Way back when, before the Browns made a big splash by bringing in new team president Mike Holmgren, and he, in turn, made a big splash by hiring general manager Tom Heckert, this space was being reserved for some season-ending pieces on a few players.
However, with the 2009 season well in the rear-view mirror, it really serves no purpose to fully explore those stories now. They are old news.
We were going to talk about how offensive lineman Hank Fraley sat in the locker room at Cleveland Browns Stadium with his head in his hands after the Browns finished the year with a 23-17 victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars. The team had won, so what was wrong?
“The end of the season is always an emotional time for me,” the 10th-year pro said. “You put so much into the year, and when it’s over, you just have to sit there and take stock of things. It’s more so this time because at this point of my career, you just never know how much longer you’ll be able to play.”
The Browns would be wise to keep Fraley around a while longer. He filled in well this season both as a part-time starter and a reserve, plus he’s a solid team guy who keeps his mouth shut and plays. As such, he’s a good guy to have around.
Also, we were going to talk about cornerback Eric Wright, the disappointment he felt in not being picked for the Pro Bowl and then the appreciation he felt when he received a message from someone who was once in his shoes.
Former Browns star cornerback Hanford Dixon texted Wright and told him to hang in there, keep playing hard and well, and not to worry. Dixon said the same thing happened to him in that he played at what he thought was a Pro Bowl level for several years before he ended up being selected for the game.
“It was good to hear from him,” Wright said. “It made me feel better. He’s someone who has played my position in this town, so he knows what I’m going through.”
Dixon is correct. If Wright continues to play as he has, then he’ll make it. The Pro Bowl honors follow only after a player has established himself, and now Wright has done that.
And lastly, we were going to discuss how symbolic it was that defensive end Robaire Smith had his helmet on backward as he exited the Browns locker room on the Monday following the end of the season. After all, Smith’s 2009 season was 180 degrees different than the one in ’08.
“It was a total flip the other way,” said Smith, who played in – and started -- 15 of 16 games this year after having seen action in but two games in 2008 because of rupturing his Achilles tendon.
“I feel better now than I have in a long time. My body got to rest last season. I didn’t have all that wear and tear on it. Because of that, I think I can play a while longer.”
Smith, like Fraley, is 32 years old and has played 10 seasons, but after finishing fifth on the team this season with 62 total tackles, just two less than he had in 2007 in his first year with the Browns, he seems he still has some gas left in the tank.
So instead of getting into detail on Smith, Wright and/or Fraley, we need to look ahead more fully and focus on what lies ahead for the Browns and, in particular, Heckert.
There are a lot of things that need to be addressed to get the Browns back on track. It’s what you face when you’re taking over a team that had a 1-11 record, the worst in franchise history after 12 games this season, and finished 5-11 after going 4-12 in 2008. There have been no fewer than nine losing records in the 11 seasons since the Browns came back in 1999.
Indeed, this is a fixer-upper.
So what’s the top priority for Heckert? What does he need to do first?
Those questions are daily fodder for the local sports talk shows.
Yes, the Browns need to make the most of their 11 picks in this year’s NFL Draft. They have to hit on almost all of the early ones, and some of the later ones as well. This team needs a major infusion of talent, especially on the younger side.
Yes, the Browns need to get some help in free agency, even though, because of the labor squabble, nobody quite knows what free agency will be like this year.
Yes, the Browns need to figure out what kind of offense – West Coast, maybe? – and defense – is it a 3-4 or a 4-3? – they’re going to run. Until they do that, they’re kind of in limbo.
But above everything else, Heckert’s No. 1 job – clearly – is to find a quarterback. If he and the Browns do nothing else – absolutely nothing else – other than find a quarterback, then it will have been a successful offseason.
Quarterback is, by far, the most important position in team sports, and when you don’t have one, you’re in big trouble.
And the Browns don’t have one – or at least they’re not sure if they have one in Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson.
But it’s more than that. They haven’t had one in 20 years, not since Bernie Kosar, who is 46 years old now and has been retired as a player for nearly a decade and a half.
OK, OK, Anderson had a great season in 2007 and made the Pro Bowl. But that was one year. We’re talking consistency here, and since that season, he’s struggled mightily. He’s been a mere shadow of what he was two years ago.
As for Quinn, despite having been with the Browns for three seasons, he hasn’t played enough games, especially consecutively, to know if he can do it or not.
The Browns can’t keep going on like this. They can, but not in a winning fashion. The fact they won their last four games this season without the benefit of a passing game is one of the strangest things this team has done in quite some time.
The best thing the Browns have going for them in their attempt to correct that problem is the fact Holmgren is a quarterbacks guru. He knows how to spot them and develop them. He will be in Heckert’s ear telling him what to look for.
It will be interesting – and ultra-important – to see how it all plays out. And it’s essential for the Browns that it plays out well.
Look at the teams in this Sunday’s conference championship games. Would any of them be where they’re at without their quarterback, the Indianapolis Colts with Peyton Manning, the New York Jets with Mark Sanchez, the New Orleans Saints with Drew Brees and the Minnesota Vikings with Brett Favre? No, no, no. No way, no how.
If the Browns want to be like those teams – and be where those teams are at, at some point -- then they have to be more like them at the quarterback position. Now, will the Browns find a Manning, Brees, Favre or even Sanchez? Maybe not, not at first, at least, but they have to make strides – major strides – that direction.
It is more essential than anything else the Browns will try to do in the coming months.
Figure out the quarterback position, then more than a few of the other issues on the Browns will take care of themselves.
It will, in some way, shape and form, even help players like Hank Fraley, Eric Wright and Robaire Smith. But more on that later, when it’s the right time again to tell those stories.