This time last year, the Browns were starting the likes of Ken Dorsey and Bruce Gradkowski at QB, with Syndric Steptoe and a barely upright Jamal Lewis in the backfield. The team energy was non-existent, coach Romeo Crennel's consistent mix of stoicism and cluelessness seemed to permeate through the locker room and Phil Savage was busy planning his next Alabama scouting trip and sending juvenile email replies to Bills fans.
The Browns' cap situation, while still relatively stable, featured huge contracts involving several inconsistent players, including Braylon Edwards, Kellen Winslow, Donte Stallworth, Sean Jones, Derek Anderson and others. And of course, finishing up a 4-12 season, this group of players essentially formed the core of a floundering franchise.
In terms of leadership, Savage had already tried to install his own coaches within Crennel's staff, while Crennel largely ignored Savage's draft picks, while all the while, Randy Lerner fiddled away in the shadows, lamenting the fact that he had to step in for the first time in years to make yet another wholesale change.
And the Browns engaged in some seriously depressing, and ultimately meaningless December football.
And although it's easy to forget, as all the past years of failure seem to lump together, the end of the Savage/Crennel era may have been the lowest point in the team's recent history. Considering the heights of the almost-playoff bound 2007 team, 2008 was supposed to be the culmination of the Browns most successful rebuilding plan to date. Instead, the season ended with legions of Browns faithful feeling not anger, but just sheer indifference to the fortunes of our beloved franchise.
Things Could Be Much Better
And while I'm not suggesting that Eric Mangini has alleviated all of 2008's problems, at least he has this current version of the Browns playing some inspired December football. Say all you want - or read all you want - about Mangini, but you have to credit him for keeping his team focused and motivated during these ultimately meaningless final games of the season. For the first time in almost two years, the Browns are playing some quality, late-season football, which is something we cannot easily dismiss.
Regardless of Mangini's ultimate fate within the new Holmgren regime, let's give him credit for doing two very important things this season. First, gone are the trouble-makers and divas that essentially ruled the locker room during the Crennel era. In the place of Braylon, K2 and others are a modest collection of draft picks and decent low-end roster players. But more importantly, the Browns under Mangini have finally found a sense of team identity, one that has been lacking for years in Cleveland. Or, in other words, the current roster - while underwhelming in terms of overall talent - plays like an NFL team should play.
In terms of looking ahead, there is no doubt that the end of 2009 looks a little brighter than the prospects of a year ago. The current roster - again, regardless of who ultimately coaches this team - features some solid young talent and offers the kind of personnel flexibility that an incoming football "czar" has to love. That is to say, these current Browns are nothing but completely malleable.
And speaking of Holmgren, the jury will be out for some time regarding our new czar's ability to improve the franchise. However, if Holmgren indeed truly evaluates the current roster and coaching staff, then hires an actual GM (and not of the Kokinis variety) before getting down to some real offseason duties, then perhaps Randy Lerner has finally figured it all out.
Or, at least has fallen into a less sticky puddle this time around.
While things are starting to look up for Browns Nation, we have all been conditioned to expect the worst. And despite the positive momentum coming from both the on and off field versions of the Browns, we must all remember that in Cleveland, the only constant is uncertainity.
And so it goes....Happy Holidays.