Barking Mad: No Quit in Cleveland

Michael Desmond looks at Phil Savage's skill in pulling a rabbit out of a patellar tendon. For those of you tracking the challenge level, that ain't easy.

In the aftermath of the surreal Bob Hallen dustup and subsequent collapse of the center position for the Cleveland Browns, it was pretty darn amazing to watch Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel operate. A confluence of events that might have broken another young GM seemed to spur Savage into the sort of calm, urgent action reserved for firefighters and paramedics.

Rather than force feed a trade that would cost the franchise dearly in draft picks, Savage picked his way through the minefield like Eric Metcalf tiptoeing through a defense. The Browns GM had signed Alonzo Ephraim soon after Bentley went down. The former Alabama standout impressed in his first preseason start, then promptly shocked fans by earning a four game league drug suspension on August 16. It was an embarrassing miss for Savage, who had been blindsided by Hallen just a week before.

Savage, however, already seemed a half-step ahead of the rolling calamity on the offensive line. On August 12 he swung a modest deal with New England - a team known for depth and competence on the line - to land reserve center Ross Tucker. Acquired for a conditional seventh-round draft pick, Tucker was rushed into preseason action and impressed with his composure and play. Then on August 24, eight days after the announced Ephraim suspension, Savage dealt another conditional seventh-rounder (the Browns had two in the round, thanks to the Dilfer trade) for Bears reserve center Lennie Friedman.

That move was met with a collective "huh?" from fans, but fellow GMs were impressed. When the Browns briefly waived Friedman in order to rework portions of his contract, seven NFL ballclubs reportedly tried to claim him off waivers.

With the arrival of Friedman, the vibe from fans began to change, from apocalyptic grief to what I can only describe as optimistic dismay. We worried that Lennie weighed in at a svelte 293 pounds, putting him firmly in the Faine weight class. And we wondered if Ross, who was buried deep on the New England depth chart, could really pass muster as an everyday starter.

Despite the signings, the middle of the line was held together with spit, tape, and bailing wire. Heck, some fans were still calling for the Browns to sign disgraced center Jeff Mitchell, despite the fact that the former Carolina Panther had been implicated in an ugly steroid use scandal. So when it was announced that Ross Tucker had been waived, you could feel the panic. Another serviceable center, gone. After all that had happened, one could not help but wonder what it was this time: Retirement? Felony child abuse? Alien abduction?

And then Savage did something totally crazy. He traded for the guy we all wanted in the first place.

On September 2, the Hank Fraley deal hit the collective Cleveland consciousness like a double-shot martini after a bad day at the office. You could almost feel the warmth creep across the soul of every Browns fan, as we realized that we no longer had to hope for the best and expect the worst.

Fraley is a real, honest-to-nose-guard starting center in this league—a seven-year veteran out of Philadelphia who has played at the highest level in front of some of the toughest fans on the planet. He's played in ice and snow, he's played against hated division rivals like New York, Dallas, and Washington, and he's survived the lunar surface of Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. Fraley has also earned the attention of pundits. Daryl Johnston named him to his All Lunch Pail Team, and Dr. Z had Fraley inked him to his All-Tough Team. If Fraley isn't a fit for the Cleveland Browns in their hour of need, I don't know who is.

Have I been critical of Savage's role in acquiring guys like Hallen, Todd Washington, and Alonzo Ephraim? Absolutely. When you sign quitters and drug users, you should be called to task when they do things like… quit and do drugs. But I applaud Savage's methodical approach to repairing the hole in the line. Two weeks ago, our center situation was—to paraphrase Savage himself—among the worst in the league. Today, I'd regard our center talent and depth as being average, at worst. And that is really saying something.

Perhaps most remarkable, we didn't break the bank to do it. For Friedman and Fraley, we gave up one conditional seventh-round pick in 2007 and a reported conditional late-round pick in 2008. The seventh-rounder for Tucker returned to the Browns when he was cut before making the final 53-man roster.

If the events of August and early September have revealed one thing, it is that Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel are not prone to panic. Neither lunged at an instant solution when centers began dropping like leaves in October. The same composure that allowed Savage to stare down Ross Verba during his bizarre 2005 contract push, today let him wait out the crisis at center.

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