Commentary

Future holds hope for Bengals, Browns

Armed with high draft picks, perennial doormats could alter AFC North power structure

Originally Published: October 19, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The Bengals and Browns have played bridesmaids to the Steelers and Ravens for an eternity.

Since 1991, the Browns have had only three winning seasons, the Bengals two. Things were so bad in Cleveland, the city lost its original team to Baltimore.

Tuesday's surprising Carson Palmer trade offers hope that the futures of both franchises might be changing.

In exchange for Palmer, the Bengals picked up a 2012 first-round pick and a second-rounder in 2013 that could become a first-rounder if the Raiders reach the AFC title game in either of the next two seasons. The Browns received five draft picks, including a first- and fourth-rounder in 2012, from the Falcons in the Julio Jones draft-day deal in April. The potential of five first-round picks going to these franchises in 2012 and 2013 offers hope that two or three years down the line, the power structure within the AFC North might change.

The rosters in Pittsburgh and Baltimore are getting older. The Steelers have eight defensive starters in their 30s. The Ravens' Ray Lewis and Ed Reed can't play forever, can they?

How the Bengals and Browns handle the next two drafts will determine the timetable for them to be on an even playing field with the Steelers and Ravens. The first order of business is seeing how quarterbacks Andy Dalton (Bengals) and Colt McCoy (Browns) stack up against Ben Roethlisberger of the Steelers and Joe Flacco of the Ravens.

If Dalton and McCoy are good enough to compete, then those picks can be used to add playmakers around the quarterbacks. The Bengals have the edge over the Browns in that regard. Wide receiver A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham are exceptional young playmakers. The Bengals also hold a slight edge on defense, ranking second in yards allowed (278.5) under coordinator Mike Zimmer. The Browns, who switched to a 4-3, rank seventh (321.8 yards allowed).

There are some around the league who believe Dalton might become a star. For a rookie, he's exceptional managing the game and is completing 62.4 percent of his passes. McCoy has struggled in his second year and is completing only 55.8 percent this season.

The key is whether both have the arm strength to survive in November and December games in the open-air conditions of the four AFC North cities. The Steelers and Ravens thrive in those elements because Roethlisberger and Flacco can throw successfully in wind, rain and blustery conditions. To win in the AFC North, quarterbacks have to hit the sideline throws and fire deep completions.

But if the Bengals and Browns find out their quarterbacks are better suited for indoor stadiums, they still have the draft choice clout to find other solutions. Regardless, there has to be optimism about the futures of the Browns and Bengals.

From the inbox

Q: I have been a lifelong Raiders fan and was wondering what are the odds that Mark Davis sells the team. If he does, what are the chances that someone like Mark Cuban could purchase it? I feel like he would be an awesome owner who would do everything he could to make the Raiders Super Bowl champs again.

Jess in Orem, Utah

A: Al Davis spent years and a lot of dollars trying to make sure the Raiders stay in the Davis name. I don't think the Raiders will have to sell. They have sold minority shares in the team to make sure everything is right financially and in structure. Though it will be tough to run the organization without Al Davis, the Raiders stepped up the day after his public viewing to make the Carson Palmer trade. At least the new people running the team are showing to the fans they will do anything to win.

Q: It's reasonable to assume that unless something drastic happens, the Rams are going to end up with two to four wins. That said, how likely is it that coach Steve Spagnuolo gets fired and becomes the Eagles' defensive coordinator?

Nick in Philadelphia

A: Everyone in St. Louis likes Spagnuolo, but a disastrous season, which this is shaping up to be, could cost him is job. That could open the door for him going to Philadelphia. The big thing is whether Andy Reid keeps his job. The 2-4 Eagles have their own problems. I was at the Eagles-Redskins game and the heat was on Reid and the Eagles. They responded as they usually do for Reid. But a bad season could put Reid in jeopardy. Spags could help the Eagles a lot if he's available.

Q: Has the Cover 2 defense become obsolete? It seems as if the teams that employ that scheme have all struggled this season, especially against the run.

Brian in Fishers, Ind.

A: It's not obsolete, but it needs to be coached better leaguewide. One of the problems is cornerbacks aren't rerouting receivers the right way to help the Cover 2. The Cover 2 also has problems if you can't pressure the quarterback. Teams that run Cover 2 schemes need to do a lot more self-scouting to fix their problems.

Q: Do you see the Broncos turning it around with Tim Tebow at QB? They were much more competitive last year when he started. Do you see him being productive this year?

Justin in Fort Hood, Texas

A: I don't see them turning it around this year. With luck, maybe they can get to six wins. With only two or three, they may get Andrew Luck. It didn't help matters when the Broncos traded their most-talented wide receiver, Brandon Lloyd. Lloyd is the type of athletic wide receiver who could turn bad Tebow throws into completions. The Broncos are giving up 28 points a game. They are scoring 21. That means Tebow would have to improve the offense by a touchdown a game. I don't think he has the consistency throwing the football to be able to do that.

Q: Jim Irsay said if the Colts had the chance, they would draft Andrew Luck and let him sit for three or four years. He compared Luck to Aaron Rodgers, who was drafted 24th overall in the 2005 draft, and who wasn't as polished or highly regarded as Luck. My question is, would Luck even consider going to a team if he had to sit for three or four years? Rodgers benefitted from sitting behind Favre, but I think you would have to plug Luck into the lineup right away.

Matt in Phoenix

A: Luck wouldn't have any choice in the matter. He's part of a draft and has to go to the team that selects him. But because he's such a good player, something would be worked out. If the Colts get the first pick, teams will be calling them like mad to make offers for Luck or Peyton Manning. We just watched the Bengals' Mike Brown get two first-rounders for Carson Palmer. The price for Luck or Manning almost certainly would be higher.

[+] EnlargeTony Romo
Matthew Emmons/US PresswireTony Romo is better than most of his critics think. Just look at the numbers.

Q: I love my Cowboys, and still consider Tony Romo to be an above-average/borderline great QB. He wins some and loses some. However, the haters say he has to leave Dallas for the team to have a real shot. How do you feel about Romo?

Adam in East Haven, Conn.

A: I think he is better than people think because there aren't a lot of quarterbacks who have the ability to complete 60 percent of their passes, throw for 250 to 300 yards a game and get more than 25 touchdown passes a season. It's more than just the stats with Romo. Sure, he throws too many bad interceptions. But he also makes a lot of good plays. Every town wants a new quarterback. I've had notes in my inbox from one person who wants to give up on Tom Brady. Romo is the best quarterback this franchise has had since Troy Aikman. Remember the quarterback play before Romo? That's what it might be like without him.

Q: I believe the reason we are seeing higher offensive numbers is because defenses have become handcuffed by the league. Makes no sense that the league is trying to take away a part of the game that made it so great and successful.

Joe in Fresno, Calif.

A: Your point is fair, but the league also knows that offense sells tickets and increases viewership. Football is always going to be violent by nature. It's a game of collisions. The league has made it tougher for defensive players to succeed because helmet tackling and horse collars aren't allowed any more. It's becoming very difficult for cornerbacks and safeties. But they just have to adjust. Coaches have to adjust, too.

Q: I'm a very avid Jaguars fan. I understand we are 1-5. But look at our team! We are not getting our butts kicked up and down the field. We should've beaten the Panthers, but our coach was just too conservative with the play calling due to the hard rain and our rookie QB's first game. We held the Saints to 23 points, and we should've beaten the Bengals. Do you think the Jaguars are good?

Bryan in Cucamonga, Calif.

A: Right now, they aren't very good. They lack playmakers at wide receiver. They have holes along the offensive line. They seem to be too banged up in the secondary and they can't seem to find the right combination at safety. It's pretty clear Jack Del Rio is in his last year coaching in Jacksonville. They have a good general manager in Gene Smith who has earned a lot of respect for what he does in the draft. Be patient.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Follow Clayton on Twitter @ClaytonESPN

John Clayton

NFL senior writer