When the rest of the nation gets exposed to the upgrade in the Cleveland Browns' talent, it will surprise many.
Whenever a long-struggling team sheds its losing ways, it is a surprise to many. That’s especially true for people outside the city where the team is located, as national pundits have long stopped paying attention to roster moves by the perennial loser.
In 2012-13, the Cleveland Browns will stop losing and will once again regain a spot on the nationwide sports radar.
How will they do this? Here are seven bold predictions which I believe the Browns must—and will—fulfill in the next two years. These do not include things like quarterback Brandon Weeden making steady progress or running back Trent Richardson vying for rookie of the year honors. I will be disappointed if these things don't happen.
So let’s look at seven things that will surprise us when they do happen.
The Cleveland Browns will release their own production of The Fast and the Furious 6 starring the six linebackers who will make this team. They include training camp surprises L.J. Fort and Craig Robertson.
Their speed, tackling and leadership skills have caused fans to double-check the Browns’ roster. Both men excelled at small colleges but weren’t drafted.
Fort has the misfortune of playing behind middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson in the Browns’ 4-3 defense. He could switch to the outside, but that was not his regular position at the University of Northern Iowa, where he made 184 tackles in 2011.
Free safety Eric Hagg is a training camp standout.
Few teams threw against the Browns when they could run so easily in 2011. With the Browns’ linebackers improved in 2012, opponents will try to throw more.
And they will still fail.
Before the preseason, I worried about the team's linebackers and lack of depth in the secondary. Others worried, too.
I no longer worry. The Browns have talented cornerbacks Joe Haden and Sheldon Brown, plus the hard-hitting but injury-prone safety T.J. Ward. The other safety battle was a toss-up between second-year free safety Eric Hagg and six-year veteran Usama Young.
But Hagg is having an exceptional camp. In two preseason games, his speed has put him around the ball and his ball skills have let him make plays. His contributions will help boost the Browns’ 10th-ranked overall defense of 2011.
Gordon is raw but will add to Browns' improving WR corps.
OK, they won’t challenge the talented Redskins’ Smurfs of the early 1980s, the Giants’ Jet Blue corps of 2010, or possibly even the Broncos’ Three Amigos of the late 1980s. But I do expect them to offer much more than a “head-shaking” performance.
If national pundits stayed at Browns camp for a longer time than it takes to interview Brandon Weeden or Trent Richardson, they would see the talent this team offers in Greg Little, Travis Benjamin, Josh Gordon and Jordan Norwood.
Yes, you read that right. Norwood. He’s not big or very fast, but as a slot receiver he has learned how to use body movement to reach soft spots in zone defenses. He reminds me of Herman Fontenot from the 1980s Browns.
Norwood will also join forces with Benjamin in steadily taking over for Joshua Cribbs in the return game over the next two years.
For teams learning how to win, special teams can quickly change momentum and create confidence. For good teams trying to win more, special teams provide an extra edge. Consider last season’s conference championship games.
More speed, elusiveness and depth in overall talent means better players will end up on special teams, making big tackles, blocking kicks, covering punts on defense and more. A rising tide lifts all boats.
Consider the improved quality of linebackers, defensive backs, wide receivers and running backs that will no longer start in their natural positions. But they will be better than the special teams players the Browns have had in recent years.
Jabaal Sheard led all Browns' defensive linemen in sacks last year.
The Browns had a decent defensive line in 2011 while starting two rookies.
I expect them to be better in 2012 despite the injury to Phil Taylor, which will probably keep him off the field until Cleveland's bye week on Nov. 11. The reason is that the Browns can rotate defensive linemen without a drop-off in talent.
Jabaal Sheard is looking to improve on his impressive 8.5-sack rookie campaign. Ahtyba Rubin has improved in each of his four seasons with the Browns. In addition, the Browns added Juqua Parker from Philadelphia, Frostee Rucker from Cincinnati and John Hughes from Round 3 of the NFL Draft.
We will also see the return of Marcus Benard, who was injured much of 2011 after a 7.5-sack performance in 2010. He has excelled in training camp.
Even though the Browns haven't won much in the division since 2007, most games were competitive. The Browns' progress in 2012 will turn at least two close games into victories.
In 2011, the Browns blew three third-quarter leads to division rivals—twice to Cincinnati, once to Pittsburgh. The Browns went 0-6 in division games and failed to score more than 20 points in any of them. The Browns held the Steelers to 14 points or less twice—losing twice.
The Browns haven’t won more than one division game in a season since 2007, when they went 3-3 in an overall 10-6 campaign. It was also the last time they beat the Baltimore Ravens. They made it close on Dec. 24, 2011, a 20-14 loss, after falling behind 20-0.
Considering the improvements over last year's inept offense, the Browns will get at least two division wins in 2012. The Steelers have had disappointing drafts lately and the Browns play at least one close game per year against both the Bengals and Ravens.
This is a year for progress.
Winning will return to the Browns. And soon. Believe it.
Browns fans will be paying attention to the standings and wild-card slots this December to see how their team can get into the postseason. But the Browns won’t make it this year. Not yet.
Fans' joy, now 10 years in absence, will have to wait until 2013. And I predict that’s all we’ll have to wait. If the Browns fill their few remaining talent holes, avoid serious injuries and learn how to win close games, they’ll get there.
Pundits make predictions based on last year’s win-loss records and offseason moves, but there are always surprises. Who thought the Philadelphia Eagles would go 8-8 in 2011? Who thought the Cincinnati Bengals would make the playoffs last year?
Strange things can and do happen. And the Cleveland Browns coming out of their cold, dark, long tunnel is about as bold a prediction as anyone can make.