Three weeks ago, Cleveland was abuzz with possibility. The Browns were 4-5 with a monster matchup looming with the Cincinnati Bengals. Win and somehow the Browns – who to that point had started three different quarterbacks – would have more or less controlled their own destiny in the AFC North.
But now the calendar has turned to December, the month of Cleveland’s misery. After two crippling divisional defeats at the hands of the Bengals and Steelers followed by a gut-wrenching last minute loss to the putrid Jaguars and on the verge of starting their fourth different quarterback of the season due to the concussions sustained by Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell, the Cleveland Browns find themselves in a familiar situation; playing out the string on a lost season. Browns fans also find themselves in a place they know all too well – scouring the archives of Todd McShay and Mel Kiper, Jr. in search of wisdom on who their hapless team should select to ruin in next spring’s NFL Draft.
But I’m here to tell Browns fans not to lose all hope. There are still a few things worth watching in these last four otherwise torturous games of the Browns season. As you can see, I initially wanted to come up with five positives for fans, but that proved impossible. Unless you count Billy Cundiff’s continued quest to avoid having his jersey burned in effigy in his first season replacing the beloved Phil Dawson, then I could not find five things truly worth watching when the Browns take the field. Without further ado, your three remaining bright spots in yet another miserable Browns season.
The contract situations of Alex Mack and T.J. Ward
Alright, so I cheated and this isn’t actually a positive that you can see on the field when the Browns play. However, it is an important storyline for the team’s future as they continue their perpetual rebuild. Both players are in the final year of their contracts and have not yet signed extensions. Both players are also some of the best performers on the roster.
Mack is one of the league’s best centers. This season Pro Football Focus has him at a cumulative 12.8 grade, behind only Denver’s Manny Ramirez and Houston’s Chris Myers among NFL centers. That 12.8 mark also makes him the second highest-rated player on the Browns offense, trailing only perennial All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas.
T.J. Ward finds himself in a similar situation. Pro Football Focus ranks him the NFL’s second best safety (behind New England’s Devin McCourty, who the Browns will see this week) with a 13.6 grade. Like Mack, Ward is also the second highest-graded player on the Browns defense behind only John Hughes (14.8).
These two players are proven performers who Joe Banner and company should do anything necessary to keep on the roster. Both play somewhat underexposed positions on the field, but take a few plays to watch them and you’ll see why it’s essential that they remain Browns into the hopefully brighter future.
It’s been well-documented how Haden has kept a printed image of the Hawaiian Islands hanging in his locker all season long. With each passing week, it’s looking more likely that the Browns stud cornerback will make his first trip to the Pro Bowl.
Yes, he has had lapses that have allowed his man to catch key touchdowns each of the last two weeks (including giving up the game-winner to Cecil Shorts III with just 40 seconds left against Jacksonville), but every cornerback will occasionally get beat. Those few breakdowns have left Haden with just a 6.8 grade from PFF (19th league-wide among corners); respectable but not astounding. However, to fully understand Haden’s best season as a pro, an observer must look at the stats of the opponents’ top receivers whom he has covered each week.
Haden held Detroit’s Calvin Johnson to three catches for 25 yards on nine total targets. Miami’s big offseason signing Mike Wallace could only muster one reception for 15 yards against the Browns’ stopper. A.J. Green has amassed just nine catches for 58 yards on 20 targets in his two matchups with Haden. Add to that Haden’s four interceptions (three in the last three weeks, including one returned for a touchdown) and 17 pass breakups (just two off his career high in a season), and it looks likely that he’ll be representing the Browns in Hawaii.
With a remaining matchup against Chicago’s Brandon Marshall and a chance for revenge on Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown (six catches for 92 yards and a touchdown in their first meeting), Haden has even more chances to impress. Browns fans would do well to watch his lockdown play over these last four games.
You all didn’t think I was going to forget about Flash, did you? I would have put him in this list had I written it three weeks ago; his record-breaking last two weeks have simply solidified him as the anchor.
In his 10 games so far this season (Hey, remember when Gordon was suspended for the first two games for a second violation of the league’s substance abuse policy? Yeah, those weren’t fun times), Gordon has amassed 64 receptions for 1,249 yards (second in the league behind Calvin Johnson, who has 1,299 in 11 games) and seven touchdowns. His average of 19.5 yards per catch is second in the NFL, while his 124.9 yards per game is tops in the league.
In his last two games he has 498 yards and three touchdowns on 24 catches. Against the Steelers two weeks ago he broke Ozzie Newsome’s franchise record of 191 receiving yards in one game when he racked up 237. Last Sunday against the Jaguars, he topped his own record with 261 yards and two touchdowns on 10 receptions. He is the first player in NFL history to record back-to-back games of 200-plus yards receiving.
He has played 10 games this season. In six of those he has over 100 yards. He has issued an official challenge to Megatron for the title of league’s best receiver – hey, even Bill Barnwell wrote it (scroll down to the bottom) – even though he has been catching balls from luminaries like Weeden, Campbell, and Brian Hoyer all season. He is by far the most exciting player on this lacking Browns roster.
But, as my aunt reminded me at the stadium last Sunday after watching his first touchdown catch, he could be out of the league tomorrow with one more failed drug test.
As Browns fans, we’re used to this. No excitement, no matter how great, ever comes without a disclaimer.
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