Thumbs up, thumbs down on your 2014 Cleveland Browns
The club posted a losing record for the seventh consecutive year, missed the playoffs for the 12th consecutive year, ran its December losing streak to 12 games and counting, and started its third-string quarterback in the season finale for the third consecutive year.
While the results may be familiar, it doesn’t feel like the “Same Old Browns.”
The five-game losing streak to close out the season notwithstanding, the Browns did some nice things during the recently completed campaign, which should give fans hope that a better tomorrow is finally on the way.
With that in mind, let’s run through a “thumbs up, thumbs down” look at your 2014 Cleveland Browns.
Thumbs up: The early season quarterback play
Brian Hoyer won the starting nod out of training camp and played inspired, exciting and mistake-free football through the early part of the season, posting wins over Pittsburgh and Cincinnati, and leading the biggest road comeback in NFL history against Tennessee.
Even as the running game betrayed him in the wake of Alex Mack’s injury and Hoyer’s play went downhill, he was still able to lead the Browns to a 7-4 record after a last-minute win in Atlanta.
The good times ended that afternoon in Dixie, however, for Hoyer and the Browns.
Thumbs down: The late-season quarterback play
Manziel wasted no time in his first start revealing why the coaching staff held off as long as possible before making a switch at quarterback – he was unprepared and it showed as he finished the game looking worse than former Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden ever did, going 10-of-18 for 80 yards, with two interceptions and three sacks.
Manziel did not make it to halftime of his second start before injuring a hamstring and landing on injured reserve. After the season Manziel promised to start taking things seriously next season after apparently deciding on his own that this year was akin to a redshirt year in college.
But like Wimpy, who was perpetually promising to “pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today,” we won’t know if there is any substance behind Manziel’s words for a while.
Thumbs down: The alternatives at quarterback
Because of the way the season ended, the Browns find themselves no closer to knowing who their starting quarterback will be come September than they did four months ago.
Hoyer is a free agent and it is unclear if the two sides can find a common ground on a new contract (of if either side even wants to find a common ground). There is absolutely no way the Browns will go into this fall with just Manziel and Connor Shaw holding down the fort.
But the other options at this time are less than attractive, with players like Jake Locker, Matt Cassel, Mark Sanchez, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Colt McCoy and Chad Henne being tossed around.
And let’s not even get started on Jay Cutler.
Thumbs up: The secondary
Joe Haden and Tashaun Gibson both made the Pro Bowl, Donte Whitner brought some much-needed accountability to the defense and even Buster Skrine, despite his penalty of the week (five defensive holding penalties and six pass interferences), played his heart out each week, which goes a long way in our book.
The secondary helped the Browns finish ninth in scoring defense, first in opponent’s passer rating and second in interceptions (and tied for fourth in takeaways).
The one area that is a bit of a concern for next year is the interceptions and takeaways. As Bill Barnwell at Grantland has pointed out on numerous occasions, takeaways are not an inherent skill but rather a function of luck. The season finale against the Ravens is a perfect example – Joe Flacco fumbled two snaps and also fumbled on a sack, but the Ravens recovered each time. Shaw fumbled a snap, with the Ravens recovering.
If the Browns really had a talent for turnover, why didn’t they recover any of those fumbles?
It will be interesting to see how the secondary performs next season if/when those takeaways stop working in their favor.
Thumbs down: The defensive line
The Browns finished last in the league against the run, 27th in yards per carry and 28th in the number of runs of 20 yards or more.
Part of that had to do with injuries as the defensive line played without Armonty Bryant, Phil Taylor, John Hughes and Ahtyba Rubin for parts of the season.
But it is also because, while the Browns have a lot of effort guys and depth on the defensive line, outside of Desmond Bryant (maybe) they really don’t have an impact player. Guys like Rubin, Taylor, Billy Wynn, etc., are always trying and are nice to have on the team, but they are not really high-caliber players, you know?
Thumbs up: The running backs
Rookie Terrance West led the team in rushing with 673 while adding four rushing touchdowns, while fellow rookie Isaiah Crowell had a team-leading 4.1 yards per carry and rushed for eight touchdowns. All told the Browns had 17 rushing touchdowns after rushing for just four the previous year.
It wasn’t all perfect, of course, as Crowell struggled to hold onto the ball at times, and West struggled to understand the concept of being a professional, but if the duo can take the next step the Browns could be comfortable at the running back position for the near future.
Thumbs up: Paul Kruger and Barkevious Mingo
Kruger found his sweet spot in defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil’s defense, registering a team-high 11 sacks and transforming himself from the Browns version of Nick Swisher into an actual impact player.
Mingo was asked to take on a new role dropping back in coverage as opposed to simply rushing the passer. His athleticism served him well as he put up a solid season – especially when you take into account he was playing virtually one-armed.
We’re definitely looking forward to seeing what Kruger and Mingo can do next season.
Thumbs down: Josh Gordon and Jordan Cameron
Gordon missed the first 10 games of the season due to an NFL-mandated suspension, was a non-factor for the first five games after his return as he struggled to join the offense, and then missed the final game after being suspended by the club for missing a practice.
Cameron was limited to just 10 games due to injuries and outside of a catch here and there, was mostly ineffective.
A year after combining for 167 receptions, 2,563 yards and 16 touchdowns, Gordon and Cameron only had a combined 48 receptions for 727 yards and two touchdowns in 2014.
With Cameron entering free agency, and Gordon remaining unreliable, we may have seen the last of both players in a Browns uniform, a possibility that seemed unlikely just a few months ago.
Thumbs up: The anonymous wide receivers
But that all changed once the season started as Andrew Hawkins (signed as a slot receiver but who was forced to play outside due to Gordon’s troubles) and Miles Austin (before he blew out kidney against Buffalo) were more than up to the challenge.
Hawkins led the team in receptions and yard, with Austin second in receptions, and the pair combined for 78 receptions that resulted in a first down.
It was a pleasant surprise to have a pair of pass catchers who are actually adept at catching passes.
Thumbs up: Most of the offensive line
The Browns were never the same after that despite having Joe Thomas and rookie Joel Bitonio holding things down on the left side, along with (a solid) John Greco and (somewhat unspectacular) Mitchell Schwartz hanging in there on the right.
If Mack isn’t the best center in the league he’s certainly among the top two or three, so it really shouldn’t be a surprise that there would be a drop off from him to his backup. And we’re not sure we understand the ongoing criticism that the Browns should have had a better contingency plan in place for a player who had never missed a snap since entering the league. There are only so many roster spots available, after all, and using one to back up a player who always plays is a tough call.
Luckily Mack should be fine by the time things get real for next season, and it would be a major surprise if the Browns didn’t bring in someone to at least push Schwartz and/or Greco next season.
Of the things that are wrong with this team, offensive line is not one of them.
Thumbs down: Johnny Manziel and Justin Gilbert
But you can always, no matter what, show up on time and give your best effort (at whatever level that is for the day).
That’s a lesson that Manziel and Gilbert (along with West and Gordon) have apparently yet to learn and, if they don’t figure out, could lead to problems down the road. Things must be pretty bad when you have teammates commenting how even third graders have enough sense to show up on time.
It was a wasted year for both of the Browns first-round draft picks, and while we remain hopeful that Gilbert can learn his lesson before it is too late, we’re no longer so sure about Manziel.
We’re weren’t bothered by Manziel and his money phone or his inflatable swan because what players do on their own time is just that – their own time. Plus, we assumed that when the time came that Manziel would put in the required work.
But when he admitted that he didn’t take things seriously this year, it makes you wonder if the light bulb will ever go on for him. You have a very real opportunity to hold a job that only 31 other people in the entire world hold – starting quarterback on an NFL team – and you think you can take the year off?
Thumbs up: Ray Farmer and Mike Pettine
The two seem to be on the same page more than not, and both seem confident enough in their abilities and the people surrounding them that they can focus on the task of getting this franchise turned around.
While the jury is still out on Manziel and Gilbert, Farmer did a solid job with selecting Bitonio, West and Chris Kirskey, and picking up Crowell as an underrated free agent. He was also very productive in free agency, bringing in Hawkins, Austin, Whitner and Karlos Dansby.
As for Pettine, it’s refreshing to hear him deal with the media – he answers questions honestly without being condescending (even when the situation calls for it) – is good at explaining what the team is trying to accomplish, is confident enough in his status that he can make the right call when it comes to disciplining players, and seems like someone that only cares about winning the next game.
The Browns may have taken a circuitous route to hiring Pettine, but it sure seems like they made the right call once they found him.
We also would be remiss if we didn’t throw owner Jimmy Haslam into the mix here. Haslam stayed out of the spotlight (we can’t remember the last time the TV cameras showed him during a game) and let Farmer and Pettine do their jobs. The media continues to try and portray Haslam as a Jerry Jones wanna-be, but the facts don’t fit the narrative.
That about covers it for the 2014 Browns. Now that the season is in the books, we have free agency, the draft, OTAs and training camp to look forward to before the team takes the field again in a game that matters eight months from now.
And that’s when we’ll see if this year really was a foundational one for the team, one where the franchise’s fortunes truly started to turn, or if we are headed toward a return of the “Same Old Browns.”