Joe's Season Preview

Rather than re-living Thursday night's sordid game, Joe Brownlee previews the 2006 regular season...

Good day, Browns fans!

The long offseason is over and the start of the 2006 NFL campaign is at hand. Its been an eventful time in Berea, with a lot of twists and turns. What can we expect when the Browns take the field in real games? Lets examine that in detail.

Offense

The Browns were pitiful at times on offense in 2005. While the Browns did have their first 1000-yard rusher in 20 years in Reuben Droughns, they were too often forced to overuse him. The change of pace options on the bench, William Green and Lee Suggs when healthy, did very little and Droughns set a record for carries and eventually wore down. Injuries along the offensive line hurt the Browns throughout the season. Veteran quarterback Trent Dilfer had a few good plays, but more often, when the Browns needed a throw, he could not deliver. The Browns eventually turned the reigns over to rookie Charlie Frye. It was hard to analyze his performance because of the patchwork line and lack of a running game.

During the offseason, the Browns made several moves designed to shore up the offense. They signed free-agent Pro Bowl center LeCharles Bentley, a young left tackle in Kevin Shaffer, and veteran receiver Joe Jurevicius. The Browns also had tight end Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards returning from injuries. Finally, the Browns drafted the Pac 10s leading rusher in Jerome Harrison, wide receiver Travis Wilson, and the top fullback in the draft, Lawrence Vickers. The Browns added a guard in Isaac Sowells, but he is a project.

Perhaps the biggest move is the one the Browns did not make. For the sake of continuity, the Browns decided to stick with offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon. Many felt his play calling was so busy trying to be unpredictable that it was self-defeating at times. Others argued that Carthons calls would be better with better talent and execution. His reported rift with quarterback Trent Dilfer led to the Browns trading Dilfer to the 49ers for Ken Dorsey. Rumors continue that Carthon does not inspire the offense to follow him. This bears watching.

When LeCharles Bentley was hurt on the first play of 11-on-11 drills, it sent the Browns on a meandering journey through center purgatory. Eventually the Browns traded for veteran Hank Fraley of the Eagles. Fraley will have to integrate into an unfamiliar system, and veteran right tackle Ryan Tucker played six plays in the preseason. In addition, veteran guard Joe Andruzzi struggled in the practice games. He and Cosey Coleman, the other guard, both missed several games with injuries last year. This unit will be the key to the fortunes of the Browns this year. While the Browns have the most talent at the skill positions as they have had since The Return, if there are no holes for the running game or the quarterback is running for his life, the talent the team has assembled will do little good. Worse, while the Browns have tried to address depth on the line, the backups are questionable. Picking up veteran Kelly Butler from the Lions at the cut down deadline will help.

Meanwhile, with Dilfer gone, the Browns have turned the team over to Charlie Frye. Frye went 2-3 as a starter last year. In his two wins, the Browns offense generated just 22 points. Frye has shown the same ability to be a gamer he displayed at the University of Akron, but he is also young. Carelessness with the ball led to some costly turnovers, including a fumble returned for a touchdown in the final game. Between the odd circumstances at the end of last year, and an unsettled preseason, it is difficult to know how Frye will develop this year. He has shown flashes, and the team has wisely surrounded him with talent rather than ask him to carry the team. Behind Frye, the Browns have little talent and experience. Dorsey is not even a #2 in my opinion, and while Derek Anderson shows promise, he is still a project.

Analysis: This unit is set up for struggles. Despite very solid talent at the skill positions, I expect it to be inconsistent, and like previous expansion era teams, at times, first downs will be hard to come by. If the line gels and stays healthy, and if Charlie matures into the job and stays healthy, the Browns will be just fine. If either or both dont happen, the 2006 season will be much like what weve seen the last three years. If the talent the Browns have assembled isnt used to maximum efficiency, Carthon will be on the hot seat.

Defense

The 2005 Browns had very poor talent on defense. On paper, the front seven in particular was one of the weakest in the NFL. It was a testament to new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham that he got a weak unit to finish #16 on defense, and that with being #31 against the run and dead last in sacks. This was made all the more amazing in that head coach Romeo Crennel decided to adopt the 3-4 despite the fact that the Browns did not have the personnel of experience for that scheme. The defense, despite its holes and inexperience, kept the team in many games.

Recognizing the inability to stop the run as well as the weak play at linebacker, the Browns acquired veteran nose tackle Ted Washington and linebacker Willie McGinest. The Browns also drafted three linebackers, Kamerion Wimbley in the first round, DQwell Jackson in the second, and Leon Williams in the fourth, as well as defensive tackle Babatunde Oshinowo. While defensive end Orpheus Roye and linebacker Matt Stewart had 3-4 experience, returnees Alvin McKinley and Andra Davis would have a years experience under their belts.

The Browns were not often tested in the secondary because teams could run freely against them. While the top three corners were set in Leigh Bodden, Gary Baxter, and Daylon McCutcheon, the Browns had problems at safety. Veteran Brian Russell has good savvy, but not as good talent. Sean Jones was handed a starting job in 2005 and could not keep it. As the year went on, rookie Brodney Poole saw more and more playing time. Incumbent Chris Crocker was traded away during the offseason, and the Browns drafted Demario Minter to help at corner and Justin Hamilton at safety.

As training camp wore on, injuries to Baxter, McCutcheon, and Minter left the Browns thin at corner. The Browns signed several veterans to try to plug the hole and gave yet another chance to second year man Antonio Perkins. None of the options worked out very well. The Browns settled on Ralph Brown as the least of the evils as the #4 corner, but with McCutcheon unlikely to return in week 1, Brown will likely see playing time. Other than Bodden, pretty much every player the Browns tried was torched in the preseason. On the other hand, Jones unexpectedly stepped up and Hamilton played very well in the preseason, giving the Browns unexpected depth at safety.

With Washington clogging up the middle, the Browns showed an ability to stuff the run not seen since The Return. This allows the ends and linebackers to flow to the ball and results looked very promising. Wimbley and second-year linebacker David McMillan showed some pass rush ability, and though injured through much of camp, returnee Chaun Thompson showed some promise after being shifted to inside linebacker. However, the young linebackers struggle in coverage situations and the Browns seem susceptible to outside runs and out passes. While improved, the pass rush is still not what it should be, allowing teams to burn the weak corners with big plays.

Analysis: The Browns have much better talent in the front seven, and should be able to stop the run. The linebackers must improve covering backs and tight ends, but should be better than last year. The Browns must also generate pressure on the quarterback, and showed improvement in that area in the preseason. If the Browns can keep Baxter and McCutcheon on the field, they should be fine in the secondary. The problem is once again depth. There is a huge drop off between Washington and backup Ethan Kelley. Likewise, if Ralph Brown should end up starting for the Browns, it could be tough. However, unlike Carthon, Grantham has shown a knack for squeezing more than could be expected out of his players. If the offense can grow over the first half of the season, the defense can help keep them in games. I believe this will be a top 10 defense in 2006.

Special Teams

The Browns got several big plays from the special teams in 2005, including a punt return and a kickoff return for a touchdown, and two blocked field goals, with one returned for a touchdown. However, in general, the unit struggled. Bad kick coverage put the team in a hole on many occasions. Two punt returns for touchdowns were wiped out by penalties. The punting game was awful with punter Kyle Richardson, and he cost the Browns two games with shanks. Kicker Phil Dawson was solid, but had a few problems here and there.

In response to these problems, the Browns brought in Dave Zastudil. He has shown a big leg, but needs to work on directional punting. Otherwise, the Browns retained Dawson, punt returner Dennis Northcutt, kickoff returner Joshua Cribbs, and long snapper Ryan Pointbriand. It is always hard to know how the coverage teams will be based on the preseason, because many of the players who play on them end up being released. However, the Browns retained some solid special teams players like linebacker Mason Unck, tight end Darnell Dinkins, and McMillan.

Analysis: More talent on the roster means better special teams. If the coverage and return units can cut down on penalties, they could be among the best in the NFL. Northcutt and Cribbs might be the best return duo in the NFL, and Dawson has generally been reliable. Jerry Rosburg had fielded solid units in the past. Hopefully 2005 was simply an aberration due to lack of talent.

Coaching

Romeo Crennel was a first year coach in 2005. For the sake of continuity, the team decided to retain the entire coaching staff.

Analysis: I think continuity at this point is a good thing. The Browns have some solid assistants such as assistant head coach Jeff Davidson, tight ends coach Ben Coates, and defensive backs coach Mel Tucker. I think Todd Grantham is a rising star. Carthon is probably the weak link and could be in for a rocky road if the team doesnt score some points. While I am not sold on Carthon, he may be in a no-win situation given the potential problems on the offensive line. He cannot allow mistakes like the clock management blunder before halftime in Minnesota.

Schedule

With the NFLs rotation system, the Browns play the teams from the AFC West and NFC South this season. It does not help that each division contains three teams that were playoff teams or playoff contenders in 2005. Many see Carolina as a Super Bowl contender. The Browns also draw two AFC opponents based on their finish last season: the New York Jets and Houston Texans. Many see all of the other teams on the AFC North as playoff contenders. Despite improvement in talent, the Browns will have to work hard just to win the six games they won a year ago against this schedule.

However, one thing few analysts take into account is when the opponents face each other. The Browns have the softer part of the schedule in the first half, but face a brutal stretch in November and December. Other AFC North teams, most notably the Bengals, have the difficult part of their schedules at the start. It would not be a shock to see Cincinnati be as good as in 2005 and still start 2-4.

Analysis: I believe the Browns chances to improve upon their 6-10 finish in 2005 hinge on the first four games. The Browns open with the Saints, travel to Cincinnati, host the Ravens, then travel to Oakland. Other than the Bengals game, all appear to be games that could be won. The Browns seem to give the Bengals fits at times, though, and the Bengals will be without linebacker Odell Thurman. Further, the Browns will need to grow through the first eight games to have a chance to play toe to toe with some contending opponents down the stretch. I hope I am wrong, but I see another 6-10 finish, though 8-8 would not be out of the question with some breaks along the way.

If the Browns could get off to a 3-1 start, they will likely be talked about as a Cinderella story by the media. If other AFC North teams struggle early because of tougher opponents, it could make things interesting from a psychological standpoint. The Browns could really use a shot of confidence early in the season. It could do wonders for the team as the season unfolds.

Looking Ahead

The Browns open the regular season at home against former center Jeff Faine and the New Orleans Saints.

The season is short. Bark hard!

 


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