A Playoff Contender?
(June 2013)

I have mentioned in my columns the last few issues that I expect the Browns to compete for a playoff contender this season, something that is not a popular opinion in the local media. There are more than a few variables that have to or not have to happen, but I think you can say that about any team any season. So here, not in any particular order, are the things I feel must or must not happen on the way to the playoffs in 2013.

Mike Lombardi must not become fascinated with all things Belichick. The Browns roster must not become filled with New England castoffs. This must end with Brian Hoyer. I like the kid, I’ll root for him because he is local, but if he is starting for the Browns anytime this year for an extended period the team is in trouble. And I have been an admirer of Coach Belichick for some time, but let us remember; his biggest accomplishment was finding and developing Tom Brady. Sometime in the near future he is going to be forced to find the next Tom Brady and that is not a for sure thing. Refer back to Mike Shanahan post-Super Bowl days and his quest for the next John Elway in Denver.

Joe Banner must also not get fascinated with bringing in his own guys. The Browns can’t be a retirement home for former Eagles as it was for former Jets during Eric Mangini’s regime.

Lombardi and Banner must realize that the cupboard was not bare when they took over, and egos must not get in the way of finishing the personnel job Tom Heckert started. This roster does not have to be made over.

Joe Haden must not get hurt. We all saw last year what happens when you don’t have at least one shut down corner.

Brandon Weedon must not get hurt. Coach Chudzinski’s style of offense is made for a drop back gunslinger like Weedon, and the team’s success rests on his arm. I think he is going to have a very good year.

The Browns current crop of young players, as good of a core as we have seen since the Kosar days, must make the transition from being happy to being paid to play football and all that comes with it (fame, money, a big house, fancy cars, etc.), to committing to playing as long and as well as they can, and all that brings (respect from their peers, longtime financial stability, glory as individuals and as a part of a team, and, hopefully, championships). A long time NFL coach told me that this is the most important moment in the development of a player. Those who can’t make the transition flame out early. The Browns have a young core whom could be around a long time and do some great things if they can make the transition.

The Browns must find a cold weather open stadium kicker. I don’t understand the release of Phil Dawson without the next guy in place. Some people think top of the line kickers are easy to come by, I don’t agree with that.

The Browns must not be self-destructive. It must end with Josh Gordon’s two game suspension at the beginning of the season. You only have to look at Joe Haden’s four game suspension last year to see how these things hurt the team. The Browns need no motorcycle accidents, no naked speeding on the freeway, no failed drug tests, no late night bar fights. They need to be resting at home on their off days, not jetting off to Las Vegas. This is where Rob Chudzinski will earn his pay as a head coach.

The offensive line must play to its potential. You have three first round draft picks in Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, and Mitchell Schwartz. They have three starters returning at guard in John Greco, Shawn Lauvao, and Jason Pinkston. These guys must control the line of scrimmage and protect Brandon Weedon. If this unit lives to its potential the Browns could be very good not just next year but for the next six or seven years.

Trent Richardson must remain healthy. He can’t be a victim of the new emphasis on concussions. He has to learn to run with his head up, and he can’t miss games because of failing head injury tests.

Jordan Cameron must show he is a full time NFL tight end. Chudzinski’s offense with its emphasis on down field passing should be a very positive thing for him, let us hope he takes advantage.

The defense must develop some depth in its backfield. It is scary that Haden and T.J. Ward are the only proven players back there. And remember both missed games last year to suspensions and injuries. Third round pick Leon McFadden from San Diego State must turn out to be a player, and someone has to step up and take over the safety spot opposite of Ward.

The new attacking defense must do exactly that, attack. There are a lot of good players returning on the defense line, D’Qwell Jackson is still a stud, and first round pick Barkevious Mingo must contribute from the first game.

The Browns must keep improving on special teams like they did last year. Keeping special teams coordinator Chris Tabor was a good move. Hopefully finding replacements for Josh Cribbs and Phil Dawson will happen. Hopefully someone will step up and fill Cribbs’ leadership role.

The Browns must go at least 3-3 in the division. They have as many talented, young players as anyone in the AFC North. Last year both the Steelers and the Ravens rolled the dice with aging rosters hoping to win the big one, it paid off for Baltimore but didn’t for Pittsburgh. It is time for the Browns to take advantage of that.

With all these question marks and areas of uncertainty, why am I still high on this year’s Browns? Because I believe in talent. And, because of some solid drafting and wise but not flashy free agent signings the Browns are greatly improved in that department. And if the current front office doesn’t screw it up, after this year the Browns will be filling the holes to make them a championship contender, not just a team fighting for a playoff spot.