“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” Amazingly, classic Shakespeare still applies even in context of today’s fast paced sporting industry. Especially when such a statement is considered in regards to the plight of the current Cleveland Browns. 2008 was supposed to see an eventual rise to former glories the likes of which Browns’ fans have not tasted since former owner Art Modell snatched their beloved franchise away fifteen years ago. Last season’s lineup was a mere shell of the potential they exemplified during their previous 2007 season. This past year the Browns entered their latest campaign coming off of a ten win season and were just etched out of a playoff birth. Instead of an expected continual rise in fortunes, those in the infamous Dawg Pound saw a major decline and eventually had to suffer through another pitiful season. The team finished with an embarrassing four win and twelve loss campaign. As such team owner Randy Lerner cleaned house, hired a new head coach, as well as acquiring a new general manager. Expectations overall are now tempered as this once up and coming squad will once again start seemingly from scratch.
Some may argue recent turnarounds seen in both Miami and Atlanta should be considered as templates for other struggling franchises to emulate. These examples are the exceptions, and not the general rule when trying to turn around a team’s fortunes. Both landed exceptional talents at quarterback which made their particular situations almost impossible to replicate. These are not the type of cases which should be relied upon when considering future endeavors.
Realistic expectations should simply fall somewhere in line with hopes of mere marked improvement in regards to the presented product on the field. Under the direction of Eric Mangini and his detailed oriented propensities, this is a roster which should never appear unprepared on Sunday like it often did under former coach Romeo Crennel. Not only should this unit be continually over prepared in comparison, but their additions of solid veterans mixed with a talented young corps should keep this group competitive in each and every contest. These two factors alone should account for an extra win or two this upcoming campaign as compared to last season’s abomination.
Keys to improvement will stem primarily from improved team health, consistency, as well as accountability. Very simple concepts which most NFL fans and their teams take for granted, but notions which this particular franchise had lacked since their return to the NFL as an expansion addition in 1999. Ubertalented tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. was a constant injury concern and seen somewhat of a malcontent. He was quickly shipped to Tampa Bay early this off season. Braylon Edwards had led the league in dropped passes over the past two seasons. A message was sent that his current team does not necessarily require his services as evidenced by his availability via trade. Veterans Joe Jurevicius and Kevin Shaffer were not willing to rework their contracts. They were jettisoned from the roster as a result. These examples are exactly why so many former ex-Jets have been brought in the fold by their previous and now current head coach.
Schedule will also factor into the equation. A season ago teams which competed in the AFC North all were considered to have the most difficult schedules in the National Football League. This will not be the case this year. Instead of facing the highly competitive NFC East and the tough AFC South, this year the division will take umbrage against the NFC North and AFC West. The winner of last year’s AFC West went a mere .500 overall. The NFC North included the winless Lions. While every season is certainly different than the one which predates it, this one key component should enhance the Browns’ chances for improvement.
By and large expectations are certainly tempered entering another yearly NFL installment. They can easily be exceeded under the right circumstances. If Brady Quinn develops into the type of talent envisioned when the previous regime traded back into the first round to grab the signal caller, then a major hole will be filled on the roster and some stability will automatically result. If Braylon Edwards’ concentration improves and he returns to form, then this team once again has a legit explosive offensive piece opponents will fear. If one of the two wide receiver draft selections prove to be a consistent threat opposite Edwards, then the offense is upgraded. If Jamal Lewis shows he has anything left in the tank and proves to be reliable, as well as adding Jerome Harrison and rookie James Davis into the mix, the running game will drastically change. If Rob Ryan does even half the job expected of him as the new defensive coordinator, this team will improve. If Kamerion Wimbley is used correctly as a primary pass rusher instead of the drop back one trick pony seen the last few seasons, his talent may be realized. If Eric Barton even proves to be a slight upgrade over Andra Davis at strong inside linebacker, then the run defense is helped. If Alex Hall’s continued development creates another presence off the edge, then opposing quarterbacks may actually have to keep defenders accountable. If recent second round selection David Veikune can earn valuable repetitions as both a pass rusher and inside backer, then the defense becomes more unpredictable and effective. If half of these things happen, the Cleveland Browns can once again prove a winner and a thorn in the side of those contending for a championship.
Now, this roster which is evidently littered with far too many “if’s” and “but’s”. A large combination of these instances failing and this straw house could easily be toppled. Expectations could plummet and the heart of Cleveland could once again be broken. All those scenarios mentioned above could just as easily flop as they could potentially thrive. This is the razor’s edge this franchise currently resides in regards to its overall advancement. If things sway towards the negative, then the fans of this city and its team will once again endure another off season contemplating whom they should select with another top five overall draft selection.
Recently defensive team leader D’Qwell Jackson stated this new team dynamic will prove to be “damn good”. This may be an optimistic overstatement from one who is stuck in the woods and cannot see past the trees, but it is certainly an encouraging proclamation for those who follow this lineup on a day to day basis. With the right attitude brought in by a new staff and then regurgitated by the right players, the Cleveland Browns can once again prove to be a squad which shall be reckoned. Being so many uncertainties have yet to play themselves out, all sensible predictions for the foreseeable future should skew to a more conservative viewpoint with the possibility of some positive building blocks to present themselves.