Coming off a disappointing season in which many fans hoped the Cleveland Browns would finish something like 8-8 and they instead finished 4-12, it felt like the same old story for the perpetually disappointed fanbase, whose team's achievements never seem to quite live up to the expectations levied upon them.
Realistic or not, front office and strategic organizational changes for the Browns in recent years gave fans a renewed sense of hope and allowed them to believe that the team was on its way to something big.
So far the biggest thing the Browns have managed to offer their fans was a 5-11 season after which the head coach was fired followed by a 4-12 season under his replacement. This and the many problems for the team that caused it have subdued some fans' optimism, but most of the fanbase remains undeterred from ceasing to spend on the Browns what might be the city of Cleveland's most valuable currency: hope.
Believing in the Browns is, from an intellectual (or statistical) standpoint, a fool's errand. Common sense as well as cold hard facts suggest that if you believe the Browns will succeed, there is roughly a 100 percent chance that you will be wrong and roughly a 100 percent chance that every other fanbase in the league thinks you're an idiot. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 46 times, call me a Browns fan.
And yet none of us seem to show any interest in throwing in the towel. Is this because we're all really as dumb as history seems to indicate we are, or is there perhaps, at long last, real reason to believe that the Browns are moving in the right direction?
Or maybe we've merely tempered our expectations such that it's easier to be optimistic about our goals because we've lowered them to a more attainable level. I have certainly heard the phrase "I'd be thrilled if we went 7-9" thrown out there pretty frequently.
Perhaps I've just drank too much of the Kool-Aid, but I certainly believe there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the Browns in 2012.
Does this mean they could be Super Bowl-bound, or even playoff-bound? I very much doubt that. But it does mean that in amongst all the problems still plaguing the team, there are also many reasons to realistically hope that we might expect more—significantly more—out of them this season.
I don't know that this will manifest in much change in terms of record (though I certainly hope it does), but I do think we'll see noticeable improvement this season in other ways.
Following are five reasons to be optimistic about the Browns in 2012. Be sure to add your own reasons for optimism for next season in the comments below!
For anyone with even a shred of pride, one of the most motivating things in the world is a constant, unceasing threat of shame and failure hanging over your head.
The Cleveland Browns front office has been living under just such a black cloud for quite some time now, and the threat of embarrassment, job loss or fans lighting your car on fire in the parking lot of the stadium has to be getting to them by now.
In other words, they have as much (if not more) at stake as the rest of us, and with 2012 being a make-or-break season of sorts for the Browns, you can bet they'll be working overtime to ensure they do everything they can to save the team, their jobs and their dignity.
After two years of failing to improve, management is basically running the team at gunpoint, and you, dear reader, are the beneficiary of a Browns front office now held hostage by its own prior failures.
The pressure on the front office and the coaches to deliver long-awaited improved results, while surely stressful for them, is good news for the fanbase, who will be the ones who stand to gain the most from the now do-or-die situation that management has inadvertently created for itself.
If there is anything they can do to ensure that the team will perform better in 2012, they're absolutely going to do it. Nobody likes getting fired. Even Pat Shurmur, though his actions often seem to suggest otherwise.
The 2011 version of Peyton Hillis, Madden-cursed and contract-stressed, spent most if not all of the season looking like, well, the poor man's Peyton Hillis.
That is, when we actually saw him which, between the injuries, illness and various off-field drama, wasn't very often at all. By midseason in 2011, a good percentage of Browns fans were completely fed up with Hillis and more than willing to send him packing once the season ended and his contract expired.
But then Hillis found some redemption toward the end of the year, trying his best to get back on the field to contribute and behaving like the quiet, humble, nose-to-the-grindstone player who we had all become so enamored of in the prior season.
While not everyone was impressed by Hillis' reform, most fans seemed to think he'd been punished enough and that, more importantly, he could still be very useful to the Browns in the future, and thus the team might want to seriously consider re-signing him to a new contract in 2012. At a much lower price than he and his agent had originally indicated, of course.
If the Browns were indeed able to do that and do so at the right price, the prospect of getting an even semi-returned-to-form Hillis back should give us reason to indulge in a little optimism.
Hillis will obviously never be the same in terms of productivity without FB Lawrence Vickers blocking for him, but he can sure be a hell of a lot better than he was in 2011. And assuming he's healthy, the Browns would be hard up to find another more productive running back at the same price.
If Hillis can come even close to his 2010 form, he can resurrect the Browns' beleaguered running game and light a fire under the offense as a whole.
We've made the mistake of placing too much of the burden on Hillis before both physically and mentally, but if the teams re-signs him (and it's sounding like there is a good chance they might) and it turns out he can handle the pressure, he could single-handedly give Browns fans reason to be optimistic about major improvement for the offense in 2012.
Perhaps the most complained about aspect of the 2011 Browns was the lack of offensive coordinator and the fact that rookie head coach Pat Shurmur was calling all the plays himself and doing a really lousy job of it.
Throughout the process, Shumur appeared anywhere from exasperated and overwhelmed to hopelessly, maddeningly inept. Regardless of which end of the incompetence spectrum he was leaning toward at any given time, it was never a good place to be for the Browns' offense, which played as though no one was running it, which in a sense was sort of true.
Much to the dismay of many fans, Shurmur will reportedly retain playcalling duties. Or at least that's what we're being told for the time being, so you can put down the torches and pitchforks. For now, anyway.
Regardless, whatever you think of either of their abilities, at least the Childress hiring takes some of the weight off Shurmur's shoulders. Even if neither of them turns out to be a genius, two heads really are better than one, especially if one of them, when forced to fly solo, was colossally overwhelmed to the point of total ineffectiveness.
Whether hiring Childress as the offensive coordinator is the answer to the Browns offensive problems remains to be seen, but there's just no way this doesn't improve the squad at least to some degree.
Hopefully the difference will be significant rather than subtle, but any improvement at all that bringing in Childress can provide over last year's anemic offense would be most welcome.
While the offense regressed after adopting a new system in 2011 from its performance in 2010, the defense went the opposite way upon adopting its new scheme, and did so to a surprising degree.
It would seem that the 4-3 defense agreed with the Browns both strategically and in terms of the talent they had on the roster, as Cleveland surprised a lot of folks with its quickness to adapt to a new system and with its overall effectiveness.
Granted, the run defense remained lousy and many think the Browns secondary is actually overrated, but the defense still turned in a good showing overall in 2011, especially considering the youth and inexperience of many of its starters and the fact that all the players were adjusting to the new scheme.
Most gratifying of all is that the defense will almost assuredly get even better in 2012. It is perhaps the single greatest reason for optimism for the Browns next season.
Because many of the principle players on defense for the Browns were so young, it stands to reason that they (and thus the unit as a whole) will improve significantly in 2012, purely thanks to having more experience and being a year beyond all the rookie mistakes we saw mixed in with otherwise good play last year.
DE Jabaal Sheard, a rookie who was both exceptionally impressive in his play and prone to bone-headed, rookie-type mistakes, is an excellent example of a player who should continue to play well but have enough experience to avoid so many needless errors next season.
Additionally, every important member of the defense will return to the team next season. The only key player in question is LB D'Qwell Jackson, who is up for free agency this offseason, but the Browns will work hard to hammer out a long-term deal with him, and if they can't come to an agreement, it seems likely they'll use their franchise tag on him.
Obviously a good draft and a few solid free agent pickups will be instrumental to improving the problematic run defense, but the Browns should be capable of addressing that. And should the Browns be able to make significant strides against the run in 2012, they'll potentially have one of the league's best defenses, which is certainly reason to be very optimistic about the upcoming season.
The Browns were a very young team in 2011, and it showed in both good ways and bad.
Despite the great potential of many of the rookies and second-year players, there were also a large number of mistakes resulting from inexperience that went along with that.
Overall though, the youthfulness of the team should act as a positive rather than a negative in the upcoming season.
Many of the younger players who were still adjusting to the league in 2011 got enough experience to avoid inexperience-related errors in 2012, or at least dramatically cut down on the frequency of such mistakes.
Again, Sheard in particular comes to mind, as do DT Phil Taylor and WR Greg Little.
The additional year of experience will also help some of the more raw youngsters become more polished. Little is of course the first player to come to mind with regard to this particular topic—in 2011, we saw Little show flashes of tremendous talent but also show that he was still very rough around the edges and not exactly what one would call, in an ideal world, "NFL-ready."
Thus the standouts of last year's rookie class—Sheard, Little and Taylor—should give us serious reason for optimism in 2012. CB Buster Skrine, if he can get more opportunities to contribute in 2012, is also worth mentioning in this group.
And then there are the other players who have a bit more experience, but who are still relatively young, having been in the league for only two or three seasons, such as CB Joe Haden, S TJ Ward, DT Ahtyba Rubin and even LB Chris Gocong.
These players, and others who are in the relatively early stages of their career, should all also hopefully continue to improve as they gain experience, and thus give us additional reason to be optimistic that our 2012 Browns won't let us down.