Rich's Rant: Competence Makes a Comeback

Mr Passan now that Phil Savage wasn't kidding about fast-forwarding to 2006...

Well whattaya know. Maybe, just maybe, the Browns are serious about shedding their laughingstock label.

For the first time since the new Browns arrived in Cleveland, competence appears to be making a comeback. A significantly strong comeback.

No more Chris Palmers or Carmen Policies or Dwight Clarks or Butch Davises. No more questionable draft choices. No more bad football on Sundays. No more gnashing teeth and mounting frustration.

It has been a long seven years since the National Football League reintroduced itself to Cleveland. It seems more like 27.

The events of the last several days strongly suggest that Browns General Manager Phil Savage wasn't kidding about fast-forwarding to 2006. When free agency kicked in at a minute past midnight last Saturday, Savage struck savagely.

Working with a boatload of cash under the salary cap, he nailed six players, all of whom will be starters and significant contributors.

Savage was quick, decisive and smart. And it doesn't hurt that three of his catches have local ties.

With Willie McGinest now on board as the dessert to the weekend's haul, a corner, it would appear, is about to be turned.

Rarely has one team improved as exponentially as the Browns when Savage sliced through all the free-agent bullroar and got the job done in spectacular fashion.

Striking with such iron-hot swiftness the various Web sites couldn't keep up the pace, he surgically repaired the offensive line, middle of the defensive line, punting and wide receiver position. And the signing of McGinest, a latter-day Jamir Miller, is the first step in the resurrection of a pass rush.

In center LeCharles Bentley, offensive tackle Kevin Shaffer, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, punter Dave Zastudil and nose tackle Ted Washington and McGinest, Savage has begun building the bridge to a successful future with "There's No Place Like Home" playing in the background.

By signing Bentley, a St. Ignatius alumnus, and Shaffer for the offensive line, he also sent a message to AFC North defensive coordinators: We're coming right at you from now on. And this time, the result will be a whole lot different.

In Bentley and Shaffer, coach Romeo Crennel now has a couple of mashers who will take the Browns' running game to a level not seen since the Pruitts ran wild back in the 1970s and early 1980s.

With Bentley at center, no longer will we see defensive tackles eat up a Cleveland center. No longer will we see running backs getting hit as they take the handoff.

This time, the Browns finally got it right at the pivot. They missed previously with Dave Wohlabaugh, Melvin Fowler and Jeff Faine.

And Shaffer has a chance to be the best left tackle since Doug Dieken. He's big at 6-5, 315, strong, nasty, has excellent feet, is a definite upgrade over L.J. Shelton and his best football is ahead of him.

Detractors say he wasn't good enough to play right tackle in Atlanta and protect Michael Vick's blind side. They conveniently don't mention that the Falcons ran most of their plays to the left side, where Shaffer played.

Signing Jurevicius brings joy because he's a local kid (from Lake Catholic High School in Mentor) who has had moderate success wherever he has played. He brings large doses of professionalism to the dressing room.

Jurevicius does not blow anyone away with his talents. He's not fast. He's not quick. But he runs solid routes and catches the ball. He almost always seems to make clutch plays. And the Browns need playmakers.

He could be to Charlie Frye what Dave Logan was to Brian Sipe. That big target the quarterback looks for when in trouble.

The signing of Bay Village's Zastudil signals a return of good punting to the lakefront. After two years of Derrick Frost and Kyle Richardson, this will be one aspect of Browns Sundays the fans won't have to worry about. Punts landing inside the 20-yard line should be commonplace.

Only one problem. Zastudil has had three punts blocked in the last four seasons. Browns fans aren't used to that. If nothing else, protecting the punter is one aspect of the game at which the Browns have excelled.

The arrival of Washington at nose tackle plugs a rather sizable leak in the club's defensive line. At 6-5, 370 pounds, Washington makes Refrigerator Perry look almost normal. He gives Crennel and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham much more latitude in how to call a game.

Washington's biggest enemy is age. At 38, one wonders how much is left. The shelf life of nose tackles isn't long to begin with and Washington is clearly pushing that envelope.

With these six in the fold, Savage could rest on his laurels and wait for the April draft. Chances are he won't, tinkering here and there along the way to the college lottery.

If this is just the beginning and there are more surprises in store, who knows how much of an impact the Browns will have on the NFL this season?

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