Season grade: Below average. Is there a limit for catastrophe? The Browns followed the worst season in team history (1-15 in 2016) with a more miserable experience, for fans and the team. The only good thing the Browns can say after finishing winless: It can’t get worse. At least they hope it can’t.
Season in review: This team followed the path set by former VP of football operations Sashi Brown — tear it down and point to 2018. Brown got five draft picks in the first two rounds in the upcoming draft, but the on-field misery means he won’t be around to make the picks. John Dorsey instead took over as general manager in early December, and it will fall on Dorsey to conduct the latest of many quarterback searches. The good news: Dorsey is a protege of Ron Wolf, who was with Tampa Bay when the Bucs lost 26 in a row but who went on to build the Packers into a perennial playoff team. Dorsey learned the importance of the quarterback position, and he will have a chance to mold the Browns behind both a young quarterback taken in the draft and a veteran signed as a free agent or acquired via trade in the offseason.
Biggest play(s) of the season: In the scheme of things it seems insignificant, but the Browns’ best chances for their only win were blown up by mistakes. In overtime against Green Bay, Josh Gordon could not get into a route, which led to DeShone Kizer throwing an ill-advised pass that was intercepted. Against Chicago, Myles Garrett appeared to give the Browns a 10-6 lead early in the second half with an interception return for a touchdown. But defensive end Carl Nassib lined up offside, negating the TD, and the Browns fell apart. Both plays symbolize the edge the Browns walked all season, and how they were never good enough to overcome any pratfalls.
He said it: “Who’s going to jump in the lake with me?” — coach Hue Jackson on his vow after the 2016 season that if the Browns repeated the struggles people would find him swimming in the lake. Jackson will make good on his vow to jump in Lake Erie, and use it as an opportunity to help his foundation, which is building housing for the victims of human trafficking.
Key offseason questions
Biggest draft need: Same as it ever was — quarterback. Kizer works and cares, but his completion percentage and penchant for turnovers mean the Browns have to look to the draft for a quarterback. Dorsey admits it’s a quarterback-driven league; it’s past time the Browns treat the position that way.
Free-agency targets: Several positions come to mind, most notably receiver. The Browns have glaring needs there, with even their “best” players (Gordon, Corey Coleman) ending the season with question marks. This might be a position that needs to be completely rebuilt, so the Browns could look to add a couple of veterans (Terrelle Pryor Sr., Allen Robinson?) and draft a couple of players as well.
What of Josh Gordon? Gordon had limited impact after being reinstated for the final two games. The Browns now have to decide if they want Gordon to be part of their future, and if they can depend on him. Gordon had plays when he looked good, but he also had lengthy quiet moments when he looked like he did the last time he returned from suspension at the end of the 2014 season — which is to say lifeless and disinterested. He has enough ability to command a conditional draft pick in a trade — the question is how high and if it’s worth the risk of him returning to his 2013 form with another team. This will be one of Dorsey’s most interesting decisions.
Follow the new leader: Owner Jimmy Haslam — the ultimate turnover machine — gave Brown less than two years on the job, and now Dorsey benefits from Brown’s work. The Browns have two first-round picks in the upcoming draft and three in the second round. Dorsey also will have more than $100 million in salary cap room. A good GM would salivate at the potential to build a team in that situation. It’s not unreasonable to think with the right additions the Browns could go from no wins to pushing .500 in 2017. It’s been done before, just not in Cleveland. It all depends on the quality of players Dorsey brings in via the draft and free agency.