Steven King

Cleveland's Clock Is Ticking

Created on May. 01, 2013 10:21 PM EST

Football “experts” are given a tough task this time of year.

They’re asked to evaluate – and even grade – teams’ NFL Draft classes before the players even so much as don a pair of shoulder pads, let alone play in a game that counts in the standings.

It would be like a restaurant reviewer ordering a meal and then being forced to critique it while the chef is still preparing it.

But that’s the deal in pro sports today. It’s part of the world of immediacy in which we all live.

We’ve already done our best to predict what players will flourish, and which ones are longshots to do so, from the Browns’ five-member class in last weekend’s draft.

Everything about that attempt is ambiguous at best. Don’t hold us to any of what we’ve written or said. We’re allowed to change our opinion – numerous times – as circumstances change.

Here’s an evaluation, though, that’s rock-solid firm, especially in its timeline. It encompasses not just the draft but all aspecfts of the team, not only for 2013 but for ’14 as well.

That is, this new Browns regime – from team owner Jimmy Haslam to CEO Joe Banner to general manager Mike Lombardi to head coach Rob Chudzinski to offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Norv Turner to defensive coordinator Ray Horton – has two years to get the club turned around.

That’s right, just two years.

Not three years.

Or four.

Or, heaven forbid, five years, as the previous regime of president Mike Holmgren, GM Tom Heckert and head coach Pat Shurmur seemed to believe they had with the meandering, laissez-faire manner in which they conducted their business.

No, we’re talking two years, as in the 2013 season being the first year and the ’14 season being the second year.

So it’s actually not two calendar years from right now, but only about 20 months, or the end of December 2014 or thereabouts, whenever the season is over. Browns fans are hoping it isn’t over until January 2015, since that would mean the team made the playoffs.

OK, what does it mean; that this new regime has two years to rebuild the team? Rebuild is a vague word, meaning different things to different people.

Here’s what we intend it to mean here: As the final week of regular-season play in 2014 arrives, the Browns are in legitimate competition for a playoff spot. It would be nice if they earned that spot and made the postseason for the first time since 2002, and for just the second time during the expansion era, but the Browns don’t necessarily have to get into the playoffs to meet our standards. That’s too do-or-die to be reasonable, plausible and fair.

At the same time, though, “in legitimate competition for a playoff spot” does not mean that the Browns can get in only if 500 scenarios play out exactly right – only if the sun rises in the west and sets in the east.

Legitimiate is just that, legitimate – possible, without having to jump through hoops and pay homage to the football gods.

Painstakingly so, we’re giving a pass for 2013 to this new regime. Browns fans have been down this road before – again and again and again with all these regime changes since the team’s rebirth in 1999 – but to be fair, this new group hasn’t been part of any of that and must be given a year to get its system, philosophies and people in place. That type of thing takes time – at least it takes time to do it right.

As such, there are certain to be some rough patches this season, but even with that, those rough patches should become less frequent as the year goes on.

However, come 2014, all bets are off. The party is over. The trials and tribulations are history. The preseason — and the testing ground -- that the 2013 season may, regrettably, turn out to be in large part, must be a thing of the past.

The games will start to count — a lot, each week — in 2014. People will be held accountable. There will be no more leeway given for baby steps. The Browns have to catch up with the other three teams in the AFC North in the Pittsburgh Steelers, Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals.

If Brandon Weeden is still the quarterback for the Browns in 2014 as they attempt to do that, that’s great. But if not, that’s fine, too.

Ditto for all the other players at all the other positions — from Joe Thomas to Trent Richardson to Josh Gordon to Greg Little to Alex Mack to Paul Kruger to Barkevious Mingo to Desmond Bryant to D’Qwell Jackson to Joe Haden to whomever else. They have to produce. They have to perform like winners, and the team must win.

Simply playing well and making a game of it won’t cut it any more.

As the late Al Davis used to say, “Just win, baby.” He was right on target. Winning is all that really matters — ever — in pro sports.

The fans in Cleveland have waited long enough, so while we hate to ask them to wait two more years — or rather, two more seasons — we have to.

But not a day more, or else it could be time to scrap this new regime, or at least portions of it.

The clock is ticking.

Good luck, men.

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