The Cleveland Browns South
Columnist note: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are my number one sports love and always will be. However, I have lived outside of Cleveland for nine years and have become quite fond of the Indians and Browns. It is from this perspective of being (painfully) familiar with the Cleveland Browns that informs this column.

A telling telephone conversation between Paul Stewart and me occurred in August of 2011. In discussing the Bucs chances for the upcoming season I posited that the Bucs could probably replicate their 10-6 season of 2010 and be in playoff contention.

Paul countered that he foresaw a repeat of 1998, when a young Bucs team fresh off a 10-6 record fell to 8-8 as the competition got harder. Boy, were we both way off!

Instead what we got was the 2008 Cleveland Browns. And if the Glazers aren’t careful, Buc fans may be getting the 2009, 2010 and 2011 Browns to boot!

The last five years have been eerie for me as I am starting to see similarities between the Browns and Bucs that are on par with those of monozygotic twins! Fortunately, the similarities can end soon if the Glazers continue their generally solid track record in hiring football men.

Right now the Browns are owned by Randy Lerner. Like the Glazers, Lerner also owns a member of the English Premier League, Aston Villa. And like the Glazers, fair or not, Lerner is being viewed as an absentee owner who is more interested in spending money in England than in the United States.

But in 2007 it appeared criticism about Lerner’s lack of interest was off base. In 2007 the Browns stunned the NFL by going 10-6 and finishing just one game short of the playoffs. Does that story sound familiar, Tampa?

In 2008 the Browns were the NFL’s new darlings and were scheduled for multiple primetime games. Quarterback Derek Anderson was the “it” player following a Pro Bowl season and the offense boasted “big-play” threats in wide receiver Braylon Edwards, tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr. and 1,000 yard running back Jamal Lewis.

The defense was young and inexperienced but defensive-minded head coach Romeo Crennel, an amiable chap, would get them in shape. The Browns had limited participation in free agency outside of receiver Donte Stallworth.

Otherwise, the Browns stood pat in the off-season. THUD!

The 2008 Browns proved 2007 was a castle built on a swamp. Buoyed by a weak schedule, the team’s weaknesses were obscured. In the light of day against a tougher schedule the Browns collapsed to a 4-12 record. While there was a bright spot, a 35-14 victory over the defending Super Bowl champion Giants in Week Six, the Browns were never a threat again.

Now fast forward to our Bucs. Coming into the 2011 season the Bucs were the NFL’s new darlings and were scheduled for multiple primetime games. Quarterback Josh Freeman was the “it” player following a Pro Bowl-worthy season and the offense boasted “big-play” threats in wide receiver Mike Williams, tight end (ahem) Kellen Winslow, Jr. and 1,000 yard running back LeGarrette Blount.

The defense was young and inexperienced but defensive-minded head coach Raheem Morris, an amiable chap, would get them in shape. The Bucs also had limited participation in free agency outside of punter Michael Koenen.

Otherwise, the Bucs stood pat in the off-season. THUD!

The 2011 Bucs also proved the previous year’s team resided in a swampy castle. Appearing in the light of day against a stouter schedule, they collapsed to a 4-12 record. The Bucs signature win of 2011 also happened in Week Six when they knocked off the Super Bowl-contending New Orleans Saints, 26-20. But they were never the same after that.

Please let the similarities end there. The Browns fired Crennel after the 2008 season and brought in former Jets coach Eric Mangini. Mangini did improve the talent level of the Browns but not much else and was fired following a two season record of 10-22.

The Browns hired former Green Bay and Seattle head coach Mike Holmgren to be football czar. So far the results haven’t been thrilling but at least Lerner opened his wallet. If he spent the money wisely is still to be determined. Does this same fate await Tampa Bay?

One can only hope not. Raheem Morris is now gone and so to possibly will be players such as Kellen Winslow, Jr., Jeff Faine, Albert Haynesworth and possibly Ronde Barber. But I do think the Bucs have a better shot at returning to competitiveness than the Browns.

The Bucs of 2012 have more talent than the 2009 Browns did. Josh Freeman, Mike Williams, Da’Quan Bowers, Adrian Clayborn, Gearland McCoy and Dezmon Briscoe and Davin Joseph provide a better foundation to the next Bucs coach then what Eric Mangini had to work with in Cleveland.

The Browns entire roster only had two bona-fide pillars in my opinion: Josh Cribbs, an above average special teamer and Joe Thomas, the Browns version of Paul Gruber.

The level of talent on the Bucs is why Mark Dominik was not part of the purge. Many may disagree with me but I think the Bucs have drafted well with Dominik. Much better drafting than the Browns did under Phil Savage and now Mike Holmgren.

The Glazers have also proven to be better at hiring football men than Randy Lerner up to this point. Yes, Morris flamed out but the Glazers gave Tony Dungy a chance and were willing to pony up draft picks and a pile of money to bring in John Gruden.

Also, the Glazers showed in 2009 they weren’t content to merely throw around money at non-productive veterans and bounced Gruden when he provided a wish-list that would have made Donald Trump blanch.

Hyperbole is easy during a regime change, but I can honestly say this is the most important off-season for the Buccaneers since 1995/1996. Back then the Glazers were an unknown quantity and many in the community did not trust them because they felt the Glazers were blackmailing them into building a taxpayer-funded stadium.

The Glazers made a great hire in Tony Dungy and eventually built a Super Bowl-winning organization. That level of commitment earned grudging respect if not beloved status in Tampa Bay.

But 16 years later, the Glazers are back at the same level they were when first buying the franchise. Fair or not, their reticence to be public faces of the franchise combined with several moribund seasons and a perception of caring more about Manchester United than Tampa Bay makes them an easy target for critics and fans. They need to get this next hire right for themselves as much as for the franchise.

In my heart I don’t believe the Glazers care less about the Bucs than Man U. I believe they will hire the best man for the job. I believe building through the draft and complementing the roster with logical veteran acquisitions is the way to go. The mistake this past season was underestimating the need for steady veteran influence. Now that the mistake has been learned, I think they’ll turn it around.

They have to. The alternative is to become the Cleveland Browns South and I don’t think anyone in Tampa or England wants to experience that. Trust me, I’ve seen it and it is not pretty!