Season Preview: 2013 Cleveland Browns

Is it “Groundhog Day” or the start of something great? Yet another of the city’s reboots destined to fail, or a true renaissance of our football fortunes?

For the first time in my life, I have a tough time truly caring.

The 2013 Cleveland Browns probably have more talent than previous new iterations. The 1999 Chris Palmer-led squad was completely bereft of starting-caliber players. Butch Davis came over from UNC in 2001, switched the defense to a 3-4, and was victimized by his and his predecessors’ horrendous drafting. (For context: Kellen Winslow Jr. was probably the team’s best first round pick from 1999-2002.)

Reboot v. 3 was led by Romeo Crennel and aided by a general manager (Phil Savage) who actually stumbled his way into some productive players through the draft, a feat never accomplished by those before him. Crennel, though, was a defensive coordinator pretending to be a head coach, and the team’s once-bright core (Winslow, Derek Anderson, Braylon Edwards) quickly imploded. Eric Mangini never saw an ex-Jet he didn’t love, and Pat Shurmur was a feckless knowitall, wasting another four seasons of fans’ time between them.

Compared to this bleak history, it would be tough to underachieve. So why the despair?

In the penultimate season of this fail-fest known as the “new” Browns, the team made Brandon Weeden the oldest player ever selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. The Browns were full of young talent and needed a few more playmakers to grow with them. Instead of waiting until later rounds to select one of the many quality quarterbacks still available, they pulled the trigger on someone who was in his prime years before playing a professional snap.

That the player was a failed pitching prospect of the hated New York Yankees seemed like a joke that couldn’t be topped. Until it was. Multiple times.

In 2012 Browns fans experienced the treat of a former Steelers owner buying their team. This year, we have the privilege of our owner being the subject of a federal investigation for rebate fraud. Such painful irony can’t be scripted.

Losing doesn’t bother me, nor does it really bother too many Clevelanders at this point. We’re used to it. What I can no longer tolerate is the complete abandonment of principles in the process.

The Haslam and Weeden debacles have been followed by more inexcusable actions. The team nearly got Colt McCoy killed, yelled at his dad for saying something, and then ran him out of town. It cut former Pro Bowler and fan favorite return man Josh Cribbs due to a slight drop in production. It hired an executive from the despicable Philadelphia Eagles as its team president and a former NFL Network analyst as its general manager in acts of unadulterated cronyism. And it installed a 3-4 defense that ignored admirable contributions from one of the best defensive lines in football, and probably cost a few players well-deserved paydays.

I am close to, if not at, my breaking point. There are emotional ties to the Browns that may perhaps never be severed, but the team is certainly testing them.

So how will they actually do? Despite two ancient, strong-armed and weak-minded quarterbacks, this team is pretty solid on paper. The defense has question marks in the secondary that, in most games, should be masked by a very strong front seven. Offensive playmakers will be given a chance to shine thanks to a stacked o-line led by Pro Bowlers Joe Thomas and Alex Mack. There is little depth, however; no reliable second or third wide receivers, no decent backup running backs, and not much in the way of tight ends. (Jordan Cameron is a receiver playing TE.) If Trent Richardson or Josh Gordon misses much time, the unit could be one of the league’s worst. Weeden should do just enough to keep his job, assuming the coaches have actually seen backup Jason Campbell play football.

Meanwhile, the division is ripe for the taking. Baltimore may still be the AFC North’s best, but the customary post-Super Bowl fleecing has left it vulnerable. Pittsburgh losing Mike Wallace to free agency should add a win to the Browns’ total, and the ceiling on the much-ballyhooed Cincinnati Bengals seems limited with Andy Dalton at the helm. 10-6 would seem to be plenty to win it, but I don’t see the Browns getting past 8-8 even in a best case scenario.

With any luck, Haslam winds up in jail, the team trades for Kirk Cousins, and Barkevious Mingo reveals that his secret hobby is saving sick puppies from oncoming traffic. Until then, I will remain skeptical of a team that has trounced on my emotions too many times.

Projected record: 7-9

Projected AFC North results: 1-Bengals, 2-Ravens, 3-Browns, 4-Steelers

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