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Tuesday, March 15, 2011
Can Browns finally turn the corner?

By James Walker

BEREA, Ohio -- Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren called an impromptu news conference on Monday. The purpose for Holmgren, who has brought instant credibility to an otherwise moribund franchise, was to assure Browns fans that the team was heading in the right direction despite uncertain times in the NFL.

Mike Holmgren
President Mike Holmgren has hired GM Tom Heckert and drafted QB Colt McCoy since taking over in Cleveland last year.
Although he arrived in Cleveland just one year ago, Holmgren has a good feel for the city. There is always doubt about whether the Browns will ever get it together. The team is 64-128 since returning to the NFL in 1999 and has more head coaches (five) than winnings seasons (two) in that span.

With the NFL lockout, there is even more anxiety in Cleveland, which has a rookie head coach, a young quarterback and two new schemes to learn on offense and defense. But Holmgren has his head coach (Pat Shurmur) and quarterback (Colt McCoy) in place. So 2011 is expected to be a big year to determine whether the Browns are finally turning the corner.

Here are three reasons to be optimistic and pessimistic about Cleveland's chances:

Reasons to be optimistic

1. Strong front office

After failing with inexperienced leaders, Browns owner Randy Lerner made it a point to fill his front office with proven football people who have done the job at a high level before arriving in Cleveland.

Lerner scored a major coup with Holmgren, who had interest from other teams but chose the role of president with Cleveland. Once Holmgren was on board, he was able to get general manager Tom Heckert, who held the same role with the Philadelphia Eagles. Suddenly, Cleveland had a formidable tandem.

Cleveland's front office is by far the biggest reason to be optimistic about the Browns. This pairing provided early results by putting together a strong 2010 draft class and acquiring solid players such as tailback Peyton Hillis, tight end Ben Watson and linebacker Scott Fujita via trades and free agency.

"Tom Heckert is the real deal," Holmgren said. "The people that work with him, our personnel department, they do their jobs and they do them very well. If I put on my coach hat for a moment, that's a real encouragement to Pat and the coaches."

2. Young talent

The 2010 draft was a good proving ground for Heckert and Holmgren. The Browns landed three rookie starters in the first three rounds -- cornerback Joe Haden, safety T.J. Ward and McCoy. All three players potentially could be building blocks.

The Hillis trade with the Denver Broncos for former Browns quarterback Brady Quinn turned out to be a huge advantage to Cleveland. Hillis, 25, rushed for a career-best 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns, while Quinn remains the third-string quarterback in Denver.

Cleveland began last season at a huge talent deficit and needs to continue improving through the draft and (eventually) free agency. The Browns own the No. 6 overall pick and have a chance to add another difference-maker, most likely on the defensive line or at wide receiver.

3. Easy schedule

One of the biggest perks of coming off a losing season is a manageable schedule. Cleveland, which finished third in the division at 5-11, has a relatively easy slate of opponents in 2011.

Nine teams on Cleveland's schedule have losing records from a year ago. Two additional opponents (the Jacksonville Jaguars and Oakland Raiders) were 8-8. That leaves only five games against playoff teams, and four are division matchups against the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers.

If the Browns are to make a move up, this is the year to do it.

Reasons to be pessimistic

1. Too much change

Any time a team simultaneously breaks in a rookie head coach and new schemes on offense and defense, there are usually growing pains.

Last year I questioned why the Browns would keep former head coach Eric Mangini if his philosophies were drastically different from those in the front office. There were bound to be clashes, and the Browns would have been smarter to start their new program a year earlier with everyone on the same page. Instead, the team essentially threw away a full season of transition.

With so much change, expect to see some struggles in the first year under Shurmur. Some weeks it could be poor execution of the West Coast offense, which is based on timing and precision. Other weeks it could be the defense, which hasn't run a 4-3 scheme in seven years.

This is why the Browns are one of the most affected teams during the lockout. They need all the offseason workouts and camps possible, and if the work stoppage goes into the summer, the Browns would really be up against the clock.

"I think it would be foolish to say that it's not different. It is different," Holmgren admitted. "Having said that, I am very, very impressed with our staff, and whenever we start playing again and start coaching again, we will get the team up to speed as quickly as anyone. I am confident of that."

2. Uncertainty remains at quarterback

Colt McCoy
The Browns hope Colt McCoy develops into the long-term answer at quarterback.
Is McCoy the long-term solution at quarterback? This is the biggest question in Cleveland, and no one has a clear answer.

But the Browns are full-go in that direction and are working to build a West Coast offense around McCoy's biggest strength, his accuracy. McCoy, a third-round pick, exceeded everyone's expectations by starting eight games as a rookie. After a couple starts, it was clear he was the best quarterback on the roster.

McCoy was by no means perfect. There were times when he played like a rookie, particularly late in the year once teams got film on McCoy. He finished with 1,576 passing yards, six touchdowns and nine interceptions.

"McCoy, I don't know if he's the guy or not, but I agree with what they're doing to at least find out," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "I would surround him with more pieces, because he could be good fit in a West Coast offense."

The Browns are flirting with this year's top quarterback prospects such as Auburn's Cam Newton. But it appears to be nothing more than a smokescreen, and perhaps an attempt to increase trade value in the No. 6 pick.

Quarterback is the NFL's most important position. Therefore, if McCoy is not the answer, this could set the Browns back for at least another year or two.

3. Ravens and Steelers

If the Browns have any shot of turning around the franchise, they must first get past the Ravens and Steelers. Both rivals are consistently in the playoffs, and this year Baltimore and Pittsburgh are projected to be Super Bowl contenders.

Having two 12-win teams in the AFC North lowers the Browns' chances for a quick turnaround. During Monday's news conference, I asked Holmgren what it will take to narrow the gap with Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

"That's a good question, and I know it's one that people would like me to answer and be right about. I think when you are doing that though, you can't think too much about the other teams," Holmgren said. "Baltimore and Pittsburgh and Cincinnati were in the playoffs in recent history, it's a tough division. If I think too much about Baltimore and Pittsburgh, I am doing a disservice. I think what we have to do is see what we need to do to get better and keep building here, just keep getting better and better."

For a dozen years, Cleveland coaches and general managers have preached patience, only to produce more losing seasons and disappoint Cleveland's rabid fan base. In many ways, Holmgren is using the same message. But his lofty credentials should at least buy the time necessary to try to get Cleveland back on track.

"I wanted to give [Browns fans] a word of encouragement: Stay with us, this is going to work eventually," Holmgren said confidently this week. "The hard part is that I can't give you a time right now."