The Browns have emerged from the bye week as a team with a renewed sense of optimism for the rest of the season. As RB Trent Richardson and the defense continue to get healthier — DT Ahtyba Rubin is back at practice this week — the Browns are looking to make a statement in their last seven games.
They hope it’s a statement of progress, and not the usual invitation to be treated as a doormat to playoff-bound opponents.
If the Browns are to achieve that, there are a number of things they can do to help their cause. Glimpses of this progress have appeared, but sporadically at best. The last seven games of the 2012 season are a real opportunity to reverse that.
QB Brandon Weeden’s improvement
If the Browns want any chance at defeating the likes of the Cowboys, Broncos, Redskins or the Steelers (even without QB Ben Roethlisberger), Brandon Weeden must maintain the consistent play he began to exhibit earlier in the season.
His poor play against the Ravens on Nov. 4 clouded the minds of many who seemingly forgot some of his better performances of the season. Nevertheless, the Browns can’t afford many repeats of that second Ravens game, where Weeden completed only 20-of-37 passes for 176 yards and two interceptions.
He knows he needs to improve, that much is certain. As head coach Pat Shurmur has said, Weeden must find a balance between making safe throws and taking calculated risks on the field. As he continues to mature, that should become easier; it always seems worth mentioning that Weeden is still a rookie.
Capitalizing on a healthy defense
For much of this season, the Browns’ defense has been forced to deal with injuries to key players (see Rubin, LB Chris Gocong, LB Scott Fujita, CB Dimitri Patterson and DT Phil Taylor) or suspensions to others (see CB Joe Haden). The unit has still managed to maintain a level of respectability, ranking 24th in the NFL in total defense.
But with Taylor back and Rubin on his way back, the defensive line soon could be firing on all cylinders. And while Patterson remains out, the secondary has fared much better with Haden back. This is an uneven stop unit — how else do you explain giving up a quick 14 points to the Ravens and then utterly and completely shutting them down? — but all signs point to a better performance in the last seven games, provided these key players stay on the field.
Get the most out of RB Trent Richardson
Richardson has reminded us many times this season that he is not 100 percent healthy, as he is recovering not only from his training-camp knee surgery, but from the rib injury he suffered against the Bengals on Oct. 14. But he is obviously not someone who backs down, which means the Browns would be foolish to not use him like the workhorse that he is.
Consider this: Richardson has received 20 or more carries only twice this season, and that has come in the Browns’ last two games. Against the Chargers, he totaled 24 carries for 122 yards and a touchdown; against the Ravens, it was 25 carries for 105 yards.
In other words, when Richardson gets the ball, he makes things happen. The Browns still rank 27th in rushing yards per game at 89.2, which can easily be remedied. And if they want to have any hope of salvaging this season, it’s imperative that they do so.
Pat Shurmur’s play-calling
Shurmur can spin it any way he wants, but some of his recent decisions have been downright baffling. Whether it’s not going for it on 4th-and-1 on the Colts’ 41-yard line or actually going for it on 4th-and-2 on his own 28-yard line against the Ravens, Shurmur has to understand that these play calls don’t make much sense to the outside world.
The Browns don’t have much to lose at this point, but Shurmur is making this seem far more complicated than it really is. It’s all about perception and, right now, the perceived reality is that no one can honestly explain what Shurmur is sometimes thinking during a game.
Improving the play-calling at least puts the team in a better position to succeed. From there, it’s up to the players to execute (this is also a slight defense of Shurmur’s coaching abilities).
Of course, there is only one true way to measure success: winning. If the Browns manage to win three or even four of their last seven games (and with Roethlisberger out for what seems like an extended period of time, it’s much more plausible), there certainly will be more forgiveness on a Weeden interception or a game in which the defense can’t quite get it together.
But if the losses continue to pile up, the team will be subjected to the type of focused and intense scrutiny it has become accustomed to. With the locker room as dejected as it was following the loss to the Ravens two weeks ago, it’s obvious the players would like to avoid that.
As always, winning will be the cure for what ails everybody in the Browns' organization.
Steve DiMatteo is a freelance writer based in Cleveland who currently serves as the editor/lead writer of Dawg Pound Daily. You can follow him on Twitter at steve_dimatteo.