BEREA, Ohio (AP) — Everywhere he’s looked, Browns coach Mike Pettine has seen his team picked to finish no higher than fourth in the brutal, four-team AFC North.
“I saw one that had us fifth,” he joked.
Punchlines aside, the Browns understand the outside perception of them is poor. And why shouldn’t it be?
Cleveland hasn’t been to the playoffs in 13 years, there’s been a perpetual revolving door of coaches and quarterbacks, the Johnny Manziel circus dominated the team’s narrative last season and into the winter, and the Browns play in a division with Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati — all playoff teams last season.
As players reported for training camp on Wednesday, Pettine said he’ll use the overall lack of respect for the Browns as a motivating tool this season.
“Nobody wants to be disrespected,” Pettine said. “It’s a prideful group, and I just see it as a motivating thing. We had two wins over division opponents last year by 21 points, and we just feel our best path to get to where we want to be is in the division. We played well enough — at times — to be in that conversation and at other times we didn’t.
“I think so much of the NFL is every team is capable, but who can do it consistently and who can do it the longest. I think that’s where we have to take that next step this year.”
The first step comes Thursday as the Browns hold their first training camp practice.
Like last year, all eyes will be on Manziel, the former Heisman Trophy winner who will perform on the field in front of fans for the first time since a rehab stint during the offseason. Manziel begins camp as Cleveland’s No. 2 quarterback behind veteran Josh McCown, who went 1-10 last season starting for Tampa Bay.
McCown isn’t making much of the Browns’ dreary reviews.
“We’ve got to control what we can control on our end,” he said. “All 32 teams right now, their goal is to win the Super Bowl. Whoever wins doesn’t go back and go, ‘Hey, what were the expectations in August?’ You’re so happy that you won a Super Bowl that it doesn’t matter.
“For us, the expectations right now aren’t our concern. Our concern is growing and continuing to get better as a team. If anything, sometimes when you have those expectations there’s added pressures and things like that that you don’t need or could be a distraction.”
The Browns were 7-4 before a promising season imploded with five straight losses. They didn’t finish, so safety Donte Whitner isn’t surprised that there’s a long line of doubters.
“If you really look at it, I don’t think we’ve earned anybody’s respect yet, so we don’t expect them to give us anything,” he said.
“It’s going to be earned. It’s not going to be the New England Patriots coming out and just everybody laying down for them. It’s not going to be Seattle. It’s going to be the team that comes out here on the practice field, that puts in the work on and off the field, goes out there Sunday, performs.”
“That’s the teams that are going to earn the respect for 2015, and we understand that.”
One of the most intriguing story lines for the Browns over the next few weeks will be Terrelle Pryor’s transition from quarterback to wide receiver. The former Oakland and Ohio State QB was acquired on waivers by the Browns in June, and he has spent the past few weeks working out with former NFL star Randy Moss and suspended Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon, who offered to help Pryor.
McCown also joined the group last week in North Carolina and came away impressed by Pryor’s determination to learn a new position to prolong his career.
“That would be tough if you played one position your whole life,” McCown said. “To me, what it shows is there’s a desire to play the game and he loves football and if at the end of the day he sits down and goes ‘OK, the opportunities aren’t there at quarterback, what else can I do?’ and he’s willing to make that change and he has, that tells me he loves the game and he wants to play.
“Anytime you can add people to your team like that that love football, that’s what we want. So we’re glad to have him.”