Since they came back into the league in 1999, the Cleveland Browns have been the NFL’s punching bag. The team has only made the playoffs once, hasn’t won the division, and has had a losing record in all but two of their seasons. Since 1999, every other team in the AFC North has won the division, and both the Steelers and Ravens have won two Super Bowls. Yet the Browns continue to struggle, and nobody could quite figure out how. Until now.
Breaking Down the Cleveland Browns
Since the Browns came back to the NFL 16 years ago, they’ve had nine head coaches. Chris Palmer, Butch Davis, Terry Robiskie, Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Pat Shurmur, Rob Chudzinski, Mike Pettine, and now Hue Jackson have served as the head coach. Of those nine men, only Butch Davis and and Romeo Crennel have coached more than two seasons. Mike Pettine, Pat Shurmur, Eric Mangini, and Chris Palmer were only given two seasons, and Rob Chudzinski was only given one year to turn the franchise around.
In sixteen years, the Browns have had nine head coaches, seven general managers, and three owners. For perspective, over that same span, the Pittsburgh Steelers have only had two head coaches, one of which retired, and both the owners and general manager have remained the same. The New England Patriots were coached by Pete Carroll when the Browns came back, but the very next season, Bill Belichick took over. What do the Steelers and Patriots have in common? They’ve been very, very good over that span, appearing in more than half of the Super Bowls.
Then again, both franchises have benefited from having Hall of Fame players like Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Troy Polamalu, and Rob Gronkowski. The Browns haven’t had the same luck (we’ll get to that). So why not compare them to another team that hasn’t won a Super Bowl? Another team in the AFC North? Why not another team in the state of Ohio?
The Cincinnati Bengals have also had a tumultuous 16 years. While the Bengals have enjoyed significantly more success than the Browns, winning the AFC North four times and making the playoffs seven times over that span, they’ve also had their low moments. In ten of the last sixteen years, the Bengals have struggled and haven’t even had a winning season. The biggest difference?
The Bengals hired Marvin Lewis to be their head coach in 2003, and through thick and thin, they’ve stood by him. Lewis only managed one winning record during his first six years with the team, and only won four games in 2008. They rebounded in 2009, winning ten games and the AFC North, but collapsed in 2010, only winning four games again. Despite having a thin roster and stiff competition, Browns head coach Mike Pettine was fired after magically pulling seven wins out of the 2014 Browns, but only getting three wins out of the 2015 version. If the Bengals had fired Lewis after only winning four games in 2010, then they definitely wouldn’t have gone on to make the playoffs over each of the next five seasons, winning at least ten games for four straight years.
It’s impossible to explain how much of an impact a NFL head coach has on his team. As we’ve seen in the past, some players depend on schemes to be successful. All-Pro players like Nnamdi Asomugha have gone to different teams and been asked to do something different and struggled mightily. Everything from the offensive and defensive schemes to how they practice to who makes the team may be decided solely by the head coach. Changing head coaches every two years doesn’t foster growth or development for young players. It would be like trying to raise a child, but every month, you have a new partner.
In 1957, the Cleveland Browns selected running back Jim Brown out of Syracuse University in the first round. Brown would rush for 12,312 yards and 106 touchdowns in only nine seasons, none of which were more than 14 games long, on his way to the Hall of Fame. Since returning in 1999 however, the Browns haven’t had as much luck.
Amazingly, over the last 17 drafts, the Browns have picked a league-most 21 times in the first round. That’s right, they’ve had 21 first-round picks since 1999. The problem is that they just haven’t been very good. That’s not to say that all of the picks have been bad, because they haven’t. Joe Thomas, the third overall pick in 2007, has been one of, if not the best left tackles in the NFL since day one. He’s been first team All-Pro six times and is the only offensive lineman in NFL history to be voted to the Pro Bowl for the first nine years of his career. Offensive linemen don’t always get the respect they deserve, but there’s no question that Thomas deserves Hall of Fame consideration when he retires. Players like center Alex Mack and cornerback Joe Haden have been good too, playing exceptionally well for the Browns in spots.
The real problem is that they’ve missed far more often than they’ve hit, especially with quarterbacks. The Browns have selected four quarterbacks since returning in 1999, and the best of them was Tim Couch, a player mentioned among the biggest busts in NFL history. Johnny Manziel, their first-round pick from 2014, isn’t even on the roster anymore.
Of the 21 players taken by the modern era Browns in the first round, only Corey Coleman, Cameron Erving, Danny Shelton, Justin Gilbert, Barkevious Mingo, Haden, and Thomas are still on the roster. And of those seven, only Haden, Thomas, Erving, and Shelton are still starting. The Browns have had several chances to draft difference makers, and they just have not been able to succeed.
In professional sports, as in life, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and in this sense, the Browns have been neither. We’ve already gone over why the Browns haven’t been good, but maybe there’s something else preventing them from being successful. While the Browns haven’t helped themselves, it certainly hurts that the rest of the division has been so good.
Since 1999, the Baltimore Ravens have had only four losing seasons. They’ve had the NFL’s best defense on several occasions, and have won two Super Bowls. Even after surefire first ballot Hall of Famers Ray Lewis and Ed Reed left, the Ravens were still a very good team. General Manager Ozzie Newsome knows how to draft players that fit his scheme and head coach John Harbaugh has been perfectly acceptable. Quarterback Joe Flacco is the best passer in the history of their franchise, and since he’s been drafted, they’ve only missed the playoffs twice.
The Pittsburgh Steelers lost a future Hall of Fame coach in Bill Cowher to retirement, and still managed to find another good coach that would lead them to the Super Bowl only two years later. The Steelers have had as many losing seasons as they have Super Bowls (2) since the Browns came back, and they’ve won the division seven times. They’ve appeared in the Super Bowl three times over that span, and haven’t lost more than 10 games once.
The Bengals, as mentioned before, have also enjoyed plenty of success. It’s hard to imagine the Browns having a ton of success or getting better when they’ve been trapped in a division with three of the AFC’s best teams for almost twenty years. The New England Patriots, Seattle Seahawks, Denver Broncos, and Carolina Panthers, the Super Bowl teams from the last three seasons, have all had the benefit of playing in weak divisions, while the Browns have had to struggle with the NFL’s elite.
Inconsistency in the front office, draft day blunders, and residing in a division full of bullies has hurt the Browns badly. Despite being one of the oldest and prestigious franchises in the NFL, the Cleveland Browns have fallen on hard times. But maybe things are changing. Hue Jackson is a quarterback guru, and maybe things are about to get better for the Cleveland Browns. The Dawg pound have endured almost two decades of failure, and at the very least, they deserve a competitive team to root for.