By any objective measure, it was as miserable football season in Cleveland, far more miserable than four years ago when owner Randy Lerner attempted his first overhaul. But on the misery scale it still pales in comparison to the year in which former owner Art Modell yanked the franchise from the city. That is and forever will remain the yardstick against which all other seasons get measured. Far better to have a team to complain about than to have no team at all.
And as awful as the season was, there were still a few nuggets of interest that in context are simply puzzling, but in a mostly good way. For example, even with all the interceptions that Ken Dorsey and Bruce Gradkowski were tossing at the end of the season, the Browns still ended up +5 in the takeaway/giveaway department which seems as anachronistic as anything else in this lost season. But what does it mean?
For too often, that ratio has been used as a barometer for a team's relative successes or failures but that's hardly a conclusion you can draw this year. When you look at the final regular season statistics, nearly half of the NFL's teams ended up in positive territory. But far more interesting than that is that the Browns were not the only woeful team on the positive side. The Kansas City Chiefs were likewise +5 and the Oakland Raiders were +1. Collectively those two teams won only 7 games and the three teams combined for only 11 wins, which was less than 5 other teams. The Packers, who only won 6 games, were a +6.
What's particularly interesting with the Browns is that their total was achieved on the strength of 23 interceptions, which was second in the entire NFL to only Baltimore's 26. But even that doesn't tell enough of the story. The Cleveland defense had only 17 sacks all season, second lowest in the league. As anyone who watched this team will tell you, pressuring the quarterback wasn't a Cleveland strength. It would be natural to conclude that interceptions might be hard to come by as a result, but they weren't. The Ravens, on the other hand, have a far better pass rush and had twice as many sacks with 34. While they had 3 more interceptions than the Browns, that's a relatively insignificant difference given that opposing quarterbacks were far more harassed by the Ravens and thus more likely prone to mistakes.
What exactly does that say about the Browns' secondary? At the very least, when it was in a position to make plays it did just that. The problem, of course, stemmed from the fact that it wasn't in position nearly often enough. The Browns' defense gave up the highest yards per pass attempt in the league at just over 7 yards. The Ravens? A mere 5 yards a game.
Another little nugget to glean is that linebacker D'Qwell Jackson led the entire NFL in tackles with 154. The next closest was Patrick Willis of the San Francisco 49ers with 141. It's not a surprise that Jackson or some other linebacker would lead the Browns in tackles, given the 3-4 defense played, but it is surprising that Jackson would lead the entire league. Frankly, nothing about Jackson's season much stands out. Yet when the final numbers are counted, he had a very solid season even as we all complained about a lousy linebacking corps.
Turning to the offense, there were 49 running backs in the league that had at least 100 carries. Only 16 of those had more than 1,000 yards rushing and Browns' running back Jamal Lewis was one of those 16, ending the season with 1,002 yards.
Certainly a 1,000 yard rushing season isn't what it used to be, especially when there were only 14 regular season games. But given that only half the teams in the league had a 1,000-yard rusher, it's still a meaningful benchmark. Lewis seemed to have a season much like Jackson. Nothing particularly memorable stands out. Indeed, Lewis' longest run was only 29 yards, which was the shortest of all backs that run for more than 1,000 yards. Yet when it all gets tallied up, it's hard to diminish Lewis' accomplishment, particularly when you consider how abysmal the offense was the last 6 games of the season.
If you want to dig even a little deeper for something positive, it's also worth noting that Braylon Edwards, as beleaguered of a receiver as you'll ever find, still managed almost 900 receiving yards for the season. Overall, that placed him 31st among the 129 players in the league with at least 200 receiving yards, meaning that for all the drops and all the drama he still finished in the top third of the league. If nothing else, it's something Edwards can build on as he works to rebuild his confidence and, perhaps, his career.
One of those great barroom conversations that never get resolved has to do with whether fans should be loyal to their particular team irrespective of what it actually does on the field. The truth is, many fans are even if they won't admit it.
But I was reminded of that debate because of on an email I received in response to my column on Randy Lerner and whether he was the right person to be making the hiring decisions for this team.
Without going into great detail, the essence of the email was that it was just so much piling on by this point and that it's the negativity of people like me that is causing much of the negative attitudes toward the Browns. Apparently if we just wrote something positive once in awhile, things would be better. I suppose it would have helped to have something positive to write about once in awhile, but let's not let the facts cloud the issue.
The emailer has a perspective, which I respect, but one I could never fully embrace. The problem with it I think is it places blame on those that report what's happening and not on those who are making things happen. I'm not naïve to think that the media doesn't have an influence on what others think. Of course it does. And while some in this business use the First Amendment as a convenient shield to hide behind any manner of irresponsible conduct on their part, those who truly appreciate the impact that the media can have recognize the responsibility that goes along with it when they write. It's not enough to simply say "I don't make the news, I just report it."
There are many ways, in fact, to report the news. A writer can certainly shape others' opinions. Indeed, that's the whole point of writing a column in the first place. Sports can be even trickier because nearly everyone who writes about it does so because they are a fan at heart. The trickiest of all is writing about the teams you grew up watching when your interest in sports was first kindled. But in the end, you have to see things for what they are and not what you wish them to be.
I start from the point of view that no one, me included, wants to see any Cleveland team fail. Bad teams often give a writer more fodder, but when a season like this last Browns' season unfolds it's almost like reporting on a friend with a lingering, serious illness. The task is less fun and more arduous with each passing day.
But you can't hide from the truth, no matter how much you'd like. This year's Browns' season was a slow but steady death march for anyone who cares about the team. Watching and writing about Romeo Crennel's repeated shortcomings as a head coach doesn't meet anyone's definition of fun. It was particularly difficult because Crennel is a very decent man. He simply wasn't a good head coach. Phil Savage, too, is a decent person away from the field, but a lousy administrator on it. His sometimes bizarre actions contributed to the circus atmosphere. And the more each was defended by the management that ultimately tossed them aside, the more important it was to keep the heat on.
Ultimately, it's about accountability. In this business, it's a two-way street. The email writer suggested that it must be nice to write in a manner in which no one holds you accountable, even as the email writer was holding me accountable for my writing. The point the email writer missed is that anyone who writes about the teams feels a tremendous sense of accountability. The owners of the Cleveland professional sports teams demand a lot from the fans, whether it's in the form of ever-increasing ticket prices, overpriced swag or increasingly bizarre schedules to meet the demands of the broadcast media. Fans have a right to ask for a decent product in return and someone has to give voice to those who believe that too often that sacred bond between franchise and fan is being abused, particularly in Cleveland. If the rest of my email is any indication, and I think it is, most fans are very appreciative that this site and those who write for it have become that voice.
It's another playoff season without the Browns, but that doesn't mean that Browns fans don't have some sort of rooting interest in the outcome, even if it is to root against the usual suspects. Thus, given the upcoming playoffs, this week's question to ponder: Which team's playoff loss will feel more satisfying, the Ravens' or the Steelers'?