If it feels like the 2013 Browns have played three different seasons, then you’re probably onto something. From an 0-2 start to suspicions of tanking, from the rise and fall of Brian Hoyer, to the continued plummet of Brandon Weeden and the sudden emergence of Jason Campbell, the Browns have built the kind of intrigue usually reserved for Super Bowl contenders. Yet, at 4-5, the Browns could be considered one of the most entertaining teams in the league – both now and heading into the future.
Some thoughts on the Browns at the unofficial midpoint of their season….
1. The Browns are eminently watchable this season - at least when rock-headed Brandon Weeden is not playing the role of playing the role of NFL quarterback. For what it's worth, both Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell have proven to be capable NFL quarterbacks - which is a testament to two things:
a) Brandon Weeden does not belong in the NFL - at least if opposing defenses decide to rush the quarterback.
b) The Browns' 2013 coaching staff is either remarkably adept at putting their players into positions to succeed and/or is immensely more qualified than last year's Bob LaMonte Pensioners Club.
2. The Browns are a maybe/maybe not fringe playoff contender (like two-thirds of the league's teams) because they play the kind of defense that wins 2013 NFL games. While never a dominating defense (such a thing doesn't exist in today's NFL), they can create pressure at opportune moments - or at least are capable of doing such a thing*.
*Except when they play Aaron Rodgers and the Packers' backups. And the Lions, etc.
3. Whatever visions fans and media/info-tainment folks had regarding 2014 are flimsy calculations. Simply put, the Browns were better positioned to make a playoff run this season - but with next season's proverbial roster. Or in other words, assuming the Browns make some personnel leap in 2014, their chances of playoff success COULD HAVE resembled the moonshot of this year's Chiefs – an improved team taking advantage of playing a last place schedule.
4. Given the trajectory of the AFC North - a strong, yet inconsistent Bengals team, a middling Ravens squad and a Steelers team that is somehow both too young and too old at the same time, the Browns could finish 7-9, yet still play a second-place schedule in 2014 - a year in which the front office is supposed to channel their inner Andy Reid's and Bill Belichick's.
5. Anyway, add all this to the growing list of magic that Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi will wave over 2014. And since it's so much fun - and usually necessary - to stay within the realm of the future when discussing all things Browns' - let's take a moment and realize the following:
Yes, Mike Lombardi will have a hand in selecting the Browns' next quarterback of the future. However - and I'm still sticking to my suggestion that the Browns take two first round quarterbacks next April** - Hoyer and Campbell are solid fallback options if Lombardi does what Lombardi has never done.
**Seriously. We're talking about the Browns and quarterbacks. Let's play the odds here. This isn't a cap killer anymore.
6. At the least, we know that the 2013 offseason filled some needs within the Browns' defensive front seven - and that's about it. Banner and Lombardi can check off that area for 2014. However, familiar needs are found at:
Not to mention, Alex Mack is about to become a free agent, along with T.J. Ward. On the horizon are pending extensions for Joe Haden and the remaining members of the 2011 draft class.
While the drafting prowess of Lombardi is mainly still a mystery (although bonus points for Armonty Bryant), we know the TV analyst in Lombardi is skilled at identifying the top players in the league. Hence, another round of quality free agents could be headed to Cleveland next season.
7. But enough about the future. The present is actually fun for a change. In lieu of doing some tired Report Card or Awards piece, let's just say that Rob Chudzinski is the best "third choice" Head Coach in the league at the moment. While the superlatives are easy to throw out, perhaps the most appealing aspect of Chudzinski as a coach is the most basic one:
He's competent. This makes him the clear mid-season choice for Browns' organizational MVP.
8. Of course, part of Chudzinski's success is the reemergence of Norv Turner as an effective offensive play caller - something now years in the making. Turner has managed to overcome the Browns' inherent offensive weaknesses (Weeden, no running game, poor offensive line, Weeden) and blend an offense that is consistent and occasionally potent.
As for the defense, Ray Horton continues his push to get a Head Coach spot of his own. Although Horton's defense was severely overhyped by local press as some amorphic, exotic weapon - it is simply a quality, aggressive unit that pressures up front and prevents big plays deep. Given today's pass-happy NFL, there can't be much else to ask for in a defense.
9. As such, the Browns are an endlessly intriguing team. The season could end on a hopeful 7-9 note or the Browns could be loosely built to make an improbable playoff run. Consider that similar teams like Arizona, Pittsburgh, Green Bay and the Giants have followed a hot quarterback, strong pass rush and quality coaching to conference titles and Super Bowls before.
10. But if not - at least the Browns beat the Ravens. That doesn't happen actually every year.
Finally, for some bonus, non-Browns thoughts:
The idea of the NFL yet again legislating the behavior of football players is ridiculously childish. To suggest that a football player like Richie Incognito is either a bully or the victim of such a thing, like Jonathan Martin, is insulting to anyone with a maturity beyond that of a third-grader.
To insinuate that an NFL locker room is comparable to your average office space in terms of political correctness and sensitivity bends the reality of even the most ideal of 21st century cultural fancies.
For those who are somehow outraged by Incognito's behavior, I would suggest you not live your life through the lens of the media. In case you've never been in an NFL locker room, around an NFL player or simply have no real life association with the sport, football is a game where every single play ends with a person getting hit by another person. This is a game of barbarity, concussions and beer commercials.
While it's not right and football is not the best way to measure our cultural footprint in the world, let's at least not pretend to have fake outrage. For those who have penned a thousand words on "warrior cultures" and "tolerance", just remember why most of the players in an NFL locker room are actually there - and not in the office cubicle next to you.