As I write this, the “Hall of Fame Game” is playing on my television and I’m struck with just how pointless and boring the preseason is for most NFL fans. Sure, it’s exciting that football is back–especially tonight, with the premier of the preseason–but after the initial excitement wears off, the preseason really boils down to three weeks of sloppy, meaningless football followed by one week that vaguely resembles a regular season game. I know all of this, and so do you, but I for some reason I think Thursday’s game between the Rams and Browns will provide something more.
Typically, a preseason game is an opportunity for roster long shots to prove they deserve a spot among the final 53, while the starters mostly stand on the sideline. But as two of the youngest teams in the NFL, the Rams and Browns are still trying to figure out exactly who those starters will be.
Much like the Rams, the Cleveland Browns appear to be a team on the rise. But also like the Rams, they find themselves in a tough division, a division that is home to the reigning Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
The Browns are building a stout defense (a necessity in the AFC North), and with the addition of rookie first-round pick Barkevious Mingo at defensive end/linebacker, plus the acquisition of veteran pass rusher Paul Kruger–a Ravens defector–they have the potential to field one of the most underrated defensive fronts in the AFC.
Unfortunately for the Browns, you need more than just a strong front seven to field a sound defense. If healthy, Joe Haden and TJ Ward are Pro Bowl caliber defensive backs, but the rest of secondary is a mix of unproven and untalented. The one caveat of hope for these misfits is that new defensive coordinator Ray Horton spent his playing career learning the nuances of the defensive back position.
On offense, things are not so promising.
Brandon Weeden’s career has thus far has gone much the way of Chris Weinke–absolutely nowhere. Greg Little has the size and athleticism to be a viable threat in the receiving game, but so far has failed to produce consistently.
The team thought enough of Josh Gordon to take a flier and sacrifice a second-round pick to get him in the 2012 supplemental draft. He has all the upside in the world and showed flashes of greatness last season, but as his two-game suspension would suggest, until he can stay out of trouble, he is an unreliable option at best.
For now, the Browns offense will continue to run through Trent Richardson. Richardson was a disappointment to some in his rookie campaign, failing to crack 1,000 yards rushing after being select third overall. He is healthy for the first time since coming into the league and the upcoming season could be a breakout year for the talented young back. We should know more about whether or not that is the case this Thursday when his abilities will be on full display, at least for five or six plays.
When it’s all said and done, the Browns are still a few steps behind the Rams in their rebuild, but the pieces certainly seem to be finally falling into place for the first time since the Browns re-joined the league in 1999. Thursday’s game should shape up to be a fierce competition between two young teams who both feel they have a lot to prove.
But enough about those losers!
What we as fans really care about is seeing all those players we’ve been hearing about all offseason actually suit up and take the field:
Jared Cook with a leaping grab in the back of the endzone.
Alec Ogletree picking off a pass over the middle.
Tavon Austin with a 112-yard kick off return.
Michael Brockers parting a sea of offensive linemen using only his beard.
Sam Bradford not taking a sack for a whole game.
Whatever hyperbolic anecdote has had you checking the camp reports all summer now has the potential to become reality. Expectations are high.
The fan base has not been this hopeful to start the season in nearly a decade, and although it may be meaningless by any other measure, seeing the future of this franchise in action for the first time is something to get very excited about.
We should all keep in mind that preseason wins can be fool’s gold (ahem, 2011, ahem), but we also know that Thursday’s game could very well be the beginning of something we’ve all been waiting on for a very long time.