Before losing Sunday to the Kirk Cousins-led Redskins, the Browns were quietly one of the league’s hotter teams, rebounding from an 0-5 start by winning 5-of-8, including three in a row heading into Week 15. Despite Sunday’s loss and the uncertainty surrounding the team’s first offseason with new owner Jimmy Haslam, there’s still plenty of reason for optimism in Cleveland, something the city hasn’t seen much of in recent years.
The defense is well stocked with youthful talent throughout. DE Jabaal Sheard and DT Phil Taylor had impressive rookie campaigns in 2011 and look like mainstays, and the linebacking corps is young outside of veteran MLB D’Qwell Jackson. The secondary already has one star in CB Joe Haden and potentially another in SS T.J. Ward, and both are third-year players. Having dealt with Haden’s four-game suspension and carrying an at times stagnant offense, Cleveland’s “D” is much better than the numbers indicate (22nd in total defense and 15th in scoring) and should only get better.
On the other side, the offense has been mired by quiet stretches and turnovers, but it’s becoming more consistent (at least 20 points scored in five consecutive games), and young weapons like RB Trent Richardson and WRs Josh Gordon and Travis Benjamin have shown explosive potential. With a young O-line featuring star OLT Joe Thomas (sixth year), Pro Bowl C Alex Mack (fourth) and solid rookie ORT Mitchell Schwartz, talent and potential are present at almost every position.
Which brings us to the ever-important position of quarterback.
It’s not like Brandon Weeden has been terrible. Really, if not for impressive transitions by other rookie QBs in the past two seasons, his level of play — he has thrown for 3,281 yards but has multiple interceptions in 6-of-14 games — might look like a strong start to a career. But at age 29, Weeden has limited time to develop, and slow progress on that front could spoil the growth of the Browns’ other young pieces.
Sadly for the Browns, their biggest question mark could have been answered with a bang had they come through with a trade to land a different rookie QB in the draft. In case you forgot, Cleveland nearly made a deal for the second overall pick in 2012, which would have brought Robert Griffin III to Ohio, but the Rams sent it to the Redskins instead.
Yes, the Browns would have traded away the picks they used on Richardson and Weeden and perhaps the pick used on Schwartz, as well, in order to nab RG3. They also would be without a first-rounder in 2013 and maybe 2014, as the Redskins are. But would that really be such a steep price to pay to tie together an otherwise promising roster?
We’ve seen Griffin’s ability to elevate a generally mediocre squad, and the stunning energy he’s brought to the nation’s capitol begs the question of what he could do in Cleveland, where tortured fans have long been dying for a star to embrace. While his immediate impact has been helped largely by Mike Shanahan’s run-first, play-action heavy offense, it’s difficult to imagine Griffin would have been much less effective in Cleveland’s attack.
At the level Griffin has played, the Browns could well have snagged a playoff berth with him calling signals, and their ceiling would be sky high. His knack for big plays would have suited Gordon and Benjamin well, while the likely improved ability to move the chains could have worked wonders for an often gassed defense. Even if Haslam made changes to the coaching staff or front office, the possibility of Griffin and so many other youngsters hitting their respective primes together would make a thriving future squad a near certainty.
The Browns surely aren’t living in a hypothetical world and will look to turn their young and gifted roster into a perennial contender on the arm of Weeden. But there’s little doubt they would be better off with Griffin instead of Richardson and Weeden. If Weeden never develops and Griffin continues his rise, the Browns’ wealth of talent may well be squandered, leaving fans in Cleveland wondering about what might have been.