Steven King

Browns Practice Going Green

Created on Feb. 26, 2013 6:26 PM EST

It’s hardly a newsflash that the Cleveland Browns have problems.

It’s the residue of five straight losing seasons in which they’ve won a combined total of just 23 times in 80 games –a 28.8-percent success rate. Not surprisingly, they’re on their fourth head coach since 2008 in Rob Chudzinski.

This is not what the fans had in mind when they fought to get the Browns back after the original franchise bolted to Baltimore following the 1995 season.

But despite all that bad news, the good news is the Browns are in excellent shape financially. In fact, they are at the other end of the NFL in that regard, being a reported $44.3 million under the salary cap as free agency approaches. That’s believed to be the second-highest figure in the league.

So while the Browns may have had some bad players in recent years, they really don’t have any bad contracts now.

You can thank former GM Tom Heckert for that. When he arrived in 2010, he inherited an old team full of players at or near the end of their careers whose fat contracts the Browns had to lug around. In his three years on the job, Heckert did outstanding work in retooling – really, completely flipping – the team in terms of age. He got rid of all those past-their-prime, too-well-paid players and replaced them with a slew of young, cap-friendly ones.

The Browns paid the price – literally and figuratively -- for that over-the-top youth movement last season, finishing just 5-11 with a team that had 27 players who were rookies or in their first season.

Heckert had thought he would be around to start reaping the benefits of that in 2013 as those players begin to mature, but now the people doing it now will be Chudzinski, CEO Joe Banner and GM/VP of Player Personnel Mike Lombardi. It’s a real blessing for them that they don’t also have to purge the roster of bad contracts in addition to all the other challenges they’re already facing in trying to rebuild the team.

And you can bet that Banner – whose specialty is managing the cap – will do everything he can to seize upon the golden opportunity in which he has found himself. He doesn’t dare mess it up by spending all this available money foolishly. By being judicious – adding a modicum of free agents at key positions who are just entering their prime plus adding to the contracts of the core players they already have to make certain they stay – Banner and the rest of this new regime could turn the Browns around sooner rather than later.

And judicious is the key word here. Banner and team owner Jimmy Haslam have made it clear they want to build the Browns for the long term. As such, they aren’t going to go into free agency looking to make a big splash by signing a player to put them over the top. They don’t need that type of player because they’re nowhere close to being near the top.

It’s somewhat similar to where the Browns were in the mid-1980s at the beginning of the Bernie Kosar era. GM Ernie Accorsi arrived in 1985 and cleared out the remaining players left from the “Kardiac Kids” seasons, replacing them with a bunch of unknown but – as it turned out – very talented young players.

The result was five straight playoff appearances from 1985-89, including four AFC Central Division titles and three trips to the conference championship game. It was one of the best runs in the NFL at the time and one of the best in team history.

The Browns can only hope they’re now on the verge of something approaching that level of success.

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