Passan: Progress Is Evident

In the middle of the Browns 2007 expectations is the issue at the quarterback position. Charlie Frye has been named the starter, but Rich tends to believe there is a better candidate.

While many question marks swirl above the 2007 edition of the Cleveland Browns, there is absolutely no question that they will be stronger, deeper and more talented than the sadly underachieving 2006 group.

Phil Savage has made some significant strides in his third attempt to put together a team that will be more competitive and representative in the AFC North. Just how close they are to that goal will be determined in the first four weeks of the season.

Rebuilding the team from the foundation up has not been a delightful chore for Savage, who still looks at his team and finds numerous holes that won't be addressed until next year. That's how bad this team became after Savage arrived a few years ago and tore it asunder.

As the Browns head into the 2007 season Sunday in the opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, several questions linger about how well they'll play. Most of those questions lie on the offensive side of the ball, although one hangs heavily on the defensive side.

The Browns begin the season with a largest problem at the most important position on the offense. In quarterbacks Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson, they have mediocrity personified.

It appeared toward the end of last season that Anderson, when Frye finally fell victim to the inevitable injury, was more than capable of stepping in and actually improving the position. He had caught up to Frye heading into training camp a couple of months ago.

Then for whatever reason, Anderson's confidence level bottomed out, allowing the distinctly pedestrian Frye to regain his starting status. Good news for Frye, bad news for all Browns fans not on the Frye bandwagon.

Making it worse, Savage and coach Romeo Crennel seem satisfied to begin the season with the underachieving Frye leading an attack that was supposed to be better after a bundle of off-season additions. Say hello to Joe Thomas, Seth McKinney, Jamal Lewis and Eric Steinbach.

No question whatsoever that the Browns will be a better running team this season and protect the quarterback better. Anything would be an improvement over last season. But getting Steinbach and Kevin Shaffer healthy is an imperative to this end.

The big X-factor is Frye, who has shown no signs of repairing his problem areas – decision making, defense recognition and a serious lack of play-making ability. The ostensibly improved offense is in jeopardy of heading in a direction similar to the last two years.

That's because with a quarterback the caliber of Frye, look for opposing defenses to shut try to shut down the run by overcommitting and forcing him to beat them with his arm. Eight men in the box will be a common sight in the first month of the season.

This offense needs someone who can keep an opposing defense honest. The Browns believe that someone is Frye. How else can anyone explain his starting status?

Savage and Crennel refuse to consider rookie Brady Quinn for the starting job even though he has been, by far, the most impressive quarterback in the exhibition season. And Frye's inability to elevate his game – not certain if there is another level – will have a domino effect on an offense that has an improved line and what many expect will be a strong running game.

But what if Lewis goes down? With the Browns' luck regarding injuries, that's more likely than not. So what if he goes down? Who replaces him? Jason Wright? Jerome Harrison? Doesn't exactly inspire confidence. Keeping Lewis healthy should be priority Nos. 1, 2, and 3.

And when it comes to catching the ball, the confidence level drops to alarming depths once you get past tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and wide receiver Braylon Edwards.

Travis Wilson? It appears the only thing he can catch is a cold. Savage isn't about to give up on last year's third-round bust. Tim Carter? He was below average in college and below average and unreliable with the New York Giants. So what makes anyone think he's going to be anything other than that with the Browns? Joe Jurevicius? A complementary receiver at best. The Browns are hurting at wide receiver.

Savage and Crennel most likely will pore over the waiver wire until the Steelers game in an effort to put some kick into the receiving corps.

One also has to be skeptical that new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski's attack might be too sophisticated, too cerebral, for the players on board. Pre-snap movement designed to confuse the opposing defense seems to confuse the Browns more than the opponent. Players line up wrong. Receivers bump into each other. Assignments are botched. Too many unnecessary timeouts. Timeouts are precious.

Chudzinski might have to dumb down the playbook to restore some kind of order to his offense. Sometimes, working on the basic fundamentals of an offense over and over again can be more productive than trying to execute plays from a playbook that looks more like a New York City telephone book. The keep-it-simple method works well if executed properly.

On the other side of the ball, the Browns are no better off against the run than they have been the last two seasons. The line is old and even though the Smiths (Robaire and Shaun) were added during the offseason, the club's run defense showed no improvement in the exhibition season.

One would think that by now, there would be some progress made in that area. Maybe Savage is pointing toward next season to plug that gaping hole. He probably wishes he could fast-forward to 2008. Doesn't bode well for this season, though.

With the sudden emergence of Babatunde Oshinowo, I would have cut Ted Washington and rotated Oshinowo and Shaun Smith at nose tackle. The line becomes younger and more effective than with plundering Mount Ted in there. Not surprising that Savage and Crennel didn't pull that trigger and cut Oshinowo instead.

If the Browns can't stop the run, this is going to be an awfully long season. And facing Willie Parker, Willis McGahee and Rudi Johnson six times this season, there's a distinct possibility it could be even longer than that.

Savage is correct when he states that first down is going to be the key down for the beleaguered Browns' defense this season. Forcing second and long should be a mandate for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.

If Grantham can't work his magic any better than he has the last two seasons, the results don't figure to be any different. Attitude and intensity, important ingredients to defensive success, are absent. That's got to change. The Browns have to play defense with a chip on their shoulders.

They are better at linebacker with the addition of Antwan Peek and the added year's experience for D'Qwell Jackson, Kamerion Wimbley and Leon Williams. Hopefully, Wimbley plays the run better this year than he did last year. And Chaun Thompson finally seems to get it. Perhaps they can render well-past-his-prime Willie McGinest a spectator.

The secondary is a definite plus as long as Leigh Bodden remains healthy. The ability of Bodden and rookie Eric Wright to play man coverage should give Grantham the latitude to use more blitz packages. And the safety tandem of Sean Jones and Brodney Pool shows signs of becoming a force.

Special teams? No problem, especially in the return game and punting. It could be argued that this is the strongest area of the team.

The key will be how long the Frye-led offense, which sputtered during the exhibition season, can stay on the field and keep the defense fresh. Right now, the odds on that happening aren't shaky at best.

The three exhibition victories are nice, but now the game will be played at a much different speed and with a much higher level of intensity. Let's see how that 3-1 record translates to kind of football where the starters play more than just the first half of games.

And let's not overlook the coaching factor. With Crennel calling the shots, you can look forward to uninspired football and playing not to lose on an almost weekly basis. His track record as a head coach is a mute testament to that unhappy prospect. If he makes it to the bye week, color me surprised.

Unless Crennel can come up with some magical formula that dramatically changes the way his players respond to his coaching and play for him on Sundays, it's going to be the same-old, same-old again for the next several months.

With all that evidence, and despite all the improvement, I can't see the Browns winning any more than six games. And that's factoring in the notion there will be one upset along the way.

Hope I'm wrong.


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