The Cleveland Browns have the first pick. Now what?
Well Cleveland, here we are again. #1 pick in the draft. You’ve cancelled the parade and waved the banners and now you’re back, with yet another high draft pick and the speculation that will no doubt surround you over the next two months as we all wait patiently for you to make yet another franchise-changing draft pick.
More importantly, you’re here in spite of landing a high-ceiling free agent quarterback, having a dynamite running duo in the backfield, and a revelation at receiver. You still sit as the worst team in the league behind a 49ers team that have really worked hard to show that THEY are the worst team in the league. But, 2 wins are 2 wins and 1 win is 1. The Browns Empire of Dirt still stands and you have secured yet another #1 draft pick in the ugliest way of recent memory for Cleveland.
There is a silver lining though. History has shown us that when teams suck this hard, better times tend to be on the horizon. Today, we’ll be analyzing some horrific seasons and their future implications and what these examples could possibly mean for the Browns Rebuild Ver. 377.
1976 Tampa Bay Buccaneers (0-14)
The ’76 Bucs are an interesting bunch. They were the first team in the Super Bowl era to lose every single game of their season, but they also have the added note of this season being their franchise’s first EVER season.
The Bucs put together a ragtag team full of nobodies and seemed doomed from the get-go. However, that made them shoe-ins for the number one pick. Tampa went with Ricky Bell, a USC product and highly touted runner/blocker hybrid. The man could play both running back and fullback (which he did at USC) and was instrumental in the school’s recently won National Championship against the Ohio State Buckeyes. Bell seemed like a no-brainer pick. However, Tampa did not end up striking gold with Bell.
Turns out, out of the two running backs who went #1 and #2 overall, Dallas scored the big baller by drafting Tony Dorsett, a future Hall of Famer. Now, I’m not going to sit here and rag on the legacy of a talented runner who died far too young from a terrible disease which no doubt cut short an incredible life and a potentially amazing career. For statistical purposes, here’s what I can say about the Bell in 1977: He was the team’s leading rusher with 436 yards. Which doesn’t sound like a lot, because it isn’t.
The Bucs still stunk in ’77. But they did have a high enough draft pick to secure a pure defensive game changer: Linebacker Dave Lewis; another Trojan. The 1977 Buccaneers won 2 games, which once again secured them the #1 pick, but this time they traded it to the Houston Oilers. For our younger readers, that’s who the Tennessee Titans used to be before relocation and rebranding, and they had the best blue uniforms in NFL history.
The Oilers used the #1 pick on Texas Running Back and another future Hall of Famer Earl Campbell, meaning once again Tampa missed the boat on locking up the running back position. “So when do they turn it around?” You might ask. Well, I’ll tell you: that pick they traded with Houston landed them the 17th overall pick which they used to draft Doug Williams.
If you find yourself asking “who” in regards to Doug Williams, shame on you! Williams, as a quarterback, is currently in TWO teams Rings of Honor, became a Super Bowl MVP (the first black quarterback to win the Super Bowl, I might add), and would lead Tampa Bay out of the desert of mediocrity. 1978 goes a lot better for Tampa.
Ricky Bell rushes for 6 TDs his sophomore season and adds 200 more yards to his season total. Williams only plays 10 games in the NFL’s first ever 16 game season, going 4-6 in those games and leading Tampa to a 5-11 record. That doesn’t sound great, but it was also a franchise record for wins at that point, making Doug Williams the winningest quarterback in Tampa’s short history.
1979 is where Tampa really starts taking off: Williams improves his completion percentage, Ricky Bell has his first 1,000+ yard season, and the Bucs go 10-6 and win the NFC Central division, earning the team’s first trip to the playoffs ever. In those playoffs, the Bucs weren’t some one-and-done squad who got lucky, Tampa went all the way to the Conference Championship, where they were silenced by the Los Angeles Rams.
1980 was a wash for Tampa, but they rallied back in ’81 and ’82 with returning playoff trips. In 1983, however, Tampa tanks all over again. Brace yourselves to get rationally angry. See, when Williams was in the league, he was the only starting African-American quarterback. He had dragged a team out of the basement, led that team to the playoffs in 3/5 seasons, and posed a real threat to one day lead that team to a Super Bowl. At the end of 1982, William’s contract was up in Tampa and he was making a pathetic $120,000 a year.
Now before you cry out “that’s just how the league was in the early years” let me just say that that salary was not only the lowest salary for a starting quarterback in the NFL at that time, but Williams was also making less money than twelve backup quarterbacks during that time. That doesn’t sound right, does it? Imagine if Cam Newton, a quarterback who has led his team to the playoffs 3/5 years, was making less money than all 31 of his fellow starters (which would include the likes of Jared Goff, Colin Kaepernick, and whatever corpse the Jets send out) WHILE ALSO making less money that 12 backup quarterbacks? That’d be insane.
So, Williams very rightfully asked for a raise. A raise to the tune of $600,000. On top of that, the Bucs coach John McKay was ALSO demanding that the team pay Williams what he asked for, but the owner of the team was not willing to budge from his initial offer of $400,000. Oh, and did we mention that this was all happening just a few months after William’s wife died of a brain tumor? Seriously, Bucs fans have a million reasons to hate Hugh Culverhouse.
Williams not only left the team, he left the league entirely to play for the USFL’s Oakland Outlaws. When that league shut down in 1986, Williams was signed by the Washington Redskins. He would lead that team to win Super Bowl XXII and the Bucs would lose at least 10 games every year and miss the playoffs all the way until 1997.
What We Can Learn About From the ’76 Buccaneers
- Have patience with a coach. We discussed this team over a period of 6 years. John McKay coached that team the entire time. McKay worked wonders as an offensive mentor, he just needed to add talent he could work with. Bell and Williams had shaky starts and McKay pulled the best out of them.
- Establish culture. Williams was described as the “heart and soul” of the team because he truly believed he could win. Even when the team was pulling in 5 wins, Tampa never believed they weren’t the best.
- Pay Doug Williams. Cleveland, I know you don’t have a game changer at quarterback right now, but when you do and you taste the playoffs for the first time since 2002, pay that man.
1997 Indianapolis Colts (3-13)
You could make an argument for a lot of historical Colts teams. The Colts whole schtick was having brief moments of greatness followed years of mediocrity. Starting in 1972, the Colts would tank for 3 seasons but then make the playoffs over the next 3 seasons. In each of those playoff games, however, they’d lose in the divisional round – twice to the same team even! Following those 3 playoff berths, the Colts from 1978-1986 don’t even have a winning season, even failing to win a single game in 1982.
But then things look up again in ’87 as Indy makes it back into the playoffs…and loses to the Browns in the divisional round. Two more mediocre seasons preceed 4 really bad seasons, but they pick up Marshall Faulk in ’94 and are back in the playoffs in 1995 under CBPOY Jim Harbaugh at quarterback where the team gets beat out in the conference championship. They go back to the playoffs in ’96…and that brings us to 1997. The end of the Indianapolis Roller Coaster.
After two straight playoff seasons, the Colts horrendously tank in 1997. The team, as mentioned above, goes 3-13. After this season, the quarterback room got blown up. Jim Harbaugh got shipped off to Baltimore, Paul Justin’s “career” fizzled out, Kelly Holcomb goes to be a permanent Cleveland backup, and Lamont Warren gets sent to practice squad purgatory. One thing was certain, the Colts were bad on an epic scale. They needed a quarterback, but that wasn’t even the beginning or end of their problems.
We all know that in 1998, Indy famously drafted Tennessee Volunteer Peyton Manning over the WSU Cougar Ryan Leaf, and Manning would eventually find himself in the conversation for greatest quarterback of all time. Manning got the Colts to 11 playoffs, won a Super Bowl, and, upon his retirement, had shattered the NFL records for games won, most touchdown passes in a career AND season, and most yards thrown for. He’s guaranteed a spot in Canton the minute he becomes eligible for that honor. But drafting Manning was not a formula for instant success. In fact, if Manning was drafted this year and played the way he did in ’98, you’d be calling for his job and insisting Indy start looking elsewhere for a quarterback.
In 1998, the Colts once again went 3-13 and Peyton Manning broke his very first record: most interceptions in a rookie season. Manning threw more interceptions than touchdowns which is astounding because Manning threw for 26 touchdowns. He threw for 28 interceptions, a record that has never been broken and may ever be broken by a rookie. However, Manning was an absolute beast in other areas. Peyton revolutionized the passing game by making it cerebral and it starts in his rookie season with a 3,739 passing yard season coupled with a 56.7% completion rating. No, the problems like I said didn’t end with Manning at quarterback. The Colts were hot garbage in other areas as well. Like defense.
The Colts parted ways with Marshall Faulk in 1998 despite having a season where he ran for 1,319 yards in ’98. To replace him, the Colts used the 4th overall pick to take Edgerrin James. The Colts would use 4 of their remaining 6 picks to bulk up their defense. In 1999, the Colts would reverse their previous record with a 13-3 season. They’d do it again in 2000, but 2001 led to a disappointing 6-10 despite a transcendental passing year from Peyton. Naturally, the Colts fired coach Jim Mora in favor of Tony Dungy and the Colts would fail to miss the playoffs again until Peyton’s season ending neck injury. But even that didn’t spell the end for the Colts. After Peyton walked and Indy’s weaknesses became massively exposed, the Colts were able to draft surefire star pick Andrew Luck, who gives Indy a chance every year.
What We Can Learn From the ’97 Colts
- Sometimes you gotta trust the scouts. Cleveland could really use this as they have a tendency to draft the “high ceiling, low floor” type of quarterback. (See: every QB they’ve drafted since 1999.) Manning was a universal slam dunk pick with Leaf being a wild card.
- If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. It’s easy to look at a losing season and want to abandon everything and start over, but the Colts trusted Mora through the 3-13 seasons, they trusted Manning after the interceptions, and now they’re considered a playoff threat every year.
- Sometimes the answer is in a less public spot. Get your quarterback, sure, but what if you lose because the team scores more points and what if they score more points because your defense blows?
2008 Detroit Lions (0-16)
And then there’s the losingest team in NFL history: The 2008 Lions. I’ve talked at length about this particular squad before, so instead of focusing on what led to or caused the 2008 season, let’s focus instead on what the aftermath of the decision was.
In 2009, the Lions obviously secured the #1 pick and used that on Georgia’s rocket-armed quarterback, Matthew Stafford. What’s happened since that pick has been a mixed bag of disappointment with the occasional happy moment. Matt went on to start in 10 games for Detroit, going 2-8 in those games, meaning the Lions ended with a 2-14 record. I know, stellar improvement, but it’s the exact same rate of success the ’77 Bucs had!
2010 didn’t go over well either with Stafford getting injured after just 3 games, but the Lions did see an increase of games won by a whopping 4 games! Going 6-10 and snagging 3rd place out from under the Vikings noses. BUT the Lions finally did something they’d had failed to do in the 21st century and for long chunks of the 20th century: they made the playoffs. Sneaking in as a wild card with a 10-6 record and Stafford rocking a shiny new CPOY award, the Lions went on to get stomped by the Saints in the playoffs.
But the Lions would soon crash back to Earth, having their next two seasons ending with 4-12 and 7-9 records no matter what juggernauts they added to their offense and defense. The Lions weren’t heavy participants in free agency during this time frame, instead adding big talents in the draft that made mild to no impact on the Lions. In 2014, the Lions cut ties with head coach Jim Schwartz and hired instead former Colts head coach and recent Super Bowl winning offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell.
The impact was immediate; in three years under Caldwell, the Lions have now gone to the playoffs twice (both times as wild cards) and Matthew Stafford’s offense have flourished thanks to some aggressive free agency finds at wide receiver and allow Matt to use his insane arm strength. The promoting of Jim Bob Cooter to OC hasn’t hurt either. The Lions are a run game and a cleaner defense away from taking a shot at the ever loosening NFC North crown and may even see their first Super Bowl before a lot of us are dead.
What we can learn from the ’08 Lions
- Sometimes it’s the coach. Schwartz’s track record and immediate fall from grace were enough to justify a new direction, which — congrats Cleveland — you’ve already done!
- Trust the good quarterback. We’ve hit this a lot, but new quarterbacks need time and they need weapons. Stafford has been the starter for 8 years and it’s finally starting to work out for Detroit, as he’s becoming one of the premier gunslingers in the league.
- You can’t expect immediate success. The Lions have been very patient and still have hurdles to climb.
By now, Cleveland, you should be noticing a pretty steady formula: Trust your scouts, trust your quarterbacks, stick with the winning coach, don’t jump the gun too early. Should you hit another high draft pick after this season, it may not be time to explode things right away. Let’s analyze where you are now and what we can do about things:
Your quarterback room
Believe it or not, you don’t have a terrible quarterback problem. I mean, you do, but it’s not as bad as it could be. Robert Griffin III is deserving of one more year as your starter for three reasons:
- Get a acclimated to Hue Jackson’s style and to be given a chance under it.
- See if he can actually remain healthy for at least most of a season.
- Buy some time and avoid this draft class.
RG3 might not be the answer of the future, but you’ve already got a young quarterback with some promise you could spend at least a little more time working with. Plus, socuts have mixed feelings on this quarterback class and appear like a crew of redshirts. You can’t afford redshirts right now. 2017 appears to be preparing itself to have a bounty of starters. Just hang tight.
Your high free agency ceiling
Guys, you have a borderline obscene amount of cap space. Like, my God. Use it to your advantage. And I do NOT mean chase after the likes of Romo or Cutler or any other wayward quarterback who may limp into your facility. I’m talking defense, baby. Here’s a few sexy tastes at you could take a bite at: Jason Pierre-Paul, Mario Williams, DeMarcus Ware, Julius Peppers, Morris Claiborne, Sam Shields, and so many more! In fact, those 6 players all fit in your cap space if you take them at base value. It’s a good year to need defenders in free agency.
Don’t fire Hue Jackson if you lose more than 10 games
A good coach needs a good team to do what he needs to do. Jackson spoke highly of RG3, so let him work with him. He successfully converted Terrelle Pryor to a wide receiver. He got Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson to have the 19th best rushing attack in the league, which I knows sounds low, but with your win-loss record, you really should have been toward the bottom of rushing. Hue can do great things with some more offensive weapons and patience. And consider this: you actually have players not named Joe Thomas who WANT to stay in Cleveland in Pryor and Jamie Collins. Let’s roll with Hue for a few years. Let him build what he needs to build.
Should you follow the examples of failures past, you too could finally find yourself tasting sweet playoff glory. Maybe even more.