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It is a new era (again) in Berea, Ohio, where the Browns clock in each day. I made two visits here in 2010 and watched the optimism of a three-game stretch where Cleveland went 2-1 against Pittsburgh, New Orleans and New England evaporate in an overtime loss to the New York Jets. Walking out of the stadium that night, I'll never forget the image of Jets head coach Rex Ryan with his head tilted back, smoking a cigar. He'd beaten his brother, Rob, who was the Browns defensive coordinator. Rob has gone to Dallas. Eric Mangini is now in the TV business. The Pat Shurmur era is under way.
1. The Browns are very young. Veteran linebacker Scott Fujita tells a funny story about the first defensive huddle of training camp. "Three of the guys, I didn't even know who they were," Fujita says. Such is life in the post-lockout NFL, where new regimes and giant rosters have many teams shifting bodies in and out.
Fujita says the Browns know how important every snap in practice is with such a young team. The Browns have two rookies -- Jabaal Sheard and Phil Taylor -- starting on the defensive line. They have a rookie fullback in Owen Marecic, the former two-way player from Stanford who has ditched his linebacker gig. They have a rookie receiver, second-round pick Greg Little, who is pushing hard for playing time. And, of course, they have a second-year quarterback in Colt McCoy and second-year defensive backs Joe Haden and T.J. Ward.
Fujita says he's never been on a team so young, but he's also been impressed by how quickly the Browns are learning. Cleveland doesn't face the Steelers or Ravens until December, which should give the team some time to ramp up to a spirited finish. It won't be easy.
2. Colt McCoy exudes the leadership of a veteran. One of my favorite anecdotes about McCoy is from last season. On the eve of his first start, against the Pittsburgh Steelers, McCoy stood up and addressed his teammates. The Browns had lost Jake Delhomme and Seneca Wallace to ankle injuries. McCoy told his teammates not to worry about him, that he was ready to play well and lead. The gesture was appreciated in the room.
And though McCoy went 2-6 as a starter, he displayed a calm in the huddle that belied his youth. Joe Haden said it best: "Colt's just a winner."
During the lockout, McCoy organized several team workouts at both the University of Texas and Baldwin Wallace College, further cementing his status as the young face of the Browns franchise.
New coach Pat Shurmur, who last season was the St. Louis Rams offensive coordinator, did wonders with Sam Bradford. The early reviews of the Shurmur-McCoy union are also positive. McCoy ran a version of the West Coast offense for four years at Texas. "Just physically, emotionally, and how they're wired to play the position, there are a lot of similarities in Sam and Colt," Shurmur says.
3. With the new NFL rule moving kickoffs to the 35-yard line, the Browns will have to figure out new ways to get Josh Cribbs involved. In Friday night's preseason game against the Lions, McCoy targeted Cribbs four times in the first half as Cribbs lined up at wide receiver. He caught two passes for 10 yards. On Wednesday in Berea, Cribbs voiced his displeasure with the league's decision to move kickoffs up from the 30-yard line. Cribbs says it was an unnecessary change. "[The league's] intentions are good, but the [injury] stats aren't there to back up the reasoning," he said. Cribbs has returned eight kickoffs for touchdowns in his career, including a personal best of three in 2009. Last season was the only year he failed to return a kickoff for a score.
Tony Pashos, right tackle. The Browns boast a terrific left side of the offensive line in tackle Joe Thomas and guard Eric Steinbach. Cleveland needs better production along the right, in particular from tackle Tony Pashos. At 6-foot-6, 325 pounds, Pashos has the build and the nasty streak to make right tackle a position of strength in Cleveland. But he has to stay healthy. Pashos started just six games last season before landing on the injured reserve list in October with an ankle injury. He had similar bad luck in 2009, breaking his shoulder blade in October with the San Francisco 49ers.
Dick Jauron, defensive coordinator. Dick Jauron joined the coaching staff as defensive coordinator and has changed the Browns' scheme from a 3-4 to a 4-3. Fujita says the shift in philosophy will allow the Browns to play at a quicker pace than they did last year. With so much youth along the defensive line, it will be crucial that the Browns think fast and play fast.
"It does let athletes make a lot of plays," Fujita says of Jauron's scheme. "We were in a 3-4 system last year with so many checks on a play-by-play basis that it was mentally exhausting for everybody. This year, you line up, you might have a check or two, but for the most part it lets guys play fast." Finding ways to pressure opposing quarterbacks will be a top priority.
The Browns begin with three home games in their first four. They open at home against Cincinnati, travel to Indianapolis, and then have back-to-back home games against Miami and Tennessee. Socking away some wins early is a must.
In a scheduling quirk, the Browns face the Steelers and Ravens four times in the last five games of the season. That's a tough ask any time of the year, but especially in December and January. If things break right for the Browns, an eight- or nine-win season is not out of the question.