In the final installment of the review, we'll look at the special teams, coaching, and the front office.
The special teams did an excellent job for the Browns for most of the year. In the early going, special teams helped to set the Browns up in good field position numerous times. As the season wore on, the Browns had injuries and this led to backups becoming starters. That had a ripple effect to the special teams, as bench and street players moved in on special teams. As a result, the advantage was lost in the last month or so of the season.
Phil Dawson had a mixed year. His kickoffs were probably the best ever, burying the opposition with touchbacks many times. But, his placekicking was probably his worst since he has been in Cleveland. Dawson missed to many field goals, even though most were over 40 yards. He also struggled with even extra points late in the year. Because of the inability of the Browns to do much on offense since The Return, Dawson has not had many chances at clutch kicks. This leads to him being overvalued. Clearly, the pooch punt in the Tampa Bay game, from the Bucs 27-yard line shows the coaching staff has little confidence in Dawson.
After a disastrous year with Kyle Richardson in 2005, a season in which the punter contributed directly to two losses, the Browns brought in Cleveland-area native Dave Zastudil. Zastudil had an excellent year. About the worst you could say is that he had two bad kicks and maybe had a few too many touchbacks. But overall, Zastudil was a good situational punter. He had a lot inside the 20 kicks and boomed some long ones when the situation called for it. Zastudil helped a lot in the all-important field position battle.
Ryan Pointbriand was drafted too high, something that's been hashed over repeatedly online, but he had another solid year.
Dennis Northcutt will probably leave Cleveland after a terrible year as a receiver, but he had a very productive year as a punt returner. In this capacity, he will be missed. Meanwhile, Joshua Cribbs had an excellent year on kickoff returns. While filling in for Northcutt on punt returns, he had an excellent game in emergency duty at Oakland, but then failed miserably in that role in subsequent chances, fumbling and muffing kicks. The return teams did a much better job avoiding penalties than the disastrous 2005 season.
Overall, the coverage teams did well. There was an occasional lapse, but for the most part, opposing teams had a hard time in their return games.
Analysis: I think the lack of clutch kicks results in Phil Dawson being overvalued. He at least needs some real competition in camp. Zastudil is an excellent punter. It seems a foregone conclusion that Northcutt will be gone, but he needs to be replaced on punt returns. The Browns don't have an obvious replacement right now. Josh Cribbs did some great things this year on returns and is locked up long-term.
Coach Romeo Crennel was in his second year as head coach. The Browns decided heading into 2006 that they wanted continuity and thus retained all of the coaches from the 2005 season. That decision set the tone for 2006.
Despite a lack of experience at the position, some signs of trouble with players like Trent Dilfer, and some very questionable game-day decisions, Maurice Carthon was retained as offensive coordinator. He was embattled pretty much from the start of camp, and it didn't take long into the season for Carthon to reach the point of no return. After a very suspect fullback option pass in Carolina, everyone expected Carthon to be shown the door during the bye week. It took a dismal offensive showing against Denver before Carthon "resigned" under duress.
Offensive line coach Jeff Davidson took over the play calling. While his calls showed a little more strategy, in my opinion, many of the problems remained like an inability to score touchdowns in the red zone. Some very conservative calls made many believe he had no faith in Charlie Frye. Once Derek Anderson got some playing time, it seemed like either the calls were less conservative, or perhaps Anderson was opting to be a little more aggressive with his available options than Frye had been. But, in the end, the Browns offense was miserable following a 31-28 overtime win against Kansas City, and those games came with Anderson playing three and Frye playing one.
Meanwhile, on defense, Todd Grantham tried to follow on a solid performance with poor talent in 2005. In 2006, the defense started out keeping the offense in games, and this despite numerous injuries in the secondary. The Browns had game where their top four cornerbacks were all out. Eventually, the defense collapsed, with miserable efforts against the Bengals, at Pittsburgh, and against Tampa Bay, with the exception of a few standouts. I trace some of these failures to the loss of veterans Orpheus Roye and Brian Russell due to injuries. It showed how much those players helped on the field. Credit must also go to defensive backs coach Mel Tucker who kept the secondary playing decently despite being seriously undermanned.
Special teams coach Jerry Rosburg has had some great seasons in Cleveland. The 2005 season had some problems, but Rosburg did a solid job again in 2006.
It's not always easy to assess the assistants, but Terry Robiske had to go. The wide receiver position seriously underachieved yet again, and Braylon Edwards was just out of control at times.
Finally, let's talk about the head man. Crennel is still at the helm and the team's brain trust says he will stay. Many people I respect believe Crennel should be given one more chance. If we look at this year, he made the wrong call on Carthon and let things degenerate to the point where Carthon and Davidson reportedly weren't speaking. There were strong hints the players had quit on Carthon. Yet, Crennel refused to act.
Crennel allowed Braylon Edwards to take helicopter trips, miss meetings, freelance on the field, and cause a controversy on the sideline because of a heated exchange with coaches. Crennel allowed this to go on for a month before benching Edwards for part of one game.
Crennel made some bizarre on-field decisions like pooch punting against Tampa, or kicking a field goal down 14-3 in Houston with about six minutes left in a meaningless game. Few times did Crennel make a "what do we have to loose" decision, such as going on fourth and goal in Atlanta. That play was a springboard to a victory. And I won't even get into his red flag decisions, which were inexplicable at times.
The results have been bad across the board, but the Browns have looked awful against division rivals. Under Crennel, the Browns are 1-11 in the AFC North, with just one meaningless win on the final game of 2005.
Finally, in a season that was pretty much lost when the Browns fell to 1-5, Crennel refused to play rookies or backups until the very end of the season. Players like Travis Wilson and Isaac Sowells looked decent enough when they finally played. Either these players are really bad, or Crennel was making those decisions not based on the situation but on rules he uses to make decisions.
Analysis: While many people raise the issue that Crennel deserves another shot because of injuries, bad players, and so forth, I think that is irrellevant. Crennel has not shown himself to be a good leader. Who has he made better since he's been in Cleveland? However, since I don't see an obviously better replacement, I guess giving him another chance is better than starting over. However, if things don't improve early in 2007, the Browns could find themselves in a lame duck situation early in the season. I don't have a lot of optimism that Crennel will turn things around in 2007, but I hope I am wrong.
Because of all this, it is crucial the Browns get someone experienced in the fold to run the offense. Despite not having a "fair chance" taking over for Carthon, the Browns can't risk handing the offense to the inexperienced Davidson. The Browns can stay with Grantham and his staff, because the defense looked decent most of the year despite a lot of injuries.
Phil Savage made some free agent moves that looked good when made. Certainly, no one can argue with the pickup of Dave Zastudil. Joe Jurevicius did not have the impact he might have had, but that was largely due to his questionable use by the coaching staff and injuries. Willie McGinest had maybe two good games, but whether due to age or injury, he didn't produce as hoped. Perhaps he had more of an impact on the young linebackers than has been advertised. Ted Washington for the most part was the part-time player folks expected him to be, but he was not a game-changer most of the time and the Browns did not really have a young apprentice in the wings. Kevin Shaffer was inconsistent at left tackle and it is looking like he was overpaid. Of course, the biggest signing, LeCharles Bentley, never got on the field. This really hurt, as did his backup bolting when he was handed the starting job.
Several of Savage's previous free agent pickups had problems. Joe Andruzzi is physically broken down and probably done. Cosey Coleman had a so-so year. Matt Stewart was solid as mostly a bench player, though he started early in the year. Brian Russell had a much better year in 2006 than 2005 and clearly made a difference with the young players. The Browns haven't gotten much return on their investment in Gary Baxter.
The 2006 draft class looked solid. Kamerion Wimbley had a great rookie year. Leon Williams looked very good as well. D'Qwell Jackson showed hustle and improved as the year went along. There were flashes from Lawrence Vickers and Jerome Harrison, but neither saw much playing time. Travis Wilson and Isaac Sowells were largely redshirted. Demario Minter never saw the field due to injury. Babatunde Oshinowo may yet develop into a player, but he is a project. Justin Hamilton was hurt a lot, but showed a few flashes.
Meanwhile, the 2005 draft class had its problems. Braylon Edwards had a lot of issues on and off the field. Brodney Pool was solid, but many expect more from a second-round pick. Charlie Frye may not be the quarterback of the future. Antonio Perkins looks like an absolute bust. Most of the second day picks either aren't around or aren't significant contributors.
The front office is dealing with a poor product on the field and a restless fan base. It's been a long time since the Browns have been consistently good, and the only winning season since The Return was accomplished in many regards with smoke and mirrors. Horrible performances at home such as the Denver, Cincinnati, and Tampa Bay games have left the fans cold. If the Browns don't show some signs of hope heading into 2007, things could start to get ugly.
Analysis: Phil Savage has done a mixed job. Some of his signings have worked out, some haven't, and some of those that didn't have had extenuating circumstances. The 2006 draft looks excellent so far, while 2005 looks weak. The front office in general has to do something to give the fans hope. The recent "stay the course" press conferences have done little to inspire hope in the fans. This team needs a great draft and free agent class and some signs that youngsters are progressing, otherwise, fan apathy will continue to rise in 2007. If I am Randy Lerner, that is my biggest concern. The Browns need to show signs of turning around or both Savage and Crennel will be on the hot seat.