Cleveland Browns year in review: The first quarter

Jan 13, 2016; Berea, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam (left) and new head coach Hue Jackson talk during a press conference at the Cleveland Browns training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 13, 2016; Berea, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam (left) and new head coach Hue Jackson talk during a press conference at the Cleveland Browns training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Cleveland Browns had a tumultuous year in 2016, starting with their latest regime change. Take a look back at the first three months in Part 1 of our year in review.

The 2016 calendar year was an eventful one for the Cleveland Browns – even by their often bizarre standards.

The year ushered in:

  • Another coaching change as Hue Jackson took charge;
  • A new front office regime in Paul DePodesta, Sashi Brown and Andrew Berry;
  • The departure of several free agents, most notably center Alex Mack and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz;
  • A trade that sent the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL Draft to the Philadelphia Eagles so they could select quarterback Carson Wentz, a transaction that will continue to be debated for some time;
  • A league-high 14 players selected in the draft;
  • The annual ride on the quarterback merry-go-round; and,
  • More losing than we’ve ever seen from this once dynastic franchise.

Despite what you may have heard, however, things were not all that bad when it came to the Browns.

The final 1-15 record was hard to take, but the losing had a purpose behind it – even if some refuse to see it.

The coaching staff took a long and critical look at a roster than was over-loaded with first- and second-year players.

The Browns, with five picks among the first 65 selections in the 2017 NFL Draft and somewhere north of $100 million in cap space, have the means necessary to continue to fix the holes on the roster.

Before we go full steam ahead into 2017, let’s take a look back at the year that was for the Browns in a quarter-by-quarter breakdown on the 2016 season.

Jan 13, 2016; Berea, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns new head coach Hue Jackson (left) and Vice President of Football Operations Sashi Brown talk during a press conference at the Cleveland Browns training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Jan 13, 2016; Berea, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns new head coach Hue Jackson (left) and Vice President of Football Operations Sashi Brown talk during a press conference at the Cleveland Browns training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Following their league-mandated season-ending loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers (kidding, it only seems that way), Browns owner Jimmy Haslam blew it up again by firing head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer.

“We greatly appreciate Ray and Mike’s dedication and hard work while with the Cleveland Browns,” Haslam said in announcing the moves. “We’ve made this decision because we don’t believe our football team is positioned well for the future. We are all disappointed with where we are and I take full responsibility.

Pettine finished his two years in Cleveland with a record of 10-22, which is the third-best mark by a Browns coach since the team returned to the NFL in 1999. He may have done better if he wasn’t handicapped by Farmer’s decision making and meddling, but such is life in Cleveland.

The same day of the firings, Haslam, along with his wife, Dee, released an open letter to Browns fans. In the letter, the Haslams, as they have done with each coaching change since buying the team in 2012, reiterated that they want to build a winning franchise in Cleveland and promised that this time they will get it right.

If that wasn’t enough, reports quickly surfaced that quarterback Johnny Manziel – who missed the final game of the season because he reportedly had a concussion – had actually spent the weekend in Las Vegas, giving everyone the birth of Billy Manziel.

Aug 26, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon (12) stretches as he works out prior to the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Aug 26, 2016; Tampa, FL, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon (12) stretches as he works out prior to the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

While the coaching search would take some time, Haslam moved quickly to fill Farmer’s vacant seat by promoting Sashi Brown to the role of  executive vice president of football operations, which gave Brown ultimate say on the final roster and the draft.

That was quickly followed by the hiring of Paul Deposta as chief strategy officer, giving birth to the “analytics movement” in Berea that has continued to befuddle media members and fans alike.

Meanwhile, the coaching search was in full swing as the Browns were looking at numerous candidates, including:

  • Doug Marrone: Jacksonville Jaguars assistant head coach
  • Matt Patricia: New England Patriots defensive coordinator
  • Adam Gase: Chicago Bears offensive coordinator
  • Teryl Austin: Detroit Lions defensive coordinator
  • Sean McDermott: Carolina Panthers defensive coordinator
  • Hue Jackson: Cincinnati Bengals offensive coordinator
  • Paul Guenther: Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator

The Browns would ultimately select Jackson as the 16th full-time head coach in franchise history. Jackson came to the Browns with a reputation as a “quarterback guru,” giving fans hope that he would be the man to finally fix the ongoing quarterback mess.

While the Browns were busy with the coaching search, troubled wide receiver Josh Gordon, who was coming off his latest suspension, applied to the NFL to be reinstated.

Jackson decided that he would serve as his own offensive coordinator, meaning that he needed someone to run the defense. He made his first mistake by bringing Ray Horton back to town as defensive coordinator.

As the month came to an end and the Browns moved one day closer to the inevitable release of Manziel, it was time to take a look back at what might have been in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft.

Sep 20, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Travis Benjamin (11) returns for a punt for a touchdown during the second quarter against the Tennessee Titans at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Sep 20, 2015; Cleveland, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns wide receiver Travis Benjamin (11) returns for a punt for a touchdown during the second quarter against the Tennessee Titans at FirstEnergy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Once the calendar turned to February it was time to start thinking about free agency, especially how the Browns could bolster their roster while simultaneously hurting their AFC North rivals.

It wasn’t just within the division, however, as a talented list of players were potentially set to his free agency.

There was also renewed hope that a unified front office and coaching staff working together could finally turn around the fortunes of the team.

Even though the draft was still a couple of months away, the Browns quest for a quarterback left several mock drafts, including an early one from ESPN’s Todd McShay, to send Cal’s Jared Goff to Cleveland.

The Johnny Manziel saga continued to spiral out of control as Manziel reportedly ruptured his girlfriend’s ear drum during a fight and talk continued to circulate that the team covered up for Manziel after he showed up for practice still drunk from the night before.

Manziel wasn’t the only player making headlines for the wrong reasons, however, as linebacker Armonty Bryant was indicted on felony drug charges stemming from a traffic stop on a Cleveland-area highway on Christmas morning.

Drafting has long been a problem for the Browns, no matter who is making the selections,  a point driven home when Pro Football Focus’ took a look back at the 2010 draft.

The league office was taking its time making a decision on Josh Gordon’s future, leading to questions about what Gordon’s role would be in Jackson’s offense.

In a somewhat questionable move, Jackson announced that he would be open to taking the advice of Jim Brown.

Nov 15, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns former running back Jim Brown (L) talks with Browns owner Jimmy Haslam (R) before the Browns play the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Nov 15, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns former running back Jim Brown (L) talks with Browns owner Jimmy Haslam (R) before the Browns play the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

“I’m looking forward to finding out as many things as Jim Brown knows that can help our football team be the best that it can be,” Jackson said at the time. “We’re talking about a guy that did it as well as anybody ever, so it would be really smart on my part to sit and talk to him and have him tell me the things that he sees and that he’s felt.”

In related news, the Browns announced that they were planning to honor Brown with a statue at FirstEnergy Stadium.

Befitting a team that was beginning a total rebuild, the Browns had several roster holes to fill but there were plenty of dangers to avoid in free agency.

After an up-and-down season in 2015, it was fair to wonder if quarterback Josh McCown was still an option to start a game in 2016.

One day it seemed likely that the Browns would resign wide receiver Travis Benjamin, then suddenly contract talks broke off – even though Benjamin would have been a nice player to retain.

In the latest sign that Manziel’s time was done with the Browns, Hue Jackson let everyone know he was done talking about Manziel and said that the team would be selecting a quarterback during the 2016 NFL Draft.

Even though there was still no word from the league office, the Browns were taking a positive approach to the Josh Gordon situation.

The annual NFL Scouting Combine gave Browns fans an early chance to start scouting (and possibly over-hyping) the group of players entering the draft.

Finally, as the month drew to a close and free agency loomed, the Browns were facing some hard decisions along the offensive line.

Jun 7, 2016; Berea, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Robert Griffin III (10) throws a pass as quarterback Josh McCown (13) watches during minicamp at the Cleveland Browns training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Jun 7, 2016; Berea, OH, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Robert Griffin III (10) throws a pass as quarterback Josh McCown (13) watches during minicamp at the Cleveland Browns training facility. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

March brought the start of free agency in the NFL and it was not a smooth time for the Browns, starting with the decision by center Alex Mack to opt-out of his contract.

The idea of losing Mack was not an appealing one, especially when you realized that the options to replace him were very limited.

While it may have been a year early, the Browns were looking at the possibility of drafting a hometown hero to fix the quarterback position.

In one of the most surprising moves of the off-season, president Alec Scheiner announced that he was leaving the team at the end of March. Scheiner left a lasting impact in his three years with the team, having been a part of renovations to the stadium and practice facility, as well as one of the architects of the team’s embarrassing uniform overhaul.

A month after being indicted on felony drug charges, linebacker Armonty Bryant was suspended without pay for the first four games of the 2016 NFL regular season for violating the NFL’s policy on performance enhancing substances.

As Alex Mack and Mitchell Schwartz started to draw interest from other teams, it was fair to wonder how Cleveland’s quarterbacks would perform without two anchors of the offensive line.

Once free agency opened and players were free to sign new deals the exodus was swift as Mack signed with the Atlanta FalconsTravis Benjamin signed with the San Diego Chargers, Tashaun Gipson signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars and Mitchell Schwartz signed with the Kansas City Chiefs after the Browns pulled their offer off the table.

Even though it was (mostly) part of the bigger plan, it was still a rough day for Browns fans.

Some of that disappointment was alleviated, however, when the Browns released Johnny Manziel, the failed first-round pick who will go down as the worst draft pick in franchise history.

The Browns were also rumored to be interested in another failed quarterback – this time San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick – and reportedly had a deal in place to make a trade, but ultimately the front office wised up and the deal went cold.

Two months after applying for reinstatement, Josh Gordon’s return to the Browns and the NFL remained in limbo.

For reasons that remain a mystery to this day, wide receiver Dwayne Bowe earned a performance-based bonus from the NFL for catching five passes for 53 yards. The Browns would eventually release Bowe and linebacker Karlos Dansby, but would sign linebacker Demario Davis and safety Rahim Moore.

As the draft drew closer the Pro Days begin and Cal quarterback Jared Goff had a nice showing – even with Browns assistant coach Pep Hamilton squirting water on Goff’s balls.

In a sign of things to come, the Browns brought in quarterback Robert Griffin III for a tryout that, in the words of Jackson, made the “earth move” That tryout led Cleveland to sign RG3 to a two-year deal.

While Hue Jackson may have been excited to sign Griffin, the rest of the AFC North was not very concerned. However, having another quarterback on the roster opened up numerous opportunities for what to do with the second overall pick in the draft.

Showing that he still had some fight in him, Josh McCown closed out the month by saying that he was ready to compete for a starting role when training camp opened.

Coming in Part 2: More draft trades, the Browns draft 14 players and Hue Jackson prepares for his first training camp with the Browns.

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