ever since).
That move turned out to be the catalyst for the eventual total overhaul of not just the roster but the entire team identity. Coinciding with the influx of young talent was the divestment of several team veterans whose rookie deals had ended. The result was fairly predictable: a 1-15 2016 campaign giving us the #1 pick in the 2017 draft. It wasn’t our only first rounder though, as we possessed both the #1 and the #12 overall. The former was spent on Myles Garrett, soon-to-be All-World pass-rushing stud out of Texas A&M. With the other, we continued the process of trading down to gather more picks (while passing up another QB - Houston’s Deshaun Watson).
For the 2nd year in a row, we pretty much let just about all of our veterans whose contracts had expired walk without much protest. Notable exceptions were Joel Bitonio and Christian Kirksey. Still, we made the decision to supplant veterans with youth, and tripled-down on this at the quarterback position, where heading into last season none on the active roster had ever even won a single game.
Other things happened along the way. Sashi Brown worked his trade-talent and maneuvered some nice deals for Cleveland, such as the acquisition (and subsequent extension) of linebacker Jamie Collins from the Patriots. Or turning the single first rounder from 2016 into four eventual first round picks over two years. He also actually got Carolina to give up a 4th rounder for a punter. However the mother of all trade-steals he pulled off while here involved the Brock Osweiler deal with the Houston Texans. If you don’t recall that gem, that’s where we gave up a 4th rounder, and in return got a 2nd, and 6th, and Osweiler. That 2nd rounder eventually turned into Nick Chubb.
Impressive as all that was, it was the trade that didn’t happen that seems to have been Brown’s ultimate undoing. Cleveland was unable to consummate a trade with the Bengals on the day of the deadline last year which reportedly would have sent A.J. McCarron here in exchange for 2nd & 3rd rounder. Some people continue to speculate that it was a sabotage by Brown, but either way this was the apparent impetus for his removal from the position after less than two years on the job.
Still, the approach Brown had undertaken, while leading directly to the most painful stretch of football the world has ever seen, ended up producing a slew of high-caliber draft selections in 2016 and 2017 while also pushing a boatload of picks and an absurd amount of salary cap space into the QB-heavy offseason of 2018. By then, the time for saving was over and the time for cashing-in was at hand.
The Football Guy
I’m leaving quite a bit of the Sashi Brown departure saga out of this, especially the role Hue Jackson played in it. Bottom line, and indeed the company line soon became that whatever problems we had experienced up to that point were all the fault of Brown and now we were going to fix it with the person of John Dorsey. Now I don’t even know if those making the claim believe it (as it’s certainly not true) but I also don’t care - it’s the line they decided to go with.
Those that frequent the august halls of this blog typically pause at this point to consider the rightness or wrongness of it all, but at this particular point in time it’s not my focus. Even if it was totally wrong, it’s still a positive development that upon Dorsey’s arrival, for seemingly the first time in forever, the entire organization appeared to be singing the same tune. Even if the song is stupid, that’s an important thing to be in harmony. Disunity, dissension among the ranks, and general lack of agreement has as much or more than any other factor hurt this franchise going back even further than the Factory of Sadness video. Some unity was welcome.
Clearly, John Dorsey’s approach differed greatly from that of Brown. He wasn’t terribly interested in building up more draft capital or amassing more cap space. He didn’t come here to save, he came here to spend. Thus, offseason 2018 was about utilizing all those resources acquired under Brown’s stewardship. It may seem unfair that he himself wasn’t able to enjoy the fruit of his diligent adherence to the plan (that everyone agreed to at the outset btw), but then again life isn’t fair - and if anybody can understand that it’s we Browns’ fans who are still here after all that has happened up until now.
Dorsey spent and spent hard, acquiring and then extending the contract of wide receiver Jarvis Landry, spending a 3rd rounder (and $15m) on quarterback Tyrod Taylor, and getting a new Free safety in the person of Demarious Randall from Green Bay - and all this happened in one day before the free agency period even got started. In fact Trade Friday is one of the most unique offseason days I can remember in over twenty-five years of Browns’ fandom, and really set the tone for the rest of the offseason.
By the time we got to the draft, the formerly mentioned strategy of pushing off 1st rounders into the next season came to an end. As well as did our penchant (which way predated Sashi) of NEVER taking a QB higher than pick #22. Throw in another weird aversion the team seemed to have for the longest time of avoiding Ohio State players, and all of this was vanquished within the first four picks, selecting quarterback Baker Mayfield and cornerback Denzel Ward with the 1 and 4, respectively. Bet-hedging was over, it was now time to swing for the fences.
This continued throughout the rest of the draft, and by the time it was done we had finally and definitively utilized all the capital we have spent the last several years building up. The result is a roster that is younger, more talented, and deeper than it has been in many years (possibly going all the way back to ‘95).
It goes without saying (especially if you are a fan of this team) that just because you draft someone with a high draft pick that doesn’t necessarily mean that player is going to pan out (I’d list examples here but I don’t have to - you already know them). At the same time, when at team has this many high-round picks amassed in a relatively short amount of time it’s bound to lead somewhere good, even if it takes a bit to get there.
In reviewing our roster, and accounting for players that have either been drafted (the overwhelming majority) or acquired via trade/free agency, Cleveland has a whopping twenty-two with a third round pedigree or better. That is a lot of quality swings at the pinata, and while of course it is prudent to observe the universally recognized three year rule with respect to grading/projecting players or classes, the early returns on many of these guys look very, very promising.
Are all of them going to work out? Almost certainly not, but the whole thrust of the initial strategy was about saturation of the roster with these high-round draft picks/acquired players, driving up the overall level of play and improving the competition at each of the position groups. Group-by-group, this entire roster has both talent and depth the likes of which we never fully formed during the mediocre days of going 4-12 and 5-11 every year. The concerted effort to bottom totally out has yield an influx of fresh blood that is about to surprise a great many that haven’t been watching this franchise beyond the box scores.
At Quarterback, we are better situated than we have been since arguably the days of Bernie & Vinny (and at very least the days of Couch & Holcomb). Everybody but everybody (except me) expects Tyrod Taylor to start the season, which would represent a true quality starting signal caller the likes of which we haven’t seen since maybe the Jeff Garcia days. If he isn’t starting (as only the truly crazy among us have proffered) that means the rookie Mayfield has beaten him out because his performance merited it. With baseline reasonable expectations, this is a QB room that is already more competent and promising than any in recent memory.
While protecting the passer won’t be as easy this year with the loss of first-ballot Hall of Famer Joe Thomas, the offensive line nevertheless should be adequate at worst, and very good at best. A unit that can keep either Taylor or Mayfield upright while opening holes for our extremely talented stable of running backs is a pretty important piece of the success model. Both Brown and Dorsey expended big resources on this unit which is both good and deep.
The third most crucial element after having a passer and protecting the passer is getting pressure on the opposing passer. On that front, the Browns have a pair of bookend DE’s in the aforementioned Garrett and Emmanuel Ogbah that should get fans plenty excited for 2018. Both had injuries at opposite times last year and therefore were not on the field together very much. If that changes, it means serious trouble for opposing offenses and that’s buttressed by the interior presence of Larry Ogunjobi and Caleb Brantley (among others).
In addition to having quality pieces at those most important of the football functions, the positions of greatest trouble for us last year (WR & DB) were attacked with gusto this offseason. Even with the perpetual uncertainty of Josh Gordon, the addition of Landry shores up a group that was genuinely horrifying last year, and did no favors to erstwhile punching-bag Deshone Kizer. Even if Corey Coleman breaks his hand for a third year, the group is improved, and shouldn’t be anywhere close to the liability it was in 2017.
Likewise, the addition of Randall and the normalization-of-position for Jabrill Peppers should help to assuage our terrible back-end problems last year. That’s combined with the complete overhaul of the CB position, which still may be in for some additions if media reports are to be taken seriously. If we can get to a point where QB’s aren’t just easily picking us apart every single game, and our DB’s can maintain some semblance of coverage ability, it should allow for our talented pass rushers to get home more frequently.
Where The Most Improvement Is Needed
Unfortunately for coach Hue Jackson, with Sashi Brown’s ouster the full weight of the ominous 1-31 record had over these last two years falls squarely on his shoulders. To be sure, he is deserving of much in the way of blame for how much of that has happened. His offensive play calling and (especially) in-game management has left much to be desired. That said, he also evidently has a powerful bond with much of the roster he has had a big hand in developing. For whatever it’s worth, in all of those losses in ‘16 & ‘17, the team has never quit on him. Perhaps for that reason, Jimmy Haslam didn’t either.
As a result, Jackson enters 2018 as coach of the Browns for a third year in a row. How big is that? Well the last time the Browns had a coach reach his third season, it was Romeo Crennell in 2007. You’ll recall, that was the last time we were close to anything respectable, finishing 10-6 and just missing the playoffs. Since then our best effort was 7-9 in 2014, but even that year needs something of an asterisk. We lost the final five games, which, combined with the three ensuing years puts our record at 4-49 over those last 53 games.
More importantly, a good deal of his responsibilities should be mitigated by the presence of new offensive coordinator Todd Haley, who came over from Pittsburgh during the offseason and has already been assigned the task of running the offense. This should (hopefully) free up Coach Hue to focus on the game-management aspect of football, while also allowing him to have more time to do what he apparently does very well in connecting with the players.
While my impulse is to conclude that he’s just not good (and never will be) as a coach, an offseason of reflection and contemplation affords me the opportunity to give him the benefit of the doubt on a lot of what has happened these last two season. Suffice it to say, if we win enough games this year nobody will remember or care about the last two.
It is therefore with a stern recognizance that the plane is always about to crash into the side of the mountain that I nevertheless look upon 2018 with a sense of expectation that is not out of bounds anymore. Not this year. Finally, we are about to turn that corner, and depending on some things (such as the rapidity of Mayfield’s development) there’s no reason not to think big.
How Many Games Will Cleveland Win This Season?
This poll is closed
Less than 4
About 4 to 6
About 6 to 8
Over 9 (winning season!)