Passan: Crennel Grins and Bears It

The Browns head coach's pleasant demeanor may be tested by a challenging year, suggests Bernie's Insiders columnist Rich Passan. With a reconstructed team and a potential quarterback controversy already bubbling, Romeo Crennel will be tested in his first year on the job...

At the beginning of his news conferences, new Browns coach Romeo Crennel opens with the following greeting: Everybody doing good? All right. I'm doing all right also.

Disarms the assembled media. At least until the first question is fired.

Let's see how long that cheery greeting lasts this season.

The regular season is here and the game is played on an entirely different plane at an entirely different speed. The level of intensity is ratcheted up.

Crennel early Saturday pronounced himself satisfied about his 53-man roster. "I feel good about where we are," he said in full spin mode. "We kept the 53 guys who give us the best chance to win."

He defended the release of reserve offensive linemen Greg Randall and Enoch DeMar and tight end Paul Irons. He explained that reserve offensive tackle Kirk Chambers can swing and play either tackle, Melvin Fowler would be the first guy in at center or guard and the Browns could make it with two tight ends.

Several hours later, the team signed tight end Billy Miller and traded Fowler for offensive tackle Nat Dorsey.

So much for that.

Who knows how many more changes are going to be made between now and Sunday's season opener at CBS against the Cincinnati Bengals?

It might be enough to make Crennel dust off that old Emily Litella line from Saturday Night Live. Remember the late Gilda Radner as the frumpy, politically-correct woman responding to editorials only to realize she was responding to something entirely different and then saying, "Never mind."

But when you stop and think about it, what else do you expect Crennel to say? "We really aren't that good, but I have to say we are because they're paying me a lot of money to make them look good and won't be happy if I tell it like it is."

Fact of the matter is, in spite of the club's 3-1 exhibition record, this is a team in its infantile stage. There are 35 new faces on the main roster and practice squad, including 12 rookies, with just 27 returnees from the disaster that was the 2004 season.

Of those 27, 21 still have Butch Davis attached to their resumes. In some cases, that's a cross to bear. It's just a matter of time before many in that group swell the unemployment line.

To say General Manager Phil Savage and Crennel have cleaned house would be an understatement of the grandest proportions.

From a talent standpoint, however, problem spots permeate the lineup. The defense, at best, is mediocre. That will be exposed in the first three games of the season against high-powered offenses like Cincinnati, Green Bay and Indianapolis.

For all practical purposes, there is no pass rush. And the linebackers are still taking baby steps when it comes to honing their craft in the finer rudiments of the 3-4 defense.

Unless Crennel and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham come up with some creatively ingenious schemes, opponents' statistics after week three could be staggering beyond belief and comprehension.

By the time the fourth-week bye rolls around, we'll have a pretty good idea just how bad this defense is. That's the bad news. The good news is it's going to get better.

And nothing the offense has done so far will scare anyone. Smash-mouth football is nice, but this is not a physical team on offense despite its slow, lumbering offensive line.

It won't take long for Reuben Droughns to realize he's not running behind the same line he ran behind in Denver last season. Tough yards will come even tougher this season. William Green must stay off his tiptoes if he expects to contribute. Better yet, get Lee Suggs healthy and keep him that way.

The passing game will depend on a quarterback who talks a nice game and wide receivers who are suspect at best. Antonio Bryant is inconsistent; Dennis Northcutt is reliable, but small; and Braylon Edwards is a raw rookie who will make mistakes.

Behind them are the marginal Frisman Jackson (how in the world did he stick?) and inexperienced rookie Joshua Cribbs. Enough said.

And Crennel made a big mistake when he started Charlie Frye at quarterback instead of Trent Dilfer in the exhibition victory last week in Chicago. Dilfer should have played at least a couple of series if only to get in some work. By not doing that, Crennel is flirting with a quarterback controversy.

Frye played well – not great – against the Bears. It was good enough to be named the team's No. 2 quarterback. Bad move. He is not nearly ready. He has not seen the National Football League as it really is. To put him on the precipice of being No. 1 before his time would be a huge mistake.

Frye was clearly better than veteran Doug Johnson in the exhibition season, but Savage and his cohorts failed to provide the club with the type of veteran backup it badly needed. Crennel had no choice.

The coach justified his choice of Frye over Johnson. "The Chicago (exhibition) game did a lot for him," said Crennel, who anticipates the "Charlie, Charlie, Charlie" chant to commence "probably after the first incompletion by Trent." If Dilfer gets off to a bad start, you can bet those chants will reverberate around CBS walls.

Crennel said the chanting will not affect his judgment. "I'm going to give (the proven veteran) time to lead this offense and lead this team," he said. "And then at whatever point I decide it's not where I want to be or it's counterproductive, then at that time we'll put somebody else in and give them a chance."

It's trite, but true: Be very careful what you wish for. You just might get it and be sorry.

Bottom line this season: The Browns have a lot of questions that need to be answered and not nearly enough correct answers.

They'll probably win five or six games. If they wind up with more, thank the NFL gods and cast covetous eyes toward 2006.

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