Browns Look To Build On 2007 To Bring Success In 2008
Well, it’s hard to believe it has come to this. I wasn’t expecting to write this column so soon. I expected the Browns to have at least one game in 2008. But alas, (no) thanks to Jim Sorgi’s shortcomings as a QB, the Browns are done. No playoffs this year. So what are we to make of this 2007 season? It’s hard to have any bad feelings about a team that went 10-6. This team exceeded all expectations, including our own, and made this one of the most memorable and most fun seasons in recent history.
Before I get too far ahead, though, I want to say one thing about the way this shaped out. Watching that Tennessee team barely beat the Colts’ reserves to get into the playoffs and knock the Browns out was a very hollow and uneasy feeling. It just didn’t feel right. You’re going to hear many people say ‘hey, it’s the Browns’ own fault….they should have just taken care of their own business’. Of course that’s true. Nobody is going to deny that the Browns should have beat a pathetic Raiders team, they should have held their huge lead over Pittsburgh, and they shouldn’t have let themselves fall so far behind a struggling Cincinnati team. The Browns had their chances. The thing is, though, the Browns never had the luxury of playing anybody’s backups. Even when the Colts starters were briefly in the game, it was quite clear that outside of Bob Sanders, nobody cared about playing well at all. This was a huge advantage for the Titans and made for an uneven playing field in the playoff race. I don’t know if there’s a way to fix this, and so I guess this is just meaningless complaining on my part….but I will always feel like this team was unfairly kept out of the playoffs.
None the less, 2007 feels like a good season. I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention that at the end of the day, these moral victories for our Cleveland teams are starting to get old. We’ve spent so much time talking about how great this past year has been for the Indians, Cavaliers, and Browns. For sure, all three teams gave us something to be proud of. But when do we stop feeling happy just to be there….happy just to be relevant again….and when do we start demanding just a little more from our teams? Would the Patriots, Colts, Steelers, Cowboys, Packers, etc. be happy to be 10-6 and not in the playoffs? Would they be waxing poetic about how much fun the season was? Of course not. That’s the power of context. Somewhere along the line, teams like the Patriots and Colts who had been long suffering franchises similar to the Browns turned that corner and created a standard of winning that permeates throughout the players, coaches, front offices, franchises, and cities. So when I look back at 2007, rather than be too excited about it or too negative about it, I will mainly just hope to look at it as the first step….that monumental season in which things tipped and the team turned that corner and built on it and took the next step to becoming a true winning franchise in the NFL.
So with that in mind, lets take a look ahead and see how this team is going to look in 2008 and how this franchise can go from a 10-6 team to an 11 to 13 win team.
Head coach Romeo Crennel will be closely watched. Speculation still runs deep that the Tuna is going to bring RAC to Miami to head up the rebuilding efforts. Obviously RAC is very close to Parcells and the thought of working for him has to be an intriguing idea. But why would you want to start over from scratch? You’ve weathered the storm in Cleveland and now have a team on the brink of winning. Outside of working for his mentor again, there are no other compelling reasons to go to Miami and try to build from a team with no identity. From Cleveland’s point of view, you have to want RAC back. I have been openly critical of RAC’s coaching all year. I have at many points felt like the Browns were winning in spite of his coaching rather than because of his coaching. With that said, though, there’s still no price you can put on continuity. Ask San Diego about that. The thought of having to start over with a new system is a frightening thought. Romeo is still a first-time head coach and he’s learning on the job. The players absolutely love the guy and they play for him. Just for the sake of speculation, should RAC really follow the Tuna to Miami, what would the Browns do? I suspect they would try to lure Bill Cowher back, although unless they were to give him GM powers as well, Cowher probably won’t be coming out of retirement this soon, and getting rid of Phil Savage would be unacceptable. The Browns might try to turn the team over to Marty Schottenheimer and let him bring his winning identity to the team. Perhaps they would promote from within to try to maintain as much continuity as possible. In that case, Todd Grantham and Rob Chudzinski would be the lead candidates, with Chud likely being the first option. In the end, though, I fully expect RAC to be the head coach in 2008. I would like to see RAC work on his clock management skills, including using more discretion in wasting time outs and challenges, and I would like to see him work on team discipline. There were just far too many penalties on this team this season.
A year ago, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was considered to be one of the real up and coming coordinators in the NFL. His name was mentioned in whispers as an outside head coaching candidate. The Browns’ defense looked like the only respectable aspect of the team. We fans tried to justify the defense’s poor statistics by rationalizing that many of the yards given up seemed to come late in games when the defense was gassed because the Browns’ offense was unable to stay on the field. However, this season, the defense was shown for what it truly was…..a unit totally unable to generate consistent pressure on opposing QBs and totally unable to consistently slow down the running game. RBs routinely topped 100 yards against this defense, a defense that ranked dead last in the NFL. A good portion of this blame has to fall at Grantham’s feet. In no way should he be fired yet, but he needs to figure out a way to get more out of the defense in 2008, or else his time will be very limited beyond 2008.
On the offensive side of the ball, coordinator Rob Chudzinski came over from San Diego this season and instantly developed an offense that looked like a real NFL offense. They showed a lot of motion before the snap, mixed up formations nicely, and had a great blend of passing and running plays. The offense exuded confidence and they put up points in a big time way. The success of this unit vaulted Coach Chud into the hierarchy of head coaching candidates. I wouldn’t be totally surprised if he was interviewed for a job or two this offseason, but I would be surprised if he actually landed any of them. Another year or two like this one, though, and Chud will be a head coach somewhere. Not yet, though, as I suspect Coach Chud will still be the offensive coordinator in 2008. The main thing I think for Coach Chud to work on would be staying true to the run longer into the games. On a couple occasions this season the Browns seemed to abandon the run way too early. I’d like to see that change a bit in 2008. Otherwise, a great job by Coach Chudzinski this season and I see no reason to doubt the same will stand for next year.
Overall, the coaching staff has a good chance of coming back completely intact next season. This will be key in maintaining the continuity that will ideally lead to even further success next season.
Here’s a look at the 2007 team, with their 2008 salaries.
The Browns are fortunate to have a lot of stability in this off season. The key free agents on offense are only DA and Jamal Lewis. I’ve discussed in the past what I think the Browns should do with DA this offseason. I am of the belief that giving him a long term contract right now is crazy. I like the way the Cowboys handled their situation with Tony Romo, showing great patience in waiting until they were 100% certain Romo was going to be the QB they thought he was before signing him to the long term deal. The Browns should take note of how that was handled. In terms of improving this team in the future, they have to think about getting back into the first round of the draft this year. So why not dangle DA out there and see if anyone bites? The Browns can still match any offers if they deem the draft pick too low. They hold all the power in this situation and they need to flex that power and look at all options.
As for RB, it sounds like Jamal Lewis will be back, and I think that’s a good thing. He was so strong for this team this year, rushing for 1,304 yards (only Jim Brown himself has rushed for more yards in a Browns uniform) and developing into a powerful leader for the offense. It’s important to bring him back. But as I said before the holiday break, the Browns have to keep an eye on their future as well. Jamal is getting dangerously close to the drop off line and it’s hard to imagine him still being the same kind of RB three years from now. Just something to think about. For now, though, the Browns are working on getting a new deal done for Jamal, and he should be back next year.
Which means that perhaps the only significant change on offense could be the 3rd WR. Tim Carter is a free agent, and I’m not sure the Browns are going to bring him back. They will need to decide if either Josh Cribbs or Travis Wilson are able to step into that role. I will say this about Cribbs…..the Browns were lucky to sign him to an extension last year. They have him locked up for only slightly more than the league minimum through 2012. It’s hard to imagine Cribbs being willing to return kicks, return punts, play on special teams, and be the main #3 WR all for little more than $500,000. I am only speculating, but you could potentially see a hold out for a restructured deal if Cribbs becomes the #3 WR next year, but that’s a story for another time. The Browns could also potentially look for another WR this offseason with Jurevicius saying he only plans on playing one more year and with so much uncertaintity in the #3 role. Will the Browns shell out money for a guy like Bernard Berrian or Patrick Crayton? Probably not, but a guy like Bryant Johnson or Drew Carter, or even maybe Justin Gage could be an interesting option for the Browns. The Browns remain paper thin at WR and are a Braylon Edwards injury away from lacking a serious threat at WR, so I’d be shocked if the Browns didn’t do something to bolster the WR group.
Otherwise, the offense is pretty well set at OL, TE, and FB. 2008 will be LeCharles Bentley’s last chance to play in a Cleveland Browns uniform, but it’s hard to predict what kind of role he could step into even if healthy. Will he supplant Hank Fraley, one of the leaders and captains of the offense, and take over at center? That’s hard to guess, but I wouldn’t be shocked to see him share some time at right guard next year.
And here’s how the defense looks with 2008 salaries.
The defensive side of the ball is where this team will look the most different in 2008. Radical changes will be needed along the defensive line. I wouldn’t expect to see Ted Washington next season. Instead, expect Shaun Smith to take over the NT position. Orpheus Roye has said he wants to come back for another year, and Robaire Smith will likely be in the mix at DE as well, but the Browns will be looking to bolster the position. If that means via free agency, and assuming Albert Haynesworth and Terrell Suggs return to the Titans and Ravens, then Jared Allen remains an intersting option. The Chiefs will try to keep him, and he has some off field questions that would scare some teams, but the Browns have shown that with due dilligence they are not afraid to sign players with checkered pasts if they believe they have fixed them. Plus, the Browns could have the cap space to make Allen a high enough offer to lure him away from KC. Other options could include Justin Smith and Mike Rucker. As always, you have to question players’ compatibility to the 3-4, but these are the free agent defensive linemen the Browns will have to choose from.
The linebackers probably don’t need too much attention. Leon Williams and Antwan Peek stepped up at moments this season to provide some depth behind the likes of McGinnest, Wimbley, Davis, and Jackson. The one to watch will be Chaun “Fast Linebacker” Thompson. Chaun is the last remaining icon of the Butch Davis draft folly. If he’s willing to return at a decent price, though, I think he can provide decent depth, especially on 3rd down passing situations. He could be worth bringing back.
In the secondary, the emergence of Brandon McDonald, along with Eric Wright’s development later in the season means that with Bodden the CB spot is probably ok for now. Sean Jones and Brodney Pool provide the team with a very athletic safety pairing and not much should change there. I would expect the secondary to look the same next year.
As a whole, the defense needs to get more pressure on the QB. The secondary can only do so much, and when you routinely give QBs all day in the pocket, even the most mediocre of NFL QBs will pick you apart. Beyond that, stopping the run on 1st down will need to get better. Most of these issues will improve if a pass rushing DE comes into the fold and the LBs can utilize blitz opportunities to confuse the OL just enough to get Kamerion Wimbley free on occasion.
The 2008 schedule is going to be brutal. The Browns will have to play the AFC South and the NFC East next year, along with the 2nd place teams from the AFC West and East (Broncos and Bills). The home games will be against the Colts, Texans, Cowboys, Giants, and Broncos. The road games will be against the Jaguars, Titans, Eagles, Redskins, and Bills. Add to this the fact that the Bengals have a good chance of rebounding in 2008 and the Steelers will still be the Steelers, and the 2008 schedule looks to be radically better than this year’s. This year, the Browns only beat one team with a winning record (Seattle). If the Browns are going to have an even better record next year, they will need to beat more teams with winning records than one.
Ok, this won’t be the last thing I write about the Browns. I can promise you I’ll be writing about any developments in the Lewis and DA situations as they happen. But as my final summary of this team for this post, I will just say that 2007 ended up being a great season. A valuable one, for sure. This has a chance to be remembered as the year the Browns finally learned how to win. They learned how to protect home field. They learned how to score points. They learned how to look like an NFL team. All these lessons are great and all, but unless they build on them and move forward, this season will serve as just another negative amongst many in the long history of the Browns. The time is now to stop looking for moral victories and to start looking for real victories and to move into the ranks of the NFL’s elite. If the Browns can’t win with this collection of weapons, then I don’t know what else I can write. I suppose in that case this team really is doomed to taunt us forever. But I refuse to think in those terms. I am absolutely optimistic that this team is going to be a force in the next couple years, and as long as Phil Savage is able to continue drafting wisely and adding big pieces through free agency this team is going to finally step up and compete in the playoffs very, very soon.