Fans of the Cleveland Browns have been looking for something to be excited about for several years.
Even with a surprising 10-6 record in 2007 and the emergence of Peyton Hillis as a bruising force in the backfield this past season, the outcome always leaves Browns fans longing for the most important thing: a playoff berth.
But things are looking up in Cleveland. Along with Hillis, quarterback Colt McCoy played solid in eight games last season, which included shocking victories over the New England Patriots, who finished 14-2, and the defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints.
While many "experts" do not expect the Browns to make the playoffs in 2011, this could be one of the NFL's surprise teams if all the pieces come together.
Can new head coach Pat Shurmur and his West Coast offense be the difference? Will Peyton Hillis be able to repeat his stellar 2010 campaign? Can Colt McCoy become the franchise quarterback of the future?
If the answer is yes to all of these questions, the Browns could see themselves in the race for the AFC North crown.
Here are 10 bold predictions for the Cleveland Browns in 2011.
Wide receiver Greg Little fell to the Browns at the 27th pick of the second round (59th overall) in this year's draft.
While he certainly has the skill set of a first-round pick, Little missed the entire 2010 season at UNC due to NCAA violations and has been cited for character concerns.
However, Little has the ability to make an immediate impact in Cleveland. Playing at UNC, he played in a pro-style offense very similar to that of the Browns' new West Coast offense.
The Browns are also very thin at wide receiver. With no clear-cut No. 1 receiver, Little may be able to step in and gain the trust of quarterback Colt McCoy.
Little has great speed, size and hands, and if he can improve on his route-running, Browns fans will be seeing his number called very often in 2011.
(Thanks to ESPN.com for the scouting report.)
While Peyton Hillis is more than capable of producing another monster season in 2011; this all rides on the health of running back Montario Hardesty.
Hardesty, who was drafted with the same pick as Little (59th overall) the year before, injured his knee in the preseason and did not play in 2010.
Certainly, his health concerns are nothing to sneeze at. But if Hardesty can stay healthy, he could prove to be paramount to the Browns in 2011.
Hillis, despite his huge numbers, wore down at the end of last season. Hardesty can take some of the burden off of Hillis. Perhaps most importantly, Hardesty will give Hillis the rest he needs for red zone and goal-line situations, where he can use his brute force to push the ball into the end zone.
If the tandem of Hillis and Hardesty works out, Peyton Hillis could very well be atop the AFC's rushing touchdown list.
Joe Haden, after a slow start to his rookie campaign, emerged as the Browns' best lockdown cornerback in the second half of the 2010 season.
Haden finished with six interceptions last year, good for fifth in the NFL, behind only Ed Reed, Devin McCourty, Troy Polamalu and Asante Samuel.
While Haden was spectacular in 2010, many teams will most likely still try to test Haden, unlike some of the top cornerbacks in the game. For this reason, Haden has a great chance to rack up the interceptions, especially if he can improve even further in 2011.
With fellow 2010 draft pick, safety TJ Ward, the future looks bright for the Cleveland Browns secondary.
Colt McCoy was not supposed to see any playing time in 2010. After entering the season as the third-string quarterback behind veterans Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace, McCoy played in eight games following ankle injuries to both.
While McCoy's numbers were not spectacular, he led the Browns to back-to-back convincing victories over the Patriots and Saints, causing a stir around the league.
With new head coach Pat Shurmur's West Coast offense in place, McCoy's great accuracy will be accentuated and allow him to gain most of his yardage on mid-yardage passes. If Hillis can repeat his production of 2010, it will only open up the field more for McCoy to make plays down the field.
If the Browns offensive line can stay healthy and continue to protect McCoy, he has a solid shot at reaching the 3,000-yard passing plateau.
While there is certainly no "gimme" win in this group, the Browns could very well steal three of their first four games.
If the Browns can go into their Week 5 bye at 3-1, spirits will be high in Cleveland.
While the Browns play in the AFC North, one of the NFL's toughest divisions, the hardest part of their schedule does not begin until Week 13, as the Browns play both the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers twice in their final five games.
While this is a very tough way to end the season, it gives hope to Browns fans of a possible winning streak leading up to the final five games.
The Browns play the AFC South and NFC West in 2011. While the AFC South is a tough division, each team in that division is inconsistent, which will give the Browns an opportunity to steal each game despite a lack of talent.
The NFC West, on the other hand, saw the division crown go to a team with a 7-9 record in 2010. If the Browns can get on a hot streak and increase their confidence, there is no reason why the Browns cannot win three or four of those games.
There is one good thing about finishing the season with four out of five games against the Ravens and Steelers: If the Browns can get on a run, their confidence will be sky-high leading into the battles with their divisional foes and arch nemeses.
If the Browns want to get to the postseason, they will have to start winning division games. With two of the top leagues in the conference in their division, it will be imperative that the Browns sweep the series against a struggling and dysfunctional Bengals team, who will likely be starting rookie quarterback Andy Dalton.
At this point, it is asking a bit much for the Browns to win on the road against Baltimore and Pittsburgh. However, if the Browns can take care of business at home and go 4-2 in the division, the Browns will be sitting pretty in the AFC North race.
Scratch what I said in the last slide about winning at Baltimore or Pittsburgh—these are bold predictions, right?
Though the Browns do not have any success lately against the Steelers, they have been a team that plays beyond expectations under the bright lights in recent years.
A win in Week 13 at home against Baltimore would be a huge boost to the Browns' confidence leading into this game. If they are on a hot streak, who knows? Maybe the Browns can pull off a rare victory at Heinz Field.
Sure, the Browns seem to be a year or two—and a few important pieces—away from securing a playoff berth. But every year, there seems to be a team who makes a run before they are "supposed" to.
Why not the Browns? With a solid foundation of young players and a new offensive scheme likely to cater to quarterback Colt McCoy's strengths, Cleveland could be a tough team to beat in 2011.
If their core can all mature to their potential this season, it is not entirely out of the question.
Just kidding. But Browns fans can dream, right?