The NFL season starts Thursday night in New Orleans. The Browns kick off Sunday in Tampa, Fla.
So I can’t put it off any longer. I must go on record with my predictions for 2010.
No one outside of Berea thinks the Browns have a chance to contend for anything. Every expert who gets paid to make a prediction has them fourth in the four-team AFC North. Sporting News had the harshest view, predicting a 2-14 finish.
My first question is simple: How can they be worse than last year, when they went 5-11? They got horrible quarterback play and abandoned the pass, were beset with injuries and traded their biggest name (Braylon Edwards) after four games.
Sure, the Browns were 1-11 after 12 games, but the final record is the final record. They won five games, then had an offseason that was productive if not earth-shattering.
My second question is just as simple: Jake Delhomme has to be an upgrade at quarterback, doesn’t he?
While Derek Anderson has greater potential, Delhomme brings a stability that was lacking in the Anderson-Brady Quinn soap opera. Delhomme is also coming off a stellar preseason, which surely boosted his confidence and eased the minds of those within the organization wondering about his 18-interception flameout in Carolina.
Three starting-caliber defensive backs were added, as were two starting linebackers. The offensive line received a shot of youth and an upgrade in depth, and tight end is markedly improved with Benjamin Watson.
Take into consideration a second year in the Eric Mangini-Rob Ryan-Brian Daboll systems, and the continuity must account for something.
Gone will be the 27-6, 34-3, 31-3, 30-6 blowouts of 2009 that disgusted and enraged Browns Town. I expect the Browns to be competitive in just about every game, as they use solid game plans and good decision-making to limit mistakes and allow them to be a factor in the fourth quarter.
That’s where Delhomme comes in.
No matter how stifling the defense or productive the running game, the quarterback needs to make a handful of critical throws each week. They usually come on third down to keep drives alive and in the fourth quarter to turn a three-point loss into a four-point win.
The preseason was great, but he must prove in the regular season that he’s once again the Delhomme from Carolina’s playoff years. Not the turnover machine from 2009.
Every season starts with a certain level of optimism around Northeast Ohio. Example A: A white-haired man walked through training camp with an orange shirt that read “Believe in the Browns.” The solid preseason only fueled the fire.
But an out-of-the-blue playoff run — the kind that has become commonplace in the NFL — would be a shock to even the biggest fan. The Browns play in one of the toughest divisions and have one of the toughest schedules — 10 games against teams that had winning records last season.
Depending on which national preview you read, the Steelers, Ravens or Bengals are the favorite to win the division. They could all make the playoffs.
Throw in circuits against the difficult AFC East and NFC South, and it’s easier to see why the critics are so skeptical.
That’s why the first two games are so important.
Confidence in Cleveland is always fragile. And the opening two opponents — Tampa Bay and Kansas City — had worse records than the Browns in 2009.
So if the Browns can’t capitalize and start 0-2, the avalanche of negativity could be too powerful to stop. If they can win them both — and look good in the process — that would be six straight over two seasons and have people inside and outside the locker room excited.
Mangini has succeeded in at least one area. He has a team with the right attitude and work ethic. When last season went bad, the players continued to work hard. Professionals such as Sheldon Brown, Scott Fujita and Delhomme were added and only improved the chemistry.
If the Browns win, it’s because character prevailed and the sum was greater than the parts. However, talent matters in the NFL. So does quarterback play.
The Browns have improved in both areas, but they’re just not ready to reach the upper echelon where the Colts, Packers, Patriots and Ravens reside.
So here it is, the big reveal: The Browns will play better, Mangini will keep his job and optimism will begin to build for 2011.
They will go 8-8.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or firstname.lastname@example.org.