The Owl: A Dose of Optimism

While the Steelers run to the Super Bowl may have Cleveland Browns fans less than ecstatic, Romeo Crennel's squad is smelling like roses compared to problems elsewhere in the AFC North. If you listen past the hooting of happy Pittsburgh fans, you can just hear the sounds of the Cleveland Browns on the road back...

Charlie Frye talked to a small group of reporters in Berea Wednesday afternoon with an ear to ear smile on his face, exuding confidence. He cannot wait to dive into the offseason program more than a month before it begins and pick up where he left off.

For those who have forgotten already, that means continuing what was started by beating the Ravens in the final game.

Optimism is high in Berea, and of course optimism is in the clouds for the Steelers as they prepare to face the Seahawks in Super Bowl XL Sunday.

Compare the mood in Browns Nation and Pittsburgh to what is going on in Cincinnati. The Bengals won the AFC North with an 11-5 record, yet Coach Marvin Lewis is trying to convince the citizens along the Ohio River the Bengals are a good team after the Steelers knocked Cincinnati out of the playoffs. The Bengals head into the 2006 season on a three-game losing streak.

"I guess my feeling is since the loss to Pittsburgh, it seems as though a dark cloud has tried to drop on our franchise," Lewis told reporters. "I want to apologize to our fans that this has occurred. They should be excited about our future. I thank them for their support of our football team.

"Our direction is not going to change. We have built a strong foundation. We had 24 guys with three years or less experience. With the practice-squad guys who have a chance to make the team, that's 30 guys. That's a good thing. Those guys will keep improving. The optimism that was there after 2003 should be 10 times greater after the 2005 season. We are not going to lose sight of what we've done."

The fact is Bengals fans do have reason to worry. Quarterback Carson Palmer would have to make the most amazing recovery since Lee Majors hopped off the operating table as the $6 Million Man if Palmer is to be ready for the 2006 season opener following a 'devastating' knee injury in the playoff game against the Steelers Jan. 15.

Jon Kitna showed in a brief relief role of Palmer in the playoff game that he won't be able to carry the Bengals if Palmer does have a long rehab.

That is not all. Chad Johnson is signed through 2009, but last year the star wide receiver recruited Drew Rosenhaus as his agent, and there are rumblings Johnson wants a new contract. Lewis seems confident that won't happen and that the Bengals will be able to spend their money elsewhere.

"We're in great shape salary-cap wise, and we're going to make every effort to extend our guys," Lewis said. "We're going to get some new guys. They will be held to the same standard. We're going to be better in '06 than we were in '05."

In Baltimore, Coach Brian Billick was ordered to shape up by team owner Steve Biscotti and despite Kyle Boller having success against Green Bay and Minnesota near the end of the season the Ravens still aren't sure whether they have a quarterback. Ironically, they have the Browns to thank for their doubts; Boller was 15 of 36 for 151 yards and two interceptions against the Browns in the final game of the season.

Like the Browns, the Ravens were 6-10 in 2005. But the Browns showed a two-game improvement. The Ravens backslid three games from a year before.

Offensive line and running back, once strengths for the Ravens, are considered liabilities as free agency and the draft near. If Jamal Lewis continues to have as much trouble running as he did in 2005, and Boller is, well, Kyle Boller, Billick might not get another year of grace after the 2006 season.

As for the Browns, there is optimism because of the promise Frye showed and because owner Randy Lerner chose football over business when he decided to keep General Manager Phil Savage over team president John Collins. Fans have faith in Savage's ability to shore up the run defense, find a pass rusher and improve the offense.

The anticipated return of Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow Jr. from knee surgery is part of the optimism, too.

More than anything, though, the optimism exists because of Romeo Crennel. He has everyone convinced his plan is on track; the Browns did improve from 4-12 to 6-10, and they should have won two other games.

Crennel is a firm believer in continuity, evidenced by the fact he kept his coaching staff together. That did not happen in Baltimore. Now the Browns must take the next step.

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