Well, here we are again. The door has finally closed on the most recent Browns season. It may actually be more appropriate to say that the lid has finally been closed on the casket, but hey, semantics. 2014 ended much the same way that every season seemingly ends. The Browns strolled into one of their rival’s stadiums with their third string quarterback while nursing a massive losing streak, and proceeded to put up a valiant (pathetic) performance that came up short.
In what has become the saddest, most infuriating and depressing holiday tradition around these parts, the Browns train flew off the tracks halfway through the season and careened down the hillside in flames. The details of this particular fiery wreck were a little different than seasons past, as is normally the case, but the end result was eerily familiar. The only thing that is slightly unfamiliar to me is that I have to write about it this year for an adoring public clamoring for my thoughts on the year that was.
(Deliberate pause for everyone to get in their prolonged eye rolls)
As is the case with an NFL season, especially one involving the team that plays on the Northern edge of downtown Cleveland, there is so much that happens that trying to pack it all into one article would be borderline irresponsible. It would also eat up content that could be stretched out for a few weeks, but let’s go with the previous sentence. It sounds much better. That being said, over the next month or so I’ll be taking a look back at all things 2014 Cleveland Browns before we get to start talking about the offseason and our favorite civic past time which is, of course, the NFL Draft. Today I’ll be starting off with the positive and counting down the Cleveland Browns ten best of 2014.
10. Kyle Shanahan
We’ll start things off with the Browns young offensive coordinator. Granted, there were some issues with his offense that showed after starting center Alex Mack went down, but I have to say that I really do like his offense overall and saw a lot of positives that give me hope for the future. He’ll be getting interviews for Head Coaching jobs elsewhere, and I wouldn’t be all that surprised if he actually landed on of them, but if he comes back the Browns will have a year under their belt with him and I would be willing to bet the Browns offense improves come next season. If you look at what he did, especially early on, with some limitations at certain positions and his ability to adjust, I have to give a very positive review of Kyle Shanahan’s job in his first season with the team.
9. “Scrap Heap” Wide Receiver Acquisitions
I wasn’t exactly sure how to title this one. When I made my list for this I ended up with fourteen players and coaches that I wanted to mention. Unfortunately, a top fourteen list doesn’t quite have the ring to it that a top ten list does, so I had to make some edits. The first of those was combining three guys that I thought clearly needed to be mentioned into one item. Those guys, in no particular order, are Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, and Miles Austin. These three were each acquired through different ways and all made their mark at a position that was thought to be among the worst on the team.
To be clear, none of these receivers will be mistaken for an elite player. But each of them were extremely pleasant surprises that had very good first seasons with the Browns. There were big plays made by all of them, they brought a sure handedness that we had been sorely lacking, and I would wholeheartedly support all three of them being back next season. As sad as it is, there aren’t many receivers that have played for the Browns the past decade or so that I could say any of those things about, let alone all three.
8. Karlos Dansby
One of the big offseason acquisitions for the Browns, Dansby was brought in for both his on field performance and his veteran presence in the locker room. And he exceeded all expectations that I had for both of those things. He may have been higher on this list had his season not been cut short by injury, but there is no doubt that the signing of Karlos Dansby was an incredibly important one for the development of a winning culture, and there is also no doubt that he still has something left in the tank.
7. Paul Kruger
After signing a huge free agent deal and having a disappointing first season, Kruger came back in a big way this year. He was a guy that I thought could be gone if his second season went the same way as his first, but he turned things around and was one of the better players on the defensive side of the ball throughout 2014. Kruger ended up with 11.5 sacks and he was one of the only players, if not the only, who applied consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
6. The Baby Backs
You may know them by their given names Terrance West and Isaiah Crowell, but together they were known throughout the season as the Baby Backs. And while each of them had some issues during their rookie year, they both showed enough flashes that I think we can all be satisfied with the running back position going into next season. The talent is obvious and as long they can clean up their respective problems the Browns will have a great 1-2 punch for the foreseeable future.
5. Mike Pettine
There were definitely mistakes made by the Browns rookie Head Coach, but he is someone that I have to put in this top ten. I’m positive that I will have much more on Pettine in the very near future, but for now I’ll slot him right smack in the middle of this list. There are almost certainly other coaches that we all would have liked the Browns to have hired the past few years using hindsight, but we ended up with Mike Pettine. And I have to say that I have a much better feeling in my gut regarding him than I had for all of his predecessors dating back to Butch Davis. I love his honesty, I love his relatability, and I love the type of program that he’s trying to build here. I’m only hoping that he gets the time needed to build that program.
4. Joe Thomas
Joe Thomas, Pro Bowl, All Pro. Rinse, wash, repeat. The Browns veteran left tackle caught a lot of flack for having a down season and nearing the end of his career as an elite lineman. This Browns columnist would like to tell you that that is all a steaming pile of crap. Sure, he may not have had his best season, but let’s remember that his best season ranks among the elite for the entire history of the NFL. Rumors of his demise are far, far exaggerated and we should all continue to count our lucky stars that we have him on our team. Here’s hoping that he actually gets to play in the postseason before his Hall of Fame career ends.
3. Joel Bitonio
It would make sense that the high second round draft pick that practically no one in Cleveland had ever heard of would be higher on this list than the future Hall of Famer that he played next to, right? In Browns world, of course it would. The pick of Bitonio either enraged fans because he wasn’t a wide receiver or befuddled fans because they had no clue who he was. There really wasn’t much in between, me included. I fell into the second category, but instantly fell in love with the guy after listening to his conference call after the second day of the Draft and reading up on him. And then he went out and had himself a fantastic rookie season at left guard. He’s the kind of person you want in the locker room, and judging by his first year with the Browns he’s also the kind of player you want on the field. Barring injury, you can set it in stone that he’ll be playing in some Pro Bowls and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he’s the guy who ends up taking over at left tackle when Joe Thomas calls it quits.
2. The Secondary
Again, this is kind of cheating. I had three players that definitely needed to be mentioned, and a couple others who were close to making the list. But, for the sake of not leaving out some of the others, I have combined them all and will talk about them as a unit. The Browns secondary in 2014 contained two players who made the Pro Bowl in Joe Haden and Tashaun Gipson, two steadfast veterans who played well in Buster Skrine and Donte Whitner, and a surprising undrafted rookie who was fantastic before getting hurt in K’Waun Williams.
I mainly wanted to make sure that Haden, Gipson, and Williams were mentioned, but it seems fitting for me to include the unit as a whole. Gipson had his coming out party this year, leading the league in interceptions before suffering a season ending injury, and K’Waun Williams was an incredibly pleasant surprise, vastly outplaying first round pick Justin Gilbert.
But mostly, I have to talk about Joe Haden. After a slow start that could probably be attributed to being banged up out of the gate and adjusting to the new restrictive rules for defenders, Haden played at as high a level as anyone could given the restrictions on defensive backs in today’s NFL. To put it much more simply, Joe Haden was out of this world fantastic and showed why he continues to be among the best at his position in all of the NFL. He came up with a couple of the more ridiculous pass break ups and interceptions that you’ll ever see and, as far as I can tell, continues to be a great presence in the locker room. I should probably qualify everything I write about him with the fact that he will probably go down as one of my favorite Cleveland athletes of all time, but I won’t right now because his play on the field doesn’t need any qualifiers.
1. Alex Mack
I stewed over whether the secondary or Mack should earn the number one spot on this list. After all, the secondary encompassed a half dozen players who ranged from fantastic to good, had two Pro Bowl nominations, and a myriad of other points for other players going for it. As much of a cop out as it may have been, part of me couldn’t see how anything from the 2014 Browns could top the resume of that unit.
But then there was that other part of me. The part that saw the offense in the first five games before Alex Mack went down with a season ending injury. The part that saw an offensive line, a unit, and an entire team that could impose their will on any team and dictate the tempo. The same part of me that saw a team with a new identity that could play with any team in the league, and was winning more than they were losing.
Sadly, that part of me, and all parts of me really, were slowly devastated in the weeks and months following Mack’s injury. Sure, there were some wins against bad teams and a few good performances against playoff bound squads, but for all intents and purposes the season ended when Alex Mack was carted off the field in October during the bludgeoning of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
I would never have believed that a center could have such a monumental impact on a team. Hell, I think I even wrote as much last offseason when talking about whether the Browns should keep T.J. Ward or Mack. But I have never seen an injury, aside from a quarterback, affect a team as much as Mack’s injury did to the Browns. I honestly still can’t believe how staggering the difference was. I’ll have more on this in the next few weeks, but there is not a shred of doubt in my mind that Alex Mack was the most valuable player on the Browns in 2014. There’s no way we would have ever known it had he not gotten hurt and had he stayed healthy it would have certainly been someone else.
But, unfortunately for all of us, he did get hurt. His season was ended prematurely. And the team went into a tailspin that was impressive even for the Browns. And a center who didn’t even play five games ends up atop my list of the best of the 2014 Cleveland Browns. It’s almost unbelievable.