Can all the experts be wrong?
Can the Browns defy the dire predictions and shock the world?
Can they win … seven games?
In the AFC North, where the other three teams made the playoffs in 2011, a 7-9 record doesn’t qualify as a success. In Cleveland in 2012, it would rank as a minor miracle to many.
The Browns have won four, five, five and four games in the last four seasons. Rather than projecting a jump into respectability, the vast majority of national NFL media see a dive even deeper into irrelevance. More than one have picked the Browns to go 1-15.
That’s worth noting. In the last 10 NFL seasons, only three teams have failed to win two games. The 2009 Rams and 2007 Dolphins went 1-15 and the 2008 Lions became the only 0-16 team in league history.
Why would the prognosticators put the Browns on that subterranean level?
They have little faith in second-year coach Pat Shurmur. They don’t trust rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden. They discount the improvement at receiver with rookies Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin.
They don’t like the depth on a defense that’s been hit with significant injuries to defensive tackles Phil Taylor and Scott Paxson and linebacker Chris Gocong.
They hate the rugged schedule that includes the annual home-and-away gauntlet with Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati and circuits with the talented NFC East and improving
All of those are valid concerns — just don’t expect Shurmur to have them. “I’m not worried or concerned about anything,” he said after the preseason loss to the Eagles.
Given the Browns’ stretch of futility, few in the organization can claim to have had success, and almost no one while in Cleveland. Kicker Phil Dawson is the only player to make the playoffs with the Browns, and that was in 2002 — a decade ago.
President Mike Holmgren, general manager Tom Heckert and Shurmur have been to the Super Bowl with other teams, but in different roles. And their winning formula has failed to show up in Northeast Ohio.
Holmgren believes this is the season when the wins will arrive. He predicted a significant jump in the record, which would mean at least seven victories.
Is that possible? Can all the experts be wrong?
“Obviously, we have high expectations,” Heckert said Saturday. “We think we’re going to be all right, but everybody’s saying that.
“We’re excited about the season. We’re excited about the young players. We’re looking forward to see what happens.”
Heckert picked 15 rookies for his 53-man roster. He’s never been shy about his desire to go with a young lineup filled with fresh legs, athleticism and exuberance, but even he couldn’t have predicted 15 rookies.
With youth comes growing pains. With youth also comes potential. And hope.
The only chance for the Browns to prove the critics wrong and make a run at respectability — and perhaps contention in the AFC North — is for at least a handful of rookies to exceed expectations. That starts with Weeden.
If Weeden plays like Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton did last year as a rookie, the Browns could surprise. If running back Trent Richardson bounces back from August knee surgery to make an immediate impact, the Browns have a shot at a fast start. If Gordon and Benjamin turn the receiving corps from weakness to strength, the offense can take the jump from dreadful to plentiful.
Those are a lot of ifs, but that’s the rebuilding stage in which the Browns reside. The talent isn’t proven, the depth is questionable and the doubters abundant.
I’m a registered optimist, but my job requires me to be a realist. So here’s how I see it with the opener less than a week away.
The Browns will be better than they were last year. Weeden, Richardson, Gordon, Benjamin and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz are guaranteed to improve the offense. Shurmur will be more confident in his second year. Some of the close losses will turn into close wins.
But there will be growing pains — severe ones.
Rookies make mistakes. Weeden will throw interceptions. Richardson won’t be 100 percent at the start. Gordon will be up and down. Schwartz will need time to get up to speed.
And the schedule is a bear.
When all the information is processed, I’m not buying the doomsday predictions. I’m not making playoff reservations, either.
The key will be surviving a tough early schedule as the rookies adapt. If the Browns can keep their heads above water — a 3-4 start qualifies — they could make some noise in the second half as they gain confidence.
If they start 0-6, it will be difficult for Shurmur to right the ship, especially with an ownership change scheduled for the same time. The front office changes could begin, and the season could spiral out of control.
I don’t think it’ll get that bad. I think there will be enough good moments — and wins — to encourage the fans and owner-in-waiting Jimmy Haslam.
A seven-win season would satisfy just about everyone in Browns Town, and is certainly attainable. But I can’t bring myself to make that leap.
Mark me down for 6-10, with plenty of optimism for 2013.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.
AFC NORTH: Ravens
AFC EAST: Patriots
AFC SOUTH: Texans
AFC WEST: Chiefs
AFC WILD CARDS: Broncos, Steelers
AFC CHAMPION: Broncos
NFC NORTH: Packers
NFC EAST: Eagles
NFC SOUTH: Falcons
NFC WEST: 49ers
NFC WILD CARDS: Bears, Giants
NFC CHAMPION: Eagles
SUPER BOWL CHAMPION: Eagles
MVP: Aaron Rodgers, Packers
OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Andrew Luck, Colts
DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Melvin Ingram, Chargers
COACH OF THE YEAR: Andy Reid, Eagles