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Cleveland Browns Season Preview 2010
Jeff Risdon. 30th August, 2010 - 4:59 pm

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2009 record: 5-11

Key Stats:


Turnover Ratio: -12

Sack Differential: +10

Point Differential: -130

Coming In: QB Jake Delhomme, LB Chris Gocong, CB Sheldon Brown, RB Peyton Hillis, QB Seneca Wallace, LB Scott Fujita, TE Benjamin Watson, TE Alex Smith, T Tony Pashos

Going Out: QB Derek Anderson, QB Brady Quinn, G Ryan Tucker, WR David Patten, S Brodney Pool, G Rex Hadnot, RB Jamal Lewis, LB Kamerion Wimbley, DT Corey Williams, C Hank Fraley

Key Rookies: CB Joe Haden, S TJ Ward, RB Montario Hardesty, G Shaun Lauvao

5 Reasons For Optimism

1. The rushing offense. The 4-game winning streak at the end of last season was largely the product of a much-improved ground attack. Jerome Harrison put up huge numbers, thrashing out 561 yards in the final 3 games, but his slashing ability was only part of the story. A lot of that credit goes to one of the best C-LG-LT packages in the game, Alex Mack, Eric Steinbach, and Joe Thomas respectively. Mack shined as a rookie in the middle, starting all 16 games and looking very much like a future Pro Bowler. Steinbach and Thomas work well together and appeared to get more aggressive as the air got colder. Rookie RG Shawn Lauvao has impressed the coaches and teammates with his aggressiveness and power. His pass protection will be iffy but he should be an upgrade over Pork Chop Womack in the run blocking arena.

Harrison will have more help this year. After watching Jamal Lewis completely run out of gas, the team brought in a new power back in rookie Montario Hardesty, a one-cut physical runner. But just as critical is the acquisition of Peyton Hillis, a converted FB with strong interior running skills. He?s the kind of runner that can create his own hole, though he won?t do much beyond 5 yards. James Davis showed some legit skills before getting hurt last year, giving the Browns a great deal of depth, albeit with largely anonymous players. Getting any sort of help from the passing game will only create better running opportunities, and it?s hard to imagine that part of the offense getting any worse. Fullback Lawrence Vickers is one of the best at his position, seeing the defense like a running back and leading the charge to the second level quite effectively.

2. Josh Cribbs. Aside from being a treasured local icon and easily the most popular athlete in Cleveland now that a certain Akron native took his talents south, Cribbs is one of the most dynamic all-around threats in the game today. Respected former GM and current NFL.com/CBS/Sirius Radio analyst Pat Kirwan called Cribbs the greatest special teams player he?s ever seen, and I second that sentiment. He is the most dangerous return man in the NFL, a major threat on both punts and kickoffs. He?s also one of the premiere coverage specialists in the league, a good tackler that is remarkably slippery to block. And the team is progressively figuring out how to use him in the context of the offense, getting him more touches out of the backfield and on quick WR screens and inside drag routes. He?s still largely hit and miss in that capacity--6 of his 20 catches gained one yard or less, but Cribbs is improving and Coach Mangini is creating more opportunities for him to get in the open field with the ball in his hands.

3. Fresh faces on defense. The Browns defense was largely problematic a year ago, struggling with missed tackles and lacking playmakers. That forced Mike Holmgren to go out and bolster the ranks with a series of moves that gives the Browns more talent and better depth across the back 8 (they play a 3-4).

The biggest impact will be at corner, where savvy veteran Sheldon Brown immediately takes over on the right side and #7 overall draft pick Joe Haden fills in the #3 CB role. That is a massive upgrade over Hank Poteat and Brandon McDonald--neither of whom is likely to make a team this year. Brown is a very good tackler and makes a lot of plays on the ball in the air, two skills in very short supply here the past few years. Brown averages almost 16 passes defended per year for the last 7 seasons, and he?s proven very durable and consistent. He?s also used to playing behind blitz-happy defenses, which is not an insignificant factor in DC Rob Ryan?s coverage scheme. Haden has a similar profile to Brown--good with the ball in the air, strong run support, physical, good football IQ. Given that emerging star Eric Wright--if he played for the Jets or Cowboys he?d live in the Pro Bowl--is just entering his prime, the Browns have a very good trio of CBs that will help upgrade what was often disastrous coverage the past few seasons. They should also force a lot more turnovers.

Adding Chris Gocong and Scott Fujita to the LB corps provides needed doses of experience and versatility--both can play inside or outside, and Coach Ryan loves mixing and matching. Neither will provide anything more than solid, workman-like play, but they raise the level of competition in camp and augment quality depth. That?s a step forward for the Browns, who have far too frequently plugged holes with overwhelmed youngsters or creaky greybeards. Hard-hitting T.J. Ward will start immediately at one safety spot, and he can only be an upgrade in coverage over Brodney ?Where?s the ball?? Pool. Preventing big plays and forcing more turnovers and incompletions will go a long way towards keeping this team in a lot more games.

4. Special teams. I touched on it with Josh Cribbs above, but the Browns have the top overall special teams units in the league today. From reliable, strong-legged kicker Phil Dawson to excellent long-snapper Ryan Pontbriand (once the highest-paid lineman in the league on a technicality) to all-world Cribbs to dynamo cover man Jason Trusnick, the Browns are stacked across the board on special teams. Because the team figures to struggle scoring, having great ability to control field position and score with returns is imperative. Even the black cloud of losing excellent punter (and fellow Ohio Bobcat!) Dave Zastudil for the season has a silver lining, as Reggie Hodges filled in very well last year. I?m not one to buy into the whole ?special teams is one third of the game?, but even assigning it a more realistic 20% still allows the Browns? superb units to steal a game or two and keep them close enough to catch some breaks in several others.

5. Lowered expectations. The wholesale front office changes bought this team a year from the fans, even with Mangini and Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll still at the helm on the field. Cleveland fans are perhaps the most rational, reasonably minded sports fanatics in the world. They see the potential issues and the uneasy marriage between Holmgren?s people and Mangini?s people, they see the big roster turnover, and they understand and respect the strength of the other teams in the AFC North. There is a very palpable sense around the community that this job cannot be rushed, and that 2010 is a ear of transformative growth and laying the foundation for greater things in 2011 and beyond.

That sort of lack of pressure has often produced some very memorable and surprising success stories in recent years. And nobody knows that better than Eric Mangini himself; his first Jets team entered the season with an over/under win total of 4.5 on most sports books, and they made the playoffs. The 2008 Falcons, the 2009 Bengals, Holmgren?s own 2003 Seahawks and even the ?07 Browns all had very good years when fans and the rest of the league least expected them to. There is enough functional talent here, the lines are good, and the special teams are indeed special, that if the offense gets a solid rebound year from Jake Delhomme and teams take the Browns lightly, they could surprise the world. Mangini has played that up in camp, and Holmgren?s blunt understatements of his team feed into that as well. Is it likely? No, but stranger things have happened.

5 Reasons to Fear Another Long Season

1. The passing offense. To sum it up succinctly: no team in the NFL has fewer weapons with such an inferior QB situation. Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn both stunk their way into barely clinging to backup jobs elsewhere, yet it?s hard to ascertain whether or not Jake Delhomme will be much of an upgrade. As Browns beat writer Jeff Schudel once commented about Anderson, ?At least he?s so far off the mark nobody from either team is going to catch it?. That is certainly not true of Delhomme, who has morphed from gritty gunslinger to turnover machine ever since his disastrous playoff game against the Cardinals after the 2008 season. And he?s the strong point of the passing attack...

The wide receiver/tight end mix here is almost completely devoid of reputable NFL talent. The leading receiver a year ago was rookie Mohammad Massaquoi. On most teams he would be fighting for the #3 wideout spot--not the slot, mind you, but to be the backup to one of the outside receivers. Brian Robiskie was the higher draft pick a year ago, but it?s abundantly clear he will forever struggle to get separation, and his catch radius isn?t great for a possession receiver. At least they?re both very good blockers. Cribbs is the biggest threat to make defenses pay, but he?s still fairly primitive as a route runner. Chansi Stuckey looked adequate as Brett Favre?s slot guy in their time in New York together (remember that?), but he was clearly a product of Favre being great; Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace aren?t going to suddenly make him much more productive. At tight end the picture is a little brighter, as former Patriot Benjamin Watson is a solid receiving option that will help the red zone offense. The team is quite high on Evan Moore, who flashed enough talent to be considered a decent #2 TE, but they don?t have a field stretcher or an athletic freak like so many teams have today. Of course the one they had (Kellen Winslow) wasn?t worth the headaches, so I understand their trepidation there.

2. Playing in the AFC North. The Ravens and Bengals both made the playoffs last year and improved their teams this offseason. Pittsburgh won the Super Bowl a year earlier and has beaten Cleveland in every meeting but 4 since the franchise returned in 1999, and they play twice every year. For a rebuilding team, playing in such a difficult division can be awful discouraging. All those are rivalry games that the other teams take quite seriously even when there is a great discrepancy in talent, which means the Browns aren?t likely to catch one of them on an off week. The Browns have finished 1-5 within the division each of the last two years, and that is not likely to change this year.

3. Lack of depth. Other than running back and linebacker, the Browns have scant depth across the roster, and the team?s best ILB, D?Qwell Jackson, is still recovering from a nasty shoulder injury from last season. The offensive line has a pretty good starting 5 (okay, LT-RG is pretty good, RT is a mess), but other than the loser of the Womack/Lauvao battle at RG there is nothing in reserve that inspires any sort of confidence. Likewise, the starting DL is strong but the rotation only goes 4 deep--and that?s if Pro Bowler Shaun Rogers isn?t suspended or injured, both of which are distinct possibilities. Behind the top 3 CBs is Brandon McDonald, whose incompetence led them to bring in both Brown and Haden in the first place. The reserve safeties and OLBs are all career special team specialists, though the team is very high on Jason Trusnik?s progress at ROLB. One of the perils of making so many front office changes so frequently is that late-round draft picks often get quickly discarded instead of being given time to develop and emerge as quality backups or eventual starters. That is very true in Cleveland, and it has forced Mangini and Holmgren to import their own mediocre veterans to fill those spots. Band-aid depth players perpetuate a cycle of losing, and the Browns are squarely in the middle of that cycle.

4. Culture clash. New team President Mike Holmgren comes from the Bill Walsh tree. He surprisingly retained Mangini, he of the vastly divergent Bill Parcells coaching tree, as his head coach. Pretty much everything about the two systematic styles butt heads, from prevailing on-field philosophies to management styles to types of personalities of players that they seek.

Despite the apparent best intentions of both Mangini and Holmgren to make this work, there are inherent problems with this bizarre marriage. The players are roughly divided between loyalties, which creates fissures of allegiance. Because Mangini was very nearly fired (twice!), there is something of a ?lame duck? pall about him; even his most ardent supporters concede that he?s likely to lose his job sooner than later once Holmgren finds someone more to his liking to coach the team, which might include the president himself. The locker room is largely devoid of entrenched leadership, which makes a ?Remember the Titans? unifying extremely unlikely. Delhomme and Fujita are sound veteran leaders but they?re both newcomers here, and guys a lot nearer the end of their careers than the beginning. The same goes for David Bowens and Kenyon Coleman, Mangini loyalists that held the defense together a year ago. There is little long-standing camaraderie because of so much turnover, and that makes holding such a fragile marriage together a near impossibility.

5. There is a reason why expectations are low: this franchise remains in a perpetual state of rebuild. That has been touched upon above, but another byproduct is that the players don?t necessarily expect to win or to be a part of the long-term solution. That?s obviously not true of everyone, but I?ve seen too many instances like this where enough key players are in it for themselves and not committed to winning. To the Browns credit they have dispatched many of these types of players, but some malingerers linger. The players won?t come out and say it, but they know they aren?t going to win the AFC North and would need incredible luck to avoid a losing season. Longer-term Browns have grown used to the repeated failures and the chronic organizational instability. That culture takes time to change and bleeds into all the above reasons for pessimism. It isn?t just the players either; the fans feed into it and teams tend to feed off that. Ask most Browns fans what would make a successful season and the bar is set low. Offer them a season finishing 6-10 with wins over Pittsburgh and Baltimore and most would take the money and run.

3 Keys to the season

1. Offensive balance. This team will be able to run the ball, as the OL is strong and there is talented depth at RB. Throwing the ball, on the other hand...Delhomme is a true wild card. I actually like the prospects of a rebound season for Jake, but I?d feel a lot better about it if he had better weaponry in the passing game. If the passing offense doesn?t materialize this team will struggle to not finish last in scoring.

2. The revamped secondary. Forcing turnovers is a big priority, something that last year?s Browns struggled to do at a historic level. The new additions must blend together quickly and avoid the ridiculous coverage gaffes and matador tackling that has been the hallmark of the Browns secondary for the last few seasons.

3. The mixed management marriage. It?s a bold move to bring in Mike Holmgren and keep Eric Mangini, two stalwarts of vastly divergent football regimes. The pressure is on Mangini to make it work and to fit into his new boss? style. That would be a lot easier if the Mangenius had a better rapport with his players, but that is not his strong suit.

Forecast

The Browns will be universally cast as the last-place team in the AFC North, and this forecast won?t be the exception. Yet it?s not inconceivable that Cleveland shocks the world in 2010. The starters are probably better than you think, and the special teams are the best in the league. If the newcomers in both the passing offense and pass defense provide solid upgrades right away, the Browns could look a lot like last year?s Bengals and their surprise playoff berth. I simply cannot count on that occurring, however. The defense will be good and I suspect Cleveland winds up in a host of lower-scoring tight battles. Unfortunately I forecast they will be on the wrong end of too many of those battles. Cleveland finishes 5-11 again and faces some more offseason shuffling. The more things change...

Jeff.Risdon@RealGM.com