Saturday, October 20, 2012

The Cleveland Browns Like Pina Coladas

I was tired of the Brownies.  We’d been together too long.  Like a worn out recording, of a favorite song.  So while they went 4-12 last year, I read the paper in bed.  In the personal columns, there was this letter I read.

It seems to me that the relationship between the Cleveland Browns and their ultra-loyal fan base has turned very much into one like the couple from Rupert Holmes’ classic hit “Escape.” (You didn’t know that’s the real name of the Pina Colada Song, did you?)  After fifty years together, most couples speak very little, as they know that nothing has changed. They act the same, they do the same things, they smell the same, so why bother?  Look across the breakfast table; he has the same haircut he’s had since 1974, and he’s still clinking that spoon on the side of his coffee cup ... remember when you were dating and you found that little clinking habit cute?  Now, after decades together, you spend most mornings trying to find the strength not to shove the spoon handle-first into his temple, don’t you ladies?  You’re not alone.  Rather than risk a life sentence in SingSing, most couples simply stop paying attention.  Who could blame them?

With the Browns sitting at 1-5,  too many Browns fans have followed the lead of the national media, who’ve stopped paying attention to the lakefront football franchise after over a decade of misery.  Look at any of the major sports websites out there (I dare say, none more major than <Insert Name Of Website For This Column>) and you’ll see they’ve all decided to take the easy way out and say “Same old Browns!  Ha Ha!” They are then whisked away in the rich-national-media-hovercraft, to the caviar and lobster brunches with champagne cocktails in the dunes on the cape, or whatever it is that national media types do.  (I suspect their lives are very pampered and similar to what I’ve described, and I convince myself of this as I continue to write, hoping that one of them will hire me and pay me in solid gold Pop Tarts or whatever they get.) The problem with the Pina Colada approach is this: these are not the same old Browns.  GM Tom Heckert has had several consecutive strong drafts, and has assembled an impressive array of young talent.  There are still holes and issues on this roster to be sure, but this team is not the same old wife, so you’d better look again.  This wife isn’t into Yoga, and has way more than  half a brain.  She’s not there yet, but tomorrow at noon is rapidly approaching.  So before you make a date with a stranger at a bar called O’Malleys (to plan your escape), you had best give her another look.

What’s different about this 2012 version of the Cleveland Browns?  Let’s run it down.

Well, they are still losing.  There’s no way to disguise 1-5.  However, if you’re really paying attention you can see that they’re losing this year because of mistakes, not a lack of talent.  Years past, you knew it would take a minor miracle for the Browns to beat some teams, because they simply didn’t have the talent at enough positions to compete on a level field.  Take a look at their schedule this year, and tell me who you think completely outclasses them.  Who?  Is there one team left that you’re thinking “There’s just no way they can win that one.”  Is there?  I don’t see any.  That’s first and foremost, the attitude is shifting and they are in every game.

Second, let’s look deeper at my claim that their talent level is rising.  All twenty two positions are important, but while weakness at some spots on the field can be covered up, you repeatedly hear that all legitimate Super Bowl contenders must have top level players at the following: Quarterback, Running Back, Left Tackle, Wide Receiver, Rush Defensive End/Linebacker, Shutdown Cornerback.

Left Tackle: Check.  Joe Thomas is the best in the game.  I hear he also likes Pina Coladas.

Shutdown Cornerback: Check.  Joe Haden?  Top five.  At least.  Rumor has it he likes getting caught in the rain.

Wide Receiver.  Um ... well ... OK, this one needs work.  Josh Gordon is emerging, and is showing the skill set that the front office apparently saw when they used a second round supplemental pick on him, but he’s still a raw project.  He definitely has a chance to develop into a #1 Wide Receiver - and a legitimate #1 at that - but we won’t know for sure about Gordon, one way or the other, until the end of NEXT season.  In my mind, Wide Receiver has to be the #1 position of focus in the upcoming offseason.  We’ll be waiting with high hopes, for the #1 to walk in the place.

Rush DE/LB: Not quite. The front office made defensive line a priority this past offseason, and I think they did a credible job at filling the need.  Parker and Rucker were two solid free agent signings, and John Hughes & Billy Winn were two excellent draft picks (Winn is the steal of the Browns 2012 draft).  It will be interesting to see the domino effect once Phil Taylor returns; his presence will elevate the play of the rest of the defensive line in much the same way as Haden’s return elevates the defensive backfield, but we can’t say anything for sure until Taylor gets out there and performs.  The Browns do go seven deep in their rotation now, and all of those players are solid, but there’s a difference between solid and Top 5, and I just don’t think the Browns have a fear-inducing edge rusher.  The depth on the DL may provide some 4th quarter pass rush, simply by allowing everyone to stay fresher throughout the game, but they need a guy that the opposing offense has to game plan against.  Preferably a guy who’s not much into health food.

Running Back: I say “check,” but admittedly it’s too early to say with 100% certainty.  Trent Richardson has show more than flashes of his talent, and I believe he’s going to be the engine of this offense for a decade.  However, I hate when sportswriters overreact and try to enshrine rookies into Canton after half a season, so I’m holding myself to the same standard.  If TRich stays healthy and continues on his current path, I don’t think anyone can doubt his worthiness, but only time will tell.

***Side Note*** New owner Jimmy Haslam wrote to the paper.  Took out a personal ad.  Though he’s obviously nobody’s poet, I thought it wasn’t half bad. 

Quarterback: Again, I say “check,” but it’s early.  This one is tough sell for a few reasons.  One, because I was against the Weeden pick.  OK, that’s putting it mildly.  When the pick was announced, I literally jumped off of my couch, slammed my hat down, and unleashed a string of curse words that would have made longshoremen buy me congratulatory beers in the 1940’s.  This was not because I thought Colt McCoy was the answer, but because I knew the Browns were at least a year away.  My thinking was, why not use the plethora of picks last year to stock up every other position, and give Colt a shot this season with some actual weapons around him?  That way, if 2012 went south again, you could take a QB at the top of the ’13 draft and bring him into a roster that was closer to competing.  Reason #2 giving Weeden a “check” is tough, is that he is indeed twenty nine years old.  Prevailing NFL wisdom says it takes three years for a QB to learn the game to the point where it “slows down;” this means Weeds will be thirty two before he really “understands” the NFL.  Prevailing wisdom also says that an athlete has their physical prime (in any sport) between the ages of 28-32; this means the window for Weeden to know the game while he can still play to the top of his physical talent is very, very small.  Finally, this “check” is a tough sell for reason #3: the opening game against Philadelphia.  It was about as bad as it can get, and everyone simply wrote him and the Browns off after that game.  The game was indefensible, it was horrible, it earned every joke that came it’s way.  HOWEVER...

... if you’ve actually paid attention since week two, the guy has show consistent improvement every game. I dare say that if anyone in the WR corps could have caught a pass before two weeks ago, his numbers would be even better than they are, and there just might be another W on the board.  More importantly, Weeden passes “the eyeball test.”  He doesn’t back down.  He doesn’t get afraid.  He doesn’t play in fear, even after a mistake, which he has made and will continue to make as a rookie.  If you watch his demeanor on the field, he just looks like an NFL quarterback; he has that mystical “it” factor.  While I don’t believe that his age will help him learn the game faster, as some have suggested, I do believe that his age and maturity will help him with the psychological part of the NFL - after a certain amount of life experience, everyone learns to shrug things off, no matter your walk of life.  Being able to “put a bad one behind you” is a HUGE part of being a successful NFL quarterback, and simply put, most 29-year olds have a better chance at that than most 22-year olds.  Do I think he’s guaranteed to be the savior in Cleveland?  No, nothing is guaranteed, and as with Richardson I won’t jump to any conclusions after less than half of a season.  However, I am firmly convinced that he’s the best shot we’ve had on Lake Erie since Bernie Kosar.  The kid has won me over. He also runs better than Bernie.  Of course, I run better than Bernie after I’ve put down four tequila shooters and a Yaeger-bomb, but that’s not important.

So looking back at the list, I’ve put checkmarks into four of the six “important” positions, which is pretty solid.  Add to this the undeniable fact that the AFC is down, and there might be a leap towards the top in much quicker fashion than anyone could have believed back in August.  There are still good teams in the AFC, but no longer any great teams.  The talent level between the top and the bottom has closed considerably, which will allow young teams like the Browns to challenge sooner than they could have just two short seasons ago.  Tomorrow is here, so folks in the national NFL media should take notice.  I’m already on record as saying the Browns will represent the AFC in the Super Bowl in New York in February 2014, and I see no reason to change that prediction.  

These are not the same old Browns.  This is not the same old wife.  You may know the smile in an instant when she walks in the place, but if you’re really paying attention, you’ll laugh for a moment and say “I never knew...” Let me say at this point I am not in the least bit sorry for getting this song stuck in your head for the next three days - last week I had to deal with “MmmBop” after an ill-timed trip to the grocery store. 
Yes, I like Pina Coladas, and getting’ caught in the rain...

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