The 2016-17 season is now firmly in our ‘rear-view’ mirror and we are entering that hateful, non-football playing period of the off-season. All 32 teams have plundered the college ranks for the next crop of NFL superstars and are already into the full swing of OTAs. This leaves the rest of us, the footballing fandom, with a long time to wait before a meaningful snap is taken on September 8th.
Well, what are we going do until then? Could have a crack at learning a second language? Could we even stick to a 12 week fitness regime and become ‘Beach Body’ ready? More likely though, football is your poison: projecting your team’s prospects for next season. Which players are going to shine? Who is going to be the key part of the roster?
We cannot merely switch off for three months and wait for ACTUAL football to be played. This leads me to introduce a series of off-season articles called breaking the analysis of the Browns down into palatable bite-size chunks. This could range from position analysis to the ownership – outlining five critical steps to either achieving or rectifying the issue at hand.
Five Steps to Changing the Cleveland Browns Narrative
You cannot run away from your past. For over 20 years the Browns have struggled to re-establish themselves as a positive force within today’s NFL. You don’t have to scroll far on your Twitter feed to see the latest ‘Browns’ barb or negative remark. But the Browns have brought a lot of this criticism upon themselves and can’t hide from the previous regimes mistakes.
However, if the Browns want to turn themselves around, the following is a road map to changing the current perception of football in the city of Cleveland.
1. Stick to the Plan
The Browns are in the middle of a major rebuild – one which began with last season’s 1-15 record. Most head coaches and front office personnel in the league would now be scouring the ‘want ads’ after a season like that, but in Cleveland the attitude is different. The most important part of change and restructure, is allowing it to come to full fruition. No half measures!
Paul DePodesta and analytics are now part of the discussion and how they contribute to the changes in Cleveland. The ‘Moneyball’ theory of applying player’s statistical output as the primary contributing factor to overall team performance, is more at home in baseball. However, there was a marked change in how the Browns approached the last two drafts, when DePodesta joined the war room.
Greater value was placed on compiling draft picks and looking to generate more opportunities for the Browns to select players from the top two rounds in 2017 and 2018. Increasing their chances at hitting on genuine NFL ready talent, Cleveland will be able to not only turn around their fortune in the short term but also build a solid roster for longevity.
2.Trust from Above
With a significant rebuild plan in motion, patience will indeed be a virtue for current owner Jimmy Haslam. Since his purchase of the Browns in 2012, Haslam hasn’t given any head coach or front office a long leash to achieve sustainable success. Now Haslam will indeed be tested, as he allows the current regime to see this rebuild to its conclusion. A 1-15 season could have caused a reactionary decision and yet another ‘clear out’ in Berea.
In an open letter to their season ticket holders, Haslam and his wife Dee apologized for the results and performances of last season, but reaffirmed their commitment to rebuilding the Browns with the current personnel in place.
“Clearly, this season has been a painful part of our building process. You deserve the best, and you certainly deserve better than a 1-15 team. We are sorry that our results have not been better.”
They went on to state,
“We understand the critical nature of this upcoming offseason as we continue to improve our roster. Our personnel group has positioned us very well to add quality players through multiple high draft picks while maintaining salary cap flexibility and the ability to sign and retain our core nucleus of players.”
This is more than encouraging for a team that needs everyone in the organization, top to bottom, to be 100% all in with the direction the Browns are heading in.
3. Excite the Fans
When the fans are happy, spending their money on season tickets and merchandise, then the owners will be happy. Now a run to the Super Bowl or even the playoffs may be beyond the Browns in the foreseeable future. This doesn’t mean that another losing season will be acceptable either. The fans that will fill the seats in Cleveland will demand improvement of the on-field performances, but also be expecting to be entertained.
The excitement of fresh players joining the team can spark interest and intrigue amongst the fans and the media alike. The Browns are earning deserved plaudits for this year’s draft class, with the selections of Myles Garrett, Jabrill Peppers, David Njoku and DeShone Kizer from the first two rounds alone. There is an air of anticipation of how the Browns are going to line up this season. They are quickly becoming a roster that in potential talent, out shines their recent track record on and off the field.
Post draft grades and reviews across a wide range of sports media outlets, including our own here (http://lastwordonprofootball.com/2017/04/30/cleveland-browns-2017-nfl-draft-review/) have made the case for the ‘potential’ of significant improvement in the team’s fortunes. However, potential will only get you so far and keep the fans happy for so long, if you don’t win.
4. Start Winning
It seems obvious to point this out, but the main reason that the negative rhetoric reaches predictable levels year after year, is that the Browns don’t win. Since their last winning season, a decade ago, the Browns have a record of 38-106. It’s hard to argue with the critics when you are only winning 25 percent of the games you play in.
I have made the case for the plan that Hue Jackson and Sashi Brown are trying to implement, but the fruition of this rebuild must convert into wins on the gridiron. Last year’s 1-15 will only be viewed as an acceptable stepping stone if real progress is made. Progress that translates into a winning culture and mentality, that has for so long been absent for the Browns.
Playing the expectation game in football is a dangerous one. It’s a game that has gotten a lot of coaches and general managers fired, particularly in Cleveland. The current wave of positivity emanating from the Browns, must be accompanied with an element of tempered expectation. Progress, REAL progress this season, may only be a handful of wins at best. A six or even seven win season, coupled with being able to compete toe-to-toe in each and every game, would be a massive step in the right direction for the Browns.
5. Find the Quarterback
First let me apologize for countering my own article’s thread. The Cleveland Browns quarterback situation is probably the most widely covered piece of football analysis out there today, more so than the negativity that the team endures every year. However, the quarterback is the most significant role in professional sports and the Browns have struggled for years to find an answer.
No matter how great the need is, the Browns must escape the cycle of continually over-reaching for a quarterback. If the last two drafts are a sign of how they are addressing the issue, then patience is being applied. In 2016, they drafted Cody Kessler in the third round with the 93rd pick, to back up journeyman Josh McCown and ‘leap-of-faith’ acquisition Robert Griffin III. Then in this year’s draft they resisted the urge, unlike the Chicago Bears, to give up their accumulated draft capital to move up and take a quarterback in the first round. As it played out, DeShone Kizer, some analyst’s top quarterback of the 2017 draft, then fell to them in the second round.
The analytics side in Cleveland puts a premium on the value and number of draft picks the franchise has each year. The Browns have more than enough draft ammunition, and salary cap space to either pick the next top college prospect or pursue available free agents. Not unlike the recent resurgence of the Oakland Raiders, the Browns can patiently build the rest of the roster with quality acquisitions, strengthen the depth chart on both sides of the ball, before finding their own ‘Derek Carr.’
There is a plan for real change in Cleveland that will not only improve the on-field success of the franchise but also change the Browns narrative.