Six Points: Could the Cleveland Browns be a Sleeper Team?
In the dog days of August, Kool-Aid tastes really good. Six Points might as well have a glass or three before reality sets in.
There are things known as “sleepers” in this world, and those things exceed all expectations.
Back in the childhood of Six Points , there was the sleeper car. This nondescript vehicle, often heavily dented and rusted, packed some serious punch under the hood, and would drop expensive cars like a bad habit at the stoplight or on the drag strip.
There was the sleeper hit of a song, sometimes released as a B-side of a single or buried deep in an album, that would go viral on radio and become a monster hit when the record executives never gave it a chance.
And, there is a sleeper team, one that comes out of nowhere to make some noise in football season. The sleepers don’t make the Roman Numeral Game, and sometimes don’t even make the postseason, but they still leave NFL fans thinking, “Who are these guys? Where did they come from?”
As “the process” of Eric Mangini continues, national pundits have the Browns’ head coach on the hot seat, and sports books have the over-under on Browns wins at 5.5 heading into the campaign.
Defying conventional wisdom, the 2010 Browns could be a Team You Don’t Want To Play, e.g., a sleeper.
If these areas fulfill their potential, there could be a serious sleeper on the south shore of Lake Erie.
1. The Manager
The Two-Headed Quarterback Suck Monster is gone.
In its place is veteran Jake Delhomme, who is coming off a season second only to JaMarcus Russell in Starting Quarterback Suckitude.
No amount of Kool-Aid will have even the most loyal fan thinking Delhomme will ever have a bust in Canton. We know that.
Just as importantly, Jake Delhomme knows that.
Delhomme knows why he’s here, and it’s not to make anyone forget Bernie Kosar.
With the exception of 2009, Delhomme has consistently posted QB ratings in the 80s, far better than last year’s Two-Headed Quarterback Suck Monster.
With the way this team appears to be structured, that could be good enough. The Browns aren’t looking for Peyton Manning or Drew Brees this season. If they get Mark Rypien, that will do.
Manage the game, throw more scores than picks, and that will be sufficient for 2010.
2. The Foundation
Last season, the Browns had two offensive lines in one. If the left side of the line was Park Avenue, the right side was East St. Louis.
In the offseason, reinforcements were added in the form of veteran Tony Pashos, rookie Shaun Lauvao, and longshot Joel Reinders, who will likely spend 2010 on the practice squad.
Reinders’ resume is thin, and he walked onto the squad as an undrafted free agent from Canada, where he played basketball and ice hockey before he took up football in hopes of making the CFL.
Reinders also has quick feet and stands 6'7", weighing in at 320 pounds.
A sleeper lineman on a sleeper team is a feel-good story, and in Greater Cleveland, we love our longshots.
If Alex Mack can continue to improve at center and LG Eric Steinbach keeps his level of performance up, the Browns could have the left side of the line grading “A” with the presence of Joe Thomas, who could be the best left tackle in the NFL.
If coaching and creative blocking schemes can bring the right side of the line up to a B-minus, this could be a very formidable unit.
Despite the presence of John St. Clair on the line in 2009, the signs were there in the latter part of last year’s campaign.
A solid offensive line goes a long way in feeding the “W” column.
3. The Committee
In addition to the former Jets on the roster, these Browns appear to follow the Mangini blueprint from New York in more ways than starting with the offensive line.
For most of 2009, the Browns used a feature back with little or nothing left in the tank in the person of Jamal Lewis.
Lewis may have given it his all, but for NFL running backs, 30 is the new 50.
Lewis is liable to be replaced by a Jets-style “running back by committee,” if past performance is an indicator of future results.
If the line improves to its potential, Browns fans could enjoy what they see in 2010.
James Harrison came into his own last year, but at only 205 pounds, “The Ghost” may not be able to carry the entire load over a 16-game season.
Enter Montario Hardesty from Tennessee, a rested James Davis and Peyton Hillis, acquired in a trade from Denver for half of the Suck Monster.
While Hardesty and Davis are still in the unknown category at this point, Browns fans should like Hillis. A whole lot.
He’s big, has good hands, has surprising speed for a 250-pounder, and he’s a load to bring down. Six Points remembers some guy named John Riggins who fit that description.
Will Hillis be the next Riggins? There’s not enough Kool-Aid in the world to project that, but in the land of Cleve, where hope springs eternal every August, fans can always dream.
Chris Jennings looks to be on his way back to the CFL at this point, but that’s almost a foregone conclusion.
And, don’t forget Lawrence Vickers, who blows up defenders from the fullback position.
This could be one powerful committee defenders may fear going in front of.
4. The Stoppers
In the latter part of 2010, Browns fans saw some creative defenses called by Rob Ryan, who may have gotten the most out of the linebacking corps.
Matt Roth was a pleasant acquisition from the Miami scrap heap, and he has now bulked up to around 275 pounds, giving him defensive end size.
Expect to see Roth coming off of the corner on passing downs, and being used to create all sorts of havoc by Ryan.
The offseason film room showed too many instances of Cleveland linebackers making tackles six or more yards downfield, so the front office added two serviceable or better players in Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong.
D’Qwell Jackson could turn out to be better than expected, as he is playing for his next contract. The right scheme could make the most of his abilities, and even if Jackson falters, there are plenty of bodies on this unit.
As it stands now, no one on this unit will be mistaken for Lawrence Taylor, but teams have gotten excellent linebacker play without superstars before.
See Mangini’s mentor, Bill Belichick, whose Patriots defenses have been highly effective without superstars behind the front three.
If these guys can be just good enough, they might be able to create just enough havoc to make things very interesting in 2010.
5. The Safety Net
Since the 1999 reincarnation of the franchise, the Browns secondary has rarely achieved the heights of mediocrity, finishing an abysmal 29th in the league last year.
Will it be improved in 2010?
For starters, Hank “Got Beat” Poteat is no longer on the roster, and Cleveland also addressed this weakness in the offseason.
Veteran corner Sheldon Brown comes from Philadelphia, and even if he’s lost a step, he can help the younger players on the squad learn the ropes.
Sometimes, age and guile can beat youth and exuberance, and Brown might give Hines Ward and Chad Ochocinco some headaches in 2011.
Eric Wright may be adequate at the other corner, and that would give the coaching staff the luxury of starting first-round draft choice Joe Haden at nickelback, covering the opponents’ slot receivers.
Despite his being the Browns’ first pick, Haden’s confidence may be helped in the long run by not putting him out on an island in the first place.
Brandon McDonald may not actually be as awful as he looked in 2009. No, the Kool-Aid is not kicking in.
As a dimeback or used in certain coverage setups, McDonald could prove to be adequate, and adequacy would be a quantum leap over his 2009 performance.
Depending on the development of draftees T.J. Ward and Larry Asante, safety could be the weak link on the team, but it could also be a very pleasant surprise.
Fans can only hope for C+ level performance from Abram Elam at his position, as Elam’s heart is bigger than his talent.
Rob Ryan and staff will have to play a good chess game with the secondary, but if the unit can go from 29th to the middle of the pack, things will be headed in the right direction.
6. The Roadblocks
If the cable show “Dirty Jobs” hasn’t done it already, defensive linemen in a 3-4 setup, especially nose tackle, would qualify as one of those thankless gigs.
If you play lineman in a 3-4, your job is to get in the way, create havoc with the linemen, and let the linebackers come in and finish the job. All guts, no glory.
In the 3-4, the only headlines players will make can involve airport security as often as not.
But rumblings out of Berea have NT Shawn Rogers working at end, and this scenario could be entirely possible with the 2009 emergence of Ahtyba Rubin at nose tackle.
Ryan may be rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of “Big Baby” lined up over some unsuspecting left tackle, with Matt Roth lurking behind at OLB to finish the job.
Age may be catching up to this unit and reinforcements may not be ready this year, but there are a couple of interesting “project” players in Clifton Geathers and Kwaku Danso.
For the unit to succeed, Kenyon Coleman and Robaire Smith still need to have some tread on the tires, but like the linebacking corps and the running backs, a defensive line by committee could exceed the sum of its parts.
Like best-case projections for the other crucial units on the 2010 squad, all the stars will have to align for this to be a sleeper team, not to mention a quantum leap in wide receiver play.
But there’s some potential there for the 2010 season to be interesting on the lakefront, and just maybe, the Browns will be able to climb out of the basement.
Maybe two floors out of the basement if Cincinnati does its traditional implosion coming off of a good year and the Steelers decline further.
Two floors out of the AFC North basement would a sleeper make.
Extra Point: Addition by Subtraction (Schadenfreude Edition)
Six Points loves that word. In German, it translates into “taking delight in the suffering of others,” and Six Points is not above taking that delight in the case of two other NFL cities thousands of miles from the North Coast.
At the risk of flogging the deceased equine, yes, those franchises have picked up what’s left of the 2009 Two-Headed Quarterback Suck Monster.
Reading media reports from both of those cities, it’s deja vu all over again for Browns fans.
First, from Phoenix come reports that Derek Anderson is exasperatingly inaccurate in practice.
To quote Allen Iverson, “Practice! We’re talking practice!”
Cardinal fans, pray for the light to come on for Matt Leinart. Wait until you see Anderson in games.
Somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, what went around almost a generation ago may have finally come around.
Browns fans remember The Drive and The Fumble, but payback may have finally come to the Mile High City.
According to the Denver Post, Brady Quinn also lacks accuracy. Bronco fans, any objective Clevelander could have told you that, but he’s your problem now.
Oh, yes, Six Points understands the injury bug has bitten your running back corps. Thanks for that Hillis dude, by the way. He just might work out here.
Quinn did not.
Josh McDaniels may find himself on a much warmer office chair than Eric Mangini.
Incumbent starter Kyle Orton, called “Ordinary Orton” by many fans in Denver, is about as beloved in that city as Vinny Testaverde was here in his days as a Brown.
Behind Orton is Quinn for the time being, and in Denver, his jerseys are selling about as well as Anderson’s did here.
In a parallel to the onetime Fandom Menace in Cleveland, Tebowmania has hit the thin air there, with Denver No. 15 jerseys becoming the fastest-selling replicas in the entire NFL.
Orton has bad game, Quinn comes in, plays like Quinn, and every message board and sports talk show in Broncoland will be full of calls for Tebow long before Tebow will be ready.
That is, if Tebow ever will be.
Vegas may need to set an over-under on the number of games McDaniels will coach this season. It could get real ugly in Denver real fast.
Instant karma just might get him.
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