In many ways, new Browns head coach Pat Shurmur is in better position to succeed than predecessor Eric Mangini ever was in Cleveland.
For starters, the Browns' roster is more talented than it was two seasons ago. What's more, Shurmur will focus on coaching, not on coaching and evaluating. Mangini had more power than Shurmur did, and he didn't have Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert to help him out as he tried to rebuild the Browns' roster and coach the team.
So Shurmur, the Rams' offensive coordinator, is already dealing from a position of strength relative to what Mangini faced two years ago. Shurmur is also the hand-picked candidate of Holmgren and Heckert, and he'll probably have the benefit of more time to lead a turnaround. Mangini was coaching for his job for the majority of his two years on the job.
Even with these points in his favor, Shurmur faces a tall order in Cleveland.
His primary problems square off Saturday in Pittsburgh. The Steelers and Ravens are the class of the AFC North, and neither team appears ready to take a big step back anytime soon.
Beyond that, there is the matter of the Browns' roster. Certainly, Shurmur, Holmgren and Heckert have their own ideas as to the direction of the offense. But what about the defense? The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer reported Thursday that defensive coordinator Rob Ryan might not be back with the club; should he depart, finding an experienced coordinator to run the defense is a must. ESPN has reported the Browns could have interest in former Pitt head coach Dave Wannstedt to fill this role, and he would be a solid hire as both a defensive boss and a sounding board for a first-time head coach.
While the Browns were 22nd in yards allowed in the regular season, they were a respectable 13th in points allowed, and opponents scored touchdowns on just 23-of-48 red-zone possessions. Moreover, Ryan put together some creative game plans.
There will be a lot of focus on the Browns' offense in the coming months as Shurmur (and Holmgren … and perhaps Holmgren's offensive coordinator in Green Bay, Gil Haskell, too) go about the business of trying to spark this flagging attack. However, the Browns' plans on defense bear close watching, too. The defense has been built off of Mangini's blueprint the past two seasons, and it showed improvement in 2010. If the Browns are going to make changes here, can they do so while making further strides, not taking a step backward as everyone adjusts?
That's no small concern. Also, keep an eye on whether the Browns retain special-teams coach Brad Seely, who has done very good work in two seasons in Cleveland.
Defense and special teams were Mangini's strength; if those units regress, the Browns are going to need to make up for it.
Certainly, there will be higher hopes for the offense than a season ago. Shurmur has some building blocks. QB Colt McCoy had a fine rookie season and versatile, physical Peyton Hillis proved a good featured back. TE Benjamin Watson led the conference in receptions at his position. The left side of the offensive line — OLG Eric Steinbach and Pro Bowl OLT Joe Thomas (plus C Alex Mack) — is a strength.
That said, it is still an offense that lacks a No. 1 receiver, needs an infusion of speed and gained the fewest yards among AFC North teams in 2010.
Give Holmgren and Heckert credit — they made some shrewd moves in free agency and the draft a season ago, with the trade for Hillis atop the list, and it will be interesting to see what they will do in their second offseason. The Browns are closer to competing in the AFC North than they were a season ago.
But they are trying to catch up. And they are altering course once again, which complicates matters. Shurmur can succeed, but it will take time, it will not be easy, and he is going to need help from Holmgren and Heckert. And even then, it might not be enough.