8 Reasons Cleveland Browns Fans Should Be Excited for Training Camp
The beginning of the Cleveland Browns 2012 training camp should be a cause for hope, optimism and yes, excitement. Really.
Alas, some Cleveland faithful may be too jaded or too tired or too gun-shy to admit being excited. Okay, yes, it’s been a while.
After a loss in 2011, one Browns fan was even heard to cry at the stadium, “You are a factory of sadness!”
Many DawgPounders can relate to Hilary Clinton’s recent Afghanistan remarks. Via Voice of America:
I think if you are masochistic enough to be a Cubs fan, you are drawn to assignments like this, and what I do every day.
That’s enough! If embracing a losing record can drive one to become Secretary of State, it’s time to get a grip here, people. This doom and gloom must stop before more innocents are forced to seek public office.
One is reminded of Friar Lawrence’s admonition to the downcast Romeo:
Affliction is enamour'd of thy parts,
And thou art wedded to calamity…
O deadly sin! O rude unthankfulness!
Yes, that’s Shakespeare. (Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene iii)
The good friar then goes on to list Romeo’s many blessings, reminding him of the myriad ways in which “thou are happy." There’s a lesson here.
Improved Run Defense: The Lower End of the Excitability Meter
It’s impossible to find YouTube video of a 2011 Cleveland Brown tackling a running back. That’s not a good sign.
While the Browns 2011 passing offense ranked second in the league in yards allowed (184.9), opposing runners gained an average of 147.4 yards per game on the hapless Cleveland run D. Ouch.
In the year’s first match vs. the Baltimore Ravens, rusher Ray Rice racked up 204 yards and one touchdown on 29 carries. Rice didn’t even play the whole game: Backup RB Ricky Williams added 76 yards rushing yards and scored one touchdown of his own.
Clearly, this is a key ingredient in manufacturing stadium sadness.
Mike Holmgren, Tom Heckert, Pat Shurmur and Dick Jauron have taken some steps to address this potentially fatal flaw.
The team drafted James-Michael Johnson and Emmanuel Acho to help out a linebacking corps that features absolute stud D’Qwell Jackson in the middle.
However, after Mr. Jackson, the linebacking quality level drops significantly.
What to do at starting strong-side backer is by far the biggest defensive question mark going into camp—and also long term.
If the coaches move Chris Gocong over to SLB, then what do they do when Scott Fujita returns from suspension?
Gocong filled in after Fujita’s injury in 2011—to mixed results.
So, if the team plays Gocong at SLB for a month and Kaluka Maiava starts in the “Will” spot, is Plan A to move Gocong back to his original position and demote Maiava to reserve status?
Unfortunately, this was the plan last year, when the run defense finished 30th in the NFL. Hmmm.
Regardless of the September 2012 plan, at 33 years old, Fujita isn’t going to hold down the “Sam” position too much longer. So a more permanent solution needs to be found that doesn’t involve flipping Gocong all over the field.
James-Michael Johnson has been playing MLB in OTAs and may be groomed as the second-string/emergency plan there. But how about trying him out over on the strong side? Just a thought.
Then there is Plan B, which would have Johnson and Maiava and heaven-knows-who-else competing to replace Fujita in September. While a short-term risk, this seems to accomplish both leaving Gocong where he belongs and seeing what the Browns have in their top linebacking draft pick.
Another possibility is that James-Michael Johnson will compete for the starting WLB spot from the jump If Maiava hangs onto the starting spot, Johnson will probably come off the bench in relief of both the WLB and D’Qwell Jackson in the middle. This Plan C seems more and more likely.
Then there is Emmanuel Acho. With President Mike Holmgren nodding at his side, Shurmur told the media (from 19 Action News), “This guy is a terrific kid ... he really is. Terrific player. Very eager."
That's for sure. For more on Mr. Acho, see this draft recap.
Some analysts from Second City Fanatics think that the eventual replacement on the strong side will indeed be Acho. Interesting—and wouldn't H&H look brilliant if this came to pass?
Not to be ignored are the promising rookies DT John Hughes and DE/DT Billy Winn. Nfldraftscout.com rated Winn as a second- or third-round pick and as the 10th out of 135 DEs.
The linebacker situation will be helped by the fact that both Cincinnati and Pittsburgh appear to have de-emphasized their rushing game. (Unless new Steeler Chris Rainey really does turn out to be the next Darren Sproles as advertised.)
Bengal Bernard Scott only averaged 3.4 yards per carry in 2011. BenJarvus Green-Ellis comes into Cincy with some lovely numbers, but much of that success may well have been a result of playing with a certain future HOF QB.
The Bengals tried to improve their O-line. We’ll see. Can Bernard Leonard prove that he is worthy of more than a third-string slot? But if that were the case, why sign Green-Ellis?
Newly signed Browns DE Frostee Rucker made his NFL reputation as a run-stuffer. Time to earn that reputation in the other Ohio football town.
Pass rush will come from the rest of the D-line, so the linebackers will have the time to cover the middle and stop the run. Theoretically.
Improved Pass Rush: Moving Up the Meter
The Browns front office took a unique approach to free agency: They generally ignored its existence.
The exception was the addition of Frostee Rucker and Juqua Parker at DE. Rucker is penciled as the starter at RDE, with Parker and Marcus Benard laying back as pass-rush specialists.
Benard, who missed all of 2011 after a motorcycle accident, is lucky to still have a job. The team paid him his full salary in 2011 and has signed him for this year, even though he is still adjusting to the line position after playing as an OLB for most of his football days.
The rising pass-rushing star on this line is Jabaal Sheard, who led the team in 2011 with 8.5 sacks. That goes with five forced fumbles, by the way.
Think how much better he could be with a matching pincer at the other defensive end slot? Every Dwight Freeney needs a Robert Mathis. Enter Parker and Benard. At least that’s the plan—and it’s a pretty good one, too.
Rookie Billy Winn recorded two sacks in the Boise State bowl victory, so he knows his way to the quarterback, too.
DT Ahtyba Rubin surprisingly notched five sacks in 2011.
Joe Haden and Friends: The Excito-Meter Is Engaged
Cleveland has one of the best young secondaries in the NFL.
Joe Haden’s Twitter profile describes him as “No ordinary Joe.” No doubt about that.
With Haden, Sheldon Brown, Dimitri Patterson and rapidly rising Buster Skrine, Cleveland will also have one of the better dime packages in the NFL.
The emergence of Eric Hagg at starting free safety gives the Browns three “real deal” men (Hagg, Usama Young and SS T.J. Ward) to cover their level of defense.
Trivia: Haden wasn't outdone in the “good guy” department by new teammate Trent Richardson. He also made it possible for a young lady to attend her senior prom. Joyce Grendel’s date backed out on her at the last minute (definitely not a good guy) and she invited Haden via twitter. Having never attended America’s version of May-daying himself, Joe said yes. He even showed up on time.
Not to rain on anyone’s parade here, but the secondary needs to come down with a few more turnovers in 2012.
Last season, the entire team pulled down nine interceptions—and three of those were by departed safety Mike Adams. But other than that…
Coaching Resumes: Important Though Not Exciting
I hesitate to call it "talent," but the experience level in the Cleveland Browns coaching ranks is truly impressive.
The staff (if one includes Mike Holmgren) boasts four former NFL Head Coaches:
Pat Shurmur (who started young thanks to uncle Fritz Shurmur of the Green Bay Packers) has been with seven playoff teams, five divisional winners and was a member of the Eagles in their Super Bowl appearance.
Nolan Cromwell was the Packers’ Super Bowl special teams coordinator. Remember Desmond Howard? Uh-huh.
Virtually every one of these coaches is from the Mike Holmgren coaching dynasty. Which means that they are direct descendants of Bill Walsh and Paul Brown.
Perhaps this coming full circle bodes well for the second decade of the 21st century in Cleveland.
The one thing that really stands out about Pat Shurmur and his staff this season is how “hands-on” they are with the team. Shurmur spent a few plays lining up at wide receiver this afternoon in drills. He is slow off the line but runs pretty crisp routes.
Travis Benjamin and Josh Gordon: Speed Kills
When examining the Browns receiving corps, cleveland.com writer Matt Florjancic quoted Brandon Weeden:
[Travis Benjamin] can fly. We were joking about that, the wind coming this way, so when we’re going toward the facility you have to let it go a few steps early because he can go. Downwind, it’s not so bad, but if you’re trying to throw into any kind of breeze, you have to let it go and keep it pretty tight.
Even if the quarterback is only "joking,” forcing him to recognize this about one of his receivers means that young Benjamin must be very, very fast indeed.
However, several sources have noticed that Travis has had some drops this summer—including drops of punts. Uh-oh.
Perhaps this is one of the reasons that Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert pulled the trigger on supplemental draft pick WR Josh Gordon.
Well, that—and a sense of self-preservation in not wanting to be ridden out of Cleveland on a rail for failing to address their lackluster ball-catcher situation.
Gordon comes with enough baggage to sink a canoe. (But hopefully not an NFL franchise.) NFL.com's Albert Breer has reported that Gordon failed a drug test at Utah, while in treatment.
Gordon has maintained to The Plain Dealer that this is not true. Oooh-kay. More to come.
Browns general manager Tom Heckert, in a Tuesday media session reported in the Washington Post, addressed spending a second-round pick on Gordon:
Obviously he’s a guy who can come in here and be a starter for us and make plays for us…I talked to a zillion guys and I couldn’t find one guy to say something bad about the kid...He has huge hands and long arms.
Maybe he didn't talk to the same people as Albert Breer, who also wrote that Gordon scored a 24 on the Wonderlic. That's not bad: The average score for an NFL wide receiver is 17.
Then there is the not-insignificant matter of that 40-yard dash time: 4.52 seconds (John McClain/Houston Chronicle).
A time like that could cause some selective front-office blindness for sure.
Hey, it worked out pretty well for Bernie Kosar.
Josh Cooper and Brad Smelley: Friendship and Chemistry
Josh Cooper wasn’t considered enough of an athlete to be drafted. He also played in the shadow of Justin Blackmon (121 receptions and 18 TDs). Still, Cooper managed three scores on his 71 catches. He has also managed to stay out of jail.
Mr. Cooper was Brandon Weeden’s second-favorite target at Oklahoma State. Weeden made it official by tweeting:
"I liked throwing the ball to him just as much as I liked to throw to Justin Blackmon."
They are such good friends that Cooper is staying on Weeden’s couch until he is sure he’s got a job for this football season.
Of course, Weeden may move up to a house with a guest room once he finally signs that first-round contract.
In the meantime, they are buds and their football chemistry has been commented upon by several visitors to OTAs.
Fellow rookie Brad Smelley also gets all sorts of slams for being an “ordinary" athlete (Lindy’s Sports Pro Football Draft.)
However, Lindy's then goes on to credit him with toughness, a great work ethic and all of the other things that get a young man a NFL paycheck—even if it’s not a big one.
According to Scott Petrak of The Chronicle Online, Brad Smelley has been “the surprise of camp.”
He seems to be a natural in one area of gridiron play: catching the football. ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said unceremoniously, "Brad Smelley will make this football team. He's got great hands."
Combined with constant effort and universally reportedly high character, Mr. Smelley has an All-American Boy charisma that has fans pulling for him as he hopes to survive in the NFL with those soft hands and hard work.
As his high school coach Stephen Hooks told CantonRep.com staff writer Steve Doerschuk, “Brad is a very humble individual who doesn't speak much on the football field. He just delivers.”
Give any team about 40 of these guys and see what happens.
Brandon Weeden: Can You Feel It Now?
Weeden will be the 11th starting quarterback in 14 season openers if/when he takes the field against the Philadelphia Eagles on Sept. 9.
Holmgren is a believer and made it public in a June press conference.
He's as prepared to come in and start as any rookie I've seen in a long time...He is gifted. There is a maturity level because of his age. He is a different rookie because of that.
Just the facts, ma'am:
1. 75 touchdown passes
2. 72.3 completion percentage in 2011
3. well over 4,000 yards passing the past two seasons
4. 37 TDs to 13 INTs
Are you excited yet?
Roger Staubach, who may know a thing or two about mature rookies, also weighed in to Bill Livingston of The Plain Dealer: "It's a confidence thing. The quarterback has to transfer his belief in himself to the other players."
Let's take his word for it.
The O-Line of the Decade: Yes, This Is Exciting.
Hate to jinx it, but it does look as if the Browns have finally “amassed” an entire unit. Plus some backups.
If only all offensive linemen could be Joe Thomas, all quarterbacks would be clean and all running backs Walter Payton. However, they are not.
Cleveland’s young O-line has however, at least on paper, catapulted itself into a unit worthy of the AFC North.
The left side was already in good shape. From Thomas to left guard Jason Pinkston to Pro Bowl center Alex Mack—a quality bunch all.
Drafting right tackle Mitchell Schwartz will put up a castle tower on the right side—if he’s the real deal. Which he certainly appears to be.
And right guard Shawn Lauvao improved steadily in 2012 and should continue on the upswing with Schwartz on the outside.
The Browns wasted no time keeping John Greco as a valued reserve lineman. The fact that Greco can play all three line positions gives him the most job security for which a lineman could hope. He and Oniel Cousins will start out backing up the entire line.
Then there is rookie draft steal Ryan Miller (who can play guard or tackle). From CantonRep.com:
I try to play nasty...vicious...until the whistle blows. I might not be the most technically sound, but I’ll give you my all and I’ll bleed, bite, crawl and scratch to get the job done.
Yep, he's a Cleveland guy.
Trent Richardson: And the Excitability Thermometer Explodes!
Trent Richardson is a tough, angry rusher. He ran for 1,679 yards last year, averaging 5.9 yards per carry. That is almost six yards—every single touch.
The pride of the Crimson Tide scored 21 rushing touchdowns. In a college football season. Excited yet?
While no one will be confusing Trent with Randy Moss in the foreseeable future (or actually—ever), he caught 29 balls for 338 yards, averaging almost 12 yards per reception and scoring three touchdowns.
He’s a very powerful man. He’s powerfully built. Don’t let the 5-9 fool you. He’s almost 230 pounds. That’s a lot of muscle packed into that body. I just think he’s got a very powerful build, much like we thought, and it shows up on the field.
—Pat Shurmur as reported on ESPNcleveland.com
Yahoo Sports' Brad Evans called him "a bigger version of Maurice Jones-Drew." Yeah, that about sums it up.
Check out the below facts courtesy of rolltide.com
1. Richardson, Tim Tebow and Cam Newton are the only players in SEC history to rush for 20 touchdowns.
2. Trent averaged 142 all-purpose and 105 rush yards per game against the five top college defenses.
3. He was 36.7 percent of the Alabama offense in 2011.
4. He has nine 100-yard rushing games.
5. Richardson lost just one fumble in 614 career touches—he has not lost a fumble since the sixth game of his freshman season.
6. He accounted for 104 first downs or touchdowns.
If this doesn’t get you excited, you have no business claiming to love football!
As Friar Lawrence would say:
This is dear mercy, and thou seest it not…
What, rouse thee, man!
Thy Richardson is nigh…There art thou happy:
Receivers would kill thee,
But thou drafteth Gordon; there are thou happy too:
The pick that stoleth Wright becomes thy friend
And turns it to Weeden; there art thou happy:
A pack of blessings lights up upon thy back;
Happiness courts thee in her best array.
See, Cleveland? Happiness courts us. All we have to do is believe.
(And hope that Will Shakespeare riseth not from his grave to slay thy favorite Browns writer.)