Browns

Blue Chips

Troy Taormina, USA TODAY Sports/Scott R. Galvin, USA TODAY Sports

Okay, here it is: It’s stupid how excited I am for this Browns season. You know as well as I that this is an annual statement, traditionally uttered around back-to-school time. But this year I really mean it. I really feel it. I—check that, we—always joke about the Browns winning the Super Bowl, or at least being competitive, but this year there’s a more stable foundation upon which we can construct our house of cards. It’s still absurd, the Browns being the Browns and all, but this time it feels a little less so.

Granted—and believe me, this thing is full of qualifiers, both clear and implicit—my mind is capable of tremendous gymnastics when it comes to Cleveland athletics. I vividly remember a phone conversation before the 2007 NBA Finals that basically boiled down to, I think this is really it! A couple weeks later the Spurs had held the Cavs to 80 points a game and I felt dumb for having had hope. (The Cavs, of course, are now classified in a different genus than the Browns, having won a title and forever being spared from such comparisons.)

Allow yourself to get carried away with me, if you will. Consider that in Myles Garrett and Josh Gordon, the Browns have two guys who, at their best, are among the very best at their position. Game changers. Attention grabbers. The kind of players you don’t trade away unless you’re the Raiders. Bona fide, honest to god, real deal blue chippers.

This is obviously a bit of hyperbole considering that the two have played 16 games combined since 2015. Garrett has a lot to live up to, and it’s all Gordon can do to foul off pitches while down to his last disciplinary strike. But on talent alone, on physical traits, on look-at-that-guyness, these dudes are monsters. When was the last time the Browns had two actual stars not named Joe Thomas? Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow in 2007?

Forget two guys. When was the last time they had one dominant pass rusher? Have they ever? Does franchise sack leader Clay Matthews qualify? Maybe Michael Dean Perry? Over the past decade, the only(!) Brown to have 10-plus sacks in a season is Paul Kruger in 2014. Beyond that you have Kamerion Wimbley’s fool’s-gold rookie season in 2006, and the next one is Jamir Miller’s 2001 Pro Bowl campaign.

On talent alone, on physical traits, on look-at-that-guyness, these dudes are monsters

Garrett had seven sacks in 11 games last year and could conceivably double that total this year. Sacks don’t tell a complete pass-rushing story, of course, but it’s nice to feel like there’s a Brown who can get to the quarterback more than once every other game. Someone the other team actually has to game plan for. With all due respect to the Marcus Benards of the world, we haven’t had one of those in a while, if ever. If Emmanuel Ogbah or Genard Avery can provide some counterweight? Oh mama, somebody hold me.

In addition to his quickness off the ball and his bend around the edge, Garrett is a wildly likable guy. He’s into dinosaurs! He writes poetry! He shreds pictures of Ben Roethlisberger in spoofy videos! I don’t get the sense that he’s at home delivering a rah-rah speech from the center of a huddle, but I do get the sense that he cares about playing hard, playing the right way. When your best player puts in the effort to maximize his talent, that matters. Too early to compare him to Tim Duncan?

As for Gordon: I’m as invested in him as I have been in any Cleveland athlete. That mindset is obviously informed by his unparalleled physical gifts, but it’s the comeback story that really gets me. He’s erred, sure, but his misdeeds seem more like lapses in judgment than venomous crimes. Reasons for concern rather than censure. When a media mob surrounds him now, he speaks with a certain amount of thought and charm. He strikes me as sincere when he talks about his recovery. He says the right things and in a not-totally rehearsed way.

Perhaps it’s all a PR smokescreen, yet even that notion is somehow heartening. Having the good sense to manage your reputation indicates some degree of savvy, of growth. Maybe he’ll screw up again and I’ll feel like a dope for having believed in him. For now, at least, I’m in. I want to believe in second chances. I want to believe in rehabilitation. I want to believe that a player who has made mistakes can be thought of as more than just a knucklehead.

Like Garrett, Gordon can be a transcendent talent if enough stars align. We saw it in 2013, when he led the whole league in receiving in just 14 games. We’ve seen him rise above safeties in the end zone like a Dubai skyscraper. We’ve seen him toss cornerbacks aside like they’re JV backups. We’ve seen him pull away from defenders with strides like—dare I say it?—Randy Moss. He has as much talent as any player I’ve seen on a football field.

Early September is of course the time when our collective enthusiasm gets out of control, especially with the added hype of Hard Knocks this year. More often than not, Week 1 serves as smelling salts bringing us back to reality. But in Garrett and Gordon, we have reasons to believe beyond pure cognitive dissonance.

And there are several other men wearing brown and orange who are, if not blue chippers, actual NFL players. Guys like Jarvis Landry, Carlos Hyde and Tyrod Taylor bring an air of professionalism, a sense of legitimacy. Christian Kirksey profiled as a capable leader in front of the HBO cameras. The interior line combo of Joel Bitonio, J.C. Tretter and Kevin Zeitler looks strong (but god I wish Joe Thomas was still around). One can imagine Denzel Ward or Antonio Callaway making outsized contributions as a rookie.

At the heart of all this hope lie Garrett and Gordon. They could be the keys that unlock this team’s collective potential. When one of them is double-teamed, someone else will necessarily receive less attention. If Landry, Callaway, David Njoku and Duke Johnson get one-on-one opportunities in the open field, who knows? If opposing blockers are focused on Garrett, perhaps more of Gregg Williams’ gung-ho blitzes pay off. Teams won’t be able to center all their efforts on one guy like when poor Josh Cribbs used to enter the game with a target on his back.

Again, it’s stupid how excited I am for this Browns season. As easy as it is to imagine things going right, it’s orders of magnitude easier to imagine them going wrong. That much we’ve seen before. That much we understand. Gordon and Garrett could both tear ACLs. The stadium could crumble to bits and fall into the lake. Drew Stanton could run over Baker Mayfield in the QB RV. We’ve already seen insider trading this year. Would anything surprise you?

There are a couple things that, while improbable, would not surprise me. Like Josh Gordon going for a thousand yards and a dozen touchdowns. Like Myles Garrett leading the league in sacks. Like Gordon and Garrett having Pro Bowl years as the Browns rip off a triumphant near-.500 season. These things are improbable, sure. But they’re feasible. There’s cause to believe. That’s what blue chippers can do. Or so I’ve heard.