As yet another disappointing season for the Browns nears its close, team president Mike Holmgren's long-term strategy, at one time affectionately dubbed "The Plan," now draws questions rather than praise.
The Plan, for many Cleveland fans, is no longer viewed as the road to redemption, but rather as a harbinger of doom indicating that the current Browns organization will be yet another failed experiment by front-office mad scientists who have lots of ideas, but can't seem to produce results.
The situation in Cleveland has become polarizing for many. There are those who are fed up already and think that only two years into The Plan's activation, the lack of results means it's a failure. There are also those who love the Browns unconditionally and are content to go along with whatever strategy the team implements without question.
Those of us in the middle have stressed patience, asking those who are already calling for yet another total overhaul to see this thing through according to the time table originally laid out by Holmgren and his assistants.
But there comes a point when even those of us willing to wait it out have to acknowledge that thus far, we haven't seen the results we expected to see at this phase.
For the record, I fully support Holmgren's plan and am willing to give him the time he asked for to build a contender. It's worth noting, for those looking for a quicker fix, that Holmgren is looking to build a team that can produce for years, not just a one-year wonder. That takes more time.
However, there are a few things that definitely need to change in The Plan in order for it to succeed. We can't expect everything Holmgren and his staff try to work perfectly. But we can expect them to adapt when things don't pan out using the original strategy.
The Browns are a work in progress, as Holmgren has stressed repeatedly, and I have no doubt that he and his staff are adjusting along the way. But for my two cents' worth, there are four main areas where the Browns need to do some serious reevaluating based on how things have turned out thus far.
Nothing like starting off by stating the obvious.
The Browns, and coach Pat Shurmur in particular, have been criticized all season long for poor play calling, particularly on offense. Much of that criticism has been well-founded.
Some folks seem to think the play calling has improved as the season has progressed, while others think it hasn't moved an inch in the right direction. There is no way everyone will ever agree on that, but we can certainly all agree that whether there has been improvement thus far or not, there still needs to be a great deal more of it before the Browns can be anything resembling a viable contender.
It's possible that Coach Shurmur is to blame for the most part for the play calling snafus we've seen, but the man who hired him has to share some of the responsibility. It puts those of us who still support Holmgren but can't bring ourselves to throw our lot in with Shurmur in a difficult position. Can you blame one without blaming the other?
In the end though, it doesn't really matter whose fault it is; only whether it is fixed. If that means the head coach has to go after next season, then so be it. If it's just a matter of continuing to learn and adjust, that's fine too, as long as we see serious improvement within the time frame laid out by Holmgren and his staff.
This goes both for the play-calling and for off-field decisions. On the field, we've seen the Browns play not to lose rather than to win on all too many occasions. It's a strategy that almost never works, and definitely won't ever win you a championship. The mantra that no one has ever made it big by playing it safe is as true in football as it is in life.
And on top of that, the Browns also swing too far in the other direction at times, and take the most foolish of risks at the most foolish of times on the field. What we need is calculated risk taking. What we've gotten, at various times, is either total fear of taking a chance or kamikaze suicide missions.
The Browns haven't been quite as bad about this off the field as they have on it, but there is definitely room for improvement. We haven't seen any colossally stupid risks in terms of contracts and such off the field, but we've definitely seen action (or rather a lack thereof) in signing players during the offseason that appears to err too much on the conservative side.
3. Draft and Spend Wisely
First, a small caveat on the under-aggressive spending we saw last offseason: the Browns said that they were not looking to spend a lot on pricey free agents before the team was ready to move toward contending. It's a smart strategy.
As much as we all wish the Browns had a bona fide No. 1 receiver this season, it would have been foolish to throw a ton of money at a pricey free agent when the rest of the team wasn't ready.
However, that strategy will need to change as the team evolves and improves, perhaps, depending on how the draft goes and what we're left with at the end of 2011, as early as next season.
Holmgren has indicated that he will make that adjustment when it makes sense for the team for him to do so. For now, we'll have to trust him on that.
As for the draft, I'll refrain from getting into the specifics of what the Browns need here. There are many, many mock drafts in my future this spring that will address that. For our purposes here, I'll say that I think the Browns have drafted pretty well since the Holmgren and Tom Heckert regime took over, but the next draft in 2012 will be the most make-or-break one of all.
We've reached a bit of a tipping point now, at least in terms of what needs to happen in this offseason's draft. The Browns traded down in 2011 for multiple picks this year, and thanks to their not-so-stellar record this season, should have pretty good positioning on their own slots.
The Browns have to make optimal use of the picks they've got, particularly because they have depth issues. No one should expect the Browns to fill all the gaps in the starting lineup through the draft, but they should be able to plug a lot of holes depth-wise as well as bring in talent that will pay off at a starter level in the future.
One of the biggest issues with The Plan is that nobody outside of the organization has much of an idea what exactly The Plan is.
The Browns, and Holmgren in particular, have been frustratingly vague about their strategy.
Obviously, full disclosure is not an option. No team is ever going to publicize their master plan, nor should they.
However, the Browns could help themselves if they were just a touch more transparent about, well, just exactly what the hell they're doing.
Being more forthcoming with the information won't win over those who are just furious with the way The Plan has gone so far, but it could restore the faith of those teetering on the edge and would certainly allay some frustration for those of us who are still willing to give it time, but could really use a little something in return for our patience.
There is always a fine line between keeping your opponents guessing and giving fans a satisfactory explanation of what you're up to. I don't envy anyone in the position of having to find a level of transparency that balances the two.
But the Browns can absolutely afford to be a bit more open with what they're doing, even if most of the explanations really are just lip service designed to placate the common fan.
Those who know the game well will always second guess their team's actions; it's part of the fun (or maybe the therapy, in the case of the Browns faithful). But even a few harmless (and essentially worthless) nuggets of information tossed to the masses will help get the casual fans who make up for the majority of their and every team's fan base off their backs.
In the end, the only thing that will matter is whether The Plan works or not. But the Browns could help themselves out and save a lot of headache along the way if they made these sorts of adjustments to the way they carry out their strategy.