If the Pittsburgh Steelers are the model of stability in the AFC North -- and they are -- the Cleveland Browns are the model of inconsistency. They're already on their third head coach in four seasons and ran through three GMs and seven starting quarterbacks the past three years.
Change is good, except when it's in Cleveland, and the envelope, please: The Browns have no more than five victories in any of the past three seasons. Worse, they have 20 more losses (34) than wins.
And so it is up to president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert to turn that around -- to introduce the direction, stability and success that has been missing. They can start by overhauling a team that last season lost five games by six or fewer points and collapsed with a resounding thud, ending the season with a 41-9 clunker to Pittsburgh.
The consensus around the league was that Cleveland didn't have the offense or the players to make an impact, so Holmgren and Heckert changed coaches -- introducing former Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur, who is expected to implement an offense close to what Holmgren has in mind.
Shurmur is highly regarded and widely praised, but here's hoping he can do more with the Browns than he did in St. Louis. In six of the Rams' 16 games, including three of the final four, they failed to score more than 14 points. OK, so they had a rookie quarterback and a dearth of wide receivers. Tell me how that was different from Cleveland.
|Five possibilities: Browns|
Robert Quinn, DE, North Carolina: The Browns need pass rushers like the Cavs need shooters. Quinn is one of the best and may have jumped over Da'Quan Bowers on the Browns' board.
Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson: There's no better pass rusher in the draft, but there are concerns about his knee. If the Browns don't flinch, he could be their pick.
A.J. Green, WR, Georgia: He's the best receiver on the board, and he shouldn't be there when the Browns step up. But if the Bengals pass he would, and it would be difficult to let him go.
Julio Jones, WR, Alabama: The Browns have an offensive head coach, and usually they draft where they're comfortable. Jones is the next best option after Green leaves the board.
Mikel LeShoure, RB, Illinois: This is strictly about the second round, folks. There's only one first-round RB, and it's not LeShoure. But the Browns might look for him the second day.
Cleveland rocks, only not on the football field -- and Shurmur might find out the hard way. When you play in the same division as Pittsburgh and Baltimore, it's never easy to navigate your way to the top. Now try it with a club that has been to the playoffs once in its 12 years since returning to the NFL, finished last in the division eight of those seasons and produced just two winning records.
Shurmur has no choice.
QB: Colt McCoy is the starter, and there's reason to believe he can be the starter for a long time. In successive games he beat defending Super Bowl champion New Orleans, New England and took the New York Jets to overtime. He's poised, he's confident and he's accurate. But he wasn't the same after returning late in the season from an ankle injury that sidelined him for three weeks. In his final two starts McCoy threw six interceptions, twice as many as he had in his first five, which begs the question: Which is the real McCoy? (Sorry, I couldn't resist.) McCoy is smart, makes good decisions and generally is careful with the ball. But in those final two games he wasn't, and that's why Shurmur is here -- to get the hiccups straightened out. The Browns will ride with McCoy, but the question is: Who's No. 2? With the club re-signing him last month, Seneca Wallace is the logical choice. He has experience in Shurmur's West Coast offense and his return probably ends Jake Delhomme's career with the Browns. Delhomme, who opened last season as the Browns' starter, was supposed to keep the position warm until McCoy was ready -- and he did. But he was awful, committing a slew of errors that sabotaged the club. He was more effective as a sideline mentor for McCoy, and maybe he serves in that role again. I doubt it. The commitment to Wallace almost surely signals Delhomme's last days in Cleveland.
RB: All I can say is: Thank goodness for Peyton Hillis. The Browns acquired him in a pre-draft trade that delivered them their best playmaker, plus two draft picks, for a quarterback (Brady Quinn) that didn't figure in their plans. Hillis wasn't just good, he was marvelous -- first on the team in rushing and second in receiving. Though he faded down the stretch, Hillis still wound up with 1,177 yards rushing, including five games with 100 yards or more. He scored 13 times, or more than everyone but Arian Foster and Dwayne Bowe, and had 11 TDs rushing -- joining Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly as the only Browns to accomplish that in a season. He was fifth in the NFL in first downs. He was sixth in combined yards, with 1,654, 35.6 percent of the Browns' offense. In short, he was a load, and thank you, Josh McDaniels. But Hillis was not designed to be the team's only back, and the Browns would like a second option. They might have it in Montario Hardesty, who returns from a season-ending knee injury. Hardesty was on track to play an important role in the Browns' offense but bowed out in the preseason finale. Now he's back, and the Browns could use him to complement Hillis. One problem: He and Hillis have similar styles, which means the club could use speed and quickness here -- a smallish back who could serve as a third-down threat.
WR: If the Browns believe they have their franchise quarterback -- and they do -- then they better find him a franchise wide receiver. For now the cupboard is bare, one reason the club targeted its wideouts only 47.7 percent of the time. Mohamed Massaquoi is the best of the group, but he's inconsistent and a second or third receiver on most clubs. Brian Robiskie is little more than adequate, though he finished with a rush, while slot receiver Chansi Stuckey might have run out of time with the club. Those are the Browns' three top wide receivers, and, quick now, tell me which one requires double coverage. That's the problem. The most dangerous guy here is Josh Cribbs, but while he is explosive he can also be brittle. Face it: Cribbs is a special-teams dynamo who should make infrequent appearances on offense, reserved only for when the Browns absolutely, positively need a playmaker on the field. Uh, that would be nearly anytime. Hang the "Help Wanted" sign at this position.
TE: Massaquoi wasn't the Browns' most productive receiver. Benjamin Watson was. He led the team with a career-high 68 catches and was a leader on and off the field. Evan Moore, a converted wide receiver, is a sure pass catcher who should have more than 16 catches, and look for him to benefit from the change in offensive coordinators. Robert Royal was the designated blocker, but the team released him after the season. It would be smart to find a replacement, and there are plenty in the draft.
OL: Left tackle Joe Thomas is one of the best in the business, and while he didn't have an outstanding season he was good enough to go to his fourth straight Pro Bowl. Left guard Eric Steinbach was an alternate, as was center Alex Mack, and read the tea leaves, people: The left side of the offensive line is one of the team's strengths. It's the right side that needs attention, particularly at right tackle, where Tony Pashos is the favorite to start after missing most of last season with an ankle injury. Floyd Womack gives the club versatility -- he can play guard or tackle -- and Billy Yates looked decent for three games before he was forced to bow out. Look for Shawn Lauvao, a third-round pick last year, to push for a starting spot at right guard. The plan was to have him open there last season, but it was scuttled when Lauvao missed training camp for both personal reasons and an ankle injury. Bottom line: The Browns may be better off here than any position.
DL: Finally, the Browns rid themselves of a headache in Shaun Rogers. Consider it addition by subtraction. Nobody doubts Rogers' talent; they just doubt his ability to use it. Basically, the guy has a reputation for being lazy. He flashed occasionally, but more times than not looked like a stiff -- and an expensive one at that, pulling down millions in return for virtually nothing. Rogers played hard when he wanted to, which wasn't often, and his departure is one chapter in an overhaul that is as necessary as it was overdue -- with the Browns going to a four-man line after six years of the 3-4. With the exception of nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin, who led all defensive linemen with 82 tackles, nobody here made much of an impression. But Marcus Benard could. He was the team's most effective pass rusher last season -- but as a linebacker. He figures as a defensive end in the 4-3 and could be a designated pass rusher. Former linebacker Matt Roth is best suited as a 4-3 defensive end too, but he could leave as a free agent. Robaire Smith is decent against the run, but he's 33, broke down last season and is also a free agent. Brian Schaefering, his replacement in 2010, should compete for a starting job. The Browns need more from a group that produced a dearth of sacks, and it might get it with a four-man front.
LB: The switch to the 4-3 means big changes here too. Heckert told reporters at this year's scouting combine that the team plans to use team leader Scott Fujita as its strongside 'backer, with Chris Gocong in the middle and maybe D'Qwell Jackson at the weakside. The move should suit Fujita. He last played it in 2009 with New Orleans. The key, of course, is that he plays, period. The Browns never were the same after Fujita bowed out in the ninth game, and the record proves it. The club won only two of its seven games after his departure and couldn't make the necessary stops vs. Jacksonville, Buffalo and Cincinnati -- all games they could have -- no, should have -- won. Fujita and Gocong were effective and represent the core of a unit in store for more change than the 4-3. It needs speed too, one of the reasons it cut David Bowens and Eric Barton. They played hard, but each turns 34 this season. Roth was a bit of a disappointment, more effective in six games in 2009 than he was in 16 last season, and probably moves to the defensive line if he doesn't leave as a free agent.
DB: There were two big surprises here -- the play of both rookie Joe Haden and fourth-year cornerback Eric Wright. Haden was good, really good. Wright was not. In fact, he was so bad he was benched, and nobody, including Wright, is sure what happened. He was the team's best defensive back in 2009, but one year later he was one of the worst, routinely beaten for big plays. That wasn't the case with Haden, who wound up with a team-high six interceptions and finished as a starter. Good, huh? It gets better. He just turned 22. But Haden wasn't the only rookie who played well. Safety T.J. Ward was outstanding, a big hitter who solidified a pass defense handicapped by an inferior pass rush. Ward and safety Abram Elam were effective, with Ward leading the team in tackles and special-teams stops. Elam, who led the team in stops the year before, is vastly improved -- and his progress marked a progress in this unit. Still, the Browns were beaten for 26 TD passes, and that must improve. There is talent here as well as depth. I like Sheldon Brown at the other cornerback spot, despite his inconsistency on deep passes, and Mike Adams is a reliable backup at either cornerback or safety. The Browns don't need defensive backs as much as they need someone, anyone, to produce a pass rush to bail these guys out.