Cleveland Browns: Why Fans Should Be Optimistic Regardless of 2012 Performance

Alex Ballentine@Ballentine_AlexFeatured ColumnistAugust 29, 2012

GREEN BAY, WI - AUGUST 16:  Brandon Weeden #3 of the Cleveland Browns drops back to pass against the Green Bay Packers during a preseason game at Lambeau Field on August 16, 2012 in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The Browns defeated the Packers 35-10.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Regardless of how the upcoming season pans out for the Cleveland Browns, the team is headed in the right direction.

In all likelihood, the Browns won't factor into the playoff picture in 2012. Despite wholesale changes on the offense and a promising defense that has another year of experience, the roster simply isn't ready to compete week-in and week-out like they need to in an uber-tough AFC North.

However, just because this season may not reflect a huge difference in the final standings (there's a good chance their record will actually be worse than last season's) doesn't mean they aren't heading in the right direction. Here's why fans can still remain hopeful about a brighter future in Cleveland.

 

A Brutal Schedule

Given that the Browns have so much youth, the team is sure to improve with experience despite very little activity in the way of free-agent additions.

Jabaal Sheard, T.J. Ward, Joe Haden and Ahtyba Rubin are all young players whose growth should make this a promising unit for years to come. That being said, that improvement may not mean more wins as the Browns' schedule should be much more difficult to navigate this season than it was in 2011.

The 2012 schedule certainly doesn't do this young team any favors. Their opponents' combined winning percentage in 2011 was .527—good for the third-toughest schedule in the league according to that metric (h/t ESPN).

By contrast, the 2011 Browns saw a schedule with a combined winning percentage of .492—tied for 19th among all NFL schedules. Even with a manageable schedule, the Browns still only mustered four wins. Fans shouldn't be discouraged for the long-term future if they don't win much this season, the schedule can't be this tough every year.

 

The Offense is a Work in Progress

Mike Holmgren and Co. invested heavily in the defense upon their arrival and it paid dividends last season when the defense kept the Browns in a majority of their games.

This offseason it was the offense's turn.

The Browns offense may not be a high-powered scoring machine this season, but it certainly will be different than last season. Aside from Greg Little, there should be new starters at each of the skill positions.

Whether or not you agree with the selection of Brandon Weeden, it gives the Browns a quarterback with the arm strength to put the ball down the field and threaten big plays off of play action. Add in the newly acquired deep threats in Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin and the passing game has new pieces that could develop into a great dimension of the offense.

Setting up that passing game will be Trent Richardson.

By using the No. 3 pick in the draft on Richardson, the Browns got what they haven't had since coming back in 1999, a true featured back that isn't past his prime.

As long as Richardson can get healthy, he has the tools to be a bona fide top-five running back for years to come. The type of player that you need to survive the physicality of the AFC North.

Looking at the offense as a whole, the pieces are definitely there to become a great unit. However, much like the defense, it's going to take some time. With so many new faces in the mix adjusting to a new offense, it can be expected that there will be plenty of growing pains. However, the pains will be worth it if the Browns stay the course and develop what they have to its potential.

The offense will need to be measured in terms of development and progression this season—not numbers.

 

Pittsburgh and Baltimore Can't Rule Forever

It's really tough to build a contender when the same two teams dominate the conference title picture every season.

For years, the Browns' rebuilding efforts have seemed futile simply because the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are consistently on top of the division.

It's really tough to build a contender when the same two teams dominate the conference title picture every season.

For years, the Browns' rebuilding efforts have seemed futile simply because the Pittsburgh Steelers and Baltimore Ravens are consistently on top of the division. That dominance should continue for at least the next season, but both teams have their fair share of concerns going into the future.

For the Steelers, the defense that has long carried the team to contender status is now one of the oldest defenses in the league. The average age is over 30 and several of their key stars (Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and Casey Hampton) are nearing the twilight of their careers.

For the Ravens, the situation is similar as defensive lynchpins Ray Lewis and Ed Reed can't play at the level they once played at and are both nearing retirement. Throw in the potentially devastating Achilles injury to Terrell Suggs, and this once unquestionably dominant defense has a ton of questions heading into the next few years.

Should we expect these two teams to completely fall off? Of course not, these two have been the favorites nearly every season for 10 years, so they obviously have a penchant for building great rosters. 

What it does mean is that both teams are headed for a transitional phase (at least briefly) within the next few years. As long as Cleveland continues to build the team through the draft, stays the course and develops what they have, they should be competing for AFC North titles in the not-so-distant future.

That's cause for hope among the Cleveland faithful—even if they are forced to suffer through one more season of irrelevance.

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