What a difference a year makes. Last year, we were trying to see if the personnel changes the Browns had made were going to close the gap between the Browns and the rest of the AFC North. We wondered if Charlie Frye would become a solid NFL quarterback or if maybe this Derek Anderson guy would step up. We wondered if the offensive line could block and if Jamal Lewis could revive a dormant running game. We hoped an aging defensive line would hold up.
Just a year later, the Browns are coming off a 10-6 season in which they surprised many observers. Derek Anderson went to the Pro Bowl and Jamal Lewis had a great season behind a line that could indeed block. The defense was surprisingly bad in 2007, though, and so much of this offseason was dedicated to fixing that problem, especially on the defensive line.
I was able to get to a couple of camp sessions, both spirited sessions in full pads. I've heard the players asked several times if they think camp has a different feel this summer. Most of the responses seem kind of confused, with answers like, "We are working hard just like we always have." The difference is that unlike past years were the Browns were struggling to see who might have talent that could fill one of many holes, this team believes in itself. For all practical purposes, all the starting jobs are pretty much locked up. I had the sense of a team that would just as soon dispense with camp and the preseason and take on Dallas now!
All of the above being said, here are some impressions from my visit to Berea:
• The quarterbacks looked OK at best. I want to see more of both Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn. Perhaps the three-interception performance by Brady Quinn on Friday will spur him to work on his game. One interception was a badly thrown deep ball, one was a badly thrown lateral ball, but the other one was more a good play by Shaun Rogers.
• Speaking of Rogers, he looks like he is going to be a force in the middle for the Browns. His interception was a play where he leaped, tipped the ball to himself, then shoved aside Lawrence Vickers as he headed into the end zone. Vickers is certainly no slouch.
• I got to see a lot of the receiver drills. Braylon Edwards looks ready to go. I'm skeptical on Kevin Kasper, but he looked like he was working hard. I was impressed with Paul Hubbard. He is very fast and fluid, though his hands need work. He did make some nice catches. Travis Wilson was solid.
• Josh Cribbs had a tough session Saturday with three drops during passing drills, but on kick return drills, he looked ready to go. He was also used on numerous end around, running, and decoy plays in team drills.
• Martin Rucker shows promise. He got a rude reception Friday when he was the recipient of a sandwich tackle where Willie McGinest game him quite a shot. McGinest may be in his final camp, but he looked great. He deflected and nearly intercepted a pass in team drills Saturday. I loved seeing him working with younger guys like Beau Bell.
• The starting defensive backs looked solid. Depth is an issue, of course, but I believe the Browns are better off here than many people think. Brodney Pool intercepted Quinn Friday. Eric Wright had several battles with Braylon.
• Cliff Louis was the first player out both sessions. Nice to see someone trying to make the team giving some extra effort. Even veterans stayed out working after the Friday sessions. Hank Fraley was snapping balls to Derek Anderson while he and Kellen Winslow worked on some different routes.
• Even though Winslow did not practice Saturday, he was in the huddle at times, working with other players, and had his head in the game. He looked great on Friday. We only saw Donte Stallworth in individual drills Saturday, but he looked good.
• Joe Thomas is a beast. What a great pickup!
• It's great to be close enough to hear the coaches. I got a chance to hear from offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, offensive line coach Steve Marshall, and receivers coach Was Chandler. Chandler has been an underrated addition to the staff. Special teams coach Ted Daisher had a lot of words of praise for the special teams throughout the sessions until the backup punt team didn't line up when he called for them. He had some four-letter words for them, to the applause of the crowd.
• Backup kicker Jason Reda did all the kicking Friday. He looked good until they got beyond 35 yards. Meanwhile, Phil Dawson made every attempt Saturday up to 50 yards and every single kick was right down the middle. Dave Zastudil looked great kicking the ball.
• What an inspiration it was to see Gary Baxter back on the field and moving around well. Best of luck to you, Gary, in your comeback.
Unlike past years, the biggest questions about the Browns probably won't be answered until they play real games. Most of what we will see sorted out over the next five weeks is the depth chart. This will be the chance for the backups to gain experience while the starters get ready for a season where high expectations will rule.
If you are like me, I'm ready for football! September 7 can't come fast enough.
The season is short. Bark hard!