Everything changed for Browns home opener

Browns vs Saints

Everything was different from the moment I stepped into the stadium for the Browns home opener. The new scoreboards and adjusted seating layout were just the beginning, and then the day ended with a stunning Browns victory in front of a packed house of jubilant fans. After 14 years of misery since the team was reborn in Cleveland, this improbable sight was worth savoring. Few fans ran for the exits to avoid traffic as we’ve seen so many times before.

Going into the game, much was the same. Even with the painful close call last week in Pittsburgh, the mood among many fans and emotional train wrecks on the radio was one of doom and gloom. In one sense you can’t blame them, as we’ve experienced year after year of unwatchable football. But this year it seemed misplaced to me. Everyone seemed to be overreacting to the preseason and ignoring some of the obvious improvement in this football team.

That doesn’t mean I’m thinking playoffs at this point. It’s just that this seems like a football team that should compete and be a legitimate threat to every opponent.

Here are some observations:

– The Browns can run the ball. I said it many times before the season started, and now everyone can see this after the first two games. This shouldn’t be a surprise, as Kyle Shanahan has always run offenses that could run the ball, Mike Pettine said the Browns would be running the ball, the Browns drafted Joel Bitonio and resigned Kevin Mack to make sure the line was built for the zone blocking scheme and they loaded up on running backs who could thrive in this system. Am I pleasantly surprised at how quickly Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell have become real threats in the running game? Sure. But with Ben Tate as well it was clear the Browns had the talent to have a real running game. All of the angst over preseason games was idiotic as the Browns were not running every aspect of their offense. This alone should have tempered some of the gloom and doom heading into the season.

– The Browns have solid receivers. The hysteria over the wide receiver position here in Cleveland and around the country has been a joke. It was mostly an overreaction to the Josh Gordon drama, as many draft analysts were shocked that Ray Farmer didn’t panic during the draft and pick up a receiver after the Gordon news broke. Many thought the Browns should have snagged a receiver in the second or third rounds, but look at who they picked. Bitonio has beefed up a solid offensive line and helped the running game. Chris Kirksey has been a stud at middle linebacker helping the defense actually cover backs, tight ends and receivers. And Terrance West has helped lead the powerful running game.

Too many fans and clowns on the radio tried to compare this receiving corps to the lame group we had under Eric Mangini. Even guys like Tony Grossi bought into the panic after some preseason drops when the receivers were learning a new offense and adapting to two very different quarterbacks. But Miles Austin has made two pro bowls – his only issue was staying healthy. He had a drop early on Sunday but was a real stud on that last drive. Andrew Hawkins was a steal as a free agent and he looked great in the preseason and in camp. But all the naysayers discounted him cause he isn’t 6′ 2″. He was excellent on Sunday.

Also, fans and media completely discounted the importance of the running game, play action and Kyle Shanahan’s offense. This balanced attack finds ways to get receivers open, particularly smaller receivers who can run routes in space. After two games we’ve seen tons of receivers getting open again and again. And the receivers are catching the ball and getting good yardage.

– Which brings us to Brian Hoyer, who led the game-winning drive. Hoyer was very good on that drive, though he was mediocre for many stretches during the day. I wanted him to start, and I want him to stay in there. Hopefully he’ll keep improving as he needs to clean up many of the missed passes. His accuracy has suffered and his form seems a little off. Still, this kid is a winner, and I’m happy he’s running this offense with Manziel learning from the bench. Also, I like how Shanahan manages the offense much better when Hoyer is in there. It’s frankly the best offensive scheme we’ve seen in Cleveland since the Browns came back. But when Manziel is in there he seems to rely on the gimmicky offense he used with RG3. That’s not what I want to see. It’s OK for Manziel for limited packages, but if Manziel ever gets to run the team I want to see an offense that looks like the one he’s using for Hoyer.

– Finally, the defense seems to be much better so far this year. Yes, they have given up drives to two excellent quarterbacks, but they’ve also made big plays and put real pressure on the quarterback. Karlos Dansby has been an upgrade at middle linebacker and he made the play of the game with the sack on Drew Brees. Paul Kruger has been rejuvenated in this defense with three big sacks in two games. Overall this defense should keep them in many games, and none of this should be a surprise.

Getting back to the stadium changes, everyone there had to realize things were different in the first quarter when the crowd noise became incredibly loud as the Browns defense was pushing around Drew Brees and the Saints. Acoustically this place is now different, and with a real product on the field we might finally start to develop a home field advantage.

I have no idea what the record with be for the Browns this year. My guess is the range is 6-10 to 9-7. The record will depend on the breaks. But this is not one of the league doormats any more. They will compete, and they are building a real foundation now. Let’s hope Jimmy Haslam continues to let Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine do they jobs.

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Bewildered in Berea

The mess in Berea reached comical levels yesterday with the abrupt firing of Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi by an owner who acknowledged he pretty much screwed up the first year and a half of his ownership. I’m really not sure how to react to all of this, except to say that Jimmy Haslam may have finally stumbled into a situation that has a chance of working, with competent football people coaching the team and running the front office. None of us really knows whether Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine can work well together, let alone turn the Browns into a winning franchise. But both seem to be hard working and well respected in their fields, so at least that’s a start.

As Browns fans we’re all numb to this nonsense at this point, and the Browns continue to be a laughing stock as fans and reporters chronicle the decades of futility along with the past 14 years to complete turmoil. In the end, however, all that matters is whether Haslam has finally put together an organization that has a chance to succeed.

The most troublesome part of the organization, however, is Haslam himself. It’s clear now that he and Banner were a poor fit, and adding a toxic character like Mike Lombardi to the mix only made things worse. Banner and Lombardi obviously made some smart moves, like bringing in Brian Hoyer and parlaying a disapointing Trent Richardson into a first rounder, but the coaching fisacos trumped all of that along with some very questionable personel decisions.

But we’re also hearing troubling reports about Haslam. Reportedly he listened to glowing reports from Bill Belichick and Urban Meyer about Greg Schiano and was very impressed with him after a pointless interview while Banner stewed and basically refused to participate. How could anyone want to consider Greg Schiano after his disatrous tenure in Tampa? I don’t care if Vince Lombardi’s ghost recommended him. He clearly was in over his head in the NFL, and from a PR perspective even talking to him made the Browns look like clowns. The fact that Haslam’s braintrust couldn’t stop him from seeking out Schiano drives home the point that Haslam had lost confidence in Banner and Lombardi. The main job for Ray Farmer now is controlling his owner, who seems to seek advice from everyone who has a big name in the NFL and changes his mind constantly.

Meanwhile, Banner seemed obsessed with repeating his self-proclaimed Andy Reid triumph, looking for every young coach that was building a reputation. The idea of putting so much stock in Adam Gase seemed absurd. Meanwhile, Mike Lombardi was apparently angling to bring in Josh McDaniels, someone who had a reputation of being just as toxic as him. Looking back, it shouldn’t be surprising that the coaching search looked chaotic, as the Browns had three guys with diverging agendas involved in the search.

Somehow, however, this “braintrust” settled on two solid candidates with Mike Pettine and Dan Quinn, though we now know that Haslam and Banner had different ideas on whether to wait for Quinn.

So where does this leave the Browns? On the one hand, we have an owner that looks like a poor imitation of buffoons like Daniel Snyder. On the other hand, the revolving door of people running the Browns have somehow managed to leave the franchise in a position to improve dramatically heading into this offseason. Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert certainly made some mistakes, but they cleared out an old roster and started a youth movement while protecting the team’s cap situation, leaving the team with young stars like Josh Gordon, Jordon Cameron and Joe Haden. Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi spent more money but still have the Browns in a favorable cap situation with multiple picks in the first round following the Richardson trade. The team has some young stars and is poised to draft a potential franchise quarterback in a draft stacked with talent.

Now it’s up to Farmer and Pettine to take the next steps. Farmer is respected around the NFL, but he’s a first-time GM and he faces some huge decisions on resigning players and picking a quarterback. Then we’ll see if first-time head coach Pettine can take the team Farmer assembles and starts winning.

If the Browns hit on a good quarterback and Pettine turns out to be a good coach, fans will be able to laugh about the drama of the past several years. But if things don’t pan out, how can anyone have confidence that Jimmy Haslam can fix the situation? Let’s hope he’s found a GM and coach that can stay in the job for a while.

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