Orbiting Cleveland: The construction of your first-place Cleveland Browns

Orbiting

photo“Ladies and gentlemen, I give you your first-place Cleveland Browns…”

Sure rolls off the tongue nicely, right?

With the Browns’ 24-3 win in Cincinnati on Thursday, the team secured sole possession of first place in the AFC North. They will now hold onto that status for at least a week as the Pittsburgh Steelers fell 20-13 to the New York Jets on Sunday.

The last time that the Browns were in first place in week 10 or later by themselves was after week 11 in 1994. In other words, we are basically talking about uncharted territory now.

Even the most optimistic Cleveland fans have to admit that they never saw this coming. While it’s true that Cleveland native Brian Hoyer had his fair share of fans in this town, did you ever really expect him to possibly lead the Browns to a first-place finish?

Admit it, the improbability of this all seems — well — improbable.

Remember the national scrutiny that this team fell victim to earlier this year after firing head coach Rob Chudzinski? They scoured for candidates before settling on current coach Mike Pettine, who wasn’t their first, second, third or even fourth choice.

At the time, fans found the hiring laughable. After all, the former defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills was probably most known for his tenure as a head coach at North Penn High School and William Tennent High School in Eastern Pennsylvania. Those aren’t exactly résumé highlights when it comes to picking an NFL head coach.

Then, just weeks after hiring Pettine, Chief Executive Office Joe Banner and General Manager Mike Lombardi announced they would be leaving the team. Before leaving though, assistant general manager Ray Farmer was promoted to Lombardi’s position.

It was basically a complete reset for the organization.

A first-year head coach and a first-year general manager were suddenly the captains of the ship that was the 2014 Browns. Two individuals in brand-new positions would now be responsible for turning around a team that had not won more than five games since 2007.

What would you garner their chances at success in their first season to be? Thirty percent? Is that being generous?

Now, let’s factor in some of the other issues facing this team.

For starters, the Browns had no proven quarterback heading into the 2014 season. Also, the team’s best player, wide receiver Josh Gordon, was facing a potential year-long suspension due to another violation of the NFL’s drug policy. Knowing all of this, what would you now put the duo’s chances of success at? Ten percent?

However, despite every obstacle that this team has faced, the Browns hold a 6-3 record and sit in the driver’s seat of the AFC North. Tell me a time in the last twenty years that it has felt this good to be a Browns fan in November. There is no other time.

Every bit of conventional wisdom would tell you that the Browns should have been headed for another typical four-win or five-win season, yet for the first time in years, it appears as if the Browns finally have capable management in place.

Consider some of the things that have gone wrong this season.

As noted earlier, Josh Gordon is suspended (his year-long suspension was eventually decreased to 10 games).

The team’s next best receiver, tight end Jordan Cameron, has struggled with injuries and not been on the field consistently.

All-pro center Alex Mack was lost for the season with a broken leg after the Browns’ 31-10 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers.

However, even with all these setbacks, the Browns have weathered the storm and still own a 6-3 record. That’s a testament to both Farmer and Pettine.

Just take a moment to think of some of the key decisions that have been made since this contingent came into power. All of these decisions have played a role in getting the Browns to where they are now.

  1. In February, the Browns signed Kyle Shanahan to be the team’s offensive coordinator. Shanahan has always been a big believer in the running game, an area where the Browns have struggled in recent years. So far, the Browns lead the NFL in rushing attempts with 300. The run game hasn’t always worked, as evidenced by the last few games, but the team is always committed to it. That’s key as it prevents the Browns from ever being one dimensional.
  2. In March, the Browns signed wide receiver Andrew Hawkins to a four-year, $13.6 million contract. At the time, the deal seemed puzzling as Hawkins was coming off an injury-riddled 2013 campaign with the Bengals in which he had just 18 receptions for 199 yards. However, in eight games this season, Hawkins leads the Browns with 39 receptions, 504 yards and 29 catches for first down. He’s proven to be more than adept at getting yards after the catch and has quickly developed into Hoyer’s favorite target. So far, he’s been worth every penny of that hefty contract.
  3. Taylor+Gabriel+Chicago+Bears+v+Cleveland+Browns+C9PxRPFB8YGlThe Browns received plenty of criticism for not selecting a wide receiver in the NFL Draft this past May. However, Farmer should now receive plenty of credit for signing Taylor Gabriel as undrafted free agent. The former Abilene Christian standout has been quite the find for the Browns as he is second in receiving yards on the team with 435. Like Hawkins, he too has been excellent at getting yards after the catch and averages 8.1 YAC per reception. Overall, he’s ranked sixth among rookies in receiving yards and is the only undrafted player among the bunch. You could just say that this an example of beginner’s luck for Farmer, however…
  4. Taylor Gabriel is not the only rookie that has an immediate impact on this club. He’s not even the only undrated one for that matter. Running back Isaiah Crowell has been equally impressive. While he had some character concerns coming out of college (dismissed from the University of Georgia due to a weapons charge), he’s been an exemplary professional for the Browns. Overall, he has 297 yards on 64 carries and has arguably been the best runner on the team.
  5. A pair of third round rookies, running back Terrance West and linebacker Christian Kirksey, have also made significant impacts on the club. Kirksey is sixth in tackles with 41 while West leads the club in rushing yards with 396. Both players have been key this season, but it could be argued that no rookie has made a bigger impact than left guard Joel Bitonio, who has started all nine games this season and brought much-needed stability to his position. Overall, it’s been a long time since the Browns have had so many talented rookies making such strong impressions early.
  6. While the rookie additions have been key, the same can be said about the Browns’ free agent additions. Linebacker Karlos Dansby and safety Donte Whitner were brought in to replace former defensive staples on the Browns, D’Qwell Jackson and T.J. Ward. Dansby and Whitner are experienced winners from their time spent in Arizona and San Francisco, respectively, and they have brought that mentality to Cleveland as well. They’ve also performed well too. Pro Football Focus has Dansby as the No. 3 inside linebacker in the NFL while Jackson is at No. 48. Whitner is ranked No. 20 among safeties while Ward is at No. 61.
  7. Farmer and Pettine also ultimately made the decision to disregard all of the outside noise and stick with Hoyer at quarterback. And believe me, there was a lot of it. From the moment that Johnny Manziel was drafted at No. 22 by the Browns, many seemed to believe the former Texas A&M standout was destined to start immediately, and many made it their mission to ensure it happened. However, Farmer and Pettine obviously had other plans, and Hoyer has rewarded them with a season in which he’s thrown for 2,212 yards, 10 touchdowns and just two interceptions while completing 58.5 percent of his passes. These are not gaudy numbers, but they are efficient numbers, and Hoyer’s 90.4 quarterback rating proves that. This is not saying much, but Hoyer is easily the most-effective quarterback the Browns have had since reentering to the NFL in 1999. He simply does not get rattled, regardless of the situation. Kudos to the Browns organization for giving him a chance.

Sure, some will nitpick and say that Farmer and Pettine have just gotten lucky, but I don’t buy it. You can be lucky sometimes, but it’s clear that almost every decision the duo has made this season has panned out.

Now, for the first time in 20 years, the Browns are in the driver’s seat. There are seven games left for the Browns, three of which are against teams with losing records (Houston, Atlanta, Carolina).

Up until now, everything about this season has been improbable for the Browns. But suddenly things are now different. The ultimate improbability is now suddenly very probable.

Translation?

There’s a high probability that your Cleveland Browns, who will welcome back Gordon from suspension after just one more game, could find themselves playing in the postseason for the first time since the 2002 season.

Seems unbelievable, right?

However, given everything else that has already happened this season, it seems pretty apropos to me.

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