“There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” – Oscar Wilde
To say it has been a long road for the Cleveland Browns would be glossing over a trail of disappointments, failures, and heartache so painful that I can’t stand to do it here. What I will say is that this team has had very little to celebrate since the comeback season of 1999.
The inflection point was in 2017 when the team bottomed-out and went 0-16. That season is now six years in the rearview mirror, and perhaps for the first time since the Browns have come back, they enter a season having the roster that they want from top to bottom.
The team went into the offseason with a solid base — a running game anchored by perennial workhorse and weight room warrior Nick Chubb, a solid offensive line, a franchise quarterback in Deshaun Watson, a dominant defensive end in Myles Garrett and solid corners, when healthy.
This is the basic recipe for winning in the NFL these days.
What the Browns wanted to do was fix the defense up front, improve the artillery of weapons for Deshaun Watson, and (oh yes) figure out what to do about the whole Cade York experience.
Defensive coordinator Joe Woods was under a constant barrage of scrutiny last year from the fans for his team’s poor performance — particularly up-front — and rightfully so, as the defense continuously failed in big moments.
The Browns set out for an overhaul this season and brought in a guy with over 19 years of NFL experience in Jim Schwartz. He will be bringing a different look to the team. His “wide-nine” technique stresses getting the defensive ends far outside and having them attack.
This not only provides pressure off the edge — hello, Myles Garrett sack over totals — but also stretches the blockers out to create room inside for linebackers to attack.
This scheme requires pressure to work, and the Browns went out and got Schwartz the proper personnel. Jadeveon Clowney did not provide the spark opposite Myles Garrett everyone had expected, so he exited in the offseason for Za’Darius Smith. Smith and Garrett will provide the outside pressure Jim Schwartz needs to fuel his entire defense.
“It’s a one-plus-one-equals-three type of thing when they’re working together and interacting,” said defensive line coach Ben Bloom via Cleveland.com.
The Browns also added DE Ogbonnia Okoronkwo and DT Dalvin Tomlinson in the middle, as well as safety Juan Thornhill in the secondary. Thornhill had a nice pick six in Schwartz’s Cover 1 scheme against his old Chiefs club in the preseason finale.
There is some trepidation, however, when it comes to the corner position. The assumption is that Denzel Ward will return to his two-time Pro Bowl form, but he is currently in concussion protocol with the team, and, if diagnosed with a concussion, it will be the fourth in a six-year career.
The other Browns starting corner, Greg Newsome, had a rough offseason both getting robbed at gunpoint outside a nightclub with now former Brown Perrion Winfrey, and Newsome is now working through a hamstring injury.
If both Ward and Newsome can remain healthy and active this season the Browns will have a solid unit. Not taking anything away from the backups, including Martin Emerson and Cameron Mitchell (who had a solid preseason) but when you have Joe Burrow, Lamar Jackson, and perhaps an emergent Kenny Pickett in the division, the Browns need their starters out there or it could be a long season defensively.
Despite the improvements on defense the Browns will not go anywhere in a loaded division without being able to move the ball and that falls on the $230 million dollar man, Deshaun Watson. Despite a, well, “inconsistent” (I’m being kind here) six-game stint last year, Deshaun has come out and, as expected, looked good against few starters and mainly backups and practice squad players. He made a nice toss in the finale to David Njoku for a touchdown and generally looked comfortable.
ESPN’s Jake Trotter came on our show and noted that Deshaun has looked inconsistent at times in practice. He has had throws like the one to Njoku but those are sprinkled in amongst plays where he seems to be off. Hopefully this is just part of his growth with a new look receiving core bolstered by offseason acquisition Elijah Moore.
The Browns are counting on Watson to return to his 2020 form where he led the league in passing for the team to be real contenders in the AFC.
Finally, the Browns added former Brown Bubba Ventrone as the new special teams coordinator. His first task was to figure out whether the team wanted to continue the Cade York experience. After a tumultuous preseason that included multiple missed game winners, an episode that left York flailing on the field, a blocked field goal, and fans at the end of their rope, York was finally released in favor of Chargers K Dustin Hopkins.
This “DHop” may not be the DHop the Browns entered the offseason coveting, but ultimately could be the key to the whole season if he can consistently make extra points and field goals.
On paper this Browns team has everything the Browns want. The best roster the Browns have had since they came back.
The division is going to be tough — especially if Pittsburgh ends up showing life like they have in the preseason (3-0) with Kenny Pickett’s small hands at the till. Provided Joe Burrow stays healthy and upright, I believe the Bengals will ultimately be the team to beat. Baltimore certainly has enough firepower with Lamar Jackson, and you can never count them out.
My bold, less-than-sober prediction sure to go wrong for the Browns this season is 10-7 and a Wild Card berth.
After all — we got everything we wanted.
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