Another Day, Another Slight

The negative opinions from the national press keep piling up on the Browns in advance of the 2004 season. Frank Derry looks at recent comments about the team's offensive line and offers his analysis about their validity. More food for thought from one of the top long-time Browns writers...

Recently, a friend who I'll call Shirley called to ask if I'd seen the recent issue of USA Today Sports Weekly.

"No," I admitted. "I don't make it a habit to read that fine publication."

"Get it before they are all sold out," he said with some panic in his voice.

"Why?," was the obvious question.

"According to their figuring, the Browns don't have one offensive lineman ranked in the top 25 in the NFL," he cried out.

"Surely you jest, Shirley," I said. "This is the team that has said since it reappeared in 1999 that it was committed to building a strong offensive line."

I hurried right down the corner drugstore and grabbed the last copy the store had on the rack.

Quickly flipping through the pages, I finally  found the report to which Shirley referred. I carefully went through all three lists – centers, followed by tackles and finally guards – and, sure enough, not a single Browns players either past or present was mentioned.

Not Jeff Faine, the Browns' first-round draft choice in 2003; not Ross Verba, who missed all of last year with an injury; not Kelvin Garmon, who was signed as free agent this past off-season from the San Diego Chargers; not Ryan Tucker, who was an anchor for the line a year ago.

In all honesty, I find it very hard to believe Faine didn't make the list. Granted, he missed a great deal of his rookie season due to injuries, but I certainly thought he showed enough potential to be among the top 25 centers in the NFL. Come on, there's only 32 teams! That means Faine is one of seven worst in the NFL?

Give me a break! 

The rankings were compiled by Sports Exchange Personnel Department and were based upon a 100-point scale that incorporated more than 40 different categories, including run blocking, pass blocking, strength, agility, acceleration and toughness, among other things.

True, Faine was limited to just nine games a year ago, but Robert Gallery made the list of the top 25 tackles … and he hasn't even played his first down in the NFL!

What is also scary is the fact no Browns offensive lineman made the list from a vote of 22 NFL front office personnel.

If these people are right, and the offensive line is indeed as bad as the lists would indicate, the Browns are going to be in big trouble this year. New quarterback Jeff Garcia might be doing a lot more scrambling than he ever imagined.

Of course, games are not won or lost on paper. If they were, there would be no reason to play the games.

Let us hope that the linemen hang a copy of this article in their lockers. Let us also hope they use it as inspiration to prove people wrong.

The Browns were one of three teams with no players listed, the others being Jacksonville and, surprisingly, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who won the Super Bowl just two years ago.

The AFC North was very well represented. The Steelers, Ravens and Bengals all have three offensive linemen listed. That would certainly lead one to believe the Browns will have the worst offensive line in the division, which will, if true, likely translate into the team being a longshot to make the playoffs this year even with Garcia running the show.

Based upon these rankings, the Browns have once again failed to practice what they preached. They have not built the foundation upon which this team should have concentrated from day one instead of using second-round choices year-after-year on wide receivers.

While the jury is certainly still out on this year's line, the fact remains the past five years produced no Pro Bowl offensive linemen; no consistency from year to year; no consistent philosophy in whether to go with size or speed.

 It seemed like the team was on the right track in 1999 by signing veterans Orlando Brown, Lomas Brown and Dave Wohlabaugh, plus taking Jim Pyne with the first pick in the expansion draft.

But there was no time to build any cohesion as then-head coach Chris Palmer was forced to try and throw together a team in just a few months. The offensive line, even when stocked with veterans, takes longer than any other unit to come together.

By year's end, Orlando Brown was sidelined due to the freak eye injury suffered by the officials' beanbag and Lomas Brown was judged to be over the hill.

By the time the 2000 season rolled around, only center Wohlabaugh was back at his same position, meaning the line had to be completely rebuilt again.

When Butch Davis took over in 2001, he immediately made more changes. This time, only Wohlabaugh and left tackle Roman Oben were back, but it was obvious Davis was not happy with the athletic ability of his linemen. He talked about one of his primary being to build a big, strong offensive line capable of opening holes on a consistent basis for his running backs.

Unfortunately, Davis has spent more high draft picks on running backs than offensive linemen.

He took James Jackson with a third round pick in 2001; William Green in the first round in 2002 and Lee Suggs with a fourth-round choice in 2003.

Meanwhile, other than Faine in 2003, Melvin Fowler is the only offensive lineman selected in the first five rounds. Fowler was a third-round choice in 2002 and thus far has been a huge bust.

The list of players the Browns could have had in the draft is long and impressive. Many of them can be found on the list of the top 25 linemen, including offensive tackle Chris Samuels, who should have been the team's first choice in 2000 instead of Courtney Brown. Samuels was the third overall choice by the Redskins.

Of course, you can't blame Butch Davis for that blunder. He was still with the Miami Hurricanes when Brown was selected over both Samuels and LaVar Arrington, who was the No. 2 choice overall, also by the Redskins.   

It's impossible to say how different things might have been for the Browns had Samuels been selected. But it's a certainly the line would have been much further along had Samuels been the selection.

At least there would have been a foundation upon which to build for the past four years. As it stands today, they are counting on building upon Faine, who obviously has yet to impress the experts.

Unfortunately, among Browns offensive linemen, he is not alone in that regard.

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