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Browns crawl from 1-15 wreckage, hope to build on bad season
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By TOM WITHERS
CLEVELAND (AP) The worst season in Browns' history, sometimes laughable, often painful, and totally deplorable, ended without any significant changes.
In Cleveland, that qualifies as change.
Owners Dee and Jimmy Haslam, whose four-years-plus tenure has been overloaded with losing and turnover, vowed to keep things intact at the beginning of the season. They kept their word as Sunday's finale in Pittsburgh was followed by calm and commitment.
Although the Browns went 1-15 and slid even deeper into the NFL's abyss, coach Hue Jackson hung on to his job. A revamped analytic-focused front office led by vice president Sashi Brown and strategy director Paul DePodesta went as far on Monday as to claim the team made progress in 2016.
"There's a belief in the building we're heading in the right direction, so that's extremely important and a cornerstone of the foundation we needed to lay this year," Brown said.
Baby steps at best.
The Browns did show some improvement in the final weeks, and never stopped fighting, a credit to Jackson and his staff. But that didn't come close to washing away the ugliness of 14 straight losses, the 31st-ranked scoring offense, 30th-ranked scoring defense, giving up a team record 66 sacks and 35 touchdown passes.
Incredibly, Cleveland has sustained 14 double-digit loss seasons and is 88-200 since its 1999 expansion rebirth.
But after choosing not to re-sign any of their own free agents, purging the roster and filling it with rookies, the Browns are expected to take a different approach this offseason in a rebuilding project with no known completion date.
As always, much of the focus will be on finding a franchise quarterback. With the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, the Browns, who made a short-term investment in Robert Griffin III , will have an opportunity to land a player that has almost taken on mythical proportions. Cleveland has gone through 26 starters in 18 years and will continue to sputter and spin without an offensive leader.
Pro Bowl tackle Joe Thomas senses that the turnaround, albeit a slow one, is under way.
"We've got the right head coach in place and we've got the right management team and we have a lot of young guys that are only going to improve," he said. "You put all those things together and I think there's a good sense of excitement around the building.
"Things are definitely looking up for the Cleveland Browns."
From the bottom, that's the only view.
Here are a few more things to consider as the Browns enter perhaps the most significant offseason in the club's 67 years:
RG3 AND OUT?: Griffin feels he proved his critics wrong by making five starts, including four in a row to end the season after he recovered from a broken non-throwing shoulder. While he showed some flashes of the old RG3, the Browns have to decide if he's worth keeping around. Jackson gave him a luke-warm review on Monday, saying he wanted to look at more film before making an evaluation.
Griffin and 37-year-old veteran Josh McCown are due $750,000 bonuses if they're on the roster March 11. Rookie Cody Kessler did some good things when he was forced into the lineup, but he projects as a No. 2 QB.
ALL FOR ONE: The Browns will have the pick of the litter in the NFL draft and they really can't go wrong. Well, they are the Browns, so of course they could.
At this point, Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett is widely regarded as the can't-miss top pick, but that could change several times in the months ahead. Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson and Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen will also be in the mix for No. 1.
Cleveland also has the Nos. 12 and 33 picks, and could use one of them on a quarterback such as North Carolina's Mitch Trubisky or Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer.
PRYOR COMMITMENT: Terrelle Pryor's transition from quarterback to 1,000-yard wide receiver was one of the league's best stories this season. An unrestricted free agent, Pryor wants to return and the Browns would like to have him back - at the right price. Pryor has told agents Drew and Jason Rosenhaus to get a deal done with Cleveland.
Brown said signing Pryor and linebacker Jamie Collins, who played well after coming over in a midseason trade, are priorities. The team does not intend to use franchise tags on either.
STAFF SHAKEUP: While Jackson survived a 1-15 season, some of his assistants may not.
He plans to evaluate his staff and did not rule out making changes. A possible alteration could come on defense as the Browns struggled under coordinator Ray Horton, who is in his second stint with the team.
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Updated January 3, 2017