Monday, January 2, 2012
No quick fix for Browns after 4-12 season
BEREA, Ohio -- The growing pains were agonizing, the mistakes numerous, the progress difficult to spot.
The Cleveland Browns had another one of those seasons.
Losing, though, has its rewards in the NFL, which compensates its worst teams with high draft picks to help them get better. After going 4-12, the Browns, with one of the league's youngest rosters, will have the No. 4 overall selection in April and Cleveland fans are already frothing at the chance to bring in a college star like Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III to be their savior.
As he packed his bags for the offseason Monday, Browns cornerback Sheldon Brown issued a warning to that line of thinking.
"My thing is, if you're dependent on a draft pick to come in here and change your life, then you're kidding yourself," he said. "This game is too hard."
It certainly has been for the Browns, who haven't made the playoff since 2002. They've lost at least 11 games in each of the past four seasons and a minimum of 10 in eight of the past nine. Green Bay (15) won more games this season than the Browns (14) have won in the past three seasons -- combined.
And consider this stat: The defending Super Bowl champion Packers outscored the Browns 560-218.
So while some think Griffin, the Heisman Trophy winner, is the answer to all of Cleveland's prayers, Brown believes the Browns already have the players they need to win consistently.
"The guys here have to step their game up to another level because they're experienced," he said. "Most rookies get hurt because they get tired and they don't understand the speed and the strength of this game at the professional level. So I'm never sold on high draft picks."
It was a turbulent first season in Cleveland for coach Pat Shurmur, who because of the NFL lockout didn't have an offseason to install his new West Coast offense or get to know his team on the field. He made his share of mistakes, but Brown, who was previously with Shurmur in Philadelphia, is confident Browns president Mike Holmgren hired the right coach.
Shurmur has his detractors, but there's no denying that the Browns, who went 0-6 in the rugged AFC North, played hard for him.
"He did a tremendous job," Brown said. "Everybody thinks it's an easy job, everybody wants to sit in a room and say, `I can do this better, I can do that better.' He dealt with the situations to the best of my knowledge, the best he could, and he kept this football team fighting. And for me, that's how I judge a head coach.
"If a football team goes out there and competes week in and week out, through thick and through thin -- and it was very thick this year -- but we didn't quit. So that tells me that the leader is in place."
Shurmur will discuss his rollercoaster rookie year Tuesday, and Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert are scheduled to meet the media Thursday, when they're sure to be grilled about the team's tricky quarterback situation.
Colt McCoy made 13 starts this season, but missed his final three games with a concussion. The Browns have a better sense of what McCoy is, and there's a strong argument to be made for sticking with him in 2012 after investing so much time into his development.
But if the Browns -- particularly Holmgren -- don't think McCoy can take them to a Super Bowl, they may look for a starting QB in free agency, a trade or the draft. With Stanford's Andrew Luck expected to go No. 1 overall to Indianapolis, the next best choice could be Griffin, who resurrected Baylor and would be counted on to do the same with the Browns.
Brown, for one, isn't counting on Griffin to ride in to the rescue.
"I'm definitely not, and if you are, you're crazy," he said.
Crazy would describe Cleveland's wild season, which included costly injuries, endless drama around running back Peyton Hillis, dropped passes, and tough losses. The Browns lost six games by seven points or less, dropping their final three by a total of 13 points.
But close doesn't put anything in the win column, and kicker Phil Dawson, whose 13th season with the Browns may have been his best, said the near misses can only help if players learned something from them.
"We were in a lot of games. It's death by inches, though," said Dawson. "Are we that close, or is that just the nature of the league? It depends on your personality, how you're going to view that. In my little world, if my plant foot misses the spot by a quarter-inch, I miss the kick.
"That will probably tell you how I look at it. Everybody looks at themselves critically and figure out how they can improve. If we do that, now these close games are coming out in our favor. Hopefully that's the way guys respond to it."
Brown, too, thinks the Browns are nearing legitimacy.
"We're very close," said the 10-year veteran. "It's one or two plays each game. You just have to find the playmakers and they just have to understand the sense of urgency and make the play."
That sounds like a broken record, but Brown said he hasn't felt this way before -- not with the Browns.
"I didn't tell you this last year," he said. "I thought we were way off last year."
The Browns put their franchise tag on Dawson this season and may do so again. The 36-year-old said he had a positive exit interview with team management and was encouraged by Heckert's recent comments that the team would like to have him back. It would be hard to imagine the Browns not re-signing him.
Dawson has served his time -- hard time -- in Cleveland. The Browns have gone 68-141 during his tenure, and Dawson would hate not to be here when things finally get turned around. After waiting so long, he would hate to miss out on the good times.
"I don't want to be Moses," he said. "I don't want to lead the people right to the edge and not get to go in. There's going to be so many things, I can't prioritize them at this point. We just lost to the Steelers 20 hours ago and that still hurts. I need to get home and eat a burrito."
Hopefully, it will go down easier than this season.