The Browns have lost at least 10 games in eight of the past nine seasons, so it’s natural to expect more despair this year.
Some national pundits certainly do.
Pro Football Talk listed the Browns 32nd out of 32 NFL teams in its preseason power rankings. And Pete Prisco of CBSSports.com predicted the Browns will finish the upcoming season with a record of 1-15.
Those doom-and-gloom projections were issued before the news about owner Randy Lerner selling the Browns to Tennessee billionaire Jimmy Haslam III broke last Friday. Human nature suggests the impending ownership change could distract players, coaches and executives, giving skeptics of the franchise yet another reason to forecast a dismal season.
The Associated Press Pro32 NFL Power Rankings, as voted by a 12-member panel, were released Tuesday. The Browns are No. 30 on the list.
Browns coach Pat Shurmur acknowledged that he’s aware of such predictions. Still, he downplayed the notion of using them to motivate his team, which went 4-12 last season.
“I’m not concerned with that,” said Shurmur, whose team was off Tuesday and will resume practice at 2 p.m. today. “My concern is the players, their mindset, winning football games and the fans of this community who can go to work on Monday and be proud because their team won. That’s what my concerns are.”
The players, though, don’t need Shurmur to point out how some outsiders view them. They already know.
“We like that,” wide receiver and special-teams ace Josh Cribbs said. “We’ve always been the underdog. Every team hates to lose to us, so they play timid when they play against us. We’re a good team this year. They say we’re gonna be last on every category. We’ll see when the game cuts on and the lights come on.”
For now, the Browns are guilty until proven innocent.
“It’s a cliché to say we’re overlooked, but based on our 4-12 record, rightfully so,” strong safety T.J. Ward said. “We know we’re a much better team — and we want to prove that.
“We know what we’re capable of. So, for all I care, it can be the biggest secret in the world. We’ll come out and surprise people.”
The Browns hope overhauling their offense — which finished 30th in scoring last season (13.6 points per game) — with two first-round draft picks and two second-round selections in the offseason is a legitimate cause for optimism. Running back Trent Richardson, quarterback Brandon Weeden and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz are expected to start right away. Wide receiver Josh Gordon is on track to play a significant role immediately and perhaps start.
“The excitement level is through the roof just because of our draft picks,” Cribbs said. “Everybody can’t wait for football season. It’s finally here, so the anticipation is growing. [The fans] just want to see us win. We want to see us win, and that’s all that matters — us winning. We’ve got the key components to do that — new quarterback, new running back. We’re a strong team more than ever right now.”
The players also believe a turnaround is realistic because they lost six games by seven or fewer points last season.
“If we had a few more plays last year, it would have been a tremendous leap,” cornerback Sheldon Brown said. “I can remember where we bluffed some snaps, missed some kicks and little things like that. You don’t realize it until you lose 11 or 12. But if you focus on the minute things that affect wins and losses, that you guys may not see, but we know inside internally that happens, then those losses turn to wins.”
However, close isn’t good enough. And with the sale of the team on the horizon, the pressure to win this year has been cranked up, though the players are determined to prevent it from becoming an issue.
“Nobody’s really worried,” Cribbs said. “It’s not likely the team will move or anything like that. As long as the Cleveland Browns have a football season, that’s all we care about. Why really worry about it? It’s behind closed doors. It’s business. It really has nothing to do with our play on the field. It has nothing to do with the season. It’s something that happens. It’s a part of the NFL, and it doesn’t affect the players at all.”
The bottom line is fulfilling those dreadful projections by regressing would be unacceptable — no matter who owns the team.
“I think it’s going to be a better season for us, and that record alone is enough of a motivator to improve,” linebacker Scott Fujita said. “What the prognosticators say and what all their predictions are, I think most of us are professional enough to block all that out.
“We were 4-12 last year. That’s not good enough. That’s embarrassing for a lot of us. So we have to make huge strides. We know that. We know this isn’t an easy division to move up the ladder in, but we’ve got to find a way to do it.”
Nate Ulrich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the Browns blog at http://www.ohio.com/browns. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/NateUlrichABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/browns.abj.