There is no such thing as a moral victory in the NFL. However, for a young Cleveland Browns team playing on the road against a division rival, Sunday might come close -- if that's any consolation. I know... it's not. Browns fans, who have endured 12 years worth of blown calls, fired coaches, busted draft picks, and organizational incompetence, don't want to hear it. They're tired of losing in the name of "The Process." But while looking for positives in a loss does little to satisfy the ‘must win' expectations of a fan base long deprived of hope, it's important to examine the progress of the team, led by a bunch of rookies, and try to put it in its proper perspective. After struggling mightily to put together anything positive offensively in Week 1 at home, the Browns have plenty to hold their head high about after another close game, albeit a loss, in Paul Brown Stadium against the Cincinnati Bengals.
The biggest questions heading into this game concerned the play of rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden and rookie running back Trent Richardson. After both players had an NFL debut to forget, they bounced back in a big way, despite a 34-27 loss in their first ever "Battle of Ohio." The Browns found themselves down 7-0 early thanks to Adam "The Player Formerly Known as Pacman" Jones' 81-yard return to the house after the Browns were forced to punt on their opening drive. From there, the offense seemed to have settled down as Weeden went on to obliterate his awful performance in Week 1. The first year quarterback completed 26 of 37 attempts (70%) for 322 yards and two TDs, with no interceptions for a 114.9 rating. He broke the Browns rookie record for passing yards in a game and finally gave maligned Browns fans a reason to cheer for the offense in quite some time. He wasn't alone.
The Browns raised eyebrows in April when they moved up one spot in the Draft to ensure they had the rights to take Trent Richardson out of the University of Alabama. Some people questioned whether they gave up too much (a 4th, 5th and 7th round pick) simply to move up one spot for a running back, a position which has had its value in the NFL plummet in recent years. Richardson, after only rushing for 39 yards against the Eagles, gave the Browns braintrust an early return on their investment by rushing for 109 yards on 19 carries and rumbling for a touchdown against the Bengals. He also caught a check down pass from Weeden and broke four tackles en route to a 23-yard score late in the third quarter to bring the Browns back within 7 points.
Richardson became the first Browns rookie to rush for over 100 yards while scoring a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown in the same game (animated gifs of both touchdowns).
While the impressive, record-setting performances of the two first-round draft picks weren't enough to secure a victory, Browns fans have to be feeling better than they were a week ago about the direction of this young team. The organizational philosophy since President Mike Holmgren brought in General Manager Tom Heckert to oversee yet another rebuild has been to build the team for sustained success through the Draft. When Heckert came in, he inherited a roster that was a mixed bag of veterans and inexperienced players who likely wouldn't crack the starting lineup of any of the other teams in the AFC North. Some were holdovers from the Romeo Crennel/Phil Savage regime and others were brought in by former Head Coach Eric Mangini to teach "his way" to the guys in the locker room and get them to buy in to his system. What you had was an aging, average group of players who could pull out a win when you least expected it with fundamental, disciplined football but who simply weren't talented enough to consistently match-up with the better teams in the league.
It became increasingly difficult to watch teams like Baltimore and Pittsburgh draft scheme-specific players who fit like a glove, and then watch them grow into bona fide superstars while the Browns, having nothing to show for a string of botched drafts, had to turn to stopgaps and overpriced free agents just to field a semi-competitive team. Heckert was brought in to flip the script, no matter how difficult it was going to be. Both Heckert and Holmgren had the unconditional support of then-owner Randy Lerner to do whatever it took to stop the losing and get this thing going in the right direction, once and for all.
In Heckert's second offseason, under the shadow of a league-wide lockout in which the players were unable to practice at the team's facilities until August, the roster underwent a major overhaul. After Mangini was fired following back-to-back 5-11 seasons, out went the aging, "locker room guys" he brought aboard to win the field position battle and play sound Special Teams, and in came the youth movement. Unfortunately, this coincided with the owners' decision to lock out the players from the facilities until a new collective bargaining agreement between them and the NFLPA could be reached.
When new coach Pat Shurmur met his team for the first time following the lockout, the Cleveland Browns roster was a collective 331 years younger than it had been the year before. Add the youth and inexperience of the new roster to a first-year head coach along with the pitfalls of an unprecedented lockout canceling the offseason, and it's hardly a mystery why the team finished a dismal 4-12 in 2011. Unfortunately, there were several games the team could have won if the breaks had simply gone their way, but avoiding mistakes is critical in the NFL and a roster full of young, inexperienced players is ripe for growing pains. Talent can make up for inability but it can't completely mask inexperience.
The hard truth is that the 2012 version of the Cleveland Browns is still young and still learning to get out of their own way, at least at this point in their development. This roster is currently comprised of 15 rookies, which is second in the NFL to the St. Louis Rams (16 rookies). The difference between the Browns and the Rams is that the Rams' rookies aren't starting at key positions like quarterback and running back. Sam Bradford and Steven Jackson are seasoned veterans and already have the locker room believing in their abilities. Weeden and Richardson, while showing early signs of promise, have a ways to go in that regard. It is imperative that each continue to make strides and, at this point, not be the reason the team loses games. While we should eventually expect more out of our first-round draft picks, this is a necessary step to take before they can become the reason the team starts winning games. They're not there yet but it's safe to say that both players took a step forward on Sunday.
At this point, it's impossible to say what the future holds for Weeden, Richardson, Shurmur or Heckert, as new Browns owner, Jimmy Haslam III, is set to take over after a league vote in October. The hope for fans has to be that Weeden and Richardson prove enough this season to be the incumbent starters when the 2013 season kicks off next September. As for Shurmur and Heckert, their futures are far cloudier as the guy who hired them, Mike Holmgren, is rumored to be on his way out. Haslam is expected to bring aboard former Eagles President Joe Banner to fulfill the same role here in Cleveland. While Shurmur and Heckert both have ties to Banner and the Eagles, it's unknown as to what kind of relationship they shared during their time there. Any predictions as to what might take place here in Cleveland, once Banner arrives, is mere speculation.
The one thing this fan base cannot afford is to see another seismic shift in organizational philosophy and roster upheaval. It may not be coming together as quickly as anyone had hoped, but nothing worthwhile is easy. While there have been exceptions to the rule, NFL teams that are built to contend consistently are not done so overnight. It is important that fans understand, while they want to see a winner, this is not the same old Browns. This is a team that is being built piece by strategic piece. There will be missteps and mistakes along the way. There will be losses like the one point heartbreaker to Philadelphia in Week 1 and the one where failing to cover a punt return in the opening minutes will prove to be the difference. But there will be signs of significant progress embedded within, if you know where to find them.
At the end of the day, the NFL is a bottom-line business. There are no moral victories, and no room for woulda, coulda, shoulda. It's not horseshoes or hand grenades. It's professional football. Hard working men lose jobs for losing games by 1 or 3 or 7 points. At the same time, there is something to be said for progress. When a group of young guys finally put it all together and start consistently winning football games, people will take notice and call them a "surprise team." People, that is, who neglected to uncover the road they took to get there.