|Browns have great expectations and tough schedule|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 31 July 2008 17:05|
Don't expect either, although the latter is at least a possibility.
``I tell the players every day not to believe what people are writing and saying about them,'' the Browns coach says. ``You can't let that kind of thing go to their heads. I learned a long time ago that you don't live in the past and you don't live in the future.''
What they are writing and saying is that the Browns are a serious contender to get to their first Super Bowl - including the previous incarnation of the franchise.
They became one by improving to 10-6 last season after going 10-22 in Crennel's first two seasons, including 4-12 in 2006. But there's a catch: Cleveland's schedule this year includes the NFC East and AFC South, divisions that sent three of their four teams to the playoffs last season.
And despite the improvement, the Browns didn't make the playoffs in 2007, as Crennel constantly reminds his players.
They blew it by losing 19-14 in Cincinnati in the next-to-last week, when all they had to do to take the AFC North was win their final two games. But Derek Anderson played his worst game at quarterback with four interceptions against the Bengals.
The loss also caused the Browns to miss the AFC's final wild-card spot. Their final-week win over San Francisco didn't matter because Tennessee got the berth by beating an Indianapolis team that rested its regulars.
Ask any Brown what his goal is this season and he simply says, ``Win our division.''
``It's a new season,'' says Crennel, a very familiar message from a coach who in his first 25 NFL seasons worked for Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. Neither of them will ever acknowledge looking back or looking ahead, and each is hardest on his team after it does well.
Still, there are reasons for optimism.
For while there are plenty of examples of teams that jump way up and then stagnate or fall back, there are those that have made incremental jumps from nowhere to a title.
The most obvious is the St. Louis Rams in 1999, who went from 6-10, 5-11 and 4-12 in 1996-98 to 13-3 and winning the Super Bowl. They did it behind Kurt Warner, then more obscure than Anderson, a one-time seventh-round pick of Baltimore who led Cleveland to its revival last season.
Chicago used defense to go from 5-11 in 2004 to 11-5 in 2005, then 13-3 and a Super Bowl trip in 2006. And Carolina, 1-15 in 2001, improved to 7-9 in John Fox's first season, then went 11-5 in 2003 and lost to New England by three points in the Super Bowl.
But last year's Bears also demonstrated how easy it is to fall. They were 7-9, and they could be worse this year as the defense ages and the search for a reliable quarterback continues.
The Browns, like the '99 Rams, won with offense. So they spent the offseason improving a defense that allowed almost 24 points a game last season.
Phil Savage, the general manager, is a firm believer in the draft; he was part of some good ones in Baltimore then in Cleveland.
In 2007, he took offensive tackle Joe Thomas over Brady Quinn with the third overall pick, and then traded to get Quinn, too. But he went the other way this year: After losing his first-round pick to get the rights to Quinn, he surrendered second- and third-rounders to get defensive tackles Shaun Rogers from Detroit and Corey Williams from Green Bay.
The Browns hope those deals are as effective in rebuilding the defensive line as the 2006-07 offseason was in rebuilding the offensive line, now one of the better units in the league.
The keystone is Thomas, who might have had the best rookie season ever for an offensive tackle, joining free agent guard Eric Steinbach on a unit that previously had kept Cleveland quarterbacks running for their lives.
``I figure I should get 10 to 15 percent better this year just because of that experience,'' says Thomas, who allowed (by his count) just one sack - on a snowy field against Buffalo. He made the Pro Bowl and, barring injury should keep doing it for the next dozen years or so.
Savage doesn't think the trades for Rogers and Williams were a gamble. Rogers, when motivated, is one of the NFL's better defensive tackles, although he got into trouble in Detroit for his sporadic play. During camp, at least, he seems delighted to be away from a franchise that has been one of the NFL's worst for almost a decade.
``It was totally different than giving up a draft (pick),'' Savage says. ``We were trading to fill a specific need. We needed to build up the interior of the defensive line and we found two players who were available.''
That is why the Browns are so highly regarded by man. Their fans are so enthusiastic that it was a major event in Cleveland when the NFL schedule came out last April and the Browns had five prime-time games. That includes a Monday nighter against the Super Bowl champion Giants and a Sunday nighter in Week 2 at Pittsburgh against a team that has beaten them nine straight times.
``Cleveland is a football town,'' says Rogers, who acknowledges becoming frustrated at the Lions' legacy of losing. ``You see it in the billboards. You see it in the people out here watching us at practice. You see it when you meet people. They want you to win. It's part of the city's heritage that the Browns be winners.''
There are, of course, uncontrollable variables that could deflate the high expectations,
One is injuries. Some of the Browns' pre-2007 woes stemmed from the injury problems of two high draft picks, wide receiver Braylon Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow.
Having two young QBs could also work against them.
If Anderson, grabbed by Savage when Baltimore tried to quietly put him on the practice squad, starts slowly, there will be instant clamor for Quinn.
Say the Browns start 0-2 - they open at home against Dallas, which already has been seeded into the Super Bowl by any number of folks, then go to Pittsburgh to try to end that losing streak. Even if it's not Anderson's fault, the noise is likely to start.
Last year, the Browns lost their opener 34-7 to the Steelers and Charlie Frye, who won the starting job in camp, was traded to Seattle. That gave Anderson a job he might not have earned if Quinn hadn't held out and missed 16 training camp practices.
Crennel, the defensive coordinator on three champions in New England, is aware of the pitfalls, especially with a schedule that adds six 2007 playoff teams.
So he smiles when asked if he'd take an NFC North title at 9-7, which would mean one fewer win than last year, but the postseason berth the Browns missed out on in '07.
Then he talks about the Giants, who finished 10-6 last season, made the playoffs as a wild card, then got hot and went on to win the title.
In other words, getting to the postseason in whatever way will be all right to Crennel.
Especially if there's a ring at the end of the rainbow.