|Brandon Weeden had the best game of his young career Thursday night. (US Presswire)|
Here's the good news, if you can call it that: the Browns are a young team, especially on offense, and are only going to get better. In Thursday night's 23-16 loss to the Ravens, five rookies saw plenty of action: quarterback Brandon Weeden, running back Trent Richardson, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz, and wide receivers Travis Benjamin and Josh Gordon.
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Now four weeks into the season, the Browns remain winless, but they're much improved from the Week 1 performance against the Eagles in which Weeden threw four interceptions and completed just 12 of 35 attempts. In fact, Weeden, the well-documented 28-year-old former professional baseball player, had the best game of his nascent NFL career, completing 25-of-52 attempts for 320 yards against a menacing Ravens defense that has a tendency to devour young quarterbacks.
And while the game came down to the final play -- appropriately enough an incompletion in the end zone in the direction of second-year wideout Greg Little -- the two biggest moments of Weeden's night took place earlier in the second half. First, there was the third-quarter pick-six by Ravens cornerback Cary Williams that extended Baltimore's lead to 10 points. Then there was the shoulda-been-a-TD drop by Little midway through the fourth quarter that forced the Browns to settle for a field goal.
It also didn't help that Weeden was victimized five other times by dropped passes from various would-be receivers. Despite it all, he looked every bit the part of a legit NFL quarterback. Incremental improvements aside -- and the fact that one of the league's best young runners lines up behind Weeden in the backfield -- the Browns are 0-4.
So while progress is nice in the short-term, here's the long-term issue: this team, as currently constituted, can't compete in the AFC North. Yes, they can play well enough to have a chance for some late-game heroics, but they're not going to consistently win those games, much less make noise as a possible playoff team. But these are the dangers in perpetually rebuilding.
The Browns lost out to the Redskins in the Robert Griffin III sweepstakes this spring and instead used those picks on Richardson, Weeden and Schwartz. Because of his age, Weeden doesn't have time for on-the-job training (he's older than Aaron Rodgers, the Packers' first-round pick in 2005). Which means that if the Browns don't show noticeable gains this season there could be plenty of people in the organization looking for work come January. At least this is the conclusion we've drawn based on new owner Jimmy Haslam's first conversation with Browns president Mike Holmgren in August shortly after Haslem bought the team.
"The first question I asked [Holmgren]," Haslam said at the time, "was, ‘Can Brandon Weeden play?' To win in the NFL, you have to have a quarterback. OK? So the question is, can Brandon Weeden play?”
Holmgren's response: “He said, ‘Yeah. He can throw the ball. He can throw the ball. He can play.'"
Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Holmgren's skills as a talent evaluator. Of course, that's all Holmgren could say and for one night against the Ravens he was proven right. The problem is that Holmgren, general manager Tom Heckert and head coach Pat Shurmur need Weeden to play well and win some games while he's at it. Because another 4-12 season probable won't cut it.
(Haslam didn't speak specifically to staff job security back in August but he told the Canton Repository that if there's reasonable progress in 2012 it would be "very fair" to suggest that the regime would be retained. By any measure, 0-4 does not constitute reasonable progress.)
And it gets worse when you look at the Browns' schedule. The next five games before their Week 10 bye: Giants (away), Bengals, Colts (away), Chargers, Ravens. Cleveland could conceivably head into their week off at 1-8. It won't get much easier on the other side, either: Cowboys (away), Steelers, Raiders (away), Chiefs, Redskins, Broncos (away), Steelers (away).
Weeden's effort against the Ravens is encouraging news for an organization that has had seven different quarterbacks lead the team in passing in the last nine seasons (Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, and Colt McCoy). But the reality is this: there are no moral victories in the NFL. If Cleveland doesn't start actually winning, the perpetual rebuilding process could continue this offseason too.