There are plenty of reasons to expect the Cleveland Browns to not be very good and to not win very many games in 2009.
Chief among those reasons: they are, after all, the Cleveland Browns.
There is certainly a lot of Browns hate floating around as we approach the first week of the 2009 NFL season.
Take a few minutes to sample the power rankings at sites like ESPN, FoxSports, and elsewhere. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that while the Browns are not quite the worst team in the NFL, they are not too far away.
So what the hell am I thinking trying to approach a Browns 2009 season preview with the goal of disproving the conventional wisdom? Am I totally off my rocker sitting down this morning in search of legitimate reasons for why Browns fans should have hope heading into 2009?
The answer to both questions is: I’m not sure.
But here I am, and here you are, and damnit, at the end of the day this is the NFL we are talking about.
Consider the following:
• The Dolphins, Falcons, and Ravens entered 2008 with new head coaches who had no head coaching experience. The Browns enter 2009 with a new head coach who actually has head coaching experience.
•The Dolphins and Falcons had been bad for a while. They were not a year removed from a 10-win season, as the Browns are.
• The Falcons and Ravens entered last year with first round rookie QBs starting. The Browns have one guy a year removed from making the Pro Bowl…who will likely be the backup. Brady Quinn, the Browns’ own first round pick, first-year probable starter at least enters this season with a couple of years of NFL experience under his belt.
Somehow, despite so many odds seeming to be stacked against them, the Dolphins, Falcons, and Ravens all made the playoffs last year. Time and again in the NFL we see teams rise from the depths of low-to-no expectations to shock the football world by winning nine, 10, or 11 games. 2007 in Cleveland was a prime example.
So no matter how bad you expect the Browns to be in 2009, remember that the Dolphins and Falcons were expected to be just as bad, if not worse, in 2008. And look where they ended up.
But simple, general, implied correlations such as what I’ve just done mean nothing. A Lions fan could say the same thing. So could a Raiders fan. It’s time to get specific.
We all rationally understand, based on recent NFL history, that teams going from worst-to-first is not a freak phenomenon in the NFL.
For Browns fans—my long-suffering and frowning brethren who are desperately grasping for hope, for something legitimate to believe in heading into 2009—what are some real and team-specific reasons why 2009 could be the season when we put the wait for next year on hold?
1. Eric Mangini will see your 4-12 record, and raise you a playoff berth
Forgive the somewhat obtuse poker analogy, but this fact remains: Eric Mangini has already proven that he can immediately take a team from 4-12 (the Browns’ record in 2008) to the playoffs.
Interestingly enough, the parallels do not end there.
You may recall that in 2004, the year preceding the Jets’ 4-12 stumble and Edwards’ eventual ouster, the Jets went 10-6.
Similarly, as I know you will recall because I’ve already mentioned it, the Browns went 10-6 in 2007, the year prior to their 4-12 collapse in 2008 that led to the ouster of then head coach Romeo Crennel.
So for Eric Mangini, this is not unchartered territory. The man has done it once, which should give Browns fans a legitimate reason to think that he can do it again.
(Note to all Browns fans: for the sake of our ever-diminishing sanity, let’s forget for the moment the fact that Mangini’s Jets yo-yo’d back to 4-12 in his second year, completing a four-year run of 10-6, 4-12, 10-6, 4-12 that we would obviously like to avoid.)
2. Braylon Edwards and Kamerion Wimbley have nowhere to go but up
Let’s get one given about the 2009 Browns out of the way right now. We all know that this is a team still in need of more playmakers on both sides of the ball. Thus, the playmakers that they do have absolutely must play up to their capabilities this season.
Braylon Edwards and Kamerion Wimbley are, unquestionably, two of the five most talented players on the Browns roster (along with the consistently solid Joe Thomas, Josh Cribbs, and Shaun Rogers…at least he was last year).
Both Braylon and Kamerion were awful in 2008, despite already having proven that they can succeed at the NFL level. These two must play much closer to their potential for the Browns to have success in 2009.
And there is every reason to believe that they will do so.
Braylon Edwards is the player that I correctly pegged as the key to the Browns season in 2008 after we watched him struggle in Week 1 against Dallas. Sadly, I was proven correct as Braylon’s awful season was symbolic of the entire team’s failure last year.
But this is still a guy who was the third overall pick in the draft, who has shown that he can produce yards and TDs in big numbers, and who should be entering his prime at 26 years old.
In 2007, we probably saw Braylon’s ceiling. In 2008, we probably saw his floor. In 2009, we just need to see a very good receiver, which Braylon is perfectly capable of being. And if Braylon is only very good—putting on hold, for a moment, any expectation of him being great—he should produce 75-85 catches, 1,200-1,300 yards, and 8-9 TDs. These are not unreasonable numbers.
And think about it: if Braylon had just been good last year, as opposed to decidedly awful, the Browns probably win one or two more games.
Auspiciously, Braylon has appeared better and more focused this preseason (three receptions, 51 yards, and a TD in the Browns’ most recent preseason game) and should be more consistent if the Browns pick one QB and stick with him.
He can’t be worse than he was last year, and that alone will make the Browns better.
On the other side of the ball, Kamerion Wimbley is, like Braylon, a former first round pick with worlds of talent. He is also, like Braylon, prone to inconsistency and had his worst season as a pass rusher last year. After a great rookie season in which Wimbley got 11 sacks, he fell to only four last season.
So like Braylon, we have probably seen Kamerion’s floor. I’m not quite sure we have seen his ceiling yet, however; and the combo of Eric Mangini and new defensive coordinator Rob Ryan may just be able to unleash it.
The Jets and Raiders (where Ryan coached last season) were both in the top half of the NFL in sacks last year. Say what you will about the ability of Ryan’s Raiders to stop the run—they couldn’t—but they did a decent job of getting after the passer.
And he is, after all, a Ryan.
The Browns have Shaun Rogers and D’Qwell Jackson as the centerpieces of their quest to improve the run defense. And let’s be honest, it could improve and still not be very good.
Kamerion Wimbley, on the other hand, is the centerpiece of the Browns’ pass rush, and there appear to be new strategies in play (such as moving him around more) to make him more effective.
Kamerion has too much talent to pick up only four sacks this year. If he can get back into double-digits, which he is perfectly capable of doing, the Browns’ defense will improve. An improvement by Kamerion alone won’t make the Browns defense great, and might not make it good, but it will at least make it better.
Assuming these two immensely talented players can play closer to their abilities than they did last season, it should make the Browns two or three games better. I suppose it’s fair to say that we should expect such improvement at our own risk, but it’s at least a reason for hope.
Remember, we’re Browns fans. Hope is all we have.
3. The pieces are in place for the Browns to be far more effective running the football
A lot of blame got heaped onto Derek, Brady, and Braylon for the Browns’ offensive struggles last season, and deservedly so; but the running game provided little in the way of backup.
The Browns finished 26th in the league in rushing last year with a paltry 3.9 yards per carry. Unless you have a healthy Kurt Warner with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin at receiver, that’s just not going to get it done.
Much was made of the Derek-to-Braylon and Derek-to-Kellen and Derek-to-Jurevicius combos that made the Browns’ 2007 offense so successful. But did you realize that the Browns also finished 10th in rushing that year and averaged 4.3 yards per carry?
With Brady Quinn likely to get the nod at QB, and two rookies plus a QB-turned-kick-returner-turned-wide-receiver likely to be among his top five targets on the outside, the Browns will have an inexperienced passing game in 2009 that will undoubtedly be a work in progress.
Where we have the best combination of experience and talent is in the backfield.
And, as with the assumed improvement of Braylon and Kamerion, I think it’s safe to assume that the running game will be better in ‘09—in large part because it cannot possibly be worse.
Jamal Lewis is a former freak-of-nature-type stud who could bowl over defenders and run by them at the same time. Now tumbling down the 30-and-over running back hill, Lewis lacks breakaway speed and can be painfully slow to the hole.
What he can do, however, is churn out tough yards while wearing down defenders, block effectively, and provide much-needed leadership on an offense that is devoid of it.
I’ve heard whispers that the Browns should cut ties with Lewis because of his diminishing skills as a runner. That’s a myopic viewpoint.
This will probably be his last year in Cleveland, but he will still be valuable, for the reasons mentioned above, even if his carries are reduced (which they should be) and he’s only a 3.8 yard per carry back.
Where my excitement and optimism about the Browns running game comes from is the presence and flashes of brilliance that we’ve seen from Jerome Harrison and James Davis. I’ve written at length about these two players and their potential for success in 2009 here and here, so I won’t repeat myself.
Suffice it to say, as long as Eric Mangini and Brian Daboll make good on their promise to get these guys more involved, the Browns will be a better running football team in 2009.
Something else to keep in mind: while everyone focused on the Jets’ passing game and Brett Favre last season, they were surprisingly effective running the football.
And one more thing to keep in mind: Eric Mangini comes from the Bill Belichick school of coaching, where you focus on what players can do, as opposed to what they cannot do, and put them in positions to succeed and maximize their value to the team.
One example that proves this is the Jets’ superb use of Leon Washington last year.
The previous Browns coaching staff always seemed hung up on what players could not do, as evidenced by their exasperating unwillingness to get Jerome Harrison consistent touches.
The guy averaged more than 7 yards per carry! No one thinks he can keep that up with 100-125 carries, but he certainly is part of the solution to the Browns ground woes, and I expect the new coaching staff to recognize this.
Time will tell how effectively Mangini and Daboll can direct the Browns offense, but the Jets’ success running last season plus the versatility of the Lewis-Harrison-Davis trio has me optimistic that we will be much better on the ground this year than we were last year.
We sure as hell (broken record alert!) can’t be much worse. And that right there is another reason to hope for and expect improvement.
Finally, here a few additional quick-hit reasons for Browns fans to have hope heading into 2009:
• Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald are playmaking, ball-hawking cornerbacks who have flashed the potential for both greatness (the home Monday night win over the Giants) and for punishing lapses in focus (the devastating Broncos loss).
As they gain experience and enter their prime, improvement should be inevitable. Add to the fact that Eric Mangini is a secondary coach at heart and in experience, and I think we can safely assume that one position for which focus should be less of a problem this year is the defensive backfield.
• Josh Cribbs, whose contributions to the team’s 2007 success were never fully appreciated in my opinion, looks energized this preseason. Obviously something needs to be done with his contract, but if Cribbs can stay healthy and not fight nagging injuries like he did last year, he will make the Browns better on offense and special teams.
• The Browns’ schedule, in theory, should be more palatable than last year’s. While the NFC North looks to be much improved this year, the AFC West has only one good team.
And if Baltimore continues its trend of being good one year and then bad the next, it could provide two in-division opportunities for victories that were not there last year.
Just a quick glance at the schedule reveals the following eight games that are very winnable: at Denver, vs Cincinnati, at Buffalo, at Detroit, at Cincinnati, and the last three games of the year: at Kansas City, at Oakland, vs Jacksonville.
If the Browns are indeed a better football team in 2009, and can find a way to just go 6-2 or 5-3 in these eight games, a 7-9 or 8-8 or *gasp* even better record is possible.
And those final three games, against teams that no one is pegging as playoff-caliber heading into the year, could prove valuable if the Browns somehow are in contention for a playoff spot.
So, in conclusion, Peter King can take his 2-14 prediction and shove it.
I like Peter King and read his Monday Morning Quarterback column religiously, and after last season’s debacle I suppose anything is possible.
When your team is picked to compete in the AFC, you get five prime-time games, and then you fall flat on your face, it’s hard to really argue when an outsider shows a lack of faith.
But there are reasons for hope in Cleveland that many prognosticators, and even many fans, are not recognizing.
Similarly, there were reasons for caution heading into last year that many prognosticators, and certainly many fans, turned a blind eye towards. The unexpected happened in 2007 and the unexpected happened in 2008, so who’s to say the unexpected won’t happen in 2009?
I realize that I may be setting myself up for another season of disappointment and heartache, but I’m beginning to get excited and optimistic about the 2009 Browns.
I honestly have no idea if we will be better or if we will be worse, and the truth is that nobody does. This is the National Football League aka Not For Long aka No F’ing Logic, a league where the unexpected has ironically become the expected.
Eric Mangini has already proven that he can defy conventional wisdom and expectations in his first year with a new team, and the Browns have certainly proven they can defy conventional wisdom and expectations with their performance the last two years.
But, alas, this is the Browns we are talking about, a team notorious for its consistent ability to suck the hope and optimism out of its fans by a seasons’ end.
So call it a coping mechanism, call it foolhardy positivity, or even just call it crazy. Either way, while the fresh-cut-grass smell is still emanating from another NFL season set to begin, with every team sitting there even at 0-0, I will once more jump on the bandwagon of optimistic hope and believe that the unexpected can indeed occur in Cleveland.
* – Eric Mangini photo credit: New York Post
* – Braylon Edwards photo credit: The Repository (Canton, OH) via Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
* – Kamerion Wimbley photo credit: AP via DayLife