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Soon Cleveland Could Factor In; Just Not This Year

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This is the final posting on a series written by Mojokong that reviews the AFC North.

The Pittsburgh Afterthought | AFC North: A Two-Party System

If one were to dig under the topsoil of the AFC North, eventually that person would discover small fragments of evidence that suggests the Cleveland Browns were at one time on top. The ghosts of football past still roam around Cleveland, whispering reminders the glory days in the ears of hardcore Browns fans—Paul Brown himself probably pops in from time to time. But it's been a long time since then, and the Browns find themselves picked to finished last by nearly every entity, ethereal or physical, that follows the game.

Alas, even though the football scene in Cleveland is a smoldering pile of debris, all is not completely lost. Similar to the 2008 Bengals, the Browns started out the season in dismal fashion only to rebound nicely and win their last four games. They finished 5-11, but displayed some workable pieces for next year as part of their seemingly perpetual rebuilding stage.

The brightest beacon of hope along the western Lake Erie shores comes from a man who resembles a walrus: Mike Holmgren. This mustachioed mastermind was the perfect man to give the title of Browns team president and general manager and the effect of his presence should become visible soon. Holmgren, of course, won the Super Bowl in Green Bay and lost one with Seattle, but that was as coach and GM. Now his hands are off the players and are instead wringing together in the owners box.

Holmgren's first big decision was to retain the controversial head coach Eric Mangini. At many points last year, Mangenius, as Tony Soprano once called him, seemed positively certain to lose his job. The team looked horrendous. Reports began to surface of a poor locker room environment and Braylon Edwards was picking fights with a smaller member of Lebron James' entourage. Suddenly, Edwards found himself traded to the Jets; overnight the team looked better and most importantly, they began winning.

In the process they discovered the talents of Jerome Harrison. In the last three games, Harrison exploded for 561 yards on 106 carries with five touchdowns. Harrison likes to take hand-offs in shotgun formations where he has more time to find running lanes and explode through the seams.

Of course, the Browns have a nice left side of their offensive line to run behind. Tackle Joe Thomas, guard Eric Steinbach, and center Alex Mack, make up a formidable wall that allows both Harrison, and whichever quarterback the team decides on, to operate easier.

As for the quarterback position, there is a lot of uncertainty lurking about. The candidates are weak. Gone is last year's tandem of Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson. Here is the aged Jake Delhomme, who looked so bad a year ago with Carolina that I thought perhaps the UFL would be his next destination. As is Seneca Wallace—former Holmgren guy in Seattle who has seen plenty of action but never seemed to impress much. If Delhomme wins the starting job in training camp and plays all season, I predict that he sets the new record for most interceptions in a season with close to 40. If Wallace gets the job, the turnovers will go down but the offensive output won't be much better. In short, they're in trouble at quarterback. Cleveland also drafted Colt McCoy, a smallish quarterback with a hurt shoulder. NFL Network's Brian Billick said he sees McCoy as a backup only, and that kind of talk makes me think the kid has a few years before he really makes a difference.

The biggest trouble though, is their defense. Last season the Browns ended up near the bottom of the league in all major defensive categories. Outside of generating little pass rush and not stopping the run, their most fatal flaw was their secondary. With Cincinnati and Baltimore spending extra money and resources in attempt to shore up their passing game, Cleveland needed to improve their defensive backfield, so they spent their first two picks on secondary help.

Their first pick was cornerback Joe Haden from Florida. Haden strained his back before the combine which caused him to run a slower time than many expected from him, but recovered with a faster time at his pro day and convinced the Browns of his talents. He was widely considered the top corner available in this year's draft and should be a starter early on this season.

The next draft installment was safety T.J. Ward from Oregon. Some experts felt the Cleveland reached some to take Ward considering he is somewhat smaller for an NFL safety and has already needed two knee surgeries, but the Browns were determined to improve the weakest spot on the team even if it meant taking a guy like Ward earlier than most would have. Ward has the coverage skills to play either corner or safety, and is labeled as a player who helps in run support by taking good angles to the ball carrier.

If the two youngsters weren't enough to stop the bleeding against the pass, the Browns also traded for veteran corner Sheldon Brown from Philadelphia. While it may have seemed that Brown's play slipped some prior to last season, he bounced back with a nice year that included five interceptions. Brown should help on the field, in the meeting rooms, locker room, and practice field by instructing the youth about the ins-and-outs of becoming a pro.

Throw in Eric Wright and safety Abram Elam, and Cleveland has some pieces to surely be better than a season ago, but the results may appear marginal, at best, right away. Still, bringing in solid draft picks to combat an increasingly passing league will help Cleveland resurrect a pass defense from their existing rubble.

I don't expect many wins from the Browns this season, but I do expect to see an attitude reversal. Even though they played the Bengals well in their two losses to Cincinnati, the Browns seemed like a gimmie game for most of the league. Prior to finishing the season well, they hit rock bottom and embarrassed their fair city. Next year, with Holmgren at the helm and Mangini seemingly comfortable with his players, I would think that the Browns will have a bit more bite to them. Nonetheless, playing in a tough division and starting Delhomme at quarterback, this franchise is still another year or two from even sniffing a .500 season.

Whether this season is a boom or a bust, remember Browns fans, in the Walrus you trust.

Mojokong—wishing we had an aquatic mammal for a general manager.