Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 2/2/12
Residents of Cleveland may be surprised by the unseasonably warm weather that has settled over the city in recent days, as well as the mild winter as a whole. While meteorologists and scientists scramble to articulate the exact scientific reasons for this beautiful weather, many Cleveland Browns fans may be inclined to offer an alternative explanation: the storm clouds that hung over the city for much of the end of 2011 disappeared as soon as the Browns’ tumultuous season drew to a close when Seneca Wallace’s last-gasp Hail Mary pass hit the turf at Cleveland Browns Stadium on New Year’s Day.
 
The 2011 season started with much hope, promise, and anticipation.
 
After watching the Browns’ offense sputter throughout 2009 and 2010, owner Randy Lerner and president Mike Holmgren made the decision to fire the defensive-minded Eric Mangini and replace him with the offensive-minded Pat Shurmur. The arrival of Shurmur meant the introduction of the West Coast Offense, an offense that would cater to the strengths of the offense’s two key players—quarterback Colt McCoy and running back Peyton Hillis. In addition, the team also lured veteran coach Dick Jauron away from the Philadelphia Eagles to serve as defensive coordinator.
 
Adding to the optimism was the fact that the Browns did not suffer any major personnel losses in the offseason and managed to upgrade several aspects of the roster through the Draft and free agency. Although some fans may have been sad to see mammoth defensive lineman Shaun Rogers leave in free agency, Rogers’ injuries and attitude problems often overshadowed his solid play on the field. In order to address two key areas of need, the Browns acquired backup running back Brandon Jackson and nickel cornerback Dimitri Patterson through free agency. Additionally, the Browns used shrewd Draft Day trading to net three starters—defensive tackle Phil Taylor, wide receiver Greg Little, and defensive end Jabaal Sheard—while simultaneously positioning themselves to acquire additional talent in future drafts.
 
Despite the fact that the Browns only had a 1-3 record in preseason, the offense’s performance gave fans further reason to be optimistic. McCoy and Hillis played well against the above-average defenses of the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers, and tight end Evan Moore appeared to be poised for a breakout season as he scored two touchdowns in the preseason.
 
Optimism ran high amongst the sellout crowd at Cleveland Browns Stadium when the Browns kicked off against the Cincinnati Bengals in their first game of the season. Although the offense sputtered at times, the Browns played well enough to win and it appeared that the team was going to win their second season opener since their return to the NFL in 1999…until a trick play by the Bengals caught the Browns’ defense off guard and resulted in a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter. When the Browns had the opportunity to retake the lead, the offense failed to execute and the Bengals ultimately escaped back to Cincinnati with a victory.
 
The game against the Bengals symbolized many games of the Browns’ 2011 season. The team would often play well for long periods of time, only to surrender game-breaking plays that would smash the game open. The offense would have the opportunity to take the lead, but inept play and a failure to execute in the clutch often sent the team into the locker room with yet another disappointing loss tacked onto their record. If the Browns’ offense had scored once during their final two possessions of the game, the Browns would have been able to defeat the Bengals twice, the Pittsburgh Steelers twice, the Baltimore Ravens, and the Arizona Cardinals. Would the Browns have been a Playoff team if the offense had been better? Possibly.
 
True, there were bright spots. In a rare show of solid play in the fourth quarter, the Browns rallied in the final few minutes of the game to defeat the Miami Dolphins at home. The Browns’ defense also limited the Seattle Seahawks to just 3 points in a narrow 6-3 victory. Additionally, the Browns’ defense stood tall in the red zone against the Jacksonville Jaguars and stopped the Jaguars three straight times in the final seconds to defeat the Jaguars for their last victory of the season. The Browns’ defense as a whole was the team’s brightest spot during this past season, finishing in the top 10 in the NFL in points allowed per game and passing yards allowed per game.
 
No recap of the Browns’ 2011 season would be complete without a mention of the near-constant drama that surrounded Hillis this season. Hillis had a storybook 2010 season, emerging from obscurity to rush for over 1,177 yards, with 13 total touchdowns, and defeat several more established players to be selected to be on the cover of Madden 12. Unfortunately for Hillis and Browns fans, Hillis had a 2011 season that added even more evidence to the idea of the infamous “Madden Curse.” After suffering what turned out to be one of the most controversial strep throats in history, Hillis did not play in the Browns’ victory over the Dolphins in Week 3. Subsequent comments by Hillis’ agent and Hills about whether he truly sat out because of dissatisfaction with his contract amplified the controversy of the entire situation. Although Hillis returned briefly shortly thereafter, a hamstring injury kept him out of many other subsequent games and only fueled the notion that Hillis was not going to play hard until he received a new contract. Hillis dispelled this notion later in the season, when he ran for almost 100 yards against the Cardinals and 112 yards against a stout Ravens run defense. Hillis is currently a free agent, and the decision to re-sign him will be one of the most important stories of the Browns’ offseason.
 
Another important story will be the status of McCoy. During the Browns’ first game against the Steelers, McCoy suffered a concussion that was mishandled by the Browns’ coaching and medical staff in yet another controversial situation that served as a major off-field distraction during the season. McCoy did not play in the last three games of the season, possibly missing out on a chance to convince the Browns’ braintrust that he deserves another chance to be the team’s quarterback of the future. The Browns hold the fourth pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, and many analysts believe they will select Robert Griffin III from Baylor. The Browns’ true opinion of McCoy is a closely guarded secret, and clarity about the Browns’ plans for the quarterback position will not come until later in the year.
 
All in all, the Browns’ 2011 season was one in which off-field controversies and poor play by the Browns’ offense often overshadowed the stellar play by the Browns’ defense and the solid play by the team’s recent Draft picks. As the team and their fans collectively recover from one of the most turbulent seasons in recent history, Browns fans can only hope that the 2012 season brings about less drama, more victories, and real reasons to be hopeful about the team’s prospects of returning to the playoffs in the near future.

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