As the Browns take their first steps to try and start to move in the right direction, several things were learned during the preseason--some good, some bad. Here are seven things we learned about the Browns as they embark on the 2013 season:
1. Good Brandon, Bad Brandon -- The biggest thing learned from the preseason is that a lot of the Browns success ultimately in 2013 will be based on the play of their quarterback Brandon Weeden. In the first two games, Weeden posted quarterback ratings of 127.7 and 137.8. Both resulted in big Browns wins. However, in the third preseason game, Weeden played poorly completing less than half of his passes, and had a rating of less than half of what he posted in the first two games. The result was the Browns lost big to the Colts, 27-6.
For the Browns to have a good chance of improving from 5-11 to eight or nine wins, Weeden is going to have to play well. In the first two preseason games, it was good Weeden as he had an exorbitant rating of 139.8. In the final two preseason games, it was bad Weeden as he had a rating of 59.8. Since he didn't play in the final preseason game, Weeden finished the preseason with a 99.9 rating going 30-of-50 for 334 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
Weeden had his worst outing of the preseason in the third game,where he slid back to the type of performances he had in 2012, but Rob Chudzinski didn't want to lay the blame all on Weeden.
"I don't see it as any sort of comparison of 2012," Chudzinski said. "I think it was a combination of things. We had some protection breakdowns. There were some pressures where he got hit a couple of times when he was actually delivering the ball. He started out 6 of 6 early in the game. He was going through his progressions and it was mostly shorter passes at that point of the game.
2. Big Year for T Rich -- The Browns need Trent Richardson to have a big year. The coaching staff handled Richardson with kid gloves during the preseason. They held him out of the first preseason game and he played only a couple of series in the second and third game. He was held out completely of the fourth game. Richardson looked much quicker and more explosive in his limited time than he did in most of the 2012 season. It is no secret the Browns plan to funnel their offensive attack through No. 33. If he stays healthy, RIchardson will likely carry the ball over 300 times and will catch upwards of 50 passes. Richardson averaged just under five yards per carry in the preseason, far exceeding the 3.6 per carry of his rookie year.
Richardson said he feels he's ready to have a big season.
"I'm very confident," he said. "People said I had a good season last year, but I want to have a great season, but I don't want it just being me, but the whole team."
Richardson's health is a big factor in the Browns fortunes for a successful 2013, especially with Dion Lewis and Montario Hardesty being lost for the season on injured reserve.
"This year, I'm not even looking toward injuries, no broken finger nails or nothing," Richardson said laughing. "I know my whole season is based on being healthy and hopefully, playing later on in the season in the playoffs. That's what we're trying to get to."
3. Getting After It -- The Browns have invested a literal fortune in their front seven. Outside linebacker Paul Kruger and defensive lineman Desmond Bryant were the key unrestricted free agent signings by the team where they committed nearly $75 million to the pair. Outside linebacker Quentin Groves was also an unrestricted free agent signing. In addition to those three signings, the Browns have a lot of money invested in number one draft picks defensive lineman Phil Taylor and and outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo. Outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard was a high second-round draft choice. In addition, defensive lineman Ahtyba Rubin and inside linebacker D'Qwell Jackson were signed to large contract extensions last season.
In defensive coordinator's Ray Horton's scheme, the defense is predicated on aggressively pressuring the quarterback and with the Browns young secondary, it is almost certain the defense's success will correlate on how successful they are in doing so. Horton didn't show much in the preseason, but his track record is to blitz and to blitz often.
4. Third Down Woes -- The Browns need to be better on third down. In the preseason games they struggled, they couldn't convert on third down. One of the key additions to the offense in the offseason was wide receiver Davone Bess. He has proven to be a key performer on third down. In the games he played, Weeden found him to move the chains on third down. Consequently, when he sat out resting his knee, the Browns had a tough time converting on third down.
"One of the things we didn't do as well was on third down," Chudzinski said after the Browns struggled against the Colts. "In the first half, we were one for six. There were definitely some opportunities for us to have made plays and things we can improve on there."
5. The Young and Restless -- The Browns are very young and inexperienced in the secondary. The majority of the players who are set to play this season were injured at some time during the preseason. Both safeties, T.J. Ward and Tashaun Gipson, missed time during training camp, while Chris Owens and Leon McFadden missed time at cornerback. Joe Haden and Buster Skrine were the only starters not sidelined during the preseason due to injury. The Browns are planning on being aggressive in the pass rush and not allowing the opposing quarterback to have time to pick the secondary apart. We learned in the preseason if the Browns can't put pressure on the quarterback, that's exactly what will happen.
6. The Next Big Thing -- Third year tight end Jordan Cameron showed flashes of brilliance in the preseason and the Browns are hoping Cameron will blossom in their system. Cameron fits the bill of the new era tight end. His basketball background has enabled him to use his athleticism to get open and posture his body to make plays. In Chudzinski and Norv Turner's offense, the tight end has always been prominent and Cameron has the opportunity to be the guy for the Browns. He has never been in the position to be the guy and there has been concern that he might not be able to hold up physically after being sidelined with a concussion in 2012 and groin and hamstring injuries during OTAs and minicamp. However, Cameron was relatively injury-free during training camp until he was sidelined briefly with a groin strain.
7. Are the Specialists Special -- One of the bright spots for many years for the Browns was their specialists, particularly place kicker Phil Dawson. Shayne Graham and Brandon Bogotay competed during the preseason, but Bogotay was injured for some key time. He and Graham were both released at the end of camp. Billy Cundiff was signed this week, but it is hard to believe anyone could be as good as Dawson was in recent years, especially from long range. Spencer Lanning had some bright spots in the preseason, but also some poor punts. Travis Benjamin has a chance to make people forget about the successes of Josh Cribbs on punt returns. He might end up as the kick returner, as well, if Johnson Bademosi cannot handle the duties.
Summary: If things go well for the Browns in 2013 and they stay reasonably healthy, they could improve from last year's 5-11 record to and climb as high as 9-7. If things don't go as expected, they could win only six or seven games. All in all, the Browns will end up somewhere in the middle and will finish 8-8. As we pointed out in the first point, a lot of the success or failure will be in direct proportion of the play of the quarterback. The key for the Browns is how they perform in the division as six of the 16 games are played within the AFC North. Anything less than 3-3 within the division will make it nearly impossible to break the .500 mark.
"Last year is out the door for us," Richardson said. "What we're building on this year is a whole new chemistry, a whole new vibe for our team this year, a whole new family for us. We're trying to go uphill, not downhill. We know there are going to be a lot of bumps in the road. There is going to be a lot of fight and a lot of pull and pushing and a lot of guys doing good. We just can't get that to our head. We just have to play football and play like we know how to play."