Leonard: Outside the Perimeter

Mark Leonard returns to ponder to the hazards of NFL scheduling, Josh Cribbs' promise, and more...

As is probably true for every professional sport at any time in history, the NFL has its share of have-nots, those teams that really don't have the component parts necessary to legitimately contend.

Most national publications and opinions identify the Cleveland Browns, a team that just two seasons ago won ten games, among those have-nots.

Fortunately for the Browns of new head coach Eric Mangini and newly-appointed GM George Kokinis, many of the other have-nots appear on this season's schedule. That being the case, confidence is reasonably high in this corner of mom's basement.

This edition of the storied Browns has an easier schedule than was endured last year. It figures to be better prepared and coached. It has a better all-around roster, with superior depth, speed, range, athleticism and promise. And it should consist of players better motivated and focused than the stunned bunch that went unsuspectingly into 2008 without much of its decidedly limited veteran leadership—and with key others already participating with injuries that would undermine their entire seasons.

Playing well on the road, however, would be necessary from this bunch if it is to realize a realistic win total in the 6-8 range, significantly better than most outsiders project.

This is because fellow have-nots Denver, Buffalo, Detroit and Kansas City host the Browns this year, while Oakland and Jacksonville visit for the final two contests. Three of the first four are notoriously difficult at home. But one might imagine December cold will combine with the imminent end to what figures to be unfavorable campaigns for those final two warm-weather challengers at the very time the Mangini Machine is synchronized.

Then again, we're all capable of imagining lots of outrageous things.

For example, one might write that Green Bay, Chicago and the Bengals twice offer additional opportunities for winnable games.

And that the Browns might well be good enough in ‘09 to place second in any division other than their own, the AFC South and the NFC East—the three divisions that last year comprised the bulk of their difficult schedule.  As for this year, the Browns will be able to measure themselves against the NFC  North and the AFC West.

But these outcomes are being contemplated entirely on paper and guided by the mind of a suspect analyst. There are at least as many who are presently thinking to themselves: "Only in Cleveland is our team screwed by having to travel for all its winnable games. We're cursed."

Those foreseeing doom for the Browns again this season are understandably distracted by the uncertainty at QB, the unreliability of Braylon Edwards— who may also be the only bonafide offensive threat familiar to them—and such chronic matters as the failure to run the ball, defend the run and rush the passer. Triflings like those.

But, hey, those other have-nots have issues of their own, too.

It is most difficult to imagine this year's Browns will accomplish less than did any of  Romeo Crennel's three clubs.

It matters not, of course, what anyone forecasts for any club or individual at this point. The games will tell the tales. Unknowns will emerge across America and surprises will be had in every NFL city.

What should be enjoyed is the unfolding dramas, the developing story lines, the maturations and the devolutions characterizing every season. At the moment, no one knows for certain what personality and level of competence Mangini's club will manifest, with the same as true for every assemblage under each new NFL head coaching—three of whom appear on Cleveland's schedule, all on the road.

There are possibly as many visions for those teams as there are fans of them, not all of which can come true, after all.

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An intriguing development pertaining to this year's Browns' squad is Joshua Cribbs' apparent ascendancy to the number-two receiver role opposite Edwards, a complementary threat the team must present if it is to be at all successful in ‘09.

Cribbs is Everyman to NE Ohio fans, the hero of the populace. A product of nearby Kent State. An undrafted free agent. A tireless worker and dirty-work contributor, Cribbs made a name and a place for himself toiling as a special-teamer. Now recognized league-wide as one of the pre-eminent return specialists, he was first (and is still) a renown coverage ace. His play is characterized by apparent fearlessness, spirit, enthusiasm, toughness and an eager determination to make impactful plays—even if the ball is not in his hands. Perhaps he is what fans imagine they would be if permitted to express themselves as a paid professional player.

Like the bulk of us, Cribbs appropriately perceives himself as under-paid.

At any rate, Cribbs is expected on the field with much greater regularity, perpetually offering the potential for an inherently exciting gadget play. More importantly, big plays are anticipated, since that seems to be what his inner child is all about.

What might also be envisioned is Cribbs as Hines Ward. That is, the same imprint Ward brings to the Pittsburgh attack may soon become Cribbs'.

Want a physical crackback block to spring an extended running gain?  Josh is your guy, as is Hines for Pittsburgh.

Want someone to go across the middle to move the chains, paying with a brain-rattling hit from which he springs unaffectedly to his feet? Josh will be Hines.

Need someone to bodily intimidate oppositional secondaries with his upright and chest-out-front style? Josh can be Hines.

Reverses? Bubble-screens? Wildcat? Option passes? Josh is Hines.

What Cribbs will make of his enhanced role will be reason enough to become excited about this year's Browns' season.

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Earlier this summer, there was talk an unwritten NFL rule was violated by Jacksonville GM Gene Smith, who snagged from Cleveland the rights to Norfolk State rookie CB Don Carey, an injured player whom Mangini and Kokinis were, in accordance with new specifications, attempting to clear through league waivers as a prelude to designating him for season-long Injured Reserve status.

The Browns' braintrust wanted to immediately allocate to another training-camp hopeful Carey's roster spot, rather than carry Carey beyond the first required NFL cutdown date, a pre-requisite for all non-tenured (fewer than four years' service time) personnel as regards IR.

Smith claimed Carey, though Jax knew his shoulder was damaged, and protected him on his summer roster until after the Sept. 1 cuts, thereafter placing him on their injured reserve list.

It has long been believed another unwritten agreement easily enables teams to shield their training-camp personnel when passing it onto their practice squads.  So long as first-year prospects go directly from camp to the DEV, the player goes unclaimed—or so it seems, based upon how rarely is snatched a player, particularly one drafted on Day Two.

Should it indeed be the case that virgin personnel is to pass undeterred from camp to the DEV, Mangini-Kokinis may be guilty three-times-over of breaking that unwritten NFL agreement, as they claimed DB DeAngelo Smith, RB Cedric Peerman and OT Phil Trautwein enroute to the practice squads of Dallas, Baltimore and St. Louis, respectively. Each is a member of the 2009 draft class.

How soon these elude the weekly inactive list (teams can dress only 45 from their 53-man rosters on Game Day, with a third QB designee potentially upping the active number to 46) will indicate how truly ready for NFL play are the newcomers. A fourth waiver acquisition, DB Marquis Floyd, is not listed with the others because he is 29, considered here as too old for a DEV and definitely not a 2009 draft-class member.

According to the primitive records maintained here in Mom's basement, only two other first-year prospects were intercepted during what may have been intended as a brief journey from training-camp to practice-squad rosters. Washington lost former Missouri QB Chase Daniel to New Orleans and Baltimore saw East Carolina TE Davon Drew claimed by Miami—though he has since been released.

Minimally, it is thought to be highly unlikely the OL-needy Rams expected/intended to lose Trautwein, though the first-team All-SEC OLT from Florida was undrafted.  He is identified specifically because he is not thought to be NFL  Game Day ready, familiarity with the system aside.

This is admittedly highly-speculative, but maybe Cleveland's payback was seeing UCLA safety Bret Lockett taken off waivers by NE when the Browns cut loose the kid once the trio of newbies was intercepted. There is, after all, some administrative history between the two organizations' principals.

OLB Marcus Benard and OT Corey Hilliard completed the transfer without interception, though the latter is not a first-year prospect.

It did happen across the sport that others were intercepted, but those were not first-year players. For example, the Browns reportedly had further plans for OL Dustin Fry and QB Richard Bartel before they became Panther and Jaguar practice-squadders. Both have participated in at least three summer camps

This exercise in roster minutia provided to those curious to comprehend some of what did and did not occur this past week.

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Among the biggest surprises with the Browns' eventual roster was the absence of both veteran CBs Roderick Hood and CoreyIvy, though that pre-camp expectation preceded summer performances.

Each was thought to be integral in the off-season vision of the new regime, for their capacities to provide experienced challenge and depth for young corners Eric Wright and Brandon McDonald. Behind them had been drafted Carey and fellow sixth-rounder Coye Francies.

Presumably, the collective failure of Hood-Ivy necessitated Floyd and Smith, though the latter is probably more a hedge against further impairment on the part of FS Brodney Pool, who has had an unfortunate history of concussions. Like Francies, Floyd and Smith bring helpful size to the Cleveland secondary.

Also curious was the survival of fourth-year man Leon Williams, though he is the only experienced ILB backup. In truth, we've not seen all that new Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan has in mind for his unit. There may be plans to better optimize Leon's potentials. It could also be his special-teams value is underestimated.

It is also worth noting the organization did not seem to prioritize this particular campaign when making post-cutdowns adjustments. It was youth brought in rather than immediate assistance.

The significance there is that long-term rather than short-term fixes are valued.  This distinction should be kept in mind as the season unfolds and possibly inform subsequent decisions, as well.

Lastly, league-wide, the safety position has assumed a greater significance in the sport's modern evolution, highlighted by what is produced by Troy Polamalu and Ed Reed. Furthermore, conventional designations between strong and free safety are blurring, with coverage skills prized. This might partially explain why no fewer than six vet free agents changed teams this week alone, more than at any other position by far.


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