There may not be many experienced NFL players found in Berea, but there are unlimited quantities of empty bravado.
Facing the prospects of fielding the league's youngest team while playing one of league's toughest schedules while being evaluated by the league's newest owner, Browns' GM Tom Heckert and Head Coach Pat Shurmur are already in full John Wayne mode six days before the regular season kicks off.
PD - Tom Heckert Saturday Press Conference
(On if strong-side linebacker is a thin position for the team)
“I don’t think it’s a thin area. Now, that’s a young area there is no question about it. I think you guys know the guy we claimed, Tank Carder, you add him to the mix and obviously he’s young, he’s a rookie, but we like these guys. We’ll see how they play, but all these guys, we think they performed well in the preseason and they’re going to have to play. That’s just the way it is.”
PD - Pat Shurmur Saturday Press Conference
(On if he thinks they can win with 15 rookies on the roster)
"Absolutely, we can win with 15 rookies. I'm not a guy that predicts what's going to happen. All I know is I've seen these guys play good football. They have fresh legs. That's what I'll say. I expect that when we put them out there, everybody out there, even the 15 rookies, are going to do what it takes."
(On if he will have to coach differently with so many rookies)
"These guys have played games at other levels. I think it's important that our veterans that are here help them get through the mental part of it. That is a lot of rookies, I would agree with that. It's going to be fun to see the energy that they play with. I think that's important."
Speaking of John Wayne, reading these quotes reminds me of a classic line from Rio Bravo, where Wayne's sheriff character is trying to thwart a criminal gang but is confronted with the realities of him limits.
"A game-legged old man and a drunk. That's ALL you got?
"That's what I got."
And in a nod to a world that never actually existed, Wayne doesn't cry, pulls his virtual britches up and triumphs over evil.
But first, how about a song?
Yet, in reality - things aren't always that easy.
What the Browns' front office - or at least Heckert and Shurmur, considering that Mike Holmgren will likely cash out before winter, is trying to accomplish is an extraordinarily difficult task. Winning in the NFL is nearly impossible, while winning with rookies just doesn't happen.
While Heckert can refer to the enormity of his job entering Cleveland in 2010 - i.e., trying to turn the remnants of Phil Savage and Eric Mangini into a functional roster - the 2012 Browns are exclusively his creation. While it would be comforting to think that Heckert would have the luxury of continuing his work over the next couple years, the reality is that the Browns' GM is now tethered to the shaky Shurmur.
While Shurmur can pretend to be a tough guy regarding the circumstances, his situation will quickly become dire. Consider that Shurmur's Browns' teams have been both unimaginative and undisciplined. Now, even more rookies have been added to the mix which means the mistakes, procedural errors and penalties that dogged the 2011 team will be even more prevalent this season.
And this ultimately proves the irony of the Browns' current youth movement. On one hand, the Browns are getting the organic roster building never experienced during the expansion era. What Heckert is doing will ultimately provide a long-term benefit.
However, in the hands of Shurmur, Heckert's roster will manifest itself as one of the league's worst collections of talent. Simply put, Shurmur is the kind of head coach who needs half a roster of rookies in order to maintain a tenuous hold on his team. Yet, Shurmur is not a coach who can effectively produce on-field discipline - which considering the makeup of the team is a huge, huge problem.
In another bit of irony - the cruel version exclusive to the Browns - this current collection of players would likely perform much better under the guidance of a more disciplined head coach such as Eric Mangini. While Mangini's teams struggled in many facets, his Browns' teams were essentially disciplined.
Perhaps then it's true that Shurmur could prove to be a competent head coach with a collection of veteran talent. That is - if Shurmur had a roster full of players like Joe Thomas and D"Qwell Jackson.
Anyway, this is "what the Browns got."
And at least for the last couple days, this, this, this, this and this seems to be the unofficial media theme of the 2012 Browns.
And just to recap, 2011 was the year of Pat Shurmur's explosive offense and Colt McCoy's ascension and 2010 was a series of articles predicting just when Holmgren would fire Mangini.
Yet, after a couple weeks of sloppy on field execution, the Cleveland media's focus will likely shift to owner Jimmy Haslam's plans for the team. Included will be Holmgren easily walking away with the entirety of his sweetheart Team President/Proxy Owner contract. Sides will be chosen between Heckert and Shurmur - which should be an easy decision since Shurmur is a much more visible target.
Heckert should be able to defend his roster decisions through the guise of an overall rebuilding project. And if Haslam's introductory comments are in anyway valid, "continuity" should keep Heckert in Cleveland (along with Joe Banner).
This leaves Shurmur - who by November will be the biggest media topic in Cleveland. Considering that this Browns' team will struggle, Shurmur could be facing a 1-7 or 2-8 record heading into December. And if the preseason games are any indicator, look for a hollowed out offense trying to overcome a litany of mistakes and injuries.
Of course, Brandon Weeden will naturally deflect some of Shurmur's heat simply by being a quarterback in Cleveland. Again (for the thousandth time), media and fans who endlessly debate QB's of the expansion era are completely missing the point regarding the state of the Browns. But since QB's are the most visible - and since the immobile Weeden will be relentlessly blitzed - look for the Matt Barkley articles weeks before college bowl season.
But is all lost, Mr. Negativity??!! (Using my floating Terry Pluto voice) Can you say anything positive?
My answer: In a minute. One more thing.
As I've grown older, I've naturally lost touch with hero worship and such things. As a kid, Bernie Kosar, Webster Slaughter, Mike Johnson, Hanford Dixon appeared as both real NFL players and real people. Perhaps it's a child's brilliant naivety, but these were pure heroes. As an adult, I've realized that these players are why I continue to follow the Browns and the NFL despite the realization that football often reflects the ugliest aspects of our society.
Through website writing and other means, I've managed to meet and interview various college and NFL players and honestly, the novelty quickly disappears. Football players are programmed to give useless talking points and garbled team speak. Jaded sportswriters then speak in their own racially coded language and in the end, nothing ever gets said.
My point here is that I can never view football from a childhood lens. However, these same in-person experiences have made me realize just how temporary the experience can be for an NFL player. Some of my favorite locker room memories are interviews with players who even hardcore Browns' fans have forgotten - or never knew existed.
It is this sentiment that makes me feel for the Browns' very small but incredibly talented group of "young" veterans. Players like Joe Thomas, D'Qwell Jackson, Josh Cribbs and Ben Watson are about to spend a prime year of their NFL lives playing on a too young, rebuilding franchise.
Perhaps this feeling was drilled home when Cribbs extended his body for a dangerous catch during the final preseason game against the Bears. Cribbs, who more than any player on the Browns, deserves a real chance to win a championship - will risk his body on special teams throughout the season for a team that will struggle to match last year's 4-12 record.
Thomas will continue to build what could be a Hall of Fame resume, while Jackson and Watson will serve as the prototype veteran players - completely professional players who could easily be the final pieces on another team's Super Bowl roster.
All four players easily deserve better than facing yet another rebuilding project. Yet, all four players have devoted themselves to the Browns - either because of personal or financial reasons - which is a testament of each player's character. Considering the Browns' expansion history, it's extraordinary that any player would actually choose Cleveland.
It's probably even more unique that young fans actually choose the Browns. As I've referenced several times before, people my age don't choose the Browns, we're simply born into being a fan. However, I at least have distant memories of the 1980's Browns while older fans have actual championships.
Yet, if you're younger than 25 - which inexplicably many Browns fans are - you have nothing but expansion pain. This can only mean that such a fan is the greatest Browns fan of anyone. If you have Jim Brown, it's easy. If you have Bernie Kosar, at least you have something. If you only have Dwight Clark, Bottle Gate and Derek Anderson, you are either devout or a complete idiot.
Either way, you are easily the greatest Browns' fan.
And like Thomas, Jackson, Cribbs and Watson, you deserve more than a ridiculously young roster led by a tepid head coach. You deserve both a competent and creative team and some real hope for the future.
But back to my floating Terry Pluto question:
How about something positive?
How about a new owner?
For all we know, Jimmy Haslam bought the Browns as nothing more than a solid investment. The value of NFL teams have increased for two decades and Haslam could easily sell the Browns in ten years and nearly double his investment. Along the way, Haslam could easily allow the dysfunction of the past decade to continue and still turn the team for a profit.
And if you doubt this reality, you haven't been paying attention over the past decade.
Or, you could adopt a more hopeful tone and consider that maybe Haslam also wants to win a few games. Then, you could take a leap of faith and predict that Haslam will actually want to structure the Browns to avoid the futility seen under the Caretaker Era of Randy Lerner.
Such beliefs could be represented by the Browns erasing the results of the last four front office regimes and reversing the effects of Bob LaMonte's no-bid contract mania. And while all of this will remain hope, it's a powerful one in Cleveland - especially in light of what could be a 2-14 season.*
However, Haslam is not a player - despite Mary Kay Cabot drooling over his "linebacker physique."
In terms of players, it's always worth rooting for Thomas, Cribbs, Jackson and Watson - along with Phil Dawson, Reggie Hodges, Alex Smith and the other select veterans who will be asked to babysit this roster.
Yet, there is a small core of young talent who could represent parts of the Browns' future. It's scary to think of Trent Richardson's already injured knee, but it's also exhilarating to think of his NFL potential. Similarly, there is intriguing talent at the skill positions in Travis Benjamin and Josh Gordon. Defensively, the Browns could be building a highly effective defensive line rotation and Joe Haden could soon be the league's top cornerback.
And who knows? Maybe an injection of (more) youth is what the Browns need. Maybe Pat Shurmur morphs into a dynamic head coach and finally, the Browns begin to show some potential.
After all, empty bravado aside, this is "what we got."