A younger team, a rookie head coach, new offense, new defense, coming fresh out of one of the ugliest labor disputes in decades—what's there to worry about?
Unfortunately, if you're a Browns fan, there is quite a bit to be concerned about.
Cleveland had one of the oldest and slowest rosters in the league, and they made a valiant effort to get younger and better in many of the areas they were lacking. Most notably, they drafted DT Phil Taylor and DE Jabaal Sheard—4-3 linemen—to expedite their transition from the 3-4 alignment used by the two previous coaching staffs. Also, they added WR Greg Little in the second round to super charge the West Coast passing attack they plan to utilize.
With all that being said, the Browns may have been the best 5-11 team in the league—ever. They beat the Patriots and Saints in back-to-back weeks with a rookie quarterback. The defense played well above its level and featured two rookies (Joe Haden, TJ Ward) at key spots.
There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistically optimistic on the shores of Lake Erie this fall. The Browns will face only four playoff teams from last season; granted, they play the Ravens and Steelers twice each. The other two teams are a confused Indianapolis Colts squad and a sub .500 Seattle Seahawks team in the midst of a QB transition, possibly.
If the Browns are to make the 2011-2012 playoffs, what must they avoid to get there?
Of their first eight games (Bengals, Colts, Dolphins, Titans, Raiders, Seahawks, 49ers, Texans), only Indianapolis finished 2010 with an above .500 record at 10-6. Second best was Oakland at 8-8. The combined win-loss record for those teams was 54-74.
It would be easy to envision that the Browns could roll to a 6-2 start to open the season.
Shouldn't that be a good thing?
For most teams, yes. In Cleveland, however, how the younger players deal with early success is going to be key. The Browns are inexperienced at many important positions and they will need solid, veteran leadership to keep their eyes on the prize.
Often, we see upstarts in the NFL that fizzle down the stretch. It will be a group effort to make sure the Brown and Orange do not join that list.
The only true weapon on offense in 2010, Peyton Hillis, will need to be used like a 12,000-mile lease versus a used purchase this year.
Last season, Hillis burst onto the NFL scene with a 1,177-yard and 11-touchdown performance.
What's not to like?
How about the fact that Hillis didn't reach pay dirt over the final five weeks of the season? What about, during that same stretch, his 3.8 yards a carry average? Prior to that stretch, he averaged 4.5 yards a carry.
The point I'm trying to make is that Hillis was worn out the final quarter of the season. He was battered all season long and his blue collar work ethic endeared him in the hearts of Cleveland fans everywhere. The Browns must have a comparable backup to ease the load on the big guy.
If Montario Hardesty or some other player cannot fill that role, it will be tough for the Browns to finish out 2011 with four of their last five games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
The Browns are going to have to get the passing game going early and often, as opposed to falling back on their laurels and running the ball to be effective.
While installing the new offense will uncharacteristically be taking place during the beginning of the season, due to the lockout, the team is going to have to go to plays and sets that they execute well. Of course, I don't mean that in Week 1 everyone gets a play book. What I'm emphasizing is that most of the ground work that is typically done during OTAs and minicamps is going to be crammed into whatever weeks are allotted for training camp and preseason. It's invaluable time this team will not have to gel together.
Another reason the passing attack has got to get going early is the preservation of Peyton Hillis. As mentioned before, with a horrific stretch to end the season, Hillis will need to be as healthy as possible heading into those crucial divisional games in December and January. If Hillis is forced to carry the offense during the beginning of the season, he will not last as the team makes a final push toward a possible playoff spot.
As the snow starts blowing in the winter months, Colt McCoy will have no choice but to be well versed in the offense and have the ability to recognize his strengths and weaknesses in northern Ohio weather. If he can do that, the Browns can win and be successful. If not, it will be another ugly Christmas in Cleveland.
There are eight possible games in which the Browns will face teams with starting quarterbacks that were not on their rosters last season (Cincinnati is included twice).
While Dick Jauron's defense will be salivating at the opportunity to face such inexperience, the same can be said for 16 defenses and Colt McCoy.
McCoy, who started eight games and won two, threw six touchdowns and nine interceptions. Eight of those turnovers came against Pittsburgh and Baltimore. Why is that important? Those two teams blitz, blitz and blitz some more.
Teams in 2011 are going come after McCoy until he proves he is capable of beating them with smart and accurate throws consistently. While the high-ankle sprain was the injury de jour for the Browns last season, the offensive line is going to be increasingly counted upon this year to keep their young QB upright in the face of all the fire they will see.
You often hear the phrase "Wait till they get film on him," in reference to a new player that is tearing it up on the field.
What that generally means is that once there is enough game film to read tendencies and such, teams can typically take away those comfort zones or moves of players. That means the player needs to adjust and build and still maintain being effective in all situations. The one-trick ponies of the world will disappear and the multi-talented will succeed.
The trick for Cleveland rookies Phil Taylor, Jabaal Sheard and Greg Little will be developing their craft—especially if they start out fast.
Sheard will have to develop a repertoire of pass rushing moves as well as being stout against the run. Taylor will have to be passive-aggressive and not allow himself to get turned on run plays or counters by being overzealous. Little will have to show he can beat man, zone, and press coverages consistently.
If the big three can be effective for 16 games and thwart the opposition's attempts at stopping or slowing them down, the Browns can only expect to be better in 2011.