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Trying to solve some of the great mysteries of the Browns' 4-12 season

Jan 06, 2014 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com

 

Photo/Getty

The Morning Kickoff …

2013 in review: Another in a periodic series reviewing the Browns’ season of 4-12.

I’ve chronicled 27 Browns seasons – every one since 1984 – and each one has ended with questions unanswered.

Getting honest, forthright answers from Browns coaches, GMs, presidents, CEOs and owners historically has been an exercise in futility. No matter the regime or who’s in charge, the franchise always has gone to great lengths to avoid simple answers to simple questions. There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

The best thing about this doctrine of duplicity is that it provides an annual column recalling the season’s great mysteries. This season was no exception.

1. So why didn’t they care to re-sign Phil Dawson?

The ridiculous tap-dancing around this question actually resulted in a rather heated confrontation between a reporter (not me, no names please) and two Browns officials at NFL owners meetings in March. This issue needlessly polarized the fan base. Fans siding with the Browns believed that Dawson simply didn’t want to come back and management protected him by concealing that fact. Dawson’s refusal to answer the question fed that theory, which was untrue. All’s well that ends well. Dawson’s replacement, Billy Cundiff, had an uneventful season, helping to defuse the controversy. And Dawson enjoyed a career year, finishing with the second-most points and field goals in San Francisco 49ers history and kicking the winning field goal in the team’s wild card playoff victory over Green Bay on Sunday.

2. Why did the coaches enter the season with a QB depth chart of 1. Brandon Weeden, 2. Jason Campbell, and 3. Brian Hoyer?

From the first offseason practice, Weeden took the snaps with the No. 1 team and Campbell was No. 2. When Hoyer arrived on May 16, he was appointed No. 3. It stayed that way through the spring camps, through training camp and through the preseason. Then when Weeden suffered a sprained thumb in Game 2, Hoyer was named the starter ahead of Campbell by coach Rob Chudzinski. The perception was that this decision was ordered by the front office, which favored Hoyer. True or not, the handling of the quarterbacks was a major reason Chudzinski and his staff were abruptly fired the day after the season ended. In only three starts – he was knocked out with a torn ACL in the first quarter of the third – Hoyer’s two wins stood as the most among the three QBs.

3. Why didn't wide receiver David Nelson make the final roster cut?

The tall, angular free agent missed some time in OTAs rehabbing a torn ACL with a private trainer in Dallas and then left for three days to pursue his personal passion of building an orphanage in Haiti. Nelson’s knee suffered a setback in training camp. He missed several practices and the first three preseason games. Nelson played in the fourth game and was obviously rusty, but did catch some passes from Hoyer. Nevertheless, Nelson was released at the final cut on Aug. 31. The Jets signed Nelson in October. He proceeded to have a better season than drop-prone Davone Bess, who was acquired in a trade on draft weekend and instantly awarded a three-year contract extension with $5.7 million in guarantees. In an untimely climax to this issue, Nelson tormented the Browns with two touchdown catches in the Jets’ 24-13 win in Game 15 – while Bess was de-activated because of “personal issues.” According to a source, owner Jimmy Haslam was outraged watching Nelson beat his team after suffering Bess’ 14 dropped passes – and one humungous punt in the loss in Kansas City.

4. What exactly happened to Bess?

Citing confidentiality and respect to Bess, the club refused to explain why Bess was put on the “non-football illness” list the day before Game 15 against the Jets. The club also refused to comment on an Instagram photo – later deleted -- of Bess lighting a brown, unevenly rolled “cigarette” that looked like a marijuana blunt. Chudzinski merely said Bess was dealing with “family” and “personal” issues. A source later said that Bess privately regretted coming to Cleveland, hated the cold weather and was stressed by his horrendous season to the point where he essentially quit the team.

5. How did the Browns sign a player with a torn ACL?

On Oct. 12, the Browns signed receiver Charles Johnson off the Green Bay Packers practice squad. When they gave him a routine physical exam upon arrival, they learned he had a torn ACL in one of his knees. Johnson was immediately placed on reserve/non-football injury. But because of league rules, the Browns could not fill Johnson’s place on the 53-man roster for three games. On Oct. 30, he was moved to injured reserve. Johnson reportedly was practicing for the Packers without knowing he had the injury. A team that signs a player off another team’s practice squad does so blindly, without examining the player until he arrives. So it could happen to any team. Still, I’ve never heard of it before.

6. Was the Trent Richardson trade brilliant or pure luck?

CEO Joe Banner correctly sized up Richardson as a vastly over-rated between-the-tackles runner with faulty vision and no assertiveness or quickness. When the playoff-contending Colts lost No. 1 back Vick Ballard to an injury and sought a replacement to ease the pass rush off quarterback Andrew Luck, Banner seized the opportunity to dump Richardson for the Colts’ 2014 first-round pick. Banner worked the trade with Colts GM Ryan Grigson, who was a personnel executive under Banner in Philadelphia for 10 years. The trade shook up the Browns’ locker room, which Banner considered a positive byproduct. After an initial winning streak, which was more the result of the coincidental promotion of Hoyer to starting quarterback than to Banner’s shakeup, the Browns went on to lose 10 of their last 11 games while the Colts won the AFC South division and their wild-card playoff game against Kansas City. As a result, the Colts’ pick will be no higher than No. 25 in the first round. That’s still a great value for Richardson. But the Browns suffered through their worst rushing season in 60 years and lost 12 games.

 

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

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