There is always next year for Cleveland Browns fans. At least that’s what the long-suffering yet exceedingly loyal fanbase tells itself around this time every year.
Cleveland, since its triumphant return to the NFL in 1999, has been an example of precisely what not to do when trying to build a successful franchise.
Constant change at all levels of management, coaching and personnel has helped lead to the ineptitude that has defined these Cleveland Browns.
Seven head coaches have led the team since its return. And what has the result been to this point? The team hasn’t even been watchable for most of that stretch.
Two winning seasons since 1999, which included just one wild-card playoff berth. Five straight seasons with 11 or more losses after a promising 10-6 finish in 2007.
That leads us to present day and the hope for a better tomorrow. Another new face, a hopeful champion of the restoration of the once-majestic Browns Town, will lead this team into the 2013 season.
Why will his vision be any different?
The Times They Are a Changin’
Change for the sake of change is never good. Continuity is one of the biggest catalysts for success. That is true in any realm of business and life—not just on the football field. Hopefully, this latest coaching regime change will be the last until a Lombardi Trophy is brought and paraded through Cleveland for the first time.
Eleven-loss seasons are not going to cut it. Sometimes, continuity for the sake of continuity isn’t an ideal solution either. Now that we understand and have embraced change, we should get ready because changes are still coming in Berea.
The team is switching to a 3-4 defensive front, again. This time around, they have a very good defensive mind in Ray Horton to help guide that transition. Horton’s defense single-handedly kept the 2012 Arizona Cardinals from spiraling out of control.
Another change is the team’s offensive philosophy. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner is a seasoned and experienced NFL coordinator and leader. His stint in Dallas during the early 1990s produced two Super Bowl championships, and Troy Aikman credits him for his enshrinement in Canton:
Norv came to Dallas as an offensive coordinator in 1991, my third season, and turned around one of the worst offenses in the league. He gave guidance to a young quarterback who was in desperate need of direction. Our friendship has endured. He's the big brother I never had. And I thank him for having the biggest single influence on my career.
Besides the new-look staff, there is also a mass of young talent being compiled on Cleveland’s roster. Trent Richardson, Josh Gordon, Greg Little, T.J. Ward, Joe Haden and others have shown flashes of what this team can look like when this squad brings it all together.
Wars are Won in the Trenches
Masterminds plot, plan and implement strategies. Their efforts would be for naught, though, without the tireless and usually thankless jobs of the men getting things done in the trenches.
The Browns didn’t exactly play up to their potential in the trenches last season. Credit a poor game plan and execution, an injury to second-year guard Jason Pinkston or anything else you’d like. The results speak for themselves. Individual battles were lost along both lines of scrimmage, resulting in a struggling rushing game on offense and a hit-or-miss defensive unit.
Despite the struggles in run-blocking, Pro Football Focus ranked the Browns’ offensive line No. 5 overall for the 2012 season. It also singled out right guard Shawn Lauvao as the weakest link.
The 2013 Browns’ offensive line will consist of pretty much the same guys who constructed it last season. Pinkston is the exception, of course, and may make a difference. Another season under their belts playing together should help too.
Can we expect a more balanced offensive attack under Turner? You bet. This line will be responsible for moving defenders and winning those individual battles up front. If not, the struggles will continue no matter who is calling the shots.
Questions Left Unanswered
Before the first snap of next season, we sit and await the impending 2013 NFL draft and free-agency period. This is the time of year when Browns fans hope and pray that the team will finally fix one position or the other.
While we can’t predict what will be done with personnel in the coming months, we can continue to keep our heads up as this team is undoubtedly heading in the right direction.
Putting a timeline on success is a difficult endeavor. Winning at the NFL level requires a series of things to fall in place. Good coaching and personnel and a solid game plan each week are important. But those aren’t all that it takes to win football games.
Sometimes, when competing at the pinnacle level of a sport, luck has a little bit to do with deciding outcomes. Luck works in a variety of ways. Injuries, penalty calls and momentary lapses on the field can be the difference between winning and losing.
Can the Browns pull it all together this season and become serious contenders? As much as I’d like to think so, the chances aren’t very good. That statement comes despite my excitement about the team’s direction and the coaching staff that will be leading them there.
One thing I do know, though, is that the 11-plus-loss seasons are a thing of the past. There are too many young and talented players on the Browns’ roster and too much at stake for this group to get things wrong like their predecessors.
How confident am I? I believe that this team will be a playoff contender in the next two seasons and remarkably more competitive in 2013.
Let’s stop perpetually waiting for next year when the pieces are coming together before our eyes.
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