BEREA, Ohio -- The Cleveland Browns have stumbled all over themselves in recent years, and the latest reinvention comes under the leadership of general manager Ray Farmer and coach Mike Pettine. Change has been the routine for the Browns, who have their third GM, third coach and third system in the past three years.
Adjusting to that kind of change takes time, and it would seem doubly difficult when the team's quarterbacks are inexperienced or young. Brian Hoyer has four career starts and is coming off ACL surgery, and Johnny Manziel is highly touted but still a rookie.
It has shown throughout training camp, as the offense is well behind the defense at this point. The quarterbacks mix in good plays with tough ones, and though Manziel took the first-team reps for the entire practice on Monday, neither Hoyer nor Manziel has grabbed a firm hold of the job.
Add in the uncertainty over Josh Gordon's possible season-long suspension and that the offense is still learning and adjusting to a new style of run blocking, and this could take more time than usual for the offense to jell.
The defense has shown signs of coming together, but it should because Pettine is a defensive coach. Pettine says he believes in throwing the ball and getting big plays, but at this point the Browns still appear to be a team headed toward winning by running the ball and playing defense. The only thing that could change that perception would be if one of the quarterbacks grabs a firm hold of the starting spot, which would be welcome news because it would mean that either Manziel or Hoyer was actually playing well.
Three reasons for optimism:
1. Miles Austin has stood out in his first camp with the Browns. Austin is a perfectionist and a hard worker who arrived with the reputation of being a talented guy who has trouble keeping his hamstrings healthy. So far so good on the hamstrings, and very much so far so good on the field. He's a big target who could help greatly whether Gordon is suspended or not.
2. Justin Gilbert was the first of the team’s two first-round draft picks, and he has played better every day. Gilbert is quick, aggressive and fast to the ball. He’s also not afraid to hit somebody as he showed in the team’s scrimmage when his aggressive play contributed to Charles Johnson dropping a touchdown. Gilbert's presence is vital for a defense that relies on press corners to play man to man. He also helps the defense line up in the proper order. With Gilbert and Joe Haden starting at corner, Buster Skrine and Isaiah Trufant could play inside, giving defensive coaches some good options in the secondary.
3. The defensive system Pettine employs has a track record of success with the Bills, Jets and Ravens. It’s a system based on deception, surprise and aggression. Defensive linemen and linebackers love it, and if a team has cornerbacks who can cover it can be effective. Early in camp the defense is far ahead of the offense, which probably isn't surprising. Its effectiveness could have a much larger role in the overall success of the team, because if the defense plays well it can keep the team in every game.
Three reasons for pessimism:
1. No matter how touted or celebrated a quarterback is, he still has to play. And the Browns still have uncertainty at the position. Manziel did some good things in the team's scrimmage, but he has struggled in practice, including on his first day with the starters full time. Hoyer has shown veteran awareness and the ability to read a defense, but he has not seized the job. The position that has plagued the Browns since 1999 remains a slight enigma.
2. The Browns show signs of understanding their defensive system, but the offense remains a work in progress. It’s not unexpected, but every year the Browns start anew they start behind. Kyle Shanahan's system relies on rollouts and play-action, and he requires precision from the players. Hoyer would seem to fit in that system, though he’s not great with his feet. Manziel can move and scramble, but his improvisation does not seem to fit. The Browns need to find their equilibrium with these players in this system.
3. After the first series in the first scrimmage, the Browns had neither Gordon nor Jordan Cameron on the field. Gordon was not playing because of his appeal of a failed drug test. Cameron had a shoulder issue. Those are the Browns' two biggest playmakers, and their absence highlighted a glaring concern that has shown as camp goes on: The Browns' constant rebuilding leaves them void of needed depth. Try as they might with guys such as Austin, a team can’t transition every season and build quality depth. It’s especially dicey at receiver, where the domino effect of losing Gordon or Cameron would be significant.
Rookie Joel Bitonio is a natural at left guard. He has size, strength, attitude and ability to move -- a necessity in the zone-blocking run game the Browns employ. Bitonio figures to step in immediately and perhaps be a significant contributor.
Cameron shows nothing to indicate he won't build off last season’s Pro Bowl campaign. Cameron is in excellent shape, he’s smart, runs good routes and catches the ball when thrown to him. He will get more attention this season, but he shows every positive sign.
Pettine has done a good job of taking care of left tackle Joe Thomas. Thomas is approaching 30 and, though he has never missed a snap and been in the Pro Bowl every year he has been in the league, he’s not a spry young man anymore. Pettine has given Thomas time off in the offseason and camp, both of which are smart moves.
The negative press that seemed to follow right tackle Mitchell Schwartz last season has disappeared. Pettine said there has never been competition at that spot, and Schwartz has backed up his coach by practicing well.
Undrafted rookie Willie Snead has made the best impression by far of the young players given an opportunity in a receiving corps that might need help. Snead comes from the Belle Glades, Florida, pipeline, and he competes fiercely. He has played better every day and may force his way on the roster over a veteran like Anthony Armstrong. He’s the kind of guy Farmer refers to when he says sometimes unknown guys just need an opportunity.