From a football standpoint, it will be a real shame if the ongoing legal issues surrounding Jimmy Haslam’s Pilot Flying J business wind up hurting the Browns on the field. Haslam’s team, which he purchased last October, has amassed a very intriguing collection of leaders for a long-term plan.
Former Eagles president Joe Banner is running the business side of things. Bill Belichick disciple Mike Lombardi is the general manager. Former Chiefs executive Ray Farmer is the football operations’ second-in-command. And rookie head coach Rob Chudzinski is regarded as one of the brightest young offensive minds in the game. He’ll install some of the schemes he ran as Carolina’s offensive coordinator, but mostly he’ll let top assistant (and former boss) Norv Turner, one of the shrewdest designers of offense the league has seen, run that side of the ball.
The defense will be handled by another newcomer Ray Horton, who spent the past two seasons as the Cardinals’ coordinator and is widely regarded as a potential head coach. Horton inherits a unit that quietly ranked 10th in yards allowed and recently added $40 million free agent Paul Kruger and No. 6 overall pick Barkevious Mingo.
Intriguing as this new regime may seem, its members are tempering expectations for 2013. Several question marks remain, mainly on offense. At the owners meetings in Arizona over the offseason, Haslam said, “We’ve won 23 games in the last five years, won 14 games in the last three, so we’re not going to go 13-3 next year. I expect us to be better, but this is a process, and it’s going to take a little bit of time.”
Of course, successful teams have had similar reservations before. Perhaps the most fascinating snippet of the late David Halberstram’s book, The Education of a Coach, was how, after the 2001 Patriots’ Super Bowl win, Bill Belichick said to his longtime football confidante Ernie Adams, “Can you believe we won the Super Bowl against the Rams with this team?”
This isn’t to suggest the 2013 Browns are Super Bowl contenders. But by venturing just a few steps outside the box, one could see them as dark horse playoff contenders. (Sorry Jimmy, didn’t mean to raise the hopes of the perpetually scorned Northern Ohio fan base.)
Contrary to what you might hear, there won’t be a quarterback competition in Cleveland. If Browns coaches haven’t figured it out already, they soon will: Brandon Weeden is simply better than Jason Campbell. It’s not close, really. Yes, 2012 first-rounder Weeden—who can’t legally be written about without a reference to his age (he’ll be 30 in October!)—is disconcertingly methodical in his play. He’s maybe even sluggish. But Campbell has always played like a robot programmed to slow motion. He cannot offset his stiff play with sterling arm strength or an ability to make stick throws from a muddied pocket. Weeden can.
It’s Norv Turner’s mission to get this out of the second-year pro. Seemingly every quarterback who has played for Turner has come away eternally grateful to him. Turner will try to accelerate Weeden’s mechanics and mental processes to make him more of an anticipation passer.
Turner runs a time-tested Air Coryell–style offense that’s predicated on deeper drops and longer routes. A typical pass play that’s designed to go, say, 10 yards in a normal offense might go 13 or 14 yards in Turner’s. Everything is stretched vertically. The objective is to get receivers in one-on-one scenarios downfield.
It remains to be seen whether any of Cleveland’s wide receivers can be long-term solutions. They all have their flaws. Greg Little drops far too many balls. So does Josh Gordon, who is also inconsistent in the finer points of route running. Slot man Davone Bess lacks the speed and size to operate anywhere other than underneath. David Nelson’s numbers never matched his raw talent in Buffalo. Travis Benjamin and Josh Cooper are both raw.
It’s also possible that any or all of these wideouts can blossom in Cleveland. Every scheme has room for speed, which bodes well for Benjamin. Turner always wanted a pure slot weapon in San Diego; he has one here in Bess. The scheme demands size on the outside. Nelson is 6-5. Little and Gordon are both at least 6-2, 220—and both can run. Stylewise, a person might even see faint similarities to Vincent Jackson or Malcom Floyd.
The real worrying should be saved for tight end. There doesn’t appear to be an Antonio Gates on this roster. There is a Gronkowski—but it’s Dan, who is no better than a third-stringer. The projected starter is former fourth-round pick Jordan Cameron. While a decent-looking athlete, he didn’t see the field much in his first two seasons, which is alarming given that the man ahead of him was Ben Watson, who hindered Cleveland’s offense with his lack of quickness off the line before departing for New Orleans as a free agent. Also in the backup picture are mistake-prone ex-Bear Kellen Davis and former Panthers role player Gary Barnidge.
At least all of the tight ends are adept blockers. The system’s longer-developing routes require deeper dropbacks, which require sturdier pass protection and thus, extra help on the edge from time to time. The Browns, fortunately, have arguably the league’s soundest, if not best, left tackle in Joe Thomas.
Of course, on deeper drops, you’re only as good as your weakest pass protector, which makes it critical that right tackle Mitchell Schwartz continue the steady progress he showed as a second-round rookie last year. It’s also important that Cleveland’s guards develop chemistry. Neither Shawn Lauvao on the left side nor John Greco on the right side are great individual components, but they’re certainly capable of staying above water—especially considering they operate alongside one of the league’s steadiest and most mobile centers in Alex Mack. The depth on the line is adequate, as tackles Oniel Cousins and Rashad Butler both have some starting experience, as does guard Jason Pinkston, who actually may push to regain the first-string job that he lost last season after doctors discovered a life-threatening blood clot in his lung. Though he is currently battling a high-ankle sprain Pinkston is now healthy all in all.
Thomas and Mack are both extremely dexterous blockers out in front. And by the end of last season Greco had shown marked improvement on short-area pulls. All this bodes well for a ground game that is built to play with power.
Even though the Browns didn’t pose much of a threat through the air last season, it’s disheartening that their rushing attack wasn’t able to carry the offense more. Trent Richardson rarely looked like the type of player an organization gives up three picks just to move up one spot to draft third overall. He showed little burst, finishing the season with 950 yards on just 3.6 yards per carry. In fact, Cleveland’s rushing attack at times looked noticeably livelier when the underrated Montario Hardesty toted the rock.
True, Richardson struggled with a painful rib injury during the middle of last season, but given a running back’s short shelf life—and given the expectations that come with being drafted third overall—this is something of a make-or-break year for the 230-pounder. He’ll get enough help; Turner is one of the few offensive coordinators who likes to use a fullback in his run game, and the Browns have one in 2011 fourth-rounder Owen Marecic.
In his first days as defensive coordinator in Arizona in 2011, Ray Horton told the rest of the coaching staff that he was going to challenge his players right off the bat. He would hit them with voluminous (not to mention complex) sub-package concepts that would initially leave many overwhelmed (particularly given that the lockout had slashed most of their prep time). But, Horton asserted, the results would be worth it in the end. Sure enough, the Cardinals gave up 24.5 points and 389.6 yards per game in the first eight weeks of the season and just 19.0 points and 320.5 yards over the final eight weeks.
Expect Horton to once again throw the gauntlet at his new players. And expect a smoother transition this time. Not only have these Browns had an entire offseason to start learning the system, they also have talent—newcomers Barkevious Mingo and Paul Kruger, plus unheralded stud Jabaal Sheard—at the all-important outside linebacker spot, which Horton never had in Arizona.
But before the Dawg Pound starts salivating, keep in mind that none of those three outside ‘backers are certain to succeed. Mingo is a rookie, which means, even having been picked sixth overall, the prognosis on him is T.B.D. (If you don’t understand why, google “Aaron Curry,” “Vernon Gholston” or “Aaron Maybin.”) Kruger is the definition of a risky free-agent signing. The admittedly once-immature former Raven, a second-round pick in 2009, was an underachiever until his 2012 contract year. As for Sheard, he plays with outstanding leverage when attacking inside and has the athleticism to operate in space. Still, he’s transitioning from defensive end to standup outside linebacker. That isn’t a big change in most modern 3-4 schemes because the gap concepts are largely the same. But Horton’s is one of the few 3-4s that still has a lot of strict traditional two-gap foundational concepts. There could—could—be a learning curve for Sheard.
Most likely, the outside linebacker rotation, which also includes ex-Cardinal Quentin Groves, will be fine. The inside linebacker position is a different story. The book on D’Qwell Jackson is written in very bold print: great pursuit defender in space, iffy pugilist in traffic. Presumably, the same will prove true for Craig Robertson, who was superb at times as a nickel pass defender last season but is questionable as a first- and second-down run defender.
The Browns will have to rely on the undersized Jackson and finesse-oriented Robertson; their other potential inside ‘backers are James-Michael Johnson, who struggles against the run playside (particularly versus zone-blocking teams), L.J. Fort, who played just 98 snaps as an undrafted rookie last season and ex-Bill Tank Carder.
The hope is that the three-man front line can be formidable enough to protect the inside linebackers. There’s enough size and talent here to meet Horton’s two-gap demands. The deciding factor will be nose tackle Phil Taylor. Can he stay healthy after missing half of last season with a pectoral injury? Can he react strongly off the snap for all four quarters if he’s constantly fighting double teams? The Browns would probably love for some of Taylor’s load to be shared by either young ex-Raven Ishmaa’ily Kitchen (who has a perfect surname for a 332-pounder) or undrafted Nick Jean-Baptiste (a teammate of Taylor’s at Baylor).
There is a lot more certainty about the depth at defensive end. Veterans Ahtyba Rubin and free-agent pickup Desmond Bryant (who got $15 million guaranteed, a rather shocking amount for a career 4–3 role player) are the projected starters. Behind them is a pair of encouraging second-year pros, Billy Winn and John Hughes. Winn was taken three rounds after the third-rounder Hughes but was the more dynamic of the two last season. He has a tremendous sense for using his hands. It wouldn’t be surprising, in fact, if Winn ultimately split snaps with Rubin. A lot of people like the 27-year-old Rubin because he’s a prolific tackler. But many of his tackles come several yards downfield, after he’s been driven off the ball.
Horton’s forte is calling uber-aggressive attacks in critical situations. His inside linebackers must have good timing and chemistry in fire-X blitzes, and his corners must be willing to chase the quarterback not just from the slot, but also from the boundary. But more important is that the corners be able to survive solo man-to-man situations, as their new coordinator loves to call Cover 0 in the red zone.
In Arizona, Horton had a budding superstar in cover corner Patrick Peterson. Here he has Joe Haden. Like Peterson, Haden is an outstanding trail-man defender. He has the quickness to jump routes and the recovery speed to get back over the top when the ball’s in the air. Given that he’s adept in the slot, expect the fourth-year star to regularly shadow opposing No. 1 receivers in 2013.
Unfortunately, also just like in Arizona, Horton may have to hide a feeble No. 2 corner. Third-round rookie Leon McFadden will get a good crack at the starting spot. Even if he struggles—which mid-round rookie corners tend to do—he might still get the job, as ex-Falcon Christopher Owens is most comfortable as a slot No. 3 and incumbent second-year cornerback Buster Skrine can’t justifiably be given heavy reps after the way offenses devoured him on the outside last year.
At safety, T.J. Ward has shown a newfound talent for guarding tight ends man-to-man. He also remains a fervid hitter. But who will start alongside Ward? There’s an unappealing three-way competition between undrafted second-year pros Tashaun Gipson and Johnson Bademosi (or is it Bademosi Johnson?) and sixth-round rookie Jamoris Slaughter, who is coming back from Achilles surgery.
Phil Dawson, the Browns’ kicker since their reincarnation in 1999, was allowed to depart for San Francisco in the offseason. In his place is a cheaper veteran, Shayne Graham, who is on his seventh team in seven years. Graham has completed more than 93% of his field goal tries inside 40 yards, but leg strength is not one of his assets, which is why the Browns may also keep Brandon Bogotay around.
There will be a new punter, too, either be Spencer Lanning, who has been trying unsuccessfully since 2011 to make an NFL roster, or T.J. Conley, who was out of the league last season. The return game has also been revamped. Two-time Pro Bowler Joshua Cribbs is out. His replacement is being determined in training camp.
While another 5-11 season certainly seems possible for this club, an unexpected run at .500 or even a wild card is not out of the question. If the defense can stop the run, it will be good enough to carry a heavier load. And it may not have to if Cleveland’s receivers can somehow flourish in Turner’s scheme.