I don’t like to state the obvious.
So I won’t say this Browns season can’t be any worse than the previous one. I’ll even go out on a limb — or jump in a lake — and say it won’t be as awful.
The real question is how much better the Browns will be after an offseason of major changes (except at head coach) and a preseason of increasing optimism that seems out of place, and over the top, given 1-15 and 0-16 records the last two years.
The Browns are certainly headed in the right direction. General manager John Dorsey knows talent and wants to win as quickly as possible, which wasn’t the case with the previous administration.
No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield looked like the real deal in the preseason. They’re still loaded with salary cap space and extra draft picks.
Dorsey couldn’t help but recognize the talent deficiency he inherited in December and did something about it through trades, free agency and the draft. The roster is noticeably better, and that’s the biggest reason to believe a turnaround is on the horizon. The league is about talent and the Browns simply have more of it than in the previous two seasons.
Of course, quarterback trumps everything, so Dorsey will ultimately be judged on whether Mayfield is a franchise quarterback. If the answer’s yes, the Browns will finally be playoff contenders. If the answer’s no, owners Jimmy and Dee Haslam will clean house yet again.
Mayfield will open the season on the bench behind veteran Tyrod Taylor as part of the long-term plan, so the evaluation process is on hold. If training camp and the preseason can be trusted — which isn’t always the case — Mayfield is the best hope in years for putting an end to the procession of quarterbacks.
He handled well the organization’s decision to not let him compete for the starting job and did the most with the chances he was given. Most impressive were his pocket presence and accuracy, which should make up for his lack of ideal height.
But this column is about this season, so Taylor takes precedent. We know he’s an incredible worker and leader and won’t hurt the Browns with turnovers. What remains to be seen is if he’ll make enough big plays early and clutch plays late to turn losses into victories.
Taylor went 22-21 as the starter in Buffalo and never had the talent that surrounds him with the Browns. He also has a load of motivation after being benched last year, traded after ending the Bills’ playoff drought and entering the final year of his contract. If Taylor is good enough — and wins enough — to keep Mayfield on the bench for the season, or most of it, he’ll earn a place in Cleveland’s heart and a starting job and big contract elsewhere.
The Browns are going to be in a ton of games this year. It’s up to Taylor and the rest of the key pieces to finish them with victories.
For the purposes of this exercise, all that matters is how many times they get that done.
I’ve heard predictions of nine wins and a trip to the playoffs. While I love the enthusiasm, I can’t wrap my head around a team going from 1-31 to 9-7, no matter how much the roster has changed.
Chemistry must be developed, the young guys who’ve been losing for years must learn to win and the schedule is difficult — including six games against playoff teams from a year ago.
This season can be a success without a playoff trip, and it will be. The Browns will look much improved. They’ll be more enjoyable to watch. They’ll provide hope for the near-future. They’ll win games.
I’m tempted to say seven. I’m sticking with six.
I still have questions about the dependability of the receivers, the ability of the cornerbacks and the plan at left tackle. And everything goes out the window if the losing streak reaches 20 with an 0-3 start. That could mean the exit of Jackson and the entrance of Mayfield.
But I’m not predicting doomsday. Put me down for a steady 6-10 and playoff contention in 2019.
- AFC NORTH: Steelers
- AFC EAST: Patriots
- AFC SOUTH: Texans
- AFC WEST: Chargers
- AFC WILD CARDS: Jaguars, Chiefs
- AFC CHAMPION: Steelers
- NFC NORTH: Vikings
- NFC EAST: Eagles
- NFC SOUTH: Falcons
- NFC WEST: Rams
- NFC WILD CARDS: Saints, Packers
- NFC CHAMPION: Vikings
- SUPER BOWL CHAMPION: Steelers
- MVP: Aaron Rodgers, Packers
- OFFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Saquon Barkley, Giants
- DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Derwin James, Chargers
- COACH OF THE YEAR: Anthony Lynn, Chargers