Some people might find it strange that Kellen Winslow, Jr., is being projected as the Cleveland Browns team leader. After all, the talk began after he held out of training camp for twelve days, missing fifteen practices. The talk continued after Coach Butch Davis took Winslow out of his first exhibition game against Tennessee, for losing his cool, after making just one reception in the game. Despite the reputation that preceded his arrival from Miami, that inauspicious start doesn't sound like it came from a guy who would quickly emerge as a team leader.
Normally, NFL veterans would scoff at such a notion. But not now. After all, can you name a Browns team leader since the team returned in 1999? Or can you name a player who became the ‘face' of the franchise since then? Probably not. Go back to the last 25 years in Browns history, and you could find offensive and defensive players who fit that bill. Brian Sipe, Ozzie Newsome, Clay Matthews, Hanford Dixon, Frank Minnifield, Eddie Johnson, and Bernie Kosar come to mind. Unlike Winslow, these players first earned the role of team leader by their actions on the field.
Now fast forward to the current Browns franchise. First draft pick Tim Couch might have assumed the role after leading the team to the playoffs in 2002, but his job was taken away by a ‘gut feeling' the following year. Other first round picks, Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren and Jeff Faine either didn't play well enough or didn't display the personality for the role. The only player who might have qualified for the position since the franchise was re-established was linebacker Jamir Miller, but injuries cut his career short before we would ever know.
It won't take long for Browns players, coaches and fans to find out if Winslow, or anyone else for that matter, will emerge as the team leader. If he does, it would not be an indictment against the rookie tight end. It would, however, be an indictment against the hundreds of players who have come through Berea since 1999.
Most fans that I talk to are not optimistic about the fortunes of the team for the 2004 season.
In fact, many feel the Browns will be out of the division race by the bye week, based on the imposing schedule beginning with Baltimore at home for the opening game. But if the Browns come out of the gate in decent shape, that schedule will work to their advantage when it is all said and done.
The final three games, against teams not projected as playoff-bound, look winnable at this point. There is a home game against San Diego, followed by road games at Miami and Houston, all teams who probably will be looking forward to next year at that point in the season.
At the beginning of the year, fans always look at the schedule and pencil in wins and losses. Then they figure there will be two or three upsets (both ways), so that they usually are within a game or two of the final outcome. If the Browns can find a way to be around the .500 mark after the December 5 home game against the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, they could be in a position to make a solid run at a playoff berth.
Ironically, a team that should be built to compete in a cold weather division, might have its season decided in two of the warmest cities in the league, Miami and Houston.
You never want to have a quarterback controversy, and obviously there won't be one this year with the Browns, unless Jeff Garcia suffers an injury somewhere along the line. But there is nothing wrong with having two quality running backs battling for the top slot.
Most running backs will tell you that they need 20 to 25 carries a game to be productive, but at this point it appears that both Lee Suggs and William Green can do well splitting the opportunities. In fact, despite the addition of fullback Terrelle Smith, the hope is that Offensive Coordinator Terry Robiskie can find a way to use both Suggs and Green in the same backfield for a significant part of many games.
Both runners apparently are fully recovered from injuries suffered last year, and the early indications are that the patchwork line can run-block, even if there is plenty of work to be done in the pass-blocking department.
I don't know that we can expect Jamel Lewis-like rushing games from either Suggs or Green, but if the Browns are to be successful this year they must be able to keep the clock and chains moving, combined with an effective short passing game, utilizing Kellen Winslow, Jr., as often as possible.