AIRING IT OUT: The Browns' 26-24 win, their first ever at Lambeau Field, was extraordinary. In only his second game as head coach, Romeo Crennel didn't quite have a monkey to get off his back. It was more like a pen-tailed tree shrew, actually. Still, would you want one of those critters clawing at your neck all the way to Indianapolis?
Maybe not. So congratulations to Romeo and the entire Browns organization for shedding the shrew before the losses accrued to Palmerian proportions.
The victory bodes very well for the progress of this transformed team. Not that we're bidding on Super Bowl tickets yet, but earning a bona fide, regular-season road win is invaluable toward developing a confident, unified, optimistic team. After weeks of training camp toil, internecine competition, and summer's schematic struggles, here was a most timely reward. Working hard is so much easier when the memories of positive reinforcement are recent and future success seems seriously possible.
For a roster over half remade since last season's saving grace note in Houston, this early win builds team identity and gives coaching lessons more credibility. Bottom of the pundits' power rankings? Bah! Too thin to win? Rubbish. Big-time plays just a fantasy? No more. Another quarterback controversy? Can it.
The offensive line is a microcosm for this makeover in motion. Three new starters have given the Browns their most experienced front five in decades. Rewind your mind back to 1982 to find a similarly-seasoned quintet (Doug Dieken, Robert E. Jackson, Tom DeLeone, Joe DeLamielleure, and Cody Risien). Since the June 7 arrival of left tackle L.J. Shelton, the Browns have known their starters up front, and they have coalesced into a productive unit faster than any other positional group.
The pass blocking has been superb, their penalties have been scarce (only three in two games), and the prospects for an improved running game remain. When Lee Suggs returns to provide an outside threat, watch the linemen run too, as sweeps and more screens will complement the rough-running Reuben Droughns.
Another key for this year's Browns is the ability to make the big play. The two biggest factors in the 2001 Browns' four-game improvement: the quarterback stayed healthy, and defensive pressure helped generate 33 interceptions.
Same story here. Trent Dilfer has the savvy to make good use of his talented receiving corps, and the long touchdowns we've seen from Frisman Jackson, Braylon Edwards, and Steve Heiden need not be flukes.
The defense, still lacking a pass-rushing formula, is improving its run defense while showing the ability to create turnovers. Critical to all that is having healthy cornerbacks. Daylon McCutcheon was very strong on run support and in coverage. He seems like his old self.
Newcomer Gary Baxter's presence was pivotal. The play of the game was his leaping end zone interception in the third quarter. Brett Favre was six-for-six during the 11-play drive and seemed poised to erase a 13-7 deficit. Instead, Baxter read the pattern, outjumped Robert Ferguson, and cradled the ball snugly as he landed smack on his back.
This Sunday's game is a tall order, but if the Browns improve at their current rate and get healthier through the bye week, this fall could be especially entertaining, and encouraging, for Browns fans.
CONJURING IT UP: My retro-radio was tuned to the right frequency last week, so let's twist the dial back to November 1, 1959. The Browns traveled to Baltimore, home of the Colts, who, like today's horseshoe heads, feature the league's best quarterback, donning a number in the upper teens. Their defensive strength was a line fortified by Big Daddy Lipscomb, Art Donovan, and Gino Marchetti.
This was a fearsome team that would repeat as NFL champions. Yet, they had never met Jim Brown. The great fullback ran for touchdowns long and short, bruising and burning that daunting defense. When the dust had settled, Brown had scored five times and gained 178 yards. Johnny Unitas' four TD passes were not enough, as a Junior Wren interception in the third quarter snapped the touchdown trading pattern. The Browns won 38-31.
So as the 2005 Browns take on a new breed of Colt, let's remember that a great passer alone cannot beat us, that even a stingy defense can be pierced by a persistent rushing attack, and that timely turnovers can derail even the most electric of offenses.
EXTRA CREDIT: One of the more venerable Watercooler traditions is the Last Man Standing Pool (sexist name notwithstanding). Each week, entrants pick a different team they think is sure to win. If not, adios. What's interesting is that after just two weeks, less than 15% of the original field of 182 survives.
Maybe this reflects the NFL's parity. Maybe Coolerites aren't the Einsteins of pigskin prognostication. Or maybe, the incentive to win is screwy: contestants vie for the sworn duty to run next year's contest. Be still my heart.
After banking on the 'Skins over the Bears and the Eagles over the 49ers (I refuse to pick against the Browns), I'm still in. And I hope to finish a strong second.