It’s been nearly 30 years since the Cleveland Browns were playoff contenders on a regular basis and now a decade since the last postseason appearance. But the new Cleveland Browns might not be that far from a return to relevance.

The defense stepped it up big time in 2011. And despite a 4-12 record, the team was in a majority of its games until the very end. They need a dramatic infusion of talent on offense. But Steve DiMatteo, editor and lead writer of the Dawg Pound Daily, tells us he thinks the team is definitely on the right track.

Here’s what he had to say:

Zoneblitz: The Browns lost 12 games, but six were by a touchdown or less. What was your overall impression of the 2011 season?

DiMatteo: It was a testament to how well the defense played at times. The Browns’ offense was playing at historically poor levels this season, and if they were able to find the end zone even once in some of their games, this likely would have been a very different season. While the offense needs to add playmakers at almost every position, the defense is on track to becoming a dominant force in the AFC North, which should give fans hope for the future.

Zoneblitz: Does the Holmgren/Heckert/Shurmur regime have this team on the right track?

DiMatteo: I believe that they do. They inherited a team that had undergone years of poor drafting, which depleted the talent on the roster. This current regime essentially started from scratch and, with two consecutive solid drafts, has this team on the right track.

Zoneblitz: In 11 of the 12 losses, the Browns did not reach 20 points. What has to happen to change that?

DiMatteo: Plain and simple, the Browns need playmakers on offense. There are huge questions at quarterback, running back, and wide receiver, and it’s something the Browns must address through the draft and free agency. The front office used 2011 to see what they had talent-wise, and it’s painfully evident that the Browns don’t have a lot of it.

Zoneblitz: Is Colt McCoy the long-term answer at quarterback?

DiMatteo: That remains to be seen, but I think he’s deserves the opportunity to get another season to prove himself. With more playmakers around him, and what would feel almost like a fresh start, McCoy would finally be given a proper chance to ensure that he is the long-term answer at quarterback.

Zoneblitz: Is the Peyton Hillis bridge burned or could he come back?

DiMatteo: There is a slim chance that he could return, but it would have to come at a reduced rate. With the way he closed out the season, it made a lot of people forget about his troubles earlier in the season, but his return is still very much in question. At this point, I think the Browns will make an effort to bring him back, given the instability of their other running backs.

Zoneblitz: Greg Little showed flashes. What other offensive weapons does this team have and what does it need?

DiMatteo: Beyond him, there isn’t much. The need needs a true No. 1 wide receiver and, should Peyton Hillis not be re-signed, they will desperately need another strong running back. It should also go without saying that the Browns must bring in new receivers this offseason.

Zoneblitz: Despite not winning many games, the defense actually looked pretty good at times. Is this unit on the right track and how can it take the next step?

DiMatteo: It is certainly on the right track and simply needs to continue building depth at all positions in order to build a dominating defense. In addition to offensive playmakers, the Browns will need to draft some defensive players as well to ensure that the best aspect of their team continues to grow.

Zoneblitz: What would you like to see the team focus on in the draft and free agency?

DiMatteo: Ideally, the team will focus on bringing in offensive playmakers that will help Colt McCoy (or whomever the quarterback is), though there are needs at a number of other positions. The most fans can hope for is that the Browns make solid draft choices and bring in the right kind of veterans to ensure that this team improves in 2012.

Zoneblitz: A year removed, do you have any thoughts on the big trade with Atlanta from last year’s draft?

DiMatteo: It made a lot of sense then, and it makes a lot of sense now. The Browns have been rewarded an extra pick in the first round and will have a chance to stockpile on talent or trade up for a player that really interests them. The Browns are committed to building through the draft, and the trade with the Falcons was the best way to gain more draft picks and begin that process.

Zoneblitz: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

DiMatteo: The Browns are not as far off as people want you to think. Tom Heckert knows how to draft well and another solid crop of draft picks will truly begin the reconstruction of this team. They’ve been saddled with bad personnel decisions in the past, and that has certainly held them back, but this team is on the right track.

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