Cleveland Browns: 6 Reasons Why the AFC North Crown Is Not out of Reach
Given the major improvements the Browns have made over the last year, it's easy to get over excited about their chances in 2011.
Mostly, though, it seems as though no one can quite make up their mind about how the Browns will fare this season. We hear everything from a repeat 5-11 season to a possible Super Bowl appearance. Realistically, the answer is somewhere in the middle, and neither of those extremes is all that likely.
But whereabouts in the middle, exactly? Is this a 7-9 team that still has a lot of work to do before contending, or is this a 10-6 team that, with a little luck, might just make off with the AFC North (or at least a wild card spot)?
As much as I wish it weren't true, I don't think the odds of the Browns winning the division are all that great this year. They probably still need one more season to get what looks like the right ingredients cooked together into the perfect finished product.
But for the first time in years, there is an outside chance the Browns could contend in 2011. Here are six reasons why the AFC North crown isn't totally out of reach for our beloved Browns this season.
1. An Underrated Defense
The Browns are in a huge transition year for defense, going from a 3-4 to a 4-3. No matter how well this works out for the Browns in the long run, there is going to be an adjustment period. No one, no matter how good their roster is, can smoothly go from one defensive scheme to a completely different one without hitting a few bumps in the road early on.
Lucky for the Browns, their schedule worked out such that most of their toughest games are at the end of the season, buying the defense some time to get settled and work out the kinks. There is no guarantee that it won't take a whole season for the team to get completely comfortable with the 4-3, but it isn't out of the question to suggest that it might only take five or six games.
Obviously, losing those first five or six would obliterate any shot at the AFC North title the Browns might have. But just because the defense might struggle doesn't mean it can't get the job done in those early tilts.
This is an underrated defensive squad that, while perhaps not quite where it ultimately needs to be, is far better than many generally perceive it. The secondary has the potential to be outstanding (and will have less adjustment issues to the 4-3 than the rest of the defense). And while the front seven will certainly struggle early, they too are better than they get credit for.
In a division where defense is paramount and rivals like the Steelers and Ravens are built around run-crushing D, no one expects the Browns to cruise through 2011 with the best defense in the North. But if all the other pieces fall into place, the defense might just adjust fast enough to get the job done. New scheme or not, they're a lot better than you think.
2. Successful QBs Come in All Shapes and Sizes
For every one of us who is totally on board the Colt McCoy express, there is another who doubts McCoy's ability to ultimately succeed in the NFL. He's too small, he's not strong enough, he hasn't been given good enough weapons to overcome his own shortcomings...the criticisms are endless.
A lot of the those things might turn out to be true. But sometimes winners come in unexpected packages. Look at Bernie Kosar. Size wasn't the issue there, but watching him run was downright painful. His accuracy was often questioned as well, though that turned out to be terribly untrue.
The same might be said for McCoy. For all the knocks against him, he, like Kosar, is a guy who just finds ways to win. He did at Texas, and it stands to reason he can do it again in Cleveland.
He'll never be a Manning or a Brady, but not everyone needs to be. Take Aaron Rodgers, for example. No one thought he was worth much of anything when he entered the league, and now he's at the very top of the heap. There's nothing that can substitute for pure talent, but if a quarterback has enough talent, as I suspect McCoy does, then sometimes the guy who wants it more and who goes about it in a more intelligent manner beats the guy with the cannon arm.
Again, that brings us back to the issue of underestimation. If McCoy plays the way his doubters predict, the Browns won't be in the race for the AFC North. But if he plays as well as some of us think he can, he might be the one player on the roster who can make the difference between an also-ran season for the Browns and a possible title bid.
3. The Rest of the Division Has Left the Door Open
There's no denying that the AFC North is one of the toughest divisions in football. But its top contenders are no longer the impregnable forces that they once were.
Yes indeed, the Steelers and the Ravens are largely populated by players on the downswing rather than on the uphill side of their careers.
Don't get me wrong; I'm in no way insinuating that either team is anything but a tremendous force to be reckoned with. Getting old or not, the Steelers and the Ravens both have plenty of gas left in the tank.
But they aren't invincible, and they're less unbeatable than they have been in recent years. Put that together with the fact that the Browns are only getting better and will continue to get even more impressive, and we may just have a fight on our hands.
Head to head, the Browns will have a tough time coming out on top when doing battle directly with either Pittsburgh or Baltimore. But if the Browns can log a good number of wins against other teams and their division foes struggle a bit in their out of division match-ups, then they might just be able to get a foot in the door.
Should it come down to a head to head battle with the Steelers at the close of 2011 for the division title, the Browns will have a tough task ahead of them. But not an impossible one. On paper, of course the Steelers win, but the NFL often doesn't play out on the field the way it does on paper. The Browns might not have the skills to win that battle this season, but you can bet they won't go down without a fight, and sometimes, that makes all the difference.
4. The Element of Surprise
Over and over again, Cleveland teams with a shot to win a title in their respective sport find themselves cast as the underdog. As we've discussed many times, underestimation seems to be our lot in life.
But experience has taught us that this is almost never a bad thing. There is no harm in being underestimated, and often, it's a huge advantage.
The Browns, if they play well enough to look like they could be a division contender midway through this season, will surely find themselves playing the role of underdog yet again. Good. That can only help us.
Last season, a big part of the reason the Browns were able to beat the Patriots and the Saints and nearly beat the Jets was that all three of those teams wrote them off as an opponent they didn't need to take seriously.
Those teams brought their B game to contests against a foe they thought was subpar and didn't require their full attention. Two of the three paid dearly for it, and the third one escaped only by the skin of their teeth.
Obviously, if the Browns don't have the chops to trap the supposedly better teams in the division, it won't help if they identify us as such. But if the Browns can bring enough to the table to take advantage of such underestimation, it could pay off hugely for them. After all, the toughest enemy to beat is the one you never saw coming.
5. Who Wants It More?
As we've said again and again, there's no denying that wanting to win isn't enough if you don't have the skill to do it. But let's say you've almost got enough talent to emerge from a season a winner.
In a close contest, it often comes down to who wants it more. Football is ultimately a game of toughness and of outlasting the competition. It's about who can take a tremendous beating and then be willing to drag your battered, bruised self up off the turf and line back up to do it all over again. Often the last man standing is simply the one who absolutely refuses to lie down.
And oh, how the Browns want it more. We are starved. Starved for a division title we haven't won in years, starved for a Super Bowl bid we've never gotten and starved for even a chance at the kind of success that hasn't been possible for us in the last few horridly disappointing and disheartening seasons. We didn't have the weapons to make the fact that we might just want it more than anyone else matter in the last few years. But this year, our arsenal looks a lot more promising.
Again, I don't wish to imply that the rest of the division isn't hungry to win. Well, Cincinnati looks like they're just trying to survive (or perhaps just giving up), but I would certainly never dismiss either Baltimore or Pittsburgh as apathetic.
But if it comes down to a close contest, you can bet that however much they want it, we want it more. Having not had the level of success those teams have had in recent years, we have no laurels to rest on. We have nothing to lose and everything to gain.
So you better believe the Browns want this more than anyone, and if they have the opportunity to put that to use in a fight for the AFC North crown, they'll do it.
6. The Football Gods Have a Sense of Humor
Sometimes getting what you want is just a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Football, like the universe in general, often has a sense of humor and irony.
How else do you explain the perfect season the Patriots had in 2008 ending in a loss in the Super Bowl on a circus catch? There are dozens more examples of situations like this throughout the history of football. Sometimes if your team can get itself to the brink, you just get lucky.
We don't know much about luck in Cleveland, but we do know one thing: we're overdue for a little of it.
The thing about being unlucky of course is that it never seems to matter if you're overdue. You've probably been overdue for years and never caught a break. That's why you're unlucky.
But everyone's luck turns sooner or later, and maybe this will be our year. A little luck that buys us a couple of wins this season paired with a little misfortune that costs the Steelers and Ravens a few losses could put us right there in the mix for the division crown.
As Clevelanders, we know we can't ever count on getting lucky to get us what we want. If the Browns catch a break this season, it will be the first one they ever caught. But that doesn't mean the possibility of it doesn't exist.
The bottom line is that the Browns are a very, very long shot to win the North this season. The odds, unfortunately, are pretty bad. But it won't be impossible. And maybe, just maybe, if all the pieces fall into place, the 2011 Browns could find themselves fighting it out for the AFC North crown this season.