It is easy to say that Cleveland Browns fans have waited 20 seasons – since the team came back in 1999 after being hauled off to Baltimore – to be representative in the NFL. Those people who say that forgot to add an extra decade to the time.
Add five seasons of the Belichick Era, from 1991 to 1995 – although they won a playoff game over New England and were eliminated by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1994. Then add another three years of exile from 1996 to 1998. To add insult to injury, the Browns recently went through a stretch under former head coach Hue Jackson with a record of 1-31, including a 0-16 season. It is understandable so many fans are trying to make it all up this season, when it appears they have the best talent of any Browns team in almost 60 years.
Normally, fans are divided in their loyalty toward quarterbacks. Unless you have a Super Bowl caliber quarterback, fans root for the backup, who looks really good holding a clipboard. That’s not the case in Cleveland, where there is almost unanimous support for second-year QB Baker Mayfield, who was not a clear-cut choice as the first pick in last year’s draft.
Then there is the addition of Odell Beckham Jr., who has not yet made a catch in a Browns uniform, as many fans want to name him the greatest receiver in Browns history. Many of these same fans are also ready to see running back Nick Chubb move Hall of Famers Jim Brown and Leroy Kelly down a notch or two on the list of greatest Cleveland ball carriers.
I understand the excitement. I have been going to Browns games since the mid-1950s. I am as excited as they are, but before I am ready to see them in the Super Bowl, a couple of questions need to be answered and we may not get those answers until the middle of the season. Most fans, including myself, don’t have a good handle on what the offensive line does and if they have a good game or not.
I suppose if you put up good rushing numbers and you kept the quarterback healthy, you have done a good job. I am not ready to say this line can do that on a consistent basis. Several former players have told me if the game planners aren’t confident in the line, they “shorten the playbook,”’ meaning the total offense will not have the entire playbook to use, taking away some of the weapons on the offense. Fortunately, Mayfield can run enough to keep him out of real danger.
The second thing to worry about is the head coach, Freddie Kitchens. While he is extremely popular, he hasn’t coached a game at any level and things happen quickly on an NFL sideline. Fortunately, he’s got two former head coaches on his staff to help keep things under control.
The Browns will go 10-6 and win the AFC North title, finishing ahead of Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati. They’ll also win a playoff game, their first since 1994. I’ll take that. Next year, you can think about a Super Bowl appearance.
As for Cincinnati, it may take awhile to get over the loss of head coach Marvin Lewis, who was better than many gave him credit for. But, finally, Mike Brown, Paul Brown’s son, made the change, replacing him with Zac Taylor.
Quarterback Andy Dalton is still there, but he is middle of the pack, if that, as quarterbacks go.
Pittsburgh and Baltimore are better than most people think. The Bengals to go winless in the division, which saddles them with six losses, will be too much to overcome to be a factor in the title chase.