The Cleveland Browns have legitimized the Jaguars' and Panthers' achievements of 1996. How so?
Well, when the Jaguars and Panthers each played in their respective conference title games in their second seasons, critics claimed those two expansion teams had been given too much by the league; too many draft picks and too much salary-cap room, the combination of which provided those two expansion teams with the pick of the college and free-agent litters.
The claim made sense, at the time, however, the Browns have disproved the theory. The Browns were given the same advantages the Jaguars and Panthers were given, and the Browns didn't even have to compete with another expansion team in the expansion draft, yet, in their second season, the Browns are 3-10.
This Sunday, a Browns team that has been ravaged by injuries comes to Alltel Stadium for the first of three remaining games that figure to end the Browns' second season with just one more win than in their first season.
"What I told the guys in the locker room is that we've got a chance to be a good team," coach Chris Palmer said of his address to his team following a loss in Tennessee on Nov. 19. "Just stay the course and don't start pointing fingers toward one another. Don't feel sorry for one another."
The Browns maintain they are improved over a year ago, and that their future is bright. There is evidence to support that claim, mainly a much better defense.
First-pick-of-the-draft Courtney Brown has given every reason to believe he can be a dominant defensive end; a Bruce Smith type of player. He is the cornerstone of Browns defenses of the future.
"We obviously had very high expectations for Courtney and he is everything we hoped he would be at this point. His combination of size, speed and strength is rare. His productivity will certainly increase as he gains experience," Palmer said of Brown, whose 4.5 sacks through 12 games trailed only Jets defensive end Shaun Ellis among NFL defensive rookies.
Defensively, the Browns added defensive tackle Orpheus Roye and end Keith McKenzie in free agency, giving the Browns a line of the future. Linebacker Jamir Miller is one of the league's best, and young cornerbacks Daylon McCutcheon and Lewis Sanders are following the predicted learning curve.
Offense continues to be the problem for the Browns, who used the first pick of the 1999 draft to select quarterback Tim Couch. Couch has been impressive at times, but he was lost for the season when he suffered a severe fracture of his thumb in practice on Oct. 19. The jury is still out on Couch.
The Browns' young wide receiver corps has shown flashes of brilliance, but it lost its best player, rookie JaJuan Dawson, early in the season, and last year's rookie sensation, Kevin Johnson, hasn't played up to expectations.
Veteran running back Errict Rhett was also lost for the season early, and rookie running back Travis Prentice has filled in capably, but the Browns still lack a feature back.
The offensive line is the Browns' area of greatest need. They spent a lot of money in free agency on their offensive line prior to their first season, and that money appears to have been wasted. In two drafts, they have only selected two offensive linemen, only one of which is on their roster, sixth-round guard Brad Bedell. Obviously, the Browns are expected to go hard for offensive linemen in next spring's draft.
"We have a vision as an organization. We are not going to deviate from that. Everyone is on the same page. I am not changing my coaching, and I know that our personnel people are not going to change who they are looking for. We are going to be successful. We will stumble along the way, but we are going to continue to get better," Palmer said.
"I have noticed a lot of improvement from the guys who are in their second year in our system. We are even younger this year than we were last year, but no one cares about that or that we are in a building situation. I think we have the ingredients. Now we just have to cook the cake. It takes time, but we are all confident this approach is in the best long-term interests of the Cleveland Browns," Palmer added.
Selling the improvement factor on Browns fans is becoming increasingly difficult. Next year, it will be impossible, if it doesn't show in the record.