Browns looking to climb from AFC North cellar

For his entire pro career, Joe Thomas has known nothing but

change, misery and losing.

Welcome to Cleveland.

Oh, sure, he’s made six straight Pro Bowls with the Browns,

earning the reliable and durable left tackle a yearly trip to

Hawaii. Thomas, though, would trade all those vacations for one

visit to the postseason.

”I want to go the playoffs,” Thomas said earlier this summer.

”It’s no fun playing in the NFL when you’re going 4-12 every year.

It’s just not, it’s drudgery.”

Those dreary days could be over.

With a first-year head coach who understands Cleveland’s

passion, more experienced players and a committed owner in Jimmy

Haslam, the Browns appear to be on the verge of turning their

fortunes. It’s been six years since they had a winning record, and

11 since their last playoff appearance, but Thomas believes the

Browns are poised to contend.

And when he closes his eyes, Thomas envisions a wintry day in

January near Lake Erie when football, the way it once was in

Cleveland, is back.

”I think about the day of me running out of the tunnel for a

home playoff game, that’s my dream,” he said. ”That’s why I show

up every day.”

If the Browns are indeed going to improve, they must gain ground

in the rugged AFC North. Cleveland is just 16-50 inside one of the

league’s toughest divisions and only 5-25 in the past five

years.

Here’s are five things to watch as Cleveland enters the 2013

season:

CHUD’S IN CHARGE: Like so many kids growing up in Ohio, Rob

Chudzinski had his heart broken by the Browns. It’s his job to try

and fix a few. Cleveland’s offensive coordinator in 2007 – when the

Browns went 10-6 – Chudzinski takes over the team he rooted for as

a youngster and one that has chewed up and spit out coaches at an

alarming rate.

Chudzinski, he’s ”Chud” to everyone, is Cleveland’s sixth

coach since 1999. He spent the past two years as Carolina’s

offensive coordinator. With the Panthers, he directed a

record-breaking offense he hopes to replicate in Cleveland. To

assist him, the Browns hired offensive coordinator Norv Turner and

defensive guru Ray Horton, two of the best coordinators on the

market with proven track records.

Turner’s job is to get the most out of second-year quarterback

Brandon Weeden, who has the physical tools and could thrive in an

offense designed to his strengths.

RICHARDSON READY TO RUMBLE: His ribs healed and 10 pounds

lighter than a year ago, running back Trent Richardson is set for a

breakout season – as long as he stays healthy. Richardson rushed

for 950 yards as a rookie, when he played more than half the year

with two broken ribs.

Richardson lacked the same burst as he had at Alabama, which is

part of the reason he slimmed down to 225 pounds. The 23-year-old,

who also underwent knee surgery last year, looked terrific in the

preseason and credited his improvement to reviewing tapes of how he

ran in college and high school. Richardson said it was ”time to

get back to the basics.”

In the past, the feature running back in Turner’s offense has

topped 300 carries, and Richardson is looking forward to doing more

”than running between the tackles” as he did a year ago.

”I’m looking towards no injury, no broken fingernails,

nothing,” he said. ”I know my whole season is based on being

healthy and playing 16 games and hopefully in the playoffs.”

SOUTH IN THE NORTH: Unless they start winning division games,

the Browns will stay stuck in the AFC North’s basement – their home

eight times in 11 years.

Since their return in 1999, the Browns have gone just 16-50

against Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati. They’ve never gone

better than 3-3, and that came in their only two winning seasons

(2002, 2007) since their expansion rebirth.

The Browns have been competitive inside the division, but losing

close games doesn’t cut it.

With the Steelers rebuilding, the Ravens losing key contributors

from their Super Bowl title team, and the Bengals being, well, the

unpredictable Bengals, the Browns could close the gap on their

three rivals.

”I think we’re making good strides,” Thomas said. ”But we’ve

got to win games to prove we’ve made strides.”

WEEDEN’S GROWTH: On a wall inside the Browns’ draft room is a

list of things the team feels it must do ”On The Path To The Super

Bowl.” Near the top is: ”Have a championship-caliber

quarterback.”

Brandon Weeden has this year to show he is one.

Following an up-and-down-and-sideways rookie season, Weeden

heads into his second year confident he can lead the Browns back to

respectability. He’s got the arm, but the Browns just aren’t 100

percent certain he has the other intangibles to push them into

playoff contention.

Weeden turns 30 in October, so the clock is ticking on both him

and the team. The Browns signed veteran Jason Campbell as a backup

in case Weeden fails this year and they acquired some extra draft

picks in 2014, ammunition in case they have to maneuver to find

their future QB.

Weeden won’t have his top target for the first two games as wide

receiver Josh Gordon was suspended for failing the NFL’s drug

policy.

ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK: Cleveland’s defense will have moving

parts. More precisely, blitzing parts.

Horton has switched the Browns from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme, one

that puts a premium on pressuring the quarterback. Cleveland

restocked its defensive front, signing free agent linebackers Paul

Kruger and Quentin Groves, end Desmond Bryant and drafting

Barkevious Mingo with the No. 6 overall pick.

With the Arizona Cardinals last season, Horton’s defense had the

NFL’s lowest opposing quarterback rating (71.2 percent), ranked

second in third-down efficiency (32.9) and interceptions (22) and

was third in red-zone defense (44.4).

It’s a high-risk, high-reward approach, and if nothing else, it

will be fun to watch.

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org