May is a time of hope in Cleveland, as Browns fans look toward September thinking that perhaps this is the season in which their beloved team finally turns things around and becomes a winning squad, which they haven't been since 2007.
The joy of that 2007 season was fleeting, however—in 2006, they were a 4-12 team, and that's what they were in 2008. There was no carryover of that 2007 success; in fact, the Browns never even sniffed the .500 mark in the intervening years.
A winning record is clearly a goal for the (hopefully) improved Browns this season, but even if they end the year with an 8-8 record, it should be considered a success.
Just twice since re-forming as an organization in 1999 have the Browns posted a winning record—the aforementioned 2007 season, in which they went 10-6, and in 2002, when they went 9-7 and earned themselves a wild-card berth.
Since then, they've been a sub-.500 team constantly on the hunt for that magic formula that can make them competitive not just in the difficult AFC North division, but also in the league at large. However, their path to that goal has been rife with more missteps than triumphs, and it's wearing thin.
"Believeland" has morphed into a "Factory of Sadness."
But, legitimately, Browns fans have something to be excited about this year. Trent Richardson, the draft's best running back in years, is now with the Browns, as is strong-armed quarterback Brandon Weeden, who is projected to win the starting job.
The receiving corps is still shaky, but improving. The problems with the offensive line seem to have at least been addressed, if not fixed, and as long as the changes to the defensive front seven prove positive, the Browns shouldn't be as easy to run against as they were last season.
There will still be hiccups, of course. With two rookies likely leading the offensive charge in one of the more complex West Coast offenses in the league, there's going to be a learning curve.
Also, should the Browns stiffen against the run, it's hard to tell if their solid numbers against the pass will carry over into 2012; a lot of the time, teams were simply not throwing the ball against Cleveland because they didn't have to, which did pad their secondary's stats somewhat.
What's the most realistic outcome for the Browns' 2012 season?
But the pieces are in place for the Browns to be a drastically better team than they were in 2011 and than they've been for some time. This isn't a Super Bowl-caliber team right now and it doesn't need to be—improvement for a team like the Browns is incremental and every sign of progress is good, no matter how small or large.
Think about last year's Browns, or two other teams last year that performed poorly, the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Indianapolis Colts: Should either of those two squads have made the improvements that the Browns have managed to make this offseason, they'd clearly be better off than they were in 2011.
The same goes for Cleveland. Yes, even 5-11 or 6-10 would be better than the 4-12 of last season, but it's not foolish to set the bar so high as to assume the Browns have a .500 season ahead of them. A 4-12 record clearly is something to build on—there's, hopefully, nowhere to go but up—but 8-8 means that the foundation is strong and improvement can be sustained.
For some teams in 2012, the sky's the limit. For the Browns, 8-8 might just be their limit, but for them, that's a very good thing.