The Cleveland Browns may currently be the joke of the NFL, but they can contend sooner than many realize by following the path of the NFC title bound Atlanta Falcons.
While many Cleveland Browns fans will pay little to no attention to the NFC title game on Sunday, all football fans should check out the emerging Atlanta Falcons. Watching Atlanta closely, Cleveland fans will see many similarities between their young 1-15 team and the champions of the NFC South.
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When examining the Falcons, fans will realize that the Browns could be closer to contention than anyone would ever imagine.
Atlanta wins by scoring 33.9 points per game, the most in football. They ranked third in passing yards during the regular season despite not having Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, or Drew Brees at quarterback. They also ranked fifth in rushing, despite not having a household name at running back.
So how does Atlanta score so many points, and how is Cleveland ever going to duplicate this?
A combination of factors has led to the rise of the Falcons and this offense. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to have a 6-foot-4, 220-pound receiver like Julio Jones, who has four career 1,000-yard seasons, including this year in which he put up 1,409 yards.
But without another sizable threat in the passing game, Atlanta mostly relies on the speed of Mohamed Sanu, Justin Hardy, and former Brown, Taylor Gabriel. These weapons are utilized and maximized through the brilliant play-calling of an offensive coordinator Cleveland fans are familiar with, Kyle Shanahan.
The rushing attack is led by Devonta Freeman, a 24-year-old back who contributed 1,541 all-purpose yards during the regular season. Tevin Coleman is the offense’s second running back, an adequate but not flashy ball carrier.
For an offense lacking household names, collaboration is key. This, as well as an offensive line anchored by center Alex Mack, another former Brown, has allowed the Falcons to redefine themselves as an offensive juggernaut.
The line ranks sixth according to Pro Football Focus, with Mack as the second best lineman in football and the top run blocker. With an offensive line like Atlanta’s, there is no need for players who can make one-handed catches or run a 4.3 40-yard dash.
The Browns may be a long ways from acquiring the sorts of players which make them comparable to the Falcons, but it could be argued that they already have the bare bones in place.
Terrelle Pryor, most notably, had one of the top seasons of all NFL receivers, and may get even better. His size, hands, and route-running ability is similar to that of Jones.
Isaiah Crowell and Duke Johnson will never be considered as the league’s top running backs, but they are similar in build and skill set to Freeman and Coleman, respectively. Behind the right offensive line, Crowell could be an extremely productive back.
Most of all, red zone efficiency is what makes the Falcons so successful offensively. Ranked 10th in football inside the 20-yard-line, the Falcons score touchdowns on 61 percent of their trips.
Similarly, the Browns have the potential to be the same sort of offense in this respect as well. Tight end Gary Barnidge is a lethal weapon the Browns have in the red zone, as 14 of his 178 career receptions have been touchdowns. Plus, with Pryor’s size and nose for the ball, the red zone could be a strength for the Browns in the future, much like it is currently for Jones and the Falcons.
But play-calling is what makes this all possible. Offensive genius Kyle Shanahan certainly deserves a great degree of credit. And while Browns fans didn’t always like the play sequences called on multiple occasions this past season, head coach Hue Jackson is an established and well-respected offensive mind.
For Cleveland to continue following in Atlanta’s footsteps, they need to trust that coach Jackson can use his experience in play-calling from his time in Cincinnati to gain a step on the rest of the NFL’s offenses. This is how Atlanta has made their potent offense work, and it is how the Browns can do the same.
Aug 18, 2016; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns defensive end Carl Nassib (94), defensive linemen Danny Shelton (55) and Nick Hayden (71) during the first quarter against the Atlanta Falcons at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott R. Galvin-USA TODAY Sports
As much as the offense shows promise, defense is where the Browns undeniably need to improve. Already this offseason, they took a step towards doing this by hiring defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. And with several young players with a lot of room to grow, there is potential with the right additions.
Plus, looking at the defense Atlanta has, the Browns can easily measure up within two years. Vic Beasley is the star linebacker, who has burst onto the scene in just his second season. Strangely, Emmanuel Ogbah is very similar to Beasley, as he is just a year younger but has shown just how effective he can be rushing the passer.
Danny Shelton, the nose tackle, has similar skills as Atlanta veteran defensive lineman Jonathan Babineaux. Other than that, much like the Browns, other defenders are mainly complements to these players as well as Dwight Freeney. Even though the Falcons have an impressive defense, they don’t have the high draft picks or any of the J.J. Watts of the world.
This is especially true in the secondary, an area in which the Falcons have struggled. Allowing the sixth-most passing yards during the regular season, Atlanta ranked even lower than the Browns in pass defense.
This isn’t to say the Browns should accept their struggling secondary and not do anything about it. But it does show that the way the Falcons are built and the direction the Browns are going, players like Briean Boddy-Calhoun and Ed Reynolds are serviceable under the right circumstances and with the right coaching.
In 2013, the Falcons went 4-12. The next two years, they added two wins each season. Now, after an 11-5 regular season and a 36-20 divisional round playoff victory over the Seattle Seahawks, Atlanta is a force to be reckoned with in 2016.
It happened rather quickly, and quite unconventionally. The Falcons didn’t emerge into the Super Bowl contender they are today by following the model of the Seahawks, Broncos or Patriots. The Falcons paved their own way, based on the roster they already had in place. And now here they are, just two wins away from their ultimate goal.
Cleveland may currently be the joke of the NFL, but every season presents a different opportunity to reverse this narrative. The Falcons were a very bad football team just several years ago. But the brilliant way they built their roster combined with their coaching and a little luck has made them one of the NFL’s best.
Therefore, the Browns aren’t a completely lost cause. It’s not time to tear it all apart and start over. Whether or not the right management is in place, the organization has started moving in a direction proven to have worked in Atlanta. The best chance for the Browns to contend as soon as possible is to continue this path, using the young and exciting Falcons as a guide.