April 20, 2014

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Browns 2012 season review

Browns coach Pat Shurmur reacts after his quarterback is sacked against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Dec. 30. (AP photo.)

The Browns’ offseason has been as busy as their season.

General manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur were fired the day after the games ended. Then the hirings began.

Coach Rob Chudzinski, offensive coordinator Norv Turner, vice president of player personnel Michael Lombardi, defensive coordinator Ray Horton and several assistant coaches were added to the fold, and are the latest hope to reverse the miserable fortunes of the franchise.

The moves followed a season that featured an ownership change, the arrival of CEO Joe Banner — who’s running the franchise, including the football side — and a first-ever reality show that aired on the Travel Channel.

While the off-the-field happenings generated excitement among many and should lead to significant change for the franchise as a whole, the action between the white lines was all too familiar. The Browns again finished 5-11 — despite a three-game winning streak — and will enter 2013 on a three-game skid.

The young roster provides a reason for optimism, but quarterback remains a question mark. Until it becomes an exclamation point, the Browns won’t be serious contenders in the AFC North, let alone the entire NFL.

That’s one of many issues facing the new regime in what will continue to be a packed offseason. But we’ve reached a lull before the scouting combine, free agency and the draft — the ideal time to reflect on a season short on victories but long on drama.

Top five players

  • Joe Thomas, left tackle: Six Pro Bowls in six years is all you need to know. Thomas ranks among the elite at his position in the NFL, which is rare for a Browns player. After an uneven start to the season, Thomas found his rhythm and returned to his dominating self.
  • D’Qwell Jackson, middle linebacker: He seized a greater leadership role on the young defensive unit while continuing his stellar play. He totaled 119 tackles, 3½ sacks, two interceptions, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, a touchdown and was voted first alternate to the Pro Bowl. He was forced to run the defense by himself after losing veteran outside linebackers Chris Gocong and Scott Fujita to injury.
  • Phil Dawson, kicker: “He wasn’t perfect” is the only bad thing you can say about Dawson’s 2012 season, which ended with his first Pro Bowl trip. He made 29 of 31 field goals — the first miss was deflected on a sloppy track in Oakland and the second one didn’t hook like he expected. He was 13-for-13 from 40 yards and beyond, including 7-for-7 from 50.
  • T.J. Ward, strong safety: Selected to the All-Pro team of Sports Illustrated’s Peter King. Ward looked more comfortable in his third season, making several big stops in the running game and improving in pass coverage. He had 68 tackles, three forced fumbles, an interception and a sack despite missing the last two games with a knee injury.
  • Trent Richardson, running back: He clearly wasn’t himself following preseason knee surgery and a serious rib injury suffered in Week 6, but the rookie still totaled 950 yards and 11 touchdowns rushing, while adding 367 yards and a score as a receiver. His nose for the end zone was the most impressive part of his game.
  • The next five: RT Mitchell Schwartz, CB Joe Haden, WR/KR Joshua Cribbs, WR Josh Gordon, DT Ahtyba Rubin.

Bottom five players

  • Owen Marecic, fullback: He opened the year as a starter, dropped the few passes thrown his way, was replaced by tight end Alex Smith and was inactive for much of the rest of the year. Marecic was a fourth-round pick in 2011, but it wouldn’t be a surprise if he’s out of the league in 2013.
  • Reggie Hodges, punter: He wasn’t the same after rupturing an Achilles tendon in the 2011 preseason. Hodges struggled early, rallied, then faded again, finishing with a 37.1-yard net. His bright spot was a campaign that landed kicker Phil Dawson in the Pro Bowl.
  • Mohamed Massaquoi, receiver: Massaquoi’s 2012 was like his previous three seasons — too many injuries and too little production. He finished with 17 catches for 254 yards and no touchdowns after a hamstring injury halted the momentum gained in a solid start. His run with the Browns is likely over after four years, which would complete the second-round draft debacle of 2009 (Brian Robiskie and David Veikune).
  • Eric Hagg, safety: The star of the offseason practices disappeared when the real season began. Hagg’s a smart guy, seemed in control of the defense during OTAs and minicamps and was installed as the starter. But after two weeks with no impact, he was benched and spent most of the year inactive or as a reserve.
  • Buster Skrine, cornerback: He was burned a number of times in his personal crash course of 2012. Forced into the lineup by Joe Haden’s suspension and injuries to Dimitri Patterson and Sheldon Brown, Skrine was a popular target for opposing quarterbacks. He made some plays, but gave up a lot more. He looks like a slot corner who isn’t big enough to compete on the outside.
  • The next five: RB Brandon Jackson, LB Kaluka Maiava, CB Dimitri Patterson, QB Colt McCoy, S Usama Young.

Top offseason issues

  • Weeden decision: No one in the new regime — owner Jimmy Haslam, CEO Joe Banner, vice president of player personnel Michael Lombardi, coach Rob Chudzinski — has endorsed quarterback Brandon Weeden as the starter for 2013. In fact, Lombardi was on record as an NFL Network analyst ripping the pick of Weeden. The new decision-makers must continue to evaluate Weeden and decide if they’ll give him a second year to prove he’s worthy of the job. If not, the franchise will once again be searching for the ever-elusive answer at the game’s most important position.
  • Who’s making the pick? Banner won’t say it, but indications are he will have final say over the biggest roster decisions. He’s said he’ll rely on a collaborative process, which is admirable and the best approach for many situations. But if the choice with the No. 6 pick in the draft is down to two guys and the room is split, collaboration isn’t possible. Someone has to give a name to the commissioner. That will likely be Banner, a guy who’s never played or been a full-time scout.
  • Fitting the system: New defensive coordinator Ray Horton says he’s committed to switching to the 3-4 scheme, so the roster must be adjusted after former general manager Tom Heckert spent two years drafting for the 4-3. The No. 1 need is an outside linebacker who can rush the passer — the driving force in any 3-4.
  • Find a veteran receiver: The Browns made huge strides at receiver last season with the drafting of Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin and the growth of Greg Little in his second year. But a key element was missing that would’ve made it one of the league’s best groups. The mission for the offseason is signing an established free agent whom the quarterback can rely on for key third-down conversions and who can bring a veteran presence to the receivers room.
  • Pinkston’s health: Left guard Jason Pinkston’s second season ended abruptly when a blood clot was discovered. He’s back working out and expects to play in 2013, but he needs final clearance from the doctors. If Pinkston is OK, the Browns have one of the youngest, most promising lines in the league. If he’s not able to return to the lineup, they must find another guard — but the sixth pick shouldn’t be an option.

Memorable moments of 2012

  • Sold to the highest bidder: A professional sports franchise doesn’t hit the market often, so when it happens, it’s a big deal. Randy Lerner was never a good fit as an NFL owner and decided he’d kept the team in the family long enough. The $1 billion sale to Tennessee billionaire businessman Jimmy Haslam signaled a seismic shift in the franchise. Haslam vowed to have a public presence, build a winner, increase revenue streams and seek new marketing avenues. Changes are coming, starting with stadium naming rights, redesigned uniforms and possibly FieldTurf. But the helmets are off-limits.
  • Buh-bye, Big Show: President Mike Holmgren arrived at the end of 2009 with Super Bowl rings and so much promise. But he knew he wouldn’t get to see his five-year plan to the finish after Haslam picked CEO Joe Banner to run the franchise.
    Holmgren was gone before the end of the season, another disappointing finish for someone once seen as a franchise savior. The ouster of Holmgren also signaled the end for general manager Tom Heckert and coach Pat Shurmur, his signature hires.
  • Four long games: Cornerback Joe Haden’s suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug cost him four games and $1,356,000. It cost the Browns a lot more. The Browns couldn’t establish any early season momentum with arguably their best defensive player out of the lineup and banned from team headquarters. The Browns lost all four games for an 0-5 start they couldn’t overcome.
  • He’s back: Legendary running back Jim Brown will be a part of the franchise again. He had been estranged from the Browns for two years after an ugly disagreement with Holmgren in 2010, but returned for an alumni function. Haslam and Brown forged a relationship, and the greatest player in Browns history will again be around the team.
  • Over and out: Linebacker Scott Fujita always maintained his innocence in the Saints’ bounty scandal despite a suspension and the league’s insistence he played a role. Finally, after months of protests and appeals, Fujita was cleared of wrongdoing and his suspension overturned. Unfortunately, Fujita had suffered a neck injury, which ended his season and will likely force him to retire.

Key free agents

  • Benjamin Watson, tight end: New coach Rob Chudzinski is a former tight end, and he and coordinator Norv Turner rely heavily on the position. Watson remained productive in 2012 with 49 catches, three touchdowns and only three drops, but he is 32 years old. Jordan Cameron is the best alternative on the roster but is unproven.
  • Phil Dawson, kicker: The Browns won’t franchise him for a third straight year — it would cost about $15 million for 2013 — so a multiyear deal is the only option. Dawson said he’s open to returning for a 15th season, but there will be other suitors if the Browns fail to sign him before he hits the market March 12.
  • Joshua Cribbs, receiver/special teamer: He’s been one of the top five players on the Browns for years, but will be 30 in June and isn’t as explosive in the return game as he once was. Cribbs won’t command big money anywhere, but the new Browns regime may opt to let him walk away. He would be a valuable addition to any roster, especially within the AFC North.
  • Ray Ventrone, safety/special teamer: Re-signing a core special teamer isn’t the highest priority, but Ventrone shouldn’t be ignored. He’s a fierce competitor and helps direct the coverage and return units.
  • Sheldon Brown, cornerback: CEO Joe Banner forced him out in Philadelphia and is unlikely to bring him back at 34 years old. But Brown was clearly the second-best corner on the team and wants to keep playing. He’s a valuable asset in the locker room.
  • Others: WR Mohamed Massaquoi, DE Juqua Parker, TE Alex Smith.

By the numbers

  • $47 million: Salary cap space reportedly available to the Browns.
  • 950: Team-leading rushing yards by rookie Trent Richardson.
  • 805: Team-leading receiving yards by rookie Josh Gordon.
  • 517: Passes thrown by Brandon Weeden, tied for fifth all time by an NFL rookie.
  • 119: Tackles by middle linebacker D’Qwell Jackson.
  • 87: Starts by rookies, a league high.
  • 50: Pass plays of 20 yards or longer.
  • 29: Makes by Phil Dawson in 31 field-goal attempts.
  • 29: Turnovers forced.
  • 17: Passes thrown by backup Colt McCoy.
  • 10: Rookies who started games.
  • 9: Drops by receiver Greg Little, whose 14.52 drop rate in 87 chances was fifth worst in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus.
  • 7: Team-leading sacks by end Jabaal Sheard.
  • 6: Coaches hired since 1999.
  • .324: Winning percentage since 1999, 73-152.
  • 0: Touchdowns by Joshua Cribbs.
  • 3: Touchdowns by Travis Benjamin, two receiving and a punt return.

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.