Under first-year Coach Rob Chudzinski, the Browns opened the season with Brandon Weeden as their quarterback again and predictably struggled in losing their first two games. Then game a glimmer of hope in career backup Brian Hoyer. He started the next three games and the Browns won them all to improve to 3-2 for the first time since 2001 and take over first in the AFC North. In typical Browns luck, Hoyer got hurt in that third start and missed the rest of the season. It went quickly downhill under Weeden and Jason Campbell, with the Browns winning just one more game and ending the year on a seven-game skid.
There weren't many bright spots for the team in 2013 but perhaps three. Cleveland traded disappointing Trent Richardson early in the season to Indianapolis for a 2014 first-round pick, which looks like a steal now. Receiver Josh Gordon blew up. He led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards to go with 87 catches and nine touchdowns. He had back-to-back games of 237 yards (vs. Pittsburgh) and 261 yards (vs. Jacksonville). Gordon is the first player in NFL history with consecutive 200-yard games. Tight end Jordan Cameron also broke out with 80 catches for 917 yards and seven scores. So the Browns have two weapons moving forward on offense along with a good line.
Key Offseason Moves
As noted above, Cleveland has a very good O-Line and it was able to keep that intact by re-signing center Alex Mack, matching a big offer by Jacksonville. The team hopes it found an upgrade over Richardson in Ben Tate of Houston. He has proven a very good runner when healthy, which isn't often. He rushed for 771 yards and four touchdowns last year. The Browns also signed former Lion Nate Burleson to serve as a No. 3 receiver. They bid goodbye to both Weeden and Campbell and probably take a QB fairly early in the 2014 draft. Defensively the Browns lost excellent run-stopping safety T.J. Ward but replaced him with 49ers safety Donte Whitner (73 tackles, two INTs last year). Former Cardinals linebacker Karlos Dansby (122 tackles, four INTs) replaces the waived D'Qwell Jackson.
No front office/coaching staff underwent under more change in the offseason than the Browns'. The team cleaned house yet again. It struck out on some big-name head coaches and took a chance on Bills defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, a move that didn't drum up much excitement. Oddly, the Browns hired their new GM, Ray Farmer, after hiring their coach.
2014 Schedule (all times Eastern)
Week 1: Sunday, Sept. 7, at Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Week 2: Sunday, Sept. 14, New Orleans, 1 p.m.
Week 3: Sunday, Sept. 21, Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Week 4: BYE
Week 5: Sunday, Oct. 5, at Tennessee, 1 p.m.
Week 6: Sunday, Oct. 12, Pittsburgh, 1 p.m.
Week 7: Sunday, Oct. 19, at Jacksonville, 1 p.m.
Week 8: Sunday, Oct. 26, Oakland, 4:25 p.m.
Week 9: Sunday, Nov. 2, Tampa Bay, 1 p.m.
Week 10: Thursday, Nov. 6, at Cincinnati, 8:25 p.m.
Week 11: Sunday, Nov. 16, Houston, 1 p.m.
Week 12: Sunday, Nov. 23, at Atlanta, 1 p.m.
Week 13: Sunday, Nov. 30, at Buffalo, 1 p.m.
Week 14: Sunday, Dec. 7, Indianapolis, 1 p.m.
Week 15: Sunday, Dec. 14, Cincinnati, 1 p.m.
Week 16: Sunday, Dec. 21, at Carolina, 1 p.m.
Week 17: Sunday, Dec. 28, at Baltimore, 1 p.m.
Cleveland's schedule is ranked as the seventh-easiest in the NFL with an opponents' 2013 winning percentage of .465. The Browns play five teams that made the postseason.
The Browns opened as 5.5-point underdogs on NFL odds for the opener in Pittsburgh, a place they never win. The Steelers were a disappointment last year but still swept Cleveland, winning each by at least 13 points. Pittsburgh has won 26 of 31 matchups since the Browns franchise was revived in 1999. It's a very challenging three-game run before the bye considering that the Steelers, Saints and Ravens have combined for one losing season since 2008. Cleveland did split with the Ravens in 2013, losing by eight in Baltimore and winning 24-18 at home. That ended an 11-game losing streak in the series.
The five games out of the bye are all potentially winnable since none of those clubs finished with winning records last year. Oakland and Jacksonville were two of the NFL's worst teams, although the Jaguars won 32-28 in Cleveland. Things get much tougher starting Week 10 in Cincinnati. The Bengals and Browns split last year, each winning at home by double digits. Only Houston ended the season on a longer losing streak among AFC teams than the Browns so that's winnable for Cleveland.
The Falcons are always tough to beat in the Georgia Dome and should be much better, and the winter weather is likely to be a factor in that trip to Buffalo. Cleveland scored a season-high 37 points in a 13-point win over the visiting Bills in Week 5 last year. Then it's three straight playoff teams in the Colts, Bengals again and Panthers before finishing up in Baltimore, another place Cleveland never wins.
NFL free picks: 'Under' 6.5 wins. The Browns have some pieces in place except where it matters most: quarterback. There is a reason Hoyer has been a backup his entire career. He will be a place-keeper until the 2014 draft pick is ready. That likely means another long season in Cleveland.