Cleveland Browns: Dissecting Team Standings in ESPN Power Rankings
Great news, football fans: We are now a mere four days away from the first preseason games of 2011, and thus the first set of ESPN NFL Power Rankings for the year have been released.
Love them or hate them, ESPN is the go-to source for NFL power rankings, so that's where we'll turn to see where the Browns stand.
The first round of power rankings for 2011 that I used for this article can be found here.
Obviously it's really early to be creating power rankings, much less analyzing them, but it's still interesting to weigh where ESPN ranks the Browns relative to other teams in the league against where we as Browns fans would rank them.
Following are my observations on how the Browns fared in the inaugural 2011 power rankings. Please feel free to share your own thoughts on the matter in the comments below!
1. Overall Ranking in the NFL
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First, let's take a look at where the Browns have been ranked overall. That would be 28th out of 32 teams in the league.
This is a tough ranking to swallow when your team is on the upswing and is expected to improve this season, but probably not as off-base as we would like it to be.
While I can't quite agree with the assessment that the Browns are that close to the bottom of the league (we'll blame ESPN's frequent underestimation of Cleveland teams), it isn't as though we should have expected to see them ranked in the top half of the league.
There are no teams ranked in the top 20 who one could argue should have actually been ranked lower than the Browns, so any misfires on where the Browns landed on the list are only a matter of being off by a few slots rather than any gross underestimation of where the team stands.
Of course, many of us believe that the Browns have the potential to surprise this year and wind up playing well enough to make a huge leap in the standings, but for now, where they have been ranked is, unfortunately, at least close to where they probably belong until they are able to prove otherwise.
2. Browns vs. Division Rivals in Power Rankings
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As things currently appear in the AFC North, the division's teams appear to be so far apart in potential that there isn't really much to be said about how they stack up against each other.
The Bengals come in last in the league at No. 32—also no great surprise to anyone who has watched the disaster that has unfolded there over the last year or two.
That puts the Browns third in the division, and a long way down from the two teams ahead of them. Sadly, that's probably about right, at least for the time being. I'm not sure Cincinnati belongs just four slots behind the Browns, but I fully buy that the Steelers would be 23 slots up on them and the Ravens would be 19 up.
Hopefully the Browns will be playing above their ranking when the season starts, but without so much as a preseason game to go on yet, they are probably where they belong relative to other division rivals given what little evidence we have to go on thus far in 2011.
3. A Look at Neighboring Teams in the Rankings: Broncos
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Upon seeing that the Broncos were ranked one slot above the Browns at No. 27 on the list, my initial reaction was that it was downright ridiculous. How could the mess that is Denver be ahead of the Browns here?
Realistically though, it's probably a closer battle than we in Cleveland would care to admit. Denver has a similar load of problems to the Browns (or at least they did entering 2011), and while I think the Browns have made far greater strides toward improvement than the Broncos have, without any proof of that, it makes sense that the two would be ranked neck and neck.
Given the unknown quarterback situation in Denver and their very, very iffy defense, I would suggest that the Browns ought to be ahead of them rather than vice versa, but it does make sense (at least until we see how both teams' offseason activity starts to play out on the field) that they would be close together.
4. A Look at Neighboring Teams in the Rankings: 49ers
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The 49ers closed 2010 as an absolute mess. Probably more so than the Browns off the field and less so on it, but nevertheless, things were bad in the Bay Area when 2010 came to a close.
San Francisco has landed two spots above the Browns in the power rankings at No. 26, which, as in the case of the Broncos, seems slightly inaccurate relative to Cleveland's position but in the correct ballpark.
Defensively, you can't really argue with the ranking, at least at this point, and as for the offense—well, that may depend on who wins the QB job in San Francisco. At the moment, no one seems to be able to say for certain whether the oft-troubled Alex Smith or the rookie Colin Kaepernick will wind up with the job.
Whatever you think of Colt McCoy, it should be tough for even his greatest doubters to argue that he falls behind either Smith or the unknown Kaepernick in terms of how he stacks up as a QB. Not to mention the fact that he has the job nailed down, whereas the 49ers are setting themselves up for a quarterback controversy heading into the season.
What evens things out a bit between the two teams might be that the situation with Frank Gore in San Francisco has been resolved. If these rankings had been completed during Gore's four-day holdout, the Browns (and the Broncos, for that matter) could very well have edged out San Francisco. But with Gore now in camp and looking no worse for having missed a few days, the Niners ground game levels the playing field.
One other thing to consider: While this isn't really supposed to factor into power rankings strictly speaking, the 49ers play in a much less competitive division than the Browns. While this shouldn't affect the basic tenets of a power ranking, it does allow San Francisco a potential edge in the number of games they have a legitimate shot to win.
5. A Look at Neigboring Teams in the Rankings: Vikings
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The Vikings, currently ranked at No. 25 and three spots ahead of the Browns, are a tough team to make heads or tails of at this point in the preseason as far as how they stack up against Cleveland.
They closed out 2010 at 6-10, one victory better than the 5-11 Browns, but appeared to be a losing team on the downswing while the Browns looked like a losing team on the upswing.
As with the rest of the non-interdivision teams mentioned in this article, I don't profess to know enough about the Vikings to say with absolute certainty how they'll fare this season. I do know this though: Somehow—after going through so many quarterbacks last season that they actually had to bring in Patrick Ramsey at the end of 2010 and burn their first-round pick on a quarterback who was likely drafted well above slot this spring—they managed to wriggle out of any major quarterback deficiency by trading for the beleaguered and aging but still talented Donovan McNabb.
Comparing McNabb to McCoy in terms of where it lands these two teams in a power ranking is a little like an apples-to-oranges comparison. I'm not sure matching them up head to head is really possible or the kind of thing that will allow you to assess where they stand in this sort of rating system.
I'll say this though: As much as it pains me to say so, the ranking of the Vikings ahead of the Browns—at least for now—is probably accurate based on other factors outside of the starting QBs. The Browns certainly have the potential to bypass a team like the Vikings within a few weeks of the start of the season if they play as well as we hope they will, but for now, I'll say ESPN made the right call here.
6. A Look at Neighboring Teams in the Rankings: Cardinals
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When I first took a look at these rankings, I was absolutely stunned that the Cardinals made it all the way up to No. 21. A couple of weeks ago, I pegged this as the easiest matchup on the Browns' schedule this coming season aside from the Bengals (and even that was tenuous since the Bengals are a division rival who know the Browns well).
Since then, the Cardinals got a hold of Kevin Kolb, which obviously should improve their team on the whole dramatically, but I can't help but wonder if the huge jump the Cardinals got in the rankings over what I would have expected was based solely on Kolb alone.
I won't deny that Kolb will be a huge difference-maker for Arizona, but I'm not sure one player—even if he is a talented quarterback—should allow a team to leap to No. 21 from where I would have placed them without him, which would have been more like 30th and more importantly for our purposes here, firmly behind the Browns.
Perhaps I'm not giving the rest of the Cardinals roster enough credit, but I just don't see them as belonging seven slots above the Browns at this point in time.
7. Bottom Line on the Browns' No. 28 Power Ranking
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Overall, I think the preseason power rankings sold the Browns a little short by putting them as low as No. 28 going into the first preseason bout of 2011. And while we all know preseason games don't mean much in terms of wins and losses, the fact that the Browns are matched up with Green Bay in their first go-round probably won't help their chances of improvement in the next installment of power rankings.
Still, if you're buying what the Browns front office is selling—as many, including myself, are—then you should expect to see the Browns make a leap of several spots in the rankings once the regular season is underway.
With new systems on both offense and defense and a lot of young, unproven players being counted on to fill starting roles, it's understandable that the experts would be hesitant to rank the Browns much above where they did at this stage in the game.
However, I don't see the Browns winding up as the 28th-ranked team in the league going forward. They're better than that, and I believe they'll prove as much by midseason 2011. But for now, to rank them any higher would be based on hope rather than concrete evidence, so I can understand the logic behind the assessment.
It's going to be a challenging season for Cleveland, but hopefully the Browns will prove that No. 28 assessment wrong sooner rather than later.