I will admit this up front: I am probably the person most guilty of falling for the best-case-scenario each and every year with the Browns. Every January, I curse and talk about how I’m not going to fall for it again in the fall. Then every April I talk myself into each and every draft pick, and any and all free agents the Browns bring in. And every July and August I read the reports from training camp and talk myself into 9 or 10 wins “if things break just right”. Heaven knows I always try to find something for those first few “Browns Will Win If…” columns before throwing in the towel and going for the jokes by week six.
Well, this year, I’m trying my best to fight all of that. When the schedule came out, it looked tough largely from top to bottom. Yes, there was some momentum at the end of last season with four straight wins, but those four wins were against teams mostly going the same direction as the Browns. In my heart of hearts, I still can’t talk myself into a best-case-scenario higher than six or seven wins. But, there’s a wrinkle there for me, which I’ll get to in a minute.
I suspect most of our brethren in the national media feel much the same way about the Browns’ prospects this year. After all, taking shots at the Browns and Lions is almost as ritualistic as death and taxes. So, where is this team, really?
We so often hear about teams “needing to learn how to win”. I think there’s something to that, just a bit. And I wonder if the core of this team got some lessons in that over those last four games last season. Yes, they got some help from the schedule makers, but during that stretch they finally looked like they knew what the game plan of Eric Mangini and Company actually was (run the ball, run the ball, run the ball some more, play defense). The KC game last year was a bit of an anomoly in that respect, but the Pittsburgh, Oakland, and Jacksonville games were all exhibitions in imposing that will on their opponents.
And so, here’s the wrinkle I talked about above: the first two games this year are against bottom-feeding Tampa Bay (road) and Kansas City (home). There is, in my humble estimation, an actual realistic chance the Browns could be sitting at 2-0 heading into a week 3 road game in Baltimore. I’m not here to say that winning two easier games to start the year is a catalyst to a playoff run; teams like Baltimore are still much better than Cleveland.
What I am saying, however, is that another almost universal truth each year in the NFL is that there are a few teams that under-achieve, and a few that over-achieve. So, when you look at the Browns’ schedule, it’s never a lock to predict which teams with Super Bowl expectations will live up to them, and which teams expected to be garbage will rise above, especially after a coaching or front-office overhaul. I’m not expecting the Browns to be fixed in one year by the new brain-trust, but…
Could the Browns be one of those over-achieving teams this year?
Again, I want to reiterate that I’m still saying it’s too early to tell. But, they have some systemic continuity on the field. They’ve made some solid (but not splashy/spectacular) moves in trades and FA. I think they drafted fairly well (though it’s always too early to tell in year one of a draft class). They finally have an organization in which all members seem to have clearly defined roles, and in which everyone seems to be pulling in the same direction for the first time in a long, LONG time.
So, factoring all of that in, when you look at those first two opponents, should the Browns come out of the gate at 2-0 I find myself wondering: how far could this bandwagon go, and how able will we be to temper our enthusiasm?