There’s a fresh new energy around the United States of America this time of year as we head into a new NFL season. The slate is clean for every team and there is renewed hope among the 32 fan-bases that this could be the year. While some teams are certainly in better position to succeed than others, the great thing about the NFL is that every year a team who sucked the previous season rises to the top and makes a playoff run. It’s become so commonplace that writers and TV personalities now try and predict which bottom feeder will make the jump every year. We enjoy the redemption story about teams hard on their luck finding renewed success.
That story has yet to be written about the Cleveland Browns in their new era. The closest we’ve come was the 2007 season that saw Derek Anderson transform temporarily into a Pro Bowl quarterback. But even that team didn’t actually make the playoffs despite finishing tied with the best record in the division. And then we all know how they woefully failed to maintain that success.
No, every September football season rolls around again and every year the Browns continue to disappoint. The excitement for the team is the roller coaster: it begins building through the Draft and free agency; then really ramps up for the start of training camp when sports talk radio forgets that anything of actually significance is happening in the world of sports outside of Berea, Ohio; preseason then gets the fans really primed and has the juices flowing for the season opener and all the tailgating and booze and barking and then they lose the opener and it’s all downhill from there. Cresting optimism and excitement turns to despair and drudgery after only one contest year after year after year.
But not this year.
Why am I so optimistic that this year it will be different? Because I choose to believe. Unless the team is completely pathetic and devoid of any good players whatsoever—think, those Mangini teams—I will always expect the Browns to make the playoffs. It has to happen eventually. It’s statistically more “difficult” to continue playing losing football every year than it is to actually win once in a while. So because I am an eternal optimist, and because the concept of this site was born out of an undying belief that someday the Cleveland sports fan’s faith will be rewarded, I choose to believe that this is our year. I choose to believe that in 2013 the Cleveland Browns will be the NFL franchise that goes from last place in the division to the playoffs.
Now of course this isn’t just blind faith. Faith without some substance to support it is lunacy. I’m a strong believer in Ray Horton and the Browns defense. When you look at the work that guy did in Arizona and compare the players he had there with what he has to work with here there’s no reason why we shouldn’t expect the defense to be impactful. And in a league where offenses are so dynamic and so sophisticated and given so many rules advantages, having a strong defense is a big deal. Granted, we’ve seen teams in recent years be very successful without even really a good defense. While it’s not necessary that you have a great defense to be good in the NFL it certainly makes life a little easier. We don’t have to look far at the Ravens and Steelers whose defenses have been pulling mediocre offenses to the playoffs and the Super Bowl for years.
Horton has the players to have a great defense. The front seven is loaded with Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin, Desmond Bryant, Paul Kruger, Jabaal Sheard, D’Qwell Jackson, and Craig Robertson. Those guys are great on their own and are sure to have an impact every week. But that impressive front-line is backed up by quality depth players like Hughes, Winn, Groves, and Mingo. People are always saying that football is won in the trenches and while I don’t 100% agree with that line of thinking it is true that if you’re strong up front you have a decided edge. The Browns are very strong up front and are going to rely on that strength to cover some of the deficiencies of backfield.
We all love Joe Haden and TJ Ward, two guys who I think will really make a name for themselves around the league this season. Haden already has had plenty of national recognition as being one of the best corners in the league but I think he’ll only continue to rise on those lists as the season progresses. Ward found himself ranked by Peter King as one of the best strong safeties in the league last season. And when Peter King starts giving you recognition, other people will start to take notice as well. Haden and Ward are the dynamic duo of the Browns backfield and after being drafted in rounds one and two together in 1010 they’ll continue to blossom into some of the best defensive backs in the NFL.
The only minor issue may be that you typically have at least four guys in the backfield instead of just two. I’m optimistic that Gipson and Bademosi will do well at free safety. What the Browns really need from that position is a guy who’s just a ball-hawk, someone who has a nose for picking off passes. I’m not saying that he has to be Ed Reed or anything (though that would be nice) but he has to be able to track the ball through the air and come up with at least four or five interceptions.
The real question mark though is going to be Buster Skrine. It’s never going to be easy when you have to play opposite a guy like Joe Haden and your performance is constantly being compared to one of the best in the league. It’s no secret that Skrine struggled a lot last season, particularly with picking up penalties. He’s sure to improve with more experience but I think what Horton and the Browns are most banking on is that the pressure they’ll get from the front seven will ease the pressure on Skrine to be dominant shut-down corner. My ultimate desire for Skrine this season isn’t that he be great, it’s just that he not suck. Just don’t be terrible at your job and we’ll be fine. I’m not asking for you be a lock-down, six pick guy. Just don’t suck. I don’t ask much.
Beyond the talent on the field for the defense is the man calling the shots in Horton who probably should have been hired as a head coach this offseason. For that very reason his time in Cleveland could be short-lived especially if his unit performs well. Horton, in line with head coach Rob Chudzinski, believes in an aggressive attacking style of defense which will be a breath of fresh air from Dick Jauron’s passive aggressive approach. I’m excited to see the defense “get after it” as they say and burry some QBs. We’ve seen that happen far too many times with the guys who have lined up behind center on our team so it’ll be fun to watch it happen to our opponent’s instead. The defense should be good enough to keep the Browns in games this season.
That of course brings us to the offense, the bane of the Browns’ existence for the past 14 years. We’ve only seen one really good year of offensive football and that was of course the aforementioned 2007 squad. Every year it seems like it’s painfully difficult for the Browns to score points. About the only reliable offensive weapon we’ve ever had was Phil Dawson who is of course now gone. I’ve heard some make the case that with Phil being gone is a blessing in disguise in that it will force the play-callers to be more aggressive because the 50-yard field goal is no longer a gimme. I don’t know if that’s a good thing necessarily but if it gets Chudzinski and Norv Turner to be aggressive play-callers—the opposite of what we’ve seen from guys like Shurmur and Dabol—then I’m all for that.
The offensive line has some very real depth issues but I feel like as long as we have Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, and Mitchell Schwartz that we’ll be fine. Last season those three anchored what was probably the best line that we’ve seen in Cleveland since the rebirth. John Greco just inked a new deal this summer after playing well last year in relief of Pinkston. I’m not crazy about Shaun Lauvao (who is?) but if the rest of the line stays healthy then having one guy who isn’t great isn’t that big of a deal.
I’m probably overly, homeristically (made-up word) excited about the receiving group on this team. I love Josh Gordon and think by the end of the season that fantasy football will have made him a household name. Greg Little will develop into a great No. 2 option and those two guys will be talked about as one of if not the best young receiving duo in the league. Those two guys are supplemented with a homerun hitter in Benjamin, a veteran slot guy in Davone Bess, and my irrational man-crush because he’s a little white receiver Josh Cooper. Those guys are aided by the uber-talented Jordan Cameron If He Stays Healthy (which should all be part of his name). If this guy can stay on the field I think he’ll score a ton of TDs and be a guy who hauls in catches. The Browns are really banking on him to stay healthy because they don’t have much depth behind him so let’s all hope that he does. If he can play 16 games then he could be a truly dangerous receiving threat.
Everyone loves Trent Richardson. National pundits talk about how great they think he’ll be. He’s going high in fantasy drafts. He scored a lot of TDs last year. What’s not to like? I’m less crazy in love with T-Rich. I think he can be a great back, but he isn’t yet. He needs to do much better than his 3.6 yards per carry from last year (40th in the NFL) before we start putting him in the conversation with the elite backs in the NFL. The 11 TDs are nice but any coach will tell you that touchdowns, especially rushing, are more of a team accomplishment than an individual one. He only had two 20+ yard runs all season. For comparisons sake, Adrian Peterson had 27 and fellow rookies Doug Martin and Alfred Morris had 11 and 9 respectively. I don’t think the Browns drafted Richardson third overall to be a short-yardage/goal-line back. He obviously struggled with injuries all last season so I’ll cut him some slack. But all running backs deal with nagging injuries in the NFL. Richardson didn’t hit holes as well as I thought he would. It was interesting to watch on the coaches film last season how Richardson attacked the holes contrasted with how Montario Hardesty did. Hardesty, who’s had his fair share of criticism over the years about dancing, hit every hole hard last year and that led in large part to his 4.2 YPC. I’m not trying to hate on Richardson. I just didn’t understand why he got such a pass from the fans and media last year while everyone was piling on Weeden. Neither guy had a great rookie season but Weeden is the only one who gets criticized. Take the opener last year. People still bring up how bad Weeden was in that game against the Eagles and how he had a 5.1 RAT. But for some reason no one seemed to care that Richardson only rushed for 39 yards on 19 carries (2.1 YPC) because he had that one nine-yard run where he lowered his shoulder and knocked Kurt Coleman’s helmet off and that was awesome so who cares what the stats were because that probably was Weeden’s fault too. I just don’t understand it.
The fact is that if the Browns want to see success on offense then they’re going to need Richardson to be a much more effective, consistent back. People got on Shurmur for going away from the run in the second half of games last season and while I think that’s semi-valid criticism I can see how a coach would have a hard time sticking with something that’s only picking up three yards a pop. Now, while I believe Weeden’s issues last year were mostly Shurmur-related (and we’ll get to the QB in a second) it stands to reason that some of Richardson’s may have been as well. Norv Turner gets a ton of credit for the work he’s done as an offensive coordinator and working with QBs. But don’t miss that he’s also done wonders with RBs as well. I believe Norv to be roughly 10,000 times smarter than Pat Shurmur and I think he’ll find better ways to use Richardson and keep him running effectively all game long and beef up that YPC number. It was only seven carries in a preseason game so it means basically nothing, but Richardson did average 4.4 YPC in his sole tune-up against Indianapolis so it gives you an idea of what could be. That 4.4 number would put T-Rich in the Ray Rice territory (15th in NFL) which obviously was good enough for the Super Bowl winning team last season. A consistent running game would do wonders for opening up the passing game as well as helping to salt away leads late in games.
Now, this is part of the column—sitting at a cool 2300+ words at this point—where I tell you that nothing I have written to this point really matters. The only thing that really matters for the 2013 Browns is Brandon Weeden and the ever-tumultuous Browns QB position. I was tough on Richardson so I’ll be equally tough on Weeden. He wasn’t good last year. By almost any statistical measurement, whether you want to go with QB RAT, QBR, YPA, whatever, he wasn’t good and was down around the bottom of the league. And if you want to judge him with your eyes he was equally bad. He tended to stare down receivers and had a lot of passes batted down. So you get the idea and you already knew anyways, Weeden wasn’t good.
Enter The Norv, wizard of offensive football. Weeden looked very good in two of the three preseasons games. I place almost no credence in preseason games. Colt McCoy looked great in the preseason two years ago. But you’d rather your guy look good than bad, right? I don’t think that Weeden will look like a top ten QB right off the bat in the Miami game, but I do expect to see steady improvement over the course of the season as Weeden learns the intricacies of the position that he wasn’t getting from our old pal Pat. I was a fan of Weeden coming out of college because the talent was plainly evident at Oklahoma State. If The Norv can harness that ability and Weeden can imprint his personality on this offense then the Browns will have a very good year. Look around the NFL at the great teams. The offenses of those teams take on the personality of the QB. The Patriots are intense and surgical like Brady. The Broncos are precise and perfectly structured like Manning. The Niners and Redskins play with the dynamic flare of Kaepernick and RG3. You get the idea. Weeden needs to imprint his personality on this Browns offense. He needs to be a leader that his players can believe in.
The 2007 team undoubtedly took on the personality of Derek Anderson. It worked for the good that year because Anderson played dynamically and took chances and got the guys to rally around and believe in him. In 2008 they played with his personality as well, unfortunately it was widely inconsistent and maybe a little mentally unstable. If Weeden can have the kind of impact on the 2013 Browns that Anderson had in 2007 then we could be store for a special year. Weeden is obviously far more talented than DA which gives me hope that this could work. The weapons are there around him to be successful the way they were around DA in 2007. Everything is riding on Weeden to be great. And I believe he will be in large part because I believe in The Norv.
If Weeden can figure it out and be a dynamic player then I really like this team. I did the schedule game for the Browns the other day and was probably a little too optimistic. But after some more rational thinking and factoring in some standard deviation, I have the Browns going 10-6 this season and making the playoffs. Call me a homer all you want but I believe it. I really believe in this team and I think this is the year that we are the team that makes the jump from cellar to playoffs. It happens to everyone else so why not us?
2013 is the year of Cleveland people. It’s time to start believing.
 Heavy emphasis on “temporarily”.
 As long as Weeden is still in town I think Cooper has a chance to stick. Never underestimate good QB-WR chemistry and Weeden and Cooper have it. I don’t know how much he’ll see the field and he’d have a better chance of sticking if he could return punts or something but I’m rooting for him. And yes, it’s probably mostly because he’s a short, white receiver.
 Yes, I stole that bit from Simmons, but I don’t care I’m using it anyways.
 I was against taking Richardson that high in the draft and I have a hunch that Lombardi and Banner wouldn’t do that again. You simply don’t need to take a RB that high in the draft. Holmgren and Heckert’s mismanagement of that draft and not going all out to get RG3 will probably remain their legacy with this team.