The title of this piece is an inside joke that some Cleveland Browns fans will understand, a joke that stems from two words often uttered by team head coach Pat Shurmur during post-game press conferences. Whether or not critics of the team or its current head coach want to admit it, the title also happens to be a factual statement. The latest victory for the now 5-8 Browns, a 30-7 victory over the lowly Kansas City Chiefs, is hardly a reason to plan for a future parade, but the continued improvement of this young football team cannot be ignored, not even by those who want the Browns to acquire a new head coach this coming January.
One could easily argue that the Browns are the best five-win team in the league right now, first by simply pointing out that Cleveland’s record should be better. They were a dropped interception away from beating the Philadelphia Eagles in the season opener, one pick-six away from potentially upsetting the Ravens at Baltimore, one dropped pass away from beating the Colts in Indianapolis, and they outplayed Dallas at Cowboys Stadium but were then unable to seal the deal in the second half of that game.
It’s unfair to suggest that fate and bad luck are only to blame for the Browns losing all of those games. Assume, for such a second, that half of those contests went Cleveland’s way. I’d be creating a piece about an overachieving 7-6 team that was just two games out of first place in the division and right in the heart of the Wild Card race, and Pat Shurmur would be a coach of the year candidate. “Coulda, woulda, shoulda” is a mantra fans of 31 NFL teams can use each and every February, but here’s something even the most jaded Cleveland sports supporter can enjoy: After Sunday’s NFL contests, the Browns are right now the hottest team in the AFC North.
Cleveland’s current run, five wins in their last eight and three straight victories, isn’t overly impressive on paper. Three of those positive results came against teams that aren’t finishing above .500, Cincinnati has again been an up-and-down team (see their loss to Dallas yesterday afternoon), and the Steelers were without Big Ben back on November 25. Winning the games you’re supposed to win is what quality teams do. Surely you don’t think the Atlanta Falcons and Houston Texans have thus far notched eleven victories this season by beating only the best of the best in the league.
As much as Shurmur has gotten wrong in his second season with the Browns (and there has been plenty), Cleveland’s slow start to the campaign is easy to understand. The team’s defense struggled without the suspended Joe Haden during the first one-fourth of the season, and an offense that featured a rookie quarterback, rookie number one RB, and a very inexperienced WR core made mistakes that one would expect from such a young squad. The defense not surprisingly got better once Haden returned (and it also regressed when Haden got hurt), the offense appears to have several budding stars, and the Browns have gone 5-3 since October 14.
It’s possible, in a world that’s actually kind to the Cleveland sports fan, that the team’s loss to the Cowboys back on November 18 could be a turning point for a franchise that’s been known mostly for losing since returning to the NFL in 1999. Since that game, Shurmur and his staff have loosened the reins on offense, the defense has given up an average of under 13 points in three contests, and the Browns have resembled a team that’s learning how to win.
It’s also possible, of course, that Robert Griffin III, if healthy (knee), will run all over the Browns next Sunday, and that any good feelings being experienced by Cleveland fans at the start of this week could be non-existent six days from now.
Beating the Redskins at home and winning at Denver and at Pittsburgh in three straight games is no easy task for any team, let alone these Browns. Truth be told, one victory during that stretch of play would be admirable. Imagine if the Browns manage to win two or even three of those contests, earning a final overall record of 7-9 or 8-8. I would have signed up for either of those marks with a smile on my face and a song in my heart back in September. I’m not yet ready to proclaim that Shurmur has completely won me over and that new owner Jimmy Haslam should let the current regime continue to run the show past December 30, but I am able to say that we’ve seen definite progress from the team during the second half of the season.
And that’s no joke.