The Browns are 4-5 at the bye, their best record through nine games since they were 5-4 in 2007. For those who guessed a 7-9 finish in the preseason, the Browns are right on schedule.
No one, however, could’ve predicted the route they traveled to arrive at 4-5.
Running back Trent Richardson and quarterback Brandon Weeden were supposed to be better in their second season, their first in coordinator Norv Turner’s offensive system, and lead the way back to respectability.
Instead, Richardson flopped and was traded after two games, and Weeden regressed as the season progressed and was benched in Week 8.
Replacement quarterbacks Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell, rookie coach Rob Chudzinski and a solid defense have been the keys to the Browns rallying twice from losing streaks and staying within striking distance of Cincinnati in the AFC North.
The Browns actually find themselves well-positioned to make noise in the North, with the next three weeks crucial to staying relevant. They play at Cincinnati on Sunday, then return home for games against Pittsburgh and Jacksonville.
Any hopes for a sustained hot streak and the first playoff appearance since 2002 will require improvement in a few key areas. The defense must get better on third down and in the red zone, where it ranks near the bottom of the league. On offense, the running game must find some traction to take pressure off Campbell as the weather turns.
“There’s a lot of things that we need to improve on,” Chudzinski said. “We’re still a work in progress in that way. I expect us to keep improving like we need to.”
Before the season, owner Jimmy Haslam and his new front office said the goal was to be better at the end of the season than at the start, which should be expected with a young team, under a new coach, learning new systems. If the goal is realized and the Browns are better over the remaining seven games, November and December should contain meaningful football for a change.
“We had high expectations coming into the year, which was to change this program around,” said cornerback Buster Skrine, who’s been a pleasant surprise. “So my expectations haven’t changed. I know we can be a really good team. That’s what we’re striving for, and to make something new happen this year.”
TOP FIVE FROM THE FIRST HALF
Three in a row
The season was saved — at least temporarily — with a three-game winning streak after an 0-2 start. The Browns won at Minnesota, then returned home to beat Cincinnati and Buffalo.
Making the streak even sweeter was the unexpected emergence of quarterback Brian Hoyer. He had made only one start in his career prior to filling in for an injured Brandon Weeden in Week 3 at Minnesota. The local hero from North Olmsted and St. Ignatius showed he’s smart enough, accurate enough and gutsy enough to win in the NFL. He completed 59.4 percent for 615 yards, five touchdowns, three interceptions and an 82.6 rating.
Unfortunately, the fairy tale was stopped abruptly with a torn anterior cruciate ligament when he was hit on a late and awkward slide against Buffalo. But the story isn’t over. Hoyer proved enough to be a part of the team’s plan for 2014, and could bridge the gap to the quarterback of the future.
Spark No. 2
Lightning is tough to catch in a bottle. The Browns did it twice in the first half of the season.
All the energy gained from Hoyer’s performance had escaped with the return of Weeden and ugly losses to Detroit and Green Bay. Enter Jason Campbell.
He kept a positive attitude and an internal fire burning despite being passed over three times and amid rumors that he didn’t want to play. After two starts, he looks like he not only wants to play, but prove to the league’s general managers he’s more than a backup. Campbell has a strong arm, good mobility and great composure. If he can keep up the accuracy and stay healthy, the Browns have a legitimate chance to do something meaningful in the last seven games.
As good as Hoyer was, Campbell’s been better.
Know when to hold ’em, fold ’em
The return for running back Trent Richardson was at its apex when CEO Joe Banner traded him to Indianapolis in Week 3 for a first-round pick in 2014.
Richardson was still viewed as a premier runner with untapped potential and game-changing ability. Eight weeks later, Richardson is considered a bust and Colts general manager Ryan Grigson is taking a lot of heat.
Richardson entered Sunday averaging 3.0 yards per carry in six games with the Colts and has two touchdowns this season. Banner should be able to find an upgrade in rounds two through five of the draft, while using the first-round pick to address another need, quite possibly as part of a package to trade up for a quarterback.
Banner’s quick thinking with Richardson was matched by his patience regarding receiver Josh Gordon. Banner was inclined to trade him early in the season, but adjusted his thinking as Gordon showed his worth. Banner realized Gordon’s vast potential and decided it made more sense to keep him.
Lock ’em down
Cornerback Joe Haden faced Mike Wallace, Torrey Smith twice, Greg Jennings, A.J. Green, Stevie Johnson, Calvin Johnson (not 100 percent), Jordy Nelson and Dwayne Bowe. Haden got the best of all the No. 1 receivers, holding them to an average of 3.7 catches for 40.5 yards. Smith had the most productive day, catching seven passes for 85 yards in Week 2. The only touchdown was a 1-yarder to Nelson.
Haden was the team’s MVP of the first nine games and should get his first all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. Without Haden, defensive coordinator Ray Horton wouldn’t be able to call his variety of blitzes. It’s amazing what a true No. 1 cornerback can do for a defense.
Off to a solid start
Rookie coach Rob Chudzinski flew under the radar during his first nine games on the job. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve credit for the four wins and second-place spot in the AFC North.
Chudzinski maintained a consistent tone despite a series of surprises. He also did well handling a tricky quarterback situation. Starting the season with Weeden was the right decision after he was clearly the best in training camp. Picking Hoyer in Week 3 was a surprise but proved to be a good move. And his switch to Campbell in Week 8 seemed premature to some (read: me) but came at the perfect time.
The players genuinely like and respect Chudzinski, and that goes a long way. He also won them over with his aggressiveness — going on fourth down and faking kicks — and his confidence has filtered down.
BOTTOM FIVE FROM THE FIRST HALF
Quarterback Brandon Weeden has a better arm than Colt McCoy, Charlie Frye and Brady Quinn. He has better touch and a stronger work ethic than Derek Anderson. He still isn’t good enough to be the long-term answer.
Weeden was supposed to take a significant step in Year 2 in coordinator Norv Turner’s vertical passing offense, but it never happened. He started poorly, got slightly better vs. the Ravens and Bills, then fell off a cliff. Six brutal quarters against Detroit and Green Bay earned him a spot on the bench — perhaps permanently.
The biggest issues were a lack of accuracy — 52.8 percent completions down from 57.4 percent as a rookie — and the inability to carry his performance on the practice field to Sunday afternoons. Weeden tensed up in the game and wasn’t able to process information quickly enough or make enough crucial throws.
The worst thing that happened to Weeden was the performances of Brian Hoyer and Jason Campbell, because they showed what the offense was capable of with competent quarterback play.
The Browns were headed to their fourth straight win and were going to remain in first place in the AFC North. They led Detroit 17-7 at halftime at home and Weeden had played well as the Browns outscored the Lions 17-0 in the second quarter.
Then came halftime.
The Lions outscored the Browns 24-0 in the last 30 minutes. Weeden played poorly — 14-for-23 for 157 yards and the indefensible backhanded flip for an interception that could end up defining his career — but he wasn’t alone. The defense had no answer for running back Reggie Bush or rookie tight end Joseph Fauria and allowed 257 yards in the second half.
“If I had done a better job we’d have at least one more win,” defensive coordinator Ray Horton said. “Sometimes one win is all you need to get you into the playoffs.”
Hoyer’s remarkable run stopped with a late slide coupled with a big hit from Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso. The torn right anterior cruciate ligament meant the end of his season and perhaps his best shot to establish himself as an NFL starter. The injury led to a switch back to Weeden, who won the Buffalo game off the bench but then lost two straight to precipitate the move to Campbell.
Hoyer wasn’t the only key injury. Receiver/returner Travis Benjamin was lost for the year when he tore an ACL on an innocuous tackle against the Chiefs. His speed will be impossible for the Browns to replace.
Change-of-pace running back Dion Lewis broke his leg in the preseason and won’t play in 2013, and guards Shawn Lauvao and Jason Pinkston missed significant time with ankle injuries.
The Browns were called for too many penalties in the first nine games.
They entered Sunday ranked third in the NFL with 66 penalties, an average of 7.3 per game. They’re fourth with 601 penalty yards,
66.8 per game.
Fifteen-yard flags were a particular problem. Receiver Greg Little drew two in the latest game against the Ravens and corner Joe Haden had a late hit out of bounds against Kansas City, just to name a couple.
The Browns aren’t good enough to overcome stupid penalties, especially a lot of them.
There was little news regarding the federal investigation into Pilot Flying J, the family business where Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is CEO. The lack of news meant little distraction for the organization, but there’s been no resolution, so the giant elephant remains in the middle of the room.
Haslam has stuck to his story that he didn’t know anything about a widespread policy of fraud to cheat trucking companies of their proper rebates. Several employees have reached plea deals, but it’s too early to tell if Haslam will be eventually be indicted. That’s the outcome he and the Browns hope to avoid.
FIVE THINGS TO WATCH IN SECOND HALF
The players genuinely believe the team is good enough to make the playoffs, and the confidence received a boost last week with the win over the Ravens. The Browns are 4-5 and 11⁄2 games behind the Bengals in the AFC North. They’ll tangle Sunday in Cincinnati, and the Browns need a victory to have a legitimate shot at their first division title since 1989.
“It’s going to mean a lot, one of the biggest games here for a long time,” cornerback Buster Skrine said.
Even if the Browns don’t catch the Bengals, they have a shot at an AFC wild-card spot. The runner-up in the West between Kansas City and Denver seems a lock for the first wild-card spot, but New York (5-4), San Diego (4-5), Tennessee (4-5), Miami (4-4) and Cleveland are in the mix for the second.
Cleveland’s schedule isn’t prohibitive. After the trip to Cincinnati, the Browns host Pittsburgh and Jacksonville, travel to New England, host Chicago and finish with trips to the Jets and Steelers.
Campbell to the rescue
Jason Campbell (right) restored the team’s faith in itself with solid performances in his first two starts. He’s the first Browns quarterback with a 100-plus rating in his first two starts with the team since the Super Bowl era began in 1966.
Campbell doesn’t have a turnover, has shown surprising mobility and has been clutch on fourth down and late in games. His toughness can’t be questioned after returning with bruised ribs to lead the upset of the Ravens.
Two starts don’t make a season, but Campbell’s experience and most recent starting stretch with Oakland are indicators he will maintain a high level of play. If he can, the Browns should have a chance to win every week.
“We need a quarterback who’s gonna manage the game, not put us in difficult situations as a defense,” said defensive end Desmond Bryant, a teammate with the Raiders. “He’s done all that. I really believe in Jason and can’t wait to see how he’s gonna finish the season.”
Eyes on the islands
The Browns sent three players to the Pro Bowl last season, and a strong finish could mean an even larger contingent headed to Hawaii.
Left tackle Joe Thomas has made the Pro Bowl in all six of his seasons and trip No. 7 seems automatic. Cornerback Joe Haden is having a season worthy of recognition, shutting down the opponent’s top wideout just about every week. Tight end Jordan Cameron is new on the national scene, but if he continues to post big numbers, he’ll be impossible to ignore.
Coordinator Ray Horton promised the defense would be cooking by Thanksgiving. If he’s right, that playoff push might actually happen.
Horton’s group is back on track after eight straight bad quarters in the three-game losing streak to Detroit, Green Bay and Kansas City. It’s not a coincidence Horton is back to blitzing everyone from all angles, and he pledges not to stop.
“Trust me, we haven’t done our exotic pressures yet where we can do certain things,” Horton said. “The bye came at a good time for us to put everything back in because I think the rest of the season we’ll be at full capacity to pressure people with everything that we have.”
No matter how big he talks, Horton’s defense won’t be dominant, won’t be worthy of top-five status, won’t be up to temperature by Turkey Day unless it gets better in two critical areas — third downs and the red zone. The Browns rank 31st on third down, allowing 46.1 percent to be converted, and 31st in the red zone, allowing 68 percent of trips to result in touchdowns (17 of 25). Horton knows the deficiencies and he spent the bye week trying to fix them.
Found on the ground
The offense is never going to be run-first. It must become run-capable.
The Browns rank 25th with 81.6 rushing yards a game, 25th with 3.7 per carry and have just one rushing touchdown. The trade of Trent Richardson looks like a great one, but the Browns no longer give the opponent anything to worry about on the ground. Willis McGahee arrived late, has bad knees and looks to be running on fumes. Chris Ogbonnaya spends too much time at fullback to carry a giant load. And Fozzy Whittaker is inexperienced and undersized.
That doesn’t mean play caller Norv Turner can give up on the run, especially with the weather about to turn at any minute. Turner needs to get a level of consistent production from the running game, if for nothing more than to take some stress off Campbell.
The key is finding the right mix of the three backs, with a greater commitment to Ogbonnaya as a ball carrier. He’s been dealing with sore ribs, but has good size and more burst than McGahee. Turner can turn to tight end Gary Barnidge or defensive end Billy Winn when he wants a fullback.