Just what should we expect from the 2005 version of the Cleveland Browns? Due to rampant turnover in personnel, a new defensive scheme, and the fine line between four and eight wins in today's NFL … trying to accurately predict how competitive this team will be this season is a tall task.
So I guess I'll start with what I do know.
The Browns are not talented or deep enough to contend this season, yet appear to have a blueprint in place that will allow that next year. The new Browns brass would admit this privately, and have hinted at it publicly. Passing on Ty Law and Peter Boulware was strong evidence of this.
Teaching and evaluation are the two words I would use to best sum up Crennel's first team here in Cleveland. The Browns are expected to have the most room under the salary cap of any team in the league next off-season, likely surpassing thirty million dollars. They have another eight draft picks, which are still sorely needed. They hope to have Kellen Winslow II back, and paired with Braylon Edwards to form a dynamic duo of downfield weapons. Don't get me wrong, winning this season will be stressed mightily by the competitive Crennel, but all major decision associated with this team this year will be with 2006 in mind.
The AFC, and more specifically the AFC North, are simply too strong for this team to contend this season given some of the weaknesses this team has. By my count, ten of the top twelve teams in football reside in the AFC, and three of those teams are in our division. The way I look at it, Phil Savage has done a masterful job thus far, but the cupboards were simply left too bare after years of comprehensive damage in the form of blown draft picks and misallocated free agent dollars.
My two biggest concerns with this year's Browns are depth on the offensive line, and our front seven defensively. Despite up and down play in the pre-season, it's been hard not to see an improvement in the efficiency of our first team offensive line thanks to the long awaited presence of two actual NFL-quality offensive guards. That said, there was nowhere to go but up. The quintet we will trot out on September 11th versus the Bengals does not worry me as much as the players that will be called upon to step in when the inevitable injuries take place. Additionally, the fact that our tight ends are very poor blockers continues to get overlooked by the casual fan.
The only reserve lineman we have that is talented enough to warrant an NFL paycheck (Fowler) can only play one position, and is stuck behind our most durable and most naturally talented lineman in Jeff Faine. One only needed to watch Fowler take a couple snaps at guard last week versus the Panthers to affirm that he is a natural center, and a poor guard. I still cannot believe that the Browns passed on University of Virginia guard Elton Brown to take Antonio Perkins at the start of round four, and that is by far my biggest criticism of Savage to this point.
The front seven would have me nervous even if this group wasn't learning a new defensive scheme. Of most concern is the defensive line, which sorely lacks depth, and sets the tempo for the entire defense. Outside of Orpheus Roye, who I feel is a perfect fit as a 3-4 defensive end and still plays at a high level, the Browns have no talent up front. Alvin McKinley has started two games in his career, and Jason Fisk was barely average playing roughly 1/3 of the snaps last year backing up phenom Jamal Williams in the middle of the Charger 3-4 last season. Fisk has already been exposed this pre-season as someone opposing offenses can attack.
Behind them are a lot of players that would be hard pressed to make any other team in the league. Andrew Hoffman was counted on to backup Fisk, yet has been one of camp's biggest disappointments. Simon Fraser plays smart, spirited football … but was not even drafted and struggled as a senior at Ohio State. Nick Eason and Ethan Kelley have shown flashes of talent at times, and the maddening inconsistency that made them waiver wire fodder at others.
Despite these harsh truths, it's been many moons since I've been this fired up for a Browns season to commence, and find there is plenty to be genuinely excited about. In past year's, I've found myself manufacturing enthusiasm, and that is not the case for me this season. Most encouraging to me are the new regime and cap flexibility next season. In Savage and Crennel, we have a duo that is very well respected around the league … a pair of individuals that exude qualities that fit my description of what Cleveland Browns football should be all about. A pair of individuals that free agents will want to come play for, as simply having available cap room is not enough to lure NFL free agents, who have no shortage of suitors once the off-season hits.
I'm also much more optimistic about the skill positions offensively than I was four or five months ago. How can you not be excited about what we've seen from Charlie Frye? Whatever "it" is … this kid simply has "it". Unlike the brain dead Tim Couch, or skittish Jeff Garcia, Charlie seems to make the right decisions when under duress, and not in a panicked manor. This innate ability to think on the fly and process data is something it is very hard to teach, and has been the undoing of many quarterbacks more naturally talented than Frye. I realize it's early to anoint Charlie as the second coming, but much like another incredibly popular local signal caller, every time this kid takes the field you see qualities that make you nearly positive that he will excel at this level.
Making me even more confident that Frye will excel is his mentor. Trent Dilfer was the perfect selection to be this team's next quarterback, and Phil Savage should be commended for going out and getting him this off-season. In addition to being a quality human being, and an incredible teammate that is taylor-made for his current role, Dilfer is the best quarterback we've had in town here since 1999. Dilfer does have his limitations, but is savvy in the pocket, has a high football IQ, and does a much better job avoiding mistakes than any of his predecessors here. Most importantly, he relishes the role of being the baton-passer, and for the first time in ages, we have a group of quarterbacks secure in their roles.
And while we may lack the complete back that you can trot out each week and hand the ball to thirty times a game for sixteen games, the trio of Suggs, Green, and Droughns is a collectively strong unit and one of the few areas on the team I have no concerns about. Suggs has yet to show an ability to stay on the field, and Willie still struggles with the mental aspects of the game. But both are young men that still have reasonable upside potential. Again keeping next season in mind, I believe our 2006 feature back is presently on the roster, even if we don't know who it is yet. If I'm correct in my thinking, not having to allocate major resources to this position next season only increases our ability to upgrade others.
Even with the Braylon Edwards holdout, and injuries to our secondary, I also feel good about the wide receivers and secondary as we move forward. Braylon and Antonio Bryant have the makings of becoming one of the league's most physically gifted pair of wideouts if they can become more consistent on a down to down basis, and eliminate drops. In the secondary, I've been very impressed with guys like Leigh Bodden, Chris Crocker, and Ray Mickens … all of whom I feel have a future past this season with the team. While an injury to Gary Baxter has precluded us from assessing the Henry/Baxter swap, Brian Russell is an upgrade over Earl Little. And one can only hope that at least one of Sean Jones or Brodney Pool will meet the expectations they both arrived with out of college, where each was amongst the best at their positions playing for major universities.
In the end, I think that the three pre-season games we've seen so far have been a pretty good barometer of what's to come. At times, we will stand toe to toe with teams that are headed to the post-season, and offer a bright glimmer of hope for the future. And other times, adjusting to the 3-4 as well as some of the major weaknesses I mentioned earlier will be exposed, resulting in some frustrating patches of football that will cause fans to wonder if we're on the right track.
This is a league where the line between winning and losing is an incredibly fine one. As we've seen repeatedly in this town, injuries have such a huge impact on things in the NFL. Ask Tennessee, who went from title contender to a 5-11 team seemingly overnight. Or the Chargers, who did not sustain any major injuries whatsoever, and won twelve games despite predictions even gloomier than those that this year's Browns team carry. Each season there are very talented teams that fail to win seven games, and injuries are often a prime cause of that. On the flip side, teams that stay healthy, master the fundamentals, avoid mistakes, and play with a high football IQ can win several more games than their talent level should suggest.
While winning eight or nine games this season is highly unlikely, I don't feel that the 2002 Butch Davis Browns that won nine games and should have won their playoff opener on the road were an overtly more talented squad than the one that will take this field this fall.
And that, in addition to a refreshing and renewed sense of direction under seemingly competent leadership … is what makes the dawn of this season so exciting, even given some of the liabilities mentioned above.
Rich Swerbinsky firstname.lastname@example.org