Browns looking to climb from AFC North cellar
CLEVELAND (AP) — For his entire pro career, Joe Thomas has known nothing but change, misery and losing.
Welcome to Cleveland.
Oh, sure, he’s made six straight Pro Bowls with the Browns, earning the reliable and durable left tackle a yearly trip to Hawaii. Thomas, though, would trade all those vacations for one visit to the postseason.
“I want to go the playoffs,” Thomas said earlier this summer. “It’s no fun playing in the NFL when you’re going 4-12 every year. It’s just not, it’s drudgery.”
Those dreary days could be over.
With a first-year head coach who understands Cleveland’s passion, more experienced players and a committed owner in Jimmy Haslam, the Browns appear to be on the verge of turning their fortunes. It’s been six years since they had a winning record, and 11 since their last playoff appearance, but Thomas believes the Browns are poised to contend.
And when he closes his eyes, Thomas envisions a wintry day in January near Lake Erie when football, the way it once was in Cleveland, is back.
“I think about the day of me running out of the tunnel for a home playoff game, that’s my dream,” he said. “That’s why I show up every day.”
If the Browns are indeed going to improve, they must gain ground in the rugged AFC North. Cleveland is just 16-50 inside one of the league’s toughest divisions and only 5-25 in the past five years.
Here’s are five things to watch as Cleveland enters the 2013 season:
CHUD’S IN CHARGE: Like so many kids growing up in Ohio, Rob Chudzinski had his heart broken by the Browns. It’s his job to try and fix a few. Cleveland’s offensive coordinator in 2007 — when the Browns went 10-6 — Chudzinski takes over the team he rooted for as a youngster and one that has chewed up and spit out coaches at an alarming rate.
Chudzinski, he’s “Chud” to everyone, is Cleveland’s sixth coach since 1999. He spent the past two years as Carolina’s offensive coordinator. With the Panthers, he directed a record-breaking offense he hopes to replicate in Cleveland. To assist him, the Browns hired offensive coordinator Norv Turner and defensive guru Ray Horton, two of the best coordinators on the market with proven track records.
Turner’s job is to get the most out of second-year quarterback Brandon Weeden, who has the physical tools and could thrive in an offense designed to his strengths.
RICHARDSON READY TO RUMBLE: His ribs healed and 10 pounds lighter than a year ago, running back Trent Richardson is set for a breakout season — as long as he stays healthy. Richardson rushed for 950 yards as a rookie, when he played more than half the year with two broken ribs.
Richardson lacked the same burst as he had at Alabama, which is part of the reason he slimmed down to 225 pounds. The 23-year-old, who also underwent knee surgery last year, looked terrific in the preseason and credited his improvement to reviewing tapes of how he ran in college and high school. Richardson said it was “time to get back to the basics.”
In the past, the feature running back in Turner’s offense has topped 300 carries, and Richardson is looking forward to doing more “than running between the tackles” as he did a year ago.
“I’m looking towards no injury, no broken fingernails, nothing,” he said. “I know my whole season is based on being healthy and playing 16 games and hopefully in the playoffs.”
SOUTH IN THE NORTH: Unless they start winning division games, the Browns will stay stuck in the AFC North’s basement — their home eight times in 11 years.
Since their return in 1999, the Browns have gone just 16-50 against Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati. They’ve never gone better than 3-3, and that came in their only two winning seasons (2002, 2007) since their expansion rebirth.
The Browns have been competitive inside the division, but losing close games doesn’t cut it.
With the Steelers rebuilding, the Ravens losing key contributors from their Super Bowl title team, and the Bengals being, well, the unpredictable Bengals, the Browns could close the gap on their three rivals.
“I think we’re making good strides,” Thomas said. “But we’ve got to win games to prove we’ve made strides.”
WEEDEN’S GROWTH: On a wall inside the Browns’ draft room is a list of things the team feels it must do “On The Path To The Super Bowl.” Near the top is: “Have a championship-caliber quarterback.”
Brandon Weeden has this year to show he is one.
Following an up-and-down-and-sideways rookie season, Weeden heads into his second year confident he can lead the Browns back to respectability. He’s got the arm, but the Browns just aren’t 100 percent certain he has the other intangibles to push them into playoff contention.
Weeden turns 30 in October, so the clock is ticking on both him and the team. The Browns signed veteran Jason Campbell as a backup in case Weeden fails this year and they acquired some extra draft picks in 2014, ammunition in case they have to maneuver to find their future QB.
Weeden won’t have his top target for the first two games as wide receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for failing the NFL’s drug policy.
ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK: Cleveland’s defense will have moving parts. More precisely, blitzing parts.
Horton has switched the Browns from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme, one that puts a premium on pressuring the quarterback. Cleveland restocked its defensive front, signing free agent linebackers Paul Kruger and Quentin Groves, end Desmond Bryant and drafting Barkevious Mingo with the No. 6 overall pick.
With the Arizona Cardinals last season, Horton’s defense had the NFL’s lowest opposing quarterback rating (71.2 percent), ranked second in third-down efficiency (32.9) and interceptions (22) and was third in red-zone defense (44.4).
It’s a high-risk, high-reward approach, and if nothing else, it will be fun to watch.
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