The Future is on the Line

There has been growing agreement over the past several years that the Browns' offensive problems won't be fixed until the team enhances the offensive line. The day after another dismal performance, Bernie's Insiders columnist Frank Derry takes a look at how the team can improve the offensive line in a hurry - and it doesn't involve expensive free agents. Plus, Frank's thoughts on who Lerner should turn to for advice on the crucial GM decision...

Questions, questions and more questions.

The answers to the multitude of questions that will need to be answered in the next few months will undoubtedly go a long way in determining just how quickly the Browns become a legitimate contender.

Can it be done overnight? Certainly. San Diego, Atlanta and Pittsburgh have all proven that this year.

Will it be done overnight? If the right people are hired.

Are the Browns worse off today than they were in 1999? Absolutely not. There is talent on this team, just not enough to offset the huge holes that exist in the most important area of the team, the offensive line.

Does young owner Randy Lerner have enough knowledge of the game to make the right decisions? Yes and no. 

Has he done the right things since Butch "The Quitter" Davis abandoned his team? Absolutely. There's no reason to rush into making any decisions until the right people are available, which might very well mean until after the Super Bowl.

In reality, Lerner has to make only one right decision. If he does that, then everything else will fall into place.

Unfortunately, it's THE most important decision and one upon which he has no personal experience to draw. Randy MUST choose the right general manager and then immediately turn over all decision-making to that man.

But how do you make the right call when you've never done it before? It would be like asking me to pick a fine wine. Hey, I've downed a few bottles in my day, but most were either Boone's Farm or Mogan David, not exactly top-shelf stuff. I wouldn't know a great wine if someone held me down and made me drink it.

But will Randy Lerner know a great GM if someone tries to force the guy down his throat?

I'm sure that Randy has picked a few general managers in the business world, but that doesn't qualify him to select the man who will run the Cleveland Browns.

In the perfect world, Lerner would turn to his right hand man for some advice. But in the Browns' flawed world, Lerner's right hand man is team president John Collins, who has an equal lack of experience when it comes to making such decisions.

So then you have to do the next best thing. You turn to your "friends" around the NFL. You trust that they will steer you in the right direction. You trust that they won't take advantage of your inexperience.

In the short amount of time that Randy has been running the club, he's gotten to know Patriots owner Robert Craft and can see first-hand just how successful he has been. But just how helpful will Craft be when he knows that two people expected to be high on the list of "Most Wanted" around the NFL are his player personnel director Scott Pioli and defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.

Pioli has been mentioned quite often as a potential GM candidate, and Crennel should be in line for a head coaching job in the not-too-distant future. But Craft has already lost his offensive coordinator to Notre Dame. Would he possibly risk losing Pioli and/or Crennel by telling you they are the best men or the jobs?   

Or do you turn to Steelers owner Dan Rooney? He certainly has the experience you are lacking when it comes to making personnel decisions. But would Rooney want to actually help? Or would he pull another fast one on the Browns the way the Rooney family did when they recommended Bud Carson and several other assistants to be hired when Marty Schottenheimer left in the late 1980s.

With friends like that, who needs enemies!

Do you trust the guys who tell you Ozzie Newsome would be the best general manager? Do you know for sure that they have first-hand information that it was Newsome who was making the calls for the Ravens as they assembled their World Championship team?

But were those decisions actually made by Ozzie's assistant, Phil Savage? And even though he doesn't carry the name recognition of Newsome, wouldn't Savage be just as good, and a lot less costly?

Newsome would likely cost the Browns their first-round draft choice, expected to be No. 1 or 2 overall, while Savage can be acquired without the loss of any draft picks.

If new Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti tells you Newsome is the better man, do you believe him or do you think he's just looking for a first-round draft pick and the opportunity to move Savage into Ozzie's job?

If I was Lerner, I would turn to Calvin Hill to help make the decision. Calvin is one of the brightest people to ever be associated with the NFL. He has been a consultant for Cowboys owner Jerry Jones since 1997 and is on top of everything that is happening around the league.

I would hire Hill, who still has a special place in his heart for the Browns, for whom he played from 1978-81.

Calvin has close ties to Newsome and could tell you all you would ever need to know about Ozzie. Even though they are close, I don't believe Calvin would recommend Ozzie if indeed he wasn't 100 percent sure Newsome was the right man for the job.

Unlike Craft or Rooney or Bisciotti, all of whom might have personal agendas, I would have complete faith in Hill to do the right thing.

After the GM decision has been made, I would do everything in my power to keep Calvin around to serve as a consultant.

Obviously, the GM's first decision will be to select the right head coach. Hopefully, all college coaches will be ruled out immediately. The success rate of college coaches making their NFL debuts is not very impressive.

A requirement of the head coach would be someone willing to delegate authority and bring in the best group of assistants that money can buy.

I would hope the new GM will consider bringing in Russ Grimm as the head coach. Grimm, currently the Steelers' assistant head coach/offensive line, has done an outstanding job with the Steelers' offensive line.

If it wasn't for Pittsburgh's offensive line, a rookie quarterback and an over-the-hill running back wouldn't be getting credit for leading the Steelers to the best record in the NFL after going just 6-10 a year ago.

I would then go after Hudson Houck of the San Diego Chargers to be my assistant head coach. Never heard of Houck?

Well, he is completing his 22nd year as an offensive line coach in the NFL and, while Schottenheimer is getting the credit for the Chargers' great turn-around this year, none of that would have been possible if Houck hadn't done his job.

He took five linemen who didn't play a single down for the Chargers in 2003 and turned them into a very solid unit, one that has San Diego in the playoffs after going just 4-12 last year.

Ex-Brown Roman Oben, who had been with Tampa Bay in 2003, has handled the left tackle job; Toniu Fonoti, who missed all of 2003 with a foot injury, has been at left guard; third-round draft pick Nick Hardwick is at center; Mike Goff, who topped the Chargers' free-agent wish list, is at right guard, and Shane Olivea, who the Chargers got lucky on in the seventh round this year, is at right tackle.

For Houck to bring those five guys together as quickly as he did makes him a guy I want on my staff in Cleveland.

I believe a combination of Grimm and Houck can completely turn things around for the Browns. Add a couple of solid linemen to join with Ryan Tucker, Ross Verba and Jeff Faine and, with proper coaching, the Browns could very well have an above-average offensive line next season.

Then, either Kelly Holcomb or Jeff Garcia would have a chance to be successful. And either Lee Suggs or William Green would have an opportunity to be a 1,000-yard rusher.

But it will all begin with Randy Lerner hiring the right GM, who then will need to hire the right head coach, who then will need to hire the right assistants.

If everyone is on the same page, they will realize the Browns' future is on the line … the offensive line, to be more precise.

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