Super Bowl Sunday: The biggest day of the year for football and its fans. The day on which the last two teams standing at the end of the season get to play for all the marbles. And a day which the Browns will spend sitting at home on the couch, as they have on every other Super Bowl Sunday prior to this one.
The Cleveland Browns have come painfully close to getting to the big dance a few times, been painfully far away from it too many times to count, and have landed somewhere unspectacularly in-between the rest of the time. But regardless of how close they have come, they have never made it all the way.
But while finishing at the bottom of the AFC North with a 4-12 record made for yet another disappointing, Super Bowl-less season for the Browns, perhaps there is still a small something to be gained from the 2011-12 season for the Browns.
Perhaps today, amid the beer and the chicken wings and the spectacularly bad half-time programming, the Browns just might learn something useful from watching the Super Bowl contestants giving everything they've got for the chance to win it all.
An overused-but-true sports platitude says "you can't win 'em all," and if you're the Browns, you can't win most of 'em. But perhaps Cleveland might at least get something useful out of today's championship game, even if they were a long way from having a chance to actually participate in it.
Following are five things the Browns could learn from watching the Patriots and Giants today in Super Bowl XLVI.
One of the biggest problems the Browns had in 2011 was predictability on offense. Everyone, including the opposing players, the commentators, and every armchair quarterback watching the Browns from the local bar, knew exactly where the ball was going the second the Browns snapped it all season long.
A lot of this had to do with the much-maligned play calling the Browns got from head coach/offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, but it also relates to a lack of depth on the team and not having the proper personnel to be able to regularly sustain a game plan based on keeping the opponent guessing.
Both the Giants and the Patriots do an excellent job of spreading the ball around, running complex offensive schemes in which the type of plays called vary greatly, and generally keeping the opposing defense in the dark about where exactly the ball might end up on any given play.
Obviously, the Browns don't have the depth of talent at any offensive position, especially at receiver and tight end, to allow them the same myriad possibilities available to the Giants and Patriots, both of whom are able to run heavy receiver sets or two-tight end plays when necessary because they have so much depth of talent.
Still, that doesn't mean the Browns can't watch and learn something from them. If nothing else, seeing what the Giants and Patriots can do with their talent pool should motivate the Browns to continue to work harder to build depth at these positions.
And regardless of whether they're working with less resources than New England or New York, they should also be able to take cues from those teams as to how they might vary their offensive game plan and play calling a bit more, using what personnel they do have to work with.
The NFL has become a largely pass-first league, at least among those teams who are regular playoff contenders.
The Browns have gone a different route over the past few years, adopting a largely run-first offense and seemingly avoiding passing plays at all costs. It's an odd scheme for a supposed West Coast Offense, which typically survives mostly on short pass plays, but the Browns haven't exactly been running the WCO by the book.
Some of that, again, is a lack of proper weaponry, but regardless of the reason they continue to stubbornly run the ball far too often in a league where it has been proven many times that a pass-heavy offense is a big part of what will get you to the Super Bowl.
Obviously there are loads of other components that go into building a Super Bowl team, but looking at the Giants and Patriots, this is clearly one of the biggest.
Regardless of whether you agree with Bernard Pollard that the Patriots "run a dink and dunk offense," the fact remains that they run a pass-first offense and that it works. The same can be said for the Giants, who have relied far more heavily on their big three at wide receiver than on injury-prone and semi-underachieving running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Brandon Jacobs.
Clearly the Browns can only work with what they have; if the personnel isn't there on the field and the play-calling abilities aren't there on the sideline, they can't just decide to run a more pass-driven offense. However, they still need to be cognizant of what the trend is in the league right now, and how they might need to adapt some, if not all, of their offensive scheme to follow suit.
We've said it a million times before, and it makes sense to say it one more time here: The Browns defense needs to build a killer pass rush to solidify its improving and high-potential defense.
There are plenty of jokes going around about how on earth the Patriots even got into a Super Bowl with their sub-standard defense, some of which are well-deserved and some of which are exaggerated, but nobody is kidding around about the New York Giants' killer front seven.
The Browns might take a page out of the Giants' book here. There are few teams that demonstrate an explosive, aggressive pass rush better than New York, and the effect it can have on the success of their entire team has shown.
Defense obviously isn't the Browns' biggest problem heading into 2012, but their difficulty stopping the run and lackluster pass rush clearly need improvement.
The Giants' pass rush terrifies opposing offenses. The Browns' front seven might surprise opponents on occasion, but they have yet to consistently play at a level that establishes a reputation that will give opposing quarterbacks nightmares the week before they have to face them.
The good news on this particular area requiring improvement is that the Browns aren't that far off from where they need to be. Unlike their problems on offense, Cleveland's coaching staff has shown it has the chops to build up something impressive in this area and personnel-wise, they are only a few players away from being able to make this happen.
Unless you happen to be blowing the doors off an opponent or getting your own doors blown off, in the NFL, timing is everything.
Whether you're racing against the clock to score in time to get ahead or managing the clock to keep an opponent from having many opportunities to score themselves, football is all about timing.
The Browns, unfortunately, were spectacularly bad at time management during their 2011 season.
Neither the Giants nor the Patriots run a ball-control offense (nor should they), but both teams definitely manage the clock well. They know how to use time effectively, whether its in the form of efficiency and scoring quickly when they need to or running time off the clock to take opportunities away from the opponent.
The Browns, on the other hand, failed miserably on both counts this season, and seemed unable to efficiently march down the field to score on the fly when precious time was ticking away, as well as unable to slow the game down enough to keep opponents from creating more scoring chances for themselves.
A lot of our demands for the Browns this offseason revolve around coaching and play-calling issues, but clock management has to be one of the highest-priority items on that list. Until the Browns get better at this, they will continue to have to fight against both the opposing team and the clock in a manner which has proven to date to be too much to handle.
All week long, the Giants and Patriots have been trading barbs and subtle insults. It has been irritating, predictable, and also, completely necessary.
As much as we are all sick of hearing about Brady's quote that supposedly implied that the Patriots had this thing sewn up already or the rest of the subtle and not-so-subtle jabs that have been traded between New England and New York this week, there's always something reassuring about hearing two teams talking about one another in a manner that, even if disrespectful and slightly irritating, shows just how badly each wants to beat the other and win.
The Browns have been missing that sort of fire for quite some time. Sure, some of that is to be expected given their lack of success. It's easy to be fired up when you're playing in the Super Bowl. Staying that motivated when you're trying to match your sad 5-11 record from last season requires an entirely different level of ability to sustain mind over matter.
Still, regardless of the fact that for the time being, the Browns are confined only to games that take place on a far smaller stage and with far less importance for football as a whole, they need to recognize that this stuff still matters to their stubborn, fiercely loyal fan base.
Even if they ultimately fail to follow through on the threat, we want to see our team go out there every Sunday with intent to kill, crush, humiliate, and besiege their opponent until it has nothing left. Even if Cleveland still loses, at least this way we would know their hearts were in it.
The Browns were much too quiet in terms of trash talk this season. Some might consider that a good thing, but I think a little war of words with an opponent can be a good thing, especially for a team that often appears defeated and unmotivated.
Obviously any regular season game, no matter who is playing in it, will never warrant the level of trash talk that a Super Bowl will. But if the Browns could just get a little angrier, a little pushier, and a little more fired up, the change in attitude might end up making a huge difference in their caliber of play.