Red Right 88

In Cleveland, hope dies last

More Pondering on Preseason Predictions

As we near the start of the 2010 NFL season, the national media is starting to roll out predictions, with two of the biggest, Sports Illustrated and ESPN, predictably picking the Browns to finish last again in the AFC North.

It’s probably not an unreasonable prediction, and it’s certainly a safe one as the Browns have pretty much owned the division’s basement since returning in 1999. Plus, Las Vegas has put the over/under on Browns wins at 5.5 this season, which is just enticing enough that you could talk yourself into going either way on that one.

Sports Illustrated takes a pretty straight-forward approach with the Browns, highlighting the offensive line as the team’s strength:

It probably takes all of one finger to count the positions on the Cleveland depth chart that inspire true envy around the league: That would be offensive line. After years of floundering around in free agency and in the draft, wasting dollars and picks, the Browns have built a pretty good wall up front on offense, which is led by All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas. Entering his fourth NFL season, Thomas is close to becoming the standard by which offensive left tackles are measured these days.

But the Browns also have a talented young center in Alex Mack and a valuable veteran left guard in Eric Steinbach, putting them light years ahead of some of the lines Cleveland has run out there since returning to the league in 1999. While the Browns quarterbacking was truly horrendous last season, the team’s rushing game really kicked into high gear in the season’s final month, running for 900 yards during the course of Cleveland’s season-ending four-game winning streak. Running back Jerome Harrison’s heroics notwithstanding, the Browns offensive line paved the way for that eye-popping production.

It’s nice that SI at least acknowledges the improvement in the passing game:

(Jake) Delhomme has looked sharp this preseason, but it’s hard to forget he did throw 18 interceptions in his 11 games in Carolina last season, and that’s one more than (Brady) Quinn and (Derek) Anderson combined for all year. Mere competency will go a long way in Cleveland, and if Delhomme can afford to rely upon the Browns strong running game and not put his defense into a hole, progress will inevitably be made through the air.

SI takes the bait and predicts a 6-10 finish for the Browns.

ESPN has pretty much the same conclusion, but they brought up one important point:

Cleveland was the only AFC North team all three entities agreed on. From everything I’ve seen, the Browns are too short on talent to be a contender. I think the Browns are scrappy and have potential to play smart football, especially if Jake Delhomme has a bounce-back season at quarterback. But I’d be surprised if Cleveland wins more than a game or two in the AFC North this season. If you can’t win in the division, you probably won’t have a successful season.

The Bengals proved last year that you can be a mediocre team (4-6 outside the division) and still make the playoffs if you can play well inside your division (6-0 last year).

Playing within the division has absolutely killed the Browns over the years. Since 2002, the team is 13-35 vs. Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati, and has never been better than 3-3 in the division.

Until the Browns can reverse that trend, it’s going to be hard to see them accomplishing much on the field, no matter how much they seem to be improved.

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