Good day, Browns fans!
This is part 3 of 3. In this installment, we'll look at the special teams, the coaching and front office. Previous articles discussed the offense and defense.
The special teams did not provide the positive plays in 2003 that the Browns enjoyed in 2002. Nevertheless, the Browns had some success and the coverage teams were a bit better on the whole.
Key Departures: Chris Gardocki (P)
What To Watch:
With the departure of Chris Gardocki, the Browns will be looking for a punter. Derrick Frost seems to have the inside track. In this situation, every kick will be crucial. While Dennis Northcutt will continue to return punts, the Browns will have to find a kickoff return man. Last year, they used Andre Davis, Quincy Morgan, Lee Suggs, and Nick Maddox. C. J. Jones might be a candidate, as well as some of the other rookies and free agents.
Last year, the Browns let go long snapper Ryan Keuhl, breaking up a kicking game trio that had been together since 1999. The Browns raised eyebrows by using a fifth round pick on a long snapper, and Pontbriand was OK. Keuhl had one bad snap in his tenure of four years. Pontbriand had a number of snaps that Gardocki corrected. Can one of the young punters do that? I suppose we will all wince when one of these guys inevitably has a punt blocked. Gardocki was an excellent punter, but I had to agree that it was not worth paying what he wanted to stay for the long haul. Kick returns were problematic at times. Andre Davis struggled in that role. Perhaps the best of the kickoff return men was Suggs. Dennis Northcutt is dangerous, but he did not have the big returns of 2002. Coverage continued to be a problem, especially in terms of penalties. Michael Lehan in particular did an excellent job as a gunner.
What To Watch:
Butch Davis is absolutely and without question the king in Berea. He has all the power. How will this change things? Will he be more honest? Will he learn from his mistakes? Will he be more upfront about injuries? (Remember the "slightly broken" leg?) Will he make better game day decisions? Will he handle player situations better? Will he win more football games?
Of everything that happened since last year, perhaps the biggest in my mind is Davis talking about the mistakes he made and how he was learning from them. If this is truly the case, perhaps there is some hope. Davis made a lot of mistakes last year, including the quarterback derby, using all the draft picks but one on reach players, even though some may work out long-term, the handling of the Kevin Johnson fiasco, and so forth. The only draft pick who truly helped the Browns in 2003 was Jeff Faine (and yes, I include Pontbriand in that). Other mistakes included game-day gaffes like failing to sense the flow of the game on decisions like going on fourth down. There is also the sense that Davis favors certain players because of their draft status or other factors (Gerard Warren and Quincy Morgan come to mind).
I've made no secret that I don't think Butch Davis is the ultimate coach for the Browns. However, I am willing to overlook some of the past and take a "wait and see" attitude going into this year. I hope Davis grows the way another former Browns coach did, learning from his mistakes in Cleveland. That guy, I hear, went on to some success in New England.
Staff: John Collins, Julia Payne
Key Departures: Carmen Policy, Ron Wolf, Lal Heneghan, Kofi Bonner, Todd Stewart, et al
What To Watch:
Everything. Watch how contracts are negotiated, how the team markets itself, what the team does to reach out to fans, literally everything.
The Browns are a much different organization than they were at the end of 2003. The housecleaning that has taken place has been thorough as it has been startling. But, Randy Lerner has to put his stamp on this team and he is giving Butch full reign to either succeed or fail. Either way, there can't be some of the finger pointing that has gone on in the past. I never felt Lerner was the absentee "fan owner" he was made out to be last year. We are seeing this in action now. One of the first big tests will be to get the draft picks signed and in camp.
This year, the Browns draw the AFC East and NFC East in the divisional rotation. That means the Browns will play the Dolphins and Bills for the first time since returning to the NFL, as well as the Super-Bowl champion Patriots. The Browns will host the Redskins for the first time since 1985. Because of their last place finish in 2003, the Browns play the other fourth place teams in the AFC from a year ago, namely the Chargers and Texans.
In a quirk of the schedule, the Browns play all of their games against NFC teams and one game each against each NFC North team before the bye, which comes in week 8. To have a realistic hope for the postseason, the Browns realistically need to win four of those seven games, which could be difficult. The Browns have lost every opener since 1999, and this year, hosting the hated Ravens won't be an easy task. The Browns then go on the road to Dallas and the Giants. Getting off to a decent start is critical. Three of the last four games are on the road, so should the Browns be in the playoff race, it will make things more difficult. The Browns play two national TV games, both Sunday night games. Other than the Dallas game, all of the other games are early games (though that is subject to change).
Time to get to the bottom line. It remains to be seen if the offense will be better, and if so, how much better. I think it will be better, but not fantastically so. The defense should also improve. With three touchdowns, the Browns would have been 8-8 instead of 5-11. With some better luck, even if they don't improve a lot, the Browns could be a couple of games better. The schedule isn't easy, though, and I'm afraid if the Browns don't get some early wins at home, things could get ugly. I don't like saying it, but I think the Browns are looking at 7-9, or maybe 8-8 with some luck, and no playoff appearance. I sincerely hope I am wrong, but if some of the many question marks don't turn out favorably, it will be a tough year.
Should the Browns win six games or less, unless it is due to massive injuries or other extenuating circumstances, I expect Butch Davis will be looking for a new job.
Training camp starts Friday. The Browns scrimmage the Bills the following weekend and open the preseason at Tennessee August 14.
The season is short. Bark hard!