Breaking Down the Blueprint for Browns' Return to Contender Status

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJune 25, 2013

DENVER, CO - DECEMBER 23:  Center Alex Mack #55 of the Cleveland Browns prepares to snap the ball to quarterback Brandon Weeden #3 of the Cleveland Browns against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High on December 23, 2012 in Denver, Colorado. The Broncos defeated the Browns 34-12.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Since the Cleveland Browns returned to the National Football League in 1999, it's been mostly frustration and disappointment for the loyal fans of the team. One playoff trip and two winning seasons haven't given the members of "The Dawg Pound" much to bark about.

The new regime in Cleveland has given those fans cause for renewed optimism. However, it's not going to be an easy task for new head coach Rob Chudzinski and general manager Mike Lombardi to turn around years of losing.

That isn't to say that it can't be done though, and in three easy steps, the Cleveland Browns can go from AFC North doormat to contender.

At least the steps look easy on paper...but doesn't everything?

The first step is the most important, and while it may seem to be a large number of steps all lumped together, it actually boils down to one predominant factor.

The Browns have to get better on offense, and that means improved play from the quarterback position.

As you can see, since the Browns' surprising 10-6 record in 2007, the offense in Cleveland has been mostly, well, offensive. Four times in the last five years, the Browns have had the worst offense in the division. In an era where many teams are posting video game numbers, the Browns have posted an average of well under 300 yards of total offense a game over the past five years.

There's room for optimism in many respects for the Browns on offense moving forward. Mock Norv Turner the head coach all you want, but the new offensive coordinator is still considered one of the better offensive minds in the NFL.

In Joe Thomas, the Browns have arguably the league's best left tackle. Center Alex Mack and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz are talented players just beginning their NFL careers.

Also, running back Trent Richardson, who the Browns selected third overall in 2012, showed signs, even in an injury-marred rookie year, of being the type of workhorse tailback that Turner loves to lean on.

However, the NFL is a quarterback-driven league, and that brings us to second-year pro Brandon Weeden.

Simply put, Weeden has to get better, and do so in a hurry. His numbers during an uneven rookie year paled next to the seasons of the other quarterbacks in the division in many categories.

Now, Weeden's supporters will decry the play calling of former head coach Pat Shurmur, or point to dropped balls by receivers as part of the reason why Weeden struggled. Those points aren't completely without merit.

Weeden can't do it alone, after all. Josh Gordon, who showed flashes of considerable talent last year, will sit out the first two games of this season thanks to testing positive for a banned substance.

Gordon needs to grow up.

Greg Little has driven fans crazy with dropped passes (23 in all according to Pro Football Focus) over his first two years in the NFL. However, Little finally seemed to be putting it together down the stretch last year. He badly needs to keep that momentum going, especially with Gordon sidelined for two weeks.

The addition of veteran possession receiver Davone Bess should help, as would a solid second season from tight end Jordan Cameron, who is a trendy "breakout" pick at the position.

However, in the end, it all comes back to Weeden. The oldest young player in the NFL has a gun for an arm, but he has to improve his accuracy and do a better job of reading defenses.

It's a make-or-break year for Weeden. If he flounders in 2013, a new regime that had nothing to do with picking him in the first place isn't going to hesitate to draft his replacement next season, especially given how deep the 2014 class is at the quarterback position.

With all that said, there are two sides to a football game, and while the Browns have generally been better on defense than offense over the past several years, there's room for improvement in that area as well.

In today's NFL, a great deal of defensive success is dependent on disrupting the rhythm of the opposing quarterback. The best way to do that is by knocking the ever-loving crud out of him.

In that regard, the Browns have struggled somewhat in recent years. Only once in the past five seasons have the Browns ranked among the top 10 in the NFL in sacks. That may be due in large part to the fact that Cleveland changes defensive schemes more often than Taylor Swift changes boyfriends.

There's another new scheme in Cleveland this year, but it's one that Browns fans should be excited about. Ray Horton's 3-4 front is an ultra-aggressive scheme that features frequent blitzes from both the inside and outside linebackers.

It's a defense that has the potential to produce a monster season from inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, and Jackson recently told Jeff Schudel of The Morning Journal that he's loving the new mentality that Horton has brought to town.

Ray Horton is so smart in what he does — he thinks outside the box. He doesn’t have a blueprint. He likes to mix it up a little bit. It’s going to be harder for offenses to game plan for us. Dick Jauron didn’t rely on pressuring the quarterback. He wanted to let the offense make a mistake. Ray Horton wants to get after people. He’s aggressive. That’s not what Dick was.

It's worth noting that Horton's defense in Arizona last year tied the Browns in sacks with 38. However, Horton was able to coax that number from a defense that had no real pass rushing threats at outside linebacker, where most 3-4 fronts generate the majority of their pressure.

In Cleveland, with free agent acquisition Paul Kruger and rookie first-round pick Barkevious Mingo lining up outside, Horton won't have that problem.

The final key to a turnaround in Cleveland may be the hardest to pull off, if only because it's the most enigmatic.

For lack of a better way to express it, the Browns need to learn how to win.

Five of the Browns' 11 losses last year were by seven points or less. Three were by four points or less.

The Browns' Week 11 matchup with the Cowboys last year is a perfect example. The Browns outplayed the Cowboys in Dallas for much of the game. They led 13-0 at halftime, and 13-3 entering the fourth quarter. The Cowboys then rattled off 17 points in the fourth quarter, and eventually won the game in overtime.

Teams like the Green Bay Packers and New England Patriots often pull out close games because they expect to win. The Browns, on the other hand, seem at times to be waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it costs them games.

It's a purely psychological thing, one that the coaches need to preach and the players need to buy into.

If Chudzinski's recent comments to Branson Wright of the Cleveland Plain Dealer are any indication, progress is being made in that regard.

What I know now is that these guys want to win. They are hungry, they are willing to work and they are willing to do the things that we need them to do to put them in the best position to win. I love the attitude in the locker room. I think the guys have bought in and really are on the same page with what we want.

Let's be honest. The odds of the Cleveland Browns being playoff contenders in 2013 aren't all. There are new schemes being installed on both sides of the ball, and that change will bring with it growing pains.

In fact, if the team finishes anywhere but last place it would probably be something of an upset.

However, if the team can improve in these areas, if Weeden gets better, the defense gets after the passer and the Browns pull out a close game or two, then perception around the NFL is going to change.

The Browns won't be viewed as an easy out anymore.

Add progress in those areas to another solid offseason, and come 2014...

The Cleveland Browns will make the playoffs.


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