BEREA, Ohio -- Despite the Cleveland Browns finishing last season with the No. 32 offense and No. 31 defense, new team president Mike Holmgren retained coach Eric Mangini, an unusual decision in an era when head coaches usually get shown the door with the arrival of a new front-office regime.
Credit, though, goes to Holmgren, who watched the Browns finish with a flurry of four straight victories, a stretch that convinced Holmgren that Mangini had not lost the team and kept the players motivated in an otherwise forgetful season. Benefits of Holmgren's first big decision is evident around training camp; the construction of a winning attitude, for one, can be seen within the franchise, from the coaches down to the players and all of the support staff.
If Holmgren wants a West Coast offense in the mold of what he ran in Green Bay and Seattle, there is an awful lot of work needed to approach the production he is accustomed to. Right now the defense is significantly ahead of the offense, and that may not change for the rest of the month. But sooner or later, quarterback Jake Delhomme will lead an offense capable of going toe to toe with the defense.
The offense fans are watching from the bleachers at practice isn't very encouraging, but that will change as Delhomme becomes familiar with the terminology and begins to find time to help a relatively young and inexperienced receiving corps.
» Delhomme, a free-agent acquisition from Carolina, believes return specialist Josh Cribbs has the ability to be a "Steve Smith-type receiver" and was quick to point out the strong hands Cribbs has to snatch the ball. Cribbs is so explosive after the catch, and he will get a lot more balls thrown his way than last year when he had just 20 receptions.
» There should be at least seven new starters on this team, and that's a good thing. How the Browns handle two critical areas is still up for speculation. The starting quarterback needs to be decided between Delhomme and Seneca Wallace -- another guy acquired in the offseason -- so he can run the team. The Browns are giving Wallace reps with the first team, taking some away from Delhomme. Wallace is a career backup who knows the system and should look decent executing the offense. Delhomme has been a starter in another system for the last seven years and took his team to a Super Bowl.
» Cleveland's defense had 40 sacks last season, but the Browns sent their most productive pass rusher, Kamerion Wimbley, to the Raiders. There seems to be an unclear picture at the outside linebacker spots. This camp has to clear up who the best pass rushers are from a group that includes Matt Roth, David Bowens, Scott Fujita, Marcus Easley, and Chris Gocong.
Look for Fujita to manage the nickel and dime defenses as the "Mike" linebacker. His presence will allow D'Qwell Jackson to play fast and not labor with all the calls. Fujita has known defensive coordinator Rob Ryan since the day Ryan, then an assistant with the Patriots, bought Fujita a hamburger on a pre-draft visit to New England in 2002. So far, it seems like a great reunion.
"Rob always wanted to coach me," Fujita said, "and I always wanted to play for him. Now it happens."
»Delhomme said he really likes Brian Robiskie, and could see the second-year wideout having a big season. He also is intrigued by a hybrid player, Evan Moore, who is listed as a tight end but is more of a big wide receiver in the mold of Joe Jurevicius.
All-Pro left tackle Joe Thomas said the atmosphere around training camp is much more relaxed than it has been in the past, and he credits Mangini for being laid back and running a great camp.
» First-round cornerback Joe Haden probably won't begin the season as a starter, but he should break into the nickel defense as an outside corner. During the afternoon practice on Thursday, Haden found out that NFL receivers know how to push off and muscle up a corner. Mangini ensures that Haden will get every opportunity to start during the preseason.
» The Browns have put second-round pick T.J. Ward right into the starting lineup. He showed in Thursday's team scrimmage that he likes getting up in the box and being aggressive against the run. Fujita said Ward is special.
» Second-round running back Montario Hardesty is injured right now but has already made a big impression on Mangini and Delhomme among others. As the head coach said, "He doesn't make mental errors that rookies typically make, and he can help this year."
» Third-round quarterback Colt McCoy will develop slowly and probably won't get on the field this year. But he looks relaxed and sees the field well. Delhomme said McCoy has the best ingredient to get his career started: a desire to learn and ask questions.
» NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was at the Browns training camp on Thursday and sat down to discuss current issues that included an 18-game schedule, a rookie wage scale, HGH testing, and the labor negotiations. He also talked about meeting the fans along the tour and how much their input counts. One thing that rang clear in my talk with the commissioner is that certain aspects of all issues involved in the current CBA discussions can't be discussed with players and fans, but he shares as much as he can.
When I hear certain players want more information than Goodell can give and are critical of him, I have to wonder if they have any idea of proper protocol.
» Cleveland fans are passionate and very loyal. More than 7,000 of them showed up the first day of practice, and they continue to come in droves to watch their beloved Browns. I went out into the stands to talk with some of them, and for the most part they still believe in the team.
The Browns are trying to build on their four-game winning streak, and the early schedule (opening with back-to-back games against Tampa Bay and Kansas City) suggests they can get off to a good start. The defense has to get more turnovers (only 19 last year) to give the offense a better chance. The secondary has the ability to get interceptions, especially when the Browns go to nickel and dime packages.
As for wins and losses, this team should win more than it did last year, but getting to .500 will be a challenge.