Camp Report: Realism Reigns

Pat McManamon on the suddenly-young Cleveland Browns.

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BEREA -- Give the Cleveland Browns players credit for one thing: They are unashamed realists.

In fact, they almost seem to understand why Vegas and prognosticators and pundits do not expect a lot from the team this season.

"No one really knows what we have at this point," linebacker Scott Fujita said Thursday. "This clearly wasn't an ideal situation with the offseason, the lockout."

Are people underestimating the Browns?? "Why wouldn't you?" said linebacker D'Qwell Jackson.

Offensive tackle Joe Thomas talked of the ongoing youth movement.

"That makes sense for the goals of this team," he said.

The Browns eschewed big names in free agency, instead choosing to fill out the roster with lesser-known names. It made sense on one front. No one or two players available in free agency was going to transform this team. But it brought impatience from fans -- and media -- hoping to add more veteran support.

"I don't think we needed to bring in a big splash name-wise," Thomas said.

Team president Mike Holmgren said on Seattle radio station KJR-950 that the Browns shed "331 years" of experience heading into season (No, not all of it belonged to Jake Delhomme).

"We went from one of the oldest teams in football to one of the youngest," Holmgren said. "Now, having said that we're going to have some growing pains."

Most of the world agrees. Vegas put the Browns odds to win the Super Bowl at 80-1, same as Denver and Seattle and better only than Washington, Cincinnati, Buffalo and Carolina. The over-under on the number of wins for the season is 6 1/2, a shockingly low number for Vegas.

Such is the feeling when a team brings in a new coaching staff and new systems and the NFL has a lockout through the entire offseason. Instead of spending time preparing, players could not even come to the team's facility to pick up a playbook.

Fujita said when he lined up at outside linebacker for the first rep of the first practice, he looked up and saw three faces he didn't know.

"We literally made introductions right there," Fujita said.

Of the 80-some players in camp, only 10 are 30 or over. And of those 10, just six are definite or likely starters -- PK Phil Dawson, TE Ben Watson, Fujita, G Eric Steinbach, CB Sheldon Brown and OT Tony Pashos. Holmgren has turned the team over to GM Tom Heckert and his drafts, and the Browns seem committed to riding the storm with a young quarterback and young receivers and young defenders.

"There are a lot of moving parts in this," Fujita said. adding the Browns are "a little bit behind the eight ball."

The Browns are not, though, do not seem unhappy with the changes in coaching staff and approach. They appreciate Pat Shurmur is coaching them, and they appreciate the new rules limiting practice time.

"I can't thank Scott enough," Jackson said of Fujita, who was involved intimately in the talks for the new CBA, which was officially ratified on Thursday.

As for the feeling in the building, Jackson said things are "much more relaxed."

Jackson and Thomas both chuckled when it was mentioned to them that some players were calling the new rules "The Eric Mangini Rules."

"I'm leaving that one alone," Jackson said.

"I could see that," Thomas said. "I'm not going to go there, but I don't think it's going to take much to see it that way."

Fujita laughed too, but said the issue was "way bigger" than one coach.

"It's about lengthening careers," Fujita said. "Doing things safe, and doing things smarter. We did a study a few years ago and I think it showed that on average about 60 percent of injuries reported in an average season occur in the first two weeks of training camp. So to me that's just not smart.

"So there's a way to fix things up and do things better, and I think that's what we're doing."

In theory, the systems will help as well. The short passing game of the West Coast offense -- first run by Paul Brown, mind you -- should help Colt McCoy. Jackson spent a lot of time talking about the new four-three defense, which calls on linemen, he said, to "get up the field, cause havoc" and let linebackers run.

"Once I figure out what I can and cannot do," Jackson said, "there's going to be a lot of tackles for loss for linebackers, and hitting gaps. They want us to play downhill."

Which seems to be an aggressive mindset for a defensive player.

"I think everybody is rowing that boat in the same direction for the first time since I've been here," Thomas said.

Approach is one thing, talent another. The Browns seem firmly committed to building through the draft and to getting younger. How it plays out will be interesting. The Browns are showing belief in their younger players and their roster that is not generally shared from the outside.

"From the outside," Jackson said, "(people) don't expect anything of us."

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