Rebuilding a downtrodden football team is not easy but there is a proven formula and timetable for success; I have frequently quoted Bill Walsh's words of wisdom on this subject and they bear repeating here (the following passage is from an October 5, 1998 Sporting News article by Walsh titled "Coaches Should Show Results in Year Three"): "I am often asked how long it should take to turn an NFL franchise around. My short answer is: three years. Not every team will win the Super Bowl in its third season under a new coach (as we did in San Francisco in 1981) but it is reasonable to expect at least some signs of improvement by that time...There are reasons why some teams are able to remain competitive year after year while others never seem to get over the hump...My point is that it takes a concerted commitment from ownership, the front office, the coaching staff and the players for a team to succeed. It's the old 'a-chain-is-only-as-strong-as-its-weakest-link-theory' theory. If one of the four areas is weak, it's extremely difficult to overcome that flaw."
The Cleveland Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, after a three year hiatus due to Art Modell moving his franchise to Baltimore. The "new" Browns have made the playoffs once in nine seasons (earning a Wild Card berth with a 9-7 record in 2002) and their 10-6 record last year raised hopes tremendously even though it was not good enough to qualify for postseason play; in their seven other seasons they have posted records ranging from 2-14 to 7-9, winning four or fewer games four different times. By any reasonable measure the franchise has completely flunked the Walsh test, vastly exceeding the timetable it should take to build a competitive team.
Last year, the Browns ranked in the top ten in scoring (eighth) for the first time since 1987 and they sent six players to the Pro Bowl but their defense was poor (ranking 21st in points allowed) and they fattened their record by beating sub-.500 teams. This season, the Browns face a tough schedule that includes several prime time matchups against strong playoff contenders--and the Browns certainly did not look ready for prime time last week when the Dallas Cowboys pounded them 28-10. The Cowboys accumulated 487 yards of offense and totaled 30 first downs. This Sunday night, a national television audience will tune in to see the Browns face the Pittsburgh Steelers, their long-time division rivals who have beaten them more times in a row than Lucy pulled the football away from Charlie Brown. Remember when the San Francisco 49ers beat the L.A. Rams so many times in the 1980s and 1990s that NFL Films captured some footage of San Francisco players on the sidelines laughingly mocking the "same old, sorry ass Rams"? There is absolutely no objective reason to believe that by 11 p.m. on Sunday the Steelers won't at least be thinking the same thing about the Browns, whether or not they actually say it.
As a lifelong Browns fan, I certainly wish that I could write a more cheerful pregame post but I am not delusional: the Browns' defense is still bad and due to injuries the offense has yet to hit its stride the way it did last season. The best case scenario for the Browns is that quarterback Derek Anderson and wide receiver Braylon Edwards quickly rediscover the 2007 end zone chemistry that enabled them to hook up for 16 touchdowns; the Browns are not going to stop too many teams this season but if their offense can crank out 30 ppg maybe--maybe--they can be competitive.
I still don't quite know what to make of the current Browns' regime of General Manager Phil Savage and Coach Romeo Crennel. After last season's 34-7 week one debacle versus Pittsburgh, I was convinced that Savage and Crennel should be shown the exit door. The unprecedented decision to trade week one starter Charlie Frye for a sixth round draft pick further convinced me that the Browns should be called "The Cleveland Titanic"--but then Anderson emerged as a Pro Bowler, the Browns went 10-5 the rest of the way and near the end of the season Cleveland had become "Believeland." Now, though, I wonder if that was just a mirage as opposed to real proof of tangible progress. There is no doubt that Savage has upgraded the overall talent level on the team but will he ever put together a legitimate playoff contender that is not fatally weak in one phase of the game? As for Crennel, I was very skeptical of him early last season but felt that I had to give credit where credit was due when the Browns turned things around. However, the Browns have consistently shown an alarming lack of discipline during his regime, as indicated by their conditioning level, blown assignments and silly illegal procedure penalties. I really hope that 2008 turns out to be a storybook season like 2007 did and that this time the Browns seal the deal and make it to the playoffs but that just does not seem likely.
The bottom line is that the Browns are in year 10 and counting of what should have been a three year plan. Savage and Crennel cannot be blamed for the first six years of failure but they have run the show now for more than three years with not one playoff berth to show for their efforts. Savage deserves credit for some of his excellent personnel moves but the job is not complete, nor is it clear that Crennel is the right coach to lead the Browns to a championship. I hope the Browns make me eat these words Sunday night and the rest of the season--but I'm afraid that they won't.