For Cleveland Browns fans, "wait til next year" is a common phrase. Now that next year is upon us, what should we expect from the 2011 Cleveland Browns?
While optimism is usually high for most teams when training camp begins, we must have a realistic outlook for this season. The Browns are a team on the rise. With another strong draft or two, the Browns could position themselves as a legitimate contender in the AFC in the foreseeable future. However, Browns fans should not expect a quick turnaround this season.
First of all, let us remember that Pat Shurmur is a first-year head coach. That, combined with the fact that the NFL lockout prevented Shurmur from implementing his new system to the team months ago, could mean a rocky first season for the 46-year-old head coach.
The Browns may have been hurt by the lockout more than any other team, with the transition to new offensive and defensive schemes. It would be highly unrealistic for fans to expect Shurmur to turn the fortunes of the team around so quickly.
Colt McCoy's presence at quarterback should also be viewed with cautious optimism. Unfortunately for McCoy, the lockout has impeded his opportunity to absorb the playbook and establish himself in Shurmur's new offense. With only a month to prepare before the season opener against Cincinnati, the Browns (especially McCoy) may still be absorbing the new schemes at that point.
Also, let us not forget McCoy's struggles against Pittsburgh and Baltimore late last season. While he showed considerable promise in upset wins against the Patriots and Saints, he struggled mightily in late-season losses to the Steelers and Ravens. We must monitor his progression as an NFL quarterback with patience. He has the confidence of his front office and his coach, but he must learn the offense quickly.
The Browns' biggest hurdle this season may be their own division. While Cincinnati is in rebuilding mode, Pittsburgh and Baltimore have their sights set firmly on the Super Bowl. Both teams have franchise quarterbacks, an abundance of offensive talent, and two of the best defensive units in the NFL.
The Browns have struggled against both teams since their return to the NFL in 1999, and while the Browns may be gaining ground on them, let us not forget that these teams are consistent competitors. While both are in "win-now" mode, their front office stability and superb talent evaluation has allowed them to remain competitive on a yearly basis.
This is a huge obstacle for the Browns to cover, and with a new system and young inexperienced players, the Browns' struggles may continue in their division. The Browns do have young talent though, suggesting that they could challenge both teams soon.
Every year the NFL has a Cinderella team that emerges from the bottom of the league. Although it is possible, the Browns would have to catch many breaks for that to happen.
With a first-year head coach, a very young quarterback with only a handful of NFL starts and a division that features two Super Bowl contenders, the Browns have many obstacles standing in the way of a winning 2011 season. Improvement and success should not be determined by how many games the Browns win this season.