Week 1 one of the Doug Pederson-Carson Wentz era is here. The Eagles face the Cleveland Browns on Sunday afternoon. To get a better perspective on the Browns from someone who would know, I reached out to Chris Pokorny of Dawgs by Nature to get his take on the game, and his team. Here's what we talked about!
1. This was a pretty big offseason for the Browns, in all facets of the organization. How do fans feel about the additions, from Paul DePodesta to Hue Jackson to Robert Griffin III?
CP: It felt like we were at rock bottom at the end of last season. After former head coach Mike Pettine was fired, the assumption was that Cleveland was going to have to settle for another second-rate head coach.
The Browns promoted Sashi Brown to Executive VP of Football Operations, which means he's basically means he’s the general manager with all power on the football side of things. Over the past few years, Brown had been the team's general counsel. I knew that he had a role in contract negotiations with players too, but I didn't even know what he looked like until he was promoted.. The best attribute he was known for is that he was a people-person, which was desperately needed after the previous regime's in-house disagreements. The previous regime had plenty of guys who knew their stuff, but they each had varying opinions -- nobody was aligned along the same goal.
Although we don't know very much about Paul DePodesta's influence in the front office just yet, when he was hired, that’s when I started to see Browns fans pause a bit – imagine that feeling when you’re not jumping for joy, but you slowly start shaking your head in approval. It was because we saw the organization taking an innovative approach to the front office make-up, which was the somewhat-bold approach to being an analytics-driven front office
Brown and DePodesta both went to Harvard and are heavily in to the thought of incorporating analytics into football, whether it be through scouting players, compiling a roster, or gameday strategy. When both of these guys were put in charge, it was good that a head coach wasn't already in place, because there obviously could have been a major disconnect. At the same time, the analytical reputation of Brown and DePodesta left us wondering, "Are all of the good coaching candidates going to be turned off to this idea?" The fact that Jackson, a top coaching candidate, accepted the job knowing full-well what he was getting himself in to speaks volumes about the comfort level he had with both of them during interviews. Brown is ultimately in charge of the 53-man roster, but it's not a dictatorship -- everyone will communicate what the team needs, including Jackson, and then Brown will make the "final" decision should there be an area where the team can't reach a conclusive decision.
We’ve grown to be optimistic about what Robert Griffin III can do because Jackson has a good background when it comes to catering an offense to a quarterback. All you have to do is look at the type of season Andy Dalton had in 2015 – Jackson helped raise his game to a level I didn’t think Dalton could ever reach. There was a point in 2012 when we thought Cleveland would be drafting Griffin too, so it feels like we’re getting to live out a fantasy a bit with him under center.
2. Josh Gordon is back, and he's only 25. The Eagles let go of their own "troublesome" receiver, DeSean Jackson, a few years back. What's the fanbase's attitude to Gordon? Can he still be a franchise cornerstone?
CP: Josh Gordon will be suspended for the first four games of the season. The fan base still absolutely loves Gordon. He’s not a guy who is taking performance-enhancing drugs or committing domestic violence. He either smoked some marijuana, was around people using it, or had a drink with his teammates, leading to a series of suspensions. It’s really all a bunch of petty stuff, but fans, including myself, also think, "Even if you’re getting bad breaks, you’ve got a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the NFL, how can you keep getting involved in these things?"
The trust factor isn’t there, but now that he’s oh-so-close to finally playing a regular season game again, the faith is being restored, especially after he looked sharp in two preseason games. The tough thing will be down the road – how will the Browns, or any other team, be willing to give him guaranteed money (via a signing bonus) knowing his history? If Cleveland is (rightfully so) hesitant to give him that type of bonus, but another team doesn’t care and shells it out, I fear that Cleveland will let potentially the league’s best receiver get away.
3. This is the first regular season NFL defense Carson Wentz will face, and it's Ray Horton's first game as the Browns' defensive coordinator. What should we expect?
CP: I know it’ll be Ray Horton’s first game with the current Browns regime, but it feels longer than that since he was our defensive coordinator for one season in 2013. He didn’t show too much in the preseason, so I’ll go back to that 2013 year. He’s going to show multiple fronts throughout the game to the point where the concept of a base defense really won’t exist. He’s also going to be a big fan of blitzing from all angles and trusting his cornerbacks to play on an island in those situations. Cleveland has no experience at the safety position and linebackers who aren’t known for their coverage, though, so my expectation is that any team, including Philadelphia, can work that zone over the middle of the field all game long.
4. The Browns and the Eagles swapped first-round picks in this past April's draft. The Browns turned that pick into Corey Coleman. How has he looked?
CP: Corey Coleman was the talk of training camp for the first two weeks. Right before the first preseason game started, he tweaked his hamstring, forcing him to sit out the next two games. He played in the third and fourth preseason games, but was a little shaky, particularly in the final one. There were two passes he probably should have hung on to but didn’t, and he also had trouble lining up in the right spot a few times. Frankly, it looked like he had the yips. If he can overcome that – and it might be as simple as getting his first catch -- I think he’ll have a solid rookie season.
5. From one tortured franchise to another, both undergoing massive overhauls: does this regime change make you think, finally, a change in fortune is coming? It's been quite some time since the Browns were competitive. Does it feel like you might be tending up, finally? Or is it false hope?
CP: Boy, I would really like to answer this question, but I feel like I’ve answered it with every one of the million regime changes we’ve had since 1999. I remember pumping myself up about how Mike Pettine preached toughness. I got excited about Rob Chudzinski because he was with the club when Derek Anderson had a good season once-upon-a-time. Romeo Crennel was coming from a Super Bowl coaching tree, and Eric Mangini had the experience and discipline needed to instill a culture change. Pat Shurmur…Pat Shurmur…well, to be honest, Shurmur was the only one I couldn’t even get excited about at the time we hired him. That was an all-time failure of a hire, and it showed all season long.
With all that in mind, yes – it feels like we’re trending up. The reason it is different this time is because the front office said "screw it – we are literally tearing the team down and re-building with young players." We made 14 draft picks this year and 13 of them made the team. The team willingly chose not to re-sign, flat out cut, or traded veterans like C Alex Mack, RT Mitchell Schwartz, FS Tashaun Gipson, WR Travis Benjamin, WR Brian Hartline, ILB Karlos Dansby, SS Donte Whitner, OLB Paul Kruger, and OLB Barkevious Mingo. If you literally change a roster from top-to-bottom, you won’t see immediate results, but you’re at least cleansing yourself of the residue that has always been associated with losing season after losing season.