The end of the NFL lockout is looming - and the sun about to shine on me again. I have been lost the past months without talk of training camp, possible trades, injury reports, etc., to use in planning my Fantasy Football team for this year. Since I can't figure out a way to get a Head Coaching job in the NFL, that is as close as I can get to the sport I love. And with talks of the upcoming season finally getting underway, it's time to take a look at the Cleveland Browns and my expectations for them this year.
The struggle we've had has Browns fans has largely been due to the teams under performance for the past 20+ years and I blame that on the inconsistencies at the top. Coaching and GM changes have left us without an identity, without a direction. I am finally hopeful that, under President Mike Holmgren, things will change. And I am also hopeful that Head Coach Pat Shurmur will be here a while so that we can regain our identity, and our pride, as Browns Fans.
We've already been told that we are moving to the 4-3 defense and the West Coast offense. The lockout has hindered that effort, but reports are everywhere that the players themselves are trying to keep the movement going. Major props to Scott Fujita for taking the leadership role with the defense. On the one day that the players were able to go to the facility and talk to coaches, he was given a play book and has used this off time to work with the defense. Equal props to Colt McCoy who is working with his offensive counterparts on the WC. No matter how well Fujita and McCoy prepare their teammates, no one can deny that these two have stepped up and taken the leadership roles for this team and that they want to be the guys to lead us into a new future with "Winning" as a core value for a change.
The West Coast Offense is, simply put, a way to use the horizontal pass to open up the run game and the long pass game. With this in mind, my key players to watch this year, the guys who will decide if the Browns "sink or swim," are the "Six M's": McCoy, Montario, Moore, Massaquoi, Mitchell, and Mack.
Colt McCoy is the obvious choice for key player. As the QB and leader of the offense, it's up to him to work out the new WC offense and manage the games. While he ran hot and cold last year (v New England and v Pittsburgh), he showed that he has the "Football Smarts" we need in a QB. He will have the advantage of being the named starter which means he'll be taking all the practice snaps with the first team and that wasn't the case last year. He managed to play really well at times while not having the necessary practice time and coaching that a starting QB gets. This year, he'll have no excuses for bad games.
Montario Hardesty missed the 2010 regular season due to injury. As a second round draft choice, he is expected to have an immediate impact on this team. With Peyton Hillis - The Great White Buffalo - having such a great year last year, we should have serious competition for the main running back position. In his one and only game before being injured, he had 7 carries for 25 yards and a TD. Not too shabby. Perhaps he needs to keep a copy of Madden '12 in his locker to remain focused on the goal. I hope he does make a better RB than Hillis... two RB's that get 10+ TD's and 1,100+ yards? The "H & H Factor" could be amazing.
Moore, Massaquoi, and Mitchell. TE, WR, and WR. A lot of concern has been expressed regarding the receivers for this team, their lack of experience, and their lack of production. The Browns scored a mere 13 passing touchdowns last year, and two of those were to Peyton Hillis and one was thrown by Massaquoi himself. The Browns ranked 30th in the NFL for passing touchdowns scored. 30th! I find that unacceptable, and I have to assume that the conversion to the West Coast Offense means that Mike Holmgren does as well. If these three players can increase their production to simply five TD's each, then we've already improved over last year.
Alex Mack. As one of the top three centers in the NFL, he has proven he has what it takes to anchor the offensive line and, with Joe Thomas and Eric Steinbach, can open spaces for Hillis and Hardesty to run through. They can also give Colt the time he needs to get the ball out quickly, a key in the new WC offense. After being selected to the Pro Bowl last year to replace an injured Nick Mangold, Mack should play well enough this year to make it there on his own. It's looking more and more like FB Lawrence Vickers will not be a factor for the Browns rushing game this year, so that just makes Mack and his fellow lineman more important.
Pundits and sports authorities will throw out a bunch players to watch and suggest players that the Browns should be trying to get in Free Agency. I submit that we have all of the pieces that we need right now to make a run at winning the AFC North division. No, we are not ready for the Super Bowl - I'm not that crazy. But I do believe that winning the division is possible with the help of the new offensive and defensive schemes, as well as the improved play of the "Six M's." We should be able to get back the respect that we lost years ago and that alone is enough to make any Browns fan smile.