Coming off a dismal 4-12 season, their eighth in nine years of at least 10 losses, rookie running back Trent Richardson, left, and the Browns enter 2012 with high hopes and low expectations. The Browns open the season Sunday at home against the Philadelphia Eagles.
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If there was a brass plaque on the front door it would say, "Cleveland Browns, Proudly Rebuilding Since 1999."
When will it all end?
Well, not in 2012, not in the talented AFC Central Division. But at least and at last some pieces appear to be in place.
The Browns have long been anemic on offense. Since the franchise returned 13 seasons ago, Cleveland has finished among the NFL's bottom five in scoring 10 times.
The last four years have been particularly awful and after Colt McCoy proved more bust than boon as the starting quarterback in 2011 the front office rolled the dice on 28-year-old rookie Brandon Weeden to join running back Trent Richardson as first-round draft picks.
The preseason turned out to be rehab time for Richardson, who had knee surgery and is due back in the next week or so, and a slow-motion shakedown for Weeden. His protection has been spotty and he seems sweaty under pressure, a not-promising combination. Ready or not, the newcomers will be flipped out of the pan and into the fire as the regular season starts.
Another rookie, Josh Gordon, could be the play maker the Browns badly need, but the rest of the receiving corps is lackluster with Greg Little as a No. 1 target. Speaking of rookies, 15 showed up on the opening-season roster. Wow. But maybe new blood will be a positive. The old just made fans' blood boil.
Cleveland's defense must do a better job against the run, especially with a linebacking corps stripped by injury (Chris Gocong) and suspension (Scott Fujita). The secondary, meanwhile, is aggressive and good, sparked by corner Joe Haden and safety T.J. Ward.
If Richardson is everything he was on the college level, and he can shake off the rust of a no-hit preseason, he is the kind of workhorse running back who could move the chains and keep the Browns in games while Weeden and his receivers mesh.
But the division is very good and very defensive. At some point the Browns have to find a way to get over the hump.
Meanwhile, a new owner is waiting in the on-deck circle and the brass, from president Mike Holmgren to general manager Tom Heckert to coach Pat Shurmur, must be looking over their shoulders. It can't be a comfortable situation.
The Browns closed last season with six straight losses to go 4-12. Anything better in 2012 could be cause for celebration.
■ Quarterback Andy Dalton had a fine rookie season in Cincinnati, leading a revival from 4-12 to 9-7, and could be even better with more of a deep game centered on receiver A.J. Green. But the record was if not a lie at least a fib. The Bengals were 9-0 against teams that did not make the playoffs and 0-7 against teams that did. Then they were ripped in a quick-out playoff game against Houston.
If the Bengals don't beat the good teams, namely going 0-4 again against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, they won't make the playoffs this time. That's why their Monday night opener at Baltimore may be the biggest game of Week 1.
■ Arguably, Houston was the best team in football on both sides of the ball through 12 games last season before losing two quarterbacks, including starter Matt Schaub, and a star receiver. I like a healthy Texans team to run the table into the Super Bowl this time, although an AFC title game against New England could be a dandy.
■ The aforementioned Patriots struggled in the preseason forging a new offensive line. Heck, all of the AFC East struggled. The teams combined for a 1-15 exhibition record. New England will recover. The New York Jets, however, will not. The Sanchez-Tebow situation has split the locker room and the Jets can't score.
■ Baltimore's defense may take a step back this year with Ray Lewis and Ed Reed getting long in tooth and Terrell Suggs sidelined for at least a while with an Achilles injury. Here's a shocker - the Ravens' offense may be good enough to carry the load and repeat as Central Division champion.
■ Denver made the playoffs last year without a quarterback, so to speak, and now has added one of the best in the game's history, so liking the Broncos as a playoff team again is a no-brainer. But everyone will hold their breath every time Peyton Manning is thrown to the ground. I've got a hunch Denver won't win its division and that any playoff march will be a short one.
■ There are sure-thing picks and there are trendy picks. In a matter of seconds, you'll see I picked Pittsburgh over Buffalo as the last AFC wild-card team. But if the Bills' pass rush is as good as advertised and the 119 points Buffalo surrendered in the preseason was an aberration, and if the Steelers are as banged up as advertised, a flip-flop may be in order.
■ Three first-round QB draft picks will start for AFC teams - Andrew Luck in Indianapolis, Ryan Tannehill in Miami, and Weeden in Cleveland - but none will appear in the playoffs.
■ The hottest AFC coaching seats - Rex Ryan, Jets; Norv Turner, Chargers; Shurmur, Browns.
■ East: 1. Patriots; 2. Bills; 3. Jets; 4. Dolphins.
■ South: 1. Texans; 2. Titans; 3. Colts; 4. Jaguars.
■ North: 1. Ravens; 2. Steelers; 3. Bengals; 4. Browns.
■ West: 1. Chargers; 2. Broncos; 3. Chiefs; 4. Raiders.
■ Wild-card teams: Broncos, Steelers.
■ AFC champion: Texans.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6398.
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