September is here again, and with it comes the return of professional football.
Although football is seemingly year-round these days, fans have not actually had an NFL game since the Philadelphia Eagles’ Super Bowl victory in February. For fans of Ohio football, the wait has been even longer. Neither the Cleveland Browns nor the Cincinnati Bengals made the 2017 postseason, with the Browns putting forth an especially bad showing by not winning any of their games. Ideally, the 2018 season will see improvement from both programs.
The Cleveland Browns have been varying levels of mediocre since their reestablishment in Cleveland for the 1999 season, but the 2017 season uncovered a new level of underachievement. After fueling the hopes of fans by winning all of their preseason matchups, Cleveland earned themselves a spectacular 0-16 regular season record, joining only the 2008 Detroit Lions as teams with winless seasons.
The rebuild process started early, with the Browns selecting Oklahoma University quarterback Baker Mayfield with the first overall pick in the 2018 draft. Other improvements to the offense include the acquisition of quarterback Tyrod Taylor and the addition of wide receiver Jarvis Landry. Both Landry and newly acquired running back Carlos Hyde have turned heads in training camp and the preseason. Hyde’s status as not only a veteran back but as a former Ohio State Buckeye has already ensured that he is more than welcome in Cleveland.
The departure of wide receiver Corey Coleman, who is now a member of the Buffalo Bills, takes experience away from the Browns’ wide receivers, but the team has seen the gradual return of the troubled standout Josh Gordon. Despite not having played in the regular season since 2014, Gordon has begun to make his return and will hopefully contribute to the Browns this season, barring any issues off the field.
In related news, rookie receiver Antonio Callaway will be suspended for the first few games of the season surrounding drug-related charges.
Cleveland’s defense has seen significant change. Despite losing a couple key players, the Browns defense is undergoing what appears to be improvement. Longtime nose tackle Danny Shelton signed with the New England Patriots and defensive back Jamar Taylor joined the Arizona Cardinals, but a host of new hires could bolster the defense significantly. Former Green Bay Packers safety Damarious Randall and cornerback T.J. Carrie of the Oakland Raiders join rookie Denzel Ward in a new and improved secondary, and a healthy Myles Garett has the potential to lead a destructive defensive line.
Problems off the field have reached the defense as well, with the Browns choosing to cut linebacker Mychal Kendricks after he was charged with insider trading. Though there is cause for optimism among Cleveland’s fans, questions surrounding the validity of their offseason improvements still hover. Will the Browns turn around and produce some wins in 2018, or will they discover more new and interesting ways to lose?
Though they do not carry the infamy of a 0-16 record, the Cincinnati Bengals are also looking to improve. A 7-9 record in 2017 left much to be desired from a seemingly promising Cincinnati team. The Bengals offense is again spearheaded by the combination of quarterback Andy Dalton and wide receiver A.J. Green. Missing this year is running back Jeremy Hill, who recently signed with the New England Patriots; however, the Bengals still have a solid running back duo within Joe Mixon and Giovanni Bernard. Also promising is rookie receiver Auden Tate, a product of Florida State University that impressed in preseason play. Rookie center Billy Price, another Ohio State talent, is projected to start as well.
On defense, the Bengals parted ways with some veterans, releasing defensive end Michael Johnson and defensive back George Iloka, presumably to clear space in their salary cap. A kind of youth movement is underway among the Cincinnati defense, with rookie Jessie Bates projected to fill the hole left by Iloka. Filling Johnsons spot on the defensive line will be Sam Hubbard, a Cincinnati native and Ohio State draftee. While the defense may have taken a step back, other veterans such as nose tackle Geno Atkins and linebacker Vontaze Burfict will make sure that the Bengals are still a force to be reckoned with.
Both the Bengals and the Browns open their seasons Sept. 9, with the Browns taking on the Pittsburgh Steelers in Cleveland and the Bengals traveling to Indianapolis to face the Colts. Improvement on last year’s records is within reach for both teams, especially considering that it is mathematically impossible for the Browns to do worse. All things considered, pro football is back in Ohio and it should be interesting.