Five Memorable Moments
1. Gone so soon
Coach Rob Chudzinski had to believe his job was secure. As the season wound down, he emphasized the positives of the season and spoke about a bright future and what needed to be done to get there.
Then the rug was yanked out from underneath the lifelong Browns fan. He was fired after 16 games and less than a year on the job. The move, criticized by many, cast the organization in a bad light, which only got harsher with the meandering coaching search.
The seven-game losing streak to end the season was Chudzinski’s downfall, and the decision to fire him was made following a horrible loss to the Jets that had owner Jimmy Haslam fuming.
2. Dream interrupted
Brian Hoyer grew up in North Olmsted, played for St. Ignatius and attended Browns games at Cleveland Stadium in his dad’s season tickets. He was 2-0 as Cleveland’s starter, energizing the locker room and the city.
Then it happened Oct. 3 in front of the Browns sideline. The slide was awkward and coincided with a hit from Bills linebacker Kiko Alonso. Hoyer’s leg bent awkwardly and his anterior cruciate ligament tore — in prime time, in front of the home fans and a national-television audience. Hoyer was done for the season, and the team’s playoff hopes followed.
3. 15 minutes of hell
The Browns were poised to make a playoff run. They were 4-5, in control of their destiny and leading the Bengals 13-0 on the road. Then the ceiling fell.
Cincinnati scored 31 straight points in the second quarter to take control of the game and the AFC North. The Browns had a punt blocked for a touchdown and another partially blocked. Jason Campbell threw an interception. Fullback Chris Ogbonnaya fumbled and had it returned for a touchdown.
The Browns never recovered. They lost 41-20 and didn’t win again.
4. See ya, Trent
Just 17 months earlier, running back Trent Richardson was the franchise’s prized possession. Then-president Mike Holmgren gave up fourth-, fifth- and seventh-round picks to move up one spot in the draft to No. 3 just to ensure he’d get him.
But after two games, 105 yards and a 3.4 average for the new regime, Richardson, along with the rest of the league, was stunned when he was traded to the Colts in Week 3. The Browns acquired Indianapolis’ first-round pick in 2014 — it turned out to be No. 26 — and Richardson rushed for only 458 yards and a 2.9 average with the Colts.
The trade’s viewed as a big win for CEO Joe Banner, but he took a weapon away from the coaching staff, was unable to find a legitimate replacement and the running game was bad all year.
5. One that got away
The ink never dried on the season’s signature win. The Browns led New England 26-14 on the road but allowed two touchdowns in the last 61 seconds and lost 27-26. Losses to Chicago, the Jets and Pittsburgh followed and led to Chudzinski’s dismissal.
If only Fozzy Whittaker had recovered an onside kick, the season would’ve been viewed differently. Chudzinski could’ve pointed to the upset of Bill Belichick and Tom Brady as a tangible sign of progress, and it may have led to another win or two. But Whittaker had the ball bounce out of his gut, Brady led the winning drive and Billy Cundiff’s 58-yard field-goal try fell short at the buzzer.
Top 5 Players
1. Josh Gordon, receiver
Not only did he set several records and establish himself as the team’s No. 1 playmaker, he played like a top-five receiver in the league. Gordon led the league and set franchise records with 1,646 yards in 14 games and 117.6 per game, and was second in the league with 18.9 per catch. He finished with 87 catches and nine touchdowns.
Gordon, 22, overcame a two-game suspension to start the season and made an immediate impact with 10 catches for 146 yards and a touchdown vs. the Vikings in Week 3. He was only getting started. Beginning with a franchise-record 237 yards vs. Pittsburgh in Week 12, Gordon went on a record-setting run. He followed with 261 and two TDs vs. Jacksonville, 151 and one vs. New England and 67 and one vs. Chicago to set NFL records for most yards over three- and four-game spans.
2. Joe Thomas, left tackle
Seven seasons, seven Pro Bowls. While people think some linemen are given postseason honors based on reputation, Thomas continued to earn them with his play. After a couple of early season hiccups, Thomas was at his best as the season progressed. He consistently shut down the opposition’s best pass rusher, no matter who was playing quarterback behind him.
3. Joe Haden, cornerback
A breakthrough season was rewarded with his first Pro Bowl trip, and he picked up an interception in Hawaii. Haden was as good as anyone in the league for the first 10 games, shutting down No. 1 receivers week after week. The high point came in the second matchup against Cincinnati, as he recorded his first multiple-interception game, returned one 29 yards for his first pick-six and held A.J. Green without a catch while he was in coverage.
Haden stumbled a bit down the stretch, allowing a long touchdown to Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown and the losing score at the end of the Jacksonville game. But taken as a whole, Haden’s third season was a step forward and bodes well for the future.
4. Alex Mack, center
He remained as consistent as ever and has played all 4,998 snaps in his five-year career. Mack was adversely affected by turnover at both guard positions because of injuries, but maintained a high level of play. Mack is set to become a free agent in March, and Thomas said it would be impossible to find a replacement who could match his performance.
The potential was realized in his third year. After just 26 catches, 259 yards and one touchdown in his first two seasons, Cameron was handed the starting job and ran with it. He caught 80 passes for 917 yards and seven touchdowns.
Cameron rebounded from a lull in the second half of the season with nine catches for 121 yards and a touchdown vs. the Patriots and played in the finale after missing a game with a concussion. He showed toughness and durability, both of which had been questioned before the season.
Bottom 5 Players
1. Davone Bess, receiver
His horrible season got even worse after it ended prematurely. A series of questionable social media posts apparently featuring marijuana was followed by an arrest for assaulting an officer, disorderly conduct and resisting an officer at a South Florida airport. Bess needs help, and hopefully agrees to let the Browns try to find it for him.
Bess left the team with two games remaining for personal reasons, but not until he was labeled a bust. He had 14 drops in 14 games, was held under 30 yards for his last 11 games and totaled 42 catches for 362 yards and two touchdowns.
2. Greg Little, receiver
Despite the defense focusing on Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron, Little made little impact. After leading the Browns with 61 and 53 catches his first two years, he managed only 41 receptions for 465 yards and two touchdowns and doesn’t appear to have a future with the team. His best game — seven catches for 122 yards vs. the Ravens — was marred by a pair of unsportsmanlike conduct penalties.
In addition to his on-field struggles, Little had a series of driving violations – including going 127 mph – and was banned from the University of North Carolina for his dealings with an agent.
3. Brandon Weeden, quarterback
The boos from the hometown crowd told the story. Weeden was never embraced by Cleveland fans, then did nothing on the field to win them over.
Coach Rob Chudzinski and coordinator Norv Turner believed Weeden had the skill set to be successful in their vertical passing attack, but he struggled out of the gate and was replaced after two games when he sprained his right thumb. The season-ending injury to Brian Hoyer gave him another chance to prove himself, but six bad quarters against the Lions and Packers — including the ill-fated backhanded flip that was intercepted vs. Detroit — likely slammed the door on his Cleveland career.
4. Barkevious Mingo, outside linebacker (right)
The numbers are OK— five sacks, 42 tackles — but the impact expected from a No. 6 pick was missing. After a sack in each of his first three games, he managed only two the rest of the way and disappeared for whole games.
His athleticism was obvious, but he was hampered by a bruised lung that cost him part of the preseason, and he needs to get stronger and develop another pass-rush move.
5. Leon McFadden, cornerback
The Browns didn’t have a second-round pick (Tom Heckert made the right move by taking Gordon in the 2012 supplemental draft), so they needed their third-rounder to contribute. McFadden didn’t.
He couldn’t get on the field for much of the season, and his ability to grow into a starter has been questioned. Injuries forced him into the lineup at the end, and he was called for pivotal pass interference penalties in losses to New England and Chicago.
5 Offseason Issues
1. The play calling’s the thing
Going in chronological order, finding an experienced offensive coordinator tops the list. New coach Mike Pettine’s background is on defense, where he plans to call the plays, so he needs someone he can trust to install an offensive system and call the plays on Sunday.
Browns fans have seen plenty of bad play callers over the years, and are well aware they can sabotage a season. The ideal hire would be a former head coach to shepherd Pettine through his first year, but that might not be realistic with most of the top coaches taken.
2. Mack and Ward
The Browns are a better team with center Alex Mack and strong safety T.J. Ward, but that doesn’t mean the free agents will return. CEO Joe Banner is considered a master of the salary cap and sets limits on how much positions and players should be paid.
The Browns’ desire to bring them back — Pettine called them “special players” — isn’t the only factor in signing them to extensions. Mack and Ward might be tempted to test the market, learn their value and play for a team that has had success.
The Browns could keep one by issuing the franchise tag, and it’s more likely with Ward because all offensive linemen are treated equally and Mack would have to be paid around $11 million for 2014 — reasonable for a left tackle, but not a center.
3. Bess business
Receiver Davone Bess’ well-being is a greater priority than his ability to play again. Banner said the team has reached out, and hopefully a troubled Bess will accept help.
On the business side, the Browns may look to recoup some of the guaranteed money owed to Bess if they can prove he violated his contract. If the Browns didn’t owe him millions guaranteed and he wasn’t going through his issues, Bess would be cut as soon as the Super Bowl ends and rules permit. He still might be.
4. Better to receive
The Browns keep trumpeting their 10 draft picks and tens of millions in salary-cap space. They should use some of those assets to find a couple of receivers.
Josh Gordon is a stud, but he needs at least two more capable wideouts to share the burden and steal some of the defense’s attention. Bess and Greg Little had terrible years, and Travis Benjamin is more of a kick returner.
The Browns should sign a big-name free agent and draft someone within the first two rounds.
5. To QB or not QB
Speaking of the draft, the brightest spotlight must be on the quarterback position. The Browns will never be a threat in the AFC North until they have a quarterback than can compete with Ben Roethlisberger, Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton. They have the chance to find that guy in the top five.
The Browns have the fourth pick and enough ammunition to move up to No. 1 if they fall in love. All the top candidates have question marks, but Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Derek Carr are worth considering at the top of the draft.
The Browns could fill another need and take a quarterback later, but they must address the most important position on the field at some point early.
BY THE NUMBERS
Cost of a two-year renovation project at FirstEnergy Stadium that started after the season
Consecutive snaps played by left tackle Joe Thomas, every one in his seven seasons
League-leading and franchise-record receiving yards by wideout Josh Gordon
Receiving yards in back-to-back games by Gordon, the only player in NFL history with consecutive 200-yard games
Points allowed and scored in fourth quarter
Tackles by inside linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, his sixth 100-tackle season
Players with a sack
League-leading fourth-down conversions on 31 attempts
Players with multiple sacks
Years since new coach Mike Pettine was head coach at North Penn High School outside of Philadelphia
Full-time coaches hired since 1999
100-yard games by Gordon
Consecutive Pro Bowl appearances by Thomas
Pro Bowlers: Thomas, Gordon, Alex Mack, Joe Haden, Jordan Cameron, T.J. Ward
Interceptions by free safety Tashaun Gipson, tied for fifth in NFL
Yards per play allowed, third-fewest in NFL
Wins for coach Rob Chudzinski in his only season
Rushing touchdowns for team, two by Willis McGahee and two by Edwin Baker
Quarterbacks with 300-yard games — Brian Hoyer, Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden
Straight years Jabaal Sheard (5.5) has led the team in sacks, a first in franchise history