AFC North: Cleveland Browns
Manziel will compete with Brian Hoyer to be the team’s starter, but Hoyer is the starter heading into camp.
How does Manziel win the job?
- Be a gamer: NFL football is quite the interesting phenomenon. Players spend hours in meetings, they lift weights, they work out, they practice for hours and then they watch every single play of practice. And whether they make the team or don’t comes down to a handful of plays in the third quarter of a practice game with the stands half full. Practice makes perfect, but how Manziel performs in a game will determine whether he starts. That means executing the offense with precision, and showing the knowledge required to read, understand and attack an NFL defense -- vanilla as it will be in preseason. Practices will matter, but the most important days of Manziel’s first training camp will be in Detroit and Washington in the practice games.[+] EnlargeNick Cammett/Diamond Images/Getty ImagesKnowing the playbook and protecting the ball will be crucial for Johnny Manziel in training camp.
- Be ready: Know the playbook and the plays and the calls and the reads. There is not time for learning on the fly anymore. Jobs are at stake at every position on the field, and the team can’t live with an uncertain quarterback botching the plays. This work had to be done in the offseason, and if Manziel didn’t do it there will be issues.
- Don’t throw away a single rep: It would be interesting if every profession operated the way NFL teams do. Imagine the cashier filmed for every transaction, the placement of hands while giving change, the way he or she scans items. Imagine if the lawyer were videoed during every argument, an accountant during a tax audit. NFL players have every play, every snap scrutinized. If they mess up on the field, they hear about it after -- and they watch it. Manziel can’t afford half-hearted plays or silly mistakes. He needs to be aware, smart and careful. It’s not easy while trying to learn a new offense and teammates, but that is what is expected. There are no throwaway plays in training camp.
- Protect the ball: Mike Pettine is a studier of the game, and he no doubt knows that a team that does not turn the ball over has a better chance to win. Since 1999, the year of the Browns' return, teams that had a turnover margin of plus-two in a game won 88 percent of the time (per profootballreference.com). Teams that had one more turnover than the opposition won 79 percent of the time. The fastest way for a quarterback to be shown the bench -- especially a rookie -- is to turn the ball over frequently in camp and in preseason games (vanilla defenses come to mind).
- Ditch the parties; act like a professional: It might not be necessary to state this, because Manziel might have this planned regardless. But what has become clear about Manziel since he joined the Browns is that he knows how to have a good time. From town to town and beverage to beverage, he was a regular presence on the Internet. Manziel is not innocent in this either; he willingly posed or posted some of the photos. He can still enjoy himself, but nobody who puts the fun ahead of his profession succeeds in the long run. At this point, it’s up to Manziel to show his teammates and his team that the parties were simply an offseason pursuit.
But while attention will be focused on his every move, his coach has made no secret he'd prefer Manziel not be the team's immediate starter. Coach Mike Pettine told SI.com that in his "ideal world," Manziel would not start on opening day.
The Browns, a team in need of a new image, excite the area and the football world by drafting the most exciting player eligible, and they want him to wait.
But there's sound logic and strong precedent behind Pettine's thinking.
He talks about success stories for people who wait to start -- Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Carson Palmer -- and compares them to guys he has seen rushed into the starting lineup too soon -- Kyle Boller -- for a team not good enough to support them.
That's a scenario Cleveland fans know all too well, as they have seen quarterback after quarterback forced into the lineup, only to struggle with a bad team and fail: Tim Couch, Brady Quinn, Charlie Frye and Brandon Weeden among them.
The other cycle that has been repeated in Cleveland is that a quarterback ballyhooed as a savior watches as the team drafts another. The public and media -- and eventually the team -- grow weary of the first "savior" struggling because the team is not equipped to help him. This starts the clamor for the next guy. He then is rushed in and struggles for the same reasons the first guy did.
Savior after savior has flamed out, quickly. Heck, a year ago in Cleveland, Jason Campbell was briefly considered a savior. He finished 1-7 as a starter.
"It's a bad cycle," Pettine said, "until you get the team around him."
Pettine has to balance a lot, starting with hype and expectation (multiplied exponentially because it's Manziel) that comes with any quarterback drafted in the first round. But he also has to balance what he has seen -- that a quarterback will struggle if the team around him struggles.
"There's no doubt [the quarterback is] the most important guy on the field," Pettine said. "But he's so much the product of his supporting cast."
In many past years, the Browns built the team from the inside out. Start with the quarterback and hope to add pieces. It can work, but the danger in that process showed constantly as a lack of a supporting cast left each young quarterback battered, shell-shocked and fragile.
Pettine wants to build from the outside in while still working with the best quarterback he can find.
That's why in the offseason the Browns rebuilt the running game with personnel and system. It is why they bolstered the offensive line, and why they've implemented a defensive scheme that has been successful everywhere it has been used. It's also why they brought in prominent defensive veterans Donte Whitner and Karlos Dansby, guys used to winning who might change the vibe in a locker room accustomed to losing.
The final piece was a quarterback to compete with Brian Hoyer. In Manziel, the Browns got a guy who threw for 7,800 yards and 63 touchdowns at Texas A&M, a guy who for whatever reason has become a social media phenomenon.
"I don't think even he can get a handle on the why," Pettine said
At this point in his NFL career, Manziel has done nothing but be successful in college. As any Browns fan can attest, college success and/or a college resume does not automatically translate to wins in the NFL.
Pettine said Manziel was a great teammate in the previous time he was in Cleveland, calling him "very humble." The typical litany of positives followed: good in the weight room, attentive in meetings, smart.
Pettine then added this tidbit: "I think he's ahead of the learning curve."
In the world of hype, parsing and interpreting what has formed around Manziel, that comment would translate on the conversion chart to: "Holy smokes this guy is good."
But there are many factors at play, not the least of which are the beliefs and principles of the head coach. In organized team activities and minicamps, Manziel had his moments but never consistently looked like a no-brainer to be the starter. He never played like a guy who immediately had to be put in the lineup. Manziel himself admitted the Browns' offense is a lot more complex than the one he ran in college, where he didn't even have a playbook. There's the reality that the Browns open in Pittsburgh and then play at home against the New Orleans Saints and the Baltimore Ravens. Those are three very tough, physical and aggressive defenses that might make a team hesitate to start a rookie.
Two things are steadfastly true, though. First is that if Manziel doesn't turn out the lights, his on-field party will be over. Because he won't be able to succeed on the field if he's living the extreme high life off it. Pettine said he expects the off-field to be a "non-story" soon.
The second is that Pettine is determined to not give Manziel the job simply because of who he is.
"It's very simple for us," Pettine said. "Who gives us the best chance to win?"
Brian Hoyer took a grand total of five days off this offseason.
He probably would have done the exact same thing had the Cleveland Browns not taken Johnny Manziel in the first round of the NFL draft.
"He's a gym rat," coach Mike Pettine said.
The phrase is timeworn, but accurate. Because it sums up the work ethic and dedication of the Cleveland-area kid trying to hold off the challenge of the first-round pick to live his dream of starting for his hometown team.
In the team's first minicamp before the draft, Hoyer was a confident guy, talking about the Browns being his team until he was told otherwise. The night of the draft, he was part of the Manziel maelstrom, and affected by it much more personally than anyone. By the team's organized team activities, he was saying that the best thing he could do as a teammate would be to be the best quarterback he could be. By the end of OTAs, he was eager and anxious to have limitations removed as he recovers from a torn knee ligament that ended a promising 2013 season too soon. In the time between minicamp and training camp, he took a brief respite from rehab and work. But only a brief one.
He enters training camp as the Browns' starter, but he's as aware as anyone what it means to not only be competing with a first-round draft pick, but a first-round pick with significant cachet, resume and achievements.
Pettine, though, has seen no sign that any of the public chatter over Manziel has affected Hoyer.
"I think he's confident," Pettine said, "and I think he's getting his confidence through his preparation."
Which is where it all begins and ends with Hoyer, who learned from the best as Tom Brady's backup. Last season when he had three starts, he talked about being as prepared as he could be. This offseason, with or without Manziel, he's taken the same approach.
The Browns believe Manziel's presence will help Hoyer, will make him better by forging his competitive juices and focusing his already-strong drive.
"The alternative would be that we didn't draft Manziel and we took somebody in the fifth round," Pettine said. "Would Brian Hoyer be as good then as he would be after taking Manziel and having to deal with the circumstances that we're in?"
It's one of his core foundations -- competition makes people better. He has that at running back with Terrance West and Ben Tate, at cornerback with Justin Gilbert and Buster Skrine, at guard with four guys fighting for two spots. And at quarterback.
"There's no substitute for it, and there's no better motivator than competition," Pettine said. "If you're not willing to compete, then you shouldn't be here."
Hoyer seems to relish it. On a recent radio interview on ESPN's "Mike & Mike," he called the drafting of Manziel "a relief" because he then understood what he was facing. Manziel has talked about wanting to start, but while Hoyer has been spending time with his family and children, Manziel has been on the party circuit. Whether that matters remains to be seen.
Pettine does not hide from the reality of what it means to take a quarterback in the first round, especially one like Manziel. But he also understands why he was hired.
"We can't lose sight as a staff that it's very simple for us: Who gives us the best chance to win this coming Sunday?" he said.
He points out that nobody from the Browns on draft night said they had drafted their starting quarterback.
"There's so much credibility when he earns it on the field," Pettine said. "Sure, [Manziel] comes in here with an incredible background of being a playmaker and having success. But there's the question of getting it to translate to the NFL level.
"We're confident that will happen. That's the reason we took him. But at the same time we feel we have a quarterback here in Brian who can win games for us."
Pettine values mental toughness. And Hoyer has shown no sign of being rattled or shaken by the hoopla over the rookie. In fact, it might have honed his desire.
"To me," Pettine said, "you have to be the strongest guy on the field mentally if you're the quarterback. To me, if he had issues with that mentally then you would question, ‘Does he have the wherewithal to be an NFL quarterback?' If he's going to let that bother him, you would question it.
"I'm not worried about it. I think that cream rises to the top."
The NFL announced Monday that Manziel jerseys outsold all others for sales from April 1 through July 17.
Meanwhile, another former NFL great weighed in with thoughts on Manziel.
This time it was Brett Favre's turn to answer a question, as the former Packers, Jets and Vikings great told ESPN 1000 in Chicago that Manziel is “a superb talent” who is “fun to watch” but also must understand it’s now about the team.
"It’s not about him,” Favre said, stressing he does not know Manziel. “It has been about him, and rightfully so. He’s been fun to watch and won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman. My goodness, the spotlight is on you.
“But you have to try to deflect that as much as possible and just be team player. I’m not saying he isn’t; again I don’t know him.
“But there’s a lot of excitement around Cleveland right now, and what he is capable of doing. I would just say do all you can to make that team better, and again, it’s all about the team.”
In a nutshell, these statements and the jersey sales illustrate what Mike Pettine will deal with in his first training camp with the Browns.
A guy drafted in the first round who has had it be all about him in college now must make it about the team -- while his jersey is the most popular one in the NFL.
RUNNING BACKS (3)
Tate and West are givens. Lewis was a favorite of the team a year ago, but that was a year ago. He could be a third back (at the expense of a cornerback or fullback) if he has the kind of training camp he had in 2013. Isaiah Crowell appears to be a strong candidate for the practice squad.
By taking a quick look at Chris Pressley in the offseason and then releasing him, the Browns showed they don’t want a road grader at the position. By moving Gray there later, they confirmed that they want their fullback to be more active. Ogbonnaya is the kind of guy teams like and need. Smart, plays anywhere and contributes on special teams.
WIDE RECEIVER (5)
For these purposes, we’ll assume that Josh Gordon is suspended. If he’s not, add him and remove Armstrong. A casual glance at the list from the same alien who looked at the quarterbacks would indicate why many believe things are dire for the offense if/when Gordon is suspended. Look for one or two of the young receivers to be on the practice squad.
TIGHT ENDS (3)
Gray moved to fullback during the offseason, so we’ll assume he stays there. The Browns are well fortified with the three tight ends they have.
OFFENSIVE LINE (9)
- Joe Thomas
- Joel Bitonio
- Alex Mack
- John Greco
- Mitchell Schwartz
- Chris Faulk
- Garrett Gilkey
- Paul McQuistan
- Jason Pinkston
If there is a 10th, Reid Fragel joins the group. The Browns have built an offensive line that is talented, deep and smart. They have a lot of money invested here, but they have some good players as well.
DEFENSIVE LINE (7)
Another deep group with a lot of talent. Coaches should be able to keep fresh linemen on the field, and keep active linemen playing.
- Karlos Dansby
- Paul Kruger
- Chris Kirksey
- Eric Martin
- Barkevious Mingo
- Craig Robertson
- Jabaal Sheard
- Justin Staples
The coaching staff has high hopes for Mingo, who figures to get a lot of time if Sheard moves to a down end position as frequently as Sheard said he would. Dansby missed a fair amount of the offeason, and the Browns have to hope for more from Kruger than they got a year ago after he signed his big contract.
Leon McFadden's brief Browns career could end after one season. The most interesting competition will be between Skrine and Gilbert to see who starts opposite Haden. Finding a cornerback who can play press-man coverage is vital in this defense.
No big mysteries here, but Bademosi makes the team based on his value on special teams. Whitner seems to be a very good veteran addition.
No need to change anything here from last season, as all were strong and dependable contributors.
NFL Nation's Pat McManamon examines the three biggest issues facing the Cleveland Browns heading into training camp.
Manziel or Hoyer: Another training camp, another quarterback competition. Except this one includes not just any quarterback, but the player whose nickname -- Johnny Football -- is the sport itself. It's Brian Hoyer's job to lose. He's the starter based on the smallest sample size of games in recent memory. He started three games and won two, but left the third after six minutes after suffering a torn knee ligament. But Hoyer was so decisive and quick in his reads that he earned the chance to begin camp as the starter. His life seemed nearly ideal on May 1. He was the unchallenged guy for the Browns, and of the quarterbacks eligible in the draft, few were considered immediate starters. The Browns drafted the one who is. Now fans and the media will be wondering about Johnny Manziel every day. Hoyer's success could depend on how well he deals with an environment that has crushed the spirit of others, an environment in which it will seem like the entire world is waiting for him to fail.
New coaches, again: Change brings new approaches, new playbooks, new thinking. It takes time for the players to learn and assimilate. If there's anything Browns fans are accustomed to, it's the quotes about how well the offseason went with a new coaching staff: "The guys are working hard"; "We should be able to pick it up"; "It's just a matter of terminology." And there's the old favorite: "He's a player's coach." Mike Pettine has done a lot to like. He's straightforward and thoughtful. He's football-smart and precise. He has a system he believes in and wants to implement. But asking players to run three different systems in three different seasons is a lot. There are reasons to like the new staff and systems. But there were just as many reasons to like the new staff and systems a year ago. What happens on the field starting in September -- not August -- will reveal how quickly the team has learned and taken in the new approaches.
Running on: Maybe it's because the running game was so blatantly ignored last year, but it's encouraging to see the Browns build a running game with a successful system and with capable backs. Amid all the hoopla about Manziel, the key to the Browns winning this season may come down to how well the Browns play defense and run the ball. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's run-game approach is borrowed from his father, Mike Shanahan, who has had success with it throughout his career. The Shanahans have turned low-round backs into Pro Bowlers, using a zone-read system based on athletic linemen and a running back being able to find and hit the hole aggressively and quickly. In Ben Tate and Terrance West, the Browns seem to have a pair of backs who can offset each other. In Joe Thomas, Alex Mack, Joel Bitonio, John Greco and Mitchell Schwartz, the Browns seem to have a smart group of offensive linemen who can move and play well in this system. It will take time, but the running game could provide early encouragement.
He drove Manziel off the World Wide Web.
For the first weekend since he was drafted, photos of Manziel doing something in some town far away did not appear. Even the many snarky websites that have made their living off Manziel photos were dark for one Monday.
What is the world coming to? James is back in Cleveland, and Manziel backs out of the limelight.
It might seem that James and Manziel would not affect each other. Different sports, different games, different ages, different friends.
Except that Manziel is represented for his marketing purposes by LRMR, the marketing agency founded and run by James and his friends.
Longtime James friend Maverick Carter does Manziel’s marketing. James is beyond loyal to his crew, and Manziel is a small part of the family, which puts him under James’ wing. It’s odd to think that James, a guy who four years ago was reviled in Cleveland, can now be looked at as someone who could help the Browns' young quarterback grow up.
James called himself an “old head” in his letter about coming home, and when an athlete reaches 30, he does achieve a sort of ceremonial position. He's no longer young, so he must be more careful and must take care of himself.
Age catches everyone, and while Manziel can talk about how guys such as Tom Brady and the Mannings are at different points in their lives than he is, Manziel will get there eventually. James is at a different point than Manziel, with two children and another on the way, but James has had plenty of fun in his life.
He never, though, was part of the cellphone-photo circuit the way Manziel is. Manziel certainly is entitled to enjoy his life, but when he complains about photos and then poses for them, it’s just a bit of a juxtaposition.
The one unshakable reality in Cleveland is that no matter what James does or where he does it, Manziel will always be a story as long as he’s a Brown. The Browns simply have that kind of pull in this city.
One of the most amazing things about this NFL team is that the fan loyalty and interest are more unshakable than Molly Brown was unsinkable.
In 2013, the Browns suffered double-digit losses for the sixth consecutive season yet averaged 71,242 tickets sold per game, 97 percent of capacity. In those six seasons, the Browns never dipped below 90 percent capacity, and in three seasons they were at 97, 94 and 99 percent.
Not even James’ wide reach can eclipse that reach. But James could dispense some fatherly advice to Manziel about how best to take care of himself and how best to enjoy himself without becoming a story.
Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and his company, Pilot Flying J, took another step toward putting a federal criminal fraud investigation behind them.
The practical result of a criminal enforcement agreement between Pilot Flying J and the U.S. Attorney’s Office released Monday is that the company will pay a $92 million fine, continue to cooperate with the investigation, and make amends for cheating customers in the past.
The fallout may well indicate that Haslam will not be prosecuted, though that is not guaranteed.
When a company accepts responsibility in some investigations, it happens in lieu of prosecuting its leaders. Haslam has insisted all along he was unaware of the scheme, and he was embarrassed and sickened when he learned about it.
The U.S. Attorney’s statement says the agreement does not preclude any individual from being prosecuted in the future. It's unclear whether that means there are further targets or if the government is reserving its right to prosecute should the company not meet its obligations.
The agreement, signed Friday, was reached to resolve "the company's criminal liability for its employees' fraudulent conduct.”
The federal investigation found that Pilot Flying J had cheated customers out of more than $56 million in a rebate fraud scheme. The agreement states that Pilot Flying J has repaid or will repay all money. Ten employees -- some of them high-level -- cooperated and were convicted. Other top-level employees left Pilot Flying J.
Haslam released a statement saying he will be happy to put the entire episode behind him.
The investigation cost a lot of money (including untold amounts of attorney fees) and caused considerable angst in Cleveland and the NFL.
But it did not cost Haslam his company, and may not cost him an indictment.
Forbes lists Haslam’s net worth at $1.6 billion.
The news that the Cleveland Browns may well have a bullmastiff on the sideline as a mascot this season takes me back to one of my favorite quotes from the post-1999 era.
It happened after the 2002 season. Butch Davis was the Browns' coach, and one of his rules was that players could not leave the team hotel during road trips. Safety Earl Little weighed in that he thought players should be allowed a few hours to go out to dinner or see family. It was not an unreasonable request; most teams allow players some free time on the road.
Kicker Phil Dawson was asked whether he thought the road rules should be changed.
His response was epic.
The only thing he wanted to see changed was more wins. Dawson said he was at the point where he'd practice naked if it meant more wins for the Browns.
Not a pleasant image, but the point was clear then and remains so today.
The thing the Cleveland Browns need to do is win. The rest is a sideshow.
Some of it is an enjoyable sideshow because it’s intrinsic to the game. The team's efforts to upgrade a stadium that needed improvements is an example, and it's commendable. Fans will enjoy the game more with the improvements, especially during the seemingly never-ending TV timeouts.
But the fans' true enjoyment comes from the way the team plays. In the Browns' first game back in 1999, they had fireworks, planes and Drew Carey -- then got demolished by the Steelers. They once had the G.E. Smith Band -- a group that used to play on "Saturday Night Live" -- tucked into a cubbyhole on the sideline. They now have dog races at halftime and a drum corps.
None of it has helped them win.
Now a bullmastiff named Swagger (not named by the team) may be on the sideline and lead the Browns out of the tunnel before games.
The one thing that must be said about this is if it doesn't help them win, the animal is irrelevant. The Browns could follow an ostrich onto the field. A Komodo dragon, a kangaroo, a penguin, a Burmese python -- all wearing a Browns scarf or something. Have at it if it means a win. Pack the stadium with thousands of bullmastiffs.
Practice naked or in tutus. At this point, whatever is done doesn't matter -- provided, as Dawson said, it means more wins.
This offseason has seen plenty of high-profile additions and departures in the AFC North.
The Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens brought more excitement to their offenses. The Browns drafted quarterback Johnny Manziel in the first round, and the Ravens signed wide receiver Steve Smith.
The Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers dealt with some significant losses. Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer left to become the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, and three starters (Brett Keisel, LaMarr Woodley and Ryan Clark) are gone from the Steelers defense.
How will these changes affect the teams in the division? That's the focus for ESPN's AFC North reporters: Scott Brown in Pittsburgh, Coley Harvey in Cincinnati, Jamison Hensley in Baltimore and Pat McManamon in Cleveland.
Johnny Manziel will be the starting quarterback for the Browns in the season opener in Pittsburgh.
Scott Brown: Fiction. Johnny Football has too much ground to make up to overtake Brian Hoyer as the starter by the time the Browns open the regular season in Pittsburgh. Manziel will start at some point this season, but it won't be Sept. 7 at Heinz Field. Even if it is a toss-up between Hoyer and Manziel leading up to the season opener, the Browns will be wise enough to go with the player who has NFL starting experience over the one who will have a Texas-sized bullseye on his jersey. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau generally torments rookie quarterbacks and definitely doesn't take selfies with them. The Browns wouldn't put Manziel in a position in which he has little chance of succeeding ... would they?
Jamison Hensley: Fiction. There are too many factors going against Manziel starting right away. Browns coach Mike Pettine was on the Bills' sideline this past season when he watched EJ Manuel struggle as a rookie. The Browns have a legitimate alternative in Brian Hoyer. And the Browns' first game is against the Steelers, who are known to rough up young quarterbacks. Including the playoffs, the Steelers are a league-best 17-2 vs. rookie quarterbacks since 2004, when coordinator Dick LeBeau re-joined the Steelers as defensive coordinator. Plus, Manziel hasn't done much to prove to the coaching staff that he's mature enough to handle the starting job after becoming Johnny Las Vegas on holiday weekends. It just makes too much sense to sit Manziel as a rookie. Then again, the Browns aren't known for making logical moves
Pat McManamon: Fiction. The Browns simply do not want Manziel to start the opener, and Mike Pettine has made no secret of that. Over and over, he's said that though Manziel can start at some point, he does not believe it's ideal. Given that the first three opponents are the Steelers, Saints and Ravens, it's even more reason not to rush him. Those three opponents have chopped up a lot of veterans, not to mention rookies. If Josh Gordon is not on the team, the quarterback's challenge is even more difficult. The Browns want to take things slowly with Manziel, and right now he admits he's not the best quarterback on the team. The only way he starts in Pittsburgh is if Brian Hoyer is hurt.
The Bengals have a top-10 defense even without coordinator Mike Zimmer.
Brown: Fact. With all due respect to Zimmer, he didn't make one tackle in the six seasons he coordinated the Bengals' defense. Not to marginalize coordinators, but Dick LeBeau has one of the keenest and most imaginative defensive minds in NFL history, and he somehow forgot how to coach defense this past season, when injuries and age caught up with the Steelers. The Bengals have plenty of talent, assuming defensive tackle Geno Atkins and cornerback Leon Hall make a healthy return from their respective injuries. And the adjustment to new defensive coordinator Paul Guenther should be a relatively smooth one since Guenther coached the Bengals' linebackers before succeeding Zimmer. If the Bengals don't field a top-10 defense this season, it will be because they can't make up for the free-agent loss of defensive end Michael Johnson or their secondary springs too many leaks.
Harvey: Fact. Zimmer was rightfully deified during his time in Cincinnati, but his exit for Minnesota doesn't mean there's now a sudden end to the Bengals' era of defensive dominance. Cincinnati will be bringing back a defense that mostly mirrors the group it had last year. The only absences of note are Michael Johnson, James Harrison and Chris Crocker. Johnson was signed by Tampa Bay in free agency, and Harrison was released. Signed to a one-year deal when he emerged from retirement this past September, Crocker was a free agent this offseason who didn't have his contract renewed. Still, knowing Crocker's track record of signing as a September off-of-the-couch call-up the past two years, you can't fully rule out an appearance from him in Cincinnati at some point this year. Of all the Bengals' defensive departures, Zimmer's was certainly the biggest. The coordinator who helped revolutionize the Bengals' defensive system and turned them into a perennial power implemented unique rotations, lineups and blitz and coverage packages. As the league's No. 3 defense this past season, the Bengals pulled off a franchise feat that hadn't been replicated in more than 30 years. Under new coordinator Paul Guenther, who formulated many of the blitz packages for Zimmer, the Bengals are hoping to be even better than that No. 3 ranking this year. While they probably won't get ranked as high as No. 3, they still will be among the top 10.
Hensley: Fiction. It's true that a defense is only as good as its players on the field. But let's not disregard the impact of Zimmer on the Bengals' defense. In Zimmer's first season in Cincinnati (2008), the Bengals jumped from No. 27 to No. 12 in defense. The Bengals then went on to finish in the top 10 in yards and points allowed in four of the next five seasons under Zimmer. He's a fiery leader who got the most out of his players. Many expect a smooth transition with Paul Guenther being promoted to defensive coordinator, but he's never been in charge of a defense in the NFL. His job won't be made any easier by the fact that defensive end Michael Johnson left in free agency and defensive tackle Geno Atkins is still recovering from an ACL injury. The Bengals secondary is dealing with aging veterans (Terence Newman and Adam Jones), injury (Leon Hall) and unfulfilled potential (Dre Kirkpatrick). Don't be surprised if the Bengals slip out of the top 10 this season.
Pat McManamon: Fact. The Bengals have too many good players and too good a system to falter with Zimmer's departure. He'll be missed, but defenses are as good as the players on the field, and with stalwart Geno Atkins coming back from injury to go with a crew that includes Vontaze Burfict, the Bengals should still be formidable. Also, new coordinator Paul Guenther knows the system, knows the blitzes and worked closely with Zimmer. It always hurts to lose a coordinator like Zimmer, but the Bengals seemed to be as prepared as a team can be. The other thing to remember is that offenses can help defenses by possessing the ball, and new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson will run the ball more than Jay Gruden did.
Steve Smith will become Joe Flacco's top target this season.
Brown: Fiction. I'm tempted to say fact here because of the trust and rapport that Flacco developed with Anquan Boldin before the Ravens traded the veteran wide receiver to the 49ers this past year. Boldin, however, is bigger and more physical than Smith and doesn't rely as much on speed as the latter still does, even at the age of 35. Look for tight end Dennis Pitta to re-establish himself as a big part of the Ravens' offense after missing all but four games this past season because of a dislocated hip. Pitta caught 61 passes and was targeted 93 times by Flacco in 2012, while Boldin caught just four more passes than Pitta, despite getting targeted 112 times. A healthy Pitta becomes Flacco's go-to receiver again.
Harvey: Fiction. Another Smith will end up being Flacco's top passing target this season. Torrey Smith, the man who saw 139 throws directed his way this past season, will remain the go-to receiver in an offense that hopes for increased production from 2013. During the mostly down year for Baltimore's offense, Torrey Smith caught 65 of the 139 balls thrown his way, leading the team in receptions. While at Carolina last year, Steve Smith caught 64 passes on just 109 targets from Cam Newton. The longtime Panther was one of the stars of an offense that also relied on Newton to make plays with his feet, in addition to spreading the ball to other receivers. The Ravens had difficulty getting any kind of rushing offense going, which made it easy for defenses to sell out on guarding their receivers. If Ray Rice struggles to perform out of the backfield again this year -- or if he ends up missing considerable time due to a possible suspension from commissioner Roger Goodell following his arrest in Atlantic City this offseason for assault on his now-wife -- much the same could happen to the Ravens' receivers in 2014. Even if that happens, Steve Smith's addition ought to help Flacco and the Ravens. Still, don't look for the 35-year-old to take over as the team's dominant receiver. That title ought to remain Torrey Smith's.
Hensley: Fact. There's a chance tight end Dennis Pitta or wide receiver Torrey Smith will end up being Flacco's go-to receiver. In the end, Flacco will spread the ball around to Pitta, Torrey Smith and Steve Smith. But if you're asking who will be Flacco's top target, the best bet is Steve Smith. All you needed to do was watch one practice this offseason, and you'd see the chemistry building between Flacco and Smith. Many have compared Steve Smith to Anquan Boldin because both are tough receivers. Smith, though, stacks up more favorably to Derrick Mason, who averaged 71 receptions in three seasons with Flacco. Like Mason, Smith can get open on the comeback route as well as slants. A prideful player such as Smith will also do everything in his power to show the Carolina Panthers he can still play. The Ravens will get the best out of Smith this year.
Pat McManamon: Fiction. The Ravens still have this guy Torrey Smith, right? He's a little younger than the 35-year-old Steve Smith. A little bigger too. And he should be ready to be the No. 1 receiver on the team. This is not to say Steve Smith won't help. He will. He brings a veteran presence the Ravens lacked -- though it's curious they gave away Anquan Boldin before last year and signed another aging guy who fits the "crafty veteran mold" a year later. Ozzie Newsome said Smith is not the "typical aging player," which is good, because he'll catch a lot of passes and open up the field more to provide opportunities for Torrey Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta. The Ravens also seem to be a team well-suited to getting the most from veterans. But if Baltimore brought Steve Smith in to be the top guy, it's a problem. That role and responsibility belongs to Torrey Smith.
The retooled defense is enough to get the Steelers back to the playoffs.
Brown: Fact: The Steelers got younger and faster and will be better on that side of the ball if their outside linebackers provide some semblance of a pass rush. The Steelers don't need dramatic improvement from their defense if their offense builds on its strong finish in 2013. The Steelers averaged just under 28 points in their final eight games this past season, and they only lost one starter (wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders) on offense. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey returns from a torn ACL to lead an offensive line that allowed just seven sacks in the final seven games last year. And the Steelers have enough talent at the skill positions for Ben Roethlisberger and the offense to carry the defense.
Hensley: Fact. The Steelers got younger and quicker with their first two draft picks this year, linebacker Ryan Shazier and defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Cam Thomas, a free-agent addition, will be a space-eater on the interior of the line. What will help this retooled defense become even better are the moves made on offense. The Steelers stockpiled their backfield by signing free agent LeGarrette Blount and drafting Dri Archer in the third round. Plus, Le'Veon Bell was beginning to hit his stride at the end of his rookie season. This commitment to the run will control the clock and take pressure off a defense adjusting to its new parts.
McManamon: Fact. There is no team in the league that finds personnel to fit its system better than the Steelers. With three new starters defensively, Pittsburgh continues its transition from the James Harrison-James Farrior-Casey Hampton-Brett Keisel days. Kevin Colbert's drafting is usually logical and sound, and in Ryan Shazier the Steelers believe they found an immediate starter. One thing will be true about Pittsburgh this season: They will be faster on the field and they will not start slow. Pittsburgh will build on the momentum of an 8-4 finish in 2013 (after an 0-4 start), and as they build the defense will grow..
Score: Cleveland 27, Baltimore 0
Date: Dec. 24, 1964. Site: Cleveland Municipal Stadium
One inherent difficulty with conducting a survey such as this is those most interested in the survey weren’t around or don’t know enough about a team’s long-term history.
Cleveland Browns history, most of their choices were from the 1980s forward.
That is fine and fair, but it doesn’t recognize the greatest stretch of achievement in team history, when Paul Brown’s teams won or played for the championship in 10 consecutive seasons.
Four of those were in the old All-America Football Conference, but it didn’t matter. Brown cemented his legacy by winning the title in his first season in the NFL and playing in the title game his first six -- winning three.
The 1964 Browns team was Paul Brown’s, coached by Blanton Collier, and it continued Brown’s tradition of the Jim Brown toss-sweep and the Gary Collins post pattern as the Browns won the NFL title, the last professional championship of any kind in the city of Cleveland.
The Fumble, The Drive, The Helmet, Red Right 88 ... they’re all memorable. But are they really more memorable than the plays of championship teams? Dare we immortalize all Earnest Byner did for the Browns and Cleveland by picking his one mistake as the most memorable play of all time?
Too much good happened in the Browns' glory days -- and those days must be recognized.
It’s excruciatingly painful to make this list without considering Jim Brown’s power sweep behind pulling guard Gene Hickerson. The problem is Brown’s sustained excellence made every one of his plays memorable -- to the point that no one stood out on the marquee. A strong case could be made for the 3-yard TD run in Dallas when Brown ran through or by six Cowboys on his way to the end zone, but not strong enough to get past the titles of 1950 and '64 and the heartbreaks of the '80s.
But when the Browns' great plays are mentioned, there always is a reference to Gary Collins going over the middle to catch a touchdown pass. In the 1964 championship game at Municipal Stadium, Collins caught three TDs. Two were long throws when he beat the coverage. The first was his patented post pattern, over the middle, against a defense expecting it and looking for it but unable to stop it.
That post pattern epitomized that time, and that game.
And because of that, it is my most memorable play in Cleveland Browns history.
The Browns have made themselves into the buffoons of the NFL with their constant change and upheaval. No sooner does a coach or regime establish its program than it is ushered out and a new philosophy is ushered in, which of course means new players have to be acquired and first-round draft picks and starters jettisoned.
Is there another team that had two first-round draft picks two years ago, and both of them are gone?
Is there another team that gives its head coach little to work with, then fires him after one season?
All happened with the Browns.
That change happened after giving Rob Chudzinski one season was shameful. But that should not be held against new coach Mike Pettine, nor does it limit his ability or chance to win. Perhaps with Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer, the Browns have found a pair that can win and can last.
Because both are needed.
To win, though, the Browns need to find a quarterback. They’ve tried every different size, style and approach since 1999, but they’re still looking.
Whether it’s Brian Hoyer or Johnny Manziel, the Browns need to commit, nurture, support and grow with a quarterback. Only in that way can the team grow together and win.
Past quarterbacks have been done in by quick change that led to a lack of confidence and a culture that made it very tough to succeed. Somehow the Browns must silence the outcry for the backup by finding the right guy to start.
Without continuity and quarterbacking, the only thing fans can look forward to every year is the draft.
It’s past time for those days to end.
While stressing several times that he loves Carter (an ESPN analyst), Irvin said it was “irresponsible” of Carter to say this week that to save receiver Josh Gordon the Cleveland Browns should release him.
Carter said being released by Philadelphia is what led him to recovery. Irvin, the former Dallas receiver, said he was angry that Carter advocated that move for Gordon without talking to professionals, counselors and otherwise, who have worked with Gordon.
"Isolation for Cris may have been the best thing," Irvin said. ?Separation for Cris may have been the best thing. For Josh maybe it’s the worst thing."
Gordon is facing a one-year minimum ban from the NFL for failing a drug test this offseason. He was suspended two games and played two without pay in 2013, and last weekend in North Carolina was arrested for suspicion of DWI.
Irvin and Carter are both Hall of Famers who speak from a shared experience of addiction and recovery. Both said they work with players who have problems now. Irvin, though, said he wouldn’t advocate a move like releasing a player without first discussing the player’s issues with a counselor -- something he said he has done.
He said Carter applying his experience to others is "out of line."
"You cannot make a blanket statement and say, 'If it worked for me it’ll work for him.' That’s not necessarily the truth and I thought it was a bit irresponsible."
This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in team history. The previous two featured were Lou Groza’s kick to win the NFL title in the Browns' first season in the league, and Gary Collins’ post pattern reception in the 1964 NFL Championship Game, the last title in Cleveland history. Please vote for your choice as the Browns’ most memorable play.
Score: Denver 38, Cleveland 33
Date: Jan. 17, 1988 Site: Mile High Stadium
The Drive was a punch into a city’s gut.
But The Fumble ... well that ripped at the heart of a team and a city and a player who had done so much for his team before the fumble occurred.
The Browns made the 1987 AFC Championship Game after falling victim to John Elway and “The Drive” the year prior. Instead of wilting, the Browns bonded and put together another excellent season that saw them head to Denver for the championship game repeat -- with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
But the Browns started miserably and fell behind 21-3 at halftime and 28-10 early in the third quarter. Bernie Kosar led a furious comeback as the Browns scored 21 points in the third quarter, with Earnest Byner contributing a 32-yard touchdown catch, a short touchdown run and a 53-yard reception on the drive that tied the game at 31.
But like he did a year earlier, Elway led the Broncos to a touchdown with 4:01 left. Kosar had time, and had the Browns at the Broncos' 8 with 1:12 left. The Browns surprised Denver by handing off to Byner, who rambled around the left end and appeared ready to send the game to overtime by walking into the end zone.
Cleveland celebrated when it saw Byner fall past the goal line, but unknown to many, Denver cornerback Jeremiah Castille had dived at Byner at the 1 and stripped the ball. Castille recovered at the 3.
A distraught city wiped away tears, as did the players who had fought so hard to get back and seemed to have all the momentum going to overtime.
While many scapegoated Byner -- who had 187 total yards in the game -- coach Marty Schottenheimer later explained to NFL Films that receiver Webster Slaughter was supposed to take Castille to the corner of the end zone and block him, but instead cut his route short to watch the play. That put Castille in position to strip the ball from Byner, who went on to have a successful career but will sadly always be remembered at least in part for this one play.
Though it’s tough to choose between Red Right 88 and The Drive and The Fumble and other Keystone Kops plays since 1999, “The Fumble” stands out as the end of an era. Because though the Browns would again make the title game in Denver under Bud Carson, they were never as close as they were with the Kosar-Byner-Mack-Slaughter teams of the mid-to-late ‘80s.
The play’s memory remains as deflating today as it was almost 30 years ago.