Sunday afternoon, the Cleveland Browns open another NFL season on the road against the New York Jets.
The training camp was filled with hamstring pulls, and the media brought up the quarterback situation once again, as if GM Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine don’t realize the position needs an upgrade.
And of course, the media continued to hammer away at the “dysfunction” of the franchise, with every misjudgment in terms of talent, or even how the play in the pre-season is held up as proof of that.
We have a different view. Remember that the Browns were 7-5 heading into a home game against Indianapolis, who advanced to the AFC title game in January.
Cleveland outplayed the Colts that day, except that Brian Hoyer had a terrible game and Andrew Luck and Indy pulled out a 25-24 win, dropping the Browns’ record to 7-6.
We have always said that when the Browns get decent play at quarterback, they win, and it would have been true on that Sunday, because if Hoyer had been merely good that day (he was 13 for 30, 136 yards and two picks), the Browns would have been 8-5, very much in the race for a playoff spot.
Now, we are a firm believer in “you are what your record is”, but that game sticks in our collective craw. The entire season changed on that contest.
Mike Pettine went to an unprepared Johnny Manziel the following week in Cincinnati, and both Manziel and Hoyer were hurt vs. Carolina, forcing undrafted Conner Shaw to start the season finale at Baltimore.
A game the Browns lost 20-10 with their third string passer.
Our point is that this isn’t as bad of a football team as people think.
The biggest weakness the Browns had a year ago was the inability to stop the run, and it appears they addressed that with the drafting of Danny Shelton and the signing of Randy Starks as a free agent. We won’t know for sure until they line up for real on Sunday, but if Cleveland improves in that area, with their strong secondary, the defense will be among the league’s best.
That will keep them in most games.
And that brings us back to our earlier statement that the Browns can win with decent quarterback play, which means not turning the ball over. That will be Josh McCown’s job and challenge this year.
As usual, the key to the season will be how the Browns handle the AFC North. They proved last year that the gap has closed, and they defeated the Steelers and Bengals in dominating fashion, and lost to Pittsburgh and the Ravens on the last play of the game.
If they can split the divisional games, they can win seven games again this season, albeit with a tougher schedule, and may even get to the break even mark.
We don’t see the other teams in the division being substantially better than they were a year ago.
There are three keys to the season in our view: 1). Improved defense vs. the run. 2). Josh McCown’s ability to not turn the ball over. 3). Avoiding catastrophic injuries, which change the season of most NFL teams.
If the first two things happen, the Browns will continue on the path of improvement.