BEREA: Second- and third-year players will be the key to the Browns’ success in 2013.
But my optimism about that group doesn’t necessarily translate into raging optimism about the Browns’ record this season, perhaps because of my doubts about the secondary, the receiving corps, the right guard and the kicking game.
The final cuts and the roster shuffling that followed last weekend took me back to Bill Belichick’s early days in Cleveland in 1991 and ’92, when the 53rd man seemed to change every day. (It might not be a coincidence that Browns General Manager Mike Lombardi was the director of pro personnel under Belichick then.)
It also took me back to Sept. 3, 1993, when the Browns jettisoned kicker Matt Bahr and handed the job to rookie Jerry Kauric, who had spent the past three years in the Canadian Football League. Kauric madet 14-of-20 field goals, coach Bud Carson was fired after nine games and the Browns finished 3-13. Bahr joined the New York Giants and made the game-winning field goal in the NFC Championship Game in San Francisco that sent the Giants to the Super Bowl, which they won.
Despite my fears, there was optimism in the Browns’ locker room last week. One veteran said he hadn’t felt this good in a long time about the team as a whole — coaches, players and front office. Left tackle Joe Thomas liked the growth he saw in the preseason from young players he said would be the core of the team — Brandon Weeden, Trent Richardson, Greg Little, Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard.
“Those guys have made great steps in the right direction to being great players,” Thomas said. “It’s fun watching how they’ve adapted to the new offense and the new defense. I think they’ve done a good job and I think these schemes really fit their strengths very well. So that’s cause for a lot of optimism.
“They’re still young guys, but it’s a huge benefit for us that they’ve gotten experience. Most guys really start to get in the prime of their career three, four, five years in. That’s right where a lot of those core players are right now.”
I don’t disagree. But that said, here are some things that bode well and some things that worry me about the Browns as they open the season today at home against the Dolphins.
What I like: The quarterback situation.
What I don’t like: The kicker situation.
I think new offensive coordinator Norv Turner will make a huge difference for quarterback Brandon Weeden in his second season. Weeden will be in the shotgun for likely about 60 percent of the snaps. The downfield passing attack should highlight his strength. But should Weeden falter either in the leadership or decision-making department, the Browns seem well stocked with Jason Campbell and Brian Hoyer.
The kicking situation is another matter altogether. Phil Dawson, who had held the spot since 1999, was allowed to leave in free agency and signed with the San Francisco 49ers. (Should the 49ers win it all, Dawson and Bahr might share a laugh over that common bond one day.) On Saturday, the Browns terminated the contract of kicker Shayne Graham and waived rookie Brandon Bogotay, finding Billy Cundiff in open tryouts Tuesday. What the Browns will attempt to do belies the importance of the timing of the snap, hold and kick that Dawson constantly preached. The kicker could cost the Browns two victories, perhaps even today.
What I like: The coaching staff.
What I don’t like: The roster the coaching staff has been given.
New coach Rob Chudzinski doesn’t seem threatened by the hiring of strong coordinators. Turner has been a coach for 15 seasons; defensive coordinator Ray Horton could get that opportunity soon. The Browns have their strongest staff of the expansion era.
But that staff hasn’t been given a roster benefiting a playoff contender. There is a startling lack of depth at wide receiver, cornerback and running back. An impact player has yet to emerge. The lack of receiving help seems to be setting Weeden up to fail. The Browns have known since June that No. 1 receiver Josh Gordon would be suspended for the first two games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, yet no veteran was brought in after announcement. Two of this year’s draft picks were traded away, which seemed to signal a “Wait until next year” mentality. Thomas’ comment about players “three, four and five years in,” might not have been a slip of the tongue.
What I like: Joe Haden’s Pro Bowl chances.
What I don’t like: The rest of the secondary.
Haden had a phenomenal training camp and preseason and seems to be maturing on the field and off. His recent wedding might help reduce his penchant for fast cars and nights on the town. He is finally showing why he was the seventh overall pick in 2010.
I can’t find much to like about the rest of the secondary. I’ve never been a huge fan of strong safety T.J. Ward, although Horton might be able to teach him a few of Troy Polamalu’s tricks. Starting free safety Tashaun Gipson has three NFL starts. Cornerback Buster Skrine became a favorite punching bag of fans last season; Chris Owens could move into the lineup soon. Johnson Bademosi was a great special-teamer, but he has much to prove.
What I like: Barkevious Mingo.
What I don’t like: A draft class that will have little impact.
The nebulous diagnosis of Mingo’s “bruised lung” seems scary, especially when Mingo doesn’t remember how it happened. Even if/when Mingo returns, he will likely be relegated to pass-rush specialist. The only other draft picks to make the team were cornerback Leon McFadden, who showed in the preseason he’s not ready for prime time or even 1 o’clock, defensive lineman Armonty Bryant, one more off-the-field mistake away from Lombardi’s revolving door, and offensive lineman Garrett Gilkey, a backup guard. The Browns have been too bad for too long to get virtually nothing out of a draft class.
What I like: The offensive line.
What I don’t like: The black hole at right guard.
The foursome of Thomas, left guard John Greco, center Alex Mack and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz is the team’s strength. But the Browns failed to upgrade the right guard position in the offseason, and watched as the top two candidates, Jason Pinkston and Shawn Lauvao, were sidelined with high ankle sprains during training camp. Lauvao started all 16 games at the spot last season but didn’t impress me. Pinkston couldn’t be counted on since he missed the final 10 games last season with a life-threatening blood clot in his lung. Backup tackle Oniel Cousins now fills the hole. Fans must hope Weeden or Richardson doesn’t pay the price.
What I like: The second- and third-year guys.
What I don’t like: The pressure the second- and third-year guys will experience.
I’m not worried about whether Richardson is up to the challenge. As long as he’s healthy, he’ll do everything in his power to lead the team. But the Browns are also counting so many like him — Weeden, Little, Gordon, Sheard, Taylor, Billy Winn, Craig Robertson, Skrine, Gipson and Bademosi — all brought in for different schemes. Expecting such a young team to learn the intricacies of new systems and play at a high level will be a difficult balance, one that might provide too much for the Browns to handle this season. So look for a 6-10 season.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at http://www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/sports.abj.