Wednesday, January 18

The 2011 Cleveland Browns

I'm sure your first thought upon reading this headline was some variety of the simple question "why"? Or perhaps, "really"?

Yes, I'm really doing this. I'm nothing if not dedicated to my craft. After watching two weekends of quality postseason football (though fewer close games than I would have preferred), I've decided to go back and revisit the Browns' 2011 campaign. I'd like to present a few numbers and then a few impressions of a 4-12 campaign that left the Browns mired in the basement of AFC North and showed that Cleveland still has more questions than answers on the football field right now.

The team numbers
Make no mistake: the Browns earned their 4-12 record. Sure, their pythagorean expected record according to pro-football reference was 5-11, but either way they simply didn't perform on the field. The Browns posted an SRS for the year of -5.4, fourth-worst in the AFC and seventh-worst in the entire NFL. They were 30th of 32 teams in scoring offense with a paltry 13.6 ppg (the Packers led the way with 35 points a contest), topping out at 27 points in a week two victory at Indy. Perhaps surprisingly, their scoring defense (19.2 ppg) was 5th in the NFL. That number was no doubt boosted by the fact that their opponents were invariably leading late in games and had no need to score quick points, but it does indicate that there's at least something there defensively.

The offense was 30th in passing yards and 28th in rushing yards. That's a dynamite combination. Colt McCoy finished the year with a Passer Rating of 75.6 while Seneca Wallace clocked in at 65.4. The oft-injured Peyton Hillis led the club in rushing with 587 yards, but picked up just 3.6 per carry. Greg Little was our top wideout despite all the drops, with 61 catches for 709 yards. This is getting depressing.

The defense was a better unit statistically, but with a huge pass/run skew. The Browns were more effective at pressuring the passer this season, something that translated into allowing the second-fewest passing yards in the NFL this season even with safety TJ Ward inactive for most of the season. Unfortunately, their rush defense ranked 30th; both numbers I think are again indicative of the fact that no one really had to win a shootout against Cleveland this year. Call me pessimistic, but the rush number is more concerning to me than the pass defense is encouraging; a stouter run defense and improvement in our offensive output will no doubt cause a drop in our rank defending the pass. The defensive MVP was D'Qwell Jackson, who recovered from some serious injuries to post a whopping 158 tackles, second-most in the league. His 115 solo tackles were the most in the NFL.

I'm not sure how to best quantify special teams, but you all could see that ours were not nearly as good this year as in recent seasons. Brad Seely must be some sort of magician. The new kickoff rules and perhaps also drops in blocking and his own ability made Josh Cribbs less of a kick return threat, though he did take back a punt, one of his team-high five TD's this year. Brad Maynard was solid all year, averaging 40.5 yards per punt and managing to avoid dropping all but one of them in the end zone. I hate punt touchbacks, and Maynard was an artist at avoiding them. Phil Dawson was typical Awesome Dawson, hitting on 83% of his kicks including an astounding 7/8 from beyond 50 yards. Remarkable.

The thirteen football seasons since the franchise's return to Cleveland have been one extended fiasco - we all know that. They've won less than a third of their games (.326) over that span. The Packers won more games this season than the Browns have in their past three combined. But even with that backdrop of sustained struggle, I think this was the worst Browns season since the club returned to the Forest City.

It's not the worst record-wise; that distinction belongs to the '99 (2-14) and '00 (3-13) teams. But those seasons were expansion years, and you expected to take some lumps early on. The thrill of having a team back was still fresh, and we had the Tim Couch (first) Hail Mary game in '99 to get us back in the win column for the first time in four years. Plus we beat Pittsburgh in each of those two seasons, a big old ray of sunshine.

There were three (!) other 4-12 campaigns; 04, 06, and '08, and those weren't particularly enjoyable either. But those seasons all had some moments:

2004: The Browns beat Baltimore 20-3 on Opening Day (the Browns have started 0-1 in each of the other 12 seasons since the return) and had that crazy 58-48 shootout against Cincy. They also had a 99-yard touchdown play and the comedic stylings of Terry Robiskie.

2006: At least we had the novelty of the Charlie Frye experiment and the crazy DA-led win over the Chiefs.

2008: Another terrible year, but at least there was that 35-14 MNF pasting of the defending champion Giants, which this blogger attended. It was something.

And that's the thing: even our worstest years - and there have been a lot - always had something keeping fans' attention. 2011 did not. It was a season of Pat Shurmur looking absolutely befuddled on the sideline, of the offense always coming up a yard short, of Peyton Hillis turning into a drama queen, of losing division games, of blocked kicks...of rubbish. It was the most desultory season in memory, and I think that's in part because the Browns couldn't manage even one memorable win. Can you believe they were 2-1 at one point? Look at the four wins the Browns managed, and the final records of those opponents:

Colts (2-14)
Dolphins (6-10)
Jaguars (5-11)
Seahawks (7-9)

We eked out wins over four bad teams, none of them really all that exciting. The Miami comeback was nice, and the goal-line stands against the monumentally inept Jags were fun, but those were aimless wins over aimless teams. I'm someone who obviously cares about the long-term outlook of the franchise, but who also relishes wins as and when they come along, and the cupboard was remarkably bare on that front this year.

It's hard to tell where improvement will come from next season. We'll probably be on our 73rd QB in 14 years, Shurmur will seem rudderless again...I don't know. All I can hope for is that, if the Browns do submit yet another disappointing campaign, that they throw in something entertaining here and there along the way.


Figgs said...

Very well put - my thoughts exactly. Joe and I have been remarking all year about how uneventful this season was.

You mentioned the four wins coming over bad teams, but don't forget those teams were even worse when we played them than their overall records imply. Miami was looking like they might make a run at 0-16 at the beginning of the year, and although that Seattle club turned out to be a solid team (it don't get no betta than solid), the impeccable Charlie Whitehurst started the game against Cleveland.

Just an awful season. I don't know why we keep coming back, but I'm already looking forward to watching (and being invariably devastated by) them next year.

Nick said...

Yeah, it was just kinda boring. Considering how little satisfaction I got out of the wins, I wish we had gone 1-15 and put ourselves in a position to draft Luck. We couldn't even steal a game from Pittsburgh with two good chances to do so.

And Figgs, I'm not sure impeccable was the word you were looking for...maybe incomparable? No worries, not everyone's the wordsmith that I am...

Figgs said...

im·pec·ca·ble (adj.) - Having no flaws; perfect

I was trying to sarcastically say that he's awesome, so impeccable works just fine.

Andy said...

Incomparable was probably a better word - I have to side with Nick here.

However, I can see how you'd want to reserve that word for Script Ohio.