It’s one thing for the local fans to have high hopes for a Cleveland sports team. They always do, even as they are expecting the worst. But when the expectations extend beyond state borders, the team is entering truly rarified air.
On the strength, I suppose, of a 10-win season that could have either been better or worse, depending on the prism through which you tend to view life, the Cleveland Browns will be entering into a season where, frankly, the only thing they can do is disappoint. Win and make the playoffs, that’s expected. Lose and/or miss the playoffs again, fans will be looking for some throats to choke.
Certainly, the NFL and its various broadcast partners expect this team to be a contender. On Monday night, the Browns face the New York Giants in a nationally broadcast preseason game on ESPN. Meaningless preseason games in which the starters play but a series or two is apparently what passes as counter-programming to the Olympics for the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports. Still, ESPN could have opted for, say, the Detroit-Cincinnati yawnfest, so it’s something.
But beyond preseason, the Browns are nationally featured in each of their first three games covering each of the three major networks. That’s some serious credibility for a franchise that’s been down a few quarts for most of the last 10 years. Having lived through a mostly impotent resurrection of a once proud franchise, Browns fans can be excused for being highly skeptical of late-coming outsiders with an endless supply of irrational exuberance even as they engage in their own brand of exuberance.
If the Browns are to prove at all worthy of their national darling status, they’ll have to avoid injuries first and foremost. In the NFL, as in pretty much any sport, injuries more than anything else tend to determine the outcome of the season. The NFL is by far the most violent domestic sport, though it may not have much on Australian rules football or Irish hurling. Still, world class athletes playing at high speeds in bodies not particularly designed to bend they way they are often bent causes a whole variety of problems, the best efforts of the medical staff notwithstanding. If you need proof, Gary Baxter blew out two knees on a play that was noteworthy only because of its ordinariness. He’ll probably never play again.
There is no question that general manager Phil Savage has upgraded the talent on the Browns in several areas, particularly over the last two years. Still, despite his best efforts, it is a team not nearly deep enough overall to sustain a spate of injuries. Arguably, no team in the league really can. The way that teams manage the cap causes them to fill out the bottom thirds of their rosters with young and/or fringe players who aren’t usually in a position to step right in without a drop off in production. When everything shakes out, close to a third of the Browns’ active roster will be made up of players with three or less years of experience.
The teams that can minimize the number of games missed by its starters will be the teams likely to be there at the end of the season with a chance to win it all. On that score, the Browns have as good a chance as any, even with this defensive backfield. It will all depend, again, on injuries. That’s where the trade of Leigh Bodden will linger most.
In strengthening its defensive line, the Browns got thinner in the defensive backfield. That’s not necessarily a bad tradeoff, assuming tradeoffs like that have to be made, but the situation became almost dire when Daven Holley went out for the year with a knee injury suffered in off-season drills. Safeties Sean Jones and Brodney Pool are credible fairly established players, but it’s hard to yet be sold on Eric Wright or Brandon McDonald at cornerback. Put it this way, when a nearly ancient Terry Cousin is fighting Mike Adams to be the nickel back, depth is a problem.
Beyond Davis and Cousin are players of even lesser stature, if that’s possible. Nick Sorenson? A.J. Davis? Mil’von James? Brandon Mitchell? Travis Key? Just in case any in that group are getting significant playing time this season, fans better pull out the rosary beads now and pray for the sustained health of Shaun Rogers (who already may have some sort of knee problem) and Corey Williams. Don’t forget a few hosannas for Kamerion Wimbley either.
In short, when you consider how quickly things could deteriorate this season with just a few injuries, it’s clear that beyond the simple on-the-field performance of the various players the real keys to this season lie with the performance of both head coach Romeo Crennel and new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.
Crennel is a very likeable sort. He’s straightforward and commands respect. He’s not a phony. He’s old school in the right way. That doesn’t necessarily make him the right fit as a head coach. Despite his best intentions, time and again his Browns’ teams make far too many mental mistakes. It’s a nagging trend that must stop. The line between success and failure is so microscopic that mental mistakes and not talent often decide most games.
Crennel’s also not the best judge of talent. If Crennel had it his way, Maurice Carthon would probably still be offensive coordinator. All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, Crennel stood by Carthon far beyond his expiration code. It took Savage stepping to bring that farce to its inevitable conclusion. It also took Savage forcing Rob Chudzinski on Crennel before the offensive got a legitimate coordinator.
On the defensive side, where Crennel has had much more of a free hand given his background, the results have been mixed. Savage is in charge of talent acquisition and arguably has failed Crennel in that regard in the past. But Crennel didn’t do himself much good either by selecting Todd Grantham as defensive coordinator or by forcing a defensive scheme on a team without the talent to implement it. Crennel, by all accounts, made the move to oust Grantham and put in Mel Tucker as the defensive coordinator. Second only to the acquisition of both Rogers and Williams, it’s the off-season decision that may have the most impact on whether this team fulfills its expectations.
Tucker has worked with the defensive backfield and, above anyone else, knows its limitations. The performance of his defense will depend mightily on his ability to devise schemes to cover up those shortcomings. The guess is that Tucker will take some chances with this defensive and try plenty of blitzes in order to hurry the quarterback and disrupt the rhythm, something that the Pittsburgh Steelers always do so well. That seems to be his only choice. If the Browns’ defense is forced to play teams straight up, they are going to have trouble getting off the field — again.
At this juncture, the Browns have enough starting talent to be competitive with any team in the league. But if you want to give your expectations a real reality check, ask yourself the far harder question of whether the Browns have the depth and the coaching talent to sustain that competitiveness. As the season wears on, the answer to that question will reveal itself and be the far more important determiner of whether or not this team is playing meaningful football come Christmas.