There are two ways to get to the playoffs in the NFL. First, you can build a core of talented players and coaches, establish a system, and maintain the system notwithstanding the ravages of free agency and personnel changes. The Patriots, Colts, and Steelers all fall into this category. The second option is for a less talented team to take advantage of opportunity — a soft schedule, the unexpected emergence of a previously unheralded player, and a favorable bounce or two — and come from nowhere to win enough games to make the playoffs. Once you are in the playoffs, anything can happen.
The Browns are a long way, talent-wise and system-wise, from falling into the first category, although I believe that is where Mike Holmgren and, if he is retained, Eric Mangini are aiming. Therefore, the Browns’ only hope of making the playoffs this year was to fall into the second category — and it is there that the Browns have, I think, missed an opportunity. They had a chance to come roaring out of the gate with some easy initial games. They built upon the run-oriented success they had at the end of last year by finding a big back, Peyton Hillis, whose tough running style put them in a position to compete against the better teams in the league. And the Browns’ defense played much better than expected. With some grit and determination, and a lucky bounce or two, at this point in the season the Browns could be in the thick of the playoff fight.
It hasn’t happened that way. The easy initial wins did not materialize, and after last week’s very disappointing loss to Buffalo the Browns stand at 5-8 and are on the outside looking in. The game against the Bills neatly captured the Browns’ shortcomings this year. After a good opening drive, the Browns stalled on the one-yard line and kicked a field goal instead of going for it on fourth down. After the defense forced a turnover, the offense gave the ball right back through a Peyton Hillis fumble. And when the game turned into a defensive struggle, the Browns offense stuck with a predictable run, run, pass on third down offensive style that Buffalo easily defended. The fact that Jake Delhomme is really no longer an NFL-caliber quarterback and the Browns’ wide receiver corps is lackluster isn’t helping, either.
If you are one of the less talented teams in the NFL, you have to be willing to take some chances. You need to gamble on fourth down, run a few trick plays, and maximize your scoring opportunities. The Browns’ defensive coordinator, Rob Ryan, understands this. His defensive takes risks and looks for big plays and turnover opportunities. The Browns’ offense also did this in some games, such as their signature wins against the Saints and the Patriots. For some reason, however, they stopped taking risks in recent games, and their one-dimensional offense has not done the job. And so, for yet another year, the Browns Backers of the world are disappointed, and thinking wistfully of what might have been.