The Hater’s Guide to the 2014 Cleveland Browns.
Friend of the site, former proprietor of Cleveland Reboot and theOBR contributor — and notable Cheddar Bay eschewer — Dave Kolonich got the itch to write a 2014 Browns preview and we’re happy to scratch it. Editorial emphases are mine.
A few weeks ago, I retweeted an article that sketched Dan Gilbert’s often clumsy tenure as Cleveland Cavaliers’ owner against his recent brilliant run of dumb fortune. The point of retweeting the article was to display a wonderful bit of cognitive dissonance: the idea that LeBron James returning home is the best Northeast Ohio sports story in 50 years, yet Gilbert – he of the predatory lending empire and comic sans petulance – is a colossal doofus of a human being and NBA owner.1
Or at the least, it could make for a good argument.
But then I forgot I was on Twitter – mere hours after the Cleveland Twitter-verse were crowing their own version of “not one, not two, not three….”
ME: LeBron coming back is amazing. This is the best thing that’s happened to Cleveland sports in decades. It’s kinda ironic that a shitty owner like Dan Gilbert has this fall in his lap.
TWITTER GUY: U mad bro?
ME: No. I’m just saying that both ideas can simultaneously exist.
TWITTER GUY: Forgiveness!!! “Five great years together and one terrible night”
ME: Now you’re just quoting someone else.
TWITTER GUY: Haters gon hate.
Holding two such seemingly contradictory views on something as precious as professional Cleveland sports brings a full – and largely moronic – condemnation. Of course, Twitter Guy won.
And so it goes in this brave new chapter of Cleveland sports. Our recent Johnny Football and LeBron upswing and subsequent ESPN notoriety has given rise to a new fan DNA – made of parts so completely fervent and unequivocal in their beliefs that anything lying outside of the collective group think is a base attack.
And Jesus – just think if we actually win something.3
Anyway, the point here is that there appears to be little room for independent thinkers in Believeland. Go back to Baltimore if you don’t think Pettine is the next Lombardi or Brian Hoyer the next LeBron.4
So, as a counter to this year’s version of preseason delirium, I offer my usual rational preview of the Browns’ upcoming season. I think the Browns will make significant strides this season, but I don’t envision a championship run.
This clearly makes me a hater. Hence, the “Hater’s” Guide to the 2014 Cleveland Browns.
Mike Pettine picked from the scraps of the league’s assistants and coordinators, yet still vastly improved the team’s coaching staff from 2013. While Norv Turner and Ray Horton’s reputations were elite, their respective units suffered from both oblivious and tepid play calling. The Browns of a year ago were a disaster on third downs and in Horton’s particular case, completely ineffectual in the fourth quarter.
Kyle Shanahan – and let’s be real here, Mike Pettine – should be able to maximize a roster that finally accumulated some depth in the offseason. In Pettine, the Browns may have found their first expansion era coach who is a both a specialist and someone who actually looks natural as a leader of a professional organization. In some respects, Pettine appears to be a more polished version of Eric Mangini – probably the last Browns’ coach whose coaching actually appeared to affect real change on his players.
Of course, coaches are great on paper until they Marvin Lewis5 their way out of challenge flags. In terms of basic game management and practical competence, even Rob Chudzinski looked the part of an NFL head coach – minus the clichéd “rah rah” tough guy talk that supposedly was his undoing. For all we know, Pettine could be louder and sound dumber – yet achieve the same results.
Shanahan arrives with some D.C. baggage – similar to about every other former Redskin coach. He has a reputation for the kind of petulance associated with being an NFL head coach’s son. However, he also brings a brief, yet successful turn in adapting RG3’s skills into a viable NFL offense. While Shanahan probably wasn’t Pettine’s first choice – he is at least the Browns’ first coordinator in years to realize how fast NFL offenses now evolve.
Speaking of evolution, it has to be considered progress when the Browns draft a versatile QB – then attempt to build a specific offense around him. Only a few years ago, Mike Holmgren and Pat Shurmur shackled a series of QBs into a sterile West Coast system,6 while Turner and Chudzinski pulled a similar trick in 2013. Although in both coaches’ defense, there is no NFL system built for Brandon Weeden.7
Anyway, Shanahan’s offense gives his QB’s chances to be mobile. Both by design and necessity, Manziel’s game is built for such an offense. And given that John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz are the likely RG and RT starters, Manziel will need every rollout and play action he can get. In Washington, Shanahan used a lot Pistol-esque formations and zone read types to establish his running game and open up receivers downfield.
On paper, the marriage between Shanahan and Manziel appears ideal. While not a classic fit, Brian Hoyer still works in this same offense. From the 9 quarters of his 2013’s starts, I was probably most impressed by Hoyer’s movement in the pocket – something that can translate to virtually any NFL offense. While the recent Joe Thomas accolades are some heavy hyperbole, I do see some Tom Brady in Hoyer’s footwork.
However, the biggest issue regarding the Browns’ 2014 offense is the most obvious: (Probably) No Josh Gordon. Without the league’s best young wide receiver, fans and media are going to have to buy that the Browns will win games with their defense and running game – something that only happens in Seattle and San Francisco. Gordon’s absence means the Browns will have to rely on a fragile Jordan Cameron and a group of third and fourth wideouts – not good for what appears to be an emerging running game.
As for that running game, another positive aspect of Shanahan’s arrival is the switch to more zone blocking techniques. The move makes way too much sense for an O-Line who traditionally has not been talented enough to consistently win solo matchups. In a slight nod to Mangini,8 some of Alex Mack and Joe Thomas’ best career work came on the move during the halcyon win streak of 2010. Adding Joel Bitonio – who according to some camp watchers looks very good, very early – should allow the new young crop of RB’s to stretch across the line and then turn upfield.
But then again, if Miles Austin is your top receiver, these same RBs are going to be staring at 8-man lines for the next several months.
We can keep this one short. As long as Pettine doesn’t follow Ray Horton’s lead and line up 225-lb. Barkevious Mingo as a 4-3 end, the Browns could actually have a decent pass rush in 2014.
The mercurial Mingo fits better as an outside linebacker in Pettine’s defense. The non-Mario Williams linebacker role of a year ago played the run and dropped more into coverage – skills that Mingo seemingly could possess. Similarly, Paul Kruger is a better fit on the outside as an edge run stuffer – a role he excelled at a year ago. However, the biggest question Pettine faces is how to utilize the team’s best pass rusher in Jabaal Sheard.
Up front, the Browns will be incredibly effective – at least based on the overall health of Phil Taylor, Ahtyba Rubin and Desmond Bryant. Taylor is a great fit as a traditional nose tackle, while Rubin should be the classic 3-4 run stopper end. Overall, the Browns’ D-Line depth is terrific. The rotations here should greatly improve the team’s late game defense.
As for that late game defense, drafting Justin Gilbert could be a game changer. Again, in another sign of expansion evolution, the Browns’ GM drafted a player who is a specific fit for the Head Coach’s defense. Seriously, has this ever happened before? Pettine wants press man and Gilbert brings it. We’ve come a long way from Dwight Clark drafting West Coast players for Chris Palmer’s Ron Erhardt system.
Wait – does this mean the Browns have become a functional NFL franchise?
So it all sounds great, right? Division title, Super Bowl, then a parade?
Things have improved, but let’s take it in stride.
“U mad bro?”
First, I’m all in on Ray Farmer. He did his coach a solid by taking Gilbert and made his owner millions with Manziel. In the process, he played the Bills out of what could be a top ten pick next year. Then, he got really smart with Bitonio and Pierre Desir. I’ll call Dansby/Whitner and Jackson/Ward a draw. Basically, he added depth to a team that didn’t have any while setting up the next two drafts.
At this point, Farmer is probably the best Browns’ GM in 30 years.
However, given the crater of despair that was the 2012 and 2013 drafts and based on my belief that NFL teams are only as good as their last 4-5 drafts, there’s only so much that Farmer could do.
Which explains the following:
Name the last big-time receiver to win a Super Bowl. Name the last mega-guy. (Gordon) matters to me because I like the guy and I think he’s a really good player, but at the end of the day, when you look at the teams that have these mega-receivers, name the last guy that won a Super Bowl?… There are none. The last guy that really helped his team get there was T.O. (Terrell Owens).’
As far as justifications go, this isn’t Joe Banner deriding teams for actually drafting players in the middle rounds. Nor is it a Romeo Crennel coin toss. However, Farmer’s words could come back to bite him soon enough. The Browns minus Gordon don’t have any explosive offensive players. The new running backs are encouraging and Andrew Hawkins could be productive. However, without Gordon the Browns don’t offer anything scary to a defense outside of Manziel’s potential.
I see Farmer’s point as it relates to the Seahawks. Yet, the ugly truth here is that Pete Carroll’s Seahawks played about three years of brutal offense before discovering Russell Wilson. If you recall, even a Pat Shurmur Browns’ team beat the Seahawks. The bigger point is that none of this will happen overnight. The 2014 Browns are likely going to be much more creative offensively, but they will also struggle and at times regress.
Defensively, the Browns feature an emerging core of young talent. Yet, the failure of the last couple drafts means the Browns are going to have to rely on rookies at cornerback and inside linebacker. The Browns also don’t boast a premiere pass rusher – an area that most fans and media believe is Pettine’s special ability as a coach.
And again, the Browns are heading into a season with a rookie head coach and rookie QB – which usually doesn’t deliver the most promising of outcomes. While some would interject Hoyer as the solution here, I can’t figure out how nine quarters of football in a different offense offers anything beyond projection.
Finally, the idea that the Browns’ defense will carry the team through these stretches is a training camp flight of fancy. No better evidence exists than Pettine’s own Bills of a year ago – a team that played very good defense, had the league’s second best rushing attack and finished 6-10.
Overall, the Browns are trending upward. The front office and coaching staff appear stable. There is talent on this team and May’s draft was a huge success. However, it’s going to take some time in Cleveland.
- Ed’s note: Or, from another point of view, all you could want in an owner. [back]
- Lately, he just talks about how evil pot is. Then he changes his mind. [back]
- Ed: If the Browns start winning I will fear for our souls because we have the potential to eclipse Steelers fans in loathsomeness. [back]
- Ed: HEY! [back]
- On a related note, I am so delighted by Andy Dalton’s contract extension – and the future one that Marvin Lewis will sign. The Bengals are the funniest team in the history of the world. [back]
- This is the same tired offense that RG3 would have been stuck in had Holmgren “fired more bullets.” [back]
- Besides Eli Manning running a West Coast offense, I cannot wait for the circus that will be Weeden starting Week Nine for Dallas. [back]
- Mangini’s 2010 Browns still fielded the most talented month of expansion O-Line play with Thomas, Steinbach, Mack, Yates and Womack. [back]