1-27 isn’t pretty. In fact, 1-27 will cost any NFL coach his job. But with the Browns in Year Two of a franchise overhaul, Hue Jackson may (and should) be an exception to the golden rule come Black Monday next month. The average fan would point to Jackson’s back to back 0-12 starts and state his lack of wins are the only reason they need in their debate to let him go. I’m a numbers guy when it comes to football and upon further research, my black and white discoveries met my claim: The Browns have improved.
Let’s begin with first downs, where the Browns are minus 3 behind their opponents. They finished 2016 minus 68. Through twelve games, their ability to move the ball shows an improved offense. Through twelve games, their offense outrushed their opponents by 107 yards, while they finished 2016 at minus 262. They finished 2016 at minus 735 passing yards. In 2017, they’re minus 331. The offensive line has been a focal point, allowing only 39 sacks through twelve games, compared to 66 in 2016.
On the defensive side, they’re allowing 5.2 yards per play, down from 5.9 yards per play in 2016. Last season, the Browns allowed a 4.6 yard per carry average against NFL running backs. In 2017, the number is down to 3.3. Total rushing yards allowed? 1,163 this season. The 2016 total? 2,283. Through twelve games, they’ve sacked the quarterback 24 times, compared to 26 in 2016. The Browns defense allowed an astounding 6,279 yards last season, surrendering an average of 392 yards per game. This season, the Browns allowed 3,927 yards, averaging 327 yards per game, an improvement of 65 yards.
Another argument for continuing the set foundation accounts for starters acquired via draft, free agency, and trade. Upon looking at the Browns depth chart, they’ve found starters in Corey Coleman, Spencer Drango, Joel Bitonio, Shon Coleman, Emmanual Ogbah, Danny Shelton, Myles Garrett, Christian Kirksey, Joe Schobert, Derrick Kindred, and Jabrill Peppers. Trevon Coley fought his way into the starting lineup, being a second-year undrafted free agent. In other words, eleven of their twenty-two starters were drafted between the years 2014 and 2017. If one adds DeShone Kizer and David Njoku, who receives adequate playing time at tight-end, the number jumps to thirteen. Duke Johnson finds the field often, and Josh Gordon made his season debut for the first time in three seasons, so he’s essentially a newbie. Make that number sixteen, over two-thirds of the starters are twenty-six or younger.
Bitonio, Kirksey, and Schobert continue to play at Pro-Bowl levels. Garrett, Shelton, and Ogbah have transformed a once bleak defensive line. Peppers shows flashes of his hard-hitting ability. Ditto for Kindred. Duke Johnson remains one of the better receiving running backs in the game. Even DeShone Kizer, who critics grill for his less than stellar numbers have found the end zone five times this season and isn’t out of the running to start next season. Hey, Troy Aikman went 0-11 in his first eleven starts, too and nearly lost his job to some kid named Steve Walsh.
Talk of trades, the Browns acquired Jamie Collins, the unspoken leader of the defense and Jamar Taylor in 2016. Each found a place on Cleveland’s starting eleven. Kevin Zeitler and JC Tretter were prize free agent pickups, and another name to lookout for is James Burgess, who has strung together a few strong outings.
My friends tell me the way I talk, this should be a playoff team, right? Of course, not! They’re young, as I established earlier, but they’re much improved. This is a team who last season owned a defense reminiscent of the 2008 Lions and almost became them. This season, the Title of Imperfection isn’t out of reach, but the numbers look far better. As a friend of mine put it, they’re in almost every game. They are. They keep me watching, or listening, as I live in Steeler territory, until late in the fourth quarter. Minus the Texans and first game against the Bengals, they’ve been in games. Four have been decided by three points. One decision went to overtime.
I’m often asked how I can continue to root for such a futile team, who managed to pass up the 1976-77 Buccaneers in terms of worst starts by a Head Coach. I’ll be honest: my dream is playing out. Really, it is. I said it years ago. They need to tear down the roster and just post a miserable record for a few seasons. Start from scratch. Draft quantity, and through the years switch from quantity to quality. Build these guys and keep them together. Something big is happening over on the Lakefront. A complete teardown and rebuild takes years, as does anything worth having. See it through to the end.