Thursday, March 16, 2006

On being Brown

When Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage arrived in Cleveland, they must have been aghast at the talent level on his roster. There wasn't a single player to build around on either side of the football. Other teams might have had worse records than the Browns, but at least they had promise.

Arizona had receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin. The Jets had John Abraham. San Francisco had Julian Peterson and Alex Smith. The Browns? They didn't have a single "impact" player, according to Peter King's rankings in SI, the only team to so blatantly lack talent.

That sort of sordid history has plagued the franchise, which has only had one player reach the Pro Bowl since its return in 1999. (Jamir Miller in 2001).

Butch Davis, the biggest fraud in the history of NFL coaches, left the cupboard bare for Romeo. I don't know if any team has drafted worse in the last seven years than the Browns. Combined with Chris Palmer, here's the team's first-round draft history in the modern era:

1999: Tim Couch ... a bust on the proportion of Ryan Leaf
2000: Courtney Brown ... injury-prone bust in Cleveland; never played a full season
20001: Gerard Warren ... two arrests and half-assed effort; rendered a nonfactor
2002: William Green ... multiple arrests and a drug suspension from the league; a nonfactor
2003: Jeff Faine ... an underachieving center who will not make the team this year
2004: Kellen Winslow Jr. ... an arrogant cancer. he's played two games in Cleveland
2005: Braylon Edwards ... Romeo's first choice; looks promising ahead, but also injured

Last year, Romeo and Phil began to add pieces of the puzzle. He picked up guards Joe Andruzzi and Casey Coleman in free agency. They were not Pro Bowlers by any stretch, but it marked the first time the team had added guards or tackles in free agency.

The offensive line has been a huge weakness since '99, and Butch the Charlatan inexplicably ignored it year after year -- with the exception of the drafting of the unexceptional Faine in the first round, the team never drafted another lineman higher than the sixth round during his tenure. Butch's see-no-evil approach to the line made me want to drink some of Jimmy Jones' Kool-Aid.

Romeo and Phil also traded for Reuben Droughns, a bowling ball of a back from Denver. Frankly, Droughns ranked fourth on the depth chart with the Broncos, and ran for 1,000 yards as a product-of-the-system back behind Denver's staunch line. I was skeptical of the trade, but he developed into a legit starter. What he lacks in talent, he makes up for with bruising toughness.

Last year, it was nonetheless a miracle the team won six games. They had no business doing that. The additions on offense helped the unit rise from stench to below average, but that was about it. Droughns became the first Cleveland running back since 1985 to reach the 1,000-yard mark. There was hope, but it was obvious this team was still light years from contention.

Fast forward to this past week.

The team's free-agent haul is the second-best in football, only behind the Redskins. In one week, we've skipped those light years ahead. We're ready to contend for a playoff spot this year. It's March, and I'm wound up about Cleveland Browns football.

Romeo and Phil addressed the offensive line in a big, big way. They added Pro Bowl guard/center LeCharles Bentley, the best center in football and a Cleveland native who is genuinely excited about lifting this team from the gutter.

They added Falcons left tackle Kevin Shaffer, a guy who anchored the league's best rushing offense last year and has allowed only six sacks in two seasons.

Adding another native Clevelander, they replaced locker-room cancer Antonio Bryant with the sure-handed Joe Jurevicius at receiver. The San Francisco-bound Bryant may have had 80 catches for 1,009 yards last year, but the dude dropped a whole lot of passes in crucial situations and had a bad attitude. He should have had 100 catches. Good riddance.

They signed punter -- and yet another Cleveland native -- Dave Zastudil from the Baltimore Ravens. He replaces the ineffective Kyle Richardson. Hopefully, this means that opponents will not average starting field position of their own 40 next year.

On the defensive side, the Brownies also needed tremendous help. Their pass rush produced an NFL-least 23 sacks last year, and their run defense was 31st in the league.

So the additions of mammoth defensive tackle Ted Washington and linebacker Willie McGinest should be a tremendous benefit to Romeo's 3-4 scheme this fall.

At 38, I think Washington's best days are not in front of him. At 34, McGinest is also past his prime. But it's a testament to the dearth of talent the current regime inheirited that both these guys could be the two best defensive players.

OK, linebacker Andre Davis had a breakout season last year. And Brian Russell is a hard-hitting, if undersized safety. But the Browns simply did not have a player with the stature of a McGinest. These are good additions, even if they are not long-term solutions.

So the offense looks like this: Droughns pounding behind a battle-hardened line and fullback Terrelle Smith, as solid a FB as there ever was; Braylon Edwards, Jurevicius and Northcutt as a legitimate receiving corps and perhaps Kellen Winslow finally playing at tight end.

Defense: On the line, legit veteran Orpheus Roye and Ted Washington bettering the run defense with Jason Fisk now out of town. McGinest and Davis anchor the 3-4. Gary Baxter, Brian Russell, up-and-coming Leigh Bodden have the makings of at least a mediocre secondary.

There are surely lots of holes and questions.

QB Charlie Frye will be in his first full year as a starter. The team needs a legitimate change-of-pace back for Droughns. Lee Suggs is always injured and William Green is always in jail. We need a solid Eric Metcalf or Dave Megget type.

Defensively, there are still a lot of holes. But fewer than last year. Hopefully, they will address these during the draft next month. If they could somehow trade up from No. 12 and grab Ohio State linebacker A.J. Hawk, I will proudly shit my pants.

I expect a defense-oriented draft. And I think Romeo and Phil are two of the better talent evaluators out there, unlike their outwitted scumbag predecessor. I have high confidence these guys will do a hell of a job next month.

And come September, there's going to be a new attitude in Cleveland. The makeover of a depleted roster will hardly be finished, but this has the potential to be the best offseason in Cleveland since the team raided the defunct USFL in 1984 and signed LB Mike Johnson, G Dan Fike, CB Frank Minnifield, FB Kevin Mack and KR Gerald "Ice Cubes" McNeil.

That haul set the foundation for a team that reached the AFC Championship Game three times in the five years that followed. This year's free-agent crop could set the same sort of foundation. For the first time since the franchise's rebirth, there is truly hope in Cleveland.

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At 11:23 PM, Blogger Local Shill said...

The words "scumbag" and "fraud" were used. I'm having a hard time stopping my laughter.

I can almost see the steam coming out of your ears as you described the not-so-dearly departed Mr. Davis.

At 9:25 AM, Blogger jeffro said...

i'd like to see Mr. Suggs get a chance to show what he can do. and the Browns paid an awful lot for a solid, yet unspectacular Mr. Jurevicius - but of course, as a Dallas fan, i know what having Antonio Bryant on one's team can be like...

At 6:07 PM, Blogger Pete said...

Suggs teases me every year, and then always gets hurt. I don't think he's finished a single season healthy.

As for Antonio Bryant his numbers - 80 catches for 1,009 yards - were deceiving.

I can't count the number of times I saw him drop a crucial 3rd down pass. ... Addition by subtraction. Yes, they overpaid for Jurevicius.

At 10:50 AM, Blogger Joependleton said...

Cat, this could be the longest rant I've ever read - though I must admit about half-way through I lost interest and just jumped to the comment section.


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