If there is going to be one game that will help to dictate the immediate future of the Cleveland Browns, it will be played Saturday evening. Despite all the questions about this team begging answers, head coach Eric Mangini has prepped this contest as one which will be played in regular season fashion.
Pre-season games in the National Football League generally provide little insight, as teams hide their best strategies and care about little other than getting the team ready for the regular season.
But this one is a bit different. For Eric Mangini, there are few alternatives.
The Browns head coach cares little about anything other than winning football games. He's not worrying about being the ring-leader of a most likable personality contest. Not in the eyes of the media, or even the fans.
The only perception that matters is what Mangini and the coaching staff think about which players give their team the best chance to win.
As witnessed in his handling of the QB competition, Mangini operates on his own timeline. While most teams have settled on a starter, Mangini continues to parade Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn out in turn, biding his time to declare a winner.
Opinions vary as to the effectiveness of carrying this competition along this late in the pre-season. In essence, both QB's have been handling the situation as if they are the starter. From prep work to on-field activities, both Anderson and Quinn have been groomed to be the starting QB in Cleveland.
Odds are, the head coach will soon know who his starting QB will be, but don't expect the man to have a rousing party to announce his findings. Mangini considers remaining silent to be a competitive edge.
Although numerous positional battles are well underway, the majority of the starting jobs have been secured.
As the Browns use the evidence from tonight to calculate what's next, and players are pitted against each other for starting jobs and roster spots, they will also be tested by one of the league's best teams in the Tennessee Titans.
Against a formidable Tennessee defense, Mangini's all-out competition blitz will run into a Titan buzz-saw. The mixing and matching at the QB position will be on center stage, at home in front of the fans clamoring for a winner.
Yet, the QB battle shouldn't be the sole focus of fans looking to gauge where this team sits. The offensive and defensive lines will be where a lot of the action is tonight.
With a Tennessee defensive line that is physical and looks to pressure the opposition, the Browns new-look offensive line will face their strongest challenge to date.
One of Mangini's first directives upon coming to Cleveland was to improve the physical presence and quality along the offensive line while gaining depth and consistency along the defensive line.
The defensive line appears to be rounding into form and will improve further when NT Shaun Rogers returns to the field.
The offensive line, meanwhile, hasn't been as rewarding. Many new faces don the Browns practice field, with rookie center Alex Mack, along with veterans Floyd Womack and John St. Clair in position to solidify their places on the roster Saturday night.
If this Cleveland team is going to be successful in the 2009 season, rushing the football is essential and stopping the run is critical.
The Tennessee Titans excel in both of these central facets of the pro game, both of which have been a nemesis of this Browns team since their return in 1999. The Titans' strengths turn this contest into a legitimate look at what the 2009 season could muster.
And as to the QB's on this night - Quinn has to get the ball into the end-zone, as well as moving it between the twenties, period. Anderson must prove he can sustain drives to put the team in position to get into the end-zone.
Come Saturday night in Cleveland, Mangini couldn't have scripted a tougher situation for one of his QB's to excel.
And he wouldn't want it any other way.