Passan: The What If Department

The unexpected is expected in the NFL, so Rich ponders a series of What Ifs...

From the Department of Who Knew?

A year ago at this time, most Browns fans girded for what promised to be yet another season of frustrating football.

Coming off a season in which they finished 4-12, there were absolutely no indications the Browns would come even remotely close to climbing out of the rut in which they resided for nearly a decade.

Romeo Crennel's job hung by a sliver. And Phil Savage's reputation began taking several hits.

Sure, the club had a couple of nice draft choices in offensive tackle Joe Thomas and quarterback Brady Quinn. And sure, it signed free agents Eric Steinbach and Jamal Lewis.

But when was the last time a rookie offensive tackle moved right in and played like a Pro Bowler? And there was no way Quinn was going to be the starting quarterback, especially after his agent foolishly and irresponsibly held him out training camp in an effort to extract more money for his client.

Sure, Steinbach was a nice signing, but he was joining an offensive line that had badly underachieved. And Lewis, we were all told, was clearly on the downside of what had been a spectacular career, especially against the Browns.

The rest of the cast, however, remained essentially the same, in particular an abysmal defense that stopped the run about as often as the offense frightened the opposition.

Training camp yielded no surprises. The quarterbacks struggled. The running game was ragged. Missed assignments became the norm. And that was just in practice.

It continued in the exhibition games. Same old, same old.

So how did the Browns wind up 10-6? How did Derek Anderson become one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the National Football League? How did Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow Jr. gain membership in the NFL's Most Feared Receivers Club? And how did the offensive line take up residence among the league's elite?

The season of Ho Hum, Here We Go Again became the season of Who Knew.

Nobody knew. That's who. Not even the most ardent, pie-in-the-sky fan who dreams of 16-0 seasons knew.

That was, indeed, a where-did-that-come-from season the Browns put together last year. The longer it went, the less unbelievable it became. The more the Browns won, the more fans expected them to win.

That's why the Cincinnati loss in week 16 and the fade from playoff contention was so hard to take. That's why it gives Browns fans hope, realistic and otherwise, that 2008 will be just the dawn of another golden age in pro football in Cleveland.

Which takes us . . .

To the Department of What If?

So here we are a year later and my, how the landscape has changed.

As we approach training camp in Berea, no longer are Browns fans girding for the worst. No longer are they piling up the excuses for why the Browns won't do well. Again.

For the first time since the tail end of the Bernie Kosar era in Cleveland, optimism reigns as the 2008 season nears. And that optimism isn't just normal fan-biased fodder. It's genuine and well-earned.

But what if . . .

The offensive line isn't the same cohesive unit of 2007? There's no guarantee it will stay healthy for all 16 games. Only one starter, Seth McKinney, was lost to injury last season. That's a rarity. Already, Ryan Tucker has gone down, although he's expected back by the season opener. Also, what if Thomas suffers from the sophomore jinx?

And what if . . .

Anderson proves to be, as a lot of Quinn fans believe he is, a one-trick pony who lives and dies with the long pass? Maybe then their guy will get the job.

But what if . . .

Quinn is worse than Anderson? There's no guarantee he'll come right in and blow the joint off its hinges. None whatsoever. He had trouble throwing outside the hash marks in college and it wouldn't be long before the word spread around the NFL.

And what if . . .

Lewis starts looking like an old man at age 29? Again, there's no certainty he'll rack up another 1,300-yard season. Or even remain healthy for all 16 games. Especially if there are problems along the offensive line.

And what if . . .

Edwards and Winslow return to the land of the very good, but not great? Expect secondaries around the National Football League to pay extremely close attention to these gentlemen.

And what if . . . return specialist Joshua Cribbs misplaces his cape and goes from extraordinary to just OK? What if he gets hurt making a tackle while playing gunner on the kickoff and punt teams?

But what if . . . the bulked-up and vastly improved defensive line plays as advertised and provides the dimension the maligned Cleveland defense has sought for many seasons?

Not saying all that's going to happen. But then, who in his right mind would have thought 10-6 last season?

So would it be safe, then, to say anything can happen? If so, it could be a longer season than anticipated.

Then again, the Department of Who Knew and What If could very well turn out to be the Department of Hoo Boy!

Nothing wrong with that.

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