CLEVELAND (AP) –– In 13 years rivaling any TV soap opera for drama, plot twists and cliffhangers, Browns kicker Phil Dawson thought he had seen it all.
Mr. Accuracy was off the mark.
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Dawson has endured the freak injuries, the trades and firings, the heartbreaking losses and lopsided ones, and just about anything else you could imagine happening to a once-proud Cleveland franchise since 1999. The sole survivor from that expansion team and unquestionably the best thing about the Browns for years, Dawson, like everyone else, was stunned this summer to learn they were being sold.
“It surprised me,” he said. “But what can you do?”
Hopefully, the new boss has a plan.
Jimmy Haslam III has work to do.
Coming off a dismal 4-12 season, their eighth in nine years of at least 10 losses, the Browns enter 2012 with high hopes and low expectations.
In addition to a new owner who could soon implement major changes, the Browns will start a 28-year-old rookie quarterback and a rookie running back who missed the exhibition season following his second knee surgery in less than six months. They’re missing two starters on defense, two others are facing possible suspensions and there are questions up and down the roster as well as about second-year coach Pat Shurmur.
If all that wasn’t enough, the Browns play in the AFC North, arguably the NFL’s toughest division, and face a rugged schedule with no gimmes.
No wonder several national prognosticators picked the Browns to go 1-15.
“It’s not even a situation where we’re not getting any respect we deserve because we really haven’t done anything, but we’re not getting any … respect … at … all,” said T.J. Ward, pausing between his words for emphasis. It’s like we might as well not even be in the league.”
The Browns are hoping Brandon Weeden can lead them back to respectability.
Named Cleveland’s starting quarterback before the first exhibition game, Weeden, the former minor league pitcher and Oklahoma State standout has all the physical tools: size, arm strength, smarts. But it remains to be seen if the Browns have enough for Weeden to be productive.
They scored just 218 points last season and never more than 27 in any game. For comparison’s sake, the Green Bay Packers failed to exceed 27 only three times in the regular season.
Shurmur is certain the Browns will visit the end zone more this season.
“We’ve added some weapons to our offense,” he said. “I’m very confident that we’re going to be better in terms of scoring points. I just am, I believe it.”
However, faith alone won’t work against the Steelers, Ravens or any of the four NFC East opponents the Browns will face.
Shurmur’s workload won’t be as heavy with Brad Childress aboard as offensive coordinator. Childress’ best play may be having Weeden hand the ball to running back Trent Richardson, the No. 3 overall draft pick who has yet to play in a game after having left knee surgery.
Richardson could be a game-changer, capable of scoring from anywhere on the field. The Browns haven’t had someone like that since Jim Brown’s glory days.
“Defenses have to account for him,” Weeden said. “He’s a punisher. That, and him being able to catch the ball out of the backfield, it’ll be nice. He’s going to be a horse. He’s one of those guys you can keep feeding it to and handing it to over and over because he’s able to punish you for four or five yards and do it again.”
Assuming Weeden and Richardson start the Sept. 9 opener against Philadelphia, the Browns will be just the fourth team in 44 years to begin the year with a rookie QB and running back. They may also have a rookie wide receiver as Josh Gordon, taken in July’s supplemental draft, is working his way up the depth chart.
Statistically, Cleveland’s defense did some good things last season. But the unit took a major hit when starting linebacker Chris Gocong sustained a season-ending injury in camp, and Phil Taylor tore a chest muscle lifting weights. Taylor will miss at least six games, leaving rookie tackles Billy Winn and John Hughes to plug things up until he’s back.
Linebacker Scott Fujita is appealing his three-game suspension for the Saints’ bounty scandal, and cornerback Joe Haden could be suspended for failing a drug test. Cleveland’s secondary made some plays in 2011, not enough of them.
Dawson accounted for nearly half of Cleveland’s points last year. The 37-year-old tied a league mark with seven field goals beyond 50 yards, and he’s closing in on several team records including career points and games.
More than anything, though, Dawson wants to get back to the playoffs.
The Browns haven’t made the postseason since 2002, and it’s unlikely they’ll get there this season.
But Dawson has seen enough to know anything is possible.
“With a young team, you really never know how it’s going to respond,” he said. “But I’m excited. The fact that we’re not getting any recognition, I think that’s good. It would be a whole other kind of pressure if they were predicting 14 wins. Hey, what do you have to lose?
“Let’s just go out there and do our thing and see where we end up.”