A lot has changed since I last perched in the trees around the Browns practice fields in Berea. The music blasting from speakers during practice, loud enough to be heard a forest away, brought me back. I think I'll stick around a while.
I like the style of the new guy, Eric Mangini. I mean, I'm not sure about some of the new players on the roster, such as Hank "Toast" Poteat, but from what I've seen and overheard this team will be prepared to play on Sundays, and there is no doubt Mangini is in charge.
Finally, a coach is holding players responsible for errors such as fumbling the ball, jumping offsides, linemen moving before the snap on offense and not being able to lineup properly. If there is anything more infuriating than being penalized for an illegal formation in late November, other than maybe in the old days when we had to put up with Joe Theismann pointing out the obvious and repeating himself like a parrot with a limited vocabulary, I don't know what it is. Mangini makes his players run a lap for screwing up. Do that a couple times in August wearing full pads and the offender isn't likely to flinch early again.
Mangini will make his players work hard during training camp if the minicamps are an indication of what to expect. During summer practices in the past there were so many lulls the Browns looked like a road repair crew – five guys leaning on shovels watching two other guys doing the work.
Chances are the veteran Browns aren't going to be happy with the physical camp Mangini wants to run, but if a player is going to sweat he might as well be getting something out of it.
Mangini runs – what a novel idea – a tackling drill. He has his running backs and receivers line up in single file. About 20 yards away, facing the ball carriers, linebackers and defensive backs line up single file. They go at each other, one-on-one. The defender is trying to strip the ball and wrap up the runner and the offensive player, obviously, is trying to make the defender miss. It is an excellent drill because it teaches the defensive player to take the proper angle and it teaches the offensive player to anticipate a defender's move.
And that, by the way, is a reminder of what is at least as infuriating as illegal formations – missed tackles. Missed tackles are a major reason the Browns always finished near the bottom in run defense. And then the guilty player mumbles weakly, "They get a paycheck, too," as a way of rationalizing missing the running back that turned him into a pretzel.
It is going to take more than concentration, better tackling and focused practice to push the Ravens and Steelers out of the way in the AFC North, however. Browns fans don't want to hear that, but the facts do not lie. If General Manager George Kokinis and Mangini thought the Browns were close they would not have traded the fifth pick in the draft for what amounted to six players.
The trade down to build theory is the exact opposite of what Phil Savage did. Savage mortgaged the short-term future in 2007 and 2008 to make a big score in 2008. His plan backfired. Because of trades Savage made, the Browns did not pick until the fourth round last year, and when the fourth round finally did roll around Savage could not wait for his turn. Instead, he traded his third round pick in 2009 so he could move up and draft Beau Bell, who probably won't make the Browns roster.
Of course, almost every new coach dismantles the roster bequeathed to him. The measure of Savage as a talent evaluator will be how many players drafted by him and cut by Mangini end up with another team.
Mangini has a lot to undo. Getting players to improve their work habits is going to be the easy part.