Sunday, July 22, 2012

The 2011 Cleveland Browns, a 1985 redux?

To me, NFL training camp is one of the most enjoyable occasions in pro sports. It is a time when otherwise inaccessible football players are accessible. It is when you can sit (or stand) with die-hard football fans in the scorching summer sun in Berea, dissect the repetitions of players and pretend to be a coach for a day.

It is also a time when all optimism is justified. And, yes, that even applies in Berea.

One only needs to look at last year to know that anything can and does happen in the NFL. Philadelphia fans were ready to book hotel rooms in August for the Super Bowl, only to see their star-studded Eagles finish 8-8. Meanwhile, some Cincinnati fans were discussing last August, before another expected losing season, whether they should select Andrew Luck or Robert Griffin III in the 2012 draft. Instead, their young team made the playoffs.

So each summer I remember what it was like to be a naive young guy in high school and college in the 1980s, with a reverence for pro football players for their athletic abilities. I also revered the NFL in bringing us their refined performances. After 30 years of labor disputes, franchise free agency and just growing more cynical with age, I've lost much of that unbridled optimism.

Except during training camp.

And this year, I feel something I haven't felt in nearly 30 years. The summer of 1985 was a remarkable time for the Browns -- and me. I was leaving home for the first time to live off-campus at Kent State University so I could start my own life. That excitement was heightened by off-field moves made by the Browns that summer and by the anticipation of coming seasons.

The Browns aggressively traded college draft picks the year before to acquire more high-round choices in a special supplemental draft of players in the United States Football League. They also aggressively picked up the contracts of several other USFL players. In all, the Browns acquired defensive lineman Sam Clancy (10-year NFL career), offensive lineman Dan Fike (11-year NFL career), punter Jeff Gossett (1 pro bowl), cornerback Mark Harper (7-year NFL career), linebacker Mike Johnson (2-time pro bowler), running back Kevin Mack (2-time pro bowler), wide receiver and returner Gerald "The Ice Cube" McNeil (1 pro bowl), and cornerback Frank Minnifield (4-time pro bowler). Their only USFL pickup who didn't work out was linebacker Doug West. He never played in the NFL.

Then another supplemental draft was held, this time in the summer of 1985. The reasons for that draft are too complicated to describe here, but the Browns traded future draft choices (including two first-rounders) to select quarterback Bernie Kosar. Also a former baseball pitching prospect, the Boardman, OH native wanted to play for his hometown Browns, making him an immediate fan favorite. Indeed, like other Cleveland fans, I couldn't wait for the 1985 season to start. The national publications weren't so optimistic, however.

"They were No. 2 in the NFL in defense last year and still finished at 5-11," wrote Paul Zimmerman in his 1985 NFL season preview in Sports Illustrated. "The offense was nowhere. Once you got by Ozzie Newsome, the AFC's top pass catcher, the next-highest Brown receiver ranked 78th in the league. ...The Browns' schedule is too vicious, the offense too unsettled for there to be much improvement, but at least the team is showing some smarts."

That team went 8-8 in a then-weak AFC Central Division, which the Browns won. It started a five-year streak of playoff seasons. The city went Browns crazy, with Browns songs on the radio, downtown statues decorated in Browns clothing, the "Dawgs" became a household name here and otherwise sane people ate dog biscuits to cheers of family and friends. My family often held Browns game-day parties and every Sunday morning in the fall felt like Christmas morning to me.

And then it all ended.

Bad drafts and trades, the franchise leaving for Baltimore only to win a Super Bowl there, and only three winning seasons since 1989 have eroded enthusiasm for the Browns' by me, my family and apparently the entire city.

Except during training camp.

Each summer takes my memories back to 1985. But this year's training camp has some meaningful similarities with that watershed year. The Sports Illustrated article quoted above contains several examples... The 2011 Browns finished 4-12 despite having the NFL's 10th-ranked defense, similar to the 1984 team. The Browns' offense, especially its receiving corps, was anemic in 2011 as it was in 1984. Also the Browns' 1985 schedule was predicted to be difficult, as is 2012's.

Also similar is the fact that nearly everyone around the league is overlooking the Browns this year, including in our own division. A search of media websites in any of our three rival cities -- Baltimore, Cincinnati or Pittsburgh -- shows little if any reporting on the Browns' off-season aggressiveness in procuring talented players. Only former Browns hall-of-fame tight end Newsome, now Baltimore Ravens general manager, seemed to pay much attention.

“You start with Cleveland, anytime you can get a running back, it shortens the game," said Newsome in a post-draft news conference. "And them getting a guy like Trent [Richardson] and then getting a quarterback -- but not only a quarterback -- a quarterback that has some maturity, I think that learning curve may be a lot shorter with him. So, they did a good job."

The quarterback, former baseball pitching prospect Brandon Weeden, joins the incredibly talented Richardson, fast/big wideout Josh Gordon, speedy receiver/returner Travis Benjamin, "plug-and-play" offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz, rangy linebacker James-Michael Johnson (no relation to 1980s Mike Johnson!) and more. All were aggressively sought by the Browns to fill voids on offense by making trades, drafting players ahead of projections, and even taking part in a supplemental draft -- the first time for the Browns in a long time since when? You guessed it, 1985.

I don't make predictions because I don't pretend to see into the future. But I can tell you what's in the past. And if the example of 1985 is any indication, then this year will be a season of hope for long-suffering Browns fans like me. If the parallels hold true, that also means that the following year of 2013, like 1986, could be a breakout year (as long as it doesn't end the same way, with a broken heart on the doorsteps of the Super Bowl).

Our promising rookies this year will get NFL experience to apply in 2013, hopefully enough to realize that size and speed aren't enough to excel in the pros. Next year, I hope we will add more firepower in the draft and hopefully through free agency, what with all the salary cap space the Browns offer.

Admittedly, that's a lot of hoping. But that's what training camp does for me. My fellow Browns fans, it's OK to join me in hoping. This year, maybe for the first time since 1985, we are seeing the start of something that can be special for years to come.

I hope.