Only a quarterback can change Browns' fate

Brandon Weeden is Cleveland's latest hope to solve the franchise's QB problem. Rick Osentoski/US Presswire

There are two significant records that can be set in the AFC North this week: the Browns are on the verge of establishing a new low for futility, and Ben Roethlisberger is close to becoming the Steelers' all-time leading passer.

This is more than coincidence. This is yet another reminder of how the Browns ended up at this point. If the Cleveland Browns lose at home Sunday to the Cincinnati Bengals, it will mark their 12th straight loss, a record for a franchise that began play in 1946.

While the date you'll see all week is Nov. 20, 2011 -- the last time the Browns won a game -- I suggest you go back to April 2004. That's when the Browns had the sixth overall pick in the draft and sent a large contingent to visit Roethlisberger and other quarterback prospects. "You don't want to pass up a guy who goes on to win four Super Bowls," then-Browns coach Butch Davis said before the draft. The Browns eventually selected tight end Kellen Winslow, who is out of football after playing for four teams, and Roethlisberger has won two Super Bowls.

Quarterbacks are the lifeblood of any NFL team. The Browns only need to look at their own division to realize that. Joe Flacco has taken the Ravens to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons. Andy Dalton guided the Bengals to the postseason a season removed from being 4-12. And Roethlisberger has helped the Steelers get to three Super Bowls.

Quarterbacks have defined the Browns' instability. In 14 seasons since returning to the league, Cleveland has started 17 quarterbacks: Tim Couch, Ty Detmer, Doug Pederson, Spergon Wynn, Kelly Holcomb, Jeff Garcia, Luke McCown, Trent Dilfer, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Ken Dorsey, Bruce Gradkowski, Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Colt McCoy and Brandon Weeden.

The Browns are hoping Weeden, a first-round pick in 2012, is a franchise quarterback. Five games into his rookie season, it's hard to tell if he's the quarterback who can turn this team around or if he's another version of Derek Anderson. Meanwhile, Robert Griffin III, who was pursued by the Browns prior to the draft, already has won two games for a Redskins team that only won five last season.

Determining who is the right quarterback going forward is the most important decision facing soon-to-be Browns owner Jimmy Haslam. It's bigger than team president, general manager or coach.

The Browns (0-5) are the NFL's only winless team and haven't celebrated a victory in 325 days. But Cleveland isn't as much of a lost cause as many think. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Browns have the smallest margin of defeat (7.3 points) during an 11-game losing streak in NFL history.

One or two plays could have Browns in a different position right now. But it's been one or two errors by Weeden that have cost the Browns this season. Weeden had an interception returned for a touchdown in a seven-point loss at Baltimore on Sept. 27. He threw two interceptions deep in Giants territory in a 14-point loss at New York last Sunday.

These mistakes are testing the patience of coach Pat Shurmur.

“I don’t care if you’re a rookie, I don’t care if you’ve been in the league a long time, you don’t do that," Shurmur said after the game. "You don’t do that. I think we’ve got to get off this rookie kick, we’ve got to play ball.”

Weeden is in a tough situation. He's one of eight players on offense who is in his first or second year of starting. Shurmur's play-calling is putting him in a situation to make plays that he clearly isn't ready to make. The reason the Browns are starting Weeden right away is because he turns 29 on Sunday.

He looks the part of a franchise quarterback. He's big, strong and has an arm that can stretch the field. His 1,288 yards passing is the second most in NFL history by a rookie in his team's first five games (Cam Newton had 1,610 yards).

But Weeden is tied for the league lead with nine interceptions. He's averaging nearly two per game and is on pace to finish the season with 29. That won't win games.

"I'm just ticked off," Weeden said. "I don't like being 0-5. We all had a part in it, but I feel like I had a big part in it. I've got to change something. I've got to do something to give this team a chance to win."

Weeden isn't the only one at fault for the losing. You can blame president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert for not overspending on free-agent wide receivers even though the Browns had plenty of cap room to do so. Outside of Josh Gordon's two touchdowns Sunday, Weeden hasn't had a consistent playmaker at receiver.

You can blame Joe Haden, the Browns' top cornerback who served a four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances. Cleveland's pass defense ranks 26th in the league and has given up 12 touchdowns (only the Redskins have allowed more).

You can blame it on injuries. The Browns have been without two starters on defense this season (defensive tackle Phil Taylor and outside linebacker Chris Gocong). On Sunday, middle linebacker D'Qwell Jackson left in the second quarter with a concussion, and cornerback Dimitri Patterson suffered an ankle injury on the second-half kickoff. Defensive tackle Ahtyba Rubin also left the locker room in a walking boot.

Heck, you can even blame LeBron James. Since he took his talents to South Beach, the Browns are tied for the worst record in the NFL (9-28) with the Carolina Panthers.

In other words, there's a lot of factors in why the Browns have become an exception in a league built for parity. Will the Browns go winless this season? There are a handful of games left on the schedule that the Browns can win, and they have a shot at ending their streak Sunday against a Bengals team that was beaten by the Dolphins on Sunday.

The bigger question is this: What happens if the Browns finish with the worst record in the NFL? The Browns will once again be faced with a decision at quarterback. Does Haslam and his regime stick with Weeden, or do they draft someone like West Virginia's Geno Smith? The Browns can't afford to make the wrong choice like they did in 2004.