Brown, But Not Out

In 1995, a yet to be revered Bill Belichick walked off the field in Cleveland for the last time, and what for many sports fans would have considered the last time anyone was to walk off that field. The young Belichick had just finished up coaching the final season of the Browns tenure in Cleveland, leading them to an underwhelming 5-11 season after making the playoffs the year previous. A bitter pill made slightly easier to swallow due to a win against their Ohio neighbours, Cincinnati, in their last home game. A controversial relocation scheme had been set in place months earlier when acting team owner, Art Modell announced the team would be moving to Baltimore to act as the new premiere sports team of the Maryland capital. Baltimore, a city without a top-level franchise was an attractive target for Modell as he planned to rebrand the floundering Browns under a new name and start afresh with a new fan base and new history. Modern NFL records depict the Baltimore Ravens as an expansion team, separate from Cleveland lineage.

Three years separated from the messy divorce from the city of Cleveland, the Ravens weren’t doing much better than the Browns of old, posting losing records in all three seasons before eventually hitting even in 1999; the same year the NFL reactivated the dormant Browns franchise. While the motives were primarily to stop relocation threats from existing teams, the NFL assigned ownership of the reincarnated team to MBNA head, Al Lerner. Business giant Lerner, who played an integral part in helping Modell ship the team out of Cleveland, showed his commitment to the new Browns with a record investment of $530 million for the controlling stake in operations. Lerner previously held a stake in the Browns/Ravens franchise but his total was 9% at its highest point in 1997.
In the 16 years since the inception of the Baltimore Ravens, the teamhas recorded 8 playoff appearances, 3 division titles and a successful Super Bowl berth in 2000 against a Kerry Collins-led Giants team. In that same time span, the second coming of the Cleveland Browns have posted just two winning seasons, with a lone playoff appearance and loss in 2002 in an agonisingly close game against division rivals Pittsburgh.

What stands out most about this seemingly cursed franchise though, is their fan-base. There’s a special something that some teams possess that can keep a large number of their fans in good graces despite perennial losing seasons or extreme hardship. The Buffalo Bills’ four year streak of losing Super Bowl appearances is a prime example. While it may have caused some to disown a team which seemed destined to never win the big one, others embraced the legacy and made sure the Bills cemented a place in football lore. Now it’s fair to say that many wouldn’t want to revisit those increasingly tough Super Bowl losses but this year’s Buffalo Bills fans would give Jim Kelly’s right nut to just make the playoffs. Cleveland Browns fans would be happy with even less than that. A season with more than 5 wins hasn’t occurred in half a decade.

Of course, the higher-ups have done everything and tried to rebuild the team several times, an approach that’s intrinsically flawed due to a sport that thrives on continuity. Since it’s rebirth in 1999 the Cleveland Browns have had 16 different starting quarterbacks including several which have made more than one stint at the top of the depth chart. On top of this add 6 different head coaches in the same time span and it’s remarkable that this team has achieved even the modest success it has. In football, success comes with time, commitment and dedication. There isn’t a single word there that I’d associate with this team. At some point it’s not just bad luck and there’s nothing left to point the finger at except the act of pointing the finger.

Every year, the team is so sure they’ve found their new franchise player, the new reason for fans to get their hopes up that maybe, just maybe, this season will be different. This will be the Cinderella story that made all those digit losing seasons pay off. It’s fair to say that this city deserves that at this stage, but what’s the plan put in place to make this a possibility?

Well yes, they’ve had yet more turnover. Gone is 2010 hero, 2011 zero Peyton Hillis, who packed his bags for Arrowhead Stadium and a red jersey. So too is last year’s starting quarterback Colt McCoy, a second year player who showed considerable promise but often struggled with downfield throws. Naturally, I hoped management would avoid pressing the self-destruct button again and try draft some weapons to help McCoy, to give him a fair shot before tossing another player on the scrapheap. I believed McCoy had one more season to show what he could do between the numbers. Many players have struggled with arm strength and still had plenty of success. Alex Smith last year in San Francisco is a perfect example. Head coach Jim Harbaugh proved that if you put in place a system that plays to the strengths of the team you have, rather than the team you want to be, you have a better chance at winning more games, more often.

What the Browns did is draft Trent Richardson with the 3rd overall pick, nothing to criticise there.  You’ve replaced an unhappy running back who gave you nothing with a young Heisman finalist. Richardson was touted as the best player at that position since Adrian Peterson came out of college. Only time will tell how he pans out in the big leagues but he’s capable of being one of the best, and that’s reason enough to get excited.
And with the 22nd overall pick, acquired via a trade last year with the Falcons, they took quarterback Brandon Weeden. There we have it, the 17th starter at that position since the franchise revival. At the time, I disagreed with the move. The Browns desperately need another receiver and failed to address a glaring need that has plagued them for several seasons at this point. The Browns haven’t had a 1,000 yard receiver since 2007, the last year they posted a winning season. In fact, that year they had two of them, Braylon Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow. The receiver position is far more important than most people realise. Elite quarterbacks can throw to anyone and put up decent numbers, but how many of those are there in the league? Five? Six tops? But an average quarterback isn’t hard to find, and neither are above-average wide receivers. Anyone who plays fantasy football will have heard the term “crazy deep” regarding that position more times than they’d like.  What the Browns must be banking on is that Weeden is, or will very soon be, establish himself as an elite player. This is an especially risky strategy as he is a 28 year old rookie, due to a brief career in Major League Baseball. The clock is ticking faster for Weeden than others in very similar positions such as fellow rookie Ryan Tannehill who was also drafted to a receiver-hungry team in Miami. Tannehill has almost five years on Weeden though and can afford the luxury of a lacklustre season or two. Personally, I don’t think it’s as big an issue as many in the media make it out to be. Weeden may have more years under his belt but those aren’t contact years. His performance isn’t going to suffer on the front end. He may retire not having played as many seasons as someone else in this year’s draft class but if he’s as good as the 22nd pick in the draft needs to be, there’s no reason to think he couldn’t have a solid ten year career in this league.
Perhaps there’s one silver lining to take from the latest rebuild and that’s that they’re rebuilding from youth. They have a young defense with a potential top 3 cornerback Joe Haden and a strong offensive line completely built by hand through the draft. With new owner Jimmy Haslam in place, the future looks bright. Haslam has already publicly stated his disapproval with the level of turnover in the past several years. There’s a tendency with new owners to clean house, and hire everyone from scratch, everyone who want to do things your way, but for this year at least it seems that Haslam is giving everyone their shot. Perhaps head coach Pat Shurmur could be on the hot seat if this fledgling team doesn’t overachieve but for core players involved, perhaps they’ve found a stable head of the franchise. You can’t say the future is bright right now in Cleveland. Who knows what it will yield, but you can say it’s exciting. Is this another season spent navigating the depths of the AFC North leaderboard or will it be that season, that one season that every fan prays for on opening night. Maybe, just maybe, there are some surprises in store for those who’ve been committed to a team previously devoid of commitment.

You can find Alex Sinclair on Twitter @alexfaun or at his blog