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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.