Why the Cleveland Browns Can Be the NFL's Cinderella Team of the 2014 Season

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Why the Cleveland Browns Can Be the NFL's Cinderella Team of the 2014 Season
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For the Cleveland Browns, perhaps the NFL's most star-crossed franchise, the coveted fit of Cinderella's slipper has long been out of reach. 

Since the team reentered the league prior to the 1999 season, the Browns have qualified for the postseason only once (after the 2002 campaign), and they crashed out in predictably heartbreaking fashion at the hands of hated rival Pittsburgh. 

Browns fans have been haunted by The Drive and The Fumble, and they have yet to experience the kind of signature moment that buoys the spirit and exorcises erstwhile demons. And the club has lost at least 11 games in six consecutive seasons, a miserable streak that has exacerbated the franchise's longtime futility.

But sunnier days are on the horizon over Lake Erie, set to shine down on a jaded fanbase and snake-bitten organization. 

The Browns aren't far away from being a perennial playoff contender, and they have a legitimate opportunity to be the NFL's Cinderella team of the 2014 season.

Seriously.

But before Cleveland became ready to embark upon the journey towards relevance, it first had to get things sorted out in the front office.

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It's impossible to fully exonerate Browns owner Jimmy Haslam of some of the head-scratching decisions he's executed since taking over the team in 2012.

Whether it was oddly structuring the front office with Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi, placing all of his eggs in the Chip Kelly coaching basket before settling on the unimpressive Rob Chudzinski, or firing Chudzinski less than 365 days later, Haslam showed a decided lack of football acumen.

But credit must be given where credit is due, and Haslam got it right when he dismissed Banner and Lombardi following the Chudzinski debacle.

Haslam finally sensed that the regime he installed wasn't getting the job done and took decisive action. It was the shrewdest decision he's consummated in his time as Browns owner.

Promoting the highly respected Ray Farmer to general manager and bestowing him with full autonomy over the roster was a stroke of genius. Farmer is a well-respected personnel man who was on the fast-track to being an NFL general manager, whether in Cleveland or elsewhere. In fact, he spurned the Miami Dolphins to stay with the Browns, which says something about his feelings regarding the franchise's future prospects.

Tony Dejak
New Browns GM Ray Farmer.

Yes, the Browns' coaching search had more nonsensical twists and turns than an M. Night Shyamalan film and made The English Patient seem brief by comparison. But in the end, Haslam made an outstanding hire in former Buffalo Bills and New York Jets defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, who had long been in the shadow of Jets coach Rex Ryan.

Pettine has never coordinated a defense that finished ranked outside of the top 10, and he worked wonders last season in lovely Western New York.

He took over what had been a moribund unit and breathed new life into it, and the Bills defense finished with 57 sacks, second-most in the NFL. In doing so, Pettine finally extricated himself from the Ryan attachment and proved that he has the coaching chops and motivational acumen to get the job done.

There's little doubt that Pettine will do a fine job with the Browns defense, but he needed to make an excellent hire at offensive coordinator to quiet the naysayers, and he did just that by tabbing Kyle Shanahan to the post.

Shanahan proved in stops at Houston and Washington that he's one of the finest young play-callers in the NFL, and that he can successfully work with young quarterbacks. The job he did with Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III during Griffin's neophyte season in 2012 was masterful, and Browns fans should be confident that Shanahan can coax similar results out of whomever the team's next franchise passer will be.

With Haslam's hires of Farmer and Pettine, the Browns' front office and coaching staff finally appear to be stable and on the verge of success, molding the team into an outfit that could fit into Cinderella's slipper.

Now, the team must find a quarterback to marry with an up-and-coming 53-man roster.

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Despite their 4-12 finish in 2013, the Browns fielded a competitive roster that belied their lack of on-field triumphs.

When perusing the depth chart, Cleveland possesses a surplus of talent on both sides of the ball. In fact, the team sent five players to the Pro Bowl: cornerback Joe Haden, receiver Josh Gordon, tight end Jordan Cameron, left tackle Joe Thomas and center Alex Mack. The Browns also have other ascending players such as pass-rushers Barkevious Mingo, Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz and defensive lineman Phil Taylor.

But as has been the case since the franchise's reincarnation in 1999, the problem was the lack of a franchise-caliber signal-caller to put enough points on the board to win games. 

Brandon Weeden was an unmitigated disaster, and he's now the third-string option in Dallas. Jason Campbell played decently, but he's not a 16-game option and has since been released. Brian Hoyer was the best of the bunch, but he tore his ACL in Week 5 and missed the remainder of the campaign.

The Browns hold the fourth and 26th overall selections in the first round of next month's draft, and they hold 10 overall picks in what's been called the deepest draft in years. Farmer and Pettine will surely pick a quarterback early, and it's of paramount importance that they select the right one.

Bleacher Report's Mike Freeman recently wrote that the Browns "really love" Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, and in an interview this past week with SiriusXM Mad Dog Sports Radio's Schein on Sports, CBS NFL analyst Phil Simms proclaimed Carr to be the "safest" quarterback in the draft.

Let's assume that the Browns select Carr (or another quarterback) with the fourth overall selection. The value might not be great, but Farmer and Pettine might not want to risk losing their guy.

The team would then be able to use the 26th pick on a wide receiver (to pair with Gordon) or a cornerback (to pair with Haden). Options at receiver could include LSU's Odell Beckham Jr., Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, USC's Marqise Lee and Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin, while cornerbacks that could still be on the board are TCU's Jason Verrett, Ohio State's Bradley Roby and Virginia Tech's Kyle Fuller.

If the Browns were able to spend their first three selections on a quarterback, receiver and cornerback, that would be an ideal situation.

And if the team hits at quarterback, they'll immediately be in the mix for a playoff berth next season.

Think about it. The offensive line is solid, anchored by Mack, Thomas and Schwartz. Gordon is a top-five receiver in the NFL, and Cameron is a stud tight end. The club signed Ben Tate to be the starting running back, and there's no reason to believe he won't perform. 

On the other side of the ball, gone is stud safety T.J. Ward (he signed with the Denver Broncos), but Farmer replaced him with Donte Whitner and added inside linebacker Karlos Dansby. Couple them with the cavalcade of pass-rushers, Pettine's bright defensive mind and Haden shadowing top receivers and you have the makings of a potentially elite unit.

But as is the case with every team in the NFL, it ultimately comes down to the quarterback. Regardless of whether the Week 1 starter is Hoyer or a rookie, can that man succeed and get the Browns over the hump?

If he can, the Browns have all the makings of a team ready to shock the world.

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The AFC North is a rough-and-tumble division, and one could make a case for any of the other three teams (Cincinnati, Baltimore and Pittsburgh) to make a playoff run in 2014.

But there are cracks in the armor of all three of those franchises.

David Richard
Browns fans could soon have a lot to celebrate.

The Bengals have an albatross at the quarterback position in Andy Dalton and lost both coordinators to head coaching jobs. The Ravens couldn't run the ball last season and the offensive line remains a question mark. The Steelers don't have a ton of talent and have been hamstrung by poor management of the salary cap.

It's not outside the realm of possibility that the Browns could surprise and make a run toward the top of the AFC North.

The pieces are now in place. Haslam finally got it right with Farmer and Pettine, and the roster is ready to make the leap. If the Browns add the right quarterback, don't be shocked if Cinderella's slipper finally fits and they make a surprise run to the postseason.

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