The Cleveland Browns finished 2009 with a four-game winning streak and a 5-11 record. It was their longest during one season since their five-game win streak in 1994.
Their journey back to respectability began with an impressive upset win over the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night. Their previous showcase in front of the nation resulted in being shut out by the Baltimore Ravens, leaving their fans and the rest of the country a lot to be desired.
Coach Eric Mangini looked to his former head coach, Bill Parcells, who he was a defensive assistant under, for advice to his team. He told them that they would win their last four games and in doing so they became the first 1-11 team since Parcells' 1993 Patriots, to accomplish that goal.
The goal in mind began with a tough road win in Pittsburgh that presented both teams with the challenge of swirling winds and bitter cold.
While Brady Quinn and Ben Roethlisberger both had trouble throwing the ball, the defense and running game prevailed for the Browns as they saw Chris Jennings score the first TD by a Cleveland running back in more than a year.
Cleveland's defense limited the Steelers to 75 yards rushing and sacked Roethlisberger eight times, one shy of his record.
In their previous prime-time game, Cleveland's offense was stifled by Baltimore despite their no-huddle attempts, but to the defense's credit both teams were held scoreless at the half.
Since only scoring five touchdowns before that game, it became painfully evident on a national stage how inept Cleveland's offense really was. Again, encouragement came from the defense.
The defense was led by first-year coordinator Rob Ryan, who was fortunately kept by new president Mike Holmgren along with head coach Eric Mangini, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, and Mangini's other staff members.
Of course, those other staff members could always be subject to change beginning with Brian Daboll. Cleveland's inconsistent offense this past season is evidence enough for Daboll's dismissal to be a possibility.
On the other hand, allowing Ryan to continue establishing Mangini's 3-4 defense is key, considering their most notable improvements in tackling and bringing pressure to the quarterback.
Despite their troubles earlier in the season, they finished fourth in tackles and posted 40 sacks bringing them to eighth overall. They saw 16 different players produce sacks and five had at least four.
It's the first time they've had 40 sacks in a season since 2001. One thing you can rely on from the Ryan family is their belief in constant pressure on the quarterback.
Despite these improvements, the defense's very up-and-down play landed them a 31st overall ranking, finishing 28th in rushing and 29th in passing. They accumulated 10 interceptions, 11 forced fumbles, and recovered nine fumbles.
If those numbers and rankings don't improve next season, it would be a shame because their defense is certainly taking steps in the right direction.
Not many players from the Cleveland Browns may be recognizable for average NFL fans on both sides of the ball. One name that should ring a bell for most NFL fans though, is nine-year pro defensive tackle Shaun Rogers.
Rogers is a three-time Pro Bowler, making his last appearance in 2008. On Dec. 1, he was placed on injured reserve, missing the Browns' last five games. In his first season with the team a year earlier, he finished with 73 tackles and 4.5 sacks.
His 27 tackles and two sacks through 11 games weren't much of an impact, as the Browns were allowing 155 yards on the ground. Two-year defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin played in Rogers' absence and helped his team reduce that number to an average of 111 rushing yards per game. With Rubin, they also only allowed two rushing touchdowns through five games, while 13 were allowed before Rogers' injury.
According to Terry Pluto of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, coaches are concerned that Rogers likes to "freelance," not sticking to the scheme and plugging the middle of the line. He surely still has the talent and physical presence it takes to be dominating but perhaps needs the discipline as well.
The staff believes it's secure on the defensive line with Rubin at nose tackle, and defensive ends Robaire Smith and Corey Williams. They also see promise with rookie end Brian Schaferring, who was signed from the practice squad on Dec. 2 and posted 12 tackles and 1.5 sacks in the last five games.
Veteran end Kenyon Coleman and veteran tackle C.J. Mosely suffered from injury toward the end of the season, but their experience provides depth moving forward.
Also aiding in stopping the run for the Browns was linebacker David Bowens, who moved inside to replace Eric Barton and totaled 71 tackles, one forced fumble, and 4.5 sacks, while Barton had 58 tackles through eight games and missed the remainder of the season.
One staple on the linebacking core has been four-year pro Kamerion Wimbley, who led the Browns with 6.5 sacks and came in third in tackles.
Mike Holmgren and his new general manager Tim Heckert could use a veteran in the secondary, at receiver, and maybe quarterback as well. Space will be needed to do so and as the defense continues to grow, it looks like Rogers could be the most valuable trade bait the Browns have.
Speaking of the secondary, eyes have been on fifth-year strong safety Brodney Poole, who has shown signs of big-play ability but is concussion prone and ended his season before Week 13.
He provided four interceptions as well, as did cornerback Eric Wright, who set his career high and impressed all season with his consistency.
Free safety Abram Elam led the team in tackles, but along with cornerback Brian McDonald, only accounted for one interception. McDonald could find better success as a nickel back if the Browns are willing to find another corner to complement Wright.
The Browns could have used more turnovers and failed to come up with a defensive score in 2009. All the reason they could use a big playmaker in the secondary.
For now it seems that Elam brings a solid strong safety but will the last piece of the defensive puzzle be a stellar corner? Or will more talent be needed at both positions? It will be interesting to see how Holmgren approaches this area through the draft and free agency.
A significant move the Browns made concerning their offense was trading tight end Kellen Winslow in the offseason to the Buccaneers for a second-round draft choice in 2009 and a fifth-round draft choice in 2010.
The Browns also made a trade before Week Five with the Jets that dealt wide receiver Braylon Edwards for wide receiver Chansi Stuckey, linebacker Jason Trusnick, and draft picks in the third and fifth rounds of the 2010 draft.
Their 2009 second-round picks were wide receivers Brian Robiskie and Mohammed Massaquoi, as well as linebacker David Veikune. Brian finished with seven receptions, 106 yards, and no touchdowns while Mohammed finished with 34 receptions, 624 yards, and three touchdowns.
David Veikune wasn't able to make the transition from playing defensive end at Hawaii and remained mostly inactive. Out of their second-round picks, Massaquoi proved to be the most valuable as a deep threat and Robiskie has the potential to break out when ready.
From the Edwards deal, Chansi Stuckey provided somewhat of a spark with 19 receptions, 198 yards, and one touchdown. Jason Trusnik gave the Browns 56 tackles and 2.5 sacks.
The Browns offense averaged 15.3 points a game last season, ranking 32nd in total yards and in the passing game. Wide receiver and kick returner Josh Cribbs has been about the only dynamic player the Browns have had since his arrival in 2006.
Steadily he became a valuable special teams player and now with Edwards gone, has been targeted more through the air. He's now the NFL's career leader in kick return touchdowns with eight.
Among their tight ends, Robert Royal was able to play the most and finished with 11 receptions, 134 yards, and one touchdown. When taking advantage of their opportunities, tight ends Michael Gaines and Evan Moore held the most receiving numbers in games, following Royal.
Still, inconsistent play from the tight ends made it sorely noticeable that Winslow's abilities were missing. If Josh Cribbs is able to work out his contract issues and stays with the team, it seems like he could be fighting with Massaquoi for No. 1 receiver or at least become the No. 2.
One interesting question with Cribbs is whether the Browns will want him to continue as a dual threat or will they eventually want him to concentrate on receiving? The problem for the Browns is that besides Cribbs their options at the return position are very slim.
According to Tony Grossi of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, we should know by early March or even earlier, whether the owners and the players unions agree on a new CBA.
The following players from the Browns will be restricted free agents: LB D'Qwell Jackson, DE Matt Roth, RB Jerome Harrison, LB Arnold Harrison, S Abram Elam, and FB Lawrence Vickers.
Their unrestricted free agents will be: WR Mike Furrey, TE Michael Gaines, C Rex Hadnot, CB Hank Poteat, and OT Ryan Tucker.
It shouldn't be a mystery that the Browns are lacking wide out depth and especially if an uncapped year is upon us, I can imagine them moving Mike Furrey in a well-packaged deal for a receiving threat. Suspended Browns receiver Donte' Stallworth is awaiting reinstatement by Commissioner Roger Goodell after the Super Bowl.
For now nothing is certain and what Holmgren and his staff will do, regardless of the CBA's outcome, is a mystery in itself.
One thing that was certain about the 2009 Browns was their improvement in the running game. They remarkably finished eighth in the NFL and averaged 130 yards on the ground.
Fourth year running back Jerome Harrison ran for his best season with the Browns, registering 194 attempts, 862 yards, five touchdowns, and four games over 100 yards. Three of those games came in the last weeks of the season and were sparked by a record 286-yard performance against the Chiefs.
Veteran running back Jamal Lewis, who has been with the team since 2007, has been given a reduced role through the years, which was most evident in 2009.
A concussion in Week One bothered Lewis throughout the season and his carries were reduced as a result. Lewis is uncertain if he wants to continue his nine-year career and surely with the emergence of Jerome Harrison, the Browns will likely be happy to move on.
Rookie Chris Jennings and dynamic playmaker, you guessed it, Josh Cribbs provided a boost to the rushing attack with Cribbs finding a niche in the wildcat formation. Moving forward, that's a skill Cribbs can continue to improve on and be very beneficial when developing a game plan for running the ball.
Of course, Cleveland rushers couldn't have succeeded without the help of three-time Pro Bowler left tackle Joe Thomas and rookie center Alex Mack. Granted Mack did struggle early on but showed signs later in the season of why he could be a future anchor of the offensive line.
Along with the rest of the Browns backfield, Jennings showed his ability to haul in receptions while Harrison scored twice and full back Lawrence Vickers scored once but wasn't used as a rusher. Jennings was signed from the practice squad, after promising rookie James Davis was placed on IR before Week 4.
Scoring came at a premium for the Browns, finishing with 10 rushing touchdowns and 11 passing touchdowns. By comparison, the top five teams in those categories scored at least 18 rushing touchdowns and 28 passing touchdowns.
When it comes to quarterbacks, Mike Holmgren has enjoyed the privilege of grooming Joe Montana, Steve Young, Brett Favre, and Matt Hasselbeck. To boot, he even helped running back Shaun Alexander earn a 2005 MVP honor.
Holmgren began with humble beginnings as a quarterback coach who later coordinated the '89 49ers offense to a No. 1 ranking, a Super Bowl title, and another in 1990. As a head coach, he helped the Packers reach back-to-back Super Bowls with 13-3 season's from 1996-1997, while winning one in 1996.
He steered the Seahawks to a 13-3 season of their own in 2005, marking their most successful season and first Super Bowl berth. Unfortunately, they lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
More impressively perhaps, he reached consecutive postseasons with the Packers from 1993-1998 and with the Seahawks from 2003-2007. Holmgren was also a GM with the Seahawks from 1999-2002.
Nowadays Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck seems to be nearing the downside of his career but under Holmgren he became a three-time Pro Bowler and had his best season to date, in 2005.
Questions lie with the Browns quarterbacks as both of them saw a seesaw type of season with Brady Quinn getting the starting nod the first game but both playing eight games. So much for Mangini's confidence in his quarterback.
The two combined for 11 touchdowns while Quinn threw seven interceptions and Anderson threw 10.
Throwing the ball for fewer than 100 yards in four of their five wins is a telling sign that wins relied on running the ball, defense, and favorable horrid weather conditions particularly in the Buffalo and Pittsburgh games, for a struggling pass attack.
Here's where Holmgren will have to make a major decision, based on what he likes from both quarterbacks, if anything at all.
Anderson had his best season with the club in 2007 earning a Pro Bowl and Quinn has yet to break out as the starter of the future the Browns were hoping for.
If given the chance, can Anderson ever return to his Pro Bowl form? Scott Petrak from The Chronicle-Telegram reports that Derek Anderson is owed a $2 million roster bonus in March and $7.45 million in salary in 2010.
He also suggests that Holmgren may try to trade Anderson to save money and go after a rookie in the draft or a veteran quarterback such as Donovan McNabb, Kevin Kolb, or Matt Hasselbeck in Seattle. I know, no surprise there.
Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert will have some tough choices to make when reviewing the roster. Being addressed first should be bringing players in that fit Mangini's 3-4 defense and secondly Holmgren will surely want to establish some elements from the West Coast offense, once he's sold on his quarterback.
Among the changes that will be coming forth, you're tempted to ask, "What type of season will the Browns be looking forward to in 2010?"
With that thought, I bring in the 2007 Miami Dolphins, who ended their season with a 1-15 record. On Dec. 19, 2007, former head coach Bill Parcells agreed with the Dolphins to be their new executive vice president of football operations.
Contrary to Mike Holmgren's beginnings, Parcells brought a background of coaching linebackers to the NFL and was hired by the New York Giants as a defensive coordinator in 1979. He wasn't able to coach that year and would coach linebackers the following year with the Patriots.
From there he moved on to being a defensive coordinator and linebackers coach between 1981-1982 with the Giants, where he would also become their head coach a year later.
Parcells would go on to win two Super Bowls in 1986 and 1990 with the Giants and played in another in 1996 but lost to the Patriots.
Before retiring, he would serve as the Jets GM in 2000 and was later persuaded by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to come out of retirement. He coached the team from 2003-2006, only making two playoff appearances and losing both games.
In the Dolphins 2008 offseason, Bill Parcells had plenty of work to do, and he began by releasing head coach Cam Cameron, some of his assistant coaches, and GM Randy Muller.
He then brought in GM Jeff Ireland and head coach Tony Sparano, who served under Parcells with the Cowboys as an offensive line coach, assistant head coach, and offensive play-caller.
Sparano and his staff were credited with introducing the Dolphins offense to the "wildcat formation" and leading a 1-15 team in 2008 to an 11-5 record and an AFC East division title. Making Sparano the only head coach in NFL history to lead a one-win team to the playoffs the following season.
Bill Parcells and his new GM began building a winner for the 2008 season by signing 20 little-known free agent players.
They then went on to draft OT and No. 1 pick Jake Long, DE Phillip Merling, DT Kendall Langford, QB Chad Henne, RB Lex Hilliard, and G Donald Thomas. Afterwards, they signed undrafted free agents, PK Dan Carpenter and WR Davonne Bess.
Rounding out Parcells' offseason moves were the release of LB Zack Thomas, trading DE Jason Taylor to the Washington Redskins for a 2009 second-round draft pick, and the signing of former Jets quarterback Chad Pennington.
As the Jets general manager Parcells drafted Pennington in 2000. Pennington started every game in 2008, finishing second in passer rating and giving the Dolphins a consistent passer; something they were desperately lacking in 2007.
Below are comparisons of the offensive and defensive statistical improvements the Dolphins have made from 2007-2008:
2007 Miami Dolphins 2008 Miami Dolphins
Total Offense: 28th Total Offense: 12th
Passing: 24th Passing: 10th
Rushing: 23rd Rushing: 11th
Receiving: 24th Receiving: 11th
2007 Miami Dolphins 2008 Miami Dolphins
Total Defense: 23rd Total Defense: 15th
Passing: Fourth Passing: 25th
Rushing: 32nd Rushing: 10th
Sacks: 24th Sacks: Eighth
Turnovers: 14 INT 14 FF Eight RecF Turnovers: 18 INT 17 FF 12 RecF
Mary Kay Cabot of The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that Bill Parcells discussed with Mike Holmgren about keeping Eric Mangini on-board and as his longtime friend gave Holmgren the "thumbs up."
Mangini coached under Parcells from 1997-1999 as a defensive assistant and continues to seek advice from him, as he did through his difficult 2009 season. Now that Mangini has a stable front office, his future with the Browns could possibly be looking brighter.
As I've shown above, Parcells showed everyone he could turn around an organization just as he did coaching the 5-11 Patriots in 1993, to 10-6 and a wild-card trip a year later.
With the Cowboys, Parcells still showed he knows defense as they finished No. 1 one his first year in 2003 and continued to stay in the top 20 defenses while he was with the team until 2007. For now the Browns defense seems to be intact and on the rise but what does the future hold for their offense?
Fans are counting on Holmgren to bring his offensive knowledge especially in the passing attack, and hopefully right the ship. Could the process only take a year as Parcells was able to accomplish or will there be more growing pains?
The franchise hasn't seen its first playoff berth since its 9-7 season in 2002 and only teased fans in 2007, by going 10-6 but barely missing the playoffs. That year, six players were Pro Bowl bound while only Joshua Cribbs and Joe Thomas will be playing in 2010.
With the reputations Parcells and Holmgren carry in the NFL, we know they are great football minds and both of them bring their own specialties to the game. Following Parcells' lead and turning around the Browns instantly may be asking too much of Holmgren.
If fans are least able to notice a winner is being built by 2011, Holmgren could be well on his way to restoring a once-storied franchise.