’08 Preview: Browns’ window wide open

For too many years, the guys in the plain orange helmets were just plain pathetic. In 2007, though, the Cleveland Browns played as if they’d seized on the classic line from The Doors: “Break on through to the other side.”

However tepid a 10-6, non-playoff season might be in some towns, it drove Browns general manager Phil Savage to glowing talk about windows.

“I think our window to do something,” Savage says, “is in 2008, 2009 and 2010.”

And, yes, by “something” he was thinking in Roman numerals.

2008 TEAM PREVIEWS

AFC EAST: BUF | MIA | NE | NYJ

AFC NORTH: BAL | CIN | CLE | PIT

AFC SOUTH: HOU | IND | JAC | TEN

AFC WEST: DEN | KC | OAK | SD

NFC EAST: DAL | NYG | PHI | WAS

NFC NORTH: CHI | DET | GB | MIN

NFC SOUTH: ATL | CAR | NO | TB

NFC WEST: ARI | SEA | SF | STL

That’s understandable. The Browns were 19-45 from 2003-07, with Savage inheriting a mess in 2005. The Savage-Romeo Crennel regime is in its fourth year. So, it’s time.

A mixture of bold moves in free agency (guard Eric Steinbach, running back Jamal Lewis), the draft (receiver Braylon Edwards, left tackle Joe Thomas) and trades defensive linemen Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers) has helped forge a strong overall roster.

But a lot rides on the debatable stability of the quarterback situation. Maybe everything.

Offense

Rob Chudzinski was a blast of fresh air in his first year as offensive coordinator. A stagnant offense that averaged 264.6 yards in 2006 zoomed to 351.3 under the former lieutenant of Norv Turner.

Chudzinski’s system thrives on constant shifts and formation changes to create mismatches, but there is a big dose of old school as well.

Power back Jamal Lewis hammers away behind lead blocker Lawrence Vickers to set up the passing game. One thing that was lacking was a quick underneath threat, but adding Donte’ Stallworth could be the perfect remedy.

Defense

Former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham may have been the man who knew too much. Eager to prove that his defensive intellect was on the level of the boss, he sometimes went his own way without Crennel’s blessing.

Grantham’s adjustments sometimes got ahead of the players’ ability to execute them, and the fallout cost Grantham his job. Mel Tucker, the defensive backs coach the last three years, takes over. He will be energetic, yet compliant, with Crennel.

Ironically, Tucker’s application of Crennel’s 3-4 scheme will be simpler than Grantham’s, but will have greater ability to handle a wide load. Blitzing may increase after it becomes apparent what the newest additions, Rogers and Williams, have to offer.

The book on: Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn

A rival sizes up the Browns’ quarterbacks:

“I like the Browns, but I’m not sold on Derek Anderson one way or the other. A lot of what happens with them depends on him. It doesn’t look like he panics, but sometimes it doesn’t look like he’s paying close-enough attention.

“It’s hard to read his mentality, and you pretty much only have last year to go on. You can’t write off his record (10-5 as a starter), but you worry about his bad game at Cincinnati (in Week 16).

“From what I know about Brady Quinn, you know you’re getting the right mentality. I suppose Anderson has a bigger arm. In a way it’s a good problem to have. In a way it’s not, because they don’t know if either one is a playoff-type quarterback.”

Bottom line

Crennel is under no less pressure than he was a year ago. It’s simply a different kind of heat.

Last season, his job was on the line after a record of 10-22 during his first two years. Now, coming off a 10-6 breakthrough and with key additions to the defense, anything less than the team’s first playoff berth since 2002 would be a disappointment.

SN prediction: 9-7, third in AFC North.

Steve Doerschuk covers the Browns for the Canton Repository and Sporting News.


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Updated Thursday, Jul 17, 2008