The road to success in the NFL begins each year with the hard work and wide-open possibilities of training camp. As teams around the league gear up for the 2015 campaign, NFL Media reporters will be checking in from all 32 camps around the league. For our next stop, Albert Breer visits the Cleveland Browns.
Where is NFL Media?
The Browns' home facility in suburban Berea, Ohio, about two turns from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. This place opened when Bill Belichick was coaching here and withstood the move to Baltimore in 1995 and the reanimation of the franchise in 1999. This might be the last full camp here for a while, as the team continues to negotiate to move at least a large part of camp to the state capital, two-and-a-half hours away by car in Columbus.
1) Mike Pettine's first year as head coach was a mixed bag, and he's not afraid to admit now, heading into his second season, that he had a lot to learn. "We made sure afterward we brainstormed and took extensive notes, 'What would we do different next time?' " he told me. "You just feel so much more comfortable. It's like anything else; you go through it once, you get a dry run, and I'm fortunate enough now to be here for Year 2, and it's like the old cliché, 'Answers to the test.' " Here's one change: The amount of time Pettine spent with the defense last year is being devoted to the offense this year. That means meetings, film work, practice time and, eventually, game-planning sessions. The coach decided that he, defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil and much of the staff on that side have been together so long that it was almost redundant for him to invest all that time with them, and so he'll be working closely with new offensive coordinator John DeFilippo in the coming months. It's been refreshing for Pettine, the former high-school quarterback who last worked extensively on offense while coaching at North Penn High over a decade ago.
2) The Browns' bet this year is that they'll get the 2013 version of Josh McCown (109.0 passer rating in eight games with the Bears) rather than the 2014 edition (1-10 record as a starter for the Buccaneers). The belief is that McCown was a victim of circumstance in Tampa (working with an unsightly offensive line and a coaching staff that had undergone summer upheaval) as much as anything else. The early returns have been good. Maybe the most valuable feedback the coaches have gotten has come from the defensive players, who have raved not just about his knowledge of the game (McCown coached two seasons of high school ball recently, so that's unquestioned), but about what he's bringing physically. "The first two days, Josh lit us up," said veteran safety Donte Whitner. "Before he got here, I didn't know he could do these things. He can really spin the football." And yes, McCown is 36 years old. But Pettine gave me a pretty awesome analogy on that. "He's so young if you look at his game logs," Pettine said. "That's why I made the joke the other day. He's like that car that has low mileage, kept in the garage and driven to church on Sundays by a little old lady. He's got a lot left."
3) The formula here is going to be pretty simple: The Browns have to win on defense and with their run game. And that means running the ball, with rookie Duke Johnson likely to carry a heavy load (hence the caution in bringing him back from a hamstring injury), and stopping the run more effectively, which was a big reason for Danny Shelton's selection with the team's top draft pick this year. Boring? Well, this camp certainly isn't what it was last year. But in a lot of ways, it is reflective of what the Browns are looking to be. "It's quieter for sure," Pettine said. "That's the way our guys are, they're serious about their business, they go out to get better, I don't think there's a lot of flash to this team. But that's how we're gonna win. We're gonna wear people down, and I think we're gonna be better on offense than people give us credit for when it's all said and done. And we're hopeful that our defense and our special teams are the cornerstone of what we do. I feel good about it."
Duke Johnson, RB: The hamstring issue is troubling, since it followed him from Miami and into the pre-draft process. But (as we mentioned above) what he's flashed so far is a big reason for the coaches to play it safe with a back they plan on playing plenty. In particular, Johnson has adapted to the passing game faster than most rookies at his position do, a sign he could be a three-down player right away.
"I can really only speak for when he's here. There's no news out of the building, which is obviously a good thing. I sit in on it, since I'm on the offense now, I sit in on a lot of those meetings, whether it's the install or the quarterback meetings with (quarterback coach) Kevin O'Connell and Flip. He's engaged, he bangs out the answers, he knows it, it's important to him. We got a little mad at him, because he got upset at practice the other day, was frustrated, threw a ball down. But the positive of that is, 'Hey, he cares.' This is a guy who's competitive and wants to be successful and is upset when things aren't done right. We feel good about where he is. But given his circumstances -- and that was recent -- no rush to push him back out there. If it takes a year for him to learn under Josh, then so be it."
"Johnny's a totally different guy than he was last year. He's 100 percent strictly football right now. He's working his best to be a pocket, prototype quarterback back there. He's been doing a pretty good job. Again, I just can't wait to see what he does in the scrimmage on Friday up in Columbus, and then going into the preseason games, to see what he can do up there."
» The Browns still have the hole left by suspended receiver Josh Gordon, but they hope to make up for it with balance at the position. They're excited about how their speed guys have progressed. Taylor Gabriel may be the one to watch here -- he's a legit 4.3 player who has impressed coaches with keen attention to detail this offseason.
» Speaking of under-the-radar second-year guys, corner K'Waun Williams looks ready to take a step forward. He got a ton of experience last year playing in the slot, and he looks different physically coming into 2015, following his first full offseason as a pro.
» Maybe the most improvement here will be in the guts of the roster. The key for general manager Ray Farmer has been drafting beyond the first round, with much expected from guys like offensive lineman Joel Bitonio (second round), linebacker Christian Kirksey (third round) and corner Pierre Desir (fourth round) from the 2014 class, along with the 12-man class this year.