Browns' schedule may hide improvement

Pat McManamon looks through the Browns opponents and offers his 2012 prediction...

The guarded local optimism for the Cleveland Browns in 2012 is not shared nationally.

National pundits, oddsmakers and prognosticators have the Browns among the worst teams in the league, with predictions of 4-12 or 3-13 rampant. Pete Prisco of even had the Browns at 1-15, which seems excessively negative.

It’s not like the Browns have 18 wins in four years, is it?


Never mind.

At first glance the Browns' schedule does look extremely difficult. But a wise friend advised that Terrell Suggs is out at Baltimore and the Steelers are not getting younger. He’s right.

Too, schedules that look tough in August can be a lot easier in October. Predicting is a challenge -- and can make a person look silly. But this exercise is an annual event and there’s no reason to stop. The schedule can only be judged by what it is now.

The Browns enter the season with two overriding realities: They will have a rookie at quarterback and running back and (maybe) receiver, and they will have a defense lacking Phil Taylor that gave up 147 yards per game rushing last season.

That being said, Cincinnati made the playoffs last season with a rookie quarterback and rookie receiver. The Bengals, of all teams, provided the model for the Browns.

The Browns' schedule makes it tough to accept they can follow the model. The Browns don’t open against the Browns like Cincinnati did a year ago. Nor do they play the Browns twice, another benefit for the ‘11 Bengals.

Cleveland’s is simply a very difficult slate of games.

The Eagles opener seems nearly unwinnable. Philadelphia is loaded with talent that underachieved last season, and the Eagles have pride and coaching. Mike Vick seems more focused than ever, and provided he’s not hurt he will be tough to stop. But the Browns' biggest problem in the opener is that run defense facing LeSean McCoy and Vick. Ouch.

The next five games: at Cincinnati, Buffalo, at Baltimore, at the Giants and Cincinnati again.

That stretch features four playoff teams and the team that could be the league’s most improved, the Bills. Buffalo was a good team until Ryan Fitzpatrick had to play with an injury and the bottom fell out. The Bills have added Mario Williams and figure to be a tougher challenge than their 6-10 record last season indicates.

That being said, the Browns might be able to win two of these games, which would give them a 2-4 start.

It’s just as likely they win one, making it 1-5, but for optimism’s sake, let’s say two and the record is 2-4 heading into Indianapolis on Oct. 21, a game that could be as good a barometer as any. It will feature two rookie quarterbacks in Brandon Weeden and Andrew Luck, and two teams that struggled a year ago.

The Colts struggled because they didn’t have Peyton Manning, but now they have Luck -- and bookend defensive ends Robert Mathis and Dwight Freeney are back.

This still should be a Cleveland win. But if it’s a loss it will be more than discouraging.

A win makes the record 3-4, which is fair-to-middling given those opponents.

The Browns are home the next two weeks, but they’re also overmatched. San Diego and Baltimore are at a different level, which gives the Browns a 3-6 mark heading into the bye week and a trip to Dallas, which means 3-7.

Following is Pittsburgh.

Enough said.

Oakland is winnable, though it’s on the West Coast. At this point the record will be 4-8.

Kansas City is like Buffalo. The Chiefs are a good team that had a bad year due to injuries and other issues. The Chiefs, like Buffalo, could be much better in 2012 than their ‘11 record indicates. Another loss makes it 4-9.

Washington then visits Cleveland for another interesting game, as the quarterback the Browns could not get should be leading the Redskins. If Robert Griffin III is what he’s touted, the Redskins could be playing for a playoff spot. If he goes through typical struggles, the Browns could win.

Give Cleveland the win -- it’s one game they absolutely do not want to lose.

The final two games … on the road … ugh.

Denver will have Manning.

Pittsburgh is Pittsburgh. The only hope for the Browns is the Steelers have clinched a playoff spot, which might have happened at this point. The Steelers always play with pride, but the Browns' young players could be significntly better than they were in September. A win over Pittsburgh ends the season with many good feelings, he wrote, perhaps unaware of his mental stupor. Some may say this is a loss and Kansas City a win; there’s logic there, but it won’t change the record.

Total: Six wins, 10 losses, which coincidentally is the exact record team president Mike Holmgren said was not acceptable.

But it will be acceptable, because there will be no choice. And despite the record (which seems overly optimistic, to be honest) the Browns will be improved.

That’s a good thing for 2013, but not for 2012. Fans just have to be patient, again, and realize that there will be improvement, but it won’t show in the won-lost column until 2013 and beyond.

But the improvement should finally, at long last, be there.