Is there hope for Cleveland?

I’m desperate for the Browns to start winning.

You don’t need me to tell you but they’ve won four games in the last 47 across three seasons. It looks like they’ll become just the second team in NFL history to go 0–16 if they lose this week to the Steelers. Given the Steelers have won 25 of the last 28 games between them this seems a distinct possibility. By any measure the Browns are awful. So why do I care?

The reason I love the NFL is because it’s a league about equality and hope. The salary cap and draft mean that teams essentially have the same resources with which to create and maintain a team. The only real differences are the ingenuity and acumen of those who run the team and their ability to spot and nurture those qualities in others. The whole point is that all teams should get their turn at being good and that every team in the league could be competitive. For someone who grew up surrounded by the deeply unfair system of soccer where the rich, big teams are heavily favoured and it’s almost impossible to break into those elite circles the NFL’s system seems deeply satisfying to me. It just makes sense.

Most sports fans claim to want a fair league where anyone can win but I don’t believe it. How many of them would jump at the chance for a near-monopoly where their favourite team has a great chance of winning the title every season? Rangers and Celtic in Scotland have won every single league title since 1985. Very few of their fans seem upset by this. Portuguese football has crowned a champion every season since 1934 and only five clubs have ever won it (two of those have only one title each) and Portuguese fans don’t complain. I’m a Patriots fan and I don’t often find myself thinking “maybe the Dolphins, jets or Bills could do with winning the division a bit more”. Fans want to win. But as I find myself more and more a fan and student of the league and sport as a whole and less of a blinkered, team fan I find myself yearning for more equality. And I find myself wondering why.

During my team following the NFL (around 20 seasons now) there have been periods when several teams were bad for sustained periods. The Raiders were awful for a long time. The Lions are a pretty weak franchise. I can’t remember the Bills in the playoffs. The Cardinals were bywords for failure for most of that time. And the league suffered for it. There will always be some bad teams in each and every season. That’s just how it works. But those bad teams need to rotate just as much as the good teams do to keep things fresh. The league landscape is simply better for it because we want everyone to have hope.

Hope is a huge part of being an NFL fan. The season only lasts from September to December for the majority of the league. The rest of the time we fans spend convincing ourselves that this year it just might be out year. That’s great fun. Every free agent, every draft pick, every new coach convinces us that things can change. And we get to argue about how it could pan out and what might happen. The very essence of what being a sports fan is about. As a group we want to believe that any team can be much better really quickly. This is the reason so many people loved the 2016 Raiders team. Derek Carr and Amari Cooper and Khalil Mack were fresh and fill of promise. A league with a trash-talking, bullying, nasty raiders team was suddenly far more fun. The 2017 Jags are a great example too. Suddenly they’re the top pass-rushing defense in the league and we can’t wait for Calais Campbell, Yannick Nagkoue and Dante Fowler to be causing mayhem and upsets in January.

But the Browns take the biscuit. They’re awful and they’ve been awful for a long time. They haven’t had a quarterback worthy of the name for decades. They’ve had three winning seasons since 1990. The whole team was taken away, brought back as a new incarnation and is still awful. People openly dismiss any player they might pick because they know anyone doomed to be sent to Cleveland will be turned into a failure by the sheer weight of terribleness etched into the walls. NFL fans think they should change their name as if somehow a nickname causes all the losing.

I’ve never been to Cleveland. I have no desire to go to Cleveland. I know very few people from Cleveland. I have no real interest in the team or city apart from the fact that they’re consistently bad and I don’t want any team to be that. I want the NFL to be a living example of how anyone can get good again because it fuels the year-round suspension of disbelief that I love so much.

So given I’m fully sold into a league where every dog has it’s day I’m desperate for a turnaround. So can the Browns do it? Can they be good? I thought I’d examine their roster and see how hopeful I really am.

Quarterback is obviously a disaster. The Browns seem genuinely cursed. You see? Even I’m falling into the trap of believing that the supernatural is somehow the cause. Deshone Kizer was never a sure thing. He was always a gamble. It looks like it won’t pay off but the team will surely invest one of their two top-five picks in a brand new, talented signal-caller in the draft. Fresh hope. It seems bad but yes — this could turn around very fast.

The face of a man who is not the answer.

At running back Duke Johnson is one of the five best pass-catching backs in the NFL. That’s not something to build your roster around but it’s a useful piece. Isaiah Crowell is a league-average player on early downs but the team could easily shore this up. We’ve seen several teams manage to do this without investing heavy draft capital recently.

Wide receiver is a conundrum. Fans are excited about Josh Gordon given his proven potential but there’s a very strong possibility he’s never that player consistently again. Corey Coleman was a top talent coming into the league but has shown very little of that on the field and after that there’s nothing. According to PFF the Browns best WR (Coleman) is the 85th best WR in the league. Regardless of potential that’s a very bad situation to be in.

David Njoku represents hope at tight end. He’s certainly athletic and again has potential but showed very little this season. There is an argument he never had much opportunity but we’ve seen plenty of success at the position without stellar QB play. And the fact he couldn’t beat out Seth DeValve for more playing time isn’t a good sign either. I hope Njoku takes a second year step but it’s certainly not certain.

Njoku looked better in camp than he did on the real field

He interior offensive line seems set. Joel Bitonio, Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter are a serious strength. As is of course a Joe Thomas at full strength at tackle. But he’s 33 and will be coming off a serious injury. Put it this way — he’s not very likely to improve is he? I’m hopeful here though. With the addition of one extra player the line could easily become a top five unit — and that certainly is something to build a team around.

Defensive end is clearly a strength. Or will become one soon. Myles Garrett has played sparingly (just 467 snaps so far) but looked electric. Emmanuel Ogbah and Carl Nassib aren’t likely to be superstars but they’re certainly good enough to be on the field. With the right coaching this could easily be a very good unit in 2018 and beyond. Garrett’s ceiling is getting to the All-Pro level.

Potential franchise changer?

The interior of the line is also a promising work in progress. Danny Shelton has been very disappointing this season at 1-tech but I’m prepared to believe it was down to injuries. Larry Ogunjobi has looked excellent as a 3-tech and I’m hoping he improves. It doesn’t take much imagination to see them as the foundation for a fantastic unit in the vein of Kawann Short and Star Lotulelei.

I think linebacker is a interesting spot. Christian Kirksey and Joe Schobert have both been OK but not great. They’re not a weakness at all but their fantasy numbers make people think they’re much better players than they really are because Gregg Williams scheme tends to make them stand out on the stat sheet. I’m still shocked how many people think Alec Ogletree is a good NFL player because of the stats he put up under Williams. Jamie Collins is the wildcard. He’s got all the talent he needs but he was flat out bad when he was on the field in 2017. Yes; he was asked to do a lot as a hybrid edge rusher / coverage player but if he’s going to make mistakes that result in big plays you can’t say he’s a good player. No matter how fast he can run.

The long and short of it is that to be a top unit either one of these players needs to dramatically improve or they need to recruit a new, elite player.

Corner is another unit where the team looked OK in 2017 but I can’t say they’re set. Briean Boddy-Calhoun (in the slot) and Jamar Taylor are both similar to Kirksey and Schobert at linebacker. They’re not weaknesses but they’re not strengths. The Browns’ front office should be very open to upgrading both of them if the opportunity arises. Jason McCourty had a pretty good 2017 but he’s also not someone you can argue convincingly is an elite building block. He’s the wrong side of 30 and has a significant career as a journeyman talent. He was a bit better than average this year and that’s the best he’s ever likely to be.

At safety Jabrill Peppers got a lot of people including myself in a tizzy. In reality he’s been super disappointing and clocks in as PFF’s 81st best safety (of 88 qualifying players). He’s played an unusually deep role all season which seemingly makes no use at all of his flexibility and versatility. It’s possible of course that he improves to be a really good player but I’m not betting on it. The other safety is Derrick Kindred. A decent journeyman player who impressed in the running game but is not a good player in coverage.

The rare sight of Jabrill Peppers touching the ball.

So all in all it’s a fairly average roster. Here’s one or two fantastic prospects (mainly on the D line) but very, very few players who are currently elite. Optimists will argue this is a good thing but I disagree. How many games can Myles Garrett win a year? A couple maybe? It seems to me that if everything falls well this team could be a six or seven win type of team as it stands. And that’s just not enough to get me excited. The lack of weakness at a position should not be cause for hope. On a good team with game-winning talent then it’s fine. The Patriots don’t have a top pass-rush but it’s fine so long as it doesn’t cost them games. But on a team without that level of elite options average is as bad as poor.

I really want to get caught up in Browns hype again this year. It’d be really fun. But if I’m being honest they need several players to come good in key spots all at once. A new quarterback (who is immediately good as a rookie), a reliable running game, one of the receives to pan out, a cornerback from somewhere… It all seems a bit much to ask frankly. So I’m going to calm myself down and assume the Browns won’t be good until 2019 at least.

Although of course I’ll be crossing my fingers that I’m wrong…