The question was phrased to not offend Browns coach Pat Shurmur, but that ship had sailed.
“What do you think of some prognosticators picking the Browns near the bottom of the NFL?” was the gist of the query.
“Some? Most. Almost all,” Shurmur said at the opening of training camp. “It’s not my concern. What I’m concerned about is getting our players ready to play, putting them out there and watching them perform well. That’s what I’m concerned about.
“If they do that, then I think we’ll win games, more than the prognosticators say.”
The doomsday predictions for the Browns have become an annual rite of summer in Northeast Ohio. Like watermelon, corn on the cob, fireworks and humidity.
And unlike those of the local meteorologists, these forecasts have been right way more than they’ve been wrong.
The Browns have gone 4-12, 5-11, 5-11 and 4-12 in the last four seasons. Some experts see even worse in their immediate future.
CBSsports.com’s Pete Prisco predicted the Browns will go 1-15. Profootballtalk.com ranked them 32nd in the 32-team league. The Associated Press rated them 30th in its first-ever Pro32 NFL power rankings released Tuesday.
The oddsmakers in Las Vegas are slightly more optimistic, setting the over-under for the season win total between five and six.
“My concern is the players, their mindset, winning football games and the fans of this community who can go to work on Monday and be proud because their team won,” Shurmur said.
He would be satisfied with safety T.J. Ward’s frame of mind.
“Yeah, I’ve heard that,” Ward said of the dire predictions. “Doesn’t matter, though. We know what we’re capable of.
“So, for all I care, it can be the biggest secret in the world. We’ll come out and surprise people.”
Ward is entering his third year in the league. Linebacker Scott Fujita has eight years on him, and the perspective of experience.
“I think it’s going to be a better season for us, and that record alone is enough of a motivator to improve,” he said of 4-12 in 2011.
“What the prognosticators say and what all their predictions are, I think most of us are professional enough to block all that out.
“We were 4-12 last year, that’s not good enough, that’s embarrassing for a lot of us. So we have to make huge strides. We know that. We know this isn’t an easy division to move up the ladder in, but we’ve got to find a way to do it.”
The Ravens, Steelers and Bengals made the playoffs last season, leaving the Browns as odd man out. That’s been the case far too often, as Cleveland is the only AFC North team without a division title since 2009. In fact, the Browns are 0-for-13 since re-entering the league.
If the Browns are going to surprise their division rivals and the national experts, they will need a massive improvement on offense. They ranked 30th in the NFL last season with 13.6 points a game. They were 28th rushing and 24th passing.
They are relying on rookies to drive the turnaround. Three seem certain to start — quarterback Brandon Weeden, running back Trent Richardson and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz — with two more expected to be key contributors, receivers Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin.
“They made a lot of big moves, and the moves they made put us in a position to win,” Ward said. “Of course, the offense is pretty young, but they’re very talented.”
Getting younger was a primary goal of general manager Tom Heckert when he took over in 2010. He’s succeeded, transforming the roster from one of the league’s oldest to one of its youngest.
Youth provides hope, but all the new and unproven faces also bring some nervousness.
“I think what we’re going to see as time goes on is there’s going to be rookies playing for every club,” Shurmur said. “I think the challenge is to teach them your systems quickly and then get them out there and let them do it.”
The pressure on Shurmur and Heckert was greatly intensified with the news of the franchise’s impending sale. Another year at the bottom of the league could give the new ownership justification for the organization’s latest extreme makeover.
Shurmur’s expectations for 2012 were already high after a tumultuous first season on the job.
“We have standards of excellence that we want to uphold by the way we practice, and then of course we’re trying to win every game,” he said. “I expect that we’re a much improved football team. We all agreed that what we did last year wasn’t good enough and we’ve highlighted areas that we need to be better.”
Ward has his own prediction, and he hasn’t been shy about sharing it on Twitter.
“We’ve got a good team,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of great players and a young, great coaching staff. We’ve got all the pieces in place right now.
“Our record didn’t show how good we were last year and we weren’t close to as good as we are right now. I just know what it takes.
“I think the sky’s the limit for us. I think we can be a really good team.”
• The Browns had their first off day of camp Tuesday. They will practice today from 2-4:30 p.m. It’s open to the public.
• Single-game tickets go on sale today at 9 a.m. Visit www.clevelandbrowns.com, call Ticketmaster at (800) 745-3000 or visit a Ticketmaster retail outlet.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.