December 22, 2014

Medina
Partly cloudy
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Browns: Five issues heading into camp

The Browns will open training camp Thursday afternoon in Berea, and the first padded practice is scheduled for Saturday. As is usually the case with the Browns, they’re in the middle — or start — of a makeover.

Coach Rob Chudzinski is new. So are coordinators Norv Turner (offense) and Ray Horton (defense), much of the front office, including general manager Michael Lombardi, and a number of the players.

All the change could be a necessary step toward respectability and relevance — which have been elusive since the team’s return in 1999 — or just the latest exercise in Cleveland futility. Only time will tell.

Browns running back Trent Richardson’s health will be watched closely. (AP FILE PHOTO)

As football finally returns, let’s examine the most pressing issues facing the Browns in 2013.

The Jimmy situation

Owner Jimmy Haslam plans to be here for the start of camp. News of his impending purchase of the franchise broke at the opening of camp last year, but this is his first training camp officially in charge of the Browns.

Unfortunately, a giant black cloud hangs above him, and the team, during what’s supposed to be an optimistic time.

The FBI and IRS continue their investigation into Pilot Flying J, where he is CEO, and approximately 20 trucking companies have filed civil lawsuits. Haslam has agreed to pay for damages but maintains he didn’t know about the fraud scheme.

He has also insisted the Pilot Flying J troubles won’t affect the Browns and that he’ll continue to own them for a long time.

But no one can know that for sure. If Haslam gets indicted, he might have to shift ownership to his father. The NFL could get involved. Or he could need the cash that would come with the sale of the $1 billion franchise.

Many players are oblivious to Haslam’s problems and some fans are sick of talking about them, but they’re the biggest unsettled situation facing the franchise that’s desperate for stability and a sense of normalcy.

Hello, Chud

Chudzinski, a lifelong Browns fan from Toledo, has his dream job.

He better be ready for some nightmares.

Chudzinski has never been a head coach at any level. While he’s prepared, bright and energized, there are usually growing pains when taking such a significant step. The key will be adjusting quickly and not appearing overwhelmed.

His responsibilities are almost endless, and that’s before the team takes the field. He must direct the organization, then figure out how to manage the 53 players and 20-plus coaches.

Chudzinski’s most difficult test will be leading the team through the storms that are inevitable. A slow start or extended losing streak will send the fans, and media, into the tizzy they’ve grown comfortable with, and he must stay calm, focused and optimistic — while getting his players to do the same.

The additions of the veteran coordinators will help, especially on Sundays, but Chudzinski won’t be off the hook. A head coach can’t escape the pressure of trying to make the right call on a challenge, timeout or whether to go for it on fourth down.

He said he missed the fans during offseason practices and was anxious for them to arrive this week. His love of the Browns is undeniable. Now he just has to win some games.

System shifts

Gone are the 4-3 defense and West Coast offense, replaced by the 3-4 and vertical passing game.

Browns fans are used to the system overhauls common with coaching changes — Chudzinski is the fourth coach since 2008 — but that doesn’t make them any easier. Turner and Horton promise attacking, aggressive, exciting schemes better suited for the personnel on the roster. Delivering the production is another matter.

Despite their confidence and optimism, Turner and Horton acknowledge their units won’t be entirely comfortable by Week 1. That’s a far different scenario than in Pittsburgh, where the Steelers have played the same defense — the one Horton stole from Dick LeBeau — for decades. Baltimore and Cincinnati also boast stability that Cleveland can only envy.

Kicks in the gut

Kicker Phil Dawson leaving through free agency after 14 years was enough to send a tremor through the locker room.

The entirety of what happened to Cleveland’s special teams in the offseason was a tsunami.

Pro Bowl returner and ace coverage man Joshua Cribbs wasn’t re-signed and landed in Oakland. Punter Reggie Hodges was allowed to walk. So were staples Ray “Bubba” Ventrone, Kaluka Maiava and Alex Smith.

Special teams coordinator Chris Tabor, who was retained by Chudzinski, must reinvent the kicking units that have been a strength on a weak team for years.

The intrigue starts with rookie Brandon Bogotay vs. veteran Shayne Graham to replace Dawson in one of the biggest battles of the preseason. If both struggle, the Browns could make a switch after the preseason when the league makes its cuts.

Cribbs can’t be replaced by one person. Travis Benjamin is the heir apparent as punt returner, Buster Skrine, Johnson Bademosi and Dion Lewis are candidates at kickoff returner and Bademosi will try to take over as the stud cover guy.

Hodges struggled in his return from a ruptured Achilles, so the change at punter shouldn’t be as difficult. But Spencer Lanning and T.J. Conley are far from proven commodities.

Fresh regime, leftover roster

This season is all about evaluation, and it starts with training camp.

The players nearing the end of their contracts and in line for extensions have to prove they’re worth committing to for the long haul. Cornerback Joe Haden, safety T.J. Ward and center Alex Mack lead this category.

The young players on offense have to show they can be the long-term answer, or the Browns will be quick to go in a different direction. Quarterback Brandon Weeden, tight end Jordan Cameron and receiver Greg Little top this list.

Those with issues in their backgrounds must overcome them and ease the worried minds in the front office. Running back Trent Richardson and guard Jason Pinkston have to stay healthy, and suspended receiver Josh Gordon needs to stay clean.

The wait-and-see approach of new CEO Joe Banner makes sense. He and Lombardi inherited a roster full of uncertainty and need more time and tape to complete their evaluations.

That’s why this season is so important.

Contact Scott Petrak at (440) 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.