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TGS 2012 PRO FOOTBALL PREVIEW... CLEVELAND BROWNS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor


It’s been a long time since anyone has taken the Browns seriously. Even the barking of the Dog Pound has been muffled in recent years. Cleveland has lost so much that many fans have stopped dreaming about playoff berths and championships, with the older among them simply content to remember the good old days.

But these aren’t the same Cleveland Browns our fathers knew. Paul Brown, Otto Graham, Jim Brown...all relics of a long-ago era by the shores of Lake Erie.

Las Vegas oddsmakers, who deal in the current, offer little sympathy. They’ve listed the Brownies among the longest shots on the entire NFL board this fall, with odds as high as 35/1 just to win their AFC North. Conference (100-1) and Super Bowl (200-1) win prices are similarly off the charts. The season-win total of 5 ½ won’t put much fear into the Ravens, Steelers, or Bengals, either.

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Still, we can’t help but reminisce when it comes to Cleveland, which was a powerful force when TGS began publishing in 1957. Indeed, the Browns made it to the title game that season, but were demolished by the Lions, 59-14, with Detroit gaining revenge for a 56-10 loss in the title game three years earlier. None other than Jim Brown would reduce that result to its basics several years later, theorizing that his Browns had too many "goody-goody" types to deal with the Lions' thugs. “It was like cats from the street playing guys from Beverly Hills,” Brown would say of the 45-point humiliation. It took seven more years until Brown would finally taste an NFL championship.

But can it really be 48 years since the Brownies won their last title? (Technically, the old franchise did win a Super Bowl after it became the Baltimore Ravens, but the Cleveland part of NFL history has been title-less since 1964.) We recall that last title well, when Frank Ryan and Gary Collins teamed up for three TD passes, Jim Brown rumbled to soften the Baltimore defense, and the Browns’ secondary, led by CB Bernie Parrish, succeeded in popping Johnny Unitas’ receivers as they came off the line of scrimmage, consistently knocking them off stride.

Final score: Cleveland 27, Baltimore 0.

That ‘64 Browns team has risen to mythical stature, the last Cleveland-based team to win a sports championship. Used to kicks in the gut, the local fan base had to endure more angst in June when local son LeBron James, who abandoned the NBA Cavaliers two years ago, won an NBA title with his new team, the Miami Heat.

So, unless the Indians make a rally for the ages after dropping far off the pace in the AL Central race since the All-Star break, Cleveland’s title drought should continue through the winter, because we don’t think the 2012 Browns are ready to recall Blanton Collier’s ‘64 title winners.

Since their resurrection in 1999, the Brownies have rarely caused much of a stir. Even their one playoff sojourn since, a Wild Card appearance under Butch Davis in 2002, ended with a bitter loss to the Steelers.

Cleveland will be trying to reinvent itself once again this fall after the latest disappointment, a 4-12 finish a year ago in HC Pat Shurmur’s first trip around the track. But Browns Stadium isn’t Thistledown, and Cleveland likely remains a maiden this fall in a loaded AFC North featuring the Ravens, Steelers, and Bengals, playoff teams all a year ago and against whom the Brownies were winless in six tries a year ago.

Team prexy Mike Holmgren, in his fourth year on the job, needs to see some positive results soon, but hasn’t resorted to any quick-fix tactics through free agency. Patiently building through the draft alongside GM Tom Heckert, Cleveland has plotted its course for the future. Whether it is the right course remains to be seen. And with a new owner ("Pilot" truck stop magnate Jimmy Haslam) in place, Holmgren is best advised to begin posting winning results...and soon.

The latest Browns transformation began in the offseason, when veteran coach Brad Childress former Vikings HC) was named as the new offensive coordinator, although Shurmur is likely to continue his involvement in the play-calling aspect. The pilot of the Childress version of the West Coast will be Oklahoma State rookie Brandon Weeden (who will be 29 in October), selected with a second first-round pick in the April’s NFL Draft and already named the starter ahead of holdover Colt McCoy, the ex-Texas Longhorn whose first two years as a pro have been mostly a struggle.

Weeden was part of a draft-day narrative that understandably focused upon offense after the Cleveland strike force remained on the tarmac for much of last fall. The Browns didn’t exceed 20 points in any game after a 27-19 Week Two win at Peyton Manning-less Indianapolis (in fact, they scored as much as 20 points just once thereafter), and finished ranked a lowly 28th in total offense (289 ypg) and 30th in scoring (13.6 ppg).

Thus, the selections of Weeden and Alabama RB Trent Richardson with an earlier first-round pick were understandable.

But already, more clouds are forming on the shores of Lake Erie. It is around Richardson (left, early in training camp) whom Childress would like to build the new-look Cleveland attack, an indicator that the Browns are not likely to be pass crazy in their new offense, but that’s going to have to wait a while as the former Crimson Tide star has been sidelined in training camp by a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery prior to the preseason opener vs. Detroit.

While there is hope that Richardson could be ready for the regular-season opener vs. the Eagles, for the moment Childress must pencil in holdovers Chris Ogbonnaya and Montario Hardesty as his feature backs. Stay tuned for further developments.

If healthy, Richardson will be looking to improve a sluggish infantry that recorded a puny four rushing TDs all of last season and allowed bruising FB Peyton Hillis to walk (he’s now a Chief) in the offseason.

As for Weeden, Childress and Shurmur were said to prefer Weeden’s stronger arm and accuracy to those of McCoy, although we’ll see how that pans out once the games begin to count in September. The first preseason game vs. Detroit, as expected, was inconclusive regarding Weeden’s ability to step in and lead the team from the outset. Weeden completed only 3 of 9 passes and left early in an eventual 19-17 Browns that was engineered, in typical preseason fashion, by deep reserve ex-Duke QB Thaddeus Lewis, a fourth-stringer who led Cleveland to two late scoring drives for the win.

The coaching staff believes that Weeden’s stronger arm will make better receivers out of the likes of holdovers Mohamed Massaquoi and Greg Little (left, vs. Rams last November) , who have yet to flash the big-play potential each seemed to ooze as collegians. Massaquoi, bothered by concussions in the past, was knocked out of the preseason opener vs. the Lions with an apparent head injury, so keep an eye on his status as the exhibition slate progresses. Baylor rookie Josh Gordon, picked in the supplemental draft, looms as an intriguing wild card.

Childress will also be looking to goose the production of his tight ends, an integral component in the West Coast. Second-year Jordan Cameron will be given the opportunity to unseat veteran Ben Watson, entering his ninth year.

The building blocks along the OL have been put in place over the past few years, with LT Joe Thomas already having blossomed into a Pro Bowl regular. But the parts have remained greater than the sum, and the front office continued the offensive upgrade into the second round of the draft when nabbing Cal’s NFL-ready RT Mitchell Schwartz, who will likely be plugged into the starting lineup.

Still, the strike force is likely relying upon a rookie QB (Weeden) to detonate the new-look attack. We wouldn’t be holding our breath for any quick transformation...especially if Richardson can’t make the post for the regular-season opener.

Defense, however, is another story, and the Brownies stayed close in several games last year because of their stop unit, which ranked a very respectable fifth in scoring (just 307 points allowed) and second in pass defense under coordinator Dick Jauron.

On the other hand, Cleveland was soft vs. the run last season (ranking 30th), so what mild stabs Holmgren and Heckert made in the free agent market were focused on the defensive front, where ex-Bengals DE Frostee Rucker and ex-Eagles DT Juqua Parker were added. DE Marcus Benard (right), who led the team in sacks in 2010 but missed last year after a motorcycle accident, returns to the mix.

The linebacking corps took an offseason blow when OLB Scott Fujita was suspended for the first three games due to his involvement in the Saints’ “Bounty-gate” scandal from 2009. MLB D’Qwell Jackson led Cleveland in tackles last year and likely does so again, although Jauron will be hoping for a bit more pass-rush pressure from this crew after the DL had to account for most of last season’s sacks.

The strength of the platoon remains in the secondary, where CB Joe Haden (left) is so good that he is automatically assigned to the opposition’s best receiver each week. Getting back strong safety T.J. Ward, who missed the last six games of 2011 with a foot injury, will be a plus.

Those solid pass defense numbers from last season will be challenged by a 2012 slate that features a few more top-level throwers (including both Manning brothers, Philip Rivers, Carson Palmer, Andrew Luck, and Robert Griffin III) than the Browns saw a year ago.

Trend-wise, note the recent “under” pattern in Browns games (14-6-1 since late in the 2010 campaign), reflecting the offensive problems. We’re not sure how much that changes this fall.

Summary...The AFC North is one tough neighborhood, and any breakthrough from the Browns will require bypassing at least one from among the Ravens, Steelers, and Bengals. That doesn’t appear likely with the offense in another rebuild mode and likely relying upon a rookie QB (Brandon Weeden).

Dick Jauron’s “D” keeps Cleveland competitive most weeks, but we’re looking at another losing season by the shores of Lake Erie...and 1964 looking further and further back in the rear-view mirror.


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