When I was contemplating the current state of the Cleveland Browns for some reason, a certain part of The Legend of Bagger Vance kept coming to mind. (How fitting is it that I'm comparing the Browns to a movie most critics hate, but I enjoy for some reason?)
The Legend of Bagger Vance is about fictional golfer Rannulph Junuh (played by Matt Damon), a Depression-era war vet who is trying to re-discover his game. He is aided by a whimsical caddie named Bagger Vance (Will Smith) whose methods are somewhat unique.
In the scene where the two meet for the first time, Bagger informs Junuh that “the trick is…to find your swing.”
As Junuh hacks away at golf balls in the dead of night, Bagger goes on to explain: “Well you lost your swing… We got to find it… Now it’s somewhere… in the harmony… of all that is… All that was… All that will be.” In typical movie fashion, Junuh connects on a beautiful ball just as Bagger is finishing his philosophizing.
The idea that Bagger tries to convey throughout the film to Junuh is that inside, every person has “one true authentic swing” that can’t be taught or learned, only remembered.
The Browns have been a hapless mess since returning to the NFL in 1999, going through regime after regime trying to regain the stature that they held in the past.
In the NFL, it’s actually difficult to be bad for as long as the Browns have been. Just by the natural attrition of the game and draft process, along with the salary cap, franchises go from bad to good all the time, sometimes seemingly overnight (see the 2012 Bengals).
The Browns, on the other hand, have been stuck in a sand trap, hacking away at the ball but unable to improve their lie.
I will admit that I’m a bit of an eternal optimist. I eat up hope like it’s free candy. For the 2010 season, my theme for the Browns was “Cautiously Optimistic.”
Then in 2011, bolstered by Madden cover-man Peyton Hillis and a great preseason for Colt McCoy, I allowed myself to believe that the Browns could contend for the playoffs. I believed then, and still do, that it was possible to happen to the Browns what happened to the Bengals instead.
Like clockwork every year, five teams go from good to bad and five go from bad to good. Eventually that’s going to have to happen to the Browns…right?
I believe that the arrow is definitely pointing up for the Browns. I love the prospects of this team moving forward.
At the quarterback position, it’s clear to anyone that knows anything about football that Brandon Weeden is a major improvement over Colt McCoy. I like McCoy, he’s a gamer and all that, but physically he just can’t match up with Weeden or any of the elite QBs in the NFL.
There will be rough patches for Weeden for sure. He’s a rookie and will make rookie mistakes. He also seems to have a bit of a gunslinger mentality to him, which I like. I’d much rather him take some chances downfield than just serve up the Colt McCoy special (four-yard pass on 3rd-and-7) all the time. Fortune favors the bold, as they say.
Make no doubt about this, though, if the Browns are to have any modicum of success in 2012, it is going to be on Brandon Weeden’s arm. Quarterback is far and away the most important position in football and even more so in today’s game. Do you realize that there were six QBs in 2011 that passed for more yards than the entire Browns team gained?
I wrote an extensive statistic-heavy piece prior to the draft about the importance of taking a QB in the first round. I’m glad the Browns finally decided to go that route instead of trying to plug the hole with the likes of McCoy, Derek Anderson and Charlie Frye. It's not a guarantee he'll be good, but the chances are greatly improved.
There are questions of course about whether or not Weeden has the playmakers at receiver to get the ball to (we’ll get to the receivers in a bit). This is naturally just as essential as having a good QB in the first place. But what can’t be underestimated is just how big of a difference having a QB with a strong arm who can zip throws into tight windows is to an offense in the NFL.
There are a bevy of throws (deep post, seam, dig, ten and out…just to name a few) that Colt McCoy simply cannot make effectively to be successful long-term at this level of football. We’ve seen in just three preseason games that Weeden can make all those throws. That gives me great hope.
I’m not saying he’s going to blow up the league this year, but we’ll feel a lot better about the offense under Weeden than we did a year ago.
And one note on McCoy for all the Colt-backers: I’m actually pleasantly surprised that the Browns kept him as the backup QB. I’ve long maintained that he’s a better QB than Seneca Wallace, and if I need a guy for a spot start or an in-game injury substitution, then you can do a lot worse than Colt McCoy. He’s probably a top-five backup QB in the NFL. So that’s something.
I’ll be honest: I’m really excited to see Trent Richardson play in the brown and orange. I think he has the potential to be a special player. But I’m still not crazy about the idea of taking a running back in the top five of the draft. I’ve written this before, but the teams that win in the playoffs do it by passing, not running.
I get that Richardson has the potential to be a very special player and could one of the greatest of all time and that his talent was just too much to pass on. I just don’t want to see the Browns become too run-heavy. It’s good in theory, but it’s a philosophy that hasn’t produced a Super Bowl champion in quite some time.
Now that I threw a wet blanket on the situation, I do like the overall core of the running back position. In Cleveland, of all places, we know the importance of having depth at that position. You just never know when a back will go and it’s important to have a guy to put in his place that the defense still has to respect.
I was a fan of the Brandon Jackson signing last summer and wish we could have had him in 2011. He’s a solid backup who knows how to fill that role well as he did in Green Bay. He does a lot of things well, including catching and blocking, but nothing great.
The initial reports out of camp were very high on Montario Hardesty, but they seem to have cooled off of late to the point that Jackson may have supplanted him as the No. 2 back on the team. Hardesty certainly did not do himself any favors with two fumbles in the preseason, especially after demonstrating last season his complete lack of ability to catch the football.
And don’t sleep on my boy Chris Ogbonnaya! I maintain that he’s a good running back, and he showed me some things last year to make me think that he’s worth keeping around. The Browns must think so as well since they kept him on the roster even though he’s currently down with an injury. That’s something you see teams do for high-round draft picks, not backup undrafted free agents.
All this talk about the backups, though, has gotten away from the point that this unit will only be as solid as the tree-trunk legs of Trent Richardson. If T-Rich can put together a 1,500-yard season, then you very well could see the Browns in the thick of a playoff race come December. And yes, I just used the “P” word.
The wide receiver position is pleasantly starting to look like one that could actually pass for NFL-caliber.
Josh Gordon, while he needs a lot of work on his technique and route running, looks like a very special player. That over-the-shoulder catch on the sideline from Weeden against Philadelphia was breathtaking. I’d say that it was reminiscent of the Derek Anderson-to-Braylon Edwards good times, but the sheer name of Derek Anderson conjures far too many frightening images of passes in the dirt and plain abject failure.
Greg Little will continue to improve in his second season and will build on a quietly strong rookie campaign. He has to be the man for the passing game this season until Gordon comes around.
He was solid last season but lacked the big plays that you expect from a No. 1 receiver. I believe that will come a lot easier with a better QB in Weeden. I’ll probably say this a hundred times, but you can’t undersell how big of an impact having a good QB will have on the offense and the team as a whole. I expect big things from Little in 2012.
I had my doubts about Mohamed Massaquoi and thought it could be possible for him to even get cut after watching his dismal play for most of last season. But he’s looked strong and confident so far in preseason, which is encouraging. I’m still not sure if he can run a crossing route over the middle, but we’ll see.
The Browns' other rookie receiver, Travis Benjamin, looks like he could be a steal as a fourth-rounder. That speed can be tough to find, and if he can catch the football consistently and play consecutive weeks, we just might have something there.
With Josh Cribbs and Jordan Norwood rounding out the wide receivers, there’s a solid group of guys. They’re not going to set the league on fire this year by any stretch, but we’re a far way from having the worst receivers in the league any more. And one more time for good measure: Weeden’s play will elevate the level of the receivers.
Count me as one of the Browns fans who wasn’t that torn up about Evan Moore getting cut. His lack of playing time last season was a clear example that he just wasn’t a good fit in this offense. Sure, he’s nice to have in goal-line situations but you don’t keep a guy on the roster just for that purpose.
Benjamin Watson will be the mature leader of this group and hopefully will be a good teacher for young Jordan Cameron, who, like Gordon, possesses the exact physical gifts that you want for a player at his position.
He has a lot to learn as he hasn’t been playing football long, but the progress it appears he’s made from not being able to see the field for most of his rookie year to getting a lot of play in the preseason is something to mark for sure.
Without a doubt, the Browns view Cameron as the future at tight end.
There are few TEs in the league that I’d rather have a young player learn from than Watson, who is as respected a player in his character, leadership and sportsmanship as there is in the league. While recognizing that he’s probably training his replacement, I have no doubt he will give it his full effort.
And on the field, I just hope he can stay healthy. He showed last season that when he’s on the field he can still be a productive player. I don’t think Weeden will lean quite as heavily on the tight ends as Colt did, but it’s still nice for a rookie QB to have that safety valve.
Oh yeah, and Alex Smith is good at blocking…not so good at taking handoffs, though.
The performance by the offensive line in the Philadelphia preseason game was very disappointing. Coming into the season, I thought that this was going to be the most solid part of the team and that the days of worrying about our QBs dying because of a lack of protection were over. That didn't look like the case in the preseason.
What we can take solace in is that very fact...it's just preseason. There probably wasn't a ton of game-planning being done for those games. But it troubles me because many of the mistakes that were made were self-inflicted (like false starts) or just being out-manned.
This is the thing about football: Without all units of the team working in concert, the team as a whole cannot be successful. If the line doesn't play well, the offense will struggle.
But what we can cling to is the youth on the line. Shaun Lauvao and Jason Pinkston are both going into their second years as starters, and Mitchell Schwartz is a rookie. Alex Mack and Joe Thomas are both Pro Bowl-caliber players but are still relatively young.
If this unit can stay healthy and grow together, they could be a great offensive line. There will be some bumps this season, but there's certainly reason to be hopeful about the future.
Despite the fact that the Browns were statistically a top-10 defense in the NFL last season, they got very little respect nationally and even locally. While they weren't good enough to win games on their own, certainly they were very good.
If you watch a lot of other NFL games, you are aware that there are some pretty paltry defenses around the league. The AFC North is far and away the best defensive division in football, so my view of defense is a little skewed that way. But from a national perspective, they were very good last year, certainly playoff-caliber.
However, even with new additions to the defense, I'm still incredibly worried. The reason is because of all the injuries and suspensions and the apparent lack of depth. They could struggle this season and will need young players to step up in a big way.
The backbone of the 4-3 defense is the defensive line. They need to provide the pass-rush and run-stopping.
Jabaal Sheard will be an animal in his second season rushing the passer. He needs to be better in the run defense but in a passing league he looks like one of the best young pass-rushers around.
Ahtyba Rubin just keeps doing his thing at the tackle position and will need to be the leader on the line. He's the most experienced and probably best player on that unit. He's going to need to bring John Hughes and Billy Winn up to speed pretty quick to stuff the middle until Phil Taylor gets back later in the season from his pectoral injury.
On the right defensive end, we're hitching our hopes to a man whose names sounds more like a rabid NASCAR fan than a football player. But Frostee Rucker comes with a reputation as a very good run defender and an even better character guy.
That end position was woefully inept in 2011, so hopefully Rucker along with Emmanuel Stephens can make at least some impact. (Somewhere Jayme Mitchell is hanging his head in shame.)
The linebacker position is often one of the most glamorous positions on the defensive side of the ball. When you think defense in the NFL, you think about guys like Ray Lewis and Brian Urlacker. But in Dick Jauron's defense, the linebackers are actually quite secondary behind the linemen and defensive backs. Their job is to fill gaps and gobble up tackles which is what D'Qwell Jackson does best.
If he played in a more sexy city or on a better team, Jackson would probably have gone to two Pro Bowls by now. He's not flashy, doesn't have crazy eye-black all over his face and doesn't do a wild introduction dance. He just gets tackles. When the Browns are finally good again, DQ will get his just due in the national media.
After Jackson, though, it's pretty rough. Chris Gocong, coming off a very good second half of 2011, is out for the season. Scott Fujita, who in my opinion isn't that good anyway, is suspended for the first three games.
That leaves Kaluka Maiava, a very good special teams player, as the WLB and promising rookie James-Michael Johnson, who is also banged up, as the SLB.
If one of those guys goes down, you're talking about Craig Robertson, L.J. Fort, and Tank Carder...not exactly striking fear in anyone. The linebackers are definitely looking like the greatest weakness on the Browns.
I am very excited about the future potential of the defensive backfield for the Browns. There is youth and talent all around.
Joe Haden is clearly the cream of the crop in this unit and probably on the team as a whole. Michael Vick called him a top-five corner the other day, in fact. If not by the end of this season, then certainly in the very near future, Haden will be regarded nationally as one of if not the best cornerback in the NFL. I truly believe that.
The obvious bummer for Haden and the Browns is that he will likely miss four games at some point this season for a suspension for a banned substance. No ruling has come down from the league, but it appears unlikely that Haden will be able to avoid that penalty.
Dimitri Patterson, freshly singed to a new contract, will be relied on heavily all season and especially in Haden's absence. In my opinion, he should be the other starting corner this Sunday against the Eagles but that distinction still belongs to wily old veteran Sheldon Brown, who got burned multiple times in preseason.
Pound-for-pound, there may not be a tougher player in the NFL than Sheldon Brown. But at this point he's just too old and slow to be a starting corner. In the opener against the Eagles, he will be counted on to lock up either Desean Jackson or Jeremy Maclin, who are both speedy receivers. It could be a very long day for No. 24 in the brown and orange this Sunday.
Buster Skrine and Trevin Wade, both late-round picks the past two drafts, look like they could be very big contributors, especially during Haden's suspension. Skrine brings the pure speed, while Wade brings the pure athlete. I'm not trying to predict that either guy will be a lock-down future NFL star, but they'll be solid contributors in nickle-and-dime packages, which in today's NFL is almost as important as being a starter.
At the safety position, the projected starters are T.J. Ward, back from injury last year, and second-year player Eric Hagg. Last year, I wrote that Ward would have a great year and would vault himself into discussions for the best safety in the division. Obviously that was a little over the top.
But I'm a big believer in T.J. Ward. I think he's a really good player. He needs to stay healthy and be better in pass coverage, but his aggressive play when he gets up in the box to stop the run is where he'll make his name. That's a lot of the role that he was so successful in at Oregon, playing more like a monster or a rover than a safety.
I think the Browns hope he can be Troy Polamalu. I'm not sure he can be that good (who is?), but that's certainly the type of player he needs to be to have the kind of impact the Browns need.
Hagg showed some promise last year late in the season using his length and athleticism to disrupt passing plays. He's a much better complement to Ward than Usama Young, whom the Browns signed last year to play the free safety role but had such little impact that he lost his job to Mike Adams. (Young, in fact, is listed on the depth chart this year as the backup strong safety, his more natural role.)
It's tough to get too high on Hagg since he didn't really have to beat out anyone to get the job after Adams was not brought back. With that said, being the eternal optimist, I have high hopes for Hagg that he can nail down that job and give the Browns a safety duo to rival any other in the NFL. Admittedly, though, that is just hope talking on that one.
I'm not going to get too involved here. I'll just say that the Browns have possibly the best kicker/punter duo in the NFL in Phil Dawson and Reggie Hodges. Hopefully Christian Yount doesn't get the yips and cost us multiple wins like our long-snapper did last year.
And finally, Joshua Cribbs. The new kickoff rules have hurt Cribbs, and he hasn't been as good blocking as he was in his two Pro Bowl seasons. I'm hopeful he'll be able to break a couple on kickoffs this season and get his mojo back.
And as a "minor" bold prediction, I believe that Travis Benjamin will replace Cribbs as the punt returner at some point this season. Punt-returning has never been Cribbs' strong suite as it was for Benjamin at Miami in college. The only thing that could keep this from happening is if the Browns want to keep Cribbs as the special teams star he is and have Benjamin focus on wide receiver.
The theme for the 2012 Cleveland Browns season is a phrase I feel like I've used 20 times in this column so far: "Potential for the future".
I believe the Browns will start the season slow due to their overwhelming youth and inexperience but will show signs of what the future holds. After some early-season rookie mistakes, the Browns will make a strong push and will multiple games that the national media gives them no chance to win.
And they will beat the Giants. Count on it. That's what the Browns do best: beat defending Super Bowl champions. In fact, that could be the game in Week 5 that really shows the "future potential" that the Browns have.
I'd like to predict that Richardson is going to run for 1,500 yards and Weeden to throw for 4,000, but I didn't see enough of those guys in preseason to say for sure. Also, they're rookies. They will have some rough patches.
The schedule right now looks really tough, and there's too much youth for me to predict that the Browns will compete for the playoffs in 2012. I have them finishing 7-9 and giving the fans more hope than we've had since they came back in 1999.
In the end, that's what keeps us going: hope for future potential.
Week 1 Lines
I'm going to do something probably ill-advised and try my hand at picking games against the lines. It will probably be a colossal failure, but I will not be daunted. I'll give a little more of a take on these games in other weeks, but this column is long enough already.
Just to clarify, I do not gamble and I am not putting any money down on these games. So advance on these picks at your own risk.
(Home team in CAPS. Lines from sportsbook.com.)
BROWNS (+9.5) over Eagles
The Browns will probably lose if only because they always lose the opener. But it will be a closer game than most people think. Take the points.
Bears (-10) over COLTS
But I'm putting money down on Andrew Luck scoring a late TD to cover. Not sure why I'm taking Bears here. Oh wait, yes I do...the Colts are terrible.
Bills (+3) over JETS
Can't believe the Bills are getting points in this game. They'll win outright.
Redskins (+7.5) over SAINTS
The Skins were sneakily not as bad as their record in 2011 (beat the Giants twice). They'll lose to the team with no coach but cover.
Patriots (-6) over TITANS
Is Jake Locker starting for the Tennessee? Doesn't matter. Either way I'm taking Brady and Gronk.
VIKINGS (-3) over Jaguars
In the "poop sandwich" game of the week, the Vikings get the win.
TEXANS (-13) over Dolphins
Can't believe I'm laying 13 points in an NFL game, but Miami has a rookie QB with a ton of question marks and no receivers against a team that will probably be in the Super Bowl in February.
Rams (+7.5) over LIONS
CHIEFS (+3) over Falcons
I am not a believer in Atlanta. Give me Romeo for the win.
PACKERS (-5) over 49ers
This is going to be a great game. But I have Green Bay by a touchdown.
Panthers (-2.5) over BUCCANEERS
Seahawks (-3) over CARDINALS
Eh...I'll take Russell Wilson over whoever didn't lose the Arizona QB battle.
BRONCOS (-2) over Steelers
They beat them in the playoffs with Tebow at quarterback. With Manning, it will be the same result.
Bengals (+6.5) over RAVENS
Both of these teams play close games seemingly every week. No reason not to take the points.
Chargers (+1) over RAIDERS
I started to pick the Raiders until I remembered that the decaying corpse of Carson Palmer was their quarterback.
You can follow Benjamin Flack on Twitter @ClevelandFlack.