Thursday, July 24, 2008

Premature Evaluations 2008 – Cleveland Browns

It is upon us. In less than two months the 2008 NFL season will begin, unfolding its own unique stories. As we did last year, TiT will be going through the 32 NFL teams and giving you a preview of who these teams will be, and why you should be watching them this NFL season. Unlike last year, however, this time we're bringing in some outside help from time to time and asking fellow bloggers who are fans of various NFL teams to discuss their teams' roles in this year's epic story. Anyone interested in contributing and getting their site plugged should shoot an email over to Today, Zac continues the series with a look at the Cleveland Browns.

Read about the biblical prophets some time, and you come to understand just how powerful a vision can be. You get something in your head, a brief glimpse of what could be or is to come, and you have two options. You either acknowledge that it’s a nice dream and go on with your typical, expected life, or you become an outcast in devotion to the dream. The prophets didn’t start wearing rags and screaming about things that nobody else could see because they thought it would be a nice thing to try; they did it because they believed in their particular glimpse of a dream, vision, prophecy, or whatever you choose to call it so much that they knew they had to grab onto it and make it reality.

I wonder if the Browns woke up the day after last season ended and wondered if anything over the previous few months had really happened. If there were any justice in the NFL, the Cleveland Browns would have gone to the playoffs last year for the second time since 1994, and were well within shooting distance of taking their division, all in a year when Romeo Crenel was supposed to get fired and Chaz Frye and Derek Anderson were supposed to make a mess for Brady Quinn to clean. Unfortunately, they became the victims of a system in which top teams have no motivation to continue playing hard in week 17, regardless of the hopes of fans of other teams, and the Indianapolis Colts sent a C-squad with Peyton Manning calling plays from the sideline out in the final week to lose to the Titans and bar the Browns from entry to the postseason. With everything as it should be, the established NFL media breathed a sigh of relief and pulled up its slate of pre-written “underdog warms hearts and falls short” columns. Instead of everyone acknowledging that Cleveland and its high powered offense had finally arrived, we’ve been fed a steady stream of articles about how last year could have been a fluke, and how this year will represent a return to “normalcy,” Derek Anderson golly-gee-shucked his way to 29 touchdowns (5th in the league), Jamal Lewis was the product of a contract year, and Braylon Edwards is due to return to his malcontented and disappointing ways, particularly against a schedule filled with tough opponents. In short, none of what we saw last year was real, and this is the season when the oasis turns back into sand. When there’s no expectations, winning is easy, at least according to media logic; now that the pressure is on, pipes are going to burst and the wheels on this fever dream are coming right off.

Hold It Down (Feat. Method Man) - DJ Jazzy Jeff

That mentality is not only depressing, but I think it has things backwards. The Browns feeling the pressure created by last season’s incredible turnaround is going to be the reason the turnaround continues into this season.

That pressure is what got the Browns moving this offseason, turning Leigh Bodden and a mish mash of draft picks and nobodies into two of the best defensive tackles in the league. The front office, having watched last year’s 30th ranked defense still garner 10 wins, responded to the newly raised bar by adding Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams to the defensive front, and if you don’t think that’s going to turn a good-not-great linebacker corps into a scary unit and aid in the development of first day pick CB Eric Wright, you didn’t watch the Giants win the Super Bowl with a secondary that started Gibril Wilson and “wishes and dreams” at safety.

Even if defense is only slightly better (and it WILL get better), this offense is ready to play shootouts. Braylon Edwards became both the standard bearer for what wide receivers should look like last year, and, with no other consistent downfield threat, he still put up a stat sheet that places him with a handful of game changing receivers (2nd in TDs, 7th in yardage, 7th in YPC with 80 receptions), and shows no signs of slowing down. Kellen Winslow finally turned his abrasive personality on opposing defenses, dominating the middle of the field with his combination of size and top tier receiving skills. Adding Donte Stallworth, who won't kill you until you forget to deal with him (he's the chickenpox of wide receivers), makes this a scary vertical offense. If you think Stallworth had nothing to do with Moss breaking the TD record, you weren’t watching Moss in Oakland. Furthermore, it should open up the box for Jamal Lewis, who rewarded fantasy owners who believed in the rehabilitative powers of the penal system with the brutal rushing style that is largely responsible for one Super Bowl already, the stuff of nightmares for average or undersized linebackers.

All of this is before we consider whether or not Derek Anderson is the real deal, and considering that he played very well (despite a few bad games, which other young quarterbacks get a pass but late round picks do not) and has a year of experience with the offense, I don’t see why he can’t put on a repeat performance. Whatever other defenses figured out about Anderson, the fact that he figured out how to work effectively with both Winslow and Edwards makes him worth the risk, and besides, the tools that we know he has (ideal size and a powerful arm) are the sort of things that you can't beat by "figuring them out". Throw in an offensive line that is as talented as any other (OT Joe Thomas makes a great case for offensive line highlight reels), and this offense, barring a big injury, is one of the most difficult to cover in the league.

The point of all this is that nobody has produced a shred of hard evidence as to why last season’s Browns aren’t coming back this year. Instead, the best case people have made is that “things inevitably return to the way they should be,” which not only discounts the growth that every player on this team made last season but also leads to the kind of stagnancy that makes college football nowhere near as fun as the pros. The fact is that minus a terrible call against Arizona in week 13 (the reason they changed the push-out rule), OR a fourth quarter defensive meltdown against the Steelers in week 10, OR one of the most bizarrely terrible quarterback games of last season in week 16 against Cincinnati, OR the un Tony Dungy-like (or perhaps very Tony Dungy-like) decision to lay down at the end of the season, this team goes to the show last year. The fact that the front office decided to mortgage the long term vision for a chance at turning last year’s spark into a full on blaze this year has me excited to watch, and should have everybody hoping that the Browns can topple the traditional school of thought. You don’t call the prophetic vision “just a dream” and go back to bed; you grow a beard and start screaming from the mountains. If this offseason is any indication, the Browns are anticipating some fire from Heaven real soon.

Prediction: 11-5, 1st in AFC North

1 comment:

Scott said...

11-5? I think you need to sit down with FootballOutsiders and hash this one out!