31 Days, 31 Teams: Cleveland Browns
By Jeff Falconio
Just two years ago the Cleveland Browns emerged from the basement of the AFC North to finish 10-6, barely missing the playoffs. 2008 saw the Browns plummet back to Earth as Cleveland finished 4-12 while looking nothing like a playoff team.
Cleveland's demise was mainly caused by an anemic offense that scored a pathetic 17 touchdowns in '08. After lighting up the NFL in 2007, quarterback Derek Anderson couldn't put up numbers half as good last year before going down with an injury. Backup Brady Quinn showed a little promise but he too got hurt before year's end. With little production from their quarterbacks, the Browns were never able to fully utilize wide receiver Braylon Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow. Aging running back Jamal Lewis, slowed by a bum ankle, never got on track and the Browns finished 31st in total offense and 30th in scoring. Things got so bad that the Browns didn't score a single offensive touchdown in the last six games of the season.
The only saving grace in the 4-12 season was the outstanding play of Cleveland's secondary. The Browns picked off 23 passes, helping Cleveland's bend-but-don't-break defense finish a respectable 16th in scoring defense. Brandon McDonald and Eric Wright formed one of the better young cornerback tandems in the league and the two combined for eight of those interceptions. All was not well upfront as newcomers Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams struggled with the adjustment to the 3-4 defense.
Burning Question: Who is the QB of the future? Cleveland traded up into the first round of the '07 NFL Draft to select Quinn. However, Anderson was named the starter in week two of that year and was given a huge contract in '08. The Browns have made a big investment in both and one needs to prove he's worth it. The problem is the Browns don't have much at wide receiver. Winslow is gone, Edwards has missed nearly all of the offseason and Donte' Stallworth is suspended indefinitely. To help out the Browns drafted a pair of receivers in Brian Robiskie and Mohammed Massaquoi. Whoever wins the QB battle will have his work cut out for him.
The Browns will be better than last year if: Whoever is named QB lives up to expectations with the new weapons as Edwards returns to form. A healthier Jamal Lewis, while not the 2,000 yard back he once was, shows he still has some juice left. The ball hawks in the secondary continue to terrorize while everyone gets on the same page in the 3-4. 8-8 is a possibility.
The Browns will be worse than last year if: Both quarterbacks get hurt again, forcing the Browns to go with Brett Ratliff (one of four Jets players to re-join new coach Eric Mangini.) Edwards and Lewis also end up on the injury report and the learning curve is too steep for the rookies. Teams pound away at Cleveland by running the ball and playing it safe through the air. A slow start kills the season as the Browns have four road games in the first six weeks, leading to another top five pick in the draft.