I must say that my camp tour visit to the Cleveland Browns is always one of the highlights of my summer camp tour. The franchise welcomes the visit, can't do enough to provide time with the players and coaches; they let me practically get inside the drills on the practice field and always make practice tapes available.
GM Phil Savage and the rest of the Browns organization deserves better results for the professional manner with which they run the club. Of course, injuries since the arrival of Savage in January of 2005 have played a big role in stunting the growth of this team. For the first time in my last three visits to Berea, Ohio, I don't feel the black cloud is hanging over this franchise.
It looks like it will take this whole season to bring this team together and growth may not be measured in more wins. Can the media, fans, and especially ownership, wait until 2008 before the Browns are legitimate contenders? If they can resist the temptation to hit the panic button, if they can separate the Savage era from anything else prior to his arrival, if they can see that Romeo Crennel is the right man for the job, then this will be a fruitful year. If they can't resist hitting that button, then all the good work will go down the drain. In a way as I left the facility, I felt like the Cleveland Browns are at a crossroad.
HOT TOPICS AROUND CAMP
1. Brady Quinn and the quarterback situation. Quinn is missing valuable time considering he is expected to compete for the starting QB position, which is different than JaMarcus Russell's situation in Oakland. The Raiders don't want Russell on the field right away and probably prefer a year on the bench first for the top pick in the draft. Quinn is supposedly ready to compete for the job, but as I left camp the offensive coaches were finishing up the installation of the base offense and Quinn hasn't taken a rep in pads. He's behind and Crennel said, "we can't go back to the beginning and start over when he gets here."
As for the other quarterbacks, their arms are getting tired as only three are in uniform to make all the throws. I watched the eighth practice of the summer and Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson and Ken Dorsey threw a lot of balls. As two of them said to me, "the club may have to get another arm in here soon."
Think of it this way, each practice Frye and Anderson throw about 50 more balls than they would have if Quinn was on the field, compound that by 10 practices, and each QB competing for the starting spot has 500 extra throws.
2. The division schedule. The Browns have to get off to a fast start with three division games in the first four weeks. There is pressure to get the whole offense in now so they can rep it out for three weeks and play fast and efficiently when they open with the Steelers. A young team with a coach on the hot seat didn't need the schedule makers to come up with this order of games. One fan said to me outside the practice facility that he thought the schedule was a great advantage because when the team swept the division in September they were in the driver's seat. How great it must be to be a fan this time of year.
3. The defensive line. For all the impressive young players on the field like Kamerion Wimbley, Braylon Edwards, and Kellen Winslow, the age of the defensive line is alarming. Ted Washington (17 years), Orpheus Roye (12 years) and Robaire Smith (eight years) are the starters. Roye was headed to the hospital while I was in camp for a knee surgery that may keep him out for a month. Washington can't practice or play the number of plays he used to, and Smith always seemed to be a better player in a 4-3 defense. The Browns need a young player or two to rise up and play well. The leading candidates while I watched practice look like Simon Fraser, a 24-year-old free agent from Ohio State, and Shaun Smith, a 25-year-old restricted free agent from the Bengals.
1. Jamal Lewis -- Last year, the Browns averaged less than 50 yards per game rushing in their six division games and lost them all. I sat down with Lewis, who signed a one-year contract, and he convinced me he is ready to drop 1,500 yards rushing on this season. He wants a big deal, he loves being back with Savage, who drafted him in Baltimore, and he really likes the offensive line in front of him. Lewis' nickname given to him by the Browns quarterbacks is "Eight in the box." It means that as long as Lewis is on the field the opposing defenses will drop a safety down into run support.
2. Joe Thomas -- I sat down with Joe for 20 minutes after practice and this guy gets it. He's lean at 302 pounds, but he sure is athletic and understands players are going to bull rush him until he proves he can play with rear leg power. Thomas will make the pass protection better and he looks great pulling, trapping and at the linebacker level in the run game. I'm not so sure he's ready for the power run game to his side if he has to get movement on a 295-pound defensive end.
3. Eric Wright -- Eric is starting to look like a steal in the second round as a cover corner. He got beat while I watched him in practice but he has recovery speed and is more athletic than the other Brown corners.
Offense -- The Browns QB situation is up in the air and that isn't good for a team that averaged just 12 points per game in their six division games last year. One veteran player told me he thought Anderson was winning the battle. Another player thought when the preseason games started Frye would move ahead. Another guy said when Quinn gets here it will be his job to lose. No one knows, and that includes the coaches at this point, which means giving the majority of snaps to one player hasn't been established. No matter who the quarterback is, there is going to be a better running game. A healthy Winslow, Edwards and Joe Jurevicius will stretch the field, spread the defense out and they all block well downfield. The offensive line is better with Eric Steinbach, Thomas, and maybe even LeCharles Bentley sometime during the season, so it's fair to say Cleveland will have a legit rushing attack this season.
Defense -- The front three is old, the linebackers need to slow the run down (ranked 30th in 2006), and the secondary has to play better coverage. Not sure about the D-line, but I do believe after talking with Wimbley and watching practice that the 'backers will be better. In the secondary, the comeback story of the year is the return of Gary Baxter. After double knee surgery many wrote him off, but he will play this year. He told me he is faster now than he has ever been in his life. Eric Wright makes the corners even stronger.
Special teams -- Last year Dawson missed eight field goals and that has to improve. Dennis Northcutt is gone as the punt returner (third in the AFC with 11.1 yds per return) but Josh Cribbs, who had a 24.5 kick return average, is back. An improved special teams performance this year is needed if this team wants a better record by season's end.
The quarterback situation is unresolved, the defensive line is old, but the biggest weakness is not on the field, it may just be the media and fans who can't wait any longer for a winning team. Frustrations may lead to bad decisions as this season goes on and that would be a mistake.
There is some truth to the statement that a team can have the same record as the year before and actually be a better team. There's a chance the Browns go 4-12 again, but after watching Winslow, Edwards, Thomas, Wright, Lewis, Steinbach, and Wimbley practice, and the chip the whole team has on their shoulder, I think the Browns will scratch and claw six wins out of the schedule and a year from now be positioned to make a run. Keep in mind a healthy Baxter is going to strengthen the nickel defense, the offensive coordinator is going to make better decisions on game day, and sooner or later Brady Quinn will make his presence known if he gets into camp before the fans turn on him.