BEREA, Ohio -- The facelift of a franchise can affect more than just the roster handed out at training camp. Everything is new. The personnel staff choosing those players. The coaches coaching them. Maybe even their surroundings during the preseason, right down to new banners and stands for fans.
The Cleveland Browns haven't tasted a playoff win since 1994, and the new regime is trying to get back to the promised land by starting over with a fresh set of circumstances.
If what I saw during my visit on Wednesday is indicative of the team's direction, success should eventually come for the die-hard fans who are so hungry for victories (and dog biscuits). Here are five things I heard in Berea:
1) The confidence of "Chud" will pay off: When the Browns' head-coaching job went to Rob Chudzinski, the formerly unknown offensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers, it elicited a collective "Huh?" from the football community. He was not a big name -- certainly not as big as one-time Browns target Chip Kelly -- and he was barely bandied about as a candidate. Never mind that the Toledo native grew up as a Browns fanatic and that he's eaten dog biscuits. "Chud" was under the radar. However, when you step back to examine his résumé and talk with people who have coached with him, you realize what we all missed; the fact that he was saddled with relative anonymity was our fault, not his. Perhaps the most important move he made after landing the job was hiring the two most decorated and demonstrative coordinators out there: Norv Turner on offense and Ray Horton on defense. There was no insecurity on Chudzinski's part that they'd overshadow him. He wasn't nervous that the two veteran coaches might step on his toes. He simply went with the best available, proving he's comfortable surrounding himself with power. And now, the Browns get to watch Turner and Horton match wits in practice, the former pitting his big-play offense against the latter's exotic, attacking defense. "Having Ray here is really helping us, because we're seeing multiple fronts, multiple coverages, and on third down, we're seeing exotic-blitz stuff," Turner told me before practice. "That's preparing us for a very similar style to what Baltimore plays, very similar style to what Pittsburgh plays, so it's helping our guys, and they realize it."
2) Searching for smarts: As a result of the moves to clean house in Cleveland, many of the Browns' key personnel evaluators have only just recently arrived. General manager Mike Lombardi -- my former NFL Network and NFL.com colleague -- came on, and new CEO Joe Banner has assumed more of a football-centric role. He's heavily involved in personnel and player selection. In a bit of a coup, Ray Farmer was hired away from the Kansas City Chiefs and given the title of assistant GM. To be clear, there is a lot of work to be done. The Browns have playmakers, but they don't have depth. And it's on the shoulders of the personnel staff to find that. So it was intriguing to hear that much of the focus, when it comes to new talent, is on intelligence. The Browns want smart players. Why? "The thing is, if a guy doesn't know what to do, you can't put him on the field," Lombardi told me. "As talented as any player can be, he's gotta know what to do, how to play football." Browns players must be able to understand the complex systems run by both coordinators. In addition, the team wants to eliminate surprises. Prepare and prepare, and do what they can to be ready. A tall task, but the pieces are in place to rebuild quickly.
3) Fresh digs for a fresh start: Walking around the second floor of the Browns' training facility, you'd be forgiven for thinking you're walking around the offices of Google. The place has the feel of a tech company in California, with glass, wide-open spaces and sharply designed murals. It's the kind of environment that can make a free agent feel comfortable about his potential new home. Remember, the Browns snared two coveted free agents this year -- Desmond Bryant and Paul Kruger -- in a way they hadn't in the past. The new feel might be one reason, particularly when the money wasn't much different from what was available elsewhere. The hope, as owner Jimmy Haslam told me while hustling up the stairs to an appointment, is that it translates to the field. But it's not just the inside of the building. Outside, where camp is held, there are new banners along the fence, food trucks for the fans, a double-decker suite area and a playground for children. In short, it was exactly the kind of place you'd want to spend your summer frequenting if you were a child growing up in the Cleveland area. It's also exactly the kind of atmosphere that successful teams have. A foundation is being built.
4) Wait, there's still a quarterback competition? During my time at practice -- admittedly a one-day sample -- former first-round pick Brandon Weeden took all of the first-team reps. Journeyman backup Jason Campbell -- who can still wing it -- took the snaps behind him, and Brian Hoyer followed. It has been that way during a strong camp for Weeden. So ... is there still a competition? That's what I asked Turner. "There always is in my mind," he told me. "That's the nature of good players. There's always competing with whoever is there, and I think Brandon has really had a good offseason. He's having a good training camp, but I think when you're not established, and if you're struggling -- and you can struggle for a lot of different reasons -- there are other options." That's what keeping it open does; it gives the coaches an out if Weeden does flail. Still, expect Weeden to make the kind of leap most quarterbacks do under Turner. And the team will help him, putting him in the shotgun more, just like when he was at Oklahoma State. Of course, as Turner said, coaching can only take one so far. "You can get a guy to a point," Turner said, "and then they end up having to do it."
5) Expect a few growing pains: The Browns are insanely young. Even their 29-year-old quarterback is young when it comes to football experience. That's good and bad. It's bad because, as Turner said, he'll see issues in practice that he knows wouldn't be issues if his players were a little more experienced. It's good because, as several Browns people said to me, most of the players aren't steeped in the team's recent losing ways. Even veteran linebacker D'Qwell Jackson, in his eighth year with the team, is a positive locker room leader who is more than happy to wave off the past. There's a new, well, everything in place, and players seem primed for it. "I like their desire to be good," Horton told me. "They want to be good. They're tired of losing. Since 1999, when the Cleveland Browns came back, (they've gone) one time to the playoffs. They want to be good; they're hungry; they've got desire; they've got passion. I think what happens is, when you lose, you want to win, but sometimes you just don't know how. But sometimes, when you're trying to change a culture, they've got to want to change -- and they do."
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