Sunday begins the regular season for the Cleveland Browns.
Browns fans have waited for close to a calendar year for this. They are sure that this is the year the Browns begin their upward ascent to the elusive championship they’ve all been praying for all of their lives. Instead, they’ve watched six straight years of awful football.
Will 2014 be any better?
I want to say first that I really feel bad for Browns fans. Yes, I am a big fan, too, but not in the way most are. The Browns are not my favorite Cleveland professional franchise. Nor my second. I don’t hang on every transaction, every speculation, every rumor the way that most fans do. I have the other teams to watch when the Browns are not.
To most Browns fans, it seems like the other two teams are distant cousins that they wish well for, but have no reverence for them the way they do for their dear Browns.
I’m not mocking that, but saying that this is why I feel so bad for the fans. They wait all year for September to roll around, and by November they are talking draft and who should be blamed and fired for the current year’s disappointing performance.
The reason they hang on to so much speculation is because it’s all they have. Changing regimes and changing personnel have done nothing to make this team seem any different from one season to the next. What everyone talks about is the instability of the franchise, the constantly changing parts. The one thing no one acknowledges is the franchise’s one constant: No less than 4 and no more than 5 wins per year for six straight years.
And here we are, staring at the start of the 2014 season with more new parts: A new GM, a new head coach, and a new starting quarterback. The roster is dotted with rookies and undrafted free agents.
Typically, when making a prediction about a new season, the prognosticators will go through the schedule and guess if the team will win this game or lose that game based on how good they think the opposition will be. Of course, every year, those predictions of how good the other teams will be are as unreliable as their predictions for the Browns.
Remember how, going into last season, the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers were going to be so awful because they both had lost so many key people. The Steelers even started 0-4 and, at the midway point of the season, were 2-6. Guess what? They were both still in the playoff hunt the last week of the season.
Or look at the 2013 Atlanta Falcons. A strong NFC team with talk of going to the Super Bowl, they laid a huge goose egg, finishing 4-12 after going 13-3 the season before. Doubtful they will be equally bad this season, but it does go to show that making preseason predictions based on the opponent is typically futile.
So rather than look at the prediction like that, I sort of gauge how the team is compared to previous Browns teams. I figure the league’s other teams will balance themselves out – some better, some worse – and I sort of judge the Browns against themselves rather than against their opponents.
Doing so, I really think that 2014 is going to be the exact same as 2008-2013 were.
Why should I believe that this team is going to be any better than those previous teams? The quarterback position may or may not be in better shape, but everything else on this team looks frighteningly familiar.
The 2014 Browns have a strong defensive line, but no one is sure about the linebackers. Joe Haden is a rock at cornerback, but are we confident in the corner across from him, rookie Justin Gilbert, who was bad in preseason games? Safety Donte Whitner may be solid, but so was former safety TJ Ward. I know, I know, there are differences between the two men’s abilities, but as an overall grade, I’m not sure it’s much of a difference.
The offense is also similar to years past. If you want to argue that their quarterback position is better than it’s been, I will go ahead and concede that, though I am in wait-and-see mode myself. How much better will that position be is the question. Exponentially? Doubtful.
Brian Hoyer may or may not be a good quarterback, but I’ll say at best he is above-average. And Johnny Manziel is a rookie who, because of his style and being a rookie, will make people nuts as well as excited. I can’t imagine that in 2014 he’ll be anything better than above average himself.
As for the other offensive positions, I don’t see much difference. The line seems to always be one guy away from being solid. Will this year’s guy be Mitchell Schwartz? The running back position seems to be in good hands, but it probably won’t matter because defenses will stack the line, same as they have done for the past six seasons. And that’s because the wide receivers look worse than they’ve looked in the past now that Josh Gordon is gone for the year.
Right now, who’s the best wide receiver on this team? Andrew Hawkins? Not good. His best season saw him catch for 533 yards. Not a No. 1 receiver. And then who’s the second-best? Don’t look because it’s too depressing. True, they have a capable tight end in Jordan Cameron, but did anyone notice the way he disappeared for a long stretch of games last season? And that was with Gordon at receiver to distract defenses.
For the fans and for myself, I’d love to see the Browns come out and light it up. Even if they can’t be a playoff team this year, I’d love to see them at least be exciting on Sundays, but I just don’t see that happening. I see a team that is going to struggle to move the ball, a defense that will spend three quarters bending and not breaking before exhaustion overcomes them and they collapse in the 4th against the constant pressure of opposing offenses.
For the sake of predicting an actual record, I will say 4-12. Hopefully not. Hopefully the Browns will be that team that surprises everyone, but saying that’s going to be the case is simply based on wishing and not on honest evaluation.
It’s September and things already look bleak. Those distant Cleveland cousins, the Indians and Cavaliers, are both ahead of the Browns on the winning curve. The Tribe is one suspended half inning away from sitting 3 games out of first place in the division with a month to go. The Cavs will be starting their season with one of the best rosters in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, led by LeBron James, the best player in the NBA.
And those beloved Browns, who carry the heart of the city with them wherever they go, in everything they do, are probably going to be done before the season is more than half over. Same as the past six seasons. Before we’re carving the turkey and giving thanks, we’ll be looking at the best wide receivers that will enter the 2015 draft.
I’m really sorry, Browns fans. You deserve better. Unfortunately, you’re not going to get it.