Can Brandon Weeden finally pull the Browns out of constant change—and failure—at the quarterback position?
When the Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, they were awarded the first-overall pick in that year's draft in order to help rebuild the franchise. With it, they selected quarterback Tim Couch, who remained with the Browns for five years, though he missed numerous games with injuries (a young offensive line in an expansion team isn't the best for a quarterback's health).
Though the Couch years were fraught with inconsistencies, and though Couch is certainly not destined for the Hall of Fame, the five years he spent with the Browns was the longest stretch in which the Browns had a degree of stability at the position. Granted, Couch's tenure didn't come to a close without a quarterback controversy—he was ultimately shelved by then-head coach Butch Davis, who preferred Kelly "Who?" Holcomb—but the Browns' quarterback situation hasn't been much better since.
So what happened? Why haven't the Browns found a long-term solution at the quarterback position since coming back into the league over a decade ago? And, more importantly, who's to blame? Let's take a look at the position since Couch's departure to try to find the answers.
The Butch Davis Era, Post-Tim Couch
Unsurprisingly, most of the Browns' high quarterback turnover is linked to their high turnover at head coach. The Browns are presently on their seventh head coach since 1999, and they've seen even more quarterbacks take position under center in that span of time.
When Couch was drafted, the Browns' head coach was Chris Palmer, who lasted two seasons after the team went just 5-27 during his tenure. He was then replaced by the aforementioned Davis, who didn't particularly take a shine to Couch, which resulted in the 1999 first-round draft pick being supplanted by Holcomb.
Davis wasn't beholden to Holcomb, though. No, when the San Francisco 49ers released their former starter, Jeff Garcia, the Browns chose to bring on the veteran. Garcia lasted in Cleveland for just one year, 2004, completing 144 passes for 1,731 yards, 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Garcia was inconsistent and dealt with a number of injuries in Cleveland, but his fate was truly sealed when Davis resigned as the Browns' head coach in November of 2004, despite having three years remaining on his contract.
The Browns then brought on Phil Savage to be their new general manager. This was his second stint with the team, with Savage having worked in the team's scouting and personnel department prior to the franchise's dismantling the decade before. He brought on another familiar face in Cleveland, Romeo Crennel, who had previously served as the team's defensive coordinator, to be the head coach. The quest to find a new starting quarterback began.
Dilfer, Frye, Anderson, Quinn
For four seasons, Crennel was the Browns' head coach. And in that span, the Browns fielded four different quarterbacks—Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn. Unsurprisingly, the Browns had just one winning season in those four years—2007, in which the team went 10-6 and were just shy of a postseason berth.
The thought process for Savage and Crennel went like this: They selected Frye in Round 3 of the 2005 draft, traded for Dilfer to have a veteran to start and to mentor Frye and eventually Frye would find his football legs and be a serviceable and hopefully long-term starter in Cleveland. The best-laid plans, however, seem to often fall through when it comes to the Browns and their quarterbacks.
Dilfer ultimately played just one season for the Browns, owing to problems between him and then-offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon, before being traded back to the San Francisco 49ers, from whence he came. Dilfer had just 2,321 passing yards that year, with 11 touchdowns to 12 interceptions, and the Browns went 6-10. Frye also ended up starting for the team's final five games that season.
In 2006, the starting job was Frye's, while Anderson, whom the Browns acquired as a free agent after the Baltimore Ravens cut the sixth-round draft pick in 2005, was his primary backup. Frye wasn't all that impressive, completing 252 of his 393 pass attempts, for 2,454 yards, 10 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. The Browns went a dismal 4-10 that season, but Frye's job remained safe—for a time.
In the summer of 2007, Frye beat out Anderson and Quinn, who was the Browns' second of two first-round draft picks that year. However, Frye's tenure as starter was short-lived; he played so poorly during the team's Week 1 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers that he was benched in favor of Anderson after the first quarter. Frye was traded to the Seattle Seahawks just two days later and Anderson became the full-time starter for the season.
Anderson's 2007 was the best season the Browns have had from any of their quarterbacks since 1999. In the team's pass-heavy offense (current head coach Rob Chudzinski served as the offensive coordinator during this time), Anderson completed 298 of his 527 passes for 3,787 yards, 29 touchdowns and 19 interceptions.
That year, the Browns went 10-6, just shy of the playoffs. They swept the rival Baltimore Ravens and Anderson went to the Pro Bowl, replacing the injured Tom Brady. It finally appeared as though the Browns had found the quarterback who would right all of their offensive woes. Before the 2008 season, the Browns gave Anderson a three-year contract, and they appeared to be moving forward as a franchise, despite the looming specter of the first-rounder Quinn.
Anderson, Quinn and Regime Change
Of course, just as things seemed to stabilize in Cleveland, the rails came off yet again. Anderson's season started out on a bad note, suffering a concussion in the preseason opener that kept him off the field until Week 1. That Week 1 showing wasn't very good, with Anderson completing only 11 of his 24 pass attempts, for 110 yards and a touchdown.
Things continued to not go Anderson's way over the course of the season, which resulted in his November benching with Quinn taking over starting duties. The Browns were 3-5 by this point and chose to start Quinn in hopes of turning things around. In three games, Quinn completed 45 of 89 passes for 518 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions, but finger surgery cut his season short; he was off the field before the month ended.
The Browns then chose to go back to Anderson with Quinn injured. That lasted all of one week, however. Just days after Quinn's surgery, Anderson suffered a season-ending MCL injury against the Indianapolis Colts. The Browns finished out the 2008 season with Ken Dorsey under center for the rest of the year and they ended with a disappointing, 4-12 record.
The poor finish resulted in more housecleaning in Cleveland. Out were general manager Savage and head coach Crennel. Anderson and Quinn remained, but were now confronted with an all-new situation, with Eric Mangini hired as the head coach and George Kokinis—a former Browns scout and Ravens head of pro personnel—as the general manager.
Surprisingly enough, Mangini and Kokinis were accepting of Cleveland's quarterback situation and did not opt to find their own player to lead the team's offense. The battle for the job between Anderson and Quinn resumed anew.
In fact, the battle was so heated that the starter for the season, Quinn, wasn't named until four days before Week 1. But, much like in 2008, it didn't last long. Quinn was benched at halftime in Week 3's game against the Baltimore Ravens and Anderson again took over starting duties through Week 8. After Week 8, however, the Browns were just 1-7; Kokinis was fired and Quinn was again named the starter coming off of their Week 9 bye.
Quinn's return to starting duties began shakily—the Browns were shut out, 16-0, in their Week 10 Monday Night Football meeting with the Ravens—but he bounced back the next week, with 304 passing yards and four touchdowns. In Week 12, the Browns beat the Pittsburgh Steelers and followed it up with a defeat of the Kansas City Chiefs. Quinn then landed on injured reserve with a foot injury, but the Browns still managed to win their final two games of the season with Anderson under center. Though they had a 5-11 record in 2009, they won their last four games.
Mangini, new general manager Tom Heckert and new team president Mike Holmgren had seen enough of both Quinn and Anderson. It was time to make a change at the position. In March 2010, Quinn was traded to the Denver Broncos and the Browns traded for Seattle Seahawks quarterback Seneca Wallace (with whom Holmgren was very familiar), releasing Anderson as a result. They also signed Jake Delhomme.
The Final Mangini Year and Ankle Sprains
With the Browns rid of the two-headed problem they had with Quinn and Anderson, they could now focus on moving forward with Delhomme and Wallace. They also opted to use a draft pick on a quarterback, taking Colt McCoy in the third round in 2010.
The plan was for Delhomme and Wallace to compete for the Browns' starting job with McCoy developing into what was then hoped to be their quarterback of the future. Delhomme beat Wallace out for the job in training camp and he went into their Week 1 game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the uncontested starter.
Delhomme didn't last long, however, suffering a high ankle sprain in the second quarter of the season opener. Wallace took over the starting job, but suffered a high ankle sprain of his own in Week 5 against the Atlanta Falcons. Delhomme came back in, but his ankle sprain wasn't fully healed and he re-aggravated the injury.
That paved the way for the rookie McCoy to see starting action for the Browns. He remained the starter until Week 11 until the high ankle sprain bug bit him, sidelining him for three weeks and forcing Delhomme back into the starting job. McCoy came back to start in the final three games, all of which were losses.
McCoy had six touchdowns and nine interceptions in his limited time on the field in 2010. Delhomme threw two touchdowns and seven interceptions and had two wins and three losses as a starter; Wallace threw four touchdowns and two interceptions. The Browns went 5-11 and Holmgren fired Mangini.
The Pat Shurmur Era
To replace the fired Mangini, the Browns hired Pat Shurmur as their head coach and retained Heckert as general manager. They opted to hang onto both McCoy and Wallace, releasing Delhomme in July 2011.
McCoy became the Browns' starter in 2011, completing 265 of his 463 pass attempts for 2,733 yards, 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions before suffering a concussion in Week 14 at the hands of Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison. He missed the final three games, with Wallace stepping in as starter.
McCoy's concussion was an issue for his father, who was so infuriated by the team's handling of it he complained publicly, something that likely didn't help his son keep his job for very long. But what really sealed McCoy's fate happened in the first round of the 2012 draft—the Browns selected quarterback Brandon Weeden with their 22nd-overall pick.
Though Shurmur said repeatedly that McCoy and Weeden were to compete for the starting job, Weeden spent most of OTAs, minicamp and training camp working exclusively with the first team. It was unsurprising, therefore, when Weeden was named the starter for the 2012 season.
Weeden's rookie season was the best in franchise history among quarterbacks, with 297 completions in 517 attempts for 3,385 yards, 14 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, and was the second-best season posted by a Browns quarterback since 1999. Though it wasn't a particularly spectacular first year for Weeden, who was tasked with working in Shurmur's unfamiliar West Coast offense, there were hints of his potential.
The issue with that potential, of course, is that it may need to be realized in a limited timeframe. Weeden turned 29 years old early in the 2012 regular season. Though the wear and tear on his body and shoulder is akin to any other passer with equivalent NFL starting experience, his age still has some wondering whether he is truly a long-term answer at the position.
Under Shurmur, the Browns went 4-12 and then 5-11—not significant enough improvement for him to keep his job when the team changed ownership from Randy Lerner to Jimmy Haslam in 2012.
In fact, the entire Browns front office and most of their coaching staff was replaced after the switch in ownership. Heckert was relieved of his duties, Holmgren resigned and Shurmur was fired. In their place now is Joe Banner as team CEO, Michael Lombardi as general manager, Rob Chudzinski as head coach and Norv Turner as offensive coordinator.
The New-Look Browns, Again
With yet another new coaching staff and a new offensive philosophy based around downfield passing, the Browns had no use for McCoy, opting to trade him to the 49ers. To push and likely back up Weeden in 2013, they added veteran quarterback Jason Campbell to the roster. The Browns also didn't find the prospect of third-stringer Thaddeus Lewis all too appealing and released him upon the signing of free agent Brian Hoyer.
Though the situation is far more beneficial for Weeden than when Shurmur was crafting the offense, Weeden still has improvements to make involving footwork, timing and not patting the football prior to throwing it. And given the Browns' history at the position since 1999, fans are rightfully skeptical of Weeden's ability to play better this season, not to mention his ability to be the true long-term answer at the position the team has so desperately needed.
So, What Happened?
In one sense, the Browns' quarterback problems can accurately be traced back to the ill-fated decision to take Tim Couch first overall in 1999. After all, the Browns could have taken Donovan McNabb, who went second to the Philadelphia Eagles and would have likely been set at the position for nearly a decade.
The deeper issue, however, rests with the great deal of coaching and front office turnover the Browns have experienced since drafting Couch. Even if any of the quarterbacks they've put in the starting position would have been good long-term options, none were given the chance.
A mere handful (or fewer) seasons with losing records resulted in coaching staff after coaching staff being fired and replaced, and no Cleveland quarterback has been given the chance to hold onto their jobs and learn new systems as a result.
Good teams don't just become that way overnight—they are honed, perfected and molded over the course of time by a coaching staff and front office that has the team's long-term interests in mind. With the Browns, it appears they've had a succession of coaching, and therefore quarterback, changes because they wanted to win immediately and if that didn't happen, the whole lot were cast in the fire and it became time to begin anew.
Had the Browns opted to stay with one coach and allowed the team to struggle while it put everything together just so, perhaps they could have held onto a quarterback and developed him into someone who could successfully start for 10 straight seasons. At the same time, that doesn't mean the Browns needed to be comfortable with four or five wins a year in perpetuity, but there needs to be a better balance between immediate and longer-term returns, if only for stability's sake.
Teams need stability at quarterback, which in turn generally means stability in coaching staff, in order to win games. Even if a quarterback stays, constant turnover in coaches—and the attendant switches in schemes—isn't a good way to make him into a franchise player.
Look at Alex Smith, now of the Kansas City Chiefs—it wasn't until Jim Harbaugh became his coach for the San Francisco 49ers and actually stuck around that he could make any significant progress. Prior to 2011, he was thought of as a bust, but really he was just being tossed around by the whims of each new coach and coordinator to work with him. Once he was faced with stable situation, he was able to flourish.
For the Browns' sake, Weeden needs to be the solution to their decade-plus of quarterback problems, and Chudzinski and Turner need to be the ones who make that happen. The Browns, as an organization, need to better identify when it's time to give up on a coach or quarterback and when it's merely a matter of being patient and allowing a quarterback and his offense to develop.