5 Areas in Which the Cleveland Browns Are Showing Signs of Improvement
The Cleveland Browns play for arguably the most snake-bitten fanbase in the entire NFL. The rabid fans who make their way to the stadium every Sunday willing to cheer for a team that hasn't sniffed success in a decade.
Not only have the Browns not made the playoffs since 2002 (where they lost in heartbreaking fashion to the Steelers), the fans have also had to deal with the relocation of the franchise to Baltimore in 1996 (and they had to watch the Ravens win the Super Bowl in 2000). There was The Drive and The Fumble, and there may be no team in the league with less success in the modern era.
The Browns have had only three winning seasons in their last 19 years as a franchise, but the clouds appear to be clearing. Despite a 2-7 record in 2012, there is no question that that young Browns are slowly becoming a competitive team, and fans have a lot to be excited about. With intriguing players at several important positions, it's time for the Browns to finally emerge from behind the veil of mediocrity.
The players and coaches are there, and the fanbase is not going away. The future is finally bright for a team that needs some good news. The Browns have improved in several categories and are giving fans more hope than they've had in years.
The Browns forced only 20 turnovers in 2011 and their inability to consistently take the ball away from the opposition played a large role in their final record of 4-12.
What a difference a year makes. The Browns have forced 16 turnovers this season and the improvement has helped Cleveland mask their defensive deficiencies. They rank 28th in the NFL in total defense but still only give up a respectable 23.4 points per game.
The Browns' defense doesn't really scare anyone, but its propensity for takeaways has led to some truly impressive performances. It forced a critical fumble against the San Diego Chargers in a 7-6 win and nearly pulled one out against the Eagles after forcing four turnovers.
That the Browns have a plus-1 turnover differential is a testament to the resiliency of the defense. The Browns have turned the ball over 15 times so far this season, and that's with only three lost fumbles (a number that is sure to go up).
The improvement in the turnover department has kept this team competitive and could be very important down the stretch if the Browns want to put together a run and finish 2012 with a bang.
Josh Cribbs has always been a great kick returner for the Browns, and he hasn't been explosive in terms of returning kicks for touchdowns in 2012. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have immense value to the team.
The Browns were mediocre in the kick return game last season, but they've really come on strong this year. The best medicine for a struggling offense is good field position, and Cribbs and the Browns' other returners have done their part. They rank second in the NFL in average yards per kick return and have set up countless drives for quarterback Brandon Weeden where the rookie has had excellent field position.
For a team with as many overall deficiencies as the Browns have, it's the little things that count when it comes to winning football games. The kick return game is often taken for granted, especially with the rule that moved the kickoff up five yards. Unless you're scoring touchdowns or getting stopped inside the 10-yard line, it's generally assumed that a return is just as significant as any other.
But when you can gain that extra yard or two, it could make all the difference. Cleveland's margin of error is minuscule, so every single yard counts. Josh Cribbs has done a superb job giving the Browns as much as he possibly can.
Kicking has never been a real issue in Cleveland, where Phil Dawson has manned the position effectively for 14 years. But last season was one of the most inefficient seasons of his career, and it really put a dent in the Browns' hopes.
Cleveland averaged just over 13 points per game last year and Dawson only made 82 percent of his field goals. Most kickers would love to hit 82 percent of their kicks, but Dawson is a different animal—anything under 88 percent is probably unacceptable to him based on his past performance.
In 2012 however, Dawson has decided to have the best season of his career. He's 17-of-17 on field goals with four from 50 or more yards. Not coincidentally, the Browns are averaging five points per game more than they did in 2011.
Another aspect of the field-goal kicking game that people often overlook is the importance of field position. When you miss a long field goal, you're not just leaving points on the field. You're also giving the opposing offense excellent field position. That's why making kicks is more about three points. A missed field goal could lead to a 10-point swing.
So far, the Browns haven't had to deal with that issue. Dawson is 37 and probably has several good years left in him. When building a young team, problems in the kicking game could be a factor in undoing the handiwork, but Cleveland is in good hands with Phil Dawson booting the ball through the uprights.
Wide Receiver Play
Have the Cleveland Browns ever had a dominant wide receiver? It sure doesn't seem like it. Take away Braylon Edwards' 2007 season and you'd be hard-pressed to find a year during which a Browns receiver finished in the top 10 of any statistical category.
While there are still no consistent game-breakers on the roster, the position is in better hands than it has been in a while. The emergence of rookie Josh Gordon and second-year man Greg Little has given Browns fans hope.
Gordon acts as the deep threat. He averages a shade under 22 yards per catch and has 417 yards and four touchdowns. He's still very raw in terms of route running and learning the intricacies of the game, but his ability to stretch the field will be a valuable asset as he matures.
Little had an underrated rookie season in 2011, catching 61 passes for 709 yards. This year, he has become the unquestioned No. 1 option for Brandon Weeden. He's on pace to catch 88 balls for 1,010 yards and four touchdowns this year.
Mohamed Massaquoi was supposed to be the next great Browns wideout, but he has failed to live up to expectations. Still, the Browns are lucky to have two young receivers with lots of potential. A young quarterback's best friends are guys he can depend on to catch the ball, and Little and Gordon are filling the role perfectly. For once, the Browns might actually have some legitimate hope at the receiver position.
The improvement at quarterback is easily the most important upgrade that the Browns could have hoped for. Many people thought it was a stretch to grab Brandon Weeden in the first round—some looked at him as a system quarterback that was too old to make a lasting impact.
But drafting Weeden has paid dividends, and to Cleveland's credit, they have stuck with the 29-year-old signal-caller despite his many struggles. He had a horrendous debut but followed it up nicely with several solid outings. His past two games have been struggles, but there's little doubt as to who the Browns are comfortable with under center.
If you want to measure that trust statistically, look at how often Weeden is used. He's tied for third in the league in passing attempts. His completion percentage is less than stellar, and the high amount of throws is probably due to the Browns often playing from behind, but if Cleveland was concerned about their quarterback getting rattled, it's not showing it. Weeden throws it very, very often and has done a superb job of handling the pressure. He's on pace to throw for 3,712 yards, which is superb for a rookie.
Yes, he's almost 30. Yes, he's had a few bad games. But the Browns have had 16 quarterbacks since 1999, so they'll take just about anything they can get. Weeden is the right man for the job and has been the biggest and most important improvement for this struggling organization.
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