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Five Bold Predictions for the Browns 2011 Season

QB Colt McCoy looks to flourish under first-year Head Coach, Pat Shurmur's west coast offense. Will they be successful?

Expectations were high for the Cleveland Browns entering the 1995 season, extremely high.

Prior to the start of the ’95 season, some football experts had the Browns in Super Bowl XXIX. Sports Illustrated had the Browns facing the San Francisco ’49ers in the ’95 Super Bowl, with the Browns losing the game.

We all know how that season ended for the Browns, but the so-called experts had every reason to believe the team would – at a minimum – be a playoff contender. The Browns went 11-5 during the ’94 season and made an appearance in the playoffs for the first time in four years. After beating the New England Patriots 20-13 in the AFC Wild Card, their season was promptly ended the following week in the Divisional Round by the Pittsburgh Steelers, 29-9. (It marked the Browns third loss of the season to the Steelers).

Despite the disappointing end of to the ’94 season, expectations that the Browns would be contenders for the AFC’s spot in Super Bowl XXIX were within reason.

The Browns have had limited success since their return in 1999. They made the playoffs in 2002 with a 9-7 record where they once again lost to the Steelers, this time in the AFC Wild Card game. In 2007, the team went 10-6 and just missed the playoffs.

However, any reasonable Browns fan will tell you that there wasn’t much reason to believe we’d see a repeat performance from the team after either of those years. Kelly Holcomb started the ’02 playoff game against the Steelers, and performed so well that he sparked a quarterback controversy with…Tim Couch.

The 2008 season had legitimate expectations with Derek Anderson as the Browns QB. Fans experienced a 10-6 record the year before, and could claim a Pro-Bowl QB – albeit as an alternate. However, the Browns drafted hometown hero, Brady Quinn, in the ’07 NFL Draft which sparked a huge QB controversy throughout the season. In short, the ’08 season was a disaster.

Finally, after years of searching, the Cleveland Browns have a competent front office calling the shots. In 2009 the team hired former Green Bay and Seattle head coach, Mike Holmgren as Team President. Holmgren then announced that the team would be bringing in Tom Heckert from the Philadelphia Eagles to be the team’s new General Manager.

Here we are, about to start the 2011 season, and expectations are once again starting to mount in Cleveland. Despite the team’s 5-11 record last season, there’s no doubt that the team is heading in the right direction. So what exactly are the expectations in Cleveland? Well that depends on who you ask.

Most will tell you that the Browns are still a couple years away from being a serious contender in the tough AFC North. Others might tell you that an AFC North Title and a spot in the playoffs are possible for the Browns – this year. Regardless on the outcome of this season for the Browns, one thing is clear – the future is bright in Cleveland.

So with that, here are five (reasonable) bold predictions for the Cleveland Browns this season…

5) The Browns defense will rank among the Top 10 in the NFL this coming season.

I know I know, crazy, right? Maybe, but maybe not. The Browns have an experienced Defensive Coordinator in Dick Jauron, who’s implementing a 4-3 scheme on defense this year.

The move from a 3-4 to a 4-3 is going to benefit starting MLB, D’Qwell Jackson tremendously. He’s already given fans – and opposing teams – a glimpse of just how good he can really be in the preseason. In limited action during the preseason, Jackson has 11 total tackles, with two of those tackles for a loss.
Scott Fujita and Chris Gocong are expected to be the starting outside linebackers. However, Gocong has missed the entire preseason do to a stinger. Kaluka Maiava has stepped-up in Gocong’s absence and has been somewhat of a surprise with his play this preseason.

The strong point of the defense, may very well be their young and talented front four. Phil Taylor (DT) and Jabaal Sheard (DE) are both rookies, but Jayme Mitchell (DE) and Ahtyba Rubin (DT) are veterans that mesh well with what Taylor and Sheard bring into the game. Taylor has already shown flashes of dominance this preseason, while Sheard is still battling the learning curve.

The secondary will continue to improve throughout the season, led by second-year pro Joe Haden and seasoned vet Sheldon Brown at the cornerback positions. At the safety positions you can expect to see T.J. Ward at strong safety, with Mike Adams or Usama Young at free safety. Young, much like Gocong, has missed the entire preseason and Adams has made the most of his opportunity and should be the starter come week one against the Bengals.

I understand depth is a serious issue, but if healthy, a Top 10 defense is not out of the realm of possibility for the Browns. After three games in the preseason, the Browns have recorded 8 sacks, 18 tackles for loss, 4 fumble recoveries and have scored a touchdown on one of those fumble recoveries.

A Top 10 caliber defense is certainly within reason, should the team find a way to get everyone healthy.

4) Quarterback Colt McCoy will pass for 3200 yards with 26 TDs, 12 INTs and will lead the NFL in completion percentage at 69%.

Sounds crazy, huh? A closer look reveals that it may not be that crazy after all.

Last season as the St. Louis Rams Offensive Coordinator, Pat Shurmur improved the Rams offense tremendously with a rookie QB in Sam Bradford. The Rams improved in just about every statistical category on offense, from total yards to time of possession.

As an offense, the team scored 114 points more than the previous year and only committed 21 turnovers (tied for ninth-lowest) on offense.

Under Shurmur’s direction, QB Sam Bradford passed for 3512 yards and set records in completions and attempts. Bradford’s 18 TDs helped lead the team to a 7-9 record after going 1-15 the season prior.

McCoy spent his time during the NFL lockout doing everything he could to improve his knowledge of the west coast offense, even reaching out to future Hall of Famer Bret Favre. His “Camp Colt” sessions – held for the entire team – are often mocked and laughed at.

One of the biggest keys to success for any QB in the NFL, is the chemistry between he and his receivers. What people don’t realize is that “Camp Colt” afforded McCoy and his receivers the opportunity to work on timing patterns and other key elements within the passing game.

While at the University of Texas, McCoy broke a lot of records. McCoy is now the NCAA’s all-time leader in wins as a starting QB (45) and UT’s career leader in total touchdowns (132) and most passing touchdowns (112). He set single-season records for passing touchdowns (34) and passing yards with 3,859.

All of those records are great, but his record for highest single-season completion percentage (76.7%) is the one that stands the most for me. To be successful in the west coast offense, the QB has to be accurate – 76.7% is astonishing. McCoy doesn’t have amazing arm strength, but he doesn’t need it in this offense. A lot is made of the receiving core in Cleveland, but they don’t have to be amazing either – just dependable.

Sure, 3200 yards with 26 TDs and 12 INTs may be a little high but certainly reachable for McCoy. His projected 69% completion percentage may be right on point. We’ll see, but I think it’s reasonable.

3) The Browns will go 4-2 against the Bengals, Ravens and Steelers to win the AFC North…

This prediction is sure to catch some hell, but that’s why it’s a bold prediction. At least allow me to defend myself.

The Browns have a fairly easy schedule this year. Of the team’s first 12 games, only two opponents were playoff teams -the Indianapolis Colts and the Seattle Seahawks.

With an easy schedule, the Browns should be able to pick-up a few wins. Winning will go a long way in building the team’s confidence as they enter the final month or so of the season.

On December 4th, the Browns play the Ravens at home before traveling to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers in a Thursday night showdown on December 8th. The team then travels to Arizona to take on the Cardinals on the December 18th before heading to Baltimore to take on the Ravens on Christmas Eve. After a three game road trip, the Browns return home to face the Steelers, once again, in the season finale.

Sounds excruciating for a young and inexperienced Browns team, doesn’t it? Especially since the Ravens and Steelers typically use their yearly match-ups against the Browns as warm-ups for the playoffs.

Playing the Ravens and Steelers twice that late in the season may benefit the Browns, especially since they are so young and inexperienced. With 12 weeks before the Browns have to face the perennial AFC North powers, the Browns will have more than enough time to figure out who they are on offense and defense.

Based on my first two predictions, the Browns will be playing defense at a high level and QB Colt McCoy will be all but done proving that he is – in fact – Cleveland’s quarterback of the future by the time the Ravens come to town in Week 13.

I firmly believe that the Browns will take both games against the Cincinnati Bengals. I understand that many believe that the Browns will get swept by both the Steelers and the Ravens, and if that happened I can’t say that I would be surprised.

However, I have the Browns beating the Ravens and Steelers both in Cleveland Stadium, while dropping both games on the road. Add ‘em all up and that’s 4-2 in the AFC North.

Hey, if the Bengals can go 6-0 in the AFC North (2009), then there’s no reason to believe that the Browns can’t go at least 4-2.

2) When the season is over and it’s time to head to Hawaii, the Browns will have seven players representing the team in the Pro-Bowl…

Say what?! The Browns have seven Pro-Bowl caliber players on their team?! No way!

Way! I know, I’m way to confident in the talent on the Browns current roster, right? Well that’s why it’s a bold prediction.

At any rate, here they are…

Joe Thomas (LT) – Thomas is arguably the best left tackle in the game. He’s made the Pro-Bowl each season he has been in the NFL, and has been named to the NFL’s All-Pro Team in back-to-back seasons. There really isn’t a lot to say about Thomas, as his play speaks for itself.

Alex Mack (C) – Mack is easily one of the top centers in the NFL that no one knows. He was part of an offensive line that helped paved the way to Hillis’ 1000+ yard season. He made the Pro-Bowl last season, replacing Maurkice Pouncey and then, Nick Mangold, on the AFC’s squad. Last season may have been the first of many Pro Bowls in Mack’s future, as he is only in his second year as a pro.

Peyton Hillis (RB) – There’s worry about the “wear and tear” that Hillis endured during last season’s 1,177 yard/11 touchdown performance, but Hillis is still a young guy (now in his 4th year) and Hardesty – should he stay healthy – will lighten the load for Hillis. Considered a “dual-threat” back, Hillis could have a big year, not only rushing, but receiving the ball out of the backfield as well.

Colt McCoy (QB) – I’ve already stated that I expect a big year out of McCoy and if he puts up numbers that are even close to 3200/26/12…he’ll be in the Pro Bowl. Bradford excelled in Shurmur’s offense in St. Louis and McCoy should as well. His accuracy will allow him to put up those big numbers, landing him in his first – of hopefully, many – Pro-Bowls.

D’Qwell Jackson (MLB) – This all depends on if Jackson manages to stay healthy after missing the last two season due to a pectoral injury. Rumors out of camp, are that Jackson his having a superb offseason and has backed those rumors up with his play in the preseason. Many believe that Jackson is better suited for the 4-3 defense, as opposed to the 3-4 scheme seen in Cleveland last year. This is Jackson’s opportunity to shine in the NFL.

Joe Haden (CB) – As a rookie, Haden posted 64 total tackles (57 solo), 1 forced fumble, 18 pass deflections and 6 interceptions from his cornerback position. He should only improve on those numbers playing behind a reconstructed front seven. Haden is already a fan-favorite in Cleveland in only his second year, and it shouldn’t take long before the rest of the NFL starts to notice Haden’s potential as a star.

Phil Taylor (DT) – Taylor is not only one of my picks to make the Pro-Bowl, but he’s also my pick for “Defensive Rookie of the Year”. His preseason stats may not reflect much, but anyone who has watched Taylor play (especially against the Eagles) knows that Cleveland’s first-round draft pick, has definite potential as a dominant defensive lineman in the NFL. Playing next to Ahtyba Rubin is certainly going to benefit Taylor’s game.

And finally…

1) First year Head Coach, Pat Shurmur, will win NFL “Coach of the Year”…

Shurmur, like his young QB Colt McCoy, has grown accustomed to winning. During his 12 years of coaching in the NFL, Shurmur (who coincidently got is start in Philadelphia) has been a part of five divisional crowns, seven playoff appearances and one Super Bowl appearance.

If it all plays out the way I’ve predicted (and yes, I know – not likely) then there is no reason that Shurmur wouldn’t be named Coach of the Year.

Clearly Shurmur knows the west coast offense, inside and out. Browns players are already speaking highly of their new head coach, calling him a “players coach” on multiple occasions. Say what you want, but establishing a good relationship with your team will go a long way in helping them be successful during the season. (Ask the players who they’d rather play for – Shurmur? or former HC, Eric Mangini?)

Dick Jauron, also in his first year with the organization, will have a handle on his defense. All Shurmur will have to do is coach and win games – something I think he is very capable of doing, albeit with a little luck.

So there you have it, my five bold predictions for the Cleveland Browns upcoming season. They’re reasonable, right?



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