NFL Nation: Cleveland Browns
And something has to give in the game in which Johnny Manziel is expected to make his NFL debut. The Browns have lost 10 consecutive games at Heinz Field, while the Steelers haven't won a season opener since 2010.
ESPN NFL Nation Browns reporter Pat McManamon and ESPN NFL Nation Steelers reporter Scott Brown take a closer look at the 1 p.m. ET game.
Brown: Pat, how many times have you written the surname Manziel since the Browns drafted Johnny Football in early May? Well, let's get the obligatory Manziel chatter out of the way. How do you see the Browns using Manziel on Sunday and how much do you expect him to play?
McManamon: As for the first part, Scott, let's say more than five and less than 10,000, but just barely less. I would be surprised if Manziel does not see the field for a play or a series in each half. The Browns and coach Mike Pettine have been coy about how he'll be used, but he does bring a different element than Brian Hoyer, and the Browns could put him on the field the same way the Steelers first used Kordell Stewart. Certain down-and-distance situations might be good for the read-option, or certain spots on the field might be good for a quarterback who can move. I don't think Manziel will play a lot, but I do think he'll play in the right spot, as judged by the coaching staff.
Scott, a slow start doomed the Steelers last season. How determined are they to avoid that slow start again, and how much bad luck is it for the Browns to draw the Steelers in the opener?
Brown: For the record, I am not going to start calling you Pat McFootball no matter how many times you privately lobby me to do so. Take a picture with the Biebs in it and we will talk. With that order of business out of the way, I will say the schedule-makers did not do the Browns any favors by having them open in Pittsburgh. I suspect the Steelers will publicly downplay the notion that this is a must-win game, but in reality it is. The Steelers cannot start slow again this season, and with road games against the Ravens and the Panthers looming, they have to beat the Browns. As hard as it is to win in the NFL, nothing is more served on a platter than an opponent that hasn't won in Pittsburgh in more than a decade and has an offense riddled with question marks. Did I mention Ben Roethlisberger, who has never forgiven the Browns for passing on him in the 2004 NFL draft, has lost just one time to Cleveland?
Getting back to the Browns' offense, who do the Steelers have to worry about beating them with wide receiver Josh Gordon out for the season?
McManamon: Nobody, really. The Browns will try to run the ball and use tight end Jordan Cameron creatively, but there is no real outside threat even close to the threat Gordon provided. And Cameron better get used to consistent double coverage. It's almost unfair to throw a quarterback into a game with these circumstances. Running back Ben Tate probably will be the offensive bell cow. He'll be featured prominently in the game plan. But the Steelers stop the run in their sleep. This game will be a serious challenge for the Browns' offense and offensive coaches.
Speaking of offense, how has and how will the marijuana possession charges against Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount affect the team, if at all, this weekend?
Brown: It is a footnote to this game. Not to minimize the stupidity that the Steelers' top two running backs showed -- and they are worthy of all of the unflattering nicknames that have surfaced on social media, among other places -- but the issue has presumably been dealt with from the Steelers' end. If Bell and Blount had been suspended for the season opener, we would have seen Roethlisberger throwing a ton of passes and a one-dimensional offense. But with both Bell and Blount slated to play against the Browns, the Steelers' offense will be at full strength.
I am real interested in seeing whether the Steelers try to set up the pass through the run or vice versa. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin predictably gushed about Cleveland's defense at his news conference earlier this week, and certainly that unit is the strength of the Browns. Will that defense be as good as advertised?
McManamon: Let's tap the brakes on this "good defense." Nobody knows yet. The defense has new names -- and they are good names to have -- but they might not be improved. Also, a defense that was supposed to be good a season ago made a habit of blowing late leads. The weak spot this season is the same as last -- cornerback opposite Joe Haden. First-round pick Justin Gilbert is going through significant growing pains, and Buster Skrine is coming off a thumb injury. The Browns wanted Isaiah Trufant to be the nickelback, but he's on injured reserve. Smart teams pick at weaknesses; it would be surprising if the Steelers don't pick on the second corner. The other concern, which has been an ongoing issue: Will the defense wear down because it's on the field too much due to the offense struggling?
Staying with defense, Steelers rookie linebacker Ryan Shazier is an Ohio State guy, and there's been a lot of positive press on him throughout preseason. Has he been that good?
Brown: He has, but the caveat, of course, is that Shazier has yet to play in an NFL game that counts. That changes Sunday, and most telling about the progress Shazier has made is the fact he will become the first Steelers defensive rookie to start a season opener since Kendrell Bell in 2001. There will be the inevitable growing pains as the first-round pick adjusts to the speed of the game at this level. Probably the biggest concern with Shazier is whether he will consistently be able to shed blocks since the 6-1, 237-pounder is not the biggest linebacker. The Browns' offensive line is one of their biggest strengths, so it will be a good opening test for Shazier. I think the kid is going to be a star, and I predict he will win the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.
Join us today at 1 p.m. ET, 10 a.m. PT for ESPN’s NFL Nation TV’s Spreecast episode No. 13. Host Paul Gutierrez (Oakland Raiders reporter), co-host Coley Harvey (Cincinnati Bengals reporter) and guests Mike Rodak (Buffalo Bills reporter) and Pat McManamon (Cleveland Browns reporter) discuss a range of topics from Josh Gordon's latest legal entanglements to Kiko Alonso's season-ending knee injury to Johnny Manziel's latest tweak of his employer, among other timely issues. Viewers are encouraged to log in and ask the panelists questions as well as contribute in the chat feature.
And whether the Cleveland Browns quarterback gets it.
Whether Manziel is simply enjoying the benefits of fame and youth or simply can’t stay out of his own way is debatable.
There is nothing troubling or offensive about the photos beyond Manziel posing in them with Bieber, a walking instruction guide for how not to handle fame. And the pictures were taken at a time when players are off until the start of start of training camp.
They actually offer a perfect snapshot of what Johnny Football said last week at an NFL Play 60 youth clinic at the Browns’ facility.
“I want to wake up with a week and not have my name going through something,” Manziel said. “And I’m working on getting better at that, but if I want to go back home and spend time with my friends or go out and enjoy my weekends, I absolutely have the right to do that.”
Manziel is absolutely correct on that point, but he also seems to be missing the bigger point every time he sends social media into a frenzy. He has yet to throw a pass in the NFL, yet his fame eclipses that of all the players in the Browns' locker room combined.
That was going to be the reality anyway when the Browns drafted the former Heisman Trophy winner in May. But the perception, fair or not, is that Manziel has done everything but try to lower his profile since joining the Browns.
That can’t play well with his new teammates, particularly the veterans whose trust Manziel must win by showing he is committed to football and acting like a rookie whenever possible. And it only sets up Manziel for a bigger fall if becomes the latest in a line of Cleveland quarterback who can’t cut it in the NFL.
This year’s NFL draft brought drama and defense to the AFC North.
Most of the buzz centered on Cleveland, where the Browns selected Johnny Manziel with No. 22 overall pick. There is no debate that Johnny Football will bring excitement to the long-struggling Browns. Whether he’s their answer at quarterback is another question.
The Cincinnati Bengals created a stir at quarterback as well when they drafted AJ McCarron in the fifth round. McCarron quarterbacked Alabama to two national titles, and it’s widely known that Andy Dalton has yet to win a playoff game for the Bengals. Can McCarron be ready to compete for the starting job in 2015?
The Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers continued their old-school ways by going heavy on defense in this draft. By doing so, did the Ravens give enough help to quarterback Joe Flacco? And will speedy first-round pick Ryan Shazier end up being the top rookie defensive player in this division?
These issues are addressed by ESPN’s quartet of AFC North reporters: Scott Brown in Pittsburgh, Coley Harvey in Cincinnati, Jamison Hensley in Baltimore and Pat McManamon in Cleveland.
Johnny Manziel will end the Browns' quarterback drought and become a franchise quarterback.
Scott Brown: Fact. I think it is all or nothing for Johnny Football, as it is hard to imagine him just having an average to above-average NFL career. You worry about his size, the distractions that follow him to Cleveland and the reality that he will have a Texas-sized bull's-eye on his jersey from the moment he steps onto the field. As many questions that come with Manziel, he dominated in the SEC and twice carved up an Alabama defense that was loaded with future NFL players. Cleveland, your long quarterback nightmare is over.
Jamison Hensley: Fiction. Let's stop with the comparisons to Russell Wilson. Manziel doesn't have the same maturity, which is ultimately going to be his downfall. He is more like Brett Favre -- without the cannon for an arm. Where Manziel is at his best is running around, which has become a recipe for disaster in the NFL. Michael Vick has played only one full season, and Robert Griffin III couldn't make it one season without getting hurt. It's a given that Manziel brings much-needed electricity to Cleveland. He just won't be bringing stability to the quarterback position.
Pat McManamon: Fact. The question, though, is when this happens. Manziel's learning curve is large, and he will do it amidst hoopla worthy of the Palace of Versailles. Manziel seems to be up to the challenge of the hype, but the Browns took a good first step with him by telling him Cleveland isn't Hollywood. A couple of his teammates said they were glad to have him, but it was "time to go to work." How soon Manziel simply concentrates on work and professionalism will tell how soon he turns the corner with the Browns.
AJ McCarron will be the Bengals' starting quarterback in 2015.
Brown: Fiction. He fell to the fifth round of the draft for a reason, and McCarron's drop reinforced the notion that his success at Alabama had a lot to do with the elite talent that surrounded him in Tuscaloosa. That doesn't diminish what he accomplished at Alabama, as McCarron ranks as one of the best quarterbacks in college football history. But plenty of quarterbacks who excelled in college did not translate into successful NFL quarterbacks, and I don't see McCarron as more than a backup at the next level. If Andy Dalton falls out of favor in Cincinnati, the Bengals will look elsewhere for his replacement.
Hensley: Fiction. This is a tough one. The Bengals need to put more pressure on Andy Dalton, but McCarron isn't the one to do it. The best move would've been for the Bengals to take Teddy Bridgewater in the first round. If that had been the case, the answer would've been fact. Instead, the Bengals are left with the anti-Flacco. Dalton plays well in the regular season and chokes in the postseason. He hasn't just struggled. It's been meltdowns. McCarron has the championship pedigree, but his ceiling is backup quarterback. Dalton is going to be the starter in 2015, by default.
McManamon: Fiction. The Bengals were wise to draft McCarron. Andy Dalton needs competition and needs to be pressed. But the anti-Dalton hysteria is overblown and overdone. Dalton has taken the Bengals to the playoffs every year he's been in the league. He has 80 touchdowns compared to 49 interceptions. In his first three seasons. Only in this day and age of impatience and instant expectations is that not considered a very good start to a career. He needs to win a playoff game, yes, but so do the Bengals as a team. He is one of 53. Guys arrive at different times. Dalton will take care of things in his time, and the Bengals have handled him well. McCarron will push Dalton, which is good, but the job will be Dalton's.
@ColeyHarvey fact. Dalton will want more $$ than mike brown is willing to pay, and McCarron will prove to b adequate replacement- Brett Stanko (@brettstanko23) May 12, 2014
The Ravens didn't do enough to help Joe Flacco after drafting defensive players with their first three picks.
Brown: Fiction: The Ravens did enough before the draft to help their franchise quarterback by re-signing left tackle Eugene Monroe and signing free-agent wide receiver Steve Smith, as well as tight end Owen Daniels. The Ravens essentially add a huge piece to their offense with the return of tight end Dennis Pitta, who missed most of last season with a hip injury, and Daniels will provide a nice complement to him. Smith is no longer an elite wide receiver but he can still play. He should help Torrey Smith and restore some of the swagger to the Ravens' offense. I also expect a bounce-back season from Ray Rice, who will be plenty motivated to prove he is still a featured back.
Hensley: Fact. The Ravens finished with the NFL's fourth-worst offense last season, and they came out of the draft with a blocking tight end, a small-school running back, a developmental guard and a seventh-round slot receiver. Ideally, the Ravens would've drafted a starting right tackle, a highly rated running back and a big target from the deepest wide receiver class in years. It's just difficult to bash the Ravens' front office. If they had gone offense with any of their first three picks, they would've been reaching. That's never a formula for success. In one way, you can say the Ravens did help out Flacco. By upgrading a defense that allowed the most fourth-quarter points in history, Flacco won't have to play catch-up as much late in games.
McManamon: Fact. The curious thing is the Ravens are relying on aged veteran Steve Smith and Ray Rice, whose off-field troubles are well documented. Ozzie Newsome is a very wise and sage team-builder, so it's borderline silly to question him. But Flacco is not Tom Brady. He needs talent around him to win. Because while he's paid like he's a superstar, he's not at the level of a Peyton Manning, a Drew Brees and a Brady. In a year or two, he won't even be on the level of an Andrew Luck. He's a very, very good quarterback, but he can't carry a team on his own. He needs a few more weapons around him.
@jamisonhensley Ravens addressed O in free agency period. I'd rather they do that, since Ozzie can draft D players better than O players.- Bmore (@GoinRaven) May 12, 2014
Ryan Shazier will be the top defensive rookie in the AFC North.
Brown: Fact: Shazier has an opportunity to start right away, and he should at least play extensively in the Steelers' sub packages if he is able to learn Dick LeBeau's complex defense. LeBeau himself said the Steelers don't have the luxury of bringing along highly touted rookies such as Shazier slowly, so he should log plenty of snaps and crack the starting lineup sooner rather than later. Shazier has excellent speed, and he was highly productive at Ohio State, where he became just the 10th player in school history to lead the team in tackles in consecutive seasons. He provides the Steelers with a much-needed defensive playmaker and his skill set translates well to an NFL game that is becoming more wide open. This kid has future Pro Bowler written all over him.
Hensley: Fiction. It was only a year ago when Jarvis Jones arrived with all of the hype. He ended up getting benched. This isn't unusual. Over the past nine years, only one Steelers rookie has started a full season -- center Maurkice Pouncey. So, this isn't a knock on Shazier. He has a lot of speed and a lot of potential. He should be a Pro Bowl player down the road. It just takes time to learn the nuances of a Dick LeBeau defense. History says Shazier won't make an immediate impact. The pick here for best rookie in the division is Ravens inside linebacker C.J. Mosley.
McManamon: Fiction. Ah, that Steelers optimism. There's nothing not to like about Shazier, or the Steelers, who draft well and play hard. But to automatically assume Shazier is the best defensive rookie in the AFC North ignores the fact that the other division teams took immediate defensive starters: Cleveland with cornerback Justin Gilbert, Cincinnati with cornerback Darqueze Denard and Baltimore with linebacker C.J. Mosely. All are expected to be immediate starters. All are extremely good players. What in the world makes it more likely that Shazier will be the best rookie other than he wears black and gold?
@ScottBrown_ESPN Kid can fly. Best A-B gap blitzer in draft. Also has some edge rush ability in sub. If they use him as a chess piece, YES- Ed Coutu (@Ed_Coutu) May 12, 2014
CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Bobby Mitchell entered the interview area at the Pro Football Hall of Fame FanFest in a wheelchair, his age and his NFL body showing.
Mitchell then talked about his four years with the Cleveland Browns, during a time when Jim Brown taught him about “standing up as a black man.”
He spoke on a weekend not long after Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling made blatantly racist and prejudicial statements on a tape recording, and shortly before Michael Sam may be drafted as the NFL’s first openly gay player. The man who rode into the room spoke of standing with pride some 50 years ago -- something that was not easy for an African-American in the 1960s, and not often welcomed. They did it because it was the right thing to do.
“That was one of the things that me and Jim Brown and John Wooten and all of us, that was the one thing that we determined,” Mitchell said. “Stand up. Stand up. Stand up.”
In some ways Brown and Mitchell show how far society has come in the 50 years since they played. As Hall of Fame linebacker Harry Carson said, the only color that matters nowadays in the NFL is the uniform.
But in other ways, the experiences of Brown and Mitchell show how far society has to go -- and may always have to go. Fifty years after Brown and Mitchell’s playing days, the NBA had to ban one of its owners and the Boston Bruins had to apologize for racist posts on Twitter directed at P.K. Subban, a black Montreal Canadiens defenseman who had scored a game-winning goal against Boston.
Brown sat down for nobody.
And when Mitchell played for the Browns from 1958 through 1961 it was Brown who taught him how to handle himself, Mitchell said.
“You said ‘Boo,’ Bobby Mitchell was gone,” Mitchell said, talking of how he feared certain people in his hometown of Hot Springs, Ark.
Mitchell then told the story of the town bully. When Mitchell heard the name, he would run and hide.
“I went through a whole childhood up to my sophomore year of college not knowing what he looked like,” he said.
Brown helped change Mitchell, and helped prepare him for his next team. Mitchell left the Browns in 1962, traded to Washington along with Browns first-round draft pick Leroy Jackson for the rights to Redskins first-round pick Ernie Davis.
The Associated Press report at the time stated: “All the players -- Davis, Mitchell and Jackson -- are Negroes.”
Mitchell wound up playing for George Preston Marshall, an owner who said he’d start signing black players when the Harlem Globetrotters started signing whites. Marshall was Marshall before Donald Sterling even thought of buying an NBA team.
Mitchell told the story to NFL Films when the Redskins returned from training camp for a pre-opener luncheon in 1962, Marshall had the team band play "Dixie." Marshall tapped Mitchell on the shoulder and said, “Bobby Mitchell, sing!”
Mitchell knew the history when he was traded, knew he’d be the first African-American to play for a team that attracted a largely Southern fan base.
But Mitchell said once he signed, Marshall let him be.
“Everyone was so focused on George Preston Marshall, but George Preston Marshall never did anything to me,” Mitchell said. “Once I signed that contract, no problem.”
Mitchell said that the first time he spoke with Marshall, it was in Marshall’s large office. He said he barely heard a word Marshall said.
“Because I was so impressed that all around that room were portraits of Indian chiefs,” he said. “He had every Indian chief that you could name. Big portraits. He was talking and I was just looking. I was so impressed.”
Mitchell even addressed the discussion over the name “Redskins,” saying he joined when the name was just the name of a team, but times do change.
“Because, as a black man, I understand what the Indians are saying,” he said. “I understand.”
Because Mitchell went through the struggle. Though he said Marshall left him alone, others did not.
“It was people around him and people in the town who [weren’t] ready. As I tell people you must understand I came to Washington as a star. I was already an All-Pro. So they were aware of me. Well, a couple other guys said they never had any problem. That’s because they didn’t know who you were.”
So it was that in 1967, Brown and Mitchell were part of a group of black athletes who stood up for Muhammad Ali, who had come to Cleveland seeking support for Ali’s declaration that he could not fight in Vietnam because of his religious beliefs.
Brown, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell all sat around Ali as Mitchell and ex-Green Bay Packer Willie Davis and Wooten stood in a group behind them.
“A lot of people don’t understand,” Mitchell said, “that when we decided to have the meeting with Muhammad Ali about going into the service and brought him to Cleveland, all of us could have lost our jobs.
“All of us. But, again, it’s standing up.”
Brown is never shy about standing up for his beliefs. He quit playing NFL football when then-owner Art Modell demanded he leave the filming of The Dirty Dozen. He started the Ameri-I-Can program to help inner-city African-American students. He stood up for Ali. He said he played in a time when teams would make a point to have an even number of black players so whites and blacks would not have to room together. He raged against racism. He brought gang members together in Los Angeles to stop violence. He spent time in jail at the age of 64 because he thought a misdemeanor domestic charge against him was unjust.
Brown spoke at a roundtable discussion at the FanFest with Barry Sanders, and when a fan asked Sanders why he never spiked the ball after a touchdown Sanders explained that he thought his work was done once he scored.
Host Larry King asked Brown if he had ever spiked the ball, and he laughed.
“Become one of the buffoons?” he asked. “Like these 300-pound go-go dancers?”
The crowd laughed.
“That directly relates back to the fact that they need to go to college for four years to learn what dignity is,” Brown said.
The crowd applauded, and Brown took the discussion in a completely new direction, one he said he hoped would be “controversial.”
“Slavery used to promote that, to have the slaves dance and sing or kneel and boogie-woogie and all that for the entertainment of the masters,” Brown said. “These young guys are carrying that legacy on without knowing it. So they need to study history and understand that they not dance in the end zone.”
King called the point “a stretch,” and Brown didn’t argue.
Not long before the FanFest, many African-American NBA players spoke loudly against Sterling. Mitchell addressed that.
“This was one time that everybody spoke out,” Mitchell said, referring to players and people of all backgrounds. “And that was the part that I liked.”
Perhaps one day history will look back at the actions of people like Brown and Mitchell and realize that they helped change the world, that they stood up when it might not have been popular, that they made it possible for guys who came after them to succeed.
That fact was not lost on the other Hall of Famers.
“Yesterday I was sitting with Jim Brown, and Jim and I were sitting there talking, and I said, ‘Jim, tell me: What is it like to be Jim Brown?’” Carson said.
Every time he said the name, he said it slowly, with emphasis: Jim. Brown.
“You feel like a kid again when you are surrounded by these guys,” Carson said. “You just feel so insignificant.”
“They broke the ground for everybody; they paved the way,” ex-Vikings guard Randall McDaniel said. “All you can do is say thank you every time you see them. Sit back and admire the things that they did and play in those times and still be able to do the things that they did.
“I think those are the true heroes.”
The struggle never ends for Brown, and won’t as long as some are angry about the race of a goal-scorer, and not as long as an owner exists who would not welcome an African-American fan. That’s why Brown will keep standing up, and why Mitchell stands taller than many, even in a wheelchair.
In the roundtable, Brown was asked his most significant off-the-field moment.
Brown said it hasn’t happened yet, that he is in the midst of helping organize a summit to bring people together, a summit with two goals: To bring quality education to all children, regardless of race or income level, and to end violence in neighborhoods.
“By the time it’s successful,” Brown said, “I’ll probably be gone.”
The AFC North has seen some changes this offseason with a new coaching staff and GM in Cleveland, where free agency and multiple first-round draft picks are conspiring to inspire some hope in Browns fans. Is it warranted?
And will there be change in Pittsburgh if the Steelers go three straight years without a playoff berth?
What about in Baltimore, where running back Ray Rice followed up a disastrous 2013 season with a highly publicized offseason arrest? Will his slide continue next season?
And the one and only question in Cincinnati remains: Can the Bengals win a playoff game with Andy Dalton at the helm?
These issues are addressed by ESPN’s quartet of AFC North reporters: Scott Brown in Pittsburgh, Coley Harvey in Cincinnati, Jamison Hensley in Baltimore and Pat McManamon in Cleveland.
This will be Mike Tomlin's last season if the Steelers don't make the playoffs.
Scott Brown: Fiction. The Steelers have had just three head coaches since 1969, and patience with their field bosses has been one of the organization's hallmarks. The Steelers missed the playoffs three consecutive seasons from 1998 to 2000, and Bill Cowher rewarded the Steelers' patience with him by going 55-24-1 over the next five seasons and winning a Super Bowl. The Steelers have yet to experience a losing season under Tomlin, and he still commands his players' respect and attention. It is way too early to start speculating about his future in Pittsburgh.
Jamison Hensley: Fact. History is obviously against me on this one. The Steelers have been the picture of stability when it comes to head coaches, and they stuck with Bill Cowher when he went three seasons without making it to the playoffs. But the landscape of the division has changed. The Cincinnati Bengals are going to be the favorite to win a second straight AFC North title. The Baltimore Ravens, the Steelers' biggest rivals, won a Super Bowl 13 months ago. Tomlin hasn't guided the Steelers to the playoffs since 2011, and he hasn't won a postseason game since beating the New York Jets in the 2010 AFC Championship Game. If Tomlin can't get the Steelers back in the playoffs, the Rooneys need to find someone who can make this team relevant again.
Pat McManamon: Fiction. Tomlin's consecutive 8-8 seasons are disappointing in Pittsburgh, but the Rooneys will not knee-jerk a guy who has yet to have a losing season. Tomlin is wading through a major roster transition, but he's never lost his team the way some coaches do. That matters to the Rooneys, who value continuity more than anyone. Bill Cowher went 7-9 and 6-10 in 1998 and '99 and stayed seven more seasons. Belief in a system is what makes Pittsburgh successful.
The Browns will be much improved with their front-office moves, free-agent acquisitions and position in the draft.
Brown: Fiction. The Browns will be better in 2014, but there is too much uncertainty at quarterback to say improvement will come in leaps and bounds rather than in increments. Brian Hoyer is an upgrade over what the Browns have had at quarterback, but is he the long-term answer there? The top-rated quarterbacks in the draft, meanwhile, all come with different question marks and risks. There is not an Andrew Luck among the group, and until the Browns find the answer at quarterback, they will not challenge for the AFC North title.
Hensley: Fiction. I agree the Browns are going to be improved, but not much improved. The moves made on defense were lateral ones. The addition of running back Ben Tate will help, if he can stay healthy. Let's be honest, it always comes down to quarterback for the Browns. Cleveland is either going with Brian Hoyer, a journeyman who generated unrealistic expectations after two good games last season, or a promising yet inexperienced rookie. This is too bad, because the Browns have the other pieces in place to be an exciting passing attack. At this point, because of the annual question mark at quarterback, the Browns are a six- or seven-win team at best.
McManamon: Fiction: It has to happen on the field, and until it does, the Browns have everyone in Missouri, where it's a matter of showing me. With six double-digit-loss seasons in a row and some uncertainty at quarterback, the Browns have to prove to their fans they can do it. However, it must be said that a lot of logical moves have been made, and the Browns are better now than they were when free agency began. With so many high draft picks, the Browns have the chance to bring in more good players. The potential for improvement is real, but labeling it a sure thing is premature with this team.
The Bengals will never get further than the first round of the playoffs with Andy Dalton at quarterback.
Brown: Fact. You could give Dalton the benefit of the doubt after he and the Bengals fell short in his first two playoffs games. But there can be no excuses after Dalton's subpar play in January doomed the Bengals to a home loss against a Chargers team that sneaked into the playoffs. Credit Dalton for making the Bengals a perennial playoff team, but nothing in his postseason play suggests that he is the quarterback who can turn Cincinnati into a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Hensley: Fiction, although I'm not going to go as far as to say Dalton will be the reason why the Bengals win a playoff game. Marvin Lewis' young team is just too talented to be one-and-done every season. There will be a time when the Bengals win because either the defense dominates a playoff game or running back Giovani Bernard breaks loose. If you're asking me whether the Bengals will make a Super Bowl with Dalton, I would bet against it. He has been awful in his three playoff games. Dalton is the anti-Flacco. He produces great numbers in the regular season but falls apart in the playoffs.
McManamon: Fiction. Many teams would like to have Dalton. Many. Last season's first-round loss to San Diego was a large disappointment, but Dalton is going through the traditional growing pains of a quarterback. For a quarterback to be asked to throw 51 times in a playoff game is ludicrous. That was asking way too much. The switch in offensive coordinator to Hue Jackson will help because he will run the ball more, and run the ball more consistently. Dalton has averaged almost 3,800 yards and just short of 27 touchdowns his first three seasons, and people want to question his future? Absurd.
Ray Rice's decline in production will continue next season while his reputation also slides after his arrest.
Brown: Fiction. This guy has too good of a résumé to think he just fell off a cliff during his sixth NFL season (and took many a fantasy football team with him). Yes, NFL running backs have a short shelf life, and Rice has a lot of wear on his tread. But the Ravens should be better up front next season, and if anything, Rice's arrest should make him as motivated as ever to show that last season was an aberration.
Hensley: Fiction, but let me explain. I honestly don't know how Rice's play could be worse than it was last season. He averaged 3.1 yards per carry, and he was held below 60 yards rushing in 12 of 15 games. Injuries were a factor, but you have to wonder whether the wear and tear has caught up to him. In what is likely a make-or-break year for him, Rice has reportedly lost weight this offseason to regain some explosion. That would be a good sign if he were the sole problem. The Ravens haven't done anything yet to improve their offensive line from last season. If the line can't open any running lanes, it doesn't matter what kind of condition Rice is in.
Pat McManamon: Fact. When a running back loses it, it goes fast. Rice showed all the signs of losing it last season, when his per-carry average dropped to a woeful 3.1. Rice is 27, the age at which a running back's production is at its peak. ESPN Stats and Information shows a steady and severe decline starting after a back is 27, a decline that continues every season. Add in Rice's troubling offseason behavior with his fiancée and that disturbing security video and it seems his career -- and perhaps personal -- path is headed in the wrong direction..
Not only does Hawkins replace Davone Bess, he brings an entirely different skill set to the slot receiver position. Bess was a possession receiver. Hawkins is a sparkplug. Bess averaged 8.6 yards per catch last season. Hawkins averaged 9.5 yards after the catch.
In three seasons with the Bengals, Hawkins proved he was a big play waiting to happen. He could take a pass on a screen or a shallow crossing pattern and turn it into a 20-yard play. Hawkins' size makes him elusive. His speed makes him dangerous.
In 2012, 57.2 percent of his yards gained came after the catch. According to ESPN Stats & Information, only four receivers in the league that year had more yards after the catch while playing in the slot.
Why would the Bengals let him go? The Bengals have so much depth at wide receiver that Hawkins' opportunities were going to be limited. This is why it's a good move for Hawkins as well as the Browns.
Joining the Browns means Hawkins has come full circle in his career. A three-year starter at the University of Toledo, Hawkins wasn't drafted but he received a tryout for the Browns rookie minicamp. He did well enough that he was told he would be signed. But the Browns later told him they were going in a different direction.
Hawkins' journey took him to the CFL's Montreal Alouettes for two seasons before he got another shot at the NFL in 2011. But he was cut by the St. Louis Rams at the start of training camp. The Bengals picked him up, and Hawkins went on to catch 86 passes for 995 yards and four touchdowns in three seasons.
He'll be a good fit to a Browns passing game that already has talent with two Pro Bowl targets in wide receiver Josh Gordon and tight end Jordan Cameron. But Hawkins represents just a small piece of the Browns' puzzle, which still has major question marks at quarterback and running back.
It's not a particularly strong free-agent class in the AFC North, although the top ones rank among the best in the NFL.
The free-agent group in the division took a hit when tight end Dennis Pitta, outside linebacker Jason Worilds and linebacker D'Qwell Jackson all signed before the official start of free agency.
So who's left? ESPN's four team reporters in the division -- Scott Brown, Coley Harvey, Jamison Hensley and Pat McManamon -- compiled a list of the top 15 free agents in the AFC North.
The Baltimore Ravens have the most free agents on this list with eight players. The Cleveland Browns have two of the top three free agents in the division, and the Cincinnati Bengals have two of the top five. The Pittsburgh Steelers placed one free agent in the top 10.
Here are the top 15 free agents in the AFC North:
1. Alex Mack, Browns center: At 28, the two-time Pro Bowler is in the prime of his career. Mack was so coveted by the Browns that they placed a $10 million transition tag on him. It will be interesting whether another team can pry him away from Cleveland.
2. Michael Johnson, Bengals defensive end: He was better in 2012 (11.5 sacks) than he was in 2013 (3.5 sacks). Still, his size, athleticism and age (27) will make him one of the most coveted pass-rushers this offseason.
3. T.J. Ward, Browns safety: Considered one of the top 10 safeties in the NFL, Ward will draw interest from teams looking to get more physical in the secondary. He makes an impact on run defense and has improved in coverage.
4. Eugene Monroe, Ravens offensive tackle: Some believe Monroe is the top offensive tackle in free agency, but ESPN's Bill Polian has five tackles ranked ahead of him. His athleticism and upside will command a big-money contract even though he's never been to a Pro Bowl.
5. Anthony Collins, Bengals offensive tackle: He is an underrated left tackle who didn't allow a sack last season. The question mark with Collins is how he'll play as a full-time starter. He made seven starts last season and has 25 starts in six seasons in Cincinnati.
6. Jacoby Jones, Ravens receiver-returner: He was one of the top playmakers in the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl run, and he ranked among the top five returners in the league last season. Jones is inconsistent and one-dimensional as a wide receiver, but he made a lot of clutch plays for the Ravens in two seasons.
7. Art Jones, Ravens defensive end: His impact as a run defender and interior pass-rusher makes him one of the top defensive tackles available. Teams, though, have to wonder whether he'll be the same type of player without Haloti Ngata drawing double-teams next to him.
8. Daryl Smith, Ravens linebacker: He was quietly one of the NFL's top comeback stories. In his first season with the Ravens, Smith led the team with 123 tackles and finished with five sacks, three interceptions, 19 passes defensed and two forced fumbles. His age (32 this month) could be a drawback.
9. Michael Oher, Ravens offensive tackle: His play never reached the expectations placed on a first-round pick. Oher is a throwback type of player whose strengths are durability and toughness. The biggest knocks against him are mental mistakes and pass protection.
10. Emmanuel Sanders, Steelers wide receiver: He is almost 27, brings a lot of quickness and is coming off a season where he dropped just two passes (according to ESPN Stats & Information). What works against Sanders is the fact that he's never had more than 740 yards receiving in a season and averaged a career-low 11 yards per catch last season.
11. Jameel McClain, Ravens inside linebacker: He isn't among the most talented linebackers, but he prides himself on outworking others. Even though he came back from a spinal cord contusion last season, some teams will be wary of a player who had such a serious injury.
12. James Ihedigbo, Ravens safety: Known more for his special-teams play, Ihedigbo finished as the team's second-leading tackler. He'll try to find a team that will give him an opportunity to play defense now that the Ravens moved Matt Elam to his strong safety spot.
13. Ziggy Hood, Steelers defensive lineman: He never became the difference-maker the Steelers envisioned when they drafted him in the first round, but it would be unfair to call him a bust. One of the strongest players on the team, Hood lost his starting job to Cameron Heyward last season.
14. Corey Graham, Ravens cornerback: He was a starter on the Ravens' 2012 Super Bowl team and led Baltimore with four interceptions last season. Graham has proved to be a dependable nickelback, but he doesn't have the size or speed to be a full-time starter.
15. Brett Keisel, Steelers defensive lineman: He had four sacks last season and 26 quarterback pressures, third most on the Steelers, despite missing four games and playing sparingly in another because of a nagging foot injury. His age (35) will scare away a lot of teams.
While no one will deny that quarterback is a need for Cleveland, I am high on Brian Hoyer and a player like Sammy Watkins could be an amazing complement to Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron. Watkins would be very tempting and this offense could use one more receiving option as well as a huge upgrade at running back and a starting guard.
At No. 26 and with their early second-round pick, Cleveland could go in many different directions as their roster could have several major additions in free agency. The defensive backfield could use another strong prospect as well.
Whom does McShay have the Browns drafting at No. 4 and No. 26? Let's take a look:
The St. Louis Rams aren't having an open auction for the No. 2 overall pick like they did in 2012, but general manager Les Snead has already indicated a willingness to move it. Without a pair of clear-cut top quarterbacks, the market may not be in a hurry to make a move which could leave the Rams waiting until they're on the clock before making a deal. As the combine approaches along with pro days, prospects will become more valued and the market could crystallize.
Free agency is also likely to have an impact on potential trade partners as teams fill needs in other avenues. For now, we'll take a look at a possible Rams trade partner each week for the next six weeks.
Why Cleveland makes sense: Two years ago, the Browns attempted to get into a bidding war with Washington to move up to get the No. 2 pick from the Rams and select Robert Griffin III. Failing that, there were whispers that Cleveland also attempted to pry Sam Bradford away from the Rams. Neither came to fruition, which is why the Rams hold the No. 2 pick again this year.
In Cleveland, the need for a quarterback remains despite the Browns' using a first-round pick that year on Brandon Weeden and attempting to plug in other options along the way. The Browns again have the necessary ammunition to move up to get the quarterback they want as they have two first-round choices just like they did in 2012. It's a different regime in charge in Cleveland now but if the Browns have a quarterback they love, it's reasonable to assume this group won't make the same mistake as its predecessors.
With those two first-rounders this year and a lofty pick in the second round, Cleveland could probably offer the Rams more than enough to jump the two spots from No. 4 to No. 2 and still get the quarterback it might covet. If South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney goes first, that could mean having the first crack at a quarterback in this year's class. If not, the Browns could at least land the second signal-caller in the draft and still have it be the one they want most.
From the Rams' perspective, Cleveland is the ideal trade partner. The Browns have the assets needed to meet the Rams' potential price and St. Louis would be able to stay in the top four where it could still land an elite offensive tackle, wide receiver or possibly even Clowney. In a perfect world, the Rams could get both first-round choices from the Browns but that would depend on who Cleveland would be moving up for and what other bidders would enter the fray.
For what it's worth -- remember, there's plenty of misinformation out there at this time of year -- there have already been reports that the Browns are willing to move up to land Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Why Cleveland doesn't make sense: It's still very early in the process but there isn't a quarterback in the draft that has clearly emerged as a Griffin or Andrew Luck type of prospect coveted by multiple teams. The scouting combine and pro days should help in that regard but there's still no guarantee that any of them will prove worth moving up for. Theoretically, the Browns could view all the top quarterbacks in a similar vein and remain content to sit at No. 4 and hope their guy is still there or grab the next best thing.
Beyond that, Cleveland also has a couple of other quarterback options. Brian Hoyer played well for the Browns before suffering a season-ending injury in 2013. He's expected to return and could get another shot. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan also has close ties to Washington backup Kirk Cousins and it's possible the Browns could make a trade for him or even New England's Ryan Mallett without having to surrender a first-round pick. That would allow the Browns to bolster their receiving corps with someone like Clemson's Sammy Watkins or another weapon to complement Josh Gordon and tight end Cameron Jordan.
If indeed Cleveland is willing to offer a premium package to make a move, it also stands to reason it will first go to the Houston Texans at No. 1 overall as a possible trade partner. It's not that logical for the Browns to try to move up to get a quarterback unless it guarantees they'll get exactly the guy they want. The only way to do that with absolute certainty is to deal with Houston for the No. 1 selection.
No, this isn't the sexiest game on the Week 16 schedule. In fact, the two teams are a combined 1-9 since Week 10, both crashing back to reality after promising starts. They've struggled for different reasons. The Browns, losers of five straight, can throw the ball but can't run. The Jets can run but can't throw. A half-empty stadium should see quite a matchup.
ESPN.com Jets team reporter Rich Cimini and Browns reporter Pat McManamon break it all down.
Cimini: The Browns are a lot like the Jets in that they've bottomed out after the bye week. What has gone wrong?
McManamon: Short answer: different quarterbacks, no run game, one true playmaker and a defense that is adept at blowing late leads. Add in that the Browns were grossly overrated at 4-5 and it probably shouldn't be surprising this has happened.
The Browns have started three different quarterbacks. They traded Trent Richardson, and their leading rusher has less than 400 yards. The defense might be the most disappointing part of the equation, because in the offseason, the Browns made a lot of noise and spent a lot of money improving it. The numbers show things are working, but the crunch-time performance shows there is a long way to go.
Bottom line -- the Browns aren't that good. If Bill Parcells is right, and you are your record, then the Browns are a 4-10 team with only a hope of winning six.
This is the third season in a row the Jets will not make the playoffs. Has Ryan's time run its course, or are players still hearing his message?
Cimini: This three-year drought is the franchise's longest since the dark ages of the mid-1990s, when they went six seasons without a postseason appearance. Ah, memories. Frankly, I think Ryan has done a good job this season, considering the paucity of talent on offense. They played hard last week against the Carolina Panthers -- it was a three-point game before they collapsed in the fourth quarter -- so it's not like they've tuned him out.
This is a rebuilding season and, although management never called it that, owner Woody Johnson asked the fans before the season to be patient. The team has overachieved, but the problem for Ryan is that first-year general manager John Idzik might want to hire his own guy, presumably an offensive mind to help rebuild their offense.
At least the Browns can score points, Pat. I know the Chicago Bears did a good job of containing Josh Gordon, but his eyes will light up when he sees the Jets' secondary. I'm guessing the Browns are glad they didn't trade him, right?
McManamon: Sort of like they're glad Paul Brown took the job way back when. In truth, Rich, the Browns never really planned to trade Gordon unless they got an offer that knocked their proverbial socks off. That didn't stop them from answering the phone, which they did, which started the "trade talks" rumors. But the Browns' starting point for Gordon was always a first-round pick, and no team was willing to do that given he's one mistake from a one-year suspension. The Browns are thrilled he's with the team, but they also hold their breath about what could happen.
As for the Jets' secondary, of course he's eager to face it. On paper, he should have a huge game, but the same was true last Sunday against Chicago's secondary, and for whatever reason, the Browns didn't get him the ball enough, especially early. In the first half, he was targeted one time. That number has to increase this weekend.
Rich, there was some talk at last year's draft that the Browns should take Geno Smith with their first-round pick. Has Smith shown enough to justify the selection as the Jets' future quarterback?
Cimini: Absolutely not. The Jets will end this season in the same position they did last season -- not knowing their starting quarterback. Smith has the physical tools, but he has been wildly inconsistent. I could throw out a bunch of negative stats, but I'll just say this: He has had only two turnover-free games.
Like a lot of rookie quarterbacks, he'll lock on to his No. 1 read, drawing safeties into the play. He has to do a better job of finding his checkdown options and reading blitzes, a huge problem. The kid can sling it and he's durable, but he hasn't done enough for the decision-makers to say, "He's our guy." They will draft another quarterback and make it an open competition or acquire a proven veteran to take the No. 1 job. Mark Sanchez figures to be a goner.
So, Pat, it's hard to find a lot of positives in a 4-10 record, but have you seen enough to believe coach Rob Chudzinski can be "the guy"?
McManamon: I've seen enough to believe he deserves a fairer chance. No coach that has three different starting quarterbacks and four different starting running backs can win a lot. That Chudzinski had the team at 4-5 at the bye is pretty amazing. That he lost five in a row since the bye is disappointing but shouldn't be surprising.
Chudzinski has brought an aggressive attitude to the Browns, and he has handled himself well. There have been mistakes -- taking a timeout when the clock was stopped before New England's game-winning touchdown was an egregious mistake that considerably hurt the Browns' chances to win -- but also some good moments. He has handled the quarterbacks properly, shown patience with players who needed it and helped bring along Jordan Cameron and Gordon. Chudzinski looks like he could and should be the answer, but he sure deserves a fuller deck than the one he was given this season.
Old friend of the Browns Kellen Winslow spent this season in New York. Has he made any major contributions?
Cimini: Well, he made a few headlines but not for his work on the field. He got off to a decent start -- the team's leading receiver through five games -- but he was slapped with a four-game PED suspension. (He blamed it on an allergy medication, which caused some eyes to roll.) Since his return, his role has diminished. He plays only 20 to 25 snaps a game, prompting him to publicly wonder about his lack of playing time. I don't think the Jets' Thought Police appreciated the comments, so now all he does is speak in clichés.
He also didn't win any friends when he recently predicted via Twitter a Patriots-Broncos championship game -- even though the Jets were still alive. Get the picture? Winslow can still catch, but his surgically repaired knee is shot and he can't stay on the field for long stretches.
Eric Mangini was the Browns’ coach at the time, Mike Holmgren was the president and Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was a still-learning-the-ropes rookie whose miscue in attempting to field a kickoff contributed to a forgettable on-the-road disaster for New England.
The year was 2010, and that game turned out to be a high point for Mangini before he ultimately was fired at the end of the season. The Browns later hired Pat Shurmur as coach, but he was let go after two seasons, in part because of a change in ownership and front-office structure.
The new Browns regime, led by CEO Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi, has since talked about building a sustainable team with the long haul in mind. One model it'd be happy to emulate is that of the Patriots, who just clinched their 13th straight winning season, three shy of the post-NFL-merger record set by the Cowboys and 49ers.
Here to break down the matchup are ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Mike Reiss (Patriots) and Pat McManamon (Browns):
Reiss: Pat, let’s open it up with a big-picture look at the Browns. Lombardi worked under Bill Belichick with the Browns in the early-to-mid 1990s, and that connection has been well documented. I often enjoyed reading and listening to Lombardi’s media-based analysis, and now he’s back in the team-building business. How would you describe his first year on the job and how the Browns are positioning themselves for sustainability?
McManamon: Well, Mike, the short term is pretty gruesome. Last weekend’s loss to Jacksonville was as bad as any since 1999, and the team is an emotional mess. Cleveland actually believed it could and would take a step forward this season, but in all likelihood the Browns are headed for their sixth season in a row with four or five wins. How’s that for consistency and sustainability? The only thing the Browns confirmed this season is they’d rather not have Brandon Weeden at quarterback next season. Other than that, they’re as muddled today as they were when training camp started. The drafted players have not helped, there is no run game, there is no second receiver and the defense let Chad Henne go 80 yards for a game-winning drive on Sunday. Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln ...
Mike, as you say, the Patriots are a model of sustainability. Part of that reason is they hit on Tom Brady in the sixth round of the 2000 draft. How much of their sustained success is due to Brady and how much is due to other factors? And can you say what those factors are that the Browns might be lacking?
Reiss: Brady is a huge factor in what the Patriots have accomplished, as his excellence helps mask other deficiencies. At the same time, it was no fluke that in the one year he tore his ACL on the 15th offensive play of the season (2008), the Patriots finished with an 11-5 record. That accomplishment continues to look better as the years go by, especially when looking at a team like the 2013 Packers and how they are struggling without injured starter Aaron Rodgers in recent weeks.
Belichick has built a strong program from top to bottom, and one of the key parts of it is depth. Many teams talk about building a roster that is strong from 1 to 61 (53-man roster plus eight-man practice squad), but it takes discipline to follow through on it. Some unpopular decisions have to be made at times for clubs that take that approach. This year is a good example, as the Patriots have lost some big-time players on defense (Vince Wilfork, Jerod Mayo) to season-ending injuries, but it hasn’t sunk their season. This is an exceptionally well-coached team, and the players, for the most part, buy in to the team concept.
So, no doubt, it’s huge to have someone like Brady to build around. And that’s a position that I’d expect, from this faraway view, the Browns to target in 2014. That said, quarterback Brian Hoyer was the backup in New England from 2009 to 2011, and it looked like he created a spark for the Browns before tearing his ACL. What do you think his future looks like in Cleveland?
McManamon: He did create a spark, and at this moment he probably heads into 2014 as the Browns' starter. Hoyer is recovering and rehabbing aggressively from his surgery, to the point that no limp or sign of the injury is visible when he walks. Hoyer played with smarts and savvy, and played well. But the problem is that he played only two games, which is hardly a fair sample size. So Hoyer should expect competition, whether it’s another veteran free agent, whether it’s Jason Campbell returning or whether it’s a drafted player. Hoyer will be back, but he’ll have to prove himself again.
Mike, Josh Gordon is the Browns' lone bright spot. His 498 receiving yards over the past two games is an NFL record. He’s also the first to have more than 200 yards in a season. Am I correct in assuming that Aqib Talib will cover him, and what do you think Belichick will do to disrupt Gordon’s route running? The guy is so big and strong that it’s extremely hard to rough him up at the line the way Belichick likes to do.
Reiss: One thing Belichick often says is that if a defense decides it’s going to take away something from an offense, it usually can. It’s just a matter of how many resources the defense wants to devote to do so because it will weaken itself in other areas. Several times this season, we’ve seen Talib match up against the opponent’s top receiver, and outside of one game, Nov. 18 at Carolina against Steve Smith, he has been excellent. So it makes sense to think that would be a matchup the Patriots consider, in addition to devoting safety help to Gordon’s side of the field, if they feel that strongly about Gordon’s big-play ability. It doesn’t look like the Browns have many other top weapons that could make that type of plan hurt.
Pat, if we go back to our early-season predictions, which show that the term “expert” should be taken lightly in my case, I picked the Browns as a surprise playoff team in part because I thought their defense would carry them. Call it my mistake by the Lake. Even as they are building with 2014 in mind, which seemed to be the plan from the get-go, I thought they’d be further along this year. So why the struggles?
McManamon: Pretty simple -- they were overrated. The Browns have some decent players, and one guy pushing to be great (Joe Haden), but they don’t have a great player yet. Combine that with learning a new system and an offense that has turned the ball over 11 times the past three games, and struggles will follow. Defensive coordinator Ray Horton has backed up his claims about his guys with numbers, but at some point the old adage “stats are for losers” comes into play. No defense that gives up an 80-yard touchdown drive to the 32nd-ranked offense can call itself great, or even good.
Mike, on paper, this is a huge mismatch. Do you see any way Brady or Belichick kicks this away and lets the Browns steal this game?
Reiss: I don’t, Pat, but let’s toss out a scenario that could give the Browns their best chance. They would have to possess the ball, playing keep-away from Brady, and somehow come up with a “bonus” score on either defense or special teams. The Patriots’ defense has looked vulnerable the past two games, so it’s not like this is an invincible unit that can’t be exploited in certain areas. But given the quarterback questions the Browns have entering this one, and their general struggles overall, it’s just hard for me to see how they can escape Gillette Stadium -- traditionally one of the toughest places to win at this time of year -- with a victory unless Belichick decided to give his pal Lombardi an early holiday gift to take some of the pressure off him.
Modell, perhaps the most controversial finalist last year, didn't make the semifinalist list for the Class of 2014, which was announced Tuesday night. He had been a semifinalist for eight of the previous nine years and was a finalist in 2002 and 2013.
Six coaches and contributors made the semifinal round this year: former coaches Don Coryell, Tony Dungy and Jimmy Johnson, former owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue and former general manager George Young , who was a Baltimore native.
The biggest roadblock for Modell remains his relocation of the Browns to Baltimore in 1996. There are four owners in the Hall of Fame who have moved their franchises: Dan Reeves (Rams), Al Davis (Raiders), Lamar Hunt (Chiefs) and George Preston Marshall (Redskins).
"I do think he’s the most accomplished person in the history of the NFL that is not in," Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti said last year.
The Browns come into the contest fresh off their bye, and two weeks after knocking off the Ravens in a 24-18 win at home. That victory, coupled with a Bengals loss at Baltimore last week, put the Browns firmly in the division race. What once appeared to be a one-team division has suddenly become a three-team push for first. The Ravens and Browns come into the weekend with the same overall record, and just 1.5 games out of first place.
With a win Sunday, the Bengals, could push their lead over the Browns, at least, to 2.5 games as they enter their bye.
As you get ready for the day's game, here are a few items to be aware of:
Kickoff/TV: 1 p.m. ET/CBS
Weather: 65 degrees. Winds: Gusts up to 16 mph during the game; up to 21 mph by 4 p.m.
Record: Browns (4-5); Bengals (6-4)
Series history: Cincinnati enters the 81st installment of the "Battle of Ohio" with a 42-38 series lead. After dropping seven of the previous eight, the Browns have won two straight games against the Bengals, including the teams' Week 4 showdown in Cleveland. With backup-turned-starter Brian Hoyer filling in for an injured Brandon Weeden, the Browns rolled to a 17-6 win in that game. The Bengals' offense only mustered 266 yards of total offense against a physical Browns defense.
Worth noting: The Bengals and Browns enter Sunday's game with the fourth- and fifth-ranked defenses, respectively. Combined, the teams have allowed just one 300-yard passer this season. With unfavorable weather conditions, and the pairing of the two defenses, it's unlikely that either quarterback will reach that mark in this game. Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has gone beyond the 300-yard mark four times in the past five games.
Just before pregame warmups officially began, Bengals middle linebacker Rey Maualuga (doutbful/knee) came out and started going through some conditioning drills. It appeared the Bengals were just testing him out, putting him through ladder and other agility drills. Maualuga hasn't played since the Bengals' 49-9 win against the Jets four weeks ago, in Cincinnati's previous home game. During that game, he suffered an MCL sprain and a concussion. His replacement, fourth-year linebacker Vincent Rey, has 18 tackles, three sacks and an interception in the two games he's played in relief. Maualuga practiced Friday in a limited capacity for the first time since suffering his injury.
Browns Friday Injury Report
OUT: TE MarQueis Gray (hamstring)
QUESTIONABLE: OL Jason Pinkston (ankle)
PROBABLE: QB Jason Campbell (ribs), RB Willis McGahee (knee), LB Paul Kruger (finger), RB Chris Ogbonnaya (ribs), CB Christopher Owens (finger)
Bengals Friday Injury Report
OUT: DT Devon Still (elbow), OG Kevin Zeitler (foot)
DOUBTFUL: CB Chris Crocker (hamstring), LB Rey Maualuga (knee)
QUESTIONABLE: LB James Harrison (calf)
PROBABLE: LB Michael Boley (hamstring), LB Vontaze Burfict (knee), C Kyle Cook (shoulder), TE Jermaine Gresham (groin), CB Terence Newman (ankle), DT Brandon Thompson (ankle)
Final San Diego 22 Buffalo 10 Final Dallas 34 St. Louis 31 Final Washington 34 Philadelphia 37 Final Houston 17 New York 30 Final Minnesota 9 New Orleans 20 Final Tennessee 7 Cincinnati 33 Final Baltimore 23 Cleveland 21 Final Green Bay 7 Detroit 19 Final Indianapolis 44 Jacksonville 17 Final Oakland 9 New England 16 Final San Francisco 14 Arizona 23 Final/OT Denver 20 Seattle 26 Final Kansas City 34 Miami 15 Final Pittsburgh 37 Carolina 19