Key members of the Browns starting lineup are returning to health just in time to open the 2008 season in a home game against the Cowboys Sept. 7.
Wide receiver Braylon Edwards missed the last three preseason games with a lacerated right heel and quarterback Derek Anderson missed the last two suffering from a concussion resulting from a sack in the Aug. 18 game against the Giants. Both returned to practice Sept. 1. If ever anyone was happy to be working on Labor Day, it was Anderson and Edwards. The pair that hooked up for 16 of Anderson's 29 touchdown passes looks fresh and eager to get the season going. By Wednesday, they were working on sharpening their timing.
Coach Romeo Crennel's concern for Anderson was whether the quarterback could cope with bright sunlight. As it happened, the day Anderson returned to full practice was bright and sunny in Berea, Ohio. Anderson experienced no problems.
Crennel's concern for Edwards will need more time to be resolved. While Edwards was recovering from the injury, which occurred when Donte Stallworth inadvertently stepped on the back of Edwards' heel, Edwards was told to stay off his feet. That meant Edwards could not run, which means his conditioning comes into question.
"It's probably not as good as it needs to be because a receiver has to run quite a bit and he hasn't been able to do much of that," Crennel said. "We'll see what he can handle and how much he can handle."
Anderson joked and clapped as he led the offense from one practice field to another. If he had the proverbial dead training camp arm before his concussion, the time off was good for him because his throws zipped to his receivers. A pass to Edwards of about 12 yards drew a 'Whoo!' from Edwards, but Edwards caught the bullet with his hands away from his body and ran his route as if he hadn't missed any time.
Not every injured offensive player will be ready for the Cowboys, and with the Dallas defense considered one of the best in the league, the Browns could need every player.
Running back Jamal Lewis, coming off a 1,300-yard season in 2007, missed the final two preseason games with a hamstring injury. He returned to practice Wednesday, and like Edwards has to get back into game shape in a hurry. With Lewis' strict offseason training method, it should not be a problem.
What could be a problem, though, is the Dallas pass rush because of injuries along the Browns offensive line.
In May, the Browns were very deep from guard to guard. But then right guard Ryan Tucker fractured his hip in May during the OTAs. In the last preseason game, Tucker's replacement, Rex Hadnot, suffered a knee injury that could keep him out two weeks. Lennie Friedman, a versatile backup guard and center, suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the third preseason game. He was put on injured reserve on the final cutdown.
The falling dominoes leave Seth McKinney as the starting right guard for now. McKinney missed part of preseason with an ankle injury. Tucker is fighting hard to get back, but might not be ready. He started camp on PUP and was not activated until Aug. 30. His first day in pads was Sept. 1.
"I'm anxious to get out there," the 12th-year veteran said. "No one likes to start the season on the sideline. I'll try my hardest to get out there. I'm not going to put myself or the team in a situation where I'm on the shelf again for six weeks because I'm rushing something. When I get back in there, I'll be ready."
Scott Young, a backup guard who played the last three years with the Eagles, was claimed off waivers from Philadelphia.
SERIES HISTORY: 29th meeting. Browns lead the regular-season series, 15-10, and the playoff series, 2-1. The two teams have met only once since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999. The Cowboys won in Dallas, 19-12, on Sept. 19, 2004. It was a game Kellen Winslow would like to forget. His leg was fractured and ankle ligaments torn while trying to recover an onside kick.
--This will be the Cowboys' first visit to Cleveland in 17 years. The last time Dallas played in Cleveland, Bill Belichick was the Browns' head coach.
--The Browns held a 2-1 edge on the Cowboys in the playoffs in the days before the AFL and NFL merged. The Cowboys drilled the Browns 52-14 on Dec. 24, 1967. The Browns won divisional playoff games 31-20 and 38-14 over the Cowboys the next two years.
--The Browns turned in many miserable performances in 2004, and the 19-12 loss to the Cowboys was one of them. They scored all their points on Phil Dawson field goals. Starting quarterback Jeff Garcia was eight of 27 for 71 yards. He was sacked once and threw three interceptions. His passer rating was 0.0.
--The Browns have a 15-10 edge over the Cowboys in the regular season, but a closer look at the numbers shows why: Cleveland won 11 of 12 meetings between 1960 and 1966.
--On Nov. 24, 1963, while the nation was grieving over the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the Browns beat the Cowboys 27-17 to move into a first-place tie in the NFL East. The Cowboys held Jim Brown to 51 yards rushing, but the Browns intercepted four passes. The most critical was by safety Ross Fichtner in the fourth quarter. The Browns were leading 13-10 when he picked off a pass thrown by Don Meredith and returned it 23 yards for a touchdown.
--On Dec. 12, 1994, in Dallas, the Browns held on to beat the Cowboys 19-14 when Eric Turner covered Jay Novacek six inches short of the goal line after Novacek slipped on the final play of the game. The Cowboys were two-time defending Super Bowl champs.
--The strangest game between the Browns and Cowboys was played on Dec. 12, 1970. The Browns lost, 6-2. On a rainy, muddy day in Cleveland Stadium, the Browns got their only points when Chuck Reynolds tackled Bob Hayes for a safety in the first quarter. Mike Clark kicked field goals of 36 and 37 yards in the second half for the Browns. Errors doomed the Browns. Bill Nelsen threw three interceptions, they had a punt blocked leading to one Dallas field goal and they fumbled once inside the Cowboys 10.
BY THE NUMBERS: 10 -- Consecutive years the Browns have opened the season at home.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I have so many responsibilities. I can't let this thing linger." -- Return specialist Josh Cribbs, on his frustration concerning a sprained ankle.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Syndric Steptoe, a long-shot to make the final roster at the beginning of training camp, will return kicks and punts for the Browns Sunday unless Josh Cribbs' left ankle heals completely. Cribbs is out of a walking boot and improving after spraining his ankle Aug. 18, but he cannot put all his weight on the ankle and cut through traffic.
Cribbs' practice load increased Wednesday, but he still hasn't gotten the green light to play Sunday.
"When I put all my pressure on it, especially when I have equipment on -- they want it to be able to take hits when I make cuts," Cribbs said. "I'm no good to the team for one play. All I do and contribute to the team, I need to be able to do it."
Meanwhile, Steptoe is eager to face the Cowboys. He showed spunk in preseason and had one kick return of 90 yards against the Giants. Steptoe would also be the third receiver.
"It's something you prepare for," Steptoe said. "It's going to be my chance to get the job done. It's a major role. We have to have a great effort from me if I am put in the situation to step in for Josh."
Steptoe was on the practice squad all last season.
--RB Jamal Lewis practiced on a limited basis Wednesday for the first time since pulling a hamstring Aug. 18 in Giants Stadium.
--Return specialist/WR Josh Cribbs did some receiving drills Wednesday. On Monday he was back in the facility getting treatment on his sprained left ankle soon after the special teams walkthrough had ended.
--LB Antwan Peek is in full pads for the first time since July 31 knee surgery, but he isn't sure how much he will play against the Cowboys.
--S Brodney Pool practiced Wednesday for the first time since suffering a concussion Aug. 18.
--Rookie OLB Alex Hall is back on the right side behind Kamerion Wimbley. Hall had been playing the left side with Peek and Willie McGinest sidelined for the last two preseason games. McGinest participated fully in practice Wednesday.
GAME PLAN: The Browns will need the ultimate in cooperation from the front seven and the secondary to derail the powerful Cowboys offense. That could mean a lot of zone defense, particularly when the Browns use five or six DBs. They could play a combination man-zone with one defender sticking with Terrell Owens and another to Jason Witten while the rest of the secondary plays zone. In the end, though, the Browns must put pressure on Tony Romo. If the pass rush is not successful, the secondary will be backpedaling all day.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH: Browns CB Brandon McDonald, making his second NFL start, vs. Cowboys WR Terrell Owens, making his 159th career start. Owens has an advantage in experience and a five-inch height advantage on McDonald, but McDonald is ready for the challenge. He has been studying tape of T.O. since the OTAs in May preparing for this game.
Browns S Sean Jones vs. Cowboys TE Jason Witten. The Browns struggled against tight ends in the first half of 2007, but got better as safeties Jones and Brodney Pool became more familiar with each other. Witten is one of the best tight ends in the league and sure-handed. He'll make his share of catches. The Browns' mission is to keep him short of the first down on third-and-six or more.
INJURY IMPACT: G Rex Hadnot (knee) is out. That leaves the Browns thin at guard because Ryan Tucker (hip) is slowly working his way back into playing form. ... LB Antwan Peek could be the third-down pass rusher. He missed the preseason recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery July 31. ... S Sean Jones (knee) returned to practice Monday and S Brodney Pool (concussion) resumed practice on a limited basis Wednesday. Jones is ahead of Pool in terms of their recoveries. ... Jamal Lewis never injured a hamstring before pulling one Aug. 18. He is practicing again and expects to start against the Cowboys.