The NFL Draft is coming up in April, and that's your Super Bowl, Browns fans. You've probably heard that one, more than once or twice, if you're a Browns fan. If you're like me, frankly, you have to be absolutely sick of hearing it by now. While NFL Draft success is certainly a necessary pre-requisite towards the dream of one day hoisting that Lombardi Trophy high in the air, the NFL Draft is not, and should never be, the highlight of our season as football fans. So, let's put the whole "the draft is our Super Bowl" mentality to bed, right this instant, and focus on a goal that really means something to all of us.
We want the Cleveland Browns to win the Super Bowl. It's not about getting there, the Indians and Cavaliers have taught us the emptiness of getting to the church only to be left at the altar, we want the Cleveland Browns to win, I repeat, win the Super Bowl. In the grand scheme of things, that is the singular goal, and there is no secondary goal.
Think about it for a minute, and it's not because we need Cleveland to do anything to validate the opinions of those on the outside looking in, but wouldn't a Super Bowl victory go a long way towards making everything else about the tradition of the Cleveland Browns mean something on a larger scale? Don't get me wrong, I do understand that the brand of the Cleveland Browns is about so much more than the wins and losses on the field, and there aren't many things in this world that many of us would trade for the experience of being a Cleveland Browns fan. There's something intangible to the experience for those who can remember the better days, but we've all become very fatigued at the imbalance of losses to victories during the painful rebooted rendition of the franchise.
Something that speaks to the strength of the Browns fan base, is the fact that Cleveland fought to get its team back, to get its colors back, and to get its history back. It pains me to know that there are some fans out there that now wish the NFL in Cleveland would have been gone for good when football was put on "pause" in Cleveland from 1996-1998. Obviously 68 wins in 208 tries isn't what most of us had in mind, and we've poetically nicknamed our home digs as the "Factory of Sadness". Needless to say, it's time for Cleveland, the Browns, and their fans to evolve from the misery that has plagued them on Sundays for the better part of the last 13 years. With that sentiment, I have very good news...
Now, I am not saying that the 2012 Cleveland Browns will win Super Bowl XLVI in New Orleans next February, or that they will even necessarily win a postseason game next winter, but, in a position of sound body and mind, I can tell you that the North Division of the American Football Conference has a title that is ripe for the taking, if the Browns want it badly enough. Now, if you asked me to wager my life, or even my life savings on this happening, I would probably decline, but that's not to say I wouldn't think about the reward versus the risk. Allow me to tell you why.
If they would have gotten it done this year, they would not have been able to join the club. The Browns 3rd place finish in 2010 would have excluded them from the club of 15 other teams that have gone from worst (or tied for worst) to first since 2003. We can probably ignore the teams that went from 4th place to the Super Bowl because the 2002 Carolina Panthers were a last place team of the 7-9 variety before losing Super Bowl XXXVIII to New England, and the New Orleans Saints were a not-so-dreadful 8-8 in 2008 before winning the Super Bowl the following year. For the sake of keeping this relevant to the Browns, and to compare apples to apples, I'm also ignoring teams that were able to win their divisions with less than ten wins.
So, we can forget about the metoric rise of the 2011 Broncos, who went from 4-12 to 8-8, which was good for the AFC West title this year. We can also dismiss the 4-12 Buccaneers from 2006, despite their 2007 NFC South Division Championship, because it came with a 9-7 record. I would prefer to use the 2004 San Diego Chargers, the 2007 Miami Dolphins, and the 2010 Kansas City Chiefs as bench marks for the Browns.
Now, I recall a song lyric from childhood that went along the lines of "...and Marty was the Coach of the Year", and while the rest of the lyrics to that Browns-themed song from the mid-1980's don't come to mind, I can tell you that Marty Schottenheimer was never the Coach of the Year while with Cleveland, but he was recognized as such with the 2004 Chargers. In his third year coaching the team, he took a 4-12 team from the year before and made them into a 12-4 juggernaut. He did it with an undersized quarterback named Drew Brees, who improved a lot going from his second to third professional season, with the rookie first rounder Phillip Rivers on the bench. They were also coming off of a very strong 2004 draft, where they had 8 of the first 154 picks. Does any of that sound reminiscent of a 4-12 team that we all know? Barring trades, the Browns hold six of the top 119 picks this April.
Strangely enough, the offensive architect behind that San Diego team, Cam Cameron did not fare so well as a Head Coach down in Miami. Only a Demaryius Thomas-esque catch and run in overtime by Greg Camarillo against the Ravens put the brakes on the runaway train towards 0-16 for Cameron's fish in 2006. Cameron was given his walking papers and the Miami brass brought in Bill Parcells to clean house. With the first pick, they drafted Jake Long to anchor their offensive line at Left Tackle and didn't panic to find a quarterback, finding Chad Henne with the 57th overall pick. They needed to get creative with the Wildcat Offense, and they needed to get lucky with Tom Brady going down in Week 1 for New England, but under new management (with a full off-season to prepare), the Dolphins turned 1-15 into 11-5 and a Division Championship in the AFC East.
Most recently, we've seen worst to first turn-arounds in Houston and Denver with both earning Division Titles this season after finishing last year in the basement, but both teams only improved by 4 games in the win column. 8-8 is not going to cut it in the AFC North, so let's look back one more year at the 2010 Kansas City Chiefs. You might remember how awful the Browns were in 2009, a 1-11 team that salvaged a 5-11 season down the stretch. Well, the Kansas City Chiefs were worse, so much worse that a Browns running back named Jerome Harrison (I knew who he was, but your everyday NFL fan probably didn't at the time) racked up a record breaking day on the ground against them on their way to a 4-12 finish.
That was the first season for Scott Pioli and Todd Haley as the General Manager and Head Coach of the Kansas Chiefs, and it was a mess. The next season they added play-makers in the draft (Javier Arenas, Dexter McCluster, Tony Moeaki) and Thomas Jones in free agency. They also brought in some Super Bowl winning coordinators, and voila, they were 10-6, kings of the AFC West, and playing in the postseason. Do you see what I am getting at here? One awful season does not have to be the beginning of a trend, and I know it's difficult to understand that after the last four seasons we've seen from the Browns.
In the NFL, twelve teams make the playoffs, which means twenty do not. Sometimes, there is one team among the 20 have-nots that, for whatever reason, has a rough stretch and doesn't make the post-season, and it causes those who qualify to let out a collective sigh of relief. History doesn't really allow us to remember those teams very well, but I can immediately think of two Super Bowl Champions that came very close to being one of those forgotten teams. The 2007 New York Giants won their 15th game of the season, which earned them a fifth seed in the NFC playoffs, so they could avoid a must-win game against a 15-0 New England team in Week 17. Now, I'm no fortune teller, but what are the chances that they take down the Patriots twice to win the title?
In fact, if you want to look at one of the "haves" that could easily be a "have-not", look no further than your current defending Champions. It's a fact that the 2010 Green Packers would not have been a playoff team if they did not defeat the Bears 10-3 game at Lambeau Field last January 2nd to earn a sixth seed. It was a game that the Bears, having locked up a two seed, did not need to win, even though the consensus demanded that they play to win, if only to keep Green Bay out. They failed, and they paid for it when they lost to the same Packers in the NFC Championship game. The point is, there isn't a large gap between the best and worst team in the playoffs, and unlike the NCAA basketball tournament, there probably isn't that wide of a margin between the last team in the playoffs and the best team on the outside looking in.
This is a competitive game. The Arizona Cardinals were overwhelmingly considered the worst playoff team, possibly of all-time, after a lackluster stretch at the end of the regular season, and came within inches of winning Super Bowl XLIII. Two years ago, the Indianapolis Colts were 14-2, probably the most difficult team to defeat in the entire league; they fell to 10-6 a year ago, and one major injury later, they are picking first in the upcoming draft. Because we micro-analyze this game, we fool ourselves into believing that the inept teams are light years from competing with the best of the best, but the gap between 1 and 32 isn't nearly as big as we might convince ourselves it is.
Before I begin, I would just like to acknowledge that books can be written on what's wrong with the Browns, and you could fill the Library of Congress with viable game plans to take them down at the moment. For right now, I do want to focus on what's important in the AFC North, to point out the flaws that will prevent the Bengals, Ravens, and others from taking home a division crown in 2012.
First, let's address the schedule. As usual, the six game division slate will include the home-and-homes with all three division foes. The AFC North has drawn the four teams in the AFC West and the four from the NFC East next year, with each team drawing two uncommon opponents, one from the AFC South and one from the AFC East. In addition to the division games, the Browns will host Kansas City, San Diego, Buffalo, Philadelphia, and Washington. They'll travel to Dallas, Indianapolis, Oakland, Denver, and the Giants. Holding their own in the division is key, without winning at least four of those, this whole argument is moot.
Cincinnati gets Miami at home, Jacksonville on the road; two teams that will face the Bengals with a new Head Coach in 2012. Because of the unknown, let's chalk those up as wins for the Bungles. That might be where "happy fun time" stops for Marvin Lewis's team, their road slate includes games at Philadelphia, Kansas City, and wherever the Chargers call home. Home games with Denver, Dallas, and the Giants won't exactly be a walk in the park either. While Andy Dalton might actually be the goods at quarterback, I don't see a lot of room for improvement. They could sweep the Browns, squeak out four road victories and get back to 9-7, but I think it's more likely they re-claim the AFC North's dunce cap, and their 0-6 division record guides them to that ugly 4-12 spot at the bottom of the division.
Baltimore could very well be dealing with a Super Bowl hangover, or they could be hungry to get back, depending on what happens in the next few weeks here. Based on current events, I think they have two very winnable games between them and Indianapolis, but we'll cross that bridge when we come to it. However, I have to take these things into account when considering the type of team they're going to be in 2012. The first thing that comes to mind with the Ravens is their defense, but we have to recognize that there's more sizzle to it than substance at this point. They have some younger play-makers, but there can't be much left in the tank for their leaders on that side of the ball, and you'd think a ring would be enough for some key pieces of their defense to walk away. However, while we're ignoring the decline of their defense, we might not be noticing how well their offense is coming together. The truth is, no one knows exactly what the Ravens have in Joe Flacco right now, but he has Ray Rice and Torrey Smith featured in an offense complimented by the likes of Anquan Boldin, Lee Evans, Ricky Williams, and Ed Dickson.
The Ravens will get New England, Dallas, the Giants, and Denver at home. I personally think New England's window may be closing unless they make some serious moves, but in any event, it's an advantage to get Tom Brady at home instead of at his place. Traveling to the San Diego, Philadelphia, Kansas City, and even Houston will prove to be challenging to the Ravens, but it's not the games that looked tough on paper that tripped them up in 2011. Every underwhelming opponent Baltimore faced last season appeared to be a "trap game". As the biggest threat to the Browns in 2012 going forward, Browns fans should be hoping that the Ratbirds get trapped every which way possible next season. Otherwise a division crown may be very tough to come by on the North Coast. I'm predicting a 10-6 finish for the Ravens, maybe a little worse if they're the defending Champs.
Alright, so I'm at a bit of an internal crossroads when it comes to the team from Western Pennsylvania. I don't know whether to stay within myself, or step into a character that can impartial towards those criminals east of Youngstown. Ultimately, I think it makes for better reading if my rage doesn't cloud my judgement because the truth, while not nearly as dark, doesn't exactly paint that team in a positive light. Here's the difficult part to accept first; they have some outstanding athletes on offense, and incredible football players on defense. They don't miss in the early rounds of the draft, not ever, and the fact remains that as long he can use his big profile name to stay out of prison, Ben Roethlisberger can make that team go. You might notice that I called their offensive weapons "athletes", while I called their defensive counterparts "football players", and there's a reason for that. I believe you can take any player out of their offense, and they will succeed elsewhere with the right coaching, but guys who excel in Pittsburgh like Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown, and Emmanuel Sanders, their success is predicated solely on what Roethlisberger can do in the pocket.
The bad news for Browns fans is that Roethlisberger is only going to be 30 when the 2012 season is played. However, James Harrison will be 34, Ryan Clark is 32, Ike Taylor will be 32, and Troy Polamalu will be 31. That does not make any of them senior citizens, but the window is closing on that group. As far as scheduling is concerned, their second place schedule might prove to be more difficult than Baltimore's first place schedule. They're looking at a trip to Nashville to face a Jake Locker led Titans team, and a home date with the Jets, who as much as I despise them, will be a difficult matchup for Pittsburgh. Now, having said all of that, I think it's up to Cleveland how this team finishes. If Cleveland is a better team, and I suspect they will be, don't be surprised if they finish as poorly as 7-9, but the flip side of that coin might put those heathens on the road to New Orleans at 11-5.
It's worth noting that the Browns could have been better in 2011, but the Front Office wasn't chasing 8-8 or any kind of Butch Davis style one-and-done playoff year. The end game is that this team is built for the long run, and that doesn't mean just throwing Randy Lerner's cash at guys over 30 years old. Sure, you might see guys like Brandon Lloyd and Jericho Cotchery contributing in St. Louis and Pittsburgh, and you can't help but think that Tom Heckert could have brought them to Berea. I understand that, I like seeing the victories, even if it costs the Browns a draft position or two, but I always try to keep things in perspective.
Some of you might remember that the Browns took down the Jets at home in 2006, a 6-10 season, with the benefit of a no-call that stripped the Jets of a late touchdown. For those of you who don't remember, it was the old push-out rule that the league has since down away with, but the universe evened itself out a year later in Arizona. Now, surely we all remember that 10-6 Browns team that missed out on the postseason because they lost a tie-breaker to Tennessee, so one win, specifically the one that got away from them in Glendale, meant the world to Browns fans. I remember justifying it to myself at the time, even standing in disbelief at the other end of University of Phoenix Stadium.
We stole a win that we didn't need in a meaningless season, so we had one that meant the world to us taken away. That's justice for you, right?
So, needless to say, I'm not about stockpiling meaningless wins. It's not about draft position, it's about waiting for the right moment to be greedy. I think that moment, that period of time, is this off season. I'm confident that the Browns will do what they can in the draft, then fill holes. I'm not expecting anything major, certainly nothing that could be construed as a long-term risk, but I believe holes will be plugged accordingly. I believe they were not before the 2011 season, and with no expectation to realistically compete in 2011, it was the right move. I really don't foresee that type of frustration this year.
So far, Heckert drafted well in his first two drafts, even if it isn't completely fair to grade any draft before three years have passed. Heckert hasn't had the luxury of building slowly, partly because of the impatient group of fans we have in Cleveland, but mostly because the previous regime left him a cupboard that re-defines the meaning of "bare". Real contributors leftover from previous drafts include D'Qwell Jackson (2006), Joe Thomas (2007), Ahtyba Rubin (2008), and Alex Mack (2009). Depending on how your book interprets what makes for a contributor, Mohamed Massaquoi and Kaluka Maiava from the 2009 Draft might deserve inclusion, but they don't in my book.
Say what you will about Colt McCoy regarding the future, but like him or not, you'd be crazy not to credit him for holding down the fort over the last two years. If you like what you saw from him, we're developing for the future. If you didn't like what you saw, you learned he's not "the guy", but we learned that now instead of dragging it out for years or doing the Brady Quinn thing, where we make him out to be Otto Graham while he holds the clipboard. What some of us tend to forget is that Colt was the 85th pick in the 2010 Draft, and we didn't need him to be "the guy". What we needed was production from the 7th overall pick, and Joe Haden has given us that, even if he's not the text book definition of shutdown corner. While TJ Ward and Shawn Lauvao haven't exactly been Pro Bowlers, they've certainly filled needs as starters on some Browns teams that have had little depth of late.
You can look at many Cleveland Browns drafts and see that there were some picks that didn't pan out, as in they never made an NFL roster. That is not true of the 2011 NFL Draft, one that took place during a Lockout. All eight picks from April's draft saw the field in 2011, and even if that speaks more to the lack of depth than anything necessarily positive, that's still a good thing. Now is not the time to be overly critical, there were some under-achievers in that group, but for now, I'm putting that on the players and coaches. I still have the highest level of confidence in this front office to evaluate talent, and I believe that the team gets better every time this front office gets a chance to add a piece from the draft.
It's always in the front of my mind that the Draft is only the Draft, so I don't keep my eye on the Draft. I've always got my eye on what I consider to be the Super Bowl for the Browns. It's a game that gets played in February.
It's called the Super Bowl. That's the goal, eventually it will be the only goal. For now, let's start thinking about that AFC North Championship.