Every season, at least one NFL team makes an improbable leap from the NFL's basement to its penthouse.
Maybe it's a top-five draft pick or a new coach who makes a huge impact. Maybe an underachieving team finally finds a catalyst, like a new formation or alignment. Maybe Lady Luck just smiles on a team that's been on long odds for too long.
This year, that team will be the Cleveland Browns.
Not a Typo
Wait, what? The Browns?
The team with a second-year quarterback who posted a 72.6 NFL passer rating in his rookie season and turns 30 in October? The team built around the running of a second-year tailback who averaged 3.6 yards per carry in his debut campaign?
The Browns, whose new head coach's claim to fame is mentoring one of the most talented quarterback prospects ever to two maddeningly inconsistent seasons? The Browns, whose new owner's company is under federal investigation for defrauding customers out of millions of dollars?
Yes, those Browns.
What the Browns Were in 2012
The Cleveland Browns finished last season at 5-11, last in the AFC North. They scored an average of 18.9 points per game, which ranked 24th in the NFL, per Pro Football Reference. They allowed 23 points per game, 19th best in the NFL.
The Browns had an unremarkable plus-three turnover ratio, so they weren't helped or hurt by turnover margin.
Overall in 2012, the Browns performed on the low end of the NFL's giant "mediocre" tier—or maybe the high end of the "subpar" tier.
Let's look a little deeper.
One of the strongest predictive stats in football is the Simple Ranking System. Pro Football Reference explained SRS in depth, but the upshot is SRS adjusts margin of victory by strength of schedule. It's not a great way of explaining what happened, but it's fantastic at projecting what's about to happen.
Here's how the AFC stacked up, per SRS, at the end of the 2012 regular season. Think of this table as a statistical "power ranking" going into imaginary Week 18:
Pro Football Reference
We see Cleveland's SRS number is minus-5.3. That sounds poor—and in terms of the rest of the NFL, it is.
With that minus-4.1 average margin of victory, the Pythagorean Wins formula says the Browns "should have" won 6.2 games in 2012. This means their win-loss results could be primed for a bounce back in 2013, as their "luck" regresses toward the mean.
Further, the Browns were 2-5 in 2012 games decided by a touchdown or less. Similarly poor records in close games by the 2011 Minnesota Vikings and Indianapolis Colts caused Grantland's Bill Barnwell to (correctly) predict big things for both teams in 2012.
In 2012, though, the AFC was significantly weaker than the NFC. Note the massive gap between the New England Patriots, Denver Broncos and everyone else. At the bottom of the table, the Tennessee Titans, Oakland Raiders, Jacksonville Jaguars and Kansas City Chiefs were far weaker than everyone else in the AFC.
In fact, the difference in strength between the second-ranked Patriots and third-ranked Texans (6.6) was nearly as big as the spread between the Texans and the Browns (8.8). At the end of the season, the Browns weren't much stronger than the New York Jets or Buffalo Bills, but they weren't much weaker than the Indianapolis Colts, Miami Dolphins or San Diego Chargers.
Unlike those other teams, though, the Browns were a team in limbo.
New Browns CEO Joe Banner was introduced Wednesday, Oct. 17, beginning an awkward lame-duck period for president Mike Holmgren. General manager Tom Heckert and head coach Pat Shurmur—along with the rest of the front office and coaching staff—knew last season that they were auditioning for their next jobs.
With a shaky rookie quarterback drafted by leaders on their way out, and a rookie tailback slow to get up to speed, the entire Browns organization was turned over in the middle of the season. By the end of the season, they were in the middle of the AFC pack.
How did that happen?
For starters, the Browns have one of the best offensive lines in football. Anchored by left tackle Joe Thomas, Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded the Browns at plus-41.9 in pass-blocking, fifth best in the NFL. In run-blocking, PFF graded the Browns at plus-10, 14th best in the league.
None of the four teams the Browns finished below in pass-blocking (Broncos, Bengals, Lions, Bills) were anywhere near as good as the Browns in the run game. Only the Patriots (ninth-best pass-blocking, second-best run-blocking) and San Francisco 49ers (seventh-best pass-blocking, best run-blocking) boasted better two-way offensive lines.
On the other side of the ball, the Browns were an average unit that got better as the season wore on. Football Outsiders ranked the Browns 22nd with a DVOA of plus-4.5 percent; offenses facing the Browns thus produced 4.5 percent better than average.
FO also generates a weighted average that emphasizes end-of-season performance. In this metric, the Browns defensive DVOA improved to 0.9 percent, and a 19th-best rank.
Pro Football Focus was even kinder to the Browns; they graded Cleveland's defense at plus-25.6, 13th best in the NFL. PFF graded Cleveland's run-stuffing at plus-26.3, 14th best. Cleveland's back seven stood out in pass coverage; PFF graded them sixth best in the NFL at plus-30.9.
The weak link in the Browns defense, according to PFF, was the pass rush. The minus-28.2 rank was fourth from the bottom.
Banner completed the housecleaning at the end of the season.
Former top Oakland Raiders executive Mike Lombardi was brought in to serve as general manager. Lombardi had spent five seasons as a media observer, with stints at Sports Illustrated and NFL.com sandwiched around the launch of his brainchild, the National Football Post.
Lombardi has fans and detractors in the media, but he knows the Browns. He was a high-ranking personnel man in Cleveland from 1987 until the franchise's relocation in 1996. He was promoted to director of player personnel while Bill Belichick was the coach in Cleveland, and he remains close to Belichick.
Banner identified seven head coaching candidates, according to the Associated Press (via Sports Illustrated), but ultimately hired another one of Cleveland's own. Rob Chudzinski, nicknamed "Chud," grew up as an ardent Browns fan in Toledo, Ohio, and had served as a Browns assistant two separate times.
In his last stint with the Browns, Chudzinski engineered a high-flying offense. Powered by the big arm of quarterback Derek Anderson, Chudzinksi's 2007 Browns finished eighth in the NFL in scoring—the Browns' only top-10 offense since 1987, per Pro Football Reference.
In 2008, Anderson's injuries and poor performance caused a quarterback implosion of rarely-before-seen magnitude. Four different Browns started at least one game under center in 2008, and Chud's offense scored fewer points than all but one other team. After the 2008 season, the coaching staff (along with general manager Phil Savage) was broomed.
Chud landed in San Diego, where he'd worked in between Browns stints, this time under head coach Norv Turner. Incredibly, in the four years Chudzinski coached the Chargers offense (2005, 2006, 2009 and 2010), they never finished lower than fifth in the NFL in scoring.
Chudzinski resumed coordinator duties in 2011, when he took the reins for Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. Just how much of Newton's success Chudzinski can take credit for is debatable; whether Newton has been truly successful isn't an open-and-shut case either.
Besides raw passing yards and completion percentage, though, Newton showed progress or held steady in every major stat from his rookie year to his second:
Pro Football Reference
These are great signs.
Newton's interception percentage dropped from 3.3 percent to 2.5 percent while average yards per attempt and completion each increased. In fact, Newton's 13.8 average yards per completion led the NFL in 2012. Nobody was chucking it further downfield than the big No. 1, yet he was still more effective and more efficient than during his rookie season.
That's exactly the kind of progress the Browns want to see from Brandon Weeden.
Chudzinski's deep-drop, deep-route downfield offense is a perfect fit for Weeden, unlike the modern West Coast offense favored by Shurmur (an Andy Reid protege). Unlike many first-time head coaches, though, Chudzinski's smart enough to know he needs strong veteran coordinators to rely on.
To run the offense, Chudzinski hired his last boss in San Diego: Norv Turner.
Turner has long been considered one of the top offensive minds in football, but as a head coach, Turner's teams have underachieved. Now Turner can focus on getting the best out of Weeden (as he did with Troy Aikman, Brad Johnson and Philip Rivers, among others). Fortunately, Turner also likes his quarterbacks to set up and throw downfield.
On the other side of the ball, defensive coordinator Ray Horton is switching the defense from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 base. Normally, this spells disaster for a season while the starters adjust to new roles, and most of the backups are let go and replaced over a two-season period.
The Browns, though, have been in a 4-3 for just two seasons; quite a few key players are holdovers from Crennel's 3-4. Further, Horton doesn't run a strict two-gap 3-4 all the time.
This outstanding piece from Brendan Leister of DraftBrowns.com explains Horton's hybridized multiple-gap 3-4 fronts, as well as his 2-4-5 nickel and 2-3-6 dime packages.
Horton should also put the bite back in the Dawgs' pass rush. According to ESPN, Horton's 2012 Arizona Cardinals blitzed with five or more pass-rushers 42.3 percent of the time, second most in the NFL. The Browns, meanwhile, sent five or more at the quarterback just 26.5 percent of the time.
The Browns were aggressive in free agency. The centerpiece of their acquisitions was outside linebacker Paul Kruger, whose standout performances in the playoffs helped his former team, the Baltimore Ravens, get to (and win) the Super Bowl.
Even during the regular season, though, Kruger stood out. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Kruger was the sixth-best 3-4 outside linebacker in the NFL in 2012. Most of that came from his plus-15.1 pass-rush rating, better than everyone other than Aldon Smith, Clay Matthews and DeMarcus Ware.
Jamison Hensley of ESPN reports Kruger looked "even better" during Hensley's camp visit than Kruger did in 2012. Those are strong words.
Though he got more offseason attention for his stunning criminal mugshot than his play or first-day free-agent deal, new Browns defensive end Desmond Bryant was secretly one of the most effective interior pass-rushers in 2012.
Pro Football Focus charted Bryant with four sacks, 11 quarterback hits and 20 hurries on 352 passing downs. That's a Pass Rush Productivity figure of 7.8, better than every defensive tackle in the NFL save Geno Atkins, Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Williams.
Bryant, playing in Oakland's 4-3, will have a transition to make to play right defensive end in Horton's 3-4, but there's no question he has the talent to make an instant impact up front.
The Browns couldn't add a lot of rookie talent due to a lack of picks. They'd already spent those picks acquiring receivers Josh Gordon (in last year's supplemental draft) and Davone Bess (in a draft-day trade).
With the one Browns pick that truly mattered, the No. 6 overall pick, Banner, Chudzinski and Horton got their man: Barkevious Mingo.
As Chuck Klosterman of Grantland explained after being embedded in the war room, almost all of Cleveland's draft strategy revolved around whether or not Mingo would be there at No. 6. When he was, Banner told the world it was "the outcome [they] were hoping for."
Mingo's standout performance in the first preseason game left no doubt as to why.
It's not just the players the Browns have added that make them such a candidate for breakout success, but the young players ready to take the next step.
Mingo is a huge part of Cleveland's present and future plans. Even so, Horton told Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer that underrated incumbent defensive end Jabaal Sheard has been "fantastic" in his transition to 3-4 outside linebacker.
Kruger and Sheard could be a fearsome pair of edge-rushers added to a defense that was already solid without much rush. With Mingo rotating in, that much pass-rushing depth and talent plugged into such an aggressive system could make the defense's biggest weakness its biggest strength.
Though Gordon combined well with fellow receiver Greg Little last season, his two-game drug suspension forced Banner to put Gordon on notice, according to Cabot. Whether Gordon gets it together or not, the developing Little and veteran Bess should be able to stretch defenses.
In the secondary, Hensley reported top cornerback Joe Haden's play and attitude appear to be on the rebound after a disappointing 2012 season that included a four-game suspension for use of a banned substance.
When a former No. 7 overall pick who's played as well as Haden has gets described as a "man on a mission," that's scary.
Stud tailback Trent Richardson? Well, flashes of his talent showed clearly last season, but his performance fell well short of "stud" level. Richardson fought through bumps and bruises last season; a shin knock is keeping him out of the preseason this year.
If, as Richardson claimed per Nate Ulrich of the Beacon Journal, Richardson is 100 percent healthy, he should run better behind that offensive line. It'll be even easier for Richardson to take another step forward if the defense respects the passing game.
The Brandon Weeden Project
It all comes back to Weeden, the much-maligned quarterback. Can Turner and Chudzinski really coax the upside out of Weeden's talent while eliminating the mistakes?
In Week 1 of last season, I broke down a Weeden interception as part of my weekly film review:
Weeden made two critical mistakes: He stared down the open receiver, and he airmailed the throw. Still, he got the really hard part right—that's breaking down the defense before the snap and identifying the correct receiver to throw to.
"Looking off the defense can be taught," I wrote at the time," and Weeden is a gifted enough thrower that his accuracy can improve. The part you either have or don't—the ability to read a defense and make a good decision quickly—Weeden's got."
Whether the Browns make a Colts- or Vikings-like jump to double-digit wins or just surprise some people comes entirely down to how much progress Weeden can make this offseason.
If the first preseason game is any indicator—and it's preseason, it might not be—Weeden's made a big leap.
After completing just 57.4 percent of his passes last regular season, and throwing touchdowns at the fourth-slowest rate of any starting quarterback, Weeden went 10-of-13 for 112 yards and a touchdown.
Again, it's just preseason, but watching Weeden find open receivers downfield, make the reads and throw great balls was intoxicating. If Weeden puts up a similarly outstanding performance against the Detroit Lions and Cleveland's other preseason opponents, the Browns will be in a great position to make the biggest leap of any NFL team.