Will the Cleveland Browns give Hue Jackson his walking papers?
For fans of some teams in the National Football League, they will be quick to get frustrated if two or three years go by and their favorite team has not reached the postseason; but little do they know that it could be worse. The Cleveland Browns have not made the playoffs since 2002, while they are well on their way to a tenth consecutive losing season. After going 3-13 in 2015, and 1-15 last year, the Browns are already 0-5 this season as they are in the process of producing the worst three-year stretch in the NFL since the league expanded to a 16-game regular season schedule in 1978.
Since the Browns re-entered the National Football League in 1999, they have had three different owners, eight general managers, nine head coaches, and a whopping 27 different starting quarterbacks which allows you to fully understand why this franchise continues to have the futility that it has had.
That constant turnover at these key positions within the organization has resulted in Browns owner Jimmy Haslam being more patient with his current brain trust of general manager Sashi Brown and head coach Hue Jackson. Both Brown and Jackson are in their second year with the Browns as Haslam acknowledges that this won’t be a quick turnaround which is why he is practicing patience with his club.
So far this season the Browns have shown a ton of fight as three of their five losses have come by three points. However the Browns need something to get them over the top as they are lacking on-field leadership.
The Browns only have three players on their 53-man roster who are 30-years of age or more, while just three players on this team have postseason experience as it is hard to learn how to be a professional when nobody is around to teach you. This year alone the Browns drafted ten players which included three in the first round. However the fact that the Browns are lacking a solid veteran presence in their locker room will hinder the progression of their youngsters. This season saw the Browns begin with a rookie quarterback in DeShone Kizer under center. And after Kizer was 8-of-17 passing on Sunday for 87 yards with a critical red zone interception versus the New York Jets, Jackson benched him for quarterback Kevin Hogan who himself is just in his second season in the National Football League. Jackson does have the luxury of going back to Kizer, but the fact that he is set up to continue taking a beating puts him well on his way to being ruined before his career even gets started.
Along with Browns team president Paul DePodesta who up until last year had never been involved in professional football as his background was developed in Major League Baseball, the current front office in Cleveland has focused more on analytics, and stock piling draft picks, while putting the human element on the back burner. It is okay to go with a young team as well as getting a fair share of draft picks. However draft picks are only good if you know what you’re doing; especially when selecting players early on in the first round which is something that the Browns have consistently done for nearly 20 years.
Defensive end Myles Garrett was the first overall selection of the 2017 National Football League Draft by the Browns, and he was able to get his first game action yesterday as he was able to record a pair of sacks versus the Jets. But will Garrett be able to avoid the dreaded curse that most recent players selected in the first round by the Browns have had to endure which is being a bust?
If Haslam is going to be patient with DePodesta, Brown, and Jackson, they must hit home runs between the draft and free agency in finding players that are going to change the culture within the Browns locker room. The Browns must seek out players that hate to lose more than they enjoy winning; especially with free agency as Cleveland needs to bring in vets that know what it takes to win in the National Football League in order to school the youngsters.
The Browns still have 11 games this season which includes rematches with all three of their counterparts in the AFC North. The Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens, and Cincinnati Bengals all have victories over Cleveland this season, while they have not respected this team for the longest time, nor should they due to the futility. Victories will be continue to be few and far between this season for the Browns who don’t know what it takes to win in the National Football League. And as an organization the Browns don’t even know where to start in regards to developing the formula for it.
X-Pittsburgh Steelers 11-5
In 2016, the Pittsburgh Steelers reached the AFC Championship Game for the 16th time. The Steelers 16 appearances since 1970 in the conference championship game are tied with the San Francisco 49ers for the most in the National Football League during that stretch as they are a part of the elite organizations in the league. But making the AFC Championship Game is not good enough for the Steelers as their six Super Bowl Titles are the most of any NFL franchise. And after the Steelers came up short against the New England Patriots this past January, will they have enough in their arsenal to get to Minneapolis for Super Bowl 52 this February?
2017 is setting up to be a make or break season for the Steelers since quarterback Ben Roethlisberger flirted with retiring during the off-season. Roethlisberger has 13 years under his belt along with dealing with his fair share of bumps and bruises along the way. Roethlisberger has only been able make all 16 starts in the regular season two times, and along the way he has dealt with a litany of injuries which has included concussions, a broken nose, as well as multiple injuries to his hands and knees. And at the age of 35, while also seeing the wear and tear of those who have played the game before him, Roethlisberger took some time to examine things this off-season as it would not surprise me to see him hang it up after this season which puts the onus on him to really leave it all out there this year.
Since Todd Haley has been the Steelers offensive coordinator in 2012, Pittsburgh has been one of the most explosive teams in the National Football League which included Roethlisberger leading the league passing in 2014 with 4,952 yards. Many of those pass plays have seen Roethlisberger hook up with wide receiver Antonio Brown who has rapidly become one of the better pass catchers in the NFL.
When Roethlisberger led the National Football League in passing in 2014, Brown did the same in regards to receiving yards. The last three years have seen Brown rack up nearly 5,000 receiving yards as he is a fantasy football owner’s dream, while also making life very difficult for defensive backs around the league.
Aside from Brown, the Steelers have a wide receiver corp that could be dangerous if everyone is one the same page. In 2015, wide receiver Martavis Bryant was beginning to show flashes of being a consistent play makers for the Steelers as he averaged 15.3 yards per reception. However a failed drug test by Bryant saw him suspended by the National Football League for the entire 2016 season. Bryant has yet to be fully reinstated by the NFL, but he has been allowed to practice. And if the league decides to fully reinstate Bryant, he will be ready to have a big impact for Pittsburgh as his 6’4″ will be huge in the red zone, as well as his deceptive speed for his size. Rookie wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster was a second-round pick this year for the Steelers, and after slipping to the 62nd overall selection, he should come into the season with a chip on his shoulder, while also potentially becoming a good slot receiver.
But for all the star power that the Steelers have on offense, the engine is running back Le’Veon Bell. In 12 games with the Steelers last season, Bell gained 1,268 yards, and when he left the AFC Championship Game with an injury, the tenor of Pittsburgh’s offense drastically changed. Bell is one of the most dynamic play makers at the running back position in the National Football League as he is the total package being that he is a runner, receiver, and most importantly a blocking back. Bell missed the entire training camp as the result of a contract dispute, but he will be ready to go in Week One for the Steelers.
Another key for the Steelers will the ability for them to maintain a healthy offensive line. Pittsburgh has a veteran unit up front which includes center Maurkice Pouncey, guard David DeCastro, and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva who is rapidly developing into a solid player to protect the blindside of Roethlisberger.
Defensively the Steelers were 12th in the National Football League last year in total defense, but for defensive coordinator Keith Butler, his unit is lacking those game changing play makers. Over the years the Steelers defense has been home to Hall of Famers such as defensive tackle Joe Greene along with defensive back Rod Woodson who could put a team on their back, while there have been edge rushers like Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene who could wreak havoc. However since the Steelers don’t have those kind of players which is evident by the fact that no Pittsburgh defender had more than five sacks in 2016, the Steelers still have some work ahead of them in order to become a complete team.
Pittsburgh has a very easy schedule to begin the season as six of their first seven opponents were non-playoff teams last year. However in recent years the Steelers have had issues in regards to playing down to their opponents which has cost them. But I do expect the Steelers to play with a sense of urgency this year as this could be it for Roethlisberger. However until Pittsburgh is able to develop a pass rush, they will not have enough to get past the Patriots in the AFC.
Y-Cincinnati Bengals 10-6
The 2016 National Football League season ended with the Cincinnati Bengals extending their streak of being unable to win a playoff game since January 1991, however for the first time since 2010, there wasn’t a playoff berth in the Queen City. Injuries and inconsistency did the Bengals in last year as they were only able to muster a record of 6-9-1. But as five of Cincinnati’s nine losses were by five points or less, Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis could have something to build off of heading into a new season.
In spite of the losing season by the Bengals, quarterback Andy Dalton is coming off of one of his better seasons. Dalton passed for 4,206 years while completing nearly 65% of his passes and only throwing 8 interceptions. Dalton has been a lightning for criticism in Cincinnati due to the fact that he is 0-4 in the playoffs, but he is rapidly becoming one of the better quarterbacks in the franchise’s history. However for the man who has been dubbed as “The Red Rifle” who is a three-time Pro Bowler, maybe this will the year in which that Dalton will be able to get the monkey off of his back and win a playoff game.
Last year Dalton didn’t have the services of a healthy A.J. Green at wide receiver as he is indeed a difference maker. At 6’4″, Green can out leap most defensive backs in the National Football League, while he possesses the speed of someone who is smaller than him. Green missed six games last year due to a torn hamstring and you can only hope that he will have the same explosiveness after sustaining the injury.
But whereas there is the potential of Green having lost a step, the Bengals used a first-round pick on wide receiver John Ross who’s middle name should be fast. Ross is entering the National Football League fresh off of setting a record at the Scouting Combine by running a 4.22 in the 40-yard dash. Ken Zampese is in his second year as the Bengals offensive coordinator and I see him attempting to find creative ways to get Ross the football which includes him being used on reverses and wide receiver screens.
The Bengals offense has the potential to be explosive as along with a good passing game, Cincinnati should be able to effectively run the football with a trio of running backs in Giovanni Bernard, Jeremy Hill, and rookie Joe Mixon. Last year Bernard suffered a torn ACL which limited him only 91 carries. And the fact that Bernard was not available took away from the effectiveness of Hill who is better as a tandem back. This time around Mixon could fill a void for the Bengals as Bernard is attempting to work his way back from a knee injury. Collegiately for the Oklahoma Sooners, Mixon was solid coming out of the backfield as a receiver, while he was also a solid change of pace back due to his breakaway speed.
Another player who is looking to bounce back for the Bengals is tight end Tyler Eifert. A back injury limited Eifert to only eight games last year, while he has yet to see the field for all 16 regular season games during his four-year career in the National Football League. At 6’6″, Eifert is mismatch for defenses, and the Bengals must find a way to have him, Mixon, and Green on the field together as much as possible.
Defensively the Bengals tend to be solid under Lewis, but last year was not a vintage year for them. Cincinnati was 17th in the National Football League in total defense, while they only managed to record 33 sacks. The Bengals must get back to gang tackling and putting pressure on the quarterback as a group. Defensive ends Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson each are coming off of down years and if they are unable to find a way to put more pressure on quarterbacks, Cincinnati will have issues on defense.
Discipline has been an issue with the Bengals for the longest time, but if Lewis can find a way to keep his teams focused, a trip to the postseason for the sixth time in the last seven years is a very strong possibility.
Baltimore Ravens 7-9
The Baltimore Ravens will enter the new National Football League season in very unfamiliar place as this marks the first time since 2005 that they are coming off of consecutive years in which they failed to make the playoffs. The Ravens were an up and down team last year as they were either hold or cold. And in an unfamiliar mode for the Ravens, they came apart coming down the stretch as after heading into Week 16 with a record of 8-6 and a legitimate chance to win the AFC North, Baltimore collapsed in their final two games. And to make matters worse, those defeats came at the hands of their divisional rivals in the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals. John Harbaugh is set to begin his tenth season as the head coach of the Ravens, and as he is a master motivator, what will he be able to pull out of his hat in order to get Baltimore back to the postseason this year?
The face of the Ravens franchise right now is quarterback Joe Flacco. Flacco has been the Ravens starting quarterback since he came into the National Football League in 2008. And although that there are some people who still want to question Flacco’s ability to lead and get it done, he has a record of 83-55 as a starting quarterback, while he also has a Super Bowl Championship to his credit. However Flacco’s detractors may get the opportunity to see what life without him is like as a back injury has put him on the shelf during training camp while also putting his availability to start the regular season in doubt. And with the Ravens not having a quality backup quarterback behind Flacco, the Ravens could be in a bind.
The past few years have seen the Ravens struggle to run the football as they were 28th in the National Football League last season in rushing with the team’s leading ball carrier being Terrance West with just 774 yards. After wide receiver Jeremy Maclin was released by the Kansas City Chiefs following an injury filled 2016 season, he found a new home with the Ravens. When healthy, Maclin can be a solid second receiver in the offense, but any potential success for him hinges on Flacco being healthy. Aside from Maclin, the Ravens have another veteran wide receiver in Mike Wallace who at the age of 31 is still faster that most of the players at his position which gives Baltimore a threat in the vertical passing game.
The defensive side of the football is where the Ravens built their reputation which also led to the franchise’s two Super Bowl Titles. But in recent years the Ravens have not been as solid on that side of the football. The Ravens were 17th in the National Football League in total defense, while they were only able to tally 31 sacks. And for Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees, he has aging players on his unit such as outside linebacker Terrell Suggs, while some of the team’s early draft picks have yet to materialize.
Three of Baltimore’s first four games are within the AFC North as they must find a way to stay afloat if Flacco will miss some regular season games. But even with a healthy Flacco, the Ravens are going to have their work cut out in order to be a playoff team this season.
Cleveland Browns 2-14
To give you an idea as to how inept that the Cleveland Browns are, they have won a combined 15 games over the last four years which included winning one game last season. Since the Browns re-entered the National Football League in 1999, they have only had two winning seasons with just one playoff appearance. Hue Jackson is entering his second season as the head coach of the Browns, and although that he was only able to win one game in his first year in Cleveland, there is some optimism for his team. Of the Browns 15 losses, they held a lead going into the fourth quarter in five games, while they also lost five games by six points or less. The Browns started more rookies or second-year players than any other team in the NFL last year which could be a plus heading into a new season. But will the young Browns be able to use that experience and turn it into a plus in 2017?
For the Browns to improve and become competitive in the AFC North, they are going to need some consistency at the quarterback position. Last year the Browns used five different quarterbacks with none of them passing for more than 1,380 yards. The Browns once again have a “battle” at quarterback position with former Houston Texans quarterback Brock Osweilier, Cody Kessler, Kevin Hogan, and rookie DeShone Kizer all having a chance to be under center. None of these players have shown that they can be that guy in the National Football League, and if Jackson is unable to attach his wagon to one signal caller, it is going to be another long season in Cleveland.
The Browns are lacking play makers on the offensive side of the football with the lone bright spot being left tackle Joe Thomas. Thomas is set to begin his 11th season in the National Football League, and in spite of the woes of the Browns, he has remained committed to the team. Thomas has made the Pro Bowl in each of his seasons in the NFL, and in spite of the losing, he will soon get the call for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But aside from Thomas, the Browns offensive line must improve as they allowed 66 sacks last season which is a recipe for disaster regardless of who the starting quarterback is.
With the Browns only being able to win one game last year, they were able to obtain the first overall pick in this past spring’s National Football League Draft. There was much debate as to what direction that Browns wanted to go with the selection with the idea of trading the pick being the possibility. However the Browns would decide on selecting Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett.
In three seasons at Texas A&M, Garrett was a two-time All-American, while he was also able to amass 31 career sacks. As a team last year, the Browns were only able to tally 26 sacks, and although that Garrett was the first overall pick, he is going to have to prove himself versus the top left tackles in the National Football League.
In all the Browns had three first-round picks in this year’s National Football League with the 25th overall selection being used on Michigan safety Jabril Peppers. Peppers was the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year last season as he is built like a safety, but he has the mindset of a linebacker. And for Browns defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, he will definitely find creative ways to use Peppers this season.
Jackson still has a tall task in front of him in regards to turning around the Browns. The Browns are not respected by their counterparts in the AFC North as they are still everyone’s “homecoming game”. In the last three years the Browns have only won four games in the AFC North as the culture of losing reigns supreme in Cleveland. And until Jackson or anyone else is able to change that, the Browns will continue to get beat up on.
It’s hard to believe that the Cleveland Browns were once the class of the National Football League. Including the Browns time in the All-American Conference, they played in a championship game in each year from 1946-1955, while they were also one of the better teams in the NFL in the 1960’s. The Browns were also a perennial playoff team in the 1980’s before things came to a screeching halt in the mid-1990’s when former team owner Art Modell decided to move the team to Baltimore, Maryland. Modell had to leave behind the team history of the Browns as his team became the Baltimore Ravens. The City of Cleveland did not have an NFL franchise from 1996-1998, but they would receive an expansion team in 1999 as they were the “new” Browns. However the Browns reincarnation into the NFL has been less than stellar.
Since 1999, the Browns have only been able to produce one trip to the postseason and two winning seasons. The Browns last winning season came in 2007, while all but one year since then has seen them lost at least 11 games. Upon returning to the National Football League, the Browns have had three different owners, eight general managers, nine head coaches, and a whopping 26 different starting quarterbacks which gives you a clear understanding in regards to their futility. Hue Jackson is the latest man to have his chance to be the Browns head coach, and he could not have envisioned how 2016 would unfold for him.
As bad as the Browns have been since returning to the National Football League, 2016 is as bad as it has been. Through 12 games the Browns are without a victory, and they are flirting with being the first team since the 2008 Detroit Lions to go an entire season without winning a game. The Browns were competitive in the first half of the season as they lost four games by five points or less. But since the calendar has shifted to November, the level of competition has improved as the Dallas Cowboys, Ravens, Pittsburgh Steelers, and New York Giants have all taken turns having their way with the Browns. Cleveland has lost their last four games by at least 14 points with this past Sunday’s home loss to the Giants sounding more like MetLife Stadium as it is difficult for a fan to stay loyal to this team.
Jackson began his tenure with the Browns by trading the second overall pick of the 2016 National Football League Draft to the Philadelphia Eagles. The Browns decided on trading this selection due to the fact that they weren’t sold on picking either Jared Goff or Carson Wentz who were the top two quarterback prospects in the draft. The Browns would continue wheeling and dealing as they moved out of the eighth overall selection after they made a deal with the Tennessee Titans. The Browns would not make a selection until midway through the first round when they tabbed wide receiver Corey Coleman, but they did succeed in obtaining multiple draft picks, which also includes multiple selections in the first, three rounds of next year’s draft. Jackson went for depth and future options for the Browns instead of opting for an immediate impact player. And although that the Browns have potential on their young squad as Jackson has attempted to change the culture in Cleveland, they still don’t know how to win.
This is best summed up by the fact that the Browns have been outscored in the second half by their opponents this season 180-67. The Browns have also squandered a pair of fourth quarter leads as they have become the poster boys for ineptitude.
In spite of the fact that the Browns have not won a game while using four different quarterbacks, they are 16th in the National Football League in total offense which is primarily due to the fact that they are attempting to pad their stats when the final outcome has already been decided.
Heading into this season Jackson announced that Robert Griffin III would be the Browns starting quarterback, but he hasn’t seen the field since the first game of the season after he suffered a shoulder injury. It was then up to veteran quarterback Josh McCown to lead the way for the Browns, but like Griffin, he suffered a shoulder injury which put him on the sideline. Jackson would then rely on a pair of rookie quarterbacks in Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan. In eight starts for the Browns, Kessler did show potential as he has completed 65.6% of his passes, but he took a beating in the process as a concussion currently has him out of action.
Going forward it will be important to provide some protection for Kessler as he appears to be their future at quarterback, while they have hit on converting Terrelle Pryor Sr., from a quarterback to a wide receiver as he provides some explosion for them at the position as he so far has 62 receptions for 855 yards and 4 touchdown grabs.
The Browns are last in the National Football League in total defense, while they are also minus-9 in the turnover margin as they don’t have any play makers on that side of the football which reflects in their record. And even though that the Browns did acquire outside linebacker Jamie Collins from the New England Patriots earlier this season, it is highly unlikely that he’ll re-sign there when he becomes a free agent in March as he’ll more than likely opt for collecting a paycheck from a team that will give him a chance to win.
The Browns enter this week guaranteed of not losing this Sunday due to the fact that it is their bye week. And with just four games left for Cleveland here in 2016, their best chance to win a game will come in Week 14 when they host the Cincinnati Bengals who are currently an injury riddled team.
But the off-season will be very important for the Browns as owner Jimmy Haslam must decide if Jackson is the right guy to run his team going forward. This season has been a struggle for Jackson, but Haslam cannot afford to start over again as the organization is already on their fifth different head coach since 2009. And to give you an idea of how astonishing that this fact is, only the Oakland Raiders and Buffalo Bills have made as many head coaching changes since then which is illustrated by none of these teams making the postseason over this stretch; although the Bills and Raiders are in contention this year.
The Browns must give Jackson an opportunity to develop his young players as the issues within this organization are bigger than him which is reflected in their record since 1999. The Browns must decide if Kessler is their long-term answer at quarterback, while also hitting on all of their draft picks in 2017 if they want any shot at turning things. But this is the elephant in the room for the Browns as they’ve been two years from being two years away since returning to the National Football League. And at this point the only way that you know the Browns are even in the NFL is when the draft rolls around, or when the league force feeds Thursday Night Football down our throats with their mandatory participation for each team.
But for now the paper bags are out in Cleveland in droves for anyone who still thinks that it is important to show up for a Browns home game as this organization still hasn’t figured it out. And as bad as it seems, it cannot get that much worse for the Browns than it already is.
Believe it or not there was a time when the Cleveland Browns were the envy of the National Football League. The Browns began in the All-American Football Conference in 1946 before both leagues merged in 1950. In the Browns first ten years of existence, they played in ten title games which saw them win the AAFC Title four times, and the NFL Championship on three occasions. What helped the Browns was their leadership at the two important positions on the field as they were coached by Paul Brown and Otto Graham was their quarterback. It also didn’t hurt that the Browns also had future Hall of Famers such as running back Jim Brown and offensive lineman Lou Groza suiting up for them then as they were very close to unstoppable.
But the beginning of the end for the Browns came on January 7, 1963 when team owner Art Modell fired Brown was the only head coach in the history of the franchise. In 13 seasons with Cleveland, Brown compiled a record of 111-44-5 which is still the gold standard for the franchise. But the egos of Modell and Brown could not co-exist anymore which led to the messy departure. Under the guidance of head coach Blanton Collier, the Browns would win the National Football League Championship in 1964, but they would soon begin a slow and painful journey into futility.
Jim Brown would abruptly retire in 1965 at the age of 29 after just nine years in the National Football League. The Browns would still put forth quality teams that featured the likes of running back Leroy Kelly, but they could never get over the hump in the NFL during the late 1960’s against the contenders such as the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings. And when the NFL merged with the American Football League in 1970, the Browns were placed in the AFC Central Division as they would face none other than Paul Brown who was now the head coach of the Cincinnati Bengals.
After a pair of playoff appearances in 1971 and 1972, it would be a downward spiral the Browns for the remainder of the 1970’s before they won the AFC Central in 1980. But to this day Browns fans will be haunted by “Red Right 88” which was the play that was called when Cleveland quarterback Brian Sipe threw an interception that secured the team’s 14-12 loss to the Oakland Raiders in the AFC Divisional Playoffs. The Browns would suffer more playoff heartache during the 1980’s as they were done in throughout the decade by the likes of the Denver Broncos and their quarterback John Elway who beat three times.
But the Browns death blow would come on November 6, 1995 when Modell decided to move the organization from Cleveland to Baltimore after he was unable to secure the new stadium that he was seeking. Modell’s decision caused a huge uproar as he became the most hated man in Cleveland. And following the Browns final game of the 1995 National Football League season which was a 24-21 loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars, it marked the end of an era as Cleveland would not get a new franchise until 1999.
However as the folks in Cleveland were happy to welcome the new Browns, the results have been putrid to say the least. Since 1999, the Browns have only had two winning seasons, while becoming the laughing stock of the National Football League. Upon returning to the NFL, the Browns have had three different owners, seven team presidents, eight general managers, nine head coaches, and a whopping 26 different starting quarterbacks.
The Browns began the current National Football League season with a new team president in Paul DePodesta, general manager in Sashi Brown, head coach Hue Jackson, and starting quarterback in Robert Griffin III. But unfortunately for the Browns they are nowhere close to being a contender.
Through two games here in 2016, the Browns are a train wreck waiting to happen. In Week 1, the Browns were throttled by the Philadelphia Eagles 29-10. In the contest Griffin would suffer a fractured shoulder that would see him placed on injured reserve, while the Browns defense wouldn’t have an answer for Eagles rookie quarterback Carson Wentz who was 22-of-37 passing for 278 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
This past Sunday, the Browns would jump out to a 20-point, first quarter lead on the Baltimore Ravens (the original Browns), and it appeared that Cleveland was on their way to the upset victory. But on the ensuing extra point by the Browns following their third touchdown of the game, the kick was blocked by the Ravens and rookie cornerback Tavon Young who returned it for two points for Baltimore. The Ravens would shut down the Browns offense for the rest of the afternoon, while they would steadily chip away at the Cleveland lead. And when it was all said and done the Ravens would defeat the Browns by the score of 25-20 as another vintage dose of Cleveland futility was complete.
The Browns are preparing to face the Miami Dolphins this Sunday in a battle of 0-2 teams, but you wouldn’t know that as Miami is favored by 9.5 points. The Browns being 9.5-point underdogs sums up their season along with the expectations around them as they might as well begin preparing National Football League’s Scouting Combine in February as the draft cannot get here quick enough for them.
The Browns lost Griffin in Week 1, and his replacement at quarterback in Josh McCown suffered a shoulder injury during Sunday’s loss to the Ravens. Now the Browns will turn to rookie quarterback Cody Kessler as the revolving door at the most important position on the football field continues.
So far Jackson appears to be the right guy for the Browns, but he needs time as this isn’t a problem that can be easily fixed. The Browns are in need of a culture change that is going to take some time as they must find a way to contend with the Ravens, Bengals, and Pittsburgh Steelers who have all taken turns using Cleveland as whipping boys in the AFC North. Through various trades the Browns had 13 draft picks during this year’s National Football League Draft as Jackson is seeking to build depth, while also finding players that fit into his system. But hopefully Jackson has the opportunity to see things through for an organization that hasn’t had a good history recently of being patient.
Of the Browns nine head coaches since returning to the National Football League in 1999, no coach has lasted more than four years, while the last four coaches haven’t gotten more than two years. It hasn’t been that much better for the Browns when it comes to drafting either as only four of their ten, first-round picks this decade are still on the roster. And it’s not getting any better for the Browns as wide receiver Corey Coleman who was their first-round pick this year is out for the next four-six weeks with a fracture in his hand.
Things will keep getting worse for the Browns as they’ll host the New England Patriots in Week 5 in what will be the first game of the season for Patriots quarterback Tom Brady following his four-game suspension for “Deflategate” and you can expect him to have a point to prove. The Browns still have five divisional games on the slate and it isn’t looking good for them as the Ravens, Steelers, and Bengals all look poised to make a run towards the postseason while making Cleveland the unofficial “homecoming game” for the division.
At some point the Browns will have to find a winning formula, but in the meantime they are just three years away from being three years away.
X-Pittsburgh Steelers 12-4
When you think of the history of the National Football League, you can’t go that long without recognizing the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers have been an NFL franchise since 1933, and since 1972, Pittsburgh has only had seven losing seasons which is remarkable. Some other outstanding traits that are displayed by the Steelers organization is that they preach patience and consistency with their head coaches as they’ve only employed three head coaches since 1969, which is a far cry from the majority of the other franchises around the NFL where there is constant turn over at the head coaching position. Mike Tomlin set to begin his 10th year as the Steelers head coach, and like his two predecessors in Chuck Noll and Bill Cowher, he has led Pittsburgh to at least one Super Bowl Championship. The last two years have seen Tomlin get the Steelers to the playoffs, but he has a team in 2016 that is more than capable of adding a seventh Vince Lombardi Trophy as Super Bowl Champions to the display case in Western Pennsylvania.
As long as the Steelers can keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger healthy, they have a legitimate shot of winning it all. Roethlisberger has been the Steelers starting quarterback since 2004, and all he has done is win while displaying a toughness that the folks in Western Pennsylvania can relate to. At the age of 34, Roethlisberger isn’t showing any signs of slowing down while he still can throw one of the best deep balls in the National Football League. Last year with Roethlisberger at the helm, the Steelers had the third ranked offense in the NFL, and you can expect more of the same in 2016.
Very rapidly Antonio Brown has become one of the better wide receivers in football. In the last three years Brown has gained nearly 5,000 yards of receiving yards and he has become Roethlisberger’s most dependable target in the process. The Steelers will miss the contributions of wide receiver Martavis Bryant who will have to sit out the entire 2016 National Football League season after a failed drug test, and tight end Heat Miler who retired after spending his entire 11-year career in Pittsburgh. But the Steelers are hopeful that wide receivers Sammie Coates, Markus Wheaton and Darius Heyward-Bay can step up to make contributions in the passing game to offset the losses of Bryant and Miller.
The Steelers are also hopeful to have a healthy pair of running backs in Le’Veon Bell and De’Angelo Williams. Last year injuries limited Bell to just six games and he’ll miss the first three games of 2016 after being suspended by the National Football League due to the fact that he missed a drug test. But the Steelers need the combo of Williams and Bell in the backfield as each are solid at picking up the blitz for Roethlisberger, while also having the knack to be receivers in the passing game.
The Steelers should once again have one of the better offensive lines in the business as long as center Maurkice Pouncey and guard David DeCastro can remain healthy as this unit has a high level of physicality attached to them.
As the Steelers defense is set to begin its second year under defensive coordinator Keith Butler, you can expect the term “Blitzburgh” to once again be used to describe this unit. Last year the Steelers amassed 48 sacks which was third in the National Football League, and with the likes of inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons and veteran outside linebacker James Harrison back on the scene, Pittsburgh is ready to show that they are still the bullies of the AFC North.
As a rookie in 2015, outside linebacker Bud Dupree totaled 4 sacks, but if he is able to become the pass rusher that the Steelers envisioned when they drafted him, their defense could become very stingy. Rookie inside linebacker Tyler Matakevich was the Steelers seventh-round pick this year and after being an All-American last year at Temple, his strong work ethic and determination will be a welcomed sight to Pittsburgh’s blue-collar work ethic.
On the Steelers defensive line, defensive end Cam Heyward is turning into a star and fellow defensive end Stephon Tuitt is no slouch either as ability to rush the passer and stop the run opens up Pittsburgh’s linebackers to make more plays.
The Steelers have a chance to make a statement in Week 2 when they host the Cincinnati Bengals as there is no love lost between these two AFC North rivals; especially after last season’s wild card game which was won by Pittsburgh. Overall four of the Steelers first five games in 2016 are against teams that finished last season with winning records. But the Steelers chances to win the AFC North will come down to their final three games of the season as they’ll face the Bengals, Baltimore Ravens, and Cleveland Browns in consecutive weeks.
Y-Cincinnati Bengals 11-5
The last five National Football League seasons have seen the Cincinnati Bengals reach the playoffs. But each time the Bengals have been unable to win a playoff game. Last year’s playoff loss for the Bengals stung more than the others as they had the Pittsburgh Steelers on the ropes until they came apart at the seams. A fumble by Bengals Jeremy Hill late in the contest gave the Steelers life. And when Pittsburgh got the ball back, Bengals outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Adam “Pacman” Jones made sure that they did their part in helping the Steelers win. The Bengals began last season with a record of 8-0 as they finished the regular season with a record of 12-4 for their best mark since 1988 which marked their last trip to the Super Bowl. However as good as the Bengals were in 2015, what does head coach Marvin Lewis have up his sleeve to motivate this team to not only make the postseason for a sixth consecutive year, but to also win their first playoff game since January 1991?
In each of the last five years Andy Dalton has been the Bengals starting quarterback and he has a career record of 50-26-1. But Dalton’s career playoff record of 0-4 record, along with the fact that he typically comes up short when the Bengals need him the most have made him a lightning rod for controversy in the Queen City.
Last December, Dalton suffered a fractured thumb which put him on the shelf for the rest of the season as he is looking to get back on track here in 2016. But Dalton will miss the guidance of his former offensive coordinator Hue Jackson who is now the head coach of the Cleveland Browns as former quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese will be calling the plays in Cincinnati.
Behind a strong offensive line that features left tackle Andrew Whitworth, the Bengals have a solid running game with their tandem of running backs in Hill and Giovanni Bernard. And if Bernard and Hill can combined to get 400 carries this season, it should symbolize another trip to the postseason for the Bengals.
In the past I have talked about the need for Dalton to not play “hero ball” in order to help the Bengals win games. And although that wide receiver A.J. Green is one of the better wide receivers in the National Football League, Dalton shouldn’t try to force feed him the football, while another receiver such as tight end Tyler Eifert needs to step up and become a consistent option for Cincinnati in the passing game.
After the Bengals finished 2015 11th in total defense, there’s nothing that can stop them from being a top-five unit this season except themselves as they have a wealth of talent. The Bengals can rush the passer with defensive end Carlos Dunlap and Michael Johnson, while the interior of Cincinnati’s defensive line is stout with defensive tackles Geno Atkins, Domata Peko, and Pat Sims. There’s plenty of talent in the Bengals linebacking unit with Burfict, middle linebacker Rey Maualuga, and outside linebacker Vincent Rey, while picking up a veteran middle linebacker in Karlos Dansby could help the Bengals finally get over the hump and win a playoff game. In the secondary, the Bengals can cover with the likes of veteran cornerbacks Adam Jones and Kirkpatrick, but it just a matter of this unit staying focused under defensive coordinator Paul Guenther.
The schedule makers were not kind to the Bengals as they’ll begin the upcoming season with consecutive road games against the New York Jets and Steelers, while they will have their home opener against the Denver Broncos who are the defending Super Bowl Champions. And if the Bengals get off to a slow start, they will be fighting an uphill battle in the AFC North against the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens to win the division.
Y-Baltimore Ravens 10-6
You have to go back to the 2005 National Football League season to find the last time that the Baltimore Ravens missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons. Injuries derailed the Ravens chances in 2015 as they went 5-11. And for Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome and head coach John Harbaugh, they’ve been hard at work this off-season to get Baltimore back on track in the AFC North.
Last year marked the first time in the National Football League career of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco that he missed time due to an injury. In Week 11, Flacco suffered a torn ACL which put him on the shelf for the remainder of the season. As the Ravens starting quarterback, Flacco has a career record of 75-47 while also sporting a 10-5 mark in the postseason which includes leading Baltimore to a Super Bowl Title. Flacco has been rehabbing from his knee injury, and the Ravens are going to need him to be fully healthy when they take the field in September.
Aside from Flacco, the Ravens must get more continuity from their rushing attack that was ranked 26th in the National Football League last season. Baltimore’s leading rusher in 2015 was veteran running back Justin Forsett with just 641 which isn’t going to get it done in the NFL; even though that the league is now very pass happy.
Injuries also hurt the Ravens offensive line last year as they were unable to provide protection for Flacco or open up holes in the running game. The Ravens would use the sixth overall pick of the 2016 National Football League Draft on offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley who has the potential to be an anchor on the offensive line for the coming years. The Ravens also have veterans on the line in the form of center Jeremy Zuttah and guard Marshal Yanda that will need to find cohesion early in order to provide blocking the skills players in Baltimore’s offense.
Last year was supposed to be wide receiver Steve Smith Sr.’s final hurrah in the National Football League. But after Smith suffered an Achilles injury which abruptly ended his campaign, he is back for one more go at it in 2016. Smith has been one of the better pass catchers of this era as he has the potential this season to become just the sixth player in National Football League history to record 15,000 receiving yards.
The Ravens were eighth in total defense in 2015, but the unit’s issues began in Week 1 when outside linebacker Terrell Suggs suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon which robbed Baltimore of their defensive leader. Suggs is back for the upcoming season, and the Ravens have picked up former San Diego Chargers free safety Eric Weddle, but will there be enough play makers on this side of the football to get Baltimore back to the post season?
In recent years punter Sam Koch and place kicker Justin Tucker have been vital to the Ravens success. Last year Koch had a net average of 42.9 as his kicks can change field position, while Tucker is one of the better field goal kickers from within 50 yards. And special teams will be a huge factor for the Ravens; especially when the temperature begins to drop in the months of November and December.
If the Ravens want to be a playoff team in 2016, they must take care of business in the first half of the season as only one of their first seven opponents made the playoffs last year. The Ravens last two games of the season will be on the road against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Cincinnati Bengals as Baltimore will have its work cut to make the playoffs in January.
Cleveland Browns 5-11
It’s the same old song for the Cleveland Browns as they are beginning another National Football League season with a term attached to the them which is “starting over”. Since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, they have had three different owners, eight general managers, nine head coaches, and they are working on their 25th different starting quarterback. Browns owner Jimmy Haslam didn’t help himself in his most recent front office hires as he hired a new team president in Paul DePodesta and general manager Sashi Brown. Neither man has a football background as DePodesta has worked in the front offices of Major League Baseball franchises, while Brown has a law background.
At least the Browns hired a football guy as their next head coach in former Oakland Raiders head coach Hue Jackson. In one season with the Raiders, Jackson posted a record of 8-8 as he was charged with changing the culture there. And that is exactly what Jackson is attempting to do with the Browns as they’ve only had two winning seasons since 1999.
As the Browns are coming off of a 3-13 season, the only way for them to go is up. The Browns resisted selecting a quarterback early on during the 2016 National Football League Draft and instead of drafting a quarterback early on in the proceedings, they instead decided to try their hand at a reclamation project.
Quarterback Robert Griffin III was the second overall pick of the 2012 National Football League Draft by the Washington Redskins and he took the league by storm. In 2012, Griffin became the NFL’s Rookie of the Year as he helped the Redskins win the NFC East. But a knee injury towards the end of the 2012 season, along with missing the entire training camp for the following campaign put Griffin behind the eight ball. And when Jay Gruden became the Redskins head coach last year, he never warmed up to Griffin being his starting quarterback which made him expendable. The Redskins would part ways with Griffin this off-season and he is looking to re-kindle some of the magic from 2012 now with the Browns.
Jackson has been known to develop quarterbacks and the main thing that Griffin needs to work on is his pocket awareness, but he will be a welcome sight in Cleveland after the Browns parted with another quarterback from the State of Texas this off-season in Johnny Manziel.
Last year the Browns were 25th in total offense in the National Football League and they are in need of more consistency. The Browns still have nine-time Pro Bowl offensive tackle in Joe Thomas anchoring their offensive line, but he is becoming disgruntled with the team’s inability to win. Longtime Browns center Alex Mack left this off-season to join the Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland is hopeful the center Cameron Erving who was a first-round choice of the team in 2015 is ready to fill the void.
With Jackson running the show in Cleveland, the team is in the process of a roster overhaul which means that there is a competition at nearly every position and somebody has to step up and become a play maker on offense.
The same can be said on defense where the Browns need to be more aggressive under first-year defensive coordinator Ray Horton. The Browns must find a way to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks with their front seven as their 29 sacks in 2015 were 28th in the National Football League.
Jackson is attempting to change the culture for the Browns and he will spend 2016 simply weeding out the guys that don’t fit his system. But hopefully Jackson gets the chance to establish himself with the Browns as they don’t have patience with their head coaches.
Y-Clinched Wild Card