It seems as though every step forward the Cleveland Browns have made this year, they keep taking one back.
Just when it seemed the Browns had solved their run-stopping problems in their defensive front seven, star defensive tackle Phil Taylor tore a pectoral muscle and linebacker Chris Gocong ruptured his Achilles' tendon.
When it looked like their running game was set to be back on track—in an extremely explosive manner at that—the news just broke that Trent Richardson will have to have his surgically-repaired left knee examined after feeling soreness and may have to undergo another procedure.
And finally, and potentially most painfully, it appears that the Browns' best cornerback, Joe Haden, may be facing a suspension of up to four games for testing positive for Adderall, a medication used to treat attention deficit disorder, which is on the NFL's list of banned substances.
Taken alone, each one of these offseason developments for the Browns aren't very pleasant, but all together, they are reasons to push even the most optimistic of fans to the edge of panic. For a team with a reputation of things never going its way, these three events only seem to further advance that notion.
The Browns have had adequate time to prepare for a defensive line without Taylor, and Richardson's Week 1 playing status hasn't been switched to inactive while we wait to see what Dr. Andrews has to say about his knee, but losing Haden at this point is far worse of a body blow to the team than the other two events combined.
The Haden story began late last week as an unsubstantiated rumor on Twitter that has since ballooned into a full-fledged truth. If Haden's second test (which is taken from the same sample) is also positive, he'll miss four games, lose over $1.3 million in pay and will be ineligible for the Pro Bowl. But the worst thing that could happen will be on the field.
Yes, part of the reason the Browns had the second-best pass defense in the league last year is that it was easy for opposing offenses to run against them, but it also had to do a great deal with the talent they have in the secondary, and that starts with Haden.
Haden is in just his third season in the NFL, but has already begun gaining the reputation as the league's next great shutdown corner. And now that the game has become more pass-heavy than it's been in recent memory, having a cornerback of Haden's caliber is a major leg up on the competition. The Browns lucked out incredibly by being in the position to draft him in 2010.
Last season, Haden was the Browns' fifth-leading tackler, with a total of 65, and he notched one sack, defended 19 passes and had one forced fumble with one recovery.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Haden was the ninth-best cornerback in the league in 2011. He played 994 total defensive snaps, was targeted by opposing quarterbacks 85 times and allowed just 42 receptions (a 49.4 completion percentage for quarterbacks throwing his way) while giving up just three touchdowns.
So if Haden is going to serve a suspension, obviously whoever takes his place will be a major downgrade. The leading options currently on the roster are Dimitri Patterson, Buster Skrine and Sheldon Brown. Who gets that job depends on who isn't starting on the right side of the field, of course.
None of these options are all that great. Brown was last year's starter on the right and was Pro Football Focus' 65th-ranked corner. Though quarterbacks completed fewer passes to him than they did to Haden (at 46.1 percent) and he allowed just two touchdowns while playing just a handful of fewer snaps, his other numbers are more disturbing.
Brown had nine missed tackles to Haden's three; he had eight defensive stops to Haden's 15. He successfully defended eight passes, and when asked to work in run coverage, he was abysmal.
Patterson fared better out of the nickel, ranking 36th overall, but is the favorite to beat out Brown for a starting job, which means he won't likely be the one to fill in for Haden. And Skrine barely had any playing time in 2011 and isn't a front runner to start anywhere but the nickel this year.
With Taylor out for at least the first six weeks of the season, the Browns' defensive hopes hinged on Haden's ability to defend the pass and make tackles. Though it could be worse—Haden's potential suspension could be longer, and at least we're not here talking about a season-ending injury—losing someone with his talent for even four games puts the Browns in a dangerous position.
The Browns' first four games this year aren't going to be easy. They first face the Philadelphia Eagles at home, travel to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals in Week 2, host the Buffalo Bills in Week 3 and have their lone prime-time contest of the season when they take on the Baltimore Ravens in Week 4. That's not a stretch in which they'd like to be without Haden (though there isn't any stretch of games in which this would be an ideal scenario).
The Browns are no stranger to playing from behind the eight ball, but that's extraordinarily cold comfort considering their success when having to do so in recent years. The last thing the Browns need this year is to have a weak start to their season, and without Haden on the field, their defense will certainly take a hit.
Of all the bad things that have befallen the Browns over the course of the offseason, this latest development with Haden is the worst. At this point, the Browns need to have a Plan B for their Plan B, because many things seem to not be going as hoped.
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