Over the last handful of years, the Cleveland Browns and the Vikings have been closely tied as organizations. From coaches to players, to swapping draft day picks to having similar needs as a team, both teams have taken different approaches in hopes of finding success. My hope is to highlight these parallels and explore where the teams have deviated.
Prior to the 2013 season, things were right in the North. The 2012 Vikings strung together impressive wins on the legs of Adrian Peterson, who was well on his way to 2,000+ yards. After winning on the road in Houston and beating the Packers at home in the ‘win and in’ game on national TV, the Vikings headed to
Satan’s lair Lambeau Field with a defense that was clicking, an MVP running back and a QB seemingly figuring himself out.
I’ll spare us the details of that playoff game, or Joe Webb’s moon shot throws. This is weird to say, but with Christian Ponder injured, we never stood a chance.
2012 went out like a dull clap. All the momentum the team had built would have to be put on hold for the next season – where, we’d clearly be better, right?
Expectations were high for 2013. Ponder was entering his 3rd year. Frazier had seemingly found his groove as a head coach. Peterson was talking about 2,500 yard rushing, like it wasn’t a big deal. People were bullish on the Vikings, and for good reason.
The week 3 loss against the Browns was the puncture in the hull of the long ship, and the Vikings were taking on water fast. No one envisioned the Vikings starting 0-3, not with the progress the team had shown during the home stretch of the previous season. Things in the NFL change fast, though, and before we knew it, the Vikings were looking to rebuild, yet again.
This isn’t an exploration into the miserable season we suffered in 2013. This is a look at two organizations, clearly headed in different directions in September 2013 and yet find themselves completely different situations moving towards the 2015 draft.
The pressure within the NFL is immense (insert inflate gate joke). Every decision is picked apart by local and national media, fans on twitter and team dedicated blogs and websites. The wrong decisions cost people their jobs, the right decisions ensure incredible job security and success.
So how did we get here? How have the Browns failed, yet again, to get their organization on the right track? How did the Vikings save their descent into the basement of their NFL, to reemerge as an up and coming team?
At the time in 2013, the Browns were supposed to be an easy win. They were starting Brian Hoyer at quarterback, seemingly impressive running back Trent Richardson was just traded to Indianapolis and up and coming receiver Josh Gordon was seeing his first game action of the season. All we had to do, was stop Gordon.
I remember listening to a Paul Allen segment on KFAN with Leslie Frazier the night the Richardson trade took place. The amount of confidence the Vikings had going into that game was at an all time high. There was no way we would lose that game – how could we?
The game ended 31-27, but I don’t remember it being that close. Then Browns offensive coordinator, Norv Turner, dialed up an excellent passing game and Brian Hoyer threw for 321 and 3 TDs (3 INTs too) and Josh Gordon torched the Vikings secondary for 146 yards on 10 catches. On their way to winning 3 in a row, Cleveland beat Mike Zimmer’s Cincinnati defense the following week. The Browns were a blip on the big radar that is the NFL. There was hope in Cleveland and the Browns were hanging around the edge of the national spotlight.
In typical fashion, however, the spotlight shifted and the Browns regressed to their normal state of dysfunction. Head coach Rob Chudzinski was fired after going 4-12. So was Leslie Frazier, although he mustered a 5-10-1 record a year after making the playoffs.
Both organizations were in the same shoes as they sought new head coaches, quarterbacks and success. Ranking dead last in defense in 2013, the Vikings opted to hire long time defensive coach Mike Zimmer. After years of interviewing and not getting his chance, Zimmer was given the keys to a broken down lemon that was the Vikings defense, with the not so simple task of rebuilding it, quickly.
The Vikings must have appreciated what Turner did for the Browns, because that off season, after hiring Mike Zimmer, the Vikings jumped at the chance to hire Turner as their offensive coordinator and quarterback guru. This is where the two team’s paths start to deviate.
The Browns hired relatively unknown Mike Pettine. For the record, I am a fan of Pettine and think the Browns did hire the right coach. Pettine had build a very strong defense in Buffalo, something new Bills coach Rex Ryan now gets the luxury of using.
Hiring Pettine might have been a good move, but they missed on their offensive coordinator, firing Kyle Shannahan after just one season. The Browns will enter the 2015 season with their third offensive coordinator in as many years. A consistent approach is a key to success, in my opinion. Sure, changes need to be made and are made often. However, how can you match a team’s roster with a new scheme year in and year out?
Looking towards free agency, the two teams took different strategies. The Vikings, although more active than years past, took a much slower approach to their free agent spending. The Browns, with new coaches and systems, tried to overhaul large pieces of their roster with free agent signings.
The Browns had 6 pro bowlers on their 2013 roster. It’s not often a 4-12 team can have that kind of talent on their roster. Going into 2014, however, only 4 were on the active roster. The Brown’s free agency moves had been curious, to say the least. They added 5 new wide receivers, Miles Austin and Andrew Hawkins being the most notable.
To supplement trading Trent Richardson to the Colts, they signed Texans free agent Ben Tate. To fill the gap of TJ Ward leaving for Denver, they signed Donte Whitner. The Browns signed 15 new players to their roster prior to the 2014 draft. Today, one a year removed from those moves, only 4 remain with the team.
To the North, the Vikings were also active in free agency, signing 7 players in hopes of improving their roster. As of today, 4 of those players remain with the Vikings, 2 of which are starters and a 3rd, Tom Johnson, didn’t start, but recorded 6 sacks in 2014 and recently resigned with the team.
A teams free agency strategy can send a team in either direction. Manage the cap poorly and you have a hard time resigning your in-house players. Draft well and you can ensure you aren’t at the mercy of the free agency market.
If you look to the consistent top performers in the NFL, rarely do they excel at the draft and remain active in free agency. Aside from moves that might fill a big need, successful teams are built in the draft. I realize this is to much of the dismay of fans, who are desperate for off season news, but patience pays.
Patience within the draft, also pays. The Browns were so eager to acquire Trent Richardson in 2012, they gave up their 4th, 5th and 7th round picks in the 2012 draft to move up 1 spot to pick Richardson. Richardson is now on his 4th team in as many years.
The Vikings, used the 4th round pick to draft Jarius Wright, who will seemingly take over the slot receiver role with Greg Jennings being released. The trade also gave the Vikings the flexibility to use their initial 4th round pick to trade back into the 1st round to draft Harrison Smith. No need to explain Smith’s tremendous impact on the defense.
Fast forward two years when the Vikings and Browns collided again on draft day.
The 2014 draft was a crucial stepping stone for both teams. Knowing the importance of a franchise quarterback, the Browns famously commissioned an expensive research report that would give them the data necessary to make their decision. We’ve since learned the report documented why Teddy Bridgewater would be the best quarterback in the draft.
With Bridgewater showing poorly at his Louisville pro day, his stock began to fall significantly. After a year or more of hearing how Bridgewater would be the 1st overall pick in the draft, the draft rumor mill chewed up all of the good things Bridgewater did, and spit out false projections about his hands, knees and NFL readiness.
Good teams are led by good front offices. Good front offices that listen to their in-house scouts and trust their gut. Good front offices aren’t swayed by hype, good or bad. The Browns were swayed by hype and they’re now paying the price.
After watching both Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel fall into the 20s, both teams were actively looking to move back into the 1st round to take their quarterback. With both teams vying to trade with Philadelphia for the 22nd pick, the Browns provided a better offer and were awarded the trade. With all assumptions that they would take Bridgewater, something changed their mind as they drafted Manziel 22nd overall.
There are rumors that Manziel had actually texted the Brown’s front office, urging them to draft him. Who know’s if that is what swayed their decision.
There are also stories published that claim the Vikings had Manziel ranked as the #1 quarterback on their board. Knowing what we know now, I’m not sure I believe that.
It wasn’t a secret that the Browns had commissioned the quarterback report. If you’re going to pay that sum of money, why would you ignore it? The Vikings had to believe they were going to draft Bridgewater, because why try to trade up to 22nd if they knew Manziel was going to be available later? The Vikings couldn’t have known about the text message Manziel sent to the Browns, so they likely thought the Browns were moving up to draft Bridgewater.
I think this detail is important, because at the end of the day, the guy ‘pounding the table,’ calling for Bridgewater was the same offensive coordinator the Browns let go prior to the new season, Norv Turner.
So here we are. There is no denying that the Vikings have holes to fill on their team and have frustrated fans with their inactivity in free agency, but they have players with contract extensions looming. They’ve found their franchise quarterback, his favorite wide receiver and offensive coordinator all via the Brown’s.
The Brown’s on the other hand, have their 1st round quarterback in rehab, their #1 wide receiver suspended and talented tight end who wanted out of Cleveland so badly, he took the same money offered by Miami.
I’m not trying to say the Vikings are the perfect organization. They have their own failings that aren’t necessarily overlooked. When they do make free agency moves, there are questionable returns. Greg Jennings was probably paid way more than his production warranted.
Captain Mannerlyn signed with the team and immediately regressed with his ability to stop slot receivers. Munnerlyn himself later said he didn’t listen to Zimmer as closely has he should have. The Vikings have since signed soon to be 37 year old Terence Newman in hopes of bolstering their secondary. As much as we appreciate Slick Rick Spielman and his cleverness in the draft, he’s not perfect and he has missed with free agent signings.
The point of this piece isn’t to pick apart the Browns organization, or put the Vikings on a pedestal. My hope was to highlight the different paths two organizations are on after intersecting a handful of times.
It is difficult to be patient with your favorite franchise at times. In an age where we can all make blockbuster trades on madden whenever we want, the pragmatic approach to building a team can seem unnecessarily safe.
I’ll leave you with an analogy I saw that I really liked. In the grand scheme of things, free agency is the sizzle, the draft is the steak. Success in the NFL is about pairing the right players with the right coaches in the right systems.
Thankfully, the Vikings are well on their way to doing that.