More Robinson: Browns season preview
CLEVELAND – A man hung over the front row of one of Cleveland Stadium's end zones Saturday night frantically pumping his fist and waving his arms. With his Cleveland Browns jersey pulled snugly over his abundant midsection, he was giving new meaning to the latter half of the Shakespearean muse "Wherefore art thou …"
"ROMEEEEEEOOOO! COACH ROOOOOOMEEEEEO! OVER HERE ROMEEEEEEEO!"
Fan appreciation night had just concluded, but new Browns coach Romeo Crennel didn't have the time to respond to the source of adoration. Crennel was having a hard enough time just yelling to one reporter beneath the chaos when it seemed all 32,752 fans in attendance were wailing his name. But you have to believe Crennel heard every one of the screams. You have to believe everyone in the Browns organization has heard these cries since the day Crennel's hire became official more than seven months ago.
If a franchise could be fueled simply by fan fever, the Browns' work would be done. But since it can't, you get the feeling the regime is hoping for some patience among the faithful.
Asked if there was such a thing as a five-year building plan for Cleveland's new regime, Crennel chuckled as he headed into a tunnel lined with admiring masses.
"Probably not," he said. "It should be a two- or three-year plan. If you can show progress in that amount of time, then as a staff, maybe you've got a shot of stretching it into a five-year plan."
Surely, that's not what Cleveland fans were cheering about. But Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither were the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles. Make no mistake, those are the paramount franchise models for the Browns, who are in the infancy of the NFL's most daunting reconstruction.
It sounds strange to talk about patience for a team that has a 58-year old head coach, a 33-year old starting quarterback and a fan base that wants to quickly distance itself from last season's 4-12 record. But if you pay attention to Crennel and new general manager Phil Savage and temper the optimism for a moment, there is an unmistakable reality looming overhead: The Browns have to approach this rebuild with the patience of a Sunday drive. After crashing and burning twice in the last six years, there's no other way to go.
"Patience seems a little elitist to me," Browns owner Randy Lerner said as the team opened training camp late last month. "This town is now going through its third rebuilding process. And that is asking a lot of people who support a team. … As a result, you can't not build it right. That includes making sure the hidden parts are built right. That takes time; we all know that."
That mindset begs the question of what is reasonable to expect from Cleveland's current roster. It's no secret around the state of Ohio – or the league, for that matter – that the franchise still is suffering a massive hangover from horrendous mismanagement of past regimes. Much of it even predates Butch Davis, who resigned last season and took the lion's share of blame for the latest troubles. But perusing the roster shows an organization that has virtually nothing to show from 1999 to 2001, an era that should have laid the foundation for the current team.
For those who want to understand why the Browns are 30-66 since 1999, they might look at the poor drafts and free-agent decisions by former president Carmen Policy and personnel director Dwight Clark. Their roster moves produced only two players who were able to start for last season's team – defensive lineman Orpheus Roye and cornerback Daylon McCutcheon.
Only eight players remain from that three-year period, and worse yet, only four of Cleveland's 32 draft picks are still with the team. To add some perspective, the Patriots and Eagles used those same drafts to cull cornerstones of last season's Super Bowl teams, with players the Browns passed on (Tom Brady, Richard Seymour and Matt Light for New England; Donovan McNabb, Corey Simon and Todd Pinkston for Philadelphia).
It's a stinging reality Cleveland fans know well, and it plays a big part in the fan base craving some instant success from Crennel and Savage. But neither of those men have been in situations with such dire need for a roster revival. And it's worth noting that even the currently pristine coaching staffs and front offices of the Patriots and Eagles both went 5-11 in their first seasons. That alone should be enough to buy Crennel and Savage their three-year window to steer the franchise into the right direction.
But it's going to be a bumpy turnaround. The offense is a relative bright spot, with respectable talent at the skill positions, including running backs Lee Suggs and Reuben Droughns and wide receivers Andre Davis, Antonio Bryant and Dennis Northcutt. Guard Joe Andruzzi gives the offensive line something to build around, and if tackle L.J. Shelton can resurrect his career, the unit should be productive. Even starting quarterback Trent Dilfer, who has been battered by critics since arriving in Cleveland, has looked surprisingly fresh in preseason practices.
"We'll wait and see what they have to say [when it's over]," Dilfer said Saturday. "I'm going into this season with a very, very healthy chip on my shoulder."
He might want to share that chip with the defense, which may be the team's biggest concern.
While the 3-4 defense had an amazing amount of success throughout the league last season, and Cleveland has skimmed some underachieving fat from last year's unit, it's incorrect to assume the new scheme will mean big dividends in 2005. Crennel knows the formula as well as anyone in the NFL, but his measured optimism in training camp hasn't sounded much different than it was at the league meetings in March, when he still wasn't sure if he had the right personnel to make the switch to a 3-4.
The Browns are going ahead with it, but like most changes from the 4-3 to the 3-4, the first year typically reveals unforeseen weak spots that have to be addressed the following offseason. Already, there are questions swirling around Cleveland's linebackers, where nobody is sure if Kenard Lang and Chaun Thompson will be able to provide a pass rush. That's a significant worry for Crennel, who prefers his linebackers be the marrow of his defense. Also, the secondary is still jelling with new additions like cornerback Gary Baxter and safety Brian Russell.
"The defense is a little uncomfortable," Baxter admitted earlier in training camp. "I think there is a learning curve for everyone right now. It's a new organization. There are new coaches and it's a new system. A lot of guys are trying to get a feel for one another and there is a lot of chemistry that has to be formed out there. Right now, everything is a little bit shaky but we are working hard and trying to get everyone on the same page."
Truer words couldn't be spoken about the entire franchise. But there are clear bright spots amidst the uncertainty. Most people around the league believe that, given time, Savage is going to work wonders for the roster. And it's already clear that the players have embraced the low-key straightforwardness of Crennel, who, unlike Butch Davis, never comes off like a used car salesman. So it's not surprising to see players inspired and flaunting bigger visions than most believe possible.
"We're working to get this thing together as fast as possible, but for me, the moment is now," Dilfer said. "I can't wait. I look at it and don't think we need three or four years to turn it around. I want to get it done right now."
Judging from the optimistic screams in Cleveland Stadium on Saturday night, Dilfer isn't alone. But if you truly understand what the Browns are trying to accomplish with Savage and Crennel, you realize the here and now has to be about tomorrow and beyond.