Cleveland Browns: The 5 Biggest Positives of the 2011-12 Season
It's difficult to have too many nice things to say about a team that finishes a season 4-12.
At least the Browns didn't go 3-13?
Even in Cleveland, where "positive thoughts" aren't really our thing, that sounds completely absurd.
Sad but true; by the numbers, we should all be hiding under a rock somewhere and refusing to admit where we're from or that our city even fields a football team at all.
But lucky for us, the numbers don't tell the whole story; it wasn't all bad.
Oh sure, realistically, most of it was. Nobody finishes 4-12 and at the bottom of their division because they're just so much better than they look.
But there were absolutely some positives, and since we're so used to trading in doom and despair, it's time we took a look at a few of them.
Following are five positives that Cleveland Browns fans can take away from the 2011-12 season. Who knows? Maybe the Browns really will finally get 'em next year.
1. A Surprisingly Smooth Transition to the 4-3 Defense
We'll get into specific aspects of and players on the 2011 defense a bit later, but the first big positive to emerge for the Browns last season was their surprisingly smooth, fast and effective transition from the 3-4 to the 4-3 defense.
Going into the season, the idea of changing systems on both offense and defense was beyond nerve-wracking. The offense, unfortunately, suffered a transition that was at least as rocky as expected. The defense, on the other hand, turned out to be stunningly and quickly amenable to moving to a 4-3 scheme.
Prior to the season, Browns' defensive players repeatedly averred that the transition from 3-4 to 4-3 is notably easier than the other way around. Generally speaking, we know better than to think anything will turn out to be easy for a Cleveland team, but this time, those stating that this was simpler than it looked turned out to be right.
Some of that, of course, was because the team's personnel was better suited to playing in a 4-3 than a 3-4, and some of it was undoubtedly good defensive coaching, but it does seem that the supposed "easier" transition did turn out to be as advertised.
And the players and coaches involved, of course, deserve more credit than just that for not screwing up an easy transition. Regardless of the exact phrasing those involved used, changing schemes is never truly simple, even when the team is better suited to the new one.
The Browns' front seven in particular did a remarkable job of making the switch, especially notable considering they had it far tougher than the secondary in making such a transition.
And of course, huge, huge credit has to go to defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, who built the kind of defense it takes most DCs years to establish in just one season for the Browns.
2. A Highly-Ranked Pass Defense
We have to acknowledge the sadly ineffective run defense, which was problematic for the Browns all season long and served as proof that as much progress as they made, the defense does still have a long way to go.
However, this is a discussion about positives, so we'll focus on the more successful faction of the squad here: the pass defense.
Statistically, the Browns' pass defense was shockingly good, ranking second in the NFL in yards ceded with 2959 and second in YPG ceded with 185. That placed them squarely behind the arch-rival Pittsburgh Steelers at second overall in pass defense in the league.
But how much do those numbers mean? It depends on who you ask.
Those whose glasses are half-full will say the numbers tell the whole (or at least most of) the story, and that the Browns' aerial defense was as good as the stats indicate.
Then there are those of the more negative (would you prefer skeptical?) persuasion who think the passing stats for the Browns defense are skewed because it was so easy to run against them that opponents just didn't bother with throwing the ball.
The answer, as always, likely lies somewhere in between, though luckily for those of us clinging to whatever shred of hope for the Browns future that we can, it probably lands closer to the side saying the stats are legitimate rather than the side that says the numbers do lie in this case.
Obviously any team that has trouble defending the run to such a degree as the Browns did will get a slight boost in their pass defense numbers simply because opponents won't waste their time trying to throw much when they have such a sure-shot alternative. However, we still would have seen a lot more effective pass plays run against the Browns if the stats were really all just smoke and mirrors.
The Browns pass defense may not be quite as good as the label "second in the NFL" would seem to indicate, but they were still exceptional and will continue to get better.
3. Standout Rookies
While a year ago, Browns fans agreed nearly unanimously that Tom Heckert and Mike Holmgren were excellent at identifying and selecting talent in the draft, folks now seem to be divided on whether or not "Team Walrus" is really all that good at hitting the jackpot on draft day.
Personally I find all the ship-jumping premature and think the Browns front office, despite whatever else they do wrong, does continue to draft well. Sure, they've had some missed opportunities here and there over the last two drafts, but you would be hard pressed to find a team that hasn't.
While this year's class failed to produce an instant star like the 2010 class did with Joe Haden, several of the team's rookies did play notably well for NFL first-timers.
We'll start with WR Greg Little, who is obviously still very raw, but showed some legitimate potential as a pass-catcher despite the offense's largely disastrous season. Little still needs to clean up his game quite a bit, but the raw talent is there and most of his flaws are inexperience-related and correctable. He should be a solid No. 2 receiver before long.
While he only saw limited action, CB Buster Skrine showed a lot of potential. And while he could obviously use a stricter fitness regimen, DT Phil Taylor looks like he has a pretty high ceiling as well.
OT Jason Pinkston, oft maligned along with the rest of the sputtering offensive line, also actually did a pretty decent job considering he was asked to step in and start as a rookie despite not necessarily projecting as a starter at all, even down the road. No one is suggesting Pinkston is the answer to any of the line's problems going forward as a starter, but he's already proven he'll be valuable for depth.
And finally, the Browns' rookie standout of the season, DE Jabaal Sheard. As an early second-round pick, Sheard has turned out to be better than advertised and better than his draft slot would seem to indicate. While we have to qualify (at least to a degree) most of the positive statements we make about the other 2011 rookies, Sheard needs no excuses made for him.
His only errors and shortcomings were those typical of a rookie in his position who is still learning. His aggression, nose for the ball and stamina proved to be excellent.
4. Other Standout Players
In amongst all the players we gripe about, worry about or just wish would magically disappear, are a number of players who actually did a truly exceptional job for the Browns this season.
First on the list has to be MLB D'Qwell Jackson, a player who one year ago looked as though his career might be finished and today looks unquestionably like the Browns' defensive MVP.
Other defensive standouts include Sheard and the always underrated Ahtyba Rubin, who never gets quite as much credit as he deserves. A tip of the helmet to SLB Chris Gocong as well. Prior to the season, Gocong looked iffy at best as a fill-in guy, but proved he was actually more than worthy of both a starting job and a three-year contract by the middle of the 2011 schedule.
And of course, there is the ever-impressive Joe Haden. While Haden did have a bit of down year compared to his rookie campaign in 2010, he was still among the league's best CBs and looks to be on his way to becoming a true shutdown corner.
On offense there was far less to celebrate, but there were a few players who stood out in one way or another. Pro Bowl LT Joe Thomas continued to do his job and do it well despite the shortcomings of his fellow offensive linemen.
Despite the limited action he saw, I liked what I saw from WR Jordan Norwood (who probably has the best hands on the team).
I also think QB Colt McCoy deserves a nod here for his toughness and that RB Chris Ogbonnaya deserves one as well for doing more than anyone would have thought that they could ask of him.
And as always there is Josh Cribbs, the team's heart and soul, its hardest worker, the man who represents what it truly means to wear the orange and brown. I can't think of another guy I'd rather have as the face of my franchise than Cribbs, who embodies everything a hero should be both on and off the field even in spite of his lack of statistical achievements during the 2011 season.
5. Those Crazy Browns Fans
Finally, there is the ever-present positive of the Browns crazed, enthusiastic and fiercely loyal fanbase, a group that is as much the backbone of its franchise as any team's followers are to their respective squad.
Cleveland is a tough town in which to be a sports fan. Our teams are long on despair, disappointment and heartbreak and short on success, championships and glory. And when they're not breaking our hearts in the most spectacularly painful manner possible, they're usually slowly killing us via frustrating mediocrity and ineffectiveness.
We've talked repeatedly throughout this past season and each one prior to it about how crazy a person has to be in order to be a Browns fan. Perhaps this sad statement of insanity simply registers a lemming-like tendency in us to follow our mess of a team off a cliff despite the futility of following them anywhere at all, but I happen to also think it shows a remarkable sense of character and loyalty.
Browns fans have stuck by this team through The Drive, The Move and through far worse seasons than the one we just witnessed. Despite our perpetual threats to "sell our season tickets and move to another city," we all know deep down that we'll never abandon our beloved Browns, no matter how frustratingly bad they may be.
And if that's crazy, hey, sign me up.