After only four games of the 2011 season, the Cleveland Browns have already delivered every possible emotion a venerable fan base could handle.
A routinely disappointing season opener that included a bizarre "only in Cleveland" moment against the Bengals fostered the traditional sense of September dread and forecasted an ominous tone for the season. Yet, wins over the wounded Colts and Dolphins forged a sliver of hope in the consciousness of Browns' fans – which naturally was accelerated into unattainable stratospheric levels before being smashed into tiny bits by the Titans.
This spread of emotion has created the landscape for an entire season's worth of progress. Certainly, as the season evolves, each initial phase of Browns' production will be repeated. These Browns – as young as they are – will likely be characterized as one of the league's truly bi-polar teams.
This can only mean that any honest analysis of the Browns could be considered nothing short of precise.
With that being said – and in honor of the Browns' upcoming bye week – let's hand out some early awards.
Glass Half Full/Good Intentions Bowl
A 2-2 Start
Think back to late July when the NFL's offseason lockout finally ended. After the initial excitement regarding capitalism's latest triumph had worn off, most rational Browns fans experienced a rather sobering moment of clarity.
Part of this realization involved the Browns installing new offensive and defensive schemes and then relying on the health of several chronically injured veterans and raw rookies in order to best utilize the new practices.
The other part simply dealt with the presence of a first-time head coach overseeing the entire process.
Throw in league rules slanted against Josh Cribbs, Tony Pashos' injuring every part of his body, the loss of Eric Steinbach, the football existence of Usama Young and the fact that Scott Fujita has to cover tight ends – and the results speak for themselves.
Considering the circumstances, a 2-2 record is fairly remarkable.
But then again….
Prophets of Doom
A 2-2 Start
Naysayers will simply point to the simple evidence that the Colts are not a good team without Peyton Manning and the Dolphins are a bad team with Chad Henne. In both games – against seemingly inferior opponents – the Browns had to claw their way to a fourth-quarter victory. Against the Dolphins, a once certain victory was more than tenuous – at least until Mike Adams clutched a game-clinching interception with seconds to go.
And while a .500 mark to begin the season alleviates some of the doubt regarding the team's 2011 fortunes, it is worth suggesting that during each Browns loss, the bad unearthed in the losses far outweighed the good earned during the wins.
Against the Bengals, the Browns' offense sparked on two second quarter drives, before returning to a moribund slumber. The same pattern surfaced against the Titans – only the offense couldn't push its way across midfield.
In each case, the play calling of Shurmur – doubling as Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator – has to be called into question. The Browns' season so far has been framed by two poor offensive outings– starting with a tepid schematic approach against the Bengals and ending with a bizarre performance last week.
But then again….
The Not Your Older Brother's Browns Honorable Mention
The Pat Shurmur Era
Although only four games of solid evidence won't stop anybody from already making a decision regarding Shurmur's worth as a Browns coach, I would like to add the following to the record:
So far during the 2011 season, we have witnessed the following:
1. A 2-1 Start
2. A consistent pass rush
3. A home win
4. 61 passes attempted in one game
The Browns' last 2-1 start was under the helm of Butch Davis – who coincidentally was the last (or only – depending on your age or memory) coach to take the Browns to the playoffs. And like Davis, Shurmur's defense – or Dick Jauron's – is the first Browns' unit to feature a consistent pass rush since….you guessed it.
As for the home win, it's unique anytime the Browns win a game in Cleveland.
But then again, 61 passes attempted means that last week's loss dropped the Browns to 1-2 at home.
Similarly – or not similar at all – we have NOT witnessed the following from Shurmur's Browns.
1. No QB defining offensive explosion against Cincinnati
2. No quarterback controversy
3. Production from Brian Robiskie
4. Areas of strength at free safety, right tackle, outside linebacker and ….
Two of the hallmark offensive moments from the Browns' recent past have come against the Bengals. In 2007, Derek Anderson was unleashed on the NFL, before making his final curtain call a couple years later during the malaise of 2009. Admittedly, McCoy's season opening effort was pedestrian, yet his presence as the team's unquestioned starting QB is extraordinary – especially given the volume of spirits that have floated through Berea in the past.
Yet for all of this consistency, the Browns' current roster is strikingly similar to those of years' past. Regardless of any semblance of QB stability, there are still no viable receiving threats and the team's overall roster needs another 2-3 years of draft help before resembling a true contender.
But enough of that – let the QB debate columns commence.
>The Annoying Arm Strength Page View Generator Award
Let's keep this one simple. During the lockout, every single Cleveland sports writer – along with a variety of national types – recycled the exact same story:
Is McCoy's arm strong enough?
So far during the first four games of the Browns' season, it appears that we have found our answer:
Who cares? Who is he going to throw the ball to, anyway?
Quarterly Offensive MVP
Quarterly Offensive Most Deserving MVP
Cribbs is having an off year – at least compared to the staggering All-Pro type of resume he has built for himself. Yet, in a season where the league kickoff rules are completely skewed against kick returners, Cribbs has still greatly impacted his team. Again channeling the "spiritual force" attributes bestowed on him by Jim Brown, Cribbs helped to spark the Browns to both of their victories with his fearless and inspiring play.
Quarterly Defensive MVP
Phil Taylor/Jabaal Sheard
And while not quite at Cribbs' level, the impact that GM Tom Heckert's first two draft picks have made this year has been impressive – and desperately welcome for a defense featuring razor-thin depth.
At the least, Taylor is simply a large man who occasionally commands double-team attention. At best, Taylor could become one of the league's best interior linemen. Already possessing great raw strength and the occasional mean streak, Taylor could be dominant once he figures out the laws of NFL leverage.
As for Sheard, the second-round draft pick dominated against the Colts and Dolphins, before disappearing with the rest of the defense last Sunday. Playing at left end – against an opponent's right tackle – Sheard is not a huge factor against the run, but has exhibited spectacular evidence that he could become an excellent pass rusher.
Quarterly Defensive Most Deserving MVP
It seems that a Browns' player has reached a near elite status when fan criticism begins to dwarf celebrations. In Haden's case, he has done nothing but contain every receiver he has faced and has appeared dominant at times. Currently, Haden is among the league's leaders in passes defensed and again appears to be the team's surest secondary tackler.
Yet, because of Haden's visibility, his part in the A.J. Green blunder and/or the occasional spilling of on-field jubilance marks the second-year corner as some sort of target of fan scorn.
Looks like some fans are missing Eric Wright already.
Check back later in the week for Part Two.