|For Browns fans, who have witnessed a dismal 0-3 start to the season, there hasn't been much to smile about in 2012. (AP)|
Two minutes remained in the Browns-Bills game on Sunday when an interception was thrown. Most of the fans cheered, raised their arms in the air and pumped their fists.
A common scene in NFL stadiums.
But there was something disturbing about this one. The fans were from Buffalo. The game was in Cleveland. Bills wide receiver Stevie Johnson was conducting a celebration to the dismay of the few Browns fans who already hadn't shuffled out of the stadium.
The pick put the Browns at 0-3 and extended the team's losing streak to nine, the longest in the NFL. With games at Baltimore and the New York Giants looming, they are seemingly doomed to another lost season. In the silent locker room afterward, veteran middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson spoke in hushed tones about watching helplessly on his home field as Johnson directed the red-and-blue cheerfest.
“I don't like it whatsoever," he said. "I've been here a long time, and I've never experienced that, and it's embarrassing. It's a shame we weren't able to put out a better effort.”
But that may be the problem. The effort appears to be there. It's the talent that's missing. In the third year of the latest rebuild, the Browns have shown no evidence of improvement and provided little reason for optimism. Team president Mike Holmgren hailed a new era when he arrived in Cleveland to rescue the failing franchise. He had a plan. He would build a championship team through the draft. He said it would take time.
But even Holmgren can't justify the lack of progress, which was painfully clear in the defeat Sunday. Dependence solely on the draft can be risky when a franchise is in a total rebuild. It requires hitting on late-round selections. It often results in unworthy sixth- and seventh-round picks starting. It results in undrafted free agents receiving significant playing time. It results not just in youth and inexperience but players being put on the field before they are ready.
The struggling Browns secondary is the most glaring example. Free safety Eric Hagg, a starter since the start of training camp, is a seventh-round pick. He was so rough in the first two games that coach Pat Shurmur replaced him with unproven Usama Young and undrafted free agent Tashaun Gipson. Starting cornerback and fifth-round selection Buster Skrine has been forced into the lineup, and he has been beaten consistently. Rookie and seventh-round choice Trevin Wade could be in line for increased reps.
The scenario at wide receiver is different but equally distressing. The Browns have settled for second-tier players at that position in the draft. They traded down twice in 2009, bypassing Percy Harvin and Hakeen Nicks. They did the same in 2011 with Julio Jones staring them in the face. The deal with Atlanta netted a lot of picks and might have been warranted. But with every drop, every poorly run route, every play in which the receivers can't separate, the need for a top-flight pass-catcher becomes more apparent.
The warning signs the Browns were moving in the wrong direction came in 2011. They won four games against teams that finished the season with a combined record of 20-44. The defense ranked high in several categories, but enthusiasm was tempered by the fact that the Browns went 4-12 with a schedule that featured the weakest quarterbacks in the NFL.
General manager Tom Heckert set out to bolster the skill positions in the offseason, but the defensive shortcomings have become painfully apparent this season against a higher level of competition. The defense is yielding an average of 392 yards per game and has already surrendered eight passing touchdowns. The Browns boasted one of the top red-zone defenses in the league last season, but the fear is that maybe that had as much to do with the consistently poor offenses they were facing as it did with what the Browns were doing to stop them.
Bottom line? This team has as many holes as it did when Holmgren took over.
Jimmy Haslam will be approved as the new Browns owner on Oct. 16. It's assumed that former Eagles president Joe Banner will take over that position from Holmgren. But little else is assumed. All that tortured Browns fans can hope for is that Haslam realizes that the current plan isn't working and takes immediate steps to fix it.
Shurmur is auditioning to remain at his job. But only victories or at least visible progress can save him. Heckert has sent Haslam his resume in the form of his recent draft history. Not one of his picks has emerged as a star. And for every selection with Pro Bowl potential such as Haden and running back Trent Richardson, there is a bust such as running back Montario Hardesty and fullback Owen Marecic.
That Haslam will make changes is a given. But he must take over with a sense of urgency. The Browns have had four losing seasons in a row and are headed for a fifth. Another long-term rebuilding project isn't an option that Cleveland fans will embrace.
Stay dialed in on the Cleveland Browns on Twitter at @CBSBrowns throughout the season with on-site updates from CBSSports.com RapidReports correspondent Marty Gitlin.