The Cleveland Browns are just about a year into their latest new regime, which began taking shape when Jimmy Haslam bought the team in 2012 and continued with the hiring of general manager Mike Lombardi, CEO Joe Banner, head coach Rob Chudzinski, offensive coordinator Norv Turner and defensive coordinator Ray Horton.
The change was a tough sell, and understandably so. The Browns seem to turn over coaches and front office staff on a regular cycle, and none of it has resulted in increased success. Since their last winning season in 2007 when they went 10-6, the Browns have totaled only four or five wins a year, and they seem destined for more of the same this year, with four wins and one game left to play.
But rebuilding an NFL franchise is a process, and one season is not long enough to determine whether this latest reboot is the one that sticks. What can be done, however, is an examination of the biggest moments in the new regime's first year and see what worked and what didn't. Let's do a little buying and selling of the latest new-look Browns.
The Coaching Hires
The Browns made pitch-perfect moves to hire experienced coaches with solid track records. Head coach Rob Chudzinski has been with the Browns before—as tight ends coach in 2004 and offensive coordinator in 2007 and 2008. He's an Ohio native, a Browns fan and came to the team after a two-year stint as the Carolina Panthers offensive coordinator.
Norv Turner, Chudzinski's offensive coordinator, is a man Chudzinski is very familiar with. Chudzinski served as tight ends and assistant head coach for the San Diego Chargers while Turner was their head coach. Aside from the Chargers, Turner has also served as coordinator for the Dallas Cowboys, Miami Dolphins and San Francisco 49ers and head coach for Washington Redskins and the Oakland Raiders.
Ray Horton joined the team as defensive coordinator after serving in the same capacity for the Arizona Cardinals and then being passed over for their head coaching vacancy. Horton has a defensive backs background but also learned the ins and outs of Dick LeBeau's attack-style, heavy-blitzing 3-4 defense from a stint with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The hires signaled two things: The Browns would be a pass-heavy offense augmented by the run, and they would be switching to a 3-4 defense. For a team without a great quarterback situation, the former certainly posed problems. The latter was easier, thanks to a number of Browns veterans who had been around since their last stint with a 3-4 defense and because the Browns were active in free agency.
Indeed, being so pass-heavy while cycling through three quarterbacks this year hasn't produced the desired result. As Pat McManamon of ESPN.com notes, no team has thrown more passes than the Browns this year (640) or called more pass plays (686). But the Browns have completed only 55.6 percent of their passes.
For reasons both known and unknown, the run game has become a complete afterthought, which would be fine with a reliable quarterback under center.
The calls may be strange, but Turner and Chudzinski have a vision, and they can only execute it with the players they have. With a more complete offensive roster, something expected to happen in 2014, the results should be better in their second season.
Horton's 3-4 defense, on the other hand, seems to be an improvement over the 4-3 ran by Dick Jauron before it. In fact, the Browns are lucky their record was so poor this year. It likely prevents them from losing Horton to a head-coaching job in 2014 and gives them much-needed coaching continuity.
Like many teams, the Browns signed a number of free agents to help build out the roster. On defense, they added linebackers Quentin Groves and Paul Kruger, defensive lineman Desmond Bryant and cornerback Chris Owens. On offense, they signed quarterback Jason Campbell, receiver David Nelson, tight end Gary Barnidge and traded for running back Dion Lewis and slot receiver Davone Bess.
The Browns also opted to trade quarterback Colt McCoy to the San Francisco 49ers, to release third-string quarterback Thaddeus Lewis and to sign a Mike Lombardi favorite, quarterback Brian Hoyer.
Unfortunately for the team, many of these free-agent signings and new additions ended their 2013 seasons on injured reserve.
|Browns Big Free-Agent Signings on IR|
|LB Quentin Groves||Ankle|
|DL Desmond Bryant||Heart|
|DB Chris Owens*||Knee|
|RB Dion Lewis||Leg|
|QB Brian Hoyer||Knee|
|WR Davone Bess||NFI|
|*Browns released Owens, he was picked up by Miami|
Bryant, because of an irregular heartbeat that required a surgical procedure to fix. Groves, because of a lingering ankle injury. Owens, because of a knee injury; he was later waived by the Browns and picked up by the Miami Dolphins. Lewis, because of a broken leg he suffered in the preseason. Hoyer, because of an ACL tear suffered while he was leading the Browns to a three-game win streak.
And finally, Bess, who was placed on the non-football injury/reserve list to deal with a major family issue. Bess' presence on the roster resulted in the Browns releasing Nelson, who scored two touchdowns against the Browns for the New York Jets in Week 16. Bess, meanwhile, led the Browns in dropped passes on the season with 14 on 83 passing targets.
Bryant and Kruger have been good signings for the Browns, with the two combining for 41 total tackles and eight sacks before Bryant went on IR. Groves only played 53 snaps before the ankle doomed his season, but he managed two sacks as a situational pass-rusher.
Of course, Hoyer and Campbell have been hugely important to the Browns this year. Hoyer now has a chance to be the Browns' quarterback of the future, having the support of the front office and a great, yet brief, span of playing time in 2013. Campbell has been the starter in relief of Hoyer and Brandon Weeden, and he's been an upgrade over Weeden—though that seems like cold comfort considering the record and how he's played in the last two weeks.
Save Nelson, who was cut before the regular season, and Lewis, who was hurt before it began, all of Cleveland's most notable free-agent signings and players they traded for have seen the field this year. Bess, with his drops and distractions, has proven to be a mistake in hindsight but was a smart addition when the Browns traded for him. He'd never given any indication he'd turn into the player he was in 2013.
Cleveland's new class of veterans seems to have been bit especially hard by the injury bug this year, but, taken as a whole, the Browns handled free agency well. And at least they showed a willingness to spend money, something that was not a hallmark of Randy Lerner's ownership of the team.
The 2013 Draft
The Browns opted to wheel-and-deal their 2013 draft picks rather than use them all, potentially owing to a perceived dearth of players who met Cleveland's immediate and long-term needs.
The Browns didn't sit back and do nothing during the draft, of course. They got a speedy pass-rusher in Barkevious Mingo with their first-round pick and a slot cornerback in Leon McFadden in Round 3. They picked up safety Jamoris Slaughter in Round 6, got a relative steal in Round 7 by selecting defensive end Armonty Bryant and rounded out their haul with offensive linemen Garrett Gilkey in Round 7 as well.
Cleveland traded its fourth-round pick, as well as the 164th overall pick, to the Miami Dolphins to get Bess, receiving the 111th and 217th picks as part of the package. The latter netted them Bryant, while the former they traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers for their 2014 third-round pick. They also traded their fifth-round pick to the Indianapolis Colts, receiving their 2014 fourth-round pick in return.
|Browns 2013 Draft Haul|
|1.||6||LB Barkevious Mingo|
|2.||--||Used to take Josh Gordon, 2012 Supplemental Draft|
|3.||6 (68)||CB Leon McFadden|
|4.||14 (111)*||Trade to Pittsburgh Steelers for 2014 3rd round pick|
|5.||6 (139)||Traded to Indianapolis Colts for 2014 4th round pick|
|6.||7 (175)||S Jamoris Slaughter|
|7.||11 (217)*||DE Armonty Bryant|
|7.||21 (227)||OL Garrett Gilkey|
|*Picks traded to Cleveland from Dolphins as part of Davone Bess trade.|
Gilkey has bounced between the practice squad and active roster this year, serving as offensive line depth and playing 30 snaps. McFadden has played 188 snaps as an all-purpose defensive back, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), though he'll likely find footing as a starter in the slot. Slaughter spent the year on the practice squad as he recovers from his 2012 Achilles tear.
Bryant has been a rotational pass-rusher this year. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), of his 170 snaps this year, 145 have been in a pass-rushing capacity. He has 11 tackles, a tackle for a loss and two sacks—fairly good numbers for a player with such little time on the field.
And, of course, there's Mingo.
Mingo has played 62.1 percent of Cleveland's defensive snaps, per PFF (subscription required), mostly as a pass-rusher and run-stopper. He has 40 combined tackles, four tackles for a loss, five sacks and four passes defensed. Not bad numbers for a rookie, but he needs to develop his technique (especially against the run) and, at 6'4" and 240 pounds, gain some weight.
If you see a theme emerging for the Browns in both free agency and the draft, you're not crazy. The 2013 offseason was all about tweaking the defense while building ammunition to build up their offense in 2014. The Browns now have two first-round draft picks in 2014 (more on why later), one in the second, two in the third, two in the fourth and one apiece in the fifth, sixth and seventh rounds.
The Browns were conservative in the 2013 draft in order to be aggressive in 2014. It has Banner's fingerprints, in particular, all over it. That means, however, the success of Cleveland's 2013 draft strategy won't be known until it makes its 2014 selections. What we do know is that all of Cleveland's picks stayed on the roster, and all but Slaughter have played. That's better than many teams can say.
Verdict: Buy, pending 2014 draft
The Trent Richardson Trade
Just two weeks into the 2013 season, the Browns did something many immediately thought to be unthinkable, impossible and maybe even a little unhinged—they traded running back Trent Richardson, their 2012 first-round pick taken third overall, to the Indianapolis Colts for the Colts' 2014 first-round draft pick.
Richardson rushed 267 times for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns in his rookie season, and he also caught 51 passes for 367 yards and a score. His 3.6 yard-per-carry average was low, but it was attributed to him playing much of the season with multiple broken ribs.
In his two games for the Browns in 2013 before being traded, Richardson wasn't used much. He had only 31 carries for 105 yards and no scores, caught seven passes for 51 yards and averaged only 3.4 yards per carry. He was once considered the centerpiece of Cleveland's offense, so it seemed odd that he'd be traded.
Except, it wasn't that odd at all—he was, after all, drafted by the previous regime and the current one clearly had no use for his talents. And Richardson's talents have been marginal at best. Colts head coach Chuck Pagano called him "a rolling ball of butcher knives" after the trade, via Mike Chappell of USA Today, but he's barely made a positive impact in Indianapolis.
|Trent Richardson, 2012-2013|
|(Traded after Week 2, 2013)|
Richardson has rushed 149 times this year for the Colts, for just 433 yards and two touchdowns. He's also caught 26 passes for 248 yards and a score. His yards-per-carry average is even lower than in his rookie season, at 2.9. His vision is lacking, with Richardson rarely finding a running lane. He's not even getting the short-yardage scoring opportunities he did in 2012 with the Browns.
The Browns come up winners in this trade, though that does somewhat depend on what they do with the Colts' 2014 first-rounder. They were able to divest themselves of a back who did not fit their plans, all while getting the first-round pick they paid for him in the first place effectively returned to them by the Colts.
Though Cleveland's run game this year has been poor, there's no indication it could have been better had the team not traded Richardson. He only seemed to get worse with his new team. The Browns will take a first-round pick any day instead of three yards per carry.
When it came to actual on-field performance, the Browns didn't exactly live up to the promise of all of their offseason moves. The best the Browns can do is finish with five wins, just as they did last year, or four, like the year before. It surely doesn't look like progress, and the offense is part of the reason why.
Whether somewhat by design or because of Dion Lewis' broken leg, the Browns opted against running the ball much this year. They have just 328 rushing attempts to date, compared to 640 passes attempted. As mentioned above, they are also completing just 55.6 percent of those pass attempts while throwing more than any other team in the league. It is unsurprising, then, why they haven't racked up wins.
Their best chance to do so via the passing game came during the three-game span in which Brian Hoyer was their starting quarterback. First given the job because of Brandon Weeden's thumb injury, he kept it by playing well. Hoyer completed 57 of his 96 pass attempts for 615 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions and was sacked six times. His season ended in Week 5, when he suffered a torn ACL against the Buffalo Bills.
The Browns then went back and forth between Weeden and Jason Campbell under center before settling on Campbell permanently in Week 8, with Weeden relieving a concussed Campbell in Week 12 and taking over for him briefly in Week 13.
Weeden completed 141 of his 267 pass attempts for 1,731 yards, nine touchdowns and nine interceptions while taking 27 sacks. Campbell has completed 157 of his 276 pass attempts for 1,775 yards, 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions while taking 13 sacks. No Browns quarterback had a completion percentage of 60 this year. And the quarterback carousel had other effects on the team.
Receiver Josh Gordon seemed unfazed by the changes, with 125 yards or more, including an unprecedented two-game span of 237 yards and then 261, during the time the team was going back and forth between Campbell and Weeden. But tight end Jordan Cameron's production varied, and the many quarterback changes were likely to blame.
Bess' 14 drops have already been discussed, but Greg Little's haven't. Little has caught only 47.1 percent of the 85 passes thrown his way this year for 456 yards and two scores. Per PFF (subscription required), he's dropped eight passes, while another seven thrown his way have been intercepted. At best, Little is an inconsistent receiver, and at worst, he's a terrible one. He hasn't made things easier for the trio of quarterbacks the Browns fielded this year.
Gordon has been the Browns' only bright spot on offense this year. He leads the league in receiving yardage through Week 16 with 1,564. He has nine touchdowns and averages 19.6 yards per reception and 120.3 yards per game. In Gordon, the Browns have a star. Now, it will be about building an offense around him that can complement or match his talents.
Overall, the offense has been one of the league's poorest. It has only four rushing touchdowns. The unit ranks 27th in points per game at 20.1, even though it ranks 14th in red-zone touchdown percentage at 54.29. That's because the Browns rank 30th in red-zone appearances per game at 2.3. They are converting only 34.68 percent of their third downs
Whatever Turner and Chudzinski's vision is for Cleveland's offense, it's not what we saw play out in 2013. That, apparently, will have to wait for next year.
The defense looked like the Browns' biggest strength heading into the 2013 season, and for the most part, that's been true. The unit is 10th in the league in yards per game allowed at 335.1, is 14th in sacks with 39 and of its 12 interceptions this year, three have been returned for touchdowns.
However, the Browns rank just 23rd in points allowed per game at 25.7. They rank 30th in opponent third-down conversion percentage at 44.83. They rank 30th in opponent red-zone touchdown percentage at 65.22. The Browns defense is giving up a league-worst 9.5 points per game on average to their opponents in the fourth quarter and 14.1 points on average in the second half. There are dismal stats like this too, via Scott Petrak of the Elyria Chronicle-Telegram.
Per Mary Cay Cabot of the Plain Dealer, coordinator Ray Horton said in late October that the defense would hit its stride by Thanksgiving, but instead it appears to be regressing. The Browns have invested a lot of money and draft picks on defense in 2013, including $74 million combined for just Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant, and six of their eight highest-paid players on the 2013 roster were on the defensive side of the ball, as noted by Terry Pluto of the Plain Dealer.
|Key Browns Defensive Stats, 2013|
But the investments haven't paid off. The Browns might have an attacking defense, and yards against them might be at a premium. But they aren't a clutch defense. Teams can score against them easily. The Browns cannot defend the red zone well, nor can they force offenses off the field on third downs.
The defense needs to be able to finish—plays, drives and games. Horton has been a brilliant coordinator in the past, however, and he has a bright defensive mind. The issue could be so many Browns veterans, new veterans and rookies all trying to learn a new system and build chemistry with each other. Perhaps it will take some time, another offseason working together, but this season the defense hasn't been what we expected.
The first year of the Browns' new regime is not without its problems. Obviously, any team trying to rebuild after years of four- and five-win seasons is going to take some work to turn around. The Browns put most of their eggs in the defensive side of the ball, but the returns weren't in line with the investment. Hopefully, that's an issue of time and not poor decision-making.
The offensive side of the ball seems set for the most attention this offseason, with the Browns needing at least an addition at quarterback if not a potential starter to challenge Brian Hoyer. They need to fix the run game by finding the right back to fit their scheme and making necessary tweaks to the offensive line.
The Browns seem like a constant work in progress, because that's what they have been since returning to the league in 1999. For the franchise's sake, and its fans', this needs to be the iteration of coaching and front-office that can turn the Browns' fortunes around. Right now, it's too soon to tell if that will be the case. Each moment of progress they've made seems to have carried with it regression in other areas this season.
There are a lot of talented players on Cleveland's roster, though, and some very good football minds building the playbooks and making decisions. Hopefully, the regime's second season will have more people all-in on the Browns instead of eyeing them skeptically, thinking that things will never change.