By Dan Durkin-
(CBS) Stability isn’t a word that’s often associated with the Cleveland Browns.
Since returning to the league in the 1999 season, they’ve gone through seven head coaches and six general managers. On the field, they’ve gone through 19 different starting quarterbacks. Add it all up, and you’re left with 13 losing seasons (out of 15), a 32% winning percentage, and one playoff appearance.
While the Browns have only won one of their last eight games, they’re not nearly as bad as their record suggests.
In their most recent loss, they squandered a 12-point lead to the Patriots (in Foxboro) with a little over a minute left in the game. There are no moral victories in the NFL, but their effort for 58:59 showed a glimmer of hope that the players have bought in to the plan.
Browns’ team president Joe Banner was brought in to specifically lead the turnaround. Banner helped build the Philadelphia Eagles into a perennial playoff contender with a shrewd understanding of the salary cap and a pragmatic plan of staying ahead of the free-agent market.
Known for doing things his way, Banner chose the unorthodox route of hiring a head coach first – Rob Chudzinski – then bringing in a general manager – Michael Lombardi – afterwards, both of whom have previous ties with the organization.
Lombardi was the director of pro personnel from 1987-1996. At the tail end of his tenure, he worked with then head coach Bill Belichick. While he’s a longshot to earn the award, Lombardi’s in-season trade of Trent Richardson to the Indianapolis Colts for a first-round pick, should automatically earn him executive of the year honors.
Chudzinski, a native Ohioan, was formerly the Browns tight ends coach in 2004 and their offensive coordinator from 2007-2008. The 2007 season was the only in which the Browns offense ranked in the top-half of the league in points, ranking eighth overall.
The Browns rounded out their staff by tabbing former Chargers head coach Norv Turner as their offensive coordinator – whom Chudzinski worked with in San Diego – and future head coach Ray Horton as their defensive coordinator.
Turner is an Air Coryell disciple, who favors ‘11’ (1 running back, 1 tight end), ‘12,’ and ‘21’ personnel groupings to run two-back power, and a five and seven-step drop vertical passing game.
This season was all about determining whether or not Brandon Weeden was the Browns quarterback of the future. Safe to say, the determination is he’s not. Overdrafted, Weeden has shown poor pocket awareness and limited mobility in the face of pressure throughout his career.
After two lackluster performances to start the season, Weeden was benched. But Weeden wasn’t replaced by backup Jason Campbell, he was replaced by third-stringer Brian Hoyer. The timing of this move coincided with the trade of Richardson, so the assumption was the Browns were tanking their season. Proof that they have difficulty doing anything right, they proceeded to reel off three-straight wins.
In his third start, Hoyer tore his ACL, forcing Weeden back under center. Weeden had back-to-back poor outings, prompting the third quarterback change of the season, this time the switch was made to Campbell. Campbell has performed fairly well, posting a 105+ passer efficiency rating against the Chiefs, Ravens and Patriots.
While mechanical with his delivery and movements, Campbell has protected the ball and been efficient with his reads. In five starts, he’s been sacked only 10 times and has a three-to-one touchdown to interception ratio. Campbell has been particularly effective in the face of pressure, shortening his drops and getting the ball out quickly to his hot receiver.
With a league-low two rushing touchdowns, the Browns throw the ball 66% of the time. While this season has been largely forgettable, wide receiver Josh Gordon’s emergence has exceeded the expectations of the most fervent Browns fans.
Despite missing the first two games of the season for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, Gordon sits atop the leaderboard with 1,400 receiving yards. For receivers with 70 or more receptions, Gordon leads the league with a 19.7 yards-per-catch average, 127 yards-per-game average, 24 catches of 20+ yards, and his 95-yard reception (for a touchdown) is the league’s longest reception this season.
Gordon does it with a rare size-to-speed ratio. He’s strong enough to beat press coverage, fast enough to stack on top of a defender, nimble enough to break his route at the top of the stem, and explosive enough to attack and high-point the ball.
Another pleasant surprise has been tight end Jordan Cameron. Cameron, a former college basketball player, leads the Browns in receptions and provides a big target to work up the vertical seam. During Gordon’s recent tear, Cameron has seen his targets spike. As teams roll coverage to Gordon over the top, Cameron has been targeted on deep digs and out routes.
Turner’s preference for deeper drops wouldn’t be possible without sturdy protection up front, particularly on the edges. Left tackle Joe Thomas is among the league’s best, and while he’s seen a slight performance dip in his second-season, right tackle Mitchell Schwartz gives the Browns an enviable pair of bookend protectors.
Defensively, the Browns have an excellent nucleus of young talent.
Horton is a 3-4 disciple of Dick LeBeau, who believes in an aggressive, attacking approach to dictate to the offense. The Browns put stress on protection schemes with blitzes, stunts, linebacker crosses, and hybrid fronts.
This past offseason, the Browns invested heavily in their defensive front both in the draft and free agency. They spent their first-round pick on outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo, and in free agency they signed former-Raven Paul Kruger and former-Raider Desmond Bryant (IR – irregular heartbeat). Of the new additions, Kruger has made the biggest impact.
Prior to adding these new pieces, the Browns already had a stout and productive front. Led by space-eating nose tackle Phil Taylor, defensive ends John Hughes and Ahtyba Rubin, and unheralded Jabaal Sheard who seamlessly made the transition from defensive end to outside linebacker.
Horton likes to mix his coverages, simultaneously playing both man and zone concepts. Blitzing frequently (36% per ProFootballFocus) requires a lock-down corner, which the Browns have in Joe Haden.
Haden shadows opposing No. 1 receivers and doesn’t require safety help over the top. Thus, Horton is able to let Haden cover half of the field on his own which affords Horton flexibility in how he uses strong safety TJ Ward.
Trite as it may sound, learning to win is a challenge. The Browns last game against the Patriots was a perfect microcosm. One team has grown accustomed to winning, while the other seemingly can’t get out of its own way. The Browns are more talented than their record indicates, but sometimes teams just do what they do best. For the Browns, that’s been losing.
With a young, talented defense, a budding superstar wide receiver, and seven draft picks in the first four rounds – including two first-rounders – the Browns appear to be positioned to turn around the losing culture in Cleveland.
Follow Dan on Twitter: @djdurkin