I recently got in touch with a college classmate of mine, one Eric Batke, who covers the Browns for the fan blog Dawg Pound Daily. We talked about how Mike Holmgren is doing in Cleveland, the current state of the Browns and how Cleveland stacks up against Green Bay's team. Enjoy!
Andy Tisdel: Probably the best-known former Packer with the Browns is Mike Holmgren. What has he brought to the table in Cleveland as "football czar"? How has he changed the Browns organization?
Eric Batke: The most important things that Holmgren has brought to this team are stability and credibility. The organization needed a trustworthy face to make its decisions, and so far, Holmgren has made some great decisions. GM Tom Heckert was a great hire, and coach Pat Shurmur seems like an up-and-comer. The Browns have been mired in mediocrity for more than a decade, and it had become increasingly clear that the owner, Randy Lerner, needed someone who knew what he was doing to make the football decisions.
AT: Can Peyton Hillis have another season like last year, or was he more of a one-year wonder?
EB: I really hope he can step up and be dominant like he was last season. Hillis started to lag a bit as the season ended due to a combination of nagging injuries. It didn’t help that every team became willing to put eight in the box and force Colt McCoy to burn them, which our offense just didn’t seem capable of doing. The Browns have Montario Hardesty returning from an ACL tear, and of course we have your boy Brandon Jackson as well, so I think Hillis can be extremely effective as long as he’s not forced to carry the ball 35 times a game.
AT: Is Colt McCoy the real deal as a franchise QB?
EB: For now, the jury is still out on McCoy. When he saw time last season, he didn’t get a lot of results in terms of winning. However, he showed a lot of intangibles that had to make Holmgren happy. Only time will tell how he takes to the West Coast offense, but he was extremely accurate in college (NCAA-record 76.7% in 2008), which certainly doesn’t hurt. He needs to work on his touch as far as short balls are concerned, and his deep throw leaves something to be desired. He’ll probably never be an All-Pro, but I certainly think he’s capable of leading a good team.
AT: What are some players that have stood out in Cleveland, but don't get a lot of attention from outside media?
EB: Well, everyone knows about All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas. But a lot of people don’t know we have another borderline All-Pro at center in Alex Mack. He absolutely handled his assignments in the trenches, and his mauling of Vince Wilfork was one of the keys to the Browns’ win over the Patriots. People are all about defensive back Joe Haden as the next big shutdown corner, but they might not remember that second-year safety TJ Ward led all rookies in tackles last year with 105.
AT: What's the strongest/deepest position on the Browns right now? The weakest?
EB: The Browns seem very strong at the corner and offense line positions. Haden has been having a stellar camp, veteran Sheldon Brown is fully healthy and ready to start, and rookies Buster Skrine and Eric Hagg have been making a lot of noise in camp. On the line, Thomas and Mack are joined by guard Eric Steinbach, who fills out one of the most solid left sides in the NFL. The right side of the line is a question mark right now, as the two projected starters have struggled with injuries, but the overall performance of the line should be nothing less than above-average. As for a weak position, there’s no doubt it’s the linebackers. D’Qwell Jackson has missed consecutive seasons with pectoral injuries, and behind him you mostly see guys who would be special-teamers on a championship team. The transition to the 4-3 has left the front seven with a lot of questions.
AT: How are the Browns doing with their switch to a 4-3 defense?
EB: They drafted NT Phil Taylor in the first round, and DE Jabaal Sheard in the second round of the recent draft, and they should definitely help fill out the line, which was a big concern. Sheard is lining up across from Thomas every practice, which I think will really accelerate his learning curve. The defensive line and linebackers have bodies at all the positions, but the fact of the matter is they’re all pretty unproven. It might be a rough year for run defense.
AT: How do the Browns stack up against the Packers?
EB: I think Holmgren looks at the way the core of the Packers has been built and sees a model to emulate here. The talent level of the Browns is no where close to that of the Packers, but we have some scrappy, high-motor players like Josh Cribbs who can bring that type of game-swinging energy. However, when the starters are on the field at the beginning of Saturday’s game, I think it’ll be a quick march to 6 for Aaron Rodgers and Co.
AT: Who were you rooting for in Super Bowl XLV?
EB: Yeah, I think you know the answer to this one. Cleveland was all about the Packers that night.
AT: Thinking long-term, what do the Browns have to do to overtake the Steelers and Ravens in the AFC North?
EB: First and foremost, we need consistent quarterback play. There seems to be a pretty specific formula for winning in the AFC North: An efficient leader at quarterback, a well-built defense, and a running game to support the offense when snow hits the ground. The Browns seem on the right track with all three right now.
AT: What are you hoping to see happen in Saturday's game?
EB: What everyone else looks for in the first preseason game: Something to get excited about! Maybe a third-stringer earns himself some more time in the next game. Maybe an undrafted rookie keeps himself off the cut list for another two weeks. I just want to see some depth so I don’t cry when I see someone rolling on the ground.