What Could Have Been: The Cleveland Browns

What the Cleveland Browns have managed to accomplish since 1995 is almost legendary. For the fans of the Ohio franchise, it has been 21 years of misery.

The Browns have secured only two winning seasons and one playoff appearance in that span—leaving plenty of time for fans to consider how Cleveland could have turned things around instead.

They had that chance at the dawn of the 2000s.

But much like an inebriate on his way home, the Cleveland Browns steadily stumbled through five straight years of regrettable draft picks, and hard times endured.

It begs the question: What if the 2000-era Cleveland Browns franchise didn’t falter? What if they turned a five-year draft fluke into the mother-of-all draft-streaks?

Of course, guesswork leads to debate.

It’s important to mention, that according to chaos theory, minor changes in the past lead to major changes in the future. There’s no guarantee that the Cleveland Browns would have the same picks available later on in this unholy steak if they make the correct picks in the initial years.

I’ve done my best to take this into account.

The Rules:

I will examine five years of near misses by the Browns organization by comparing each pick Cleveland made to a better pick they could have selected later in the draft at the same exact position.

I will provide career stats and accomplishments for each player while also considering how each what-if pick could change Cleveland’s position in the draft the following year.

Additionally, while a player usually performs better amongst a talented roster, team accomplishments, such as Super Bowl wins, will be omitted for the sake of focusing on individual performances.

As a final note, remember that this is for fun and debate! I’ve done my best to understand the team’s needs as a whole each season, as well as situational settings that could influence decision making, but nobody is perfect.

The NFL Draft: 1999

Cleveland’s Pick:
Tim Couch (1st round – 1st overall)
22-37 record
64 TD 67 INT
Only five seasons in NFL

Better Pick:
Donovan McNabb (1st round – 2nd overall)
98-62-1 record
234 TD 117 INT
Six Pro Bowls

Overview: Sitting between well-known draft bust Tim Couch and lesser-known but equally unfortunate bust Akili Smith was Syracuse’s star, Donovan McNabb. There’s no guarantee that McNabb would have had the same amount of second-year success as he did under Andy Reid’s offense, but the potential still remains.

The NFL Draft: 2000

Cleveland’s Picks:
DE Courtney Brown (1st round -1st overall)
19 sacks
194 combined tackles
Only played one full season in six years

QB Spergon Wynn (6th round – 183rd overall)
0-3 record
1 TD 7 INT
Only two years in the NFL

Better Picks:
DE Shaun Ellis (1st round – 12th overall)
73.5 sacks (hit double-digits in 2003 & 2004)
566 combine tackles
Two Pro Bowls

DE John Abraham (1st round – 13th overall)
133.5 sacks (hit double-digits eight times in career)
547 combined tackles
Two-time All-Pro
Five Pro Bowls

QB Tom Brady (6th round – 199th overall)
207-60 record
517 TD 171 INT
Two-time offensive Player of the Year
Three-time All-Pro
Three-time MVP
Four-time Super Bowl MVP
NFL 2000s All-Decade Team
14 Pro Bowls

Overview: In terms of foundation and long-term success, this might draft might have been the most costly. It’s not a reach to say that Cleveland doesn’t retain the first overall pick after picking up McNabb, but they were still far from a playoff caliber team. Where Ellis and Abraham were picked up still leaves room for an incomplete Browns team to make a grab and add strength to the defense.

As for Tom Brady, the miss is painful, but there’s no guarantee that he is even close to the same performer without Bill Belichick and company. That being said, he was a proven leader during his time at Michigan and could have been a strong developmental backup behind McNabb. Maybe even a Pro Bowl or All-Pro caliber performer later down the line.

The NFL Draft: 2001

Cleveland’s picks:
DT Gerard Warren (1st round – 3rd overall)
36.5 sacks
335 combined tackles

WR Quincy Morgan (2nd round – 33rd overall)
17 TD
2,466 yards
Only two seasons that reached 500+ yards

Better picks:
DT Richard Seymour (1st round – 6th overall)
57.5 sacks
496 combined tackles
Three time All-Pro
Seven Pro Bowls

DT Marcus Stroud (1st round – 13th overall)
29.5 sacks
424 combined tackles
Three Pro Bowls

WR Chad “Ochocinco” Johnson (2nd round – 36th overall)
67 TD
11,059 yards (Six consecutive 1,100+ yard seasons)
Two-time All-Pro
Six Pro Bowls

WR Steve Smith (3rd round – 74th overall)
81 TD
14,371 yards (Four consecutive 1,000+ yard seasons)
Two-time All-Pro
Five Pro Bowls

Overview: This is where speculation gets tough. If Cleveland makes all of the right picks coming into 2001, then there is almost no way they land at the 3rd overall pick for an admittedly O.K. pick in Gerard Warren, or even a 6th overall pick for Seymour. The defense would be improved after the previous draft and the team would have a solid quarterback scenario that likely leads to a semi-productive offense and more wins.

The only way I see them moving up in the first to grab Seymour is by sacrificing a second round pick and taking a chance on finding a receiver later in the draft.

Namely Steve Smith.

At 5’9″ it’s completely understandable why Smith fell to the third round. It’s also fair to assume the Browns could skip the receiver altogether considering they were vertically challenged at the wideout position during the prior season. Still, the option remains.

If they still decide to go with the defensive tackle position in the first round, Marcus Stroud was available in a more realistic spot for the Browns at 13th overall. Casey Hampton—who isn’t listed—was also available at 19th overall.

Lastly, there’s the chance that they go with the 6’1″ Chad Johnson as a mid-to-late first round reach. It sounds unlikely, but crazier things have happened.

The NFL Draft: 2002

Cleveland’s pick:
HB William Green (1st round – 16th overall)
2,109 yards
9 TD
3.7 YPC

Better pick:
HB Clinton Portis (2nd round – 51st overall)
9,923 yards (four consecutive 1,300+ yard seasons)
75 TD
4.4 YPC
AP’s 2002 NFL Rookie of the Year
Two Pro Bowls

Overview: Even with all of the questionable choices the Browns made in the three previous seasons, they closed off 2001 with a 7-9 record. Considering this, it’s safe to assume that they have a chance to make the wildcard round in this alternative timeline piece.

Still, that doesn’t change much. Even if Cleveland picks up someone other than a halfback in the first round, Portis remained available as the 18th pick in the second round. Giving the Browns room to make the scoop.

The Miami University alum had his share of injury issues, but he was solid with six productive seasons of 1,200+ yards, three of which passed the 1,500-yard mark. Most impressive of all was the fact that he hit four straight 1,300+ yard seasons (2002-2005) and averaged 1,102 yards in his career even after having three seasons where he played eight games or less.

The NFL Draft: 2003

Cleveland’s pick:
LB Shaun Thompson (2nd round – 52nd overall)
11.5 sacks
230 combined tackles
2 forced fumbles

Better pick:
LB Lance Briggs (3rd round – 68th overall)
15 sacks
1,174 combined tackles
16 INT
16 forced fumbles
5 TD
All-Pro (2005)
Seven Pro Bowls

Cleveland made it to the wildcard round in 2002—the first time since 1994—and lost a close game to divisional rival Pittsburgh by a score of 33-36 after a disastrous collapse that began late in the third quarter. This loss was especially hurtful considering the fact that the Browns lost to the Steelers by just a field goal in both regular season matchups that year.

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians managed to turn a bland Cleveland Browns into a playoff-ready machine. Even with an injured Tim Couch. Having an experienced Donovan McNabb and Tom Brady—pick your starter because it honestly doesn’t matter—a youthful defensive front, and strength at the wide receiver and halfback positions turns that machine into something dangerous. A 31-year-old Tommy Maddox and the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t stand a chance.

The Cleveland Browns make it to the divisional at minimum.

As a result, Cleveland is at the latter end of the following draft. The first round is likely to be uneventful, but the franchise has the potential to use a late second round draft pick to up an early third round talent in linebacker Lance Briggs, elevating Cleveland’s defense significantly.

I think Briggs, who made seven consecutive Pro Bowl appearances (2005-2007,) helps turn Cleveland into a contender. Taking them to the playoffs once again—and maybe beyond—in the seasons to come.

BONUS Speculation:

2004 Draft: TE Kellen Winslow (1st round – 6th overall)
25 TD
5,236 yards
One Pro Bowl (2007)

2005 Draft: WR Braylon Edwards (1st round – 3rd overall)
40 TD
5,522 yards
One Pro Bowl (2007)

Cleveland finally began to trend in the right direction with Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards, but the future wasn’t kind, and the hopes of the Browns organization were once again derailed.

Assuming the Browns somehow still landed top-10 picks in consecutive drafts, Kellen Winslow didn’t tear his ACL in a motorcycle accident, and Braylon Edwards didn’t have a flurry of weird off-field incidents, the sky might have been the limit for Cleveland.

A New Chapter?

It’s almost impossible to look at all of the talent, potential and real, that passed the franchise and not wonder about what could have been. Yet, despite their woes, the Cleveland Browns have remained one of the most polarizing teams in the NFL.

Luckily, the quarterback carousel seems to have stopped, and a culture change is taking place within the organization. Who knows? They might be the team everyone despises in a few years.

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