Updated August 8, 2017
If there’s one constant in professional sports, it’s the irrelevance of the Cleveland Browns. Do we care if this is their 24th or 25th quarterback since 1999, when the franchise was re-established?
And yet, I find myself thinking the Browns have turned the corner from wrong path to right direction. Yes I know this team is never out front of anything but a dumpster fire. Like everyone else I rolled my eyes last year when they brought in a baseball exec, Paul DePodesta, to run the scouting operations. What could be more Browns than that?
But whoever is making the decisions lately is getting a lot of them right. DePodesta and his front-office boss, Sashi Brown, are gradually accumulating talent. They’re not looking for a playoff berth in the upcoming season, but the one after, which would make it the first time in 15 years.
As training camp opened in the Cleveland suburb of Berea, Browns owner Jimmy Haslam promised to improve on 1-15: “I know we will be a better team this year. I think 2018 — I’m not hedging my bets — you should see a substantially better football team.”
DePodesta has been ridiculed for bringing Moneyball to the NFL, but he correctly sees most teams spending too much for dubious quarterbacking and overvaluing the highest draft picks.
Bill Belichick’s Super Bowl champs made heavy use of mid-to-low rounds to claim Tom Brady, Marcus Cannon, James White and Trey Flowers. They also made starters out of undrafted Malcolm Butler and David Andrews. Meanwhile, they traded quarterbacks who were overrated by rivals. Goodbye, Matt Cassel, Ryan Mallett.
There was much hand-wringing in the ‘Land when Brown and DePodesta failed to name a quarterback with any of their three first-round picks in the April draft.
This is a year when no rookie QB seems qualified to start in Week 1, with the possible exception of Watson in Houston. Cleveland drafted a quarterback on the second round who has a powerful arm but needs more time to mature than some.
In early February, DeShone Kizer was ranked almost even with Mitch Trubisky, DeShaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes as early- to mid-first round. Scouts were debating who had the strongest arm: Mahomes or Kizer?
But Kizer tried too hard for attention. There’s a fine line between confidence and cockiness, and he went far beyond it. After he claimed to be a clone of Cam Newton, the Scouting Combine questioned his sanity. Then when he performed the required drills in Indianapolis, the scouts downgraded him for flaws in setup and delivery.
The Browns decided to forgive Kizer for being 21 and also for being undercoached by Brian Kelly and his proud but complacent Notre Dame staff. Perhaps Kizer, who really is Newton-sized at 6-4, 235 pounds, will be ready to start in 2018, probably earlier.
The problem is, as always, the Browns do not have a solid quarterback for the season at hand. They could have had Carson Wentz, but instead they traded the draft rights to him for nine other players, including Kizer and first-round safety Jabrill Peppers. We’ll be re-checking the results for a while.
When they open their preseason Thursday night against New Orleans, the Browns will be quarterbacked by Brock Osweiler, who cost the Houston Texans $37 million, with some of that loss now dumped onto the Browns.
Osweiler is a very shaky bridge to Kizer, who has made a favorable impression in camp with his poise on the field and off, as he adapts to the NFL media swarm. No outlandish claims but quick, fresh, thoughtful responses.
The kid looks 16 but is smarter and more mature than we thought. He could be the long-term answer to the endless problem.
The Browns were faulted in local quarters for losing their best receiver, Terrelle Pryor, in free-agency. But they made a wiser choice by signing Kenny Britt to a 4-year, $32 million contract. Pryor went to Washington for one year at $6 million. Their stats last season were almost identical, though Pryor is a year younger at 27.
Both are divas, as you expect talented wide receivers to be. The ex-Ram Britt set up a pep rally in LA in a futile plea for Pro Bowl votes. Pryor was rebuked by coach Hue Jackson for “antics” that fueled opponents. Also not appreciated was Pryor’s dissing of his team’s offensive line. Better to have a diva who promotes himself than one who trashes teammates and fires up opponents.
But now there’s not much to fault about an O-line reinforced by Pro Bowl right guard Kevin Zeitler and the starting center of the Green Bay Packers, J.C. Tretter, and the return from season-long injury of a young and capable left guard, Joel Bitonio.
Even if the sky is limited, the Browns will roll on the ground. Nothing is as useless as a good running back on a bad NFL team, so Isaiah Crowell’s effort and versatility were unappreciated last year.
He ran hard and fast (952 yards, 4.8 per carry, 7 TDs) and caught 40 passes. Impressive, considering the line in front of him was as bad as Pryor said it was. This season the Browns will be in games long enough to make a ground game worthwhile.
The defense gets a talent infusion with the overall No. 1, edge rusher Myles Garrett, Peppers and second-year safety Calvin Pryor, a rising star for the New York Jets in 2015 who regressed to average in 2016.
Some athletes are front-runners, unable to motivate themselves in hard times, the way Browns All-Pro Joe Thomas does year after year at left tackle.
Danny Shelton, a nose tackle who hasn’t justified his first-round selection in 2015, admitted, “Towards the middle to the end of the season, I got distracted and didn’t focus on taking care of my body. I didn’t have that dominating mindset.”
Today’s Browns prefer splashy talent to mental maturity. I think they’re right in betting that football players are more likely to improve mentally than physically. This rebuilding year won’t be all that painful. Vegas sees them winning 4.5 games. I like the over.