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.
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.
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.
"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.