- Jamison Hensley, ESPN Staff Writer
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BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns are the NFL experts when it comes to starting over. But even the Browns haven't had this type of makeover.
The Browns just completed a $5 million renovation to their team facility. The organization has committed to spending at least $100 million on upgrades to FirstEnergy Stadium. This is in addition to hiring a new decision-maker (chief executive officer Joe Banner), general manager (Mike Lombardi) and head coach (Rob Chudzinski) in the past year. Under offensive coordinator Norv Turner, the Browns want to attack more down the field. Under defensive coordinator Ray Horton, they have embraced an attacking mindset.
After you walk around the sleek, new glass offices and watch a couple of practices, it's evident that there's a new look, a new energy and a new philosophy being established.
"The ship has been heading in the same direction with a lot of momentum," Banner said. "So, we really felt like we had to do some -- I almost want to use the word ‘radical’ -- things to change the direction of the entire franchise, culture and mindset. We’ve almost created a fresh start, frankly."
If there is a team in desperate need of a fresh start, it's a Browns team that has epitomized futility to a generation of football fans. Since returning to the NFL, the Browns are 73-151 (.326) with one playoff appearance and 11 double-digit-loss seasons. Over the past 14 seasons, the Browns have had four general managers, six head coaches and 18 different starting quarterbacks.
The Browns' players, however, believe this is the time for a reversal of fortune. Despite a fifth straight season of 11 losses or more, Cleveland was 2-5 in games decided by seven points or fewer in 2012.
"One thing at Alabama, they’ll teach you how to finish games," said running back Trent Richardson, who played for the Crimson Tide. "Last year, we didn’t have that, characterwise. This year, it’s going to be big on us to finish games."
So, are the Browns closer to being better than what many outside the Dawg Pound believe?
"I think there’s going to be a big surprise on everybody’s faces," Richardson said. "I think we’re going to be a big surprise to the world."
Team officials aren't ready to make such bold announcements yet. Banner said it was "dangerous" for someone in his position to put a timeline on when the Browns would turn the corner.
"I think people will notice very quickly that the team is better this year, the style of play with the physicality and the aggressiveness of it, will be what winning teams do," Banner said. "I also think there is work left to be done in getting those systems in place and continuing to upgrade the talent before it’s realistic to think we've reached our goal, which is to be a team that’s annually competing with the best teams in the league."
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. Determining whether Brandon Weeden is the quarterback of the future. Like the rest of the offense, Weeden has had an up-and-down training camp as he learns Turner's system. Weeden acted like he owned the offense in Thursday's preseason opener, completing 10 of 13 passes for 112 yards and one touchdown. Weeden said this week that Turner's system "makes sense" to him. It's an offense that pushes the ball downfield and needs a strong-armed passer like Weeden.
Weeden still has to prove that he can read defenses (his 17 interceptions last season were tied for fifth-most in the NFL) and produce in the most critical parts of the game (third downs, red zone and fourth quarter). The perception is that Weeden has 16 games to convince the new regime he's a franchise quarterback. If not, the organization will have to decide whether to use a first-round pick on the likes of Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel or Tajh Boyd.
"I think time will answer the question," Banner said. "I’m very lucky having Chud as the head coach and Norv as the coordinator. Those are the two best people to both develop a quarterback and evaluate a quarterback than any team in the league has. I think with the strength of their knowledge and background, we should be able to very clearly know what we need to do or not do."
2. The new look and new attitude on defense. Knowing that owner Jimmy Haslam was a minority owner in the Pittsburgh Steelers for years, it's not a surprise that he believes defenses have to be aggressive to succeed in this league. It's also not a surprise that Haslam wanted Horton, who knows the Steelers' scheme as well as anybody. He played six years under Dick LeBeau in Cincinnati and coached under him for seven years in Pittsburgh.
Last year under coordinator Dick Jauron, the Browns had a read-and-react defense that rarely blitzed and was determined not to give up big plays by playing a deep zone. This year under Horton, the Browns' defense wants to keep offenses on their toes with a high-risk and unpredictable game plan that has one goal: hit the quarterback.
In 2012, when Horton was the defensive coordinator in Arizona, the Cardinals blitzed 42.3 percent of the time, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The only team to send five or more pass-rushers more often in 2012 was the Houston Texans (46.9 percent). Compare that to the Browns, who blitzed 26.5 percent of the time last year. That ranked 17th in the NFL.
"This defense has potential to be something really special," said linebacker Paul Kruger, who knows something about highly ranked defenses from his days with the Baltimore Ravens. "I know people around here are used to hearing that. It’s one of those things where, yeah, every year you hear the same thing. From my experience and what I’m watching, we have some guys who can cover in the secondary, we have guys who can rush the passer, we have big, strong guys in the middle. We should be able to pull off some really good games."
3. The uncertain future of Haslam. The dark cloud hanging over this franchise is the federal investigation into Haslam's family-run Pilot Flying J truck-stop business. Will Haslam be found guilty of any charges? Will he be forced to step down as owner? No one really knows those answers at this point, which puts a major question mark at the top of the organization.
Banner insisted that Haslam's legal issues haven't affected the Browns.
"When Jimmy and I got together, we laid out a plan of what his vision and priorities were and how he wanted the team run on a day-to-day basis," Banner said. "None of that has been any different if nothing had ever happened. I don’t think you have to believe me. You just have to look at our ability to function through free agency, the draft and hiring a coaching staff and doing renovation at the facility. But if you’re skeptical, I think actions speak louder than words and it’s kind of clear."
REASON FOR OPTIMISM
The Browns have assembled one of the top coaching staffs in the league. Turner is an established and successful playcaller, and Horton is an up-and-coming defensive coordinator. It was a smart move to surround a rookie head coach like Chudzinski with a veteran staff that he can lean on for advice.
There is also renewed hope in the offense as well as the defense. Richardson ran for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns when he was battling injuries to his knee and ribs last season. The Browns are excited to see what numbers he can produce if he is at full strength to start the season.
On defense, the Browns invested $35 million in guaranteed money in Kruger and defensive lineman Desmond Bryant in free agency. The team used its top two draft picks on defense, including the No. 6 overall choice on pass-rusher Barkevious Mingo.
REASON FOR PESSIMISM
Although the Browns did undergo a lot of changes, you can make the argument that they didn't change enough. Despite having the salary-cap room, Cleveland didn't upgrade at tight end, fullback, guard, inside linebacker, cornerback or free safety. As a result, the Browns bring back every starter from an offense that ranked 25th in yards and 24th in points scored last season.
The schedule also does the Browns no favors. Six of the eight teams that Cleveland will face on the road didn't have losing records, including five playoff teams: the Ravens, Minnesota Vikings, Green Bay Packers, Cincinnati Bengals and New England Patriots.
It didn't take the preseason opener to tell me that Weeden is the starting quarterback of this team. During my two days at camp, it was clear that Weeden is a much better passer than Jason Campbell. Although coaches want Weeden to be more consistent (and have his passes batted down less), he threw the ball where it needed to go more often than Campbell did. Third-stringer Brian Hoyer didn't seem like much of a threat to Campbell's backup job. He struggled repeatedly with his decision-making.
Kruger, the team's top free-agent pickup, looked even better than when he was in Baltimore. During a two-minute drill, he would've recorded four sacks if he were allowed to hit the quarterback. The strong finish to last season has carried over into 2013 for Kruger.
One of the more underrated moves during the draft was the Browns' getting wide receiver Davone Bess from the Miami Dolphins in a trade. Bess won't record 1,000 yards this season and probably will remain the No. 3 receiver once Josh Gordon is done with his two-game suspension. But Bess will come up big in clutch situations. When it was third down in camp, Bess continually found a way to get open and Weeden looked for him.
Joe Haden is primed to be a Pro Bowl cornerback. Even in one-on-one drills, wide receivers had a difficult time getting any separation from Haden. Many believe that he is a man on a mission after last year's four-game suspension for testing positive for Adderall.
Before injuring his foot, Chris Owens was the favorite to start opposite Haden at the other cornerback position. What stood out to me was Owen's physical play against receivers. There's still a sense that the Browns will start Owens and rotate him with rookie third-round pick Leon McFadden during games. Buster Skrine, who had his problems last season, has had a strong camp.
Even before Dion Lewis was named the starting running back for the preseason opener, he was turning heads by making plays in the passing game. Turner compared the diminutive Lewis to Darren Sproles, but that may be stretching it. Lewis has certainly earned more playing time on offense. He was already going to make the team as the kickoff returner.
There's no denying that tight end Jordan Cameron will make big plays on pure athleticism. He finished off one long pass in camp by diving into the end zone. The big question is whether Cameron, who has yet to play a full season in the NFL, is durable enough to handle that position.