The Cleveland Browns as an organization are tired of being at the bottom of the food chain in the AFC North. With teams such as the Steelers, Ravens, and the rising Bengals in the same division, success is hard to come by. This is why the young Browns squad which finished the season with a 4-12 record in 2011 is going to keep focusing on how to improve themselves each week, so they can reach the top again.
Since 2000, the Browns have only had one playoff appearance and only three seasons of seven or more wins. This has given the team a plethora of opportunities to draft top rated players.
Heading into the 2012 season, Head Coach Pat Shurmur’s club will only have 9 players 30 or older. This indicates that the Browns will have a lot of youth on the field, with a lot to learn before the start of the season, before they can compare themselves with their divisional rivals.
Already, rumors are speculating that just on offense alone, the team could have four rookies starting by week one against Philadelphia. That is a sign that the organization is looking for the youth to contribute early and often in order to keep taking steps in the right direction.
Shurmur is hoping his team will improve in every category this season, having ranked 24th or worse in passing yards, rushing yards, and opponents rushing yards last season.
“I expect that we’re a much improved football team. We all agreed that what we did last year wasn’t good enough and we’ve highlighted areas that, we as a team — and that’s between the team and I — need to be better and we need to work on here in practice and go ahead and do it. That’s the message,” said Shurmur.
Offensively, the Browns new additions from the 2012 draft class will look to contribute right away, particularly at the quarterback and running back positions. Heisman winner Trent Richardson and fellow Heisman candidate Brandon Weeden will look to bring over their success from college to Cleveland.
Richardson and Weeden will endure plenty of expectations going into the season. The Browns haven’t had a prolific running game since the great Jim Brown retired, and with Weeden entering the season as a 28 year old rookie, they didn’t draft him to sit and learn the offense for a couple of years. The team’s front office made it clear that they were high on both guys when the team traded away four picks with the Minnesota Vikings just to move up one spot for Richardson, and then to select a quarterback later in the round when the team already had Colt McCoy.
“It’s only pressure if you make it pressure. I just take one day at a time and try to do everything I can to get better that day and then get ready for the next day. Then as the games come, we will just see what happens,” said Richardson about the pressure being on him.
After a season plagued by the “Madden Curse” with former Browns running back Peyton Hillis on the cover, the Browns should be able to improve in the running game with a commitment to Richardson. With building blocks on the offensive line in place, including All-Pro offensive tackle Joe Thomas, center Alex Mack, and second round draft pick Mitchell Schwartz, the rookie skill players could be coming into an ideal situation together.
The receiving core which consists of Josh Cribbs, Mohamed Massaquoi, Greg Little, and rookie Josh Gordon should finally be able to spread the field this year, thanks to the golden arm of Weeden, who will most likely be the starter by week one. Richardson will draw a lot of attention in the box, which should open up the passing game as well.
As for the defense, which ranked 2nd in the league for opponents passing yards last season, will be led by linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. Jackson led the team in tackles with 158 last season to go along with his 3.5 sacks.
“Last year, we didn’t have an offseason,” Jackson said. “This season, we had OTAs (organized team activities), minicamp. We knew there weren’t going to be any coaching changes. We knew the system. It’s just a matter of coming out and revisiting things that we could correct from last year. For the most part, I think we played really solid defense last year and we’ve got the same core guys back with the exception of a few. We’re definitely going to be better, that’s what we’re aiming for.”
The Browns have a good foundation of young players that Defensive Coordinator Dick Jauron will be depending heavily on this season. Of those young players, defensive backs Joe Haden and T.J. Ward, along with defensive lineman Phil Taylor, and Jabaal Sheard will lead the way.
As for the speculation surrounding the team’s ownership and the idea of moving to another city, Brown’s President Mike Holmgren said the city of Cleveland has nothing to worry about. “The No. 1 thing our owner wanted me to pass along to you was that this is a great community that deserves a fine football team. I think we’re getting close and he just does not want any of this to disrupt that for the coaches and/or the players,” said Holmgren.
LeBron James may have left the city of Cleveland; however, it would be a long shot for the Browns to go anywhere. Fans should be relieved to know that despite the possible change of ownership, that the team itself will remain in Cleveland.
While the season remains a month away, keep an eye out for the young Brown’s squad which is looking to fly under the radar and surprise people just as their division and in-state rival the Cincinnati Bengals did last season.
By Billy Bonneau