The Browns have taken their fair share of criticism, but 2014 has been very positive, and three factors have played a major role in the uptick.
1. Hiring Ray Farmer: Installing Farmer as GM and vice president of player personnel puts a solid football man at the top, and his actions speak volumes about the direction of this team. Farmer has put good football people like Bill Kuharich around him and decisions this offseason will translate to better results in the fall.
2. Using the transition tag on Alex Mack: The decision to use a transition tag instead of a franchise tag was a very good move. The transition tag is seldom used, though more teams should consider it for the reasons Farmer used it.
The Browns let the market set Mack's value and let another club negotiate for them. When the NFL eliminated "poison pills" from transition tags it made it much tougher for agents and competing clubs to write a contract the home team couldn't match.
For the Browns, Mack was not signable to a long-term deal and while the franchise tag would have prevented him from leaving Cleveland for this season, using that tag for a second year wasn't realistic. It would have cost the Browns more than $12 million to franchise tag him in 2015, or $4 million more than the contract they now have in place for Mack, thanks to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Browns likely will need the franchise or transition tag next year on cornerback Joe Haden or even nose tackle Phil Taylor (if Haden's deal is done in time). Also, if the Browns were repeatedly tagging Mack they would be stuck when emerging star WR Josh Gordon needs a new deal before his rookie deal expires after 2015. They most certainly will want a tag available for him.
Farmer looked at top players coming up for extensions and knew getting Mack signed was critical, so he used the Jaguars to get it done.
When teams like the Raiders let quality young players go in free agency we heard the player "doesn't want to be here." The Browns heard the same about Mack but employed the transition tag instead letting him go. Now they have Mack, who turns 29 in November, under contract for two seasons. And I believe Mack will think long and hard about voiding his contract heading into the 2016 season as a 31-year-old center with $8 million guaranteed on the table.
3. Not engaging in QB pro day chase: The Browns need a quarterback, but their predraft process is not driven by chasing young candidates around at their pro day workouts. The Browns aren't buying the dog-and-pony shows run by agents and QB gurus. Farmer and his evaluators are working out candidates on their own terms, giving them a better where to take the guy they want with two first-round picks and the ability to wait until a later round on a QB.
Eli facing what Rivers faced in '13
Giants QB Eli Manning is taking on the same heavy scrutiny Phil Rivers faced a year ago. These two are forever tied together because of the famous draft day trade when Manning was the Chargers' first overall pick in 2004 and traded to the Giants moments later for Rivers.
In 2012, Rivers had a rough season, fueling speculation about his career winding down and he no longer had the legs to throw the fastball. Not true. Rivers went from a 7-9 season and being sacked 49 times in 2012 to making the playoffs and only taking 30 sacks while throwing for 4,478 yards and 32 TDs last season.
Can Manning rebound as Rivers did last year? Granted Manning is having ankle surgery but he never misses games and when he has thrown picks before he has bounced back. In 2007, he threw 20 INTs and the next two seasons he threw 10 and 14. In 2010 he threw 25 interceptions and followed those two seasons up with 16 and 15. He has a new coordinator this season, something that recharged Rivers' batteries last year.
One Giants front-office person said: "The change will do Eli some real good with fresh ideas and the feeling he has to learn some new things."
The Giants also need better offensive-line play and receivers who hold onto the ball. Last season, Rivers had between 11 and 14 dropped passes by most accounts. Manning had close to 30 drops.
My guess is Manning cuts INTs almost in half from last year's 27 and the sacks drop slightly. In 2012 Manning was only sacked 19 times and I suspect he will be closer to that number than the 39 he took in 2013.