The Cleveland Cavaliers were down three games to one and won the NBA Finals. The Cleveland Indians are making a deep postseason run. The Cleveland Browns are 0-6.
It's easy to forgive Cleveland for checking out on their NFL franchise given the circumstances. The Browns have been in a perpetual rebuild for what feels like eternity (or at least ten years), and management all but gave up on this season before it even started. The major story of their franchise over the past three years has been whether Josh Gordon will ever get to play again.
Dig beneath the surface of this 0-6 start, though, and there are some things to like about what Cleveland has done. No, really.
Hue Jackson Seems to Get It
Throughout his time as an NFL head coach, Hue Jackson has made sure that his team is outmanned (he helped hamstring the Raiders for years by trading multiple high-round picks for Carson Palmer) but never outcoached.
Jackson has a good grasp of football game theory. I was impressed on Sunday when he decided to attempt a two-point conversion with the Browns down by nine and just over two minutes left. That call quickly became controversial because ... well, because there are a lot of stodgy old football heads who don't understand math. At some point the Browns were going to have to go for two points. It was better to do it sooner and know where they stood rather than later.
Cleveland ranks 25th in Football Outsiders' offensive DVOA stat, which measures how successful an offense is on a down-by-down basis. That sounds bad. It is bad! But consider that the Browns have lost their top two options at quarterback, Robert Griffin III and Josh McCown. Consider that in their place, Jackson has had to use Charlie Whitehurst fresh off the street, and even wide receiver Terrelle Pryor. At other positions, presumptive No. 1 wideout Corey Coleman has been lost ever since breaking his hand in Week 2.
Considering everything that has happened to the Browns offense, 25th in the league in DVOA is incredible. That's better than teams with supposed franchise quarterbacks like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Jacksonville Jaguars. They're miles better than the dysfunctional Houston Texans, who spent their entire offseason signing and drafting better players on that side of the ball.
And how about the Cincinnati Bengals, where Jackson was offensive coordinator before decamping for Cleveland, and whose offense has struggled mightily in the red zone without him? Cincinnati head coach Marvin Lewis says he "misses the hell out of [Jackson]," which speaks to how much he contributed to the Bengals' recent success.
Terrelle Pryor Broke Out
The historical success rate for converting a quarterback to the wide-receiver position is pretty iffy. Just ask former Jaguars first-rounder Matt Jones. So it was natural to expect Pryor, who played QB at Ohio State, to be another in the long line of conversion projects whose progress stalled on the practice squad or on special teams.
Instead, Pryor has become a legitimate receiver. His large frame (he measured six-foot-five, 232 pounds at the 2011 combine) enables him to box out on jump balls, but we should have expected that. The surprise here is that Pryor has mastered nuances of the game that we rarely see at the NFL level. Bushels of receivers every year come into the NFL needing to refine their route-running or catch technique but never do. Pryor has done it in about two offseasons.
Combine Pryor with Coleman and tight end Gary Barnidge, and the Browns actually have the makings of a successful receiving corps. The backfield of Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson has also shown plenty of promise: Johnson has one of the highest broken-tackle rates in the league, per Sports Info Solutions, sending 13 would-be tacklers to the ground in just 48 touches. Crowell, meanwhile, appears to be a sustaining, between-the-tackles back. The two easily recall the Gio Bernard/Jeremy Hill combo that Jackson had in Cincinnati.
Attrition could change all this in an instant, of course, because it's football and anyone can be lost at any time. But the Browns seem to have a good start on skill-position core group that can do damage.
The Holes Are Obvious, and the Browns Have Darts to Throw
The biggest problem for the Browns is fairly easy to diagnose: they need a quarterback badly. Rookie Cody Kessler has managed well enough, but without a deep ball he limits the offense to about 15 yards past the line of scrimmage. A nice backup, but not a solution.
Their second biggest problem is pretty easy, too: they have no pass rush. Per Sports Info Solutions, Cleveland is 30th in defensive pressure rate, harassing the quarterback on just nine percent of their dropbacks. They're also 27th in Adjusted Sack Rate. Cleveland drafted plenty of second-banana-type edge rushers like Carl Nassib and Emmanuel Ogbah last year, but they have no star to generate one-on-one matchups for them.
The Browns (obviously) slot in for a high draft pick this year. Thanks to the Carson Wentz trade, they'll have another first-rounder in 2017 and another second-rounder in 2018. This trade looked smarter five weeks ago, when the Eagles still looked like a good bet to finish last in the NFC East, but the Browns are still in a good spot. Early mock drafts have been high on quarterbacks DeShone Kizer (Notre Dame) and Deshaun Watson (Clemson); if the Browns aren't completely sold on them, Texas A&M edge rusher Myles Garrett looks as close to a sure thing as an edge-rusher prospect has been since Von Miller.
It'll be hard to convince Browns fans that this matters, because they have seen first-hand over the years how the front office can take more draft capital and convert it into dogshit (see: Julio Jones trade, Trent Richardson trade). I have no idea what to make of the new front office's evaluation ability, because we don't have much of a sample size to work with.
But one hit on either of these positions could change the entire face of this franchise. Jackson can manufacture enough offense to win with a dominating defense a la the 2015 Broncos. A star quarterback, obviously, changes everything. The Browns appear to have found their way into a spot where they can select a game-changer, provided they don't screw it up by winning five of their last ten or something. (You never know, these are the Browns.)
If the chips happen to fall Cleveland's way, this team could make some noise in 2017. That's a far better scenario than they were looking at in January.
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