By Tony Grossi | ESPNCleveland.com
Updated at 8:26 a.m.
The Morning Kickoff …
Up or down?: Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and CEO Joe Banner said Rob Chudzinski was fired because the team didn’t improve.
Certainly the 4-12 record was one win worse than the previous year under Pat Shurmur. And it’s hard to argue that a team that lost 10 of its last 11 games and seven in a row at the end showed any signs of improvement.
The season went down the tubes because:
a. The offense went through three quarterbacks and five running backs.
b. The 2013 draft added no players of impact.
c. Five of the team’s eight veteran additions in free agency failed to make it through the whole season.
d. The defense, which received the lion’s share of the team’s investment in the offseason, blew three fourth-quarter leads in December.
But there was improvement on the individual player level. I found five major players who made significant improvement under Chudzinski and his coaching staff.
1. Wide receiver Josh Gordon.
Gordon began the summer training camp as the object of derision for violating the league substance abuse policy and receiving a league suspension in June for the first two games of the season.
In August, he was criticized for not finishing plays in practice. Practice! In October, he was rocked by incessant trade rumors.
Gordon ended the season as the Browns’ first-ever league leader in receiving yards with 1,646 – the 10th-highest total in NFL history – and was a first-team All-Pro selection. In 14 games, he put together the greatest season ever for a Browns receiver and burst into the conversation as one of the league’s most exciting playmakers.
Gordon accomplished all of this despite: 1. Missing two games because of the suspension, 2. Having to adjust to three different starting quarterbacks, 3. Being complemented on the field by Greg Little and Davone Bess, whom Pro Football Focus rated as the 111th- and 108th-ranked receivers in the NFL this season.
Gordon has elite athletic skills. But he’s only 22 years old. The coaches did a good job keeping him dedicated to improve and expanding his route-running.
2. Tight end Jordan Cameron.
From the moment tight end-centric Chudzinski was hired and named Norv Turner as offensive coordinator, Cameron was pinpointed as a player who figured to have a breakout season. Guess what? He did.
Cameron’s 80 catches were the seventh-most in Browns history. His 917 receiving yards ranked second to New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham among tight ends and his 25 catches on third downs tied Graham for high among tight ends.
Did Chudzinski and Turner develop Cameron into a offensive playmaker? Mission accomplished.
3. Safety Tashaun Gipson.
The 2012 undrafted free agent entered the summer training camp as a necessary starter after the draft and free agency failed to produce a legitimate contender to start opposite T.J. Ward. (Sixth-round draft pick Jamoris Slaughter, who was drafted despite Achilles tendon surgery in his last year at Notre Dame, spent the season on the practice squad.)
Gipson wound up leading the team with five interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, was third in tackles, and also knocked out Buffalo quarterback E.J. Manuel and Green Bay tight end Jermichael Finley with clean, legal hits.
Gipson may not have justified coordinator Ray Horton’s hyperbolic claim in November as being the defense’s most valuable player, but he did display a ferocity in tackling that may position him as the logical heir at strong safety if T.J. Ward leaves in free agency.
4. Cornerback Buster Skrine.
The most-penalized Browns player in 2012 learned to trust his physical ability and to not panic when beat on a fake or double move by receivers. He cut down his penalties from 11 to six, finished sixth on the defense in tackles and first with 23 passes defensed.
While Pro Football Focus was not impressed –- it ranked Skrine 106th among 111 cornerbacks – we feel that Skrine established himself as a legitimate starting cornerback and one of the few starters in the NFL who tackled the dual role of covering slot receivers in the nickel.
5. Cornerback Joe Haden.
In his fourth season, Haden realized his personal goal of selection to the Pro Bowl team. He was also named second team All-Pro.
Haden was second on the team with four interceptions and had his first TD on an interception return in his competitive career. Assigned each week to cover the opponents’ No. 1 receiver, Haden held Detroit’s Calvin Johnson and Cincinnati’s A.J. Green to 12 catches for 83 yards in three games.
Haden was victimized at the end of the year for touchdown receptions by Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown, Jacksonville’s Cecil Shorts and Chicago’s Brandon Marshall. But, overall, he turned in the best season of his four-year career.
|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 firstname.lastname@example.orgFollow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi
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