Cleveland Browns: 7 Goals Browns Must Reach to Consider 2012 Successful
"All progress is precarious, and the solution of one problem brings us face to face with another problem."—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Measuring success in most NFL cities typically follows one of two trends. One occurs exclusively in the realms of perennial contention surrounding such temples of victory as Lambeau Field. The second success-evaluation process is far more modest and prevalent in NFL cities across the country.
Binary success metric No. 1: did, or did not, our team win the Super Bowl? As of 2011, only about six to 10 NFL cities can really claim membership in this exclusive club of perennial Super Bowl contenders.
Two of the Browns' division rivals, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, troublingly number among those franchises. Other squads with resumes like three playoff appearances in a row or recent Super Bowl births include New England, New York (Giants), Green Bay, New Orleans, and until recently, the Indianapolis Colts.
The NFL's middle class, that is to say, the Tennessees, Kansas Citys, Detroits, Minnesotas and Cincinnatis must engage in a slightly more nuanced evaluation process, with two distinct questions: first, did our team make the playoffs, and second, did our team improve on last year's performance?
For various reasons, including historical rivalries, recent struggles and the psychological effect of losing and regaining their beloved franchise in the 1990s, Cleveland Browns fans in 2012 will consider their team's performance with their own unique perspective.
Looking toward the future for Browns fans has become somewhat of a cruise-control gear as the team has perpetually "rebuilt," for over a decade since its return to NFL football in 1999.
While outsiders may not envy the likes of Brandon Weeden or Trent Richardson joining one of the NFL's most hapless franchises, Cleveland's modest bar for success and win-hungry fanbase will compound any momentum the young Browns manage to gain in 2012.
Simply put: if the Browns win six games, this town will go nuts.
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1. Win 6 Games
In the wake of their 10-win 2007 campaign, the Browns have managed a paltry 4.5 wins per season.
Should the Browns manage to win more than five games for the first time in half a decade, not only will such a performance acquit head coach Pat Shurmur in his second year, it will also solidify the Holmgren/Heckert front office as the brass could claim they managed to right the ship.
With a roster chock-full of exciting young players, the Browns should manage to lose in entertaining fashion at the very least as they try to find their identity in 2012.
That said, the emergence of Cincinnati in 2011 under Andy Dalton demonstrated that with the closer-than-meets-the-eye competitive balance within the NFL, a young quarterback can lead his team to unexpected success, even in the tough-as-nails AFC North.
This augurs well for the Browns and their 28-year-old rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden.
2. Establish Trent Richardson, Sustainably
Not surprisingly, Trent Richardson projects as one of the most obvious Rookie of the Year candidates entering the 2012 season.
However, should Richardson lead the Browns to early success, offensive coordinator Brad Childress will have to resist the temptation to rely on the young Richardson for 20-plus carries a game into December.
While building a strong foundation and exacting the maximum performance out of Richardson as a rookie are crucial objectives, establishing a change-of-pace to Richardson will not only benefit the Browns' offense, but extend their third-overall draft pick's career.
If the Browns can find a way to vary the context and timing of Richardson's touches, they can maximize the considerable value of their most high-profile player.
3. Defeat Pittsburgh and or Baltimore
With a 4-23 record against the Steelers and a 7-19 record vs. Baltimore in the post-1999 era, Browns fans salivate over any opportunity to enjoy the Schadenfreude that comes with defeating the hated Ravens or Steelers.
The rivalry with the Steelers evolved into a more respectful, friendlier creature, largely the product of sympathy over the course of the Browns' relocation-to-rebirth-to-abomination saga.
Burning-hot mutual hatred of their newer rival, the Baltimore Ravens, also contributes to that bond between Browns and Steelers fans.
For a city tortured by on-the-field failures, Art Modell's off-the-field usurpation of their city's most cherished franchise nauseates Clevelanders to this day.
While a victory over the Steelers excites fans because it brings legitimacy, nothing sweetens a Browns victory like a Ravens loss.
If Pat Shurmur can lead the Browns to some elusive AFC North victories, he will earn the adoration of the Cleveland fans and media in his second season.
4. Lay the WCO Foundation Under Brandon Weeden
With the 22nd overall pick in the draft, the Cleveland Browns front office played their hand with the selection of Brandon Weeden out of Oklahoma State.
Taking a 28-year-old quarterback, the Browns virtually slammed it on the table: they wanted a guy who could make the throws and didn't care how they got him.
Well, now they have him, and the Browns face the NFL's third-toughest schedule in 2012, according to ESPN.
If there was ever a year for the Browns to emerge as perennial competitors, this is it.
Defensively, Cleveland has struggled to stop the run, and if the offense can improve their numbers on time of possession, that indirect contribution alone will greatly alleviate the pressure on the defense to limit opposing running attacks.
Additionally, the Browns haven't enjoyed an exciting passing attack since that '07 campaign saw jump ball after jump ball launched for Braylon Edwards by flash-in-the-pan Pro Bowler Derek Anderson.
If Weeden can recapture and sustain the success Anderson briefly achieved with the Browns No. 3 jersey, the Cleveland front office can laugh at the myriad of questions revolving around Weeden's selection.
5. Stop the Run
The departures of Jayme Mitchell and Scott Fujita, two defenders who played the run much like a kitchen sieve addresses water, immediately improves the Browns' rush defense.
While Fujita appeals his suspension and the details of his involvement with the Bountygate scandal continue to emerge, rookie James-Michael Johnson and young reserve Kaluka Maiava project as the top competitors for Fujita's outside linebacker spot.
Cleveland approached Mitchell's vacated defensive end position with a two-pronged strategy, acquiring the pass-rushing Juqua Parker and run-stopper extraordinaire Frostee Rucker in free agency. This unique tactic paid dividends only a week later, as Phil Taylor's pectoral muscle tear could lead to Rucker filling in at defensive tackle along with candidates like rookie John Hughes and practice-squad regular Brian Schaefering.
With an abysmal record against the run in recent years in a division where first place is virtually impossible to win without a top-five running defense, the obvious goal of stopping the run for the Browns personifies the lament, "easier said than done."
6. Send Two New Players to the Pro Bowl
While the Pro Bowl is largely a popularity contest, the Browns could use a little popularity in a hometown which has been far from shy in expressing their frustration along with unconditional love as of late.
With young stars like Joe Haden and Jabaal Sheard on defense and compelling rookies Trent Richardson and Brandon Weeden on offense, the Browns enter the season with a clear-cut core of young talent.
In the long-term, hopes are quietly high that Pro Bowl offensive linemen Joe Thomas and Alex Mack can successfully groom second-round pick Mitchell Schwartz into a Pro Bowl-caliber right tackle, if not a Pro Bowler in reality. (A subject for another column, right tackles very, very rarely make it to Honolulu.)
7. Make Us Believe
A far more subjective criterion than the previous six, the Cleveland Browns' single most challenging task in 2012 is largely psychological.
After over a decade of losing, even brand-new Cleveland Browns enter Berea with the compounded pressure of the city's tortured history.
If Cleveland's locker room can channel that potentially destructive energy into the kind of resolve demonstrated by, for example, the 2004 Boston Red Sox, the Browns could actually be in for a magical season.
One distinct advantage Cleveland fans hold over others around the league is that success tastes better when you're unaccustomed to the flavor.
Another is that while only a Super Bowl could satiate those privileged NFL cities, a sixth win would create a buzz in Cleveland which would befit only championship contenders in any other city.