Cue the circus music because it’s time to relive the Browns’ 2011 season.
From the NFL’s lockout preventing rookie coach Pat Shurmur from meeting his entire team until late July to the Cincinnati Bengals’ quick-snap touchdown in the regular-season opener to the soap opera starring running back Peyton Hillis to the meltdowns on special teams to quarterback Colt McCoy’s concussion to the offense’s clock mismanagement on Christmas Eve, it was a wacky year of football to say the least.
Mercifully, it ended. The Browns lost eight of their final nine games, including six in a row, and finished with a record of 4-12.
While the Browns lick their wounds, let’s review another absurd season:
2011 rankings: 29th in total offense (288.8 yards per game); 30th in scoring (13.6 points per game). 2010 rankings: 29th in total offense (289.7 yards per game); 31st in scoring (16.9 points per game).
Most valuable player: Left tackle Joe Thomas. He was one of the few players who consistently performed well. He was named a first-team All-Pro selection by the Associated Press for the third consecutive year, and he also made the Pro Bowl for the fifth year in a row. He bounced back from a rough 2010 season and proved he’s worth the seven-year, $84 million contract extension he received in August. He has not missed an offensive snap in the Browns’ 80 games since they drafted him third overall in 2007.
Most notable flop: Hillis. The Madden NFL 12 cover boy fell victim to injuries and distractions stemming from his unresolved contract situation and his rise in popularity. He missed one game because of the strep-throat saga and five more with an injured hamstring. A hip injury also slowed him in a few games. He finished with 161 carries for 587 yards (3.6 average) and three touchdowns to go along with 22 catches for 130 yards. He eclipsed the 100-yard rushing plateau only once. It was quite a contrast from the 2010 season, when he played in every game and compiled 270 carries for 1,177 yards (4.4 average) and 11 touchdowns to go along with 61 catches for 477 yards and two touchdowns.
Best play: McCoy’s 14-yard touchdown pass sailed over the reach of Miami Dolphins rookie cornerback Jimmy Wilson and into the hands of wide receiver Mohamed Massaquoi in the back corner of the end zone with 43 seconds left in the fourth quarter. Massaquoi’s catch capped an 80-yard drive and lifted the Browns to a 17-16 victory over the Dolphins in Week 3.
Worst play: Even though the Browns did not have any timeouts left, quarterback Seneca Wallace handed off to Hillis on second-and-goal from the Baltimore Ravens’ 3-yard line with 11 seconds remaining in the first half. Hillis was stuffed for no gain, and the Browns failed to trim the Ravens’ 17-0 halftime lead because Wallace didn’t spike the ball. The Browns rallied in the second half, but their fiasco late in the second quarter haunted them in a 20-14 loss. Wallace and Shurmur lamented their communication blunder after the game.
Biggest surprise: The Browns allowed McCoy to re-enter the Dec. 8 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers after he suffered a concussion from linebacker James Harrison’s devastating helmet-to-facemask hit. McCoy sat out only two plays — about 3 minutes, 50 seconds of real time — before returning to action. He took 17 snaps after taking the hit and threw an interception that led to the Browns’ 14-3 defeat. The following week, Browns President Mike Holmgren said the team’s medical staff did not test McCoy for a concussion until after the game because the doctors and trainers did not see Harrison’s hit and McCoy did not immediately display symptoms of a concussion. The NFL did not penalize the Browns for their role in the incident, but it has since added video monitors to sidelines so medical personnel can watch plays in which an injury occurred. The league has also assigned independent trainers to monitor injuries from the press box. Harrison received a one-game suspension following the hit. McCoy missed the final three games of the season.
Biggest disappointment: Holmgren let Shurmur juggle the roles of a first-time head coach and an offensive coordinator. It proved to be a huge mistake. Shurmur was often in over his head, and his version of the West Coast offense didn’t do much to inspire confidence moving forward. The Browns have vowed to hire an offensive coordinator in the offseason, and Shurmur has suggested he would relinquish play-calling duties if the right candidate comes along. The Browns better hope they find him.
2011 rankings: 10th in total defense (332.4 yards allowed per game); fifth in points allowed (19.2 per game). 2010 rankings: 22nd in total defense (350.1 yards allowed per game); 13th in points allowed (20.8 per game).
Most valuable player: Middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. After missing 26 games in the past two seasons with torn pectoral muscles, he became the undisputed leader in defensive coordinator Dick Jauron’s 4-3 scheme. He led the team in tackles 13 times this season and reached double digits in tackles in eight games. He finished with a team-high 158 tackles, ranking second in the league behind Washington Redskins linebacker London Fletcher, who had 166 tackles. Jackson also had 3.5 sacks, an interception, a forced fumble and three fumble recoveries. He was named the Browns’ Player of the Year by the local chapter of the Pro Football Writers of America. If he doesn’t win the NFL Comeback Player of the Year Award, it will be a shame.
Most notable flop: It was an extremely rough year for defensive end Marcus Benard. Not only did Benard receive criticism from Shurmur for coming to training camp overweight and out of shape, but he also could have been killed Oct. 10, when he wrecked his three-wheeled motorcycle on Interstate 71. Police estimated he was thrown 241 feet from the bike. Luckily, he was wearing a helmet. The Browns never revealed the full extent of Benard’s injuries, only reporting that he suffered a broken hand. Benard, who led the Browns with 7.5 sacks in 2010, played in only four games before ending the 2011 season on the reserve/non-football injury list. He was charged with driving under a suspended license and reckless operation
Best play: Strong safety T.J. Ward strip-sacked Seattle Seahawks quarterback Charlie Whitehurst in the second quarter, and Jackson recovered the fumble near midfield. The takeaway led to the Browns’ first successful field goal of the game, and they captured a 6-3 win over the Seahawks in Week 7.
Worst play: The Browns squandered an opportunity to win their regular-season opener when the Bengals caught them napping with a quick snap. The defense failed to line up in time, and Bengals rookie wide receiver A.J. Green was left wide open — cornerback Joe Haden was supposed to cover him. Green capitalized by catching a 41-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Bruce Gradkowski with 4:28 left in the fourth quarter, lifting the Bengals to a 27-17 triumph.
Biggest surprise: Despite the switch from defensive coordinator Rob Ryan’s 3-4 system to Jauron’s 4-3 scheme, the defense improved and proved to be the strength of the team. Jackson’s successful comeback, an improved secondary and rookie linemen Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard, who led the team with 8.5 sacks, sparked the progression. With Taylor and Sheard in the lineup from wire to wire, the Browns became the first NFL team to have two rookies start every game on the defensive line since the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1992. It was also a first for the Browns.
Biggest disappointment: Although the defense served as a bright spot, it struggled mightily against the run. Jauron’s men ranked second against the pass (184.9 yards allowed per game), but they finished 30th against the run (147.4 yards allowed per game). They allowed an opposing player to rush for more than 100 yards eight times. They were also thoroughly embarrassed in two games: Houston Texans running backs Arian Foster and Ben Tate rushed for 124 and 115 yards, respectively, on Nov. 6; and Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice rushed for a career-high 204 yards on Dec. 4. Permanently moving Chris Gocong to strongside linebacker, upgrading at weakside linebacker and finding a legitimate starting right end would help solve the problem.
Most valuable player: Kicker Phil Dawson. He converted 14-of-16 field goals from 40 yards or longer, including 7-of-8 attempts from at least 50 yards. Josh Cribbs and Brad Maynard deserve honorable mentions in this category. Cribbs had kickoff returns of 51, 52 and 63 yards to go along with an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown. Maynard, whom the Browns signed Sept. 13 after Reggie Hodges (Achilles tendon) and Richmond McGee (back) suffered season-ending injuries, placed 32 of his 81 punts inside the 20-yard line and had only one touchback.
Biggest surprise: Long snapper Ryan Pontbriand’s demise was shocking. He misfired on several snaps — some were more obvious than others — and his slump cost him his job. He was cut Nov. 29 after spending nine years with the Browns.
Biggest disappointment: Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor’s first year on the job cannot be considered a success. The Browns were haunted by Pontbriand’s misfired snaps, two blocked field goals — three when counting St. Louis Rams defensive end James Hall’s deflection — and touchdowns on a fake field goal, a kickoff return and a punt return. Shurmur said he doesn’t plan to make any changes to his coaching staff, so Tabor will seemingly get a shot at redemption next season.
Offense: D-. Defense: B. Special teams: C-. Coaching: D.
Nate Ulrich can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Browns blog at http://browns.ohio.com. Follow the Browns on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ABJ_Browns.