As the 2011 NFL regular season comes to a close, some teams prepare for postseason play and a chance to win it all, while others begin the long, cold wait until next year.
The Browns are among the latter group—a pattern that has become all too familiar in recent decades. They've had one postseason appearance since their return to the NFL in 1999. They haven't even come close many times aside from that since well before they left town in 1995.
Currently, there is a divide among Browns fans as to, well, just exactly how bad things are. Some feel the team is going nowhere once again and will have to be completely redone, as it as been so many times in the recent past.
Others, though frustrated by the 4-12 record and the games that slipped through the team's collective fingers this season, see hope for the young corps the Browns have in place now. They expect things to improve dramatically in the not-too-distant future.
Regardless of which side fans are on in this debate, we all watched the same team play this season. We may not agree on potential for individual players or for the team as a group, but most of us know which players and position groups got their jobs done this season and which ones didn't.
Debates about its future are to be expected, but as for what has already happened? Well, it's safe to say we saw some good, some bad and some very ugly this season.
Following are some of the best and worst players, position groups and performances for the Browns.
And the award goes to...
What is often the easiest award to hand out for most teams is actually among the most difficult to decide on for the 2011 Browns.
On a team whose offense was disappointing much of the time, downright horrible nearly as often and topped out at, let's say, barely acceptable, giving out an MVP award seems a little ridiculous. It becomes more of a "least awful" award than one meant for the best or most valuable.
So because it was so difficult to pick an offensive MVP based on on-field performance, I've decided to use off-field factors as criteria as well.
Thus the award goes to...Josh Cribbs.
Obviously, there are a lot of problems with giving this award to Cribbs. His stats were unimpressive, he has a limited role on offense and when it comes down to it, he's really more of a special teamer than an offensive starter.
Yet despite all those factors, it's tough to find someone more valuable to the offense than Cribbs. Perhaps it has little to do with his actual performance, and more to do with his role as a leader, motivator and top-notch locker room guy for the Browns.
It seems like a ridiculous reason to give someone an award that is meant to be based on performance, but then, consider how ridiculous the pool of candidates is for such an award for the Browns.
I suppose what it comes down to is, if no one can show me an MVP-worthy skill set and performance, then the most valuable guy on the offense becomes the guy who I just want to root for and who is a pleasure to watch.
There is, obviously, an argument for Joe Thomas, the Browns' lone Pro Bowl electee. I'm happy to acknowledge Thomas' performance, but I have a hard time giving an MVP to a guy who belongs to a position group that largely functions as one unit when said unit was easily the weakest part of the entire team.
Greg Little gets a nod as well, but his numbers were obviously not MVP-caliber, and he fits better for other awards here.
It's always disappointing when handing out end-of-season awards to discover that you have a much harder time deciding which of many deserving candidates is your Least Valuable Player than your Most Valuable Player.
While we were strapped for nominees for the most valuable offensive player, there are, unfortunately, many viable options for the least valuable member of the group.
In the end, though, the party responsible not only for their own individual poor play on offense, but for bringing down the play of others as well was...the offensive line.
As I mentioned earlier, this group largely functions as a unit, so I'll refrain from blaming any one individual for their abject failure (though in a few cases, it's awfully tempting). No, the line as a group was the real problem, and such a severe one that it caused the rest of the offense to collapse around it.
Obviously the line can't control whether a receiver drops a pass thrown right to his numbers or whether the Browns RBs hurt themselves on the sideline before the game starts.
But they played a huge role in many other problems for the offense: lack of separation and time to complete routes, injuries to the quarterback and to running backs, lack of time to get set for the quarterback, bad blocking for running backs and a million other things that went wrong all can be blamed at least in part on the line.
There were of course other candidates for the offensive LVP. You can make a case for Mohamed Massaquoi because he's been given so many opportunities and returned so little on the investment.
You can make a case for Montario Hardesty, who the Browns traded up for and wasted a draft pick to get only to have him barely see the field (though the blame for that lies more on those who drafted him than on Hardesty himself).
And of course, you can make a case for beleaguered RB Peyton Hillis, though there is another award which I feel better suits his situation.
The Defensive MVP award for the Browns is, fortunately, much easier to hand out than its offensive counterpart—at least in the sense that there actually are deserving candidates.
In a way, it's a bit difficult to decide, since unlike on the offense (where there is a drought of effective talent), the defense has more than one viable candidate for the award.
But in the end, the prize goes to MLB D'Qwell Jackson, the defense's standout performer in terms of stats and playmaking ability, and also as the undisputed leader both on and off the field of the whole defensive unit.
In a way, you can make a case for Jackson to win such awards as "most improved" or "biggest surprise" as well. Given his injuries and underperformance as recently as a year ago, it's unlikely anyone would have expected to see any sort of MVP-type distinction after his name this season.
But here we are and, fortunately for the Browns, Jackson is here too. Hopefully, he will be for quite some time.
Obviously we have to give a nod to CB Joe Haden as well. He's always a standout performer and easily last season's defensive MVP despite being a rookie. I personally give the edge to Jackson this time around, but Haden wouldn't be a bad choice either.
Another nod has to go to Ahtyba Rubin, who quietly put together another solid season. Also, to perhaps to the entire defense as a whole for being the only thing, quite frankly, that kept the Browns in any game they played this season.
The Least Valuable Player award for the Browns defense was a difficult one to give out.
The defense, as a group, was the highlight of the season, so it seems unfair to negatively single out any component of it.
The worst part is, when forced to make that distinction anyway, the guy who it lands on is not someone anyone would enjoy bestowing such a dubious distinction upon.
Unfortunately, if we have to pick someone as a defensive LVP from among the team's 2011 starters, that person has to be CB Sheldon Brown.
As much as Brown, who struggled throughout the season fairly notably, deserves the nod for his disappointing performance, you still hate to see a guy with a lot of heart get tagged this way.
We all know Brown is a good person, a good teammate and a good leader, but we also know he had a disappointing season and that he wasn't a good player this year, regardless of whether he's a stand-up guy.
Yes, we hate giving this award to Brown, but that doesn't mean he doesn't deserve it.
Offense: Greg Little
I'll admit that this one was given out a bit by default. It isn't that Greg Little didn't wind up having a decent season, but it wasn't exactly the kind of performance that screams "Rookie of the Year."
Still, he was leaps and bounds above any other offensive rookie on the team, and toward the end of the year, he did start to come on in such a way as to indicate that even if he wasn't exactly true Rookie of the Year material, he definitely had some very solid potential for the future.
To be fair, though, he also had absolutely no competition for the award. Jason Pinkston, Jordan Cameron and Owen Marecic weren't even close.
Defense: Jabaal Sheard
DT Phil Taylor, being the Browns first pick of the 2011 draft, got all the hype coming into the 2011 season, but it was their second pick, LDE Jabaal Sheard, who really stood out.
Sheard still has work to do, but handled being thrust in to a starting role immediately upon entering the NFL beautifully. He's been an an aggressive playmaker with an excellent nose for the ball who has played bigger than his size and far exceeded expectations.
Taylor, too, has done a solid job in his rookie campaign for the Browns, but Sheard is the rookie who stands out among the rest on the defensive side of the ball.
Offense: Peyton Hillis
Whether you blame the Madden Curse, the Cleveland Curse, overexposure, injuries, contract issues or any one of the other thousand theories that have been tossed out there as to why Peyton Hillis struggled so much in 2011, the bottom line is that no matter the reason, last season's Browns MVP was easily this season's biggest disappointment.
Hillis obviously wasn't the worst player on the Browns offense this season, or even the worst at his position. But he was far and away the most disappointing.
I should mention, for those who aren't already aware, that I am at least somewhat of a Hillis apologist. I think he was unfairly railroaded by the media and punished for things he couldn't control.
In the end, that doesn't change the fact that his performance was a disappointment, whether it was for ignoble reasons or simply, as I suspect, because he couldn't stay healthy.
Defense: T.J. Ward
Don't get me wrong, I still like T.J. Ward and see him as a very valuable part of the Browns secondary going forward. 2011 was definitely not his year, though.
After looking exceptionally impressive in his rookie campaign in 2010, the wheels came off for Ward in 2011. His performance slipped dramatically. He looked lost, disinterested and unmotivated at various times, and at other times he just plain old messed up on important plays.
After all that, he got hurt and was gone for the better part of the second half of the season.
Again, I'm not yet at the point where I'm ready to question Ward's future value. I still think he'll be fine going forward.
It was a forgettable year for Ward in 2011, and a disappointing one for those of us who had to watch him fail to live up to the expectations we had for him based on his excellent performance as a rookie the year before.
Offense: Chris Ogbonnaya
The Browns offense had a lot of unpleasant surprises this season. Fortunately, it also had one pleasant one: RB Chris Ogbonnaya.
Obviously, Ogbonnaya wasn't a miraculously huge contributor. He didn't change the entire landscape of the Browns offense, steal anyone's starting job or anything of the sort, but he did step in when the Browns needed him most, and he was able to do so successfully despite the odds being stacked against him.
Ogbonnaya wasn't even on the team at the start of the season. He wasn't on anybody's team. He was a practice squad player who had been around for a handful of years but had never been good enough to stick on a professional roster for more than a week or two.
When the Browns brought him in after Hillis and Hardesty went down in a heap, we all cringed. But Ogbonnaya wound up doing an outstanding job as a fill-in player and was far, far better than expected.
No, that doesn't mean he'll be the Browns (or anyone's) starting feature back next season, but he came up pretty big when the Browns needed someone to do just that.
He'll never be a true starter, but I'd take this guy as a member of my roster any day of the week and twice (er, for 10-12 carries?) on Sunday.
Defense: Chris Gocong
First, one caveat. Obviously this award should truly go to D'Qwell Jackson, easily the team's biggest pleasant surprise. And second in line would be Jabaal Sheard. However, both have already gotten an award, and in order to keep things interesting, I find it best not to repeat.
That means next in line and certainly deserving of the distinction for Biggest Defensive Pleasant Surprise is LB Chris Gocong.
Gocong signed a contract extension with the Browns earlier this season, provoking a one-word reaction from many Browns fans: "Why?"
As much as the move was a bit of head-scratcher when it happened, Gocong turned out to be worth it. He stepped up tremendously when Scott Fujita injured his hand and was lost for the season, and proved why he deserved not only a starting role, but a contract befitting that going forward.