After a brutal and disappointing 2008 campaign, we finally get to crack the seal on the 2009 Cleveland Browns this Sunday, and I couldn't be more excited. Nobody has great expectations for this year's incarnation of our beloved Browns, but that doesn't mean that this season can't be fun. Coach Grimace is gone and Ken Dorsey is bagging groceries. We've seen rock bottom, and now it's time to witness the (possible) resurrection this proud franchise.
There are certainly plenty of questions that need to be answered. Can Brady Quinn develop into a solid NFL starter? How will the first Mangini/Kokinis draft class contribute? Will Braylon Edwards rebound from his off year? How many Steelers fans does it take to get a full set of teeth? This Sunday, we'll start to answer those questions and more. Below are some of our staff predictions. Go Browns!
Erik Cassano: It seems the national consensus is that the Browns are one of the worst teams in the league, and that Eric Mangini is flubbing the preparation for his first Cleveland season in spectacular fashion. I can't help but think that is significantly influenced by the media's dislike of Mangini, who guards the most mundane information scraps, like player injuries, as if they were matters of national security.
Make life harder on the folks in the media, and you're bound to draw a heavy amount of public criticism. Which is exactly what is happening right now. It seems that all we've heard this summer is that: A) Mangini works his players too hard, B) he can't decide on a quarterback and C) he botched April's draft, letting prized QB Mark Sanchez go to the Jets via trade.
But lost in all the Mangini-hate is a Browns team that showed some very real signs of life in the final three games of the preseason. No matter who ends up starting at quarterback, this team will be able to move the ball and score points. The defense still lacks a pass rush and dynamic linebackers, but a beefy, talented line anchored by Shaun Rogers will at least allow the linebackers opportunities to make plays. Special teams, led by Josh Cribbs, is a team strength and could end up making life a lot easier on the offense and defense in the field position battle.
Mangini will need his team to become greater than the sum of its parts, because a number of the parts are still faulty. Linebacker is one of the major problem areas on the team, mostly due to Mangini's 3-4 defense and the pressure it puts on linebackers to become jacks-of-all-trades. D'Qwell Jackson and Eric Barton are decent middle linebackers, but are not capable of dominating the middle of the field.
Running back is another problem area. As Jamal Lewis continues to wear down his treads, the pressure will mount on the Browns' stable of unproven backups to pick up the carries. Keep an eye on James Davis. The rookie from Clemson looked solid in preseason, and might find himself pressed into service as the feature back before the end of the season.
The verdict: The Browns still have too many holes to contend for a playoff spot in the top-heavy AFC. But they're a lot stronger than the band of psychologically-defeated, physically-depleted weaklings that ended last season, and Mangini has done a better job of preparing his team than most members of the media want to credit him for. For once, the Browns offer their fans the very real possibility of watching a self-disciplined team steadily improve over the course of a season.
Chris Hutchinson: I appreciate what Eric Mangini is trying to do with this team - namely, make them a smarter, tougher, more focused unit. He's using a tried and true method of coaching and organization (the Bill Parcells/Bill Bellichick Playbook) to attempt to pull this franchise out of the malaise of mediocrity it has been mired in for maybe a millennium.
But this team is talent-bare in too many places. The pass rush is non-existent, the players at a number of the offensive skills positions are young and under-proven, and the offensive line depth is frighteningly thin. One can only squeeze so much blood out of a stone (a neat trick in the first place). Thus, I just don't see the Browns being very good this year, but due to a soft schedule and needed experience and growth at several key positions, it should be an interesting ride and they'll give us something to look forward to in 2010.
Brian McPeek: For the first time in years I'm actually convinced there is a rudder to the SS Cleveland Browns. It may be a super secretive rudder with a penchant for creating anxiety and drama where none should exist, but there is a definitely a new sense of order in Berea. In the long-term, that benefits this football team by instilling some discipline into not only the team but the organization as a whole. Unfortunately, 'long term' spans a period of time greater than the upcoming season. A disciplined football team is better than what we've watched in the past. But a talented and disciplined football team will be better yet, and we are still some ways away from that being the case with the Browns.
I see a range of 5-7 wins for the Browns this season. I think they can reach the high end of that range if they remain healthy at key positions and some of the younger players contribute on the field. The Browns are still painfully thin at key positions like LB, DB, RB and RT. Can James Davis usurp Jamal Lewis as the lead running back? Can Eric Mangini patch together a cohesive and effective offensive line? Can Brodney Pool avoid being concussed whenever a car door is slammed in his proximity? That's why they play the games.
I believe if Mangini is given the opportunity he will restore some order to the roster and the locker room. I think he already has to some degree. But talent is the ultimate weapon on the football field and the Browns need more of it. But at least there's some hope.
Mitch Cyrus: I think people are going to be surprised when the Browns make a late season run. Don't be. The first half of the season will be brutal, with games against Minnesota, Baltimore, Pittspuke, Green Bay, and Chicago. 3 - 5 would be something akin to the loaves and fishes if they reach that, although I'm guessing 2 - 6. But then the second half is back loaded with patsies and home games, and 6 - 2 is feasible considering there are games against Detroit, Kansas City, Oakland, and Jacksonville, along with home contests against the Steelers and Ravens.
The most important thing for Browns fans will be to not jump off the ledge during the bye week (after week 8). Of course, that's like telling lemmings to stay away from the cliff. Fortunately, Mangini does seem to have a plan, and I don't think he will panic. Look for him to judge things more by progress than anything else. The key to this team in 2009 is the defense. If Mangini and Ryan can somehow put together a respectable unit out of the flotsam and jetsam that are currently on the team, they have a real chance of being the surprise team of the year. If not...I still expect nothing worse than 6 - 10.
Gary Benz: The safe way of making predictions when it comes to any NFL team is to start at 8-8. That's what the league wants and that's what we must abide. If you think a given team will be good then you're safe at predicting 9-7. If you think they will struggle, the 7-9 works. If you're talking about the Raiders, well, it's best to start at 4-12.
I didn't think last year's Browns team was really of 4-12 caliber. Things spiraled out of control early and often. They weren't Super Bowl contenders, but 9-7 was a safe bet.
This year the team has turned over its entire organization and half of its roster. It's being led by a coach with a chip on his shoulder, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Giving credit for a win or two simply by being organized, this team grades out to 7-9. In other words, they'll be one of the many and not one of the few.
Dave Kolonich: An easier schedule, weaker division, fewer penalties and a reduction in the number of times Brady Quinn gets sucker-punched in the locker room should lead to a gradual improvement during the first year of the Eric Mangini regime. Look for the Browns defense to improve as the season progresses and for the special teams to be among the league's best. While the offense will struggle, look for the Browns to close the season on a three game winning streak, which should build some nice momentum heading into the offseason.
Jesse Lamovsky: Okay, stop me if you've heard this before. The Browns are going to struggle in 2009. They're going to have a tough time running the football. They're going to have a tough time stopping the run. With Derek Anderson, sadly, still on the roster there is going to be turmoil at the quarterback position. They're going to lack playmakers, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They're going to struggle with the physical teams in their division. After ten years of the football we've seen, this preview pretty much writes itself.
Causes for optimism? Well, Romeo Crennel is no longer the coach. Under Eric Mangini the team should be a bit more mentally ready, a bit less haphazard in its preparation and execution. The team is healthier than it was going into last season, when it was mauled by the Giants in August and never seemed to recover. The team's best player, Braylon Edwards, should be better than he was in 2008 (as long as you subscribe to the theory that he can't be any worse.) The runaway train should be back on the rails, at least to a certain extent.
Still, talent rules in the NFL, and the Browns simply don't have enough of it. They just don't have enough good players to match up with Pittsburgh and Baltimore in the AFC North. A better year than last, maybe a win over the Steelers- this is pretty much all we can hope for in 2009.
Nick Allburn: This will be a largely transitional year for the Cleveland Browns. With that in mind, I'm cautiously optimistic about their prospects, especially considering the absurdly poor national perception of this year's squad. I can hear Lou Brown saying, "Every newspaper in the country has picked us to finish dead last."
That's probably not an exaggeration. "NFL insider" Peter King picked the Browns to go 2-14. Without getting into why it's foolish to pick almost any NFL team to go 2-14, let's just say that the cupboard in Berea isn't nearly as bare as some might lead you to believe. There's still talent on this team, even if you have to look around to find it.
There's no reason to think that the Ravens and Steelers won't be very competitive once again, although for some reason people think the Bengals (?) are set up to bounce back this year. The latter seems unlikely. As long as they aren't decimated by injuries, the Browns will have a good shot to at the very least, climb out of the cellar.
Putting Romeo Crennel out to pasture and bringing in Eric Mangini will make the Browns far more watchable. Just replacing Crennel with a warm body should be worth a few wins, but this season really isn't really about wins and losses. Wins would be nice, but it's unlikely that the Browns have the horses to make a push for the playoffs. And speaking of horses, I think it's time to club Jamal Lewis over the head and make him into glue, but that's a topic for another day...
Anything within the 5-9 win range wouldn't surprise me, and if I have to pick a number, I'll split the difference and go with 7 wins. But like I said before, this season isn't about wins and losses. I'd like to see the Browns be competitive each week - if they could just give us the feeling that they'll hang tough and battle their opponent each week, that's good enough for this year. A divisional win over Baltimore (or even better, Pittsburgh) would be gravy.
But first and foremost, this season is about changing the culture and finding out what we have in Brady Quinn. Will Quinn leave us whistling some old school Manfred Mann, or are we still in the market for a passer? Beyond Quinn's development, we need to see fundamentally sound football (e.g. better tackling, blocking, etc.) and a team that plays with some heart. I need these guys to at least give me the (largely false, I know) impression that they feel these losses as much as I do.
Our collective expectations are so low, that we should be easy to please. And last year's Browns were so bad that this year's club should be pretty fun to watch, merely by comparison.