IT TAKES A STEADY HAND
When Mike Pettine took over as coach of the Browns after the 2013 season, he had a clear vision. Without The Guy at quarterback, or a pick high enough to draft one that he and general manager Ray Farmer liked, they would find a smart veteran, groom younger quarterbacks behind him, and build the most balanced team they could. The defense would be the backbone. On offense the line would be their strength, and they'd be able to run the ball. You need some mudders if you're playing in the AFC North late in the season.
For the most part, Cleveland followed the plan in Pettine's first year, except for the first-round selection of quarterback Johnny Manziel, which appeared to be a forced decision (perhaps by owner Jimmy Haslam). Still, despite a devastating injury to Pro Bowl center Alex Mack in Week 6, the Browns went 7--9, which, even with five straight losses to end the season, wasn't all that bad. This, after all, was only the second time since 2002 that the Browns had won more than six games in one campaign.
It can't be overstated how much the Browns missed Mack. According to Football Outsiders, at the time of the injury the Browns' offense ranked fourth in total offense, fifth in passing and eighth in rushing. By season's end the unit was 28th, 22nd and 26th.
September 7, 2015
The uncertainty up front affected the entire offense (which was short on weapons even before receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for 10 games), especially quarterback Brian Hoyer, whose play dropped off, leading to his being benched briefly for an unprepared Manziel and overmatched fellow rookie Connor Shaw.
After the season Cleveland rebooted offensively. Coordinator Kyle Shanahan resigned and the front office replaced him with neophyte John DeFilippo, a former Raiders quarterbacks coach who has never been a coordinator but who had drawn attention for his work with Derek Carr last year. The Browns also snatched up 36-year-old quarterback Josh McCown, who was released by Tampa Bay after a lost season. This ended the tenure of Hoyer, who signed with Houston. Manziel, meanwhile, checked himself into rehab, and the former life of the party says he has emerged as a new man. "Off the field for me right now is really simple," Manziel says. "It's football right now, and it'll be that way throughout the rest of the season. Now it's a really simple schedule: Just come to work every day, be in the building, do what I'm supposed to do, and everything else will take care of itself."
It appears that the arrival of McCown—like Manziel a native of East Texas—has helped the former Heisman Trophy winner. "We have a lot of that Texas bond in common," Manziel says. "More than anything, Josh has been through this a lot. He is a savvy vet. A guy that I really like having around. [We] couldn't get along better."
The Manziel circus has left town. A big reason is that Pettine eliminated the specter of a quarterback controversy by making it very clear that McCown is the starter, and it will take a lot to wrest the job from the 12-year veteran. "[McCown] is a guy that takes care of his job," says receiver Brian Hartline. "He makes the guys around him better. Anytime you do that as a quarterback, you're always in a good position."
McCown will have more talent around him than his predecessor. Mack is back, and first-round pick Cameron Erving, a versatile O-lineman out of Florida State, gives the line needed depth and the flexibility to put the best five players on the field. Hartline, who is a solid possession receiver, was signed from the Dolphins. Dwayne Bowe, the former Chief, may not be able to get past man coverage like he once did, but at 6'2" and 222 pounds, the receiver is still a size mismatch. Travis Benjamin is fully recovered from his November 2013 knee surgery and seems to have developed a rapport with McCown. Cleveland would love even more from speedy slot receiver Andrew Hawkins, who had 63 receptions after coming over from Cincinnati last season.
The Browns face a stout schedule this season, and their division rivals are improved as well, so it will be a tougher road for Pettine in his second year. But his plan appears to be on track, even if the first season didn't quite follow the script.
SI'S PREDICTION: 6--10
ANDY BENOIT ON THE BROWNS' RISING RUN DEFENSE
Cleveland's defense ranked dead last against the run in 2014, despite not giving up a single rush over 38 yards. Opponents simply moved the ball steadily against them, five yards at a time. Some have chalked this up to players needing time to adjust to new coach Mike Pettine's scheme. Perhaps—except Pettine's scheme is not complicated in its run-stopping principles. It focuses less on gap responsibilities and instead asks defensive linemen to be physically destructive so that linebackers can stay clean and be read-and-react ball hunters. It's no surprise the Browns spent their first-round pick on Washington nosetackle Danny Shelton (above). He's drawn comparisons to Vince Wilfork, who has been one of the game's preeminent two-gap forces. Shelton figures to replace the injury-prone Phil Taylor, a 335-pound upright player with good initial movement who could still see time at defensive end. Also at end, Cleveland signed Dolphins veteran Randy Starks, a still-viable phone booth fighter, and drafted Xavier Cooper (Washington State) in the third round. Those two will share time with incumbents Desmond Bryant (a puncher) and Billy Winn (a quick-hands chopper). Overall, these upgrades should invigorate the Browns' run defense.