- Associated Press - Monday, September 7, 2015

CLEVELAND (AP) - Browns Pro Bowl cornerback Joe Haden has developed a short-term memory, making it easier to forget about giving up big receptions or touchdowns.

They happen. Part of the job. Move on to the next play.

Now, if Haden could only shake the lingering recollection of last season, when the Browns opened 7-4 under first-year coach Mike Pettine, stumbled and lost their last five games - Cleveland’s seventh straight losing season, but its second since 2002 with more than six wins.

“For us to finish like that left a real sour taste,” Haden said.

The Browns are hoping for something much sweeter this season. It’s been 13 years since their last playoff appearance, a drought worsened by the fact that they were the only AFC North team not to make the postseason in 2014.

That dryspell is not likely to end this season, but the Browns believe they’ve closed the gap on division rivals Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

“We’re full of talent,” said Haden, who will anchor one of the NFL’s best defensive backfields. “We have a lot of young guys that are hungry and thirsty and ready to play. Talent-wise, there’s no problem.”

There are plenty of other issues, though, and Cleveland’s biggest one remains at quarterback. The Browns signed 36-year-old Josh McCown, a well-respected veteran who went 1-10 as a starter for Tampa Bay last season, to hold down the job for as long as he can, until Johnny Manziel is ready or they draft another QB.

McCown’s arrival has created stability following a tumultuous 2014 season which was followed by more chaos: offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan resigned; general manager Ray Farmer was suspended; star wide receiver Josh Gordon was banned for multiple drug violations; and Manziel, who appeared overmatched during his two starts, checked into rehab. The former Heisman Trophy winner has toned down his partying, but it remains to be seen if he can stay in the pocket on the field.

Cleveland is banking on an improved defense to keep games close, but a lack of proven offensive playmakers will make it tough to win. The Browns are sporting new uniforms with nine color combinations of brown, orange and white, but their record probably won’t look much different.

Here are five other things to keep an eye on with the Browns this season:

CLOGGING THE MIDDLE: The Browns ranked last in the league in rushing defense, a deficiency they hope to fix with the arrival of rookie nose tackle Danny Shelton, a 340-pound run stuffer who has exceeded expectations. Shelton has shown an ability to tie up two blockers at a time, which should allow linebackers Karlos Dansby and Chris Kirksey to rack up some tackles.

Defensive lineman Desmond Bryant could be poised for a breakout year.

JOHNNY COME LATELY: Manziel was slowed by a sore right elbow - a problem he’s had since college - during the final three weeks of the preseason, but the Browns were encouraged by his progress during training camp and the commitment he’s displayed to improve. If McCown struggles or gets hurt, Manziel will get another chance to prove he belongs. So far, he’s looked mostly lost.

GO-TO GUY: The loss of Gordon leaves the Browns without a bona fide downfield threat to scare or stretch defenses. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe signed as a free agent during the offseason, but the nine-year veteran didn’t score last year with Kansas City and was hurt much of the preseason. Brian Hartline will help on third downs and Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel and Travis Benjamin provide speed. McCown, though, will need to develop chemistry with someone.

NO FARMER: The Browns’ second-year GM will sit out the first four weeks, barred by the league for sending text messages to the sideline last season. Farmer, too, has come under scrutiny for his questionable early picks in 2014. Manziel and cornerback Justin Gilbert (No. 8 overall) haven’t contributed as expected, and the Browns traded running back Terrance West - their third-round pick and leading rusher last season - to Tennessee for a seventh-rounder in 2016.

FAST START: Cleveland’s early schedule is soft with the Browns’ first three games against the Jets, Titans and Raiders, who were a combined 9-39 last season. It’s imperative for the Browns to build some early momentum and confidence before heading into six games with the Ravens, Steelers and Bengals.



AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org and AP NFL Twitter feed: www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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