Only six games into a season that fans, players, and the team's administration held high hopes for, the Cleveland Browns find themselves securely buried at the bottom of the AFC North and are facing a schedule that doesn't seem likely to yield any relief soon.
Team owner Randy Lerner hired Mike Holmgren as the team's president and game him absolute power to construct a team from the General Manager on down to the punter in a desperate attempt to avoid just such a situation.
Holmgren in turn retained Head Coach Eric Mangini in a move that surprised Browns players, fans, and even members of Lerner's Aston Villa soccer team. Coordinators Brian Daboll and Rob Ryan returned along with Mangini but Daboll was forced to implement constructs of the West Coast offense and was tutored by special adviser Gil Haskell.
A record of 1-5 surely seems to signal a failure of more than one element and would suggest that either Holmgren's plan isn't working or retaining Mangini was a mistake. I don't necessarily think that either one is true.
While I hate to see the Browns lugging around such a record, they have been competitive to some degree in all six games, including Sunday's misleading 28-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Only six games into the season and the Browns have already turned to their third round draft pick, quarterback Colt McCoy, after both Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace suffered ankle injuries. Holmgren had originally announced that McCoy would be redshirted this season but Mangini had maintained from the start that he would play the rookie if necessary and the need arose against the Browns arch rivals, who had the league's number one defense.
McCoy played reasonably well during the first three quarters, showing good athleticism and a nice touch on short passes but didn't go upfield with the ball until the game was decided and accumulated a good chunk of his passing yardage then. Overall, it was a very good showing for the rookie's first live game action.
The Browns are maddening to watch play. They have only given up nine more first downs than they have accumulated this season. They give up 19 more yards passing and 23 more yards rushing per game. Despite the relatively small margins they have only managed to win one game.
They move the ball up and down the field but always seem to go three and out just outside of field goal range. Big plays are an endangered species as the Browns have only 20 plays of over 20 yards.
During the first half of most of the games Cleveland likes to establish Peyton Hillis in both the running and passing game. Receivers rarely are targeted, regardless of who is in at quarterback. Hillis leads the team with 391 yards rushing and four touchdowns and has displayed a superb pair of hands hauling in 26 passes.
Tight end Ben Watson is the secondary option in the first half and has been worth the free agent investment as he leads the Browns with 29 catches for 318 yards and two touchdowns.
For some mysterious reason the Flash package has hardly been used and now that Joshua Cribbs has suffered a head injury, it may be a while until the Browns have it in their arsenal again.
The Browns need to find a running back who can occasionally get to the edges and they have to at least throw the ball toward their wide receivers once in a while to keep the middle open for Ben Watson and Evan Moore.
Rob Ryan's defense has played each opponent tough in the first half of the ballgames but have shown a tendency to get worn down by the offense's inability to sustain long scoring drives which puts them back on the field too quickly too often.
The defense has not made many big plays however. They only have 10 sacks total and Marcus Benard, Scott Fujita and Matt Roth have combined for eight of those. The much hyped revamped secondary has only produced three interceptions and the team only has four total along with four fumble recoveries.
Despite those issues and only having one sack from the defensive line and cornerback Eric Wright giving up five touchdowns by himself so far, the Browns defense has acquitted itself better than the team's record indicates.
Rookie safety T.J. Ward has been all over the field and leads the team in tackles by a wide margin. Veteran free agent linebacker Scott Fujita has been a stabilizing force and is always in the right spot. Linebacker Marcus Benard has gone from an undrafted rookie free agent to the practice squad a year ago to a pass rushing nightmare. He has definitely filled in Kameron Wimbley's shoes.
Linebacker Eric Barton has returned from a serious neck injury that many thought was career ending to flying around the field like a rookie and making key tackles at opportune moments.
It is unrealistic for the Browns to expect a major correction in their win-loss record this late in the season against the quality of opponents they will face. Unfortunately, as their record gets worse, so will the temptation to make major changes which may not be necessary.
They have already traded a running back whose skill set complemented their lead back for a back whose skill set mimics the lead back. Although there were political issues behind that trade, it never gets made if the team is 3-3.
There are always Shaun Rogers trade murmurs and I never understand why. He may be overpaid but Randy Lerner isn't hurting and the defensive line is not a bastion of power. Rogers is not quite the force he was before the leg injury but who comes off the bench to start if we dump him for a draft pick? Schaefering? That weakens the bench and while I like the kid, he's not the beast Rogers is. Rogers also makes the OLB on his side better, so factor that in when you consider that third round pick you hope to get for him.
I believe that there are more quality football players on this year's team than there were last year and given the opportunity to continue to gel, the team will eventually put forth a quality product. Both coordinators have issues and I believe in the personnel more than I do them but it's not my call.
This team is better than it's record. There are plenty of flaws to be sure, but every Sunday I come away feeling a little bit better than I did the week before, and that sure beats last year.