Looking Ahead To The Upcoming Cleveland Browns Season

On Tuesday, the Cleveland Cavaliers were eliminated from trying to win the city its much longed-for championship. The nice thing is that the NBA season ended right in the middle of the Cleveland Indians' baseball season. The bad thing is that - as of the time of this writing - the Indians have gone 1-3 since the Cavs hopes ended, scoring a total of 2 runs in those 3 losses. Ugh. 

So, hey, good time to talk about the Browns, right?! The next time we see the players and coaches on the field, they will be in camp for the start of the regular season.


Quickly, we'll recap last year as a lead-in to this year. It ended pretty painfully, so I will make it quick.

The Browns downward spiral in 2014 was a domino effect, with the first domino being center Alex Mack's season-ending injury. The team started out 6-3,  with 5 of those wins coming in a 6-game stretch, but then Mack went down, which caused the running game to go down, which caused the play-action pass to go down, which caused quarterback Brian Hoyer to come back to earth, leading to the real Cleveland curse, the Quarterback Controversy, which lead to the team getting only one more win in their final seven games.

I only wish the season had gone by as fast as that paragraph did. 

The defense was also pretty bad, giving up a lot of yards rushing. Cleveland ranked last in the NFL in average yards per game (141.6) and per carry (4.5). They gave up an average of 21.1 points per game, which, in the NFL, where all rules favor the offense, wasn't too bad. That was good for 9th in the NFL, 2nd in the AFC North behind the Baltimore Ravens.

If this were a blog post about baseball, it would be laden with all kinds of other stats meaning to dissect the game into miniscule pieces, but it's not and we won't. 

You're welcome.


So, back to the present. The Browns General Manager Ray Farmer seemed to draft in response to plugging some of the holes that contributed to the downward spiral of 2014. He spent 4 of the first 5 draft picks on linemen, with 3 of the 4 being defensive linemen.  

He did not truly address the team's issues at wide receiver and at tight end. I wanted him to. Most fans did. But it looks like this is a team that will be built on the running game. I know, I know, we all fall back on what we hear on TV: The NFL is a passing league and you have to be able to throw the football to win games. Isn't that obvious by the fact that they did so well in Points Allowed compared to the rest of the league, after allowing three touchdowns per contest?

No, it's not. It's just not that simple.

I'm going to say something REALLY obvious here, something that we all know, something we say when making fun of color commentators that love to state the obvious: You win football games by outscoring the other team, not by passing yards.

There are several ways to do that. 

You can score so many points that the other team can't keep up. You can hold the other team to so few points that your offense basically just needs to show up to win games. You can dominate the clock. You can dominate turnovers. Point made?

It seems that the Browns are going to go with clock management. (Insert snarky comment about some of Head Coach Mike Pettine's 2014 head-scratching, end-of-game-clock-management decisions here) They want to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball.

Can this work? Yes. The bigger question is "Will this work?" I'm not so sure. But for a glimmer of hope, let's travel back in time to 2004. 


Ahhhh, we all remember 2004 as the International Year of Rice. (No we don't, and no, I'm not making that up) (10 years later would be known as the Year of Ray Rice, when he punched his then-fiancee in the face and then tried dragging her out of the elevator like a CPR dummy)

2004 was Pittsburgh Steelers Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's rookie season. (Side note; I hate Roethlisberger for 3 reasons: 1) He plays for the Steelers; 2) he's a future Hall of Famer; and 3) like Dywane Wade, I always have to look up his name to make sure I spell it correctly. And, NO, I will not refer to him as Big Ben. God, no.)

In 2004, Roth....Rothel....Roethlisberger averaged a whopping 187.2 yards passing per game. He averaged barely more than 1 passing touchdown per game. (1.2) Yet the Steelers went 15-1 that season. (Pouring myself a drink) They didn't lose a game with him as the starter. (Drinking straight from the bottle) They hosted the AFC Championship game! (I may have alcohol poisoning)

Wait, what? How?! Simple: They won because of their running game.

Oh-em-gee! Did ESPN declare the NFL a running league back in 2004??? Haha, not exactly.

The Steelers had another Hall of Famer on their team in 2004: Jerome Bettis. He opened the first game of the season with some interesting stats: 5 carries....1 yard.....3 touchdowns. That almost encapsulates Bettis' season. He averaged 3.8 yards per carry, rushed for less than 1,000 yards (941), but scored 13 touchdowns! Their second running back, Duce Staley, actually averaged more yards per carry (4.3), rushed for more than 800 yards (830), but scored only 1 touchdown all season.

 Still, that's a running combination that rushed for 1,771 yards and 19 touchdowns.

Meanwhile, Roethlisberger had a QB Rating of 98.1, which ranks 4th for him in his 11 years as a pro. How, when his other numbers were so low? The play-action pass. When opposing teams bit on it, he made them pay. (I feel like Tim Misny)

As a matter of fact, the next season, the NFL would help the Steelers win Superbowl XL (see what I did there?), with Ben (and there?) completing just 9 of 21 passes for 123 yards and a QBR of 22.6! Meanwhile, the Steelers ran for almost 200 yards (181) on 33 rushing attempts. 

Okay, before I vomit all over my keyboard, let's leave this Steelers Love Fest and get back to our beloved Browns.

Lights, camera, play-action

The Browns were using this same formula last season with two rookie running backs, one undrafted. But, as already pointed out, that ended with the Mack injury, and all the wins turned into all the losses and another sub-.500 season.

So, yes, it can work. Again, the question is, Will it work? That all hinges on one man: Johnny Manziel. Just kidding. It rests on Josh McCown. (Now you know why I led with a joke)

No, you don't have to throw for 8,000 yards in a season to win, but you need a quarterback who can punish defenses when they start cheating. Just as we saw in 2004 know what? Let's just drop that illustration.

When the Browns start running the ball, teams are going to use the same formula they've been using against the Browns for a lot of years: Load the box up with defensive players. Dare the Browns to pass.

For a while there in '14, Hoyer beat them when they did that. Then came the breakdown of the offensive line, the constant pressure on Hoyer, some bad route-running by the man we all thought was going to be the offensive savior Josh Gordon, and some awful decisions/throws by Hoyer himself.

2015 is all about taking the 2014 team and making the defense better, strengthening the offensive line, and trying to keep the quarterback position from destabilizing. That's blueprint as I can see it.

If it all works, if it all comes together as planned (what in the NFL ever does?), then the Browns may have a season worth enjoying. I'm not claiming Super Bowl, heck, I'm not even claiming Playoffs, but I expect they will be much better than 2014. I don't know how much better their record will be, because they finished one game under .500, which for the Browns is a feat we haven't seen in seven seasons. 

The season as a whole will probably not have the Browns going on a winning tear like they did in 2014, but probably won't have them going on a losing slide, either. Probably win a few, lose a few, ending somewhere near .500, between 7 and 9 wins.

If it's 7, fans will be calling for Ray Farmer's job. If it's 9....well, fans will be calling for Ray Farmer's job. We all know the nature of fans. I hope the front office/ownership does too and they don't force the coaching staff to make a decision like last year when they started Manziel, knowing he wasn't ready.

So, that's our Browns for right now. All of this will start to evolve once the preseason games are being played. As of right now, let's have some hope for 2015 and get back to watching the Indians.

Okay, let's just stick with hope.
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