The offseason is over, the draft in the books, training camp has closed, and the preseason games have been played. It is time to see what the 2007 Cleveland Browns can do. Since 1999, there has not always been a lot to cheer about. This team probably has the highest level of talent the team has fielded since The Return. Yet, there are still holes and enough changes that it make take some time to see how things will shake out.
Let’s examine each area of the team.
New offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski has brought in a new scheme with a lot of motion predicated on getting mismatches. At least through the preseason, it appeared to work in many cases. Play calling included a nice balance or run and pass, and there were some hints of creativity even in games that don’t count. Overall, the scheme seems to be a massive improvement over the mish-mosh that former coordinator Maurice Carthon foisted on us for the past two seasons. Of course, just about anything would be an improvement over that. My one concern about the new scheme is that some of the players seemed to be struggling with formations, motion, and so forth during the preseason. Hopefully those mistakes will fade as we get into the regular season.
The biggest reason for optimism is much improved play on the offensive line, and much of the preseason was played without free agent pickup Eric Steinbach and suspended tackle Ryan Tucker. The athletic play of the line allowed the Browns to run screens and other plays where the linemen must pull with great effectiveness. The quarterbacks largely enjoyed good protection. With a concussion suffered by Kevin Shaffer in the Denver game, depth may already be a concern, but the line has depth it has not enjoyed in many years. Even average play by the line should greatly help the offense, and I expect a bit better than that.
That being said, this team will go as far as the quarterback position will take it. As an Akron alumnus, I’d love to see Charlie Frye succeed. In his starts to date, he has been prone to making critical mistakes, mostly due to being careless with the ball and trying to do too much. While his interceptions are a concern, his fumbles are disturbing as well. Still, I believe in what I observed, Frye was making better reads this preseason than in the past. My only question is if he can elevate the rest of his game to take proper advantage of what he sees. While Derek Anderson did some good things last season, he throws a lot of interceptions and showed an inability to get points on his possessions in the preseason. Not all of that is his fault, of course, but it was a trend that has to be a concern. Clearly, when ready, Brady Quinn far exceeds either Frye or Anderson. The only question is when he assumes the helm. This is probably the question on which the season hangs.
While the starters at the skill positions are solid, the depth is not. Jamal Lewis looked fresh in camp and in the preseason. While some noted a tendency to hesitate, it looked to me like he was trying to follow his blockers. Lewis also displayed good cutback ability, better than advertised receiving skills, and the desire to take on defenders at times. Lewis should be an upgrade – but – if he is injured, the Browns really don’t have an every down back behind him. Jason Wright is a nice change of pace and third down back. He has good hands and isn’t afraid to go up the middle if need be. Jerome Harrison showed improvement over his rookie season, but he also showed a tendency to make mistakes. The versatile Lawrence Vickers will start at fullback, backed up by surprising Charles Ali.
The wide receiver position is even thinner. Braylon Edwards had a very solid preseason marred only by a dropped pass in the final game. He seems to be taking the critics to heart and has elevated his game. Joe Jurevicius is a solid veteran who has had an injury-riddled past. Expect that he will miss some games. Beyond that, Josh Cribbs showed signs of becoming a better receiver and the team also showed a willingness to use him in an expanded role on offense such as end around plays. Ex-Giant Tim Carter has bust written all over him. I am surprised and disappointed the Browns wasted a roster spot on him. He didn’t do much in camp, and his most notable contribution in the games was lining up incorrectly. Travis Wilson probably saved his job with a decent performance against the Bears. If he gets chances during the season, he had better make the most of them.
The tight end position is the deepest on offense. Kellen Winslow will be a star if he cuts out the dumb mental mistakes he made in the preseason. Steve Heiden is reliable and underrated. Darnell Dinkins is a solid blocker with decent hands. The best evidence of the depth is that the Browns had to let go of two decent players, Ryan Krause and Buck Ortega, and Krause was offered a spot with the Packers.
The offense overall moved the ball but showed a distressing inability to put up points. For the Browns to improve in 2007, that has to change. But even if the offense just holds onto the ball longer, it should keep the defense fresher.
Probably the biggest positive for the defense is another year of the same scheme and virtually the same coaching staff. The preseason provided clues that some players that might have been possible cuts are starting to “get it”. Others who showed potential look like they may rise to the next level. Still, there are some problems that are cause for concern.
The biggest weakness is the defensive line. It is a combination of age and inexperience, and there is little depth. The Browns brought in Shaun Smith and Robaire Smith to try to help. Shaun Smith spent most of the preseason playing out of position and he was largely ineffective. Robaire Smith didn’t seem to make much of an impact. When Shaun returns to his normal spot at the nose and the real games start, I hope things will look better. Veteran Orpheus Roye has always given his all, but one has to wonder just what he has left to give, especially after missing the entire preseason. Ethan Kelley has not impressed me this preseason or in the past. Simon Fraser improved in 2006, but was still a liability against the run. Ted Washington did not do much last year. Some of the depth players like Babatunde Oshinowo and J’Vonne Parker were cut victims.
At linebacker, the Browns are hoping their three second year players step us, particularly with injuries to veterans Matt Stewart and Willie McGinest. Kamerion Wimbley was very disruptive in the preseason and should be a force this year. Playing on the other side, free agent pickup Antwan Peek had an excellent preseason as well. Many expected this to be the last hurrah for Chaun Thompson, but he had a monster preseason and made the cut. Perhaps he will surprise us all. On the inside, D’Qwell Jackson appears to have stepped up the mental part of his game. Leon Williams had a mixed preseason, but shows promise. Veteran Andra Davis played sparingly due to injury. Kris Griffin’s high motor style of play earned him a spot. David McMillan is mostly a special teams and situational player.
On paper, the secondary looks to be much stronger than last year. Leigh Bodden returns and can hopefully stay healthy. Second-round pick Eric Wright will no doubt make rookie mistakes, but he clearly has talent. Sean Jones and Brodney Pool should be able to build on the level of play they showed last year. Mike Adams is a young veteran backup at safety. At corner, the Browns kept several backups. Last year’s find Daven Holly looks to still have a nose for the ball and should be a solid nickel back. Veteran Kenny Wright exceeded my expectations, but then again, he is essentially replacing Ralph Brown, so just about anyone would be an improvement. Brandon McDonald had an up and down preseason, but may be mostly a special teams player at first. The Browns kept a spot for Gary Baxter to continue his attempt at a near-miracle comeback. What a story that would make! Browns fans everywhere are pulling for you, Gary.
The Browns have three big questions on defense: can they stop the run, can they rush the passer, and can they cover. The preseason has made me conclude that the pass rush should be vastly improved. However, I think all indications are that stopping the run will continue to be a problem. If this can’t be rectified, the defense will be in big trouble. On pass coverage, at times the secondary did a fantastic job, but on crossing routes at medium depths, the Browns had consistent problems. We won’t know until the real personnel are on the field, but this bears watching. An improved offense won’t matter if the defense can’t get off the field. The performance by the starters in the final two preseason games was promising, but there is still work to do.
Special teams have been perhaps the best and most consistent unit the team has had over the last few years. With long-time coach Jerry Rosburg leaving town and Ted Daisher replacing him, I had my doubts going into camp. Seeing Daisher in action at practice and the results on the field in the preseason games have made me a believer.
First, the Browns settled on Josh Cribbs to return both punts and kickoffs. Cribbs looked fabulous returning punts against the Bears with a touchdown return to go along with another 24-yard effort. His work on kickoffs is among the best in the game right now. The coverage teams also looked good throughout the preseason.
Dave Zastudil was brilliant in the preseason finale, with four of five punts inside the 20. Meanwhile, Phil Dawson struggled. The Browns might need to consider other options here perhaps next season, or perhaps during this season. Dawson hasn’t been called upon that often in clutch situations because the Browns haven’t been in that many games. I expect the situation to be different this year. Dawson could end up on the hot seat.
Despite the dreaded “vote of confidence” given by Phil Savage over the weekend, Romeo Crennel must demonstrate that the team is headed in the right direction. If the Browns lose their September division games at home, things will start to get toasty. Crennel hasn’t always gotten the team prepared, and he has allowed bad situations to simmer until they reach the boiling point. He’s going to have to change those things to survive the season.
Another Crennel tendency is to play veterans over rookies despite the fact that a particular veteran may be at the end of their career, or that the season is lost and it is an opportunity the give a young player experience. This tendency could give Crennel trouble if and when Brady Quinn shows he is ready to start. How many mistakes will it take from Frye before the crowd beings to yell for Quinn? Consider four of the first six games are in Cleveland.
In Crennel’s defense, he certainly did not have a lot of talent in his first two seasons. But that excuse is gone now. He needs to get the most out of his players. His fate is in his own hands now.
The schedule hasn’t done the Browns many favors. All their home division games come in September, followed by a trip to New England. It won’t be an incredible surprise if the Browns get off to a rocky start.
However, don’t give up on the team if they stumble out of the gate. In 1983, I moved to Champaign, Illinois in the heart of Chicago Bears country. They had a brash new coach by the name of Ditka. The Bears got off to a 2-6 start and Ditka was getting roasted by the critics. But, by the end of the year, a young offense led by Jim McMahon came together around veteran back Walter Payton. The Bears won 6 of 8 down the stretch to finish .500. In 1984, the Bears surprised everyone by making it to the NFC Championship. In 1985, the Bears had one of the most storied seasons in NFL history. The 2007 Browns could very well be a team that comes together in the second half of the season.
If you are expecting a playoff run this year, I suspect you will be disappointed. It’s very hard to say how the Browns will do, especially with a probable quarterback change. A lot depends on when and how that happens. Last year, I let my heart talk me into 6-10 when my head was saying 5-11. Of course, both were wrong. This year, I’d be thrilled with a 7-9 or 8-8 season, but I’m guessing the Browns will be reluctant to make the QB change, so put me down for 6-10. However, I expect the Browns will be competitive in most every game and some of those losses will be squeakers. I expect the team will be a lot more interesting to watch, even when they lose. If things break right, who knows?
The opener against the hated Steelers whom the Browns have not defeated since 2003.
The season is short. Bark hard!