By Jonathan Comey
Cold, Hard Football Facts break dancing champion
The Cleveland Browns spent 24 seasons in the NFL before they turned out what could be considered a terrible football team; their 1974 edition was 4-10, marking only their second losing season in franchise history.
Since, they've had 20 losing seasons – and that doesn't include the four years where there was no team, a winless season of the worst kind.
Cleveland's reboot in 1999 has been nothing but ugly, and back-to-back Bill Belichick disciples (Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini) didn't do anything to change it. Now it's Pat Shurmur on the sidelines, boasting the least impressive resume of any NFL coach while possible Hall of Famer Mike Holmgren stays upstairs in the front office.
So, which do you want first, the good news or the bad news?
The 2010 storyline: Despite the 5-11 record, the season had plenty of positives. The Browns look like they found their QB (Colt McCoy) and tailback (Peyton Hillis), and rookie CB Joe Haden looks like the next great one. They beat the Saints and Patriots, and looked really good doing it. And yet, when it was all said and done, they were out of the playoff mix by October and had the No. 31 scoring offense in the league.
The Vital Signs
2010 record: 5-11 (16.9 PPG – 20.8 PPG)
Last five seasons overall: 28-52 (.350)
Best Quality Stat in 2010: Bendability (8th)
Worst Quality Stat in 2010: Offensive Passer Rating (28th)
All Quality Stats
Defensive Passing YPA (new Quality Stat for 2011): 27th
Quarterback Rating (new Quality Stat for 2011): 26th
Defensive Quarterback Rating (new Quality Stat for 2011): 21st
Relativity Index (once-proud Quality Stat being reintroduced for 2011): 23rd
Statistical curiosity of 2010
Cleveland's fifth-leading rusher was punter Reggie Hodges, who went for 68 yards on a fake punt vs. the Saints in Week 7; it was the longest run by a punter in league history. Not bad for a guy that has been on eight different rosters in six seasons.
Best game of 2010
34-14 win vs. New England (Week 7). It's still a bit hard to believe a team as lackluster as this would have beaten the Patriots handily – a week after winning in New Orleans – but it happened. Hillis was the star of this one with 220 total yards and two touchdowns, and McCoy misfired on only five pass attempts.
Sadly for Browns fans, by the time the playoffs rolled around, the October win over New England was long-forgotten.
Worst game of 2010
24-20 loss at Jacksonville (Week 11). Cleveland's most decisive defeat was its 41-9 home loss to Pittsburgh in the season finale. But the loss at Jacksonville was a real heartbreaker for a team that appeared to be taking steps forward. The Browns forced six turnovers and committed only one – a +5 turnover margin that almost always equates to a victory.
According to the pro-football-reference.com's search engine, 91 teams managed a +5 margin from 2000-2010, and 88 of them won the game. But the Browns were not one of the 88. The game was a pretty good reflection on a scrappy team that was just too young to put it together.
Secondary. The Browns' best ranking in the CHFF stats came in Bendability, our measure of defensive efficiency. But if you want to pinpoint the reason they excelled in that area, we think it's the pass defense that stands up to a more in-depth look at what the team did. Cleveland faced an extremely tough set of quarterbacks in 2010 – Ben Roethlisberger twice, Joe Flacco twice, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan, Josh Freeman – and still managed to finish 17th in Defensive Passer Rating (84.8).
Aforementioned CB Joe Haden emerged as a shutdown corner in the second half of the season, and with Sheldon Brown and Eric Wright at CB as well the Browns went three deep until Wright went out injured. Add the solid play of rookie T.J. Ward, and this is an area where the Browns can really make their mark if they hope to improve in 2011 and beyond.
Receiving corps. We're still trying to figure out why Jake Delhomme was ever given an opportunity to start, but in general the Browns got good play from McCoy (74.5 rating as a rookie) and Seneca Wallace (88.5 rating).
With a franchise left tackle in Joe Thomas and a pounding lead back, you'd think the Browns would have had some nice vertical passing in the mix. Nope. Tight end Ben Watson (763 yards) and Hillis (477 yards) were the top two targets, and wideouts Mohamed Massaquoi (13.4 YPC), Josh Cribbs (12.7) and Brian Robiskie (10.7) got nowhere. The Browns produced only 19 catches of 25+ yards, fourth-fewest of any team.
General off-season strategy/overview
The Browns have most of their key players locked up for 2011, which is good, but they're still a few good performers away from competing in the AFC North.
Cleveland has been active in the draft in recent, moving around a lot but with mixed success. They used top-60 picks on WRs Massaquoi and Robiskie, QB Brady Quinn and RB Montario Hardesty the last four years with no impact and the offense shows the lack of success here. The Browns could use their No. 6 overall pick on Georgia WR A.J. Green if he's available.
Hardesty tore his ACL in preseason, and if he returns at full strength could give the Browns a real nice 1-2 punch in the backfield with Hillis going forward. But the offensive line (No. 24 on our Offensive Hog Index) has been subpar despite the presence of Thomas, and adding more pieces there has been a continuing problem for the front office.
The defensive front seven was OK in 2010 – No. 19 on our Defensive Hog Index – but there are really no young up-and-comers there. The starting linebackers had an average age of almost 30, and only 24-year-old nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin has shown any real sign of upside.
The Browns started to show some identity with the emergence of Hillis in 2010; it'll be interesting to see if it's the same one we see under Shurmur.
Totally premature 2011 diagnosis
We're not ready to count the Browns out. Shurmur might not be the biggest name in the league. And his resume is extraordinarily sparse for a head coach (two years as OC in St. Louis, really?). But he's got rapport with Holmgren and is replacing the very unpopular Mangini. You could do a lot worse than Hillis, McCoy and Joe Thomas as building blocks of the offense, and the defense has the potential to take a big step forward. The Browns, though, are doomed to be in a division with two of the most consistent franchises in the NFL, and need to string together a couple more strong drafts to compete.