Labriola On

Labriola on drastic changes forecast for the North

Ready or not, here it comes:

• As part of a piece he wrote for cbssports.com that appeared in February, Jason La Canfora opined: “The Browns will win the AFC North. This is not a hot take. By this time next year there will be a consensus that they have the best quarterback in the division. They may well have the best roster in the division once the Steelers divest themselves of Antonio Brown and Le'Veon Bell, and they are young and hungry. (General Manager) John Dorsey does anything close in this year's draft as he did to last year's and we could be talking about a first round (playoff) bye in Cleveland.”

• Not to be left without a seat on the hype train, Dan Graziano wrote this snippet for ESPN.com: “The Cleveland Browns will win the AFC North. I think this is going to be a popular one come summertime, so let's get out ahead of it. Cleveland went 5-2 over its final seven games in 2018 with Baker Mayfield at quarterback and Freddie Kitchens running the offense. Kitchens is now the head coach, Mayfield is, of course, still the quarterback, the defense is still stocked with young stars, and the offense has enough around Mayfield to make the Browns a legit contender.”

• And then this was what Reggie Bush had to say on NFL Network: “The division is wide open. Le’Veon Bell is gone. Antonio Brown is gone. There is a lot of drama going on with the Pittsburgh Steelers. I know they still have a great coach, and they have good players there. In Baltimore, Joe Flacco is gone … and asking that defense to have a repeat performance like they had last year, that’s a tall order. But the Cleveland Browns – they have a ton of weapons, a ton of weapons. A great quarterback, a running game, receivers … and they have a great defense.”

• After almost 20 years of complete ineptitude since returning to the NFL for the 1999 NFL season following Art Modell’s move to Baltimore over a dispute with the city concerning the dump that was Cleveland Stadium, the Browns are back. Well, not exactly, not entirely, and not officially, but the attitude among certain factions of the media in this social media age seems to be, why wait? Better to be first than right.

• Are the Browns going to be that good in 2019? Or for these predictions to come true is it going to be more about the Steelers and Ravens dropping off significantly in both performance and results?

• All of that is a guess right now, and guesses are best reserved for the Powerball when the jackpot works its way into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

• Predictions are based primarily on assumptions, and some assumptions have a higher probability of coming true than others, but it seems as though the Browns’ supporters are counting on assumptions about some of the most integral people/components of a winning football team.

• Those assumptions, in order or importance are: immediately reversing a culture of losing that has been ingrained as a result of the team posting two winning records vs. 15 records that included double-digit losses during the 20 seasons from 1999-2018; counting on a rookie head coach to be the man to right the franchise and set it on an immediate course toward contention; and believing their second-year quarterback will continue to show improvement on a steady incline in a business where that’s rarely the case.

• As for immediately reversing the culture of losing, I would offer Chuck Noll’s Steelers as an example. When Noll was hired in 1969, the Steelers had gone 37 seasons without so much as winning a single playoff game, and even though the franchise would do spectacularly well in the first six drafts under his tenure – to the tune of adding nine Hall of Fame players to be coached by him, a Hall of Fame coach – it still took three straight years of losing seasons before the breakthrough finally came. And then it was two years after that when the franchise was able to win a playoff game based on something beyond the luckiest play in the history of the sport.

• Earlier this offseason, General Manager Kevin Colbert took some heat from various talking heads for suggesting that as the only owner of a Super Bowl ring in the Steelers locker room, Ben Roethlisberger deserves to be treated as a Yoda-like figure by the younger players. These Browns have nobody who has achieved even a modicum of success in their uniform, because the Browns as a team haven’t achieved a modicum of success in over a decade.

• Freddie Kitchens is completely new to this business of being a head coach, and his significant stops as an assistant have come at Mississippi State, the Dallas Cowboys, Arizona Cardinals, and then the Browns. Kitchens was part of Ken Whisenhunt’s staff (as the tight ends coach) that won the NFC Championship in 2008 before losing Super Bowl XLIII to the Steelers, but he doesn’t have a lot of high-level coaching experience to call upon once things hit the inevitable rough patch at some point during a 17-week regular season.

• Baker Mayfield captivated Cleveland as few Browns players have since the team returned to the NFL almost 20 years ago. Brash and with an ability to make the kind of plays that can turn defeat into victory, Mayfield used his legs and his right arm to do significant things on the field, and his confidence and presence energized not only the team’s fan base but also a sizable faction of the national media as well.

• But as it often happens in the NFL, a quarterback’s second tour of the league – especially once opponents have had an offseason to study him and devise plans to maximize the inadequacies in his game – is more difficult for him as an individual and more of a challenge to the players around him to pick up whatever slack might have been created by that video study.

• Can Mayfield adapt to this, both personally and professionally? There’s nothing to indicate that he can’t, just as there currently is nothing to indicate that he will. Those who believe in him as a player can craft their argument to support their opinion, just as those who aren’t buying him as elite-in-waiting can frame their argument to throw shade.

• The prognosticators not squarely behind the Browns as the division’s best team seem to be favoring the Ravens, the defending champions, who won it last season by benching Joe Flacco and turning their offense over to rookie Lamar Jackson. A rookie like Mayfield, Jackson won his Heisman Trophy with his legs more than his arm, and the Ravens supported him with a punishing running attack and one of the best defenses in the league on the way to a 10-6 record.

• Flacco is gone, and the Ravens’ new depth chart at quarterback – Jackson backed up by Robert Griffin III – is a dead giveaway as to the intended direction of their offense in 2019 and beyond, but their defense has taken four significant hits this offseason.

• Gone are inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, edge rushers Terrell Suggs and Za'Darius Smith, and safety Eric Weddle. The team made a big move in signing Earl Thomas to replace Weddle, and that’s clearly an upgrade, but there is nothing on the roster right now that can replace what they got in production and leadership from Mosley, Suggs, and Smith. In fact, fourth-year pro Matt Judon stands as the holdover with the highest sack total (seven) from 2018.

• The Ravens signed running back Mark Ingram to bolster their running attack, but right now it seems as though Willie Snead is their best wide receiver. And so the Ravens will be looking at the upcoming draft to replenish their pass rush and stock their offensive skill positions with the kind of talent Jackson is going to need if the Ravens intend to field anything close to an NFL-caliber passing attack.

• The Steelers certainly have their own issues to overcome, starting with the talent drain on offense that has Le’Veon Bell employed by the Jets and Antonio Brown working for the Raiders, then spreading to the other side of the ball where the team had better do something about a secondary that tied a franchise record for fewest interceptions (eight) in a season, and neither of those areas takes into account a field goal kicking situation that was downright awful in 2018.

• In their favor, the Steelers have the best quarterback in the division, the best offensive line in the division, and based on 2018 production the best pass rush in the division. And both the Steelers and the Ravens are coached by men who have stood on the podium with a Lombardi Trophy in their hands and confetti falling all around them.

• For all three teams, the schedule is largely the same, with the only variations coming in two of the 16 total games, but the Browns’ disadvantage here is that there will be no more sneaking up on opponents for them. And based on their one victory over the Ravens last season and that opening day tie with the Steelers, there will be no sneaking up on the teams that should pose the stiffest competition to their climb to the top of the North.

• The league is expected to announce the dates and times of its 2019 regular season schedule next week, and the Browns should anticipate being thrown into the pool of teams that find themselves forced to alter their weekly protocol and adapt to the challenges created by games in primetime.

• The Browns will be better in 2019, because there isn’t anywhere to go but up from a recent two-season span that had them finish 1-31, but will they be better to the point of becoming the best team in the AFC North, to the point of becoming the kind of team to challenge for a first-round bye in the AFC Playoffs? All in the span of a single offseason?

• It is said that seeing is believing, and so count me among those who will have to see to believe.

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