With the 2011 season in the rearview mirror, it's time for NFL.com's annual "Exit Interviews," a chance to review the ups and downs of each team's past season and spin it forward.
2011 in a Nutshell: We'll get 'em next year. When is next year, exactly? The Browns fired Eric Mangini to usher in the Pat Shurmur era, and the fans were rewarded with one less victory. Few were expecting this 5-11 team from 2010 to go 11-5, or even .500 under Shurmur in 2011. But a 12-loss season has everyone wondering where this thing is going, starting at quarterback.
What Went Right: When a team goes 4-12, obviously not much went right. Yet there were glimmers of hope. The young defense might not have been flawless, but showed it could keep the club in games -- particularly the secondary. Opposing quarterbacks compiled a lowly 80.6 passer rating, while the Browns defense gave up the second fewest passing yards in the league. Despite being thrown at 80 times, Joe Haden only allowed 36 receptions -- a 45.0 completion percentage. Believe it or not, Sheldon Brown (40.7) and Dimitri Patterson (42.6) allowed even lower completion rates.
Some of the success defending the pass was because teams gashed the Browns running the football. Racking up points was another story. The defense gave up 30 points only twice, with 31 being the high water mark. Overall, Cleveland ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed.
Linebacker D'Qwell Jackson played his first football in two years, showing little rust with 158 tackles, 3.5 sacks and a pick. Jabaal Sheard, who is all of 22 years old, made an impact with 8.5 sacks from his defensive end spot. The guy taken one round earlier than Sheard in Cleveland's '11 draft class showed flashes too. Phil Taylor could afford to play the run better, but expect him to improve with experience. Linebacker Chris Gocong had a nice season despite having to switch sides after veteran Scott Fujita went down with a hand injury in Week 12.
What Went Not So Right: Obviously if we're saying nice things about the defense, then somebody must have stunk in the 4-12 campaign. Did the offense suffer because Colt McCoy had no weapons, or did the offense suffer because Colt McCoy is strictly average? I would lean towards the former, as McCoy has shown glimpses while Cleveland clearly lacked playmakers last season.
Even if the passing game did struggle, and McCoy had his issues (74.6 passer rating, 27th in NFL), neither was helped by the ground attack. Calling it an "attack" is more libel than a misnomer -- it's slanderous to all the other teams that actually can run the football. Cleveland averaged 3.69 yards per attempt, dead last in the AFC. Peyton Hillis was constantly hurt, and relatively unproductive when healthy. Hillis, Chris Ogbonnaya, and Montario Hardesty had their difficulties searching for holes behind an offensive line ransacked by injury and with a rookie (Jason Pinkston) playing out of position. Surprisingly, Ogbonnaya was the most effective.
Offseason Crystal Ball: Pat Shurmur has to be effective in getting the most out of 2011 rookie wideout Greg Little and the 2012 rookies (yes, I'm thinking about Robert Griffin III) to make the offense viable, as well as keep his job. After all, Mangini was only given two years. Also bear in mind that Shurmur's discipline is on the offensive side of the ball, yet his playcalling came under scrutiny while the Browns finished 29th in net yards.
RG3 would certainly add excitement to the offense, but will he be a more accomplished player than McCoy? Don't laugh. Mike Holmgren won with Matt Hasselbeck in Seattle, who was drafted much lower than McCoy. Secondly, is Cleveland willing to pay the price to move up from fourth to second overall to take RG3 so another team doesn't? Much of the front office's decision-making process in free agency will be heavily influenced by the club's thoughts on RG3.
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If Cleveland trades up to take the Baylor standout, or even selects him with the fourth pick overall, then that means no Matt Flynn sweepstakes (he isn't a likely option anyway). It also means that Cleveland's surplus of cap space will go towards other needs besides QB. In fact, the Browns are projected to be $20 million-plus under the cap, so they can be players in free agency. Expect the club to spend some of that on retaining Jackson. Hillis, Patterson, safety Mike Adams, and kicker Phil Dawson are also free agents.
Team Needs and Draft: If the Browns don't re-sign Hillis, which I suspect they won't, then RB is certainly a need in the draft or free agency, lest Holmgren wants to roll the dice with just Hardesty and Ogbonnaya. Doubt it.
The smart money is on the Browns spending their money on a weapon outside for McCoy, RG3, or even Ryan Tannehill (if they don't get Griffin). NFL Network colleague Charley Casserly believes the Redskinswill trade up to get RG3. With the Vikings prospectively taking tackle Matt Kalil out of USC at the 3-hole, that would mean Cleveland would be on the clock while Justin Blackmon sits there waiting, looking like a big-time receiver. Just sayin'.
No matter what happens, this organization needs help at QB, RB, WR. Look for linebacker, defensive end, and depth on the offensive line to be other possibilities come April.