The Cleveland Browns are at a pivotal point; either they emerge next season as a legitimate threat in their division, or they continue to be the league's perennial punchline. And it largely depends on the decisions made this offseason.
As the country's most (rightfully) impatient fan base looks on, Jimmy Haslem, Joe Banner and company must figure out a way to right the ship. To do this effectively, they'll have to evaluate and make five crucial decisions about the future of this young team. While there are reasons to be hopeful, there's still tremendous potential for missteps that could cost the franchise another few years of painful rebuilding.
We're approaching the new year, a time of renewed hope and blissful delusion that we actually will stick to our resolutions. But two months from now, as wine bottles are opened on Tuesday nights and gym memberships fade into obscurity, Browns management will be charged with sticking to their decisions and finally setting things right.
It's a matter of shrewd decision-making and the tenacity to stick to the plan. As a franchise searches for its identity, here are the top five decisions its leaders must address.
Pat Shurmur's future in Cleveland remains the question on every Browns fan's lips.
Last week, the media and thousands of fans questioned his decision to keep the starters in late in a depressing blowout loss to Denver. He defends himself with Varsity Blues-type rhetoric about not giving up and playing until the last second. But when your starting running back and third overall draft pick is injured in the second to last offensive play of a lost cause, it might be time to update the old resume.
Pat Shurmur's fate is one of the most important decisions this offseason. Between the endless parade of coaches and quarterbacks, Browns fans are more than ready to settle down with the right one. If there was a Match.com for football, we'd be on it.
The question is: Do we continue this thus far fruitless search for the next great Browns coach, or do we hedge our bets in the name of consistency? The answer is not as obvious as it may seem at first, but this fan thinks Shurmur has had more than enough adequate chances to show his value and keep his job.
It's not about his record; it's about his ability to harness talent and demand improvement. If he can't do that, it's time for a change.
When it comes to the roster, things could change a little or they could change a whole lot.
Some of the most visible and highly-regarded franchise talent will be free agents this year. Browns management will have to decide what to do with big-time contracts from Josh Cribbs, Phil Dawson and others. It's a complicated puzzle between cap space requirements and opportunities in free agency, and the decision-makers have their work cut out for them.
Despite their big paydays, it would be tough to see some of these guys go. Dawson and Cribbs have consistently been bright spots when the rest of the team is at its dimmest. But newcomers like Travis Benjamin complicate the situation a bit, and tough times sometimes call for brutal decisions.
Between the aforementioned two and the other ten unrestricted free agents, the Browns could be fielding a much different team next year.
Thanks to an incredibly informative comment by B/R regular Curtis Shaw, I got to thinking about cap space for this week's frightening installment of Dittoe psyche.
The Browns have the third most available cap space going into this offseason, and we'd be wise to use it well. By the terms of the collective bargaining agreement, the Browns will have to find a way to spend some cash over the next few years.
A great way to do this is by bringing in a few key free agents this offseason to begin filling some holes. It was like buying that panini maker last month—not the prettiest thing on my credit card bill, but worth it because I eat so many delicious paninis now.
Some free agents are expensive because they're worth it. However, it's vital that Browns management studies these players exhaustively in order to make the smartest decisions and get the most bang for our buck.
Something's not working.
We've got a shotgun quarterback in a West Coast offense while one with experience in that scheme warms the bench. It makes for a lot of ugly plays with some gorgeous ones thrown in every now and then. So far, those pretty plays have sustained us enough to keep most games close and even eek out a couple wins. That won't last.
Management must find a way to effectively harness the talent behind the ball. The Browns have two talented QBs who each work well in their respective systems, but it's imperative they're allowed to thrive within them.
When I was a kid, my mom used to quote Albert Einstein: "Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid." Given, she was trying to make me feel better about sucking at badminton. But the point remains.
Brandon Weeden is a fish trying to climb a tree right now. The scheme or the person running it has to change, and management better figure out which.
One of the major problems we have this year is also the most intangible and complex one: who are we? I'm reminded of the scene from Zoolander when Ben Stiller gazes wistfully into the puddle and asks that same question.
The Browns organization sometimes seems like one giant lost puppy. We've seen a revolving door of managers, coaches and players without any semblance of consistency other than losing.
Every great NFL team has character and identity, something that must occur organically but can certainly be pushed along by the right leadership. Every chronically bad team, on the other hand, lacks those same qualities. Imagine describing each NFL franchise to an alien race. Which would be the easiest to describe? Which would slip your mind entirely?
The Browns are a struggling team in a tough division. They are teenagers in terms of their return to the NFL from scratch. They can't seem to hold onto a consistent regime or strategy. Those factors combine to form a series of mediocre to painful seasons back to back...to back.
But that isn't an excuse. There's no reason that, with the right leadership, the Browns can't emerge as the great team they once were. But it's going to take some vision and positive thinking to get us there.
Who wants to be a punchline for Steelers fans and lazy comedians? Not I, said the fly. This offseason is a great opportunity to start reestablishing identity and get back to the glory days.