Certainly AFC North followers will railroad this post for the simple fact that the Cleveland Browns have been so bad for so long that it automatically makes them a shoe-in for cellar dweller again in 2013. However, those that do have not studied their history, and could prove awfully red-faced when the NFL playoffs roll around.
Rob Chudzinski will get the most out of Brandon Weeden
People so easily forget that the Cleveland Browns were an up-and-coming team in 2007. Behind head coach Romeo Crennel the team went 10-6 and just missed the playoffs. Then some unfortunate circumstances led to their dismantling, not the least of which was as dysfunctional group of receivers led by Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow Jr. Overlooked about that team was a bright, young offensive coordinator named Rob Chudzinski. After getting Derrick Anderson to the Pro Bowl as a quarterback in Cleveland, he left for Carolina where he developed Cam Newton into Rookie of the Year in 2011. It is that same offensive specialist who returned home to Cleveland again, this time as the man in charge. Obviously head coaching is different from coordinating, but it shouldn’t impact the ability to teach. Chudzinski came in with the goal of developing second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden as quickly as possible. Early returns are promising.
Weeden has completed 71.8% of his 25 passes during the preseason for 229 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. His offensive line features two Pro Bowlers in Joe Thomas and Alex Mack, both of whom aren’t even 30-years old yet. The Browns have a talented group of young receivers and a top shelf running back in Trent Richardson. Chudzinski had a similar setup when he ran the show in Carolina and that unit set records. Weeden isn’t Cam Newton, but his development appears right on track. Considering how well he played last season under difficult circumstances, there is no reason to think he won’t improve under a much better offensive mind.
Paul Kruger and Joe Haden will help Ray Horton defense
Yet the true depth of Cleveland’s ascent doesn’t stop there. Perhaps their best hire of the off-season was defensive coordinator Ray Horton. When he took over with the Arizona Cardinals back in 2010, he inherited a unit that finished 29th that year in total defense. His first year they improved to 18th. Last season they finished 12th overall. Such a jump in just two seasons is the mark of an impressive coach. Now the Browns have him, and took some very solid steps towards giving him the pieces to craft an excellent unit. He already has tackling machines and team captain D’Qwell Jackson in the middle with rising star cornerback Joe Haden in the secondary. To help things along they added defensive end Paul Kruger in free agency and pass rusher Barkevious Mingo in the draft. They should rev up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks, something Cleveland struggled with last year. Toss in overlooked 3rd round pick Leon McFadden at corner and veteran defensive tackle Desmond Bryant and Horton has the pieces in place to really shake up the AFC North.
One of the keys to reach the NFL playoffs is balance. A team needs playmakers on offense and defense and the coaches who know how to use them. With Rob Chudzinski and Ray Horton running the show, the Cleveland Browns have their best chance in years to accomplish that goal.