Johnny Football is all the rage in Cleveland. The Browns sent the Dawg Pound into a frenzy by completing a draft-day trade to acquire Manziel, and the wild excitement has only grown since, with the high-profile quarterback making news yet again on Tuesday -- simply by signing his contract. There's a new rock star in the land of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But truthfully, the Browns' 2014 fortunes don't rely on Mr. Football; they rely on Cleveland's continued growth on the other side of the ball. While Manziel captures headlines and imaginations, the Browns' defense is on the verge of becoming the source of the team's true identity and a legit force in the AFC.
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Even before Johnny Football came to town, Cleveland was headed in the right direction with the hirings of general manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine, something I passionately wrote about back in February.
But now, with a potential suspension putting All-Pro receiver Josh Gordon's season in jeopardy, it's clear Pettine will need to work his defensive magic right off the bat. Based upon precedent -- assessing Pettine's prior work as defensive coordinator of the New York Jets and Buffalo Bills -- it's easy to believe he will.
I spoke with Pettine at length last week on my SiriusXM Radio show, "Schein on Sports," and the first-year head coach was extremely enthused about the potential of Cleveland's defense -- an enticing blend of old and new.
"We were excited when we walked in here and had a chance to go back through last year's tape," Pettine said. "We were fortunate to lock up an elite corner in Joe Haden long term, and then to add in free agents Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby in the middle of the defense, and to already have here Barkevious Mingo, Paul Kruger and Jabaal Sheard to flank the defense. You also got guys like Phil Taylor and Billy Winn on the inside. We think, if things fall right and we build it the right way through training camp, that this group has a chance to be really special."
"Really special" isn't hyperbole. Dansby and Whitner are upgrades on the field as well as leaders at practice and in the locker room. Kruger will be a pass-rushing force under Pettine, while Mingo is a young stud with plenty of upside. And Taylor, a 6-foot-3, 335-pound behemoth up front, remains underrated.
If you're familiar with Pettine and Jets coach Rex Ryan -- one of Pettine's mentors -- you know they cherish top-tier play at cornerback. Haden is one of the top three corners in the NFL, well worth the lucrative extension he received last month. And it should surprise nobody that Pettine plucked Justin Gilbert, the elite corner in the 2014 draft class, with his first selection as Browns coach. I think Cleveland could have the best cornerback combo in the NFL this year. Seriously.
"That's a possibility," Pettine said, confirming my notion. "The one thing we don't want to do is rush (Gilbert) in there too quickly. Buster Skrine is a pretty good player. It's going to take something for Justin to beat him out. We always want to be in the business for competing for jobs here, and that's true at virtually every position. Corner is no exception. He's going to have to come in and earn it. It might be corner-by-committee for part of the year. It's very difficult to line up opposite Joe, when a lot of quarterbacks will see (Haden) have his guy locked down and look to go the other way. There's a chance to get a lot of footballs thrown your way if you're that opposite corner. So we'll do some things scheme-wise to help (Gilbert) and get him some confidence early. But he's a guy that's already shown, in the brief time we've had him here, that he has elite coverage skills and he has the makings of being a pretty good NFL corner."
I love seeing the head coach dangle the carrot but refuse to guarantee the talented rookie anything. Pettine knows how to push buttons. But make no mistake: Justin Gilbert will play, and he will play splendidly.
On paper, the Browns boast a better defense than the rival Pittsburgh Steelers. I wrote that in a bold predictions column back on April Fools' Day, and I feel even stronger about this opinion after the Gilbert pick.
But while the defense appears stout, the offense presents some questions. Let's start with the quarterback position: Pettine maintains that Brian Hoyer will open training camp atop the depth chart, though it's obviously not difficult to imagine Manziel eventually beating him out. But whether it's Hoyer or Manziel come Week 1, the Browns will be featuring an inexperienced starter at the game's most important position. (Remember, Hoyer has started a grand total of four NFL games.) And regardless of who opens the season under center, one potential problem looms extremely large out wide: Gordon's likely absence.
Long story short, I think Cleveland will take a wise approach on offense, deflating the ball and grinding out yards on the ground.
Joe Thomas is an elite left tackle. Alex Mack is an elite center. I loved the offseason additions at running back: Ben Tate in free agency and Terrance West in the draft. And I loved the hiring of offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan to make it all click. Forget the drama in D.C. last year; Shanahan is a great coordinator. Think about what he did in 2012 and what he did prior to that with the Houston Texans. Not to mention, Shanahan and Pettine -- both sons of football coaches/lifers -- have a similar level of intensity.
I don't think Cleveland's offense is going to be high-scoring, as the playmakers certainly are not plentiful -- especially if Gordon's out. But the plan is savvy.
"It's going to start with the zone-running attack. We'll have some other blocking concepts mixed in, but for the most part, it will be the zone scheme that Kyle was able to run in Houston and bring to Washington," Pettine explained. "One thing that Kyle loves to do is multiple formations and a lot of pre-snap movement. So that's something else that our fans will see. If you can draw the formation up, we will likely be in it. We're gonna take advantage of the roles that allow us to shift in motion pre-snap and gain advantage on a defense late before the snap count, to force some thinking and adjusting on that side of the ball. One of the reasons we drafted (offensive lineman) Joel Bitonio was that we wanted to put an emphasis on running the football and protecting the quarterback."
If you know Pettine and Shanahan, though, you know they always want to apply pressure on the opposition.
"But at the same time, we're not going to be an offense that's conservative," Pettine said. "We're going to attack people on offense, just as we are going to attack people on defense, as well as special teams. I think you have to have that mentality in this league if you want to be successful."
And if you're a Cleveland fan, you have to love that concept. The Browns needed an attitude jolt after a trying 2013, and they're getting it with Pettine at the helm. We'll see the effects when the season kicks off in September.
In the meantime, Manziel continues to own the offseason news cycle, and Pettine continues to ignore the off-field antics that some consider unbecoming of a quarterback. (The coach told me that he thinks a lot of the venom sent Manziel's way comes from a place of jealousy.)
But as Cleveland re-establishes itself as a football factor and tips the apple cart this year en route to respectability, the Browns will be fueled by a defense that is going to rock the NFL world.
And maybe even steal a headline from the team's rock star quarterback.