It’s no secret that the Cleveland Browns have been the epitome of ineptitude since re-entering the league in 1999, carrying an overall record of 73-151 (.326 winning percentage) since that time. The past few years have been especially horrid for the franchise, as the Browns have not won more than five games during any of the previous five seasons.
Given these statistics, it’s no surprise that the team is 1-13 in season openers since its rebirth. Starting the season on a high note does not guarantee playoff contention, but it’s certainly a nice place to start. For both a franchise and a fanbase that have become so starved for an above-average on-field product (heck, an average on-field product would suffice at this point), the optimism for Browns football hasn’t been higher than it is in 2013 for a quite a long time.
The flurry of offseason moves completed by a front office made up of almost entirely new faces has generated genuine excitement for the city and its fans. Desperation is a phrase I’d rather not use, but let’s face it: Browns fans are desperate for a winner.
Mostly because of these reasons, the Browns sold out of single-game tickets for their home opener against the Miami Dolphins in just 28 minutes (have no fear, StubHub still has plenty available). Now that Thursday night’s season opener between the Baltimore Ravens and the Denver Broncos is behind us – Denver picked up the “W” with a 49-27 shellacking of the defending champions) – most NFL fans have turned their full attention to the first NFL Sunday of the 2013 season.
Here are some of the key storylines to keep an eye on during the Browns’ Sunday afternoon matchup against Miami.
Mingo a no-go
Despite the fact that Barkevious Mingo’s lung injury occurred nearly a month ago, Mingo will not be playing in Sunday’s game. The rookie out of LSU was able to get back on the field for practice this past week but was limited to participating in non-contact drills only. Speed is expected to play a crucial role in defensive coordinator Ray Horton’s attacking defensive scheme. Mingo would have been the fastest member of the front seven on the field for the Browns, but the injury has pushed his NFL debut back at least another week.
Both Mingo and head coach Rob Chudzinski have been relatively quiet as to how long Mingo is expected to be kept out of action, and his return is not a guarantee for next week, either. The Browns have plenty of depth along the front seven, so his absence from Sunday’s game shouldn’t have a massive impact on the pass-rushing abilities of the Horton-led Browns defense.
The possible absence of defensive end Ahtyba Rubin, who is listed as questionable, could have much larger implications on the game, though. Backups Billy Winn and John Hughes would certainly be able to hold there own against an offensive line that underperformed during the preseason. Then again, it was exactly that – the preseason; and, the thought of Ahtyba Rubin coming after your quarterback is a much less pleasant one than the thought of Winn or Hughes coming after your quarterback.
Cornerback Buster Skrine, who was expected to start opposite of Joe Haden, is also listed as questionable. Skrine’s injury is of less concern than Rubin’s, simply due to the fact that Skrine is seemingly only a slight step ahead (if that) of his backups skills-wise. Veteran Chris Owens would replace Skrine as the starter, and rookie Leon McFadden would be the next man in line.
Joe Haden vs. Mike Wallace
Among the flurry of offseason additions made by Miami, the Dolphins made their biggest splash (ha!) when they signed Wallace, a former wideout for the Pittsburgh Steelers. After breaking out in 2010 and then carrying his success over to the following season, Wallace posted a disappointing 2012 campaign in which he collected 834 yards receiving, while his average yards per catch slipped to 13.1 (21.0 in 2010, 16.6 in 2011).
Despite this, the Dolphins threw nearly $60 million in the direction of Wallace to encourage the speedy wide receiver to take his talents to South Beach. This was surely welcoming news for second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who will be looking to fully utilize his superior arm strength by stretching the field via Wallace and his blistering speed.
If it were not for the presence of top-flight cornerback Joe Haden, I would have little confidence in the Browns’ ability to stop Wallace. Luckily, Haden will be lining up against Wallace on the opposite side of the field, presenting an excellent matchup between two of the NFL’s best at each of their respective positions.
These two are certainly familiar foes, given the two players’ experiences against each other during many intense rivalry games between the Browns and the Steelers over the past few years. Haden has had Wallace’s number in their most recent matchups, but the fifth-year wideout is expecting big things for himself on Sunday.
In an interview with the South Florida Sun Sentinel, the 6-foot, 190-pounder said, “I’m going to have my swag out, too, so he better be ready on Sunday.” The Dolphins receiver was referring to Haden’s routinely top-notch gameday appearance when using the word “swag” (older folks, take notes), but he was also warning Haden and the Browns about the Dolphins’ plans to open up the passing game against a Browns secondary that lacks experienced talent, besides Haden and safety T.J. Ward.
My money’s on the man with the most “swag” (the guy has a very extensive sneaker collection): Haden.
Familiar faces in new places
Davone Bess spent the first five seasons of his NFL career as a member of the Dolphins. In his first game as a member of the Browns – following an offseason trade that sent Bess to Cleveland from Miami – Bess finds himself squaring off against his former team. Look for Bess to play a key role in Sunday’s game, as the Browns will likely lean heavily on the 27-year-old to make up for the absence of top wideout Josh Gordon, who will be out for the first two games of the season for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy.
At some point in the game, Bess may line up against the ‘Fins #2 cornerback, Dimitri Patterson. Ironically, Patterson – who spent a large portion of the previous two seasons as a member of the Browns – will also be facing his former team. Both veterans will obviously have plenty of added motivation on Sunday as they look to prove a point to their former employers.
Simply due to the fact that I will be in attendance for Sunday’s game, I am picking the Browns to defeat the Dolphins 52-0 (52 because we have to let the newly-signed Billy Cundiff warm up his leg with at least one field goal for the Browns’ upcoming Super Bowl run).
Biases (and hallucinogens) aside, I look for the Browns defense to impress in Horton’s first game as the team’s defensive play-caller, despite the loss of Mingo from the lineup. The game hinges on the Browns offense, which should be improved from a season ago as the young impact players continue to develop (Weeden still counts as “young,” right?).
The Dolphins as a whole should be much improved from last season, as well, considering the large number of impact free-agent signings that were made by the team during the offseason (Mike Wallace, Brent Grimes, Dannell Ellerbe). This is not a team that will go out quietly, so expect a dog fight.
In a matchup that is this close on paper, though, I give the edge to the team who carries the home-field advantage. This one goes to the “Dawgs”: 20-17, Browns.