Browns finally appear ready for prime time

BEREA, Ohio -- An openness surrounding the Cleveland Browns is evident, the type not easily found with NFL teams. It begins in the place where the Browns work.

Their football complex complete with two 100-yard fields and two others nearly as long is bordered by several homes, a church, a neighborhood that makes the Browns, literally, the franchise next door. Browns' fans help form the core of the NFL's voracious fan passion. Browns management, coaches and players understand this. The Browns and their fans routinely connect.

Journalists who cover the team daily say that coach Romeo Crennel has brought some of the old-school "keep-the-media-in-check" mentality to the Browns that always colors access and sometimes deeply restricts it. But they also admit that they sense the Browns embracing who they are and that, just maybe, after several seasons of disappointment mixed with disgust, a fresh atmosphere.

A season entered with huge hopes.

None of the three previous Crennel seasons began with such vigorous optimism.

"I tell my team now that we are expected to do great things this year and let's not disappoint them all," Crennel said on Tuesday after his team's morning practice during their three-day mandatory minicamp. "It is an exciting challenge ahead. We've been building for it."

All the way from a franchise that bolted for Baltimore after the 1995 season and returned in name for the 1999 season. One that that survived the 2002 death of its owner, Al Lerner, who brought football back to Cleveland. One full of freak accidents (see Kellen Winslow 2005/motorcycle), freak injuries (see LeCharles Bentley/two-year knee surgeries and construction) and too many freakish losses.

Crennel as Browns coach had produced 6-10 and 4-12 records before reaching 10-6 last season, minus the playoffs.

Last season the Browns were 9-5 and at Cincinnati. The playoffs looked in hand. The Browns flopped in that game. It helped kill their playoff chances.

The Browns players had chirped before the season about how they were ready for Pittsburgh.

But they were beaten twice last season by their AFC North rivals.

In fact, Cleveland has lost nine straight and 15 of 16 to the Steelers.

The Browns have improved their talent in each of Crennel's seasons and this one is not an exception, in large part thanks to general manager Phil Savage. Notable additions including defensive linemen Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams and receiver Donte Stallworth give the Browns more bite.

I wonder, though, about the Browns' maturity.

Are they mature enough to handle Pittsburgh? To handle being the hunted? To flourish in prime time?

In 2005, they played one game on prime-time television. In 2006 they played one. In 2007, zero.

This year -- FIVE.

"That's a lot and it says somebody thinks we're going to be pretty good and that we have an offense that people want to see," Crennel said.

It also says that the Browns players must realize that this season is critical in their development as a power in the league. Several in the bunch have talked in past seasons as if they were already a superior team. They are not. They must earn it. And if this season's work does not match the words, the expectations, the Browns could be punched silly -- with the entire football world closely watching.

"It's my job, it's all of our jobs, to make sure that doesn't happen," running back Jamal Lewis said. "We have enough veteran voices. The young guys have to stay engaged and follow those voices, that lead. And as long as we focus on the work and uniting as a team, we'll get there."

They found a quarterback (Derek Anderson), re-charged a running back (Lewis), invested in their offensive line (tackle Joe Thomas) and are considered an explosive offense now. The defense remains in transition.

It is clear, however, that surrounding Crennel at practice is more speed, more quickness, better football players. Through three seasons Crennel and Savage have nearly turned over the Browns' roster.

Only seven players remain from the duo's initial season.

"A lot of new faces around here but good players," kick return specialist Joshua Cribbs said. "These camps and then training camp is really important for us in building and jelling our team. I think we're still learning what exactly guys can do and how the pieces all fit. It's exciting."

Browns' offseason moves:
Players retained:
» QB Derek Anderson
» S Gary Baxter
» OL Lennie Friedman
» RB Jamal Lewis
» OG Seth McKinney
» S Nick Sorensen
New players acquired:
» S Terry Cousin
» OG Rex Hadnot
» LB Shantee Orr
» DT Shaun Rogers
» WR Donte' Stallworth
» DT Corey Williams

It is exciting because in the football universe, a good player knows a good player when he sees one.

The Browns look around and see a team that can compete.

That should compete. Consistently.

That has been a long time coming in Cleveland.

"We don't have everything, we don't have depth in the defensive backfield like I would like, for example, but we've come a long way," Crennel, a five-time Super Bowl winning assistant coach, said. "When we were 10-22 in those first two seasons, there were things we still believed in on how to build your football team. We have stayed the course with that."

Crennel said he is comfortable being the hunted.

Comfortable residing in prime time.

"We'll have to show that as a team," Cribbs said. "We've got the players and the experience to do that."

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