Cleveland Browns 2014 Season Review: Good Start, Terrible Finish

The Browns started fast record wise, but their 7-4 start masked weaknesses that were displayed down the stretch.

Let me preface this Cleveland Browns season in review with a quick monologue. I grew up in Cleveland and, as a child, saw the team lose in every manner possible even when they were on the cusp of going to the Super Bowl. Then the team was taken away when I was in college and I turned my football focus to fantasy, figuring I liked statistics and football (after all, I don't write for a website called PoetryFire), so fantasy football is where I naturally belonged.

In 1999, the Browns made their NFL return and I was left with figuring out how to balance my allegiance to them with my new love of watching and tracking my fantasy football players. Since then, I've made the same vow Week 1 of every year: I will watch the Browns until I deem them "unwatchable", and then start flipping games to see how my fantasy teams are doing.

My eternal hope is that I'm rarely changing the channel because the Browns have an engaging and dynamic team, even if they aren't winning. I typically make it through a quarter or two of the first game before they start spiraling downward. Then, my fantasy team tracking begins.

After an inauspicious start in the 2014 season opener where I flipped the channel as Antonio Brown was drop-kicking the Browns punter and my fantasy team at the same time, I found myself liking the makeup of this team and their "never say die" attitude. I deemed them "watchable" and they started winning some games.

This included a 31-10 dominant performance against the Pittsburgh Steelers in Week 6 after coming back from an NFL-record 25-point deficit in Week 5 in Tennessee to win 29-28. After a Thursday night domination of the Cincinnati Bengals, the Browns found themselves in first place at 6-3 with the added optimism of Josh Gordon coming back from suspension for the stretch run as well.

And then everything caught up with them all at once: poor quarterback play, injuries, an inability to run the ball and suspect run defense resulted in losing their final five games and engaging a full-on quarterback controversy between incumbent Brian Hoyer and rookie Johnny Manziel. This ended badly, and continues to unravel into February.

When the Browns Were Humming

Before the injury to All-Pro Center Alex Mack, who had never missed an NFL game prior to breaking his leg in a Week 6 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Browns were running the ball very effectively, as the seventh-best rushing attack in the NFL according to our Net Expected Points (NEP) metrics.

The three-headed monster of rookies Isaiah Crowell, Terrance West and free-agent signee Ben Tate was performing well to that point, and the team even rushed for 150-plus yards and 3 touchdowns against the Steelers in the game where Alex Mack was injured.

Brian Hoyer's start to the season validated new head coach Mike Pettine's decision to play him through this point in the season. Through six weeks of the season, Hoyer's Passing NEP of 40.00 ranked 10th among starting quarterbacks and his Passing NEP per drop back of 0.25 ranked 5th. With a below-average group of wide receivers, the Browns were effectively using timing patterns and an occasional deep ball to overcome Gordon being out.

Through six weeks, the Browns offense was good.

On the defensive side of the ball throughout the entire season, Cleveland was opportunistic and did some things very well in 2014. Their Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP of 4.43 ranked sixth among all NFL teams and the team lead the AFC in interceptions with 21. Their young secondary led by safety Tashaun Gipson and Joe Haden will be one to watch in the coming years.

Crash and Burn

By the end of the season -- and remember, through Week 6, the Browns were a top-10 running team -- Cleveland had lost Ben Tate and were the worst rushing team in the NFL.

Furthermore, Hoyer was starting to show signs of hitting a wall even when the team was eking out home wins against league doormats like Tampa Bay and Oakland. In the three immediate games following Mack's injury, Hoyer's Passing NEP and Passing NEP per drop back was -7.94 and -0.07, respectively, which is value destroying. Unfortunately, it got even worse for Hoyer, and the wins masked that the Browns were winning in spite of Hoyer, not because of him.

Down the stretch with Gordon back, Hoyer was forcing the ball to his number-one target, and it showed. In the three games they played together before Hoyer was benched in favor of Manziel, Hoyer had a Passing NEP of -13.06 and a Passing NEP per drop back of -0.09, including huge turnovers in a game against the Colts where the Browns led 21-7 in the third quarter behind two defensive touchdowns.

As we all know, Manziel was even worse, and the Browns essentially got knocked out of playoff contention in an embarrassing Week 15 home loss to the Bengals, 30-0. In that game, Manziel looked more than ill-prepared to run an NFL offense.

Additionally, the defense experienced significant injuries down the stretch, including one to Gipson, Phil Taylor and key free-agent linebacker signee Karlos Dansby. This led to an inability to stop the run in an AFC North that features some of the best young running backs in the league -- the Browns ranked 25th in Adjusted Defensive Rushing NEP this season.

The Aftermath: What's Next for the Browns?

The Browns were watchable through most of the season, and a 7-9 finish was probably better than most predicted. However, when you combine a year-long suspension for Gordon with Manziel's rehab, the mumbling about the same old Browns comes to the forefront.

The team is one of the youngest in the league. Getting Mack back should help boost the running game that features youngsters Crowell and West. By virtue of trading down with Buffalo in 2014 in the Sammy Watkins deal, the Browns own the 12th and 19th picks in the first round this year as well.

With the loss of Gordon to yet another suspension, the Browns should ideally pick a physically dominant receiver with one of their two first rounders (perhaps DeVante Parker). They'll also let oft-concussed tight end Jordan Cameron walk in free agency, driving up the need for a pass-catcher in a shallow offense.

With the timing of Manziel returning from rehab up in the air, the Browns may bring back Hoyer to compete for the starting job if the price is right, as the free agent quarterback market is significantly depressed. Additionally, the top draft quarterback prospects won't make it down to their first pick, and the front office may not be ready to admit a potential mistake or write off Manziel yet. Either way, after many years of trading picks away and trading down, the Browns need to hit a home run with their first rounders to placate their restless fan base and improve their team.

Getting help in stuffing the run is another huge offseason priority for the Browns, who have significant cap space available per In fact, the Browns have the third-most space available (approximately $49.3 million available) of all teams. While Cleveland isn't necessarily a free agent destination, the Browns should be able to get some help on the defensive side of the ball to stop the run in the AFC North and could possibly afford the huge contract of Ndamukong Suh if he is chasing paper.

While the team is heading in the right direction record-wise, it's critical that the Browns move quickly and decisively to deal with their offseason setbacks and figure out their quarterback situation first and foremost for 2015. Then, they'll have to make some other moves to bring the talent level up further to turn "watchable" into "AFC North contender" in a year that the division has to play both the AFC and NFC West divisions.