Anderson's emergence has Browns among '07 surprises

When it comes to projecting quarterback success, NFL teams have had some colossal misses.

They missed on Tom Brady, who went from sixth-round draft choice to two-time Super Bowl MVP. They missed on Kurt Warner, who went from undrafted free agent to two-time NFL MVP and one-time Super Bowl MVP.

So Derek Anderson, who emerged from virtually nowhere to rank among the league's top quarterbacks this year, has reason to feel he's in pretty good company.

"Other than the fact that I haven't won a Super Bowl," the unlikely star of the surprising Cleveland Browns said. "But those guys have obviously worked their way up the charts and have done great things, and I guess you'd say they were in the similar situation I was in. It didn't always look bright, but they always just kept fighting. Shoot, Kurt Warner was bagging groceries and he ended up winning the Super Bowl two years later or whatever."

Like Brady, Anderson was a sixth-round pick. Like Warner, he washed out with one NFL team before getting an opportunity to begin building an impressive resumé.

"The things that they have done should inspire everybody, (especially) a late-round pick or a guy who didn't get an opportunity right away, to always keep fighting and keep grinding," Anderson said. "And if you have the abilities, everything else will sort its way out in the end."

It took Anderson a little while to show the Browns' decision-makers that he had those abilities after they claimed him off waivers from the Baltimore Ravens on Sept. 21, 2005. The Ravens had selected the Portland, Ore., native and Oregon State product on the on the next-to-last round of the '05 draft.

Anderson didn't take a snap as a rookie. Although he did some solid work in three starts in place of injured Charlie Frye at the end of the 2006 season (including a stretch against Baltimore when he completed 13 consecutive passes, tying him for fifth in Browns history), Anderson couldn't keep the No. 1 spot entering this year. He struggled during an intrasquad scrimmage on Aug. 3, and was unable to find his groove for more than two weeks thereafter.

Through 13 possessions in the preseason, Anderson led the Browns to five field goals and no touchdowns. Not that Frye was much better, producing a field goal and a touchdown in 11 series. The most eye-popping performance of the summer came from Brady Quinn, the second of the Browns' first-round draft picks. He was a superstar from Notre Dame, an Ohio native, and considered the long-awaited savior of the franchise.

But the Browns weren't comfortable with thrusting the rookie into starting lineup at the beginning of the year. It was widely speculated that he would likely get his chance a month or so into the season. Frye, another Ohio native and former University of Akron standout, was a hometown favorite and the Browns' third-round pick in '05. He got the nod for the season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Anderson was a "little disappointed," but the coaches encouraged him to keep working and told him his opportunity could eventually come. Maybe it would be early in the season, maybe late.

It came early. Two days after floundering in the Browns' 34-7 loss to Pittsburgh, Frye was promptly shipped to Seattle in exchange for a sixth-round draft pick. Anderson moved to No. 1 on the quarterback depth chart, although there was still a belief in league circles that he would merely keep the seat warm for a few weeks until Quinn was deemed ready to start.

Eight games later, Quinn has faded into a virtual afterthought. At 5-4, the Browns are in the thick of the race for an AFC wild-card playoff spot. And Anderson has played the largest role in getting them there. He ranks fourth in the NFL with 20 touchdown passes and sixth in the AFC with a passer rating of 90.7 as he prepares to lead the Browns into their Week 11 AFC North showdown against the Ravens at Baltimore.

Through it all, Anderson has remained well grounded. He sees no reason to become consumed with any individual accomplishments because he is well aware of how quickly things change in the NFL.

"As long as we win games and guys are working hard, I'm happy with all that," he said. "I honestly don't really get too caught up in the rest of it. If you get too high in the high points, those low points will come. You can't get too fired up, because sometimes it's the same people that want to make you king that also want to make you fired."

Anderson liked the days, during his first two seasons with the Browns, when he could go around Cleveland in relative anonymity.

"You could go to the mall and just hang out," he said. "My wife (Lisa) and I would just walk around, meandering, and nobody would even look at me twice."

Now, Anderson can count on being stopped to sign an autograph or pose for a picture. That's what happens when you routinely throw scoring strikes, when you show strong command on the field, when you provide hope that your team has a chance to win every game it plays. Anderson has outdueled Carson Palmer and Matt Hasselbeck in shootout victories over Cincinnati and Seattle. He seemed on the verge of pulling off an upset when he threw three first-half touchdown passes in Cleveland's Week 10 rematch against the Steelers, but the Browns squandered a 21-9 lead on the way to a 31-28 loss.

"The thing that impressed me the most about him is how he's learned and picked things up," Browns offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski said of Anderson. "He's a guy who, when he makes mistakes, he corrects them and he comes back and you don't see him have the same issues and the same problems."

It helps that Anderson has dynamic pass-catchers in No. 1 receiver Braylon Edwards (tied for second in the league with 10 touchdown catches), tight end Kellen Winslow Jr., and No. 2 wide out Joe Jurevicius.

"It all starts with confidence in what those guys are doing," Anderson said. "When I know where those guys are, I don't have to worry about it. It makes a lot of things easier. I just go back there and, it's, 'He's open, he's open, he's not.' I'm just going through my progressions and trying to use the backs more. I think just the longer I've been playing, the more comfortable that I get with the whole situation."

It also helps that the Browns' offense is similar to the wide-open scheme that Anderson ran under coach Mike Riley at Oregon State.

"Throwing the ball downfield is a big thing for us," he said. "The coaches put us in good situations. Game plans are good. They have everybody on the right page during the week, and the communication is good."

And it helps that Anderson is a towering 6-foot-6, allowing him to see over behemoth linemen as he scans the secondary, and shows good arm strength and accuracy.

"He's always had the physical tools," Chudzinski said. "I think he's really made his mind up that he wants to be an NFL quarterback. He puts the time in and studied and he's shown really excellent leadership qualities in how he's relating with his teammates in both demanding things from them as well as encouraging and all of those things you need out of the quarterback position.

"He's done a good job of getting the ball off. He makes quick decisions and he's accurate in the way he's throwing the ball. And he can spin the ball and throw it with velocity. He's also doing a better job of working on his touch passes."

Anderson's performance has created a potential dilemma for the Browns. After this season, he becomes an unrestricted free agent. The Browns could sign him to a lengthy contract extension, but would probably be unwilling to pay him huge money because of their commitment to Quinn. It seems more likely that they would sign Anderson to a one-year tender offer, giving them the right for one week to match an offer sheet he receives from another team. A tender of $2.017 million is worth a first-round choice, while a tender of $1.417 is worth a second-rounder. As desperate as many other teams are for a quality starter, Anderson would figure to attract plenty of attention, and the Browns probably will receive trade inquiries for Anderson and Quinn.

Despite the awkwardness of the situation, Anderson and Quinn have a strong working relationship and are supportive of each other. But their conversations mostly center on football. They find it best to steer clear of their respective futures with the Browns.

"Obviously, we both understand that whole situation," Anderson said. "I think you've just got to let that stuff kind of play its way out. It makes things a lot easier when you come in every day knowing that a guy wants you to do well and has got your back. Obviously, he wants to play as well and he wants to get better and if it was the reverse roles, I'd be trying to help him."

Anderson harbors no bitterness toward the Ravens. He is grateful for the opportunity they gave him to play in the NFL and still has friends on the team.

But his mission is to do everything he can to help the Browns make their first playoff appearance since a 36-33 wild-card loss to Pittsburgh after the 2002 season. A season sweep of the Ravens, whom they beat on Sept. 30, would be a significant step in that direction.

"I feel really good about the guys that we have here," Anderson said. "You just kind of get a different feel. Guys are putting a little extra in, guys have a little more pep in practice. Coach (Romeo Crennel) always tell us, 'Continue what we're doing, stay on pace, prepare for every single game as if it is the most important game, and don't get ahead of ourselves.' If we do that, I think things will hopefully turn out in our favor."

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