The Cleveland Browns finished the 2011 season a disappointing 4-12, frustrating fans and the organization alike with their failure to improve upon a nearly-as-dismal 5-11 2010 record.
While the record certainly didn't show it, the Browns did improve in many ways from 2010 to 2011. In other areas, they still have a long way to go before the rebuilding process that began in 2010 with the hiring of team president Mike Holmgren will be complete.
Many see 2012 as a put-up-or-shut-up kind of season for the Browns, the year where the team must prove it's moving in the right direction and getting there at a faster rate than it has managed to do thus far.
We've already looked at roster changes the Browns need to make before the upcoming season. Now it's time to take a look at what needs to change in the greater sense, whether it's the strategies the team uses or the philosophies behind them or even the way in which they're implemented.
Following are five major changes the Browns need to make before the 2012 season begins. Please share other big changes you think the Browns need to make in the comments below!
Sadly, we can count on zero hands the number of people who were happy with head coach Pat Shurmur's play-calling in 2011.
Instead of jump-starting a young offense learning the ropes of the NFL, Shurmur appeared lost, overwhelmed and inconsistent in his dual role of head coach and play-caller.
The Browns learned the hard way something that they should have already known: There's a reason very few head coaches call their own plays, and an even bigger reason rookie head coaches never do it.
Regardless of what you think of Childress, just the fact that Shurmur is finally getting some help should be at least slightly comforting. Disappointingly, though, we also learned around the same time Childress was hired that Shurmur would continue to do the team's play-calling.
Perhaps simply having less on his plate will make him a better play-caller. Perhaps it won't make a bit of difference in that area. We'll have to wait and see.
Either way, what the Browns have to at least try to do with regard to play-calling is, first and foremost, run a consistently productive game plan and implement the right strategy at the right time.
In 2011 the Browns' play-calling looked like an over-conservative, plodding albatross of a game plan through 75 percent of every game, and a manic, desperate and disjointed set of panic-driven decisions for the other 25 percent.
Essentially, they had only two speeds: manic and narcoleptic.
They need to be more consistent, obviously, but they also need to know when to take it up or down a notch. They played ball control and looked sluggish in situations where they should have been in overdrive, and they did foolish, crazy things and looked frazzled in situations where they should have been being more careful and playing it safe to protect a lead or carefully craft a comeback.
The strategies themselves weren't always wrong; they were just almost always implemented at the wrong times.
Often, it was about playing not to lose rather than playing to win, which rarely—if ever—works at an NFL level. The bottom line is that the Browns need to take more calculated risks in their play-calling and fewer unnecessary risks that imply a sense of reckless abandon and desperation.
Considering how far above expectations the Browns defense performed in 2011, it's both difficult and disrespectful to criticize defensive coordinator Dick Jauron much. Of all the disappointing coaching we saw in 2011, Jauron and his defensive staff were without a doubt the exception.
Still, while the Browns defense was a pleasant surprise, it still needs a lot of work, mostly in terms of the run defense.
The pass defense was spectacular, at least on paper, though many argue the numbers are off because opponents simply didn't bother passing because the Browns' run defense was so bad they didn't need to.
Opponents' offenses were able to get away with being completely one-dimensional against the Browns, thanks to their total lack of ground defense. In other words, as long as an opposing team had even a decent running game, the passing component of its offense was practically getting a free bye week when playing the Browns.
To a degree, improving this will be dependent on how much the Browns are able to improve at certain defensive positions this offseason. They need help at safety and at weakside linebacker, and they could use more depth all across both the front seven and the secondary.
Mostly though, they need to adjust their coverage to prove they aren't confined to only being able to defend against either an aerial attack or a ground attack but not both at once.
Until the Browns figure out how to continue to keep opponents' passing games in check and still be able to contain their rushers at the same time, foes will be more than happy to take what is basically free rushing yardage and scoring drives in exchange for essentially letting their passing game sit one out.
Between the botched special teams plays, horrendous missed tackles, careless fumbles, dropped passes and, most of all, preventable penalties, the Browns were often a sad comedy of errors on the field in 2011, seemingly doing their best to demonstrate their youth and inexperience through rookie mistakes.
Had it only been the rookies making those eponymous errors, we could take this with a grain of salt, accept that there is a learning curve for the NFL and be confident we would see far less of this in 2012.
The problem was, it wasn't just first-year players making rookie mistakes; there were plenty of veterans right in there with them.
Across the season as a whole, the ridiculous penalties were probably the most costly of the Browns' many foolish mistakes, though the most costly errors in individual instances that cost or may have cost the Browns a win were generally more along the lines of botched plays.
Nowhere was this more rampant than on special teams, an area where the Browns were considered a standout organization as recently as two years ago. With a lot of the same talent still in place and some rookies who, if anything, had the skills to make the special teams unit better, not worse, this one lands squarely on the coach.
Obviously, anyone the Browns hired to coach special teams was going to be a downgrade from the exceptional Brad Seely, but Chris Tabor's efforts in 2011 made it look as though the Browns didn't just downgrade; they took a nose-dive.
Of all the coaches whom fans and media have grumbled about the Browns needing to cut loose after this season, the one that seems the most obvious is Tabor. While I understand why Shurmur and a few of the other offensive assistants are getting a stay of execution for 2012, I can't for the life of me figure out why Tabor is still on the payroll.
His squad seemed to make a greater percentage of foolish and costly mistakes per play than any other area of the team. Take away the ridiculous and exceptionally damning errors made by special teams this season, and the Browns would have had no less than one and possibly as many as three extra wins in 2011.
Perhaps Tabor will get this all figured out in 2012. If he does, I'm happy to forget all of this and let him stick around. But if there's any sign that this issue still lingers early in 2012, the Browns need to cut him loose.
In 2011 we saw a frustratingly large number of games in which the Browns were right in there poised for a win or at least a comeback until late in the game, only to end up lying down and giving up after one big play by the opponent.
Big plays absolutely crushed the Browns this season and, more specifically, their inability to bonce back after a big play proved their undoing over and over again.
After giving up a big play or getting stuffed by an opposing defense attempting one, they looked unprepared, got blindsided repeatedly, and simply just couldn't recover. Once they gave up a big play, it was pretty much curtains for the Browns.
There were plenty of instances this season where the Browns gave up one big play from which they could easily have bounced back and overcome. Yet one big 40-yard gain by an opponent or one failure to convert on in an important third-down situation and they appeared to completely lose their will to live.
I understand it's difficult not to give up when you're getting blown out by an opponent, but over and over again in 2011 the Browns were spiraling toward apathy when they were behind by a margin that was completely possible to overcome. That absolutely has to change in 2011.
Every once in a while, we saw this team look fighting mad and completely unwilling to quit, and it was fantastic. If the Browns stayed that way all the time, even if they still lost, there would be far fewer questions about the motivation and philosophy of this organization.
Whether the change is spurred on by the players or the coaching staff doesn't matter, but somebody has to light a fire under this team in such a way that the players don't completely lose hope every time a drive doesn't go their way.
Good teams find ways to come back from situations far more dire than the ones in which the Browns completely gave up last season. If the Browns want to become one of those good teams, they've go to stop allowing any one given play to completely crush their efforts and motivation for an entire game.
If the Browns coaching and front office staff do wind up getting fired in the near future, you don't need to worry about them; they all seem like they would have a very bring future working for the NSA, because regardless of their other shortcomings, they sure can keep a secret.
The Browns were so vague and secretive about what they were doing both on and off the field this season that it aroused suspicion in even the most blindly faithful of fans.
While some degree of secrecy in organizational philosophy and strategy is not only understandable but essential to the success of a football team, the Browns aren't in a position to be guarding all their secrets as closely as they are.
You can be secretive and sneaky if you're Bill Belichick and his Patriots, who have made multiple Super Bowl appearances, and the secrecy surrounding your strategies will come off as an aura of mystique. But if you're the Browns and you go 4-12, being secretive just comes off like you're trying to hide the fact that you don't know what you're doing.
I personally find it hard to believe the front office is truly that incompetent, but I can't argue with the fact that all the avoidance, diversionary tactics and flat-out refusal to divulge what's going on behind the scenes at least a little bit certainly makes them look like they've got something to hide.
It leaves fans and media alike with visions of front office personnel frantically setting fire to ineffective playbooks in a dark alley somewhere and scrambling to create new ones while spouting off excuses about the need for secrecy in order to buy time for the fire to burn out and for them to come up with a new plan on the fly.
Whether it's the mystery surrounding how Colt McCoy's concussion was handled or some of the details of what exactly this Master Plan they're implementing is, they've played it too close to the vest too many times.
Obviously, no team is going to be completely transparent about what goes on behind closed doors. It would be strategic suicide and is quite frankly unnecessary.
But the fact remains that when an under-performing team shrouds everything it does in secrecy, it looks like a cover-up for a series of ill-advised moves that implies incompetence.
The Browns front office, in all seriousness, is not incompetent at all. But it can't blame fans and the media for thinking it is when the team's had a terrible season and then refuses to be even remotely transparent about what has happened and what will happen to change things in the future.
Whatever happens in 2012 and in the months leading up to it, the Browns have to be more forthcoming with information about where they're at and what they're doing.