The 2007 season was one of surprise and, ultimately, disappointment for the Cleveland Browns. Despite emerging as a fashionable pick for the AFC North championship in 2008, the team's failure to qualify for the playoffs with a 10-6 record was not forgotten during the off-season.
The Browns controlled their own destiny, but watched it derail thanks to a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Yet, while the failure is not forgotten, there is not a sense of failure in the upstart organization.
Derek Anderson: The Final Offensive Piece
2007 should be remembered as a season of progress and opportunity. The key was actually the disastrous season-opening loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers 34-7 in Cleveland/. The humiliating defeat set the wheels motion, and the actions which were taken formed and bonded the Browns throughout the season.
The game's starting quarterback, Charlie Frye, was quickly traded after the loss. Coming off a 4-12 record in 2006, it was easy to interpret this move as rash and reactionary, something done in a state of panic. That would ignore the very real sense following the close competition in training camp that backup Derek Anderson was possibly was a better fit in new offensive coordinator's Rob Chudzinski's scheme.
The Chudzinski offense is predicated on the vertical passing game and power rushing attack. Anderson had a big arm and limited game experience heading into the season and had done little in the pre-season to provide confidence in his ability to start. Coming off a below-average training camp and with first-round draft selection, Brady Quinn waiting in the wings, the timing couldn't have been any more critical for Anderson to succeed.
But succeed is what Anderson did.
Providing the Browns the ability to thrive throwing the ball downfield, Anderson quickly grasped the controls and his confidence soared. Despite being somewhat erratic behind center, Anderson was the beneficiary of the athletic abilities of wide receiver Braylon Edwards, the sure-handedness of tight-end Kellen Winslow and possession receiving of Joe Jurevicius.
Anderson's problems with consistency troubled him again in the second-half of the season, but the third-year signal-caller put his team in position to win week-in and week-out. He has gone from a placeholder to a viable option for the team in the future.
Anderson was a restricted free agent, but inked a three-year deal with the Browns in the off-season and will open in training camp as the established starter. Anderson and the Cleveland offense should further prosper with a complete season under their belt in this offensive scheme, where Anderson will get ample opportunity to fix his consistency issues.
The Pieces in Place
Adding to the weaponry on the offensive side of the ball during the off-season, the organization brought in speedy Donte Stallworth to enhance depth and quality veteran ability at the wide receiver position. Stallworth, a deep threat in the passing game, is expected to relieve the load on Jurevicius, while adding a significant presence opposite Edwards in the passing game. Jurevicius' participation became an issue over the off-season due to knee problems.
Whereas Anderson receives plenty of accolades, not enough is written about the play of the offensive line and running back Jamal Lewis. Over the past two seasons as a member of the Baltimore Ravens, Lewis' play had been in decline. His yards per carry were down, as was his importance in the Baltimore offensive scheme. Lewis played the 2006 season in Baltimore with an ankle injury that would require surgery to correct in the off-season.
Cleveland was looking for a power running back to fortify the offensive scheme, and with Lewis available, the Browns took a chance on the veteran due to his familiarity with Cleveland vice president and general manager Phil Savage.
Lewis made an immediate impact in the locker room and on the field. Coming into training camp lighter than he had in many a year, Lewis displayed the speed and powerful rushing which made him one of the best in the game. As the season progressed, Lewis became a focal point in the Browns offense with his will and determination being a factor in many late season contests. The team's perennial problems scoring in the red zone were significantly resolved.
Following the 2007 season, Lewis was a free agent and signed a three-year deal with the Browns to remain the feature back in this explosive Cleveland offense.
As important as Anderson was to the progress of the team in the first-half of the season, Lewis became the driving force over the course of the season. As with Anderson, however, Lewis would not have received his accolades if not for a formidable offensive line molded prior to the season.The 2006-7 off-season could play a vital role in molding the Cleveland Browns for years to come. Placing an emphasis on improving deficiencies on the offensive side of the ball, the Cleveland front-office was proactive, seeking talent and stability. Addressing the offensive line and skill players on the offensive side of the ball proved to be imperative.
Early in the free agent player signing period, the Browns targeted offensive guard Eric Steinbach, which proved to be the first significant offensive line move made by the organization. Steinbach stepped in to provide quality play and experienced leadership. His arrival was the first step in resolving a critical weakness of the Browns offense.
Savage coupled the acquisition of Steinbach with the selection of left tackle Joe Thomas with the third pick in the college player draft. Known as a dominant lineman in college, Thomas teamed with Steinbach to not only anchor the left side of the Cleveland line, but to quickly emerge as one of the best tandems in the National Football League. The Cleveland rushing game was extremely successful running to the left and the pass protection provided by the rookie and veteran provided the Anderson and the receivers time to develop confidence.
As Thomas and Steinbach were outstanding, the balance and productivity along the Browns offensive merits notice. Center Hank Fraley, right tackle Kevin Shaffer and guards Seth McKinney and Ryan Tucker improved significantly as the season progressed, all which provided the opportunity for the offense to maintain the rhythm and consistency to play competitively against all competition.
Looking to improve the quality and depth in what has become an area of strength for the Browns, veteran offensive lineman Rex Hadnot was added in free agency. Hadnot, a starter with the Miami Dolphins comes in to add another quality veteran presence amongst a solid offensive line. In what may play out to be one of the most insightful moves this off-season, the Hadnot signing provided the organization needed insurance, as starting right guard Ryan Tucker suffered a hip fracture during off-season training activities and is expected to be lost until well into training camp.
The 2007 season was a success on the offensive side of the ball for the Cleveland Browns. Rob Chudzinski did a superb job in handling and developing the talent in a new offensive scheme. Despite some speed-bumps during the season, the play-calling was very good, resulting in the offense bordering on explosiveness.
2007: On the Defensive, For Good Reason
For all the promise and growth on the offensive side of the ball, the Cleveland defense was a major disappointment in the 2007 season. Considering the defense was the perceived strength of the team as they entered the season, the team's challenges were curious and ultimately led to the dismissal of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
Prior ot the 2007 season, defensive linemen Robaire and Shaun Smith were signed to provide experience, quality and enhance the defensive line. Outside linebacker Antwaan Peek came to Cleveland to provide a pass rushing presence opposite Kamerion Wimbley, while cornerback Eric Wright was selected on the first-day of the college player draft to add depth and coverage skills to an overachieving and depth-deprived defensive secondary.
In the end, the Smiths were overworked on a defensive line which lacked quality talent and depth.
In the off-season following the 2006 season, the organization parted company with veteran safety Brian Russell and penciled in Brodney Pool to take the place of the underappreciated veteran. Teaming with Sean Jones in the defensive backfield, Pool came on strong as the season progressed and has solidified his starting position at safety.
As 2007 ended, the defense was near the bottom of the league in most defensive categories. Despite some strong play late in the season, the defensive production bordered on embarrassment.
While injuries played a part in the inability of this defense to stop the run, questions arose as the season progressed regarding the effect defensive coordinator Todd Grantham had on his unit. The off-season moves of the organization did not pay any dividends as the Cleveland defense lacked the technique and fundamentals. A lack of communication on the field led to numerous breakdowns, leading to excessive opportunities given to the opposition.
Not all of the defense's problems can be laid at the feet of the coaching staff. Fate and time seemed to be working against the unit as well.
Starting defensive end Orpheus Roye battled knee woes throughout the season, missing considerable time. Free agent acquisition defensive tackle Shaun Smith was forced to play out of position regularly, while the coaching staff depended on the aging Ted Washington to play a vital role in the middle of the Cleveland defense. Among the starters, Robaire Smith was a mainstay at defensive end and provided quality play throughout the season.
A lack of quality along the defensive line and depth played a significant role in the demise of this defense. Unable to stop the run and extremely limited in their ability to rush the quarterback, the Browns defense often played back on its heels, despite pleas from players desiring to be more aggressive. Gap responsibility and integrity was far too often compromised due to the lack of ability, recognition and preparation, while linebackers were often caught out of position due to the inability of the defensive line.
Whether a difference in philosophy or indifference in the handling of the defense was an ongoing issue, the Cleveland defense failed to play as a team. This was especially disturbing given Crennel's reputation as a coach who molds his players and system in line with team concepts.
It cames as little surprise inside Berea that Grantham was relieved of his duties with the team following the 2007 season. Failing to display growth as a unit was an ongoing issue, but an underlying factor was Grantham got too cute with the defensive scheme. The Cleveland defense in the 2007 season became too complicated, with the coordinator going to the extreme in scheme rather than letting players make plays.
Seemingly, players were not in the correct defensive schemes and lacked mental focus which helped attribute to a lack of consistency week-in and week-out with this unit. Along with an overall lack of talent, injuries and the aging process also affected the play of the defense.In addition to changing the coaching approach, the Cleveland organization wasted little time in addressing the shortcomings of this unit after the season, adding the quality talents of defensive end Corey Williams (Green Bay) and defensive tackle Shaun Rogers (Detroit) via trade. The addition of Williams and Rogers not only provides experienced talent along the defensive line, but is being counted to open-up the pass rush and play of the linebackers against the rush, an area of deficiency for this Browns team.
This Year's Challenge: The Defensive Backfield and Linebackers
The cornerback position will be an area of significant interest throughout the pre-season, as starter Leigh Bodden was traded. Veteran Terry Cousin arrives in Cleveland and is a solid slot/third corner. Cousin provides a veteran presence and is a player that has been receptive in helping young players in the past (Jacksonville). Heading into his second season, Eric Wright progressed well throughout the season and the 2008 version of the Cleveland defense may be more to his liking, as the Browns are expected to play press more often. Brandon McDonald, another second-year player, gained valuable experience in the second-half of the 2007 season and could play a vital role heading into the 2008 season.
Youth riddles the Browns depth chart at the cornerback position with the unproven A.J. Davis, Jereme Perry and undrafted free agents Mil'von James and Damon Jenkins fighting for a spot to contribute to the 2008 squad. Perry, a former Brown, has shown dime coverage ability, while Davis is an up-and-comer that displays coverage skills, but lacks experience. James and Jenkins have taken advantage of the practice sessions to improve their coverage technique, footwork and hand-play.
The jury remains out on the state of the linebacking corps, as the inability of the defensive line played into the challenge of evaluating the unit's abilities in 2007.
Without consistent play up-front, the linebackers often appeared to be caught out of position last season, which isn't necessarily what really happened. If the offensive line of the opposition can reach the second line of defense (linebackers), the battle is quickly lost.
Despite the issues along the defensive line, questions remain regarding the overall skill-set of speed, recognition and quickness of Andra Davis and Leon Williams. Beau Bell, an inside linebacker from UNLV was selected by the club in the draft to provide a physical type presence inside, opposite starter D'Qwell Jackson. The Cleveland organization in time hopes Bell, who plays well moving forward, becomes the 'mashing' type inside linebacker piece missing from the defensive puzzle.
Manning the outside linebacker spots primarily were Willie McGinest, Kamerion Wimbley and Antwan Peek. McGinest's greatest attribute is his vast experience and knowledge, while Wimbley and Peek primarily are pass rushers who play the run on an inconsistent basis due to prior scheme and deficiency along the defensive line. McGinest (back) and Peek (knee and ankle) are healthy and could factor into an improved pass rush in the 2008 season. Wimbley could again realize his rookie success due to the vastly improved talent and physical presence along the defensive line. Shantee Orr (Jacksonville) has been brought in to provide depth and has lined-up behind Wimbley early in off-season practice sessions.
Special Teams, Special Weapons
Outside of the offense, the special teams and kicking game provided the Cleveland Browns an opportunity to gain exceptional field position consistently. Kicker Phil Dawson was nearly automatic as a place-kicker and was instrumental in the solid play of the coverage units due to his ability to direct kickoffs. Displaying better than average leg strength, Dawson was a vital reason for the success of the Browns in the 2007 season.
Kick return specialist and the Browns do-everything player, Joshua Cribbs provided the return game a threat at every turn during the season. A threat to score anytime he handled the ball, Cribbs set return records in the 2007 season for the Browns, while providing the offense a short-field in which to move the ball throughout the season. As explosive a player in the return game, Cribbs also was a leader covering kicks for the Browns again in the 2007 season.
As the season closed on the Browns at 10-6, the future of this organization should continue to improve. Leadership within the organization notes the urgency to improve the below average facets on the defensive side of the ball, while focusing on retaining important players on the verge of free agency.
Heading into this off-season, the Cleveland Browns organization is on the verge of becoming one of the elite teams in the league, as long as the front office can secure the talent required to take the next step in this methodical progression.
Being said, areas of immediate weakness based on the 2007 season have been addressed, and the changes made by the organization could dictate the success of the 2008 team. The defensive line has been enhanced, while the organization has tinkered with the linebacker position. Offensively, depth improvement is critical, and a viable option at receiver has been added.
Heading into the 2008 season, the Browns are ahead of schedule and this organization can least afford any further setback as the bar has been raised and this team has quickly gained respect around the league.