|Browns enter '07 season still running behind rest of AFC North|
|Written by Admin|
|Friday, 31 August 2007 07:39|
``I was there,'' Cleveland linebacker Andra Davis said.
Bursting down Baltimore's field like a thoroughbred out of the starting gate at Pimlico, Lewis ran for an NFL single-game record 295 yards against the Browns - a team he once dominated and a franchise still searching for a foothold after years of ineptitude.
``We're not the same Browns as then,'' said Lewis, who rushed 2,066 yards in '03 and is hoping to resurrect his career with Cleveland. ``This is a new team.''
With some familiar problems.
The Browns went 4-12 last season, 6-10 in 2005, and 4-12 and 5-11 before that. Since being revived as an expansion team in 1999, Cleveland has had just one winning season and made only one trip (2002) to the playoffs.
A second one seems somewhere off in the distance.
The club enters 2007 with more depth up and down its roster; an exciting group of rookies led by offensive tackle Joe Thomas and future franchise quarterback Brady Quinn; coach Romeo Crennel on the hot seat; and a brutal early schedule which could seal Crennel's fate before the Oct. 21 bye.
Until they show otherwise, the Browns are only fourth-best in the rugged AFC North, where Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and the Ravens each possess more talent, proven quarterbacks and aren't dealing with an impatient fan base desperate for success and already chanting Quinn's name.
It's a pivotal season for the Browns - and for Lewis, who left the Ravens as a free agent after seven seasons to sign with Cleveland.
``I'm glad he's here,'' Davis said of Lewis, who gained 1,132 yards last season while playing with painful ankle spurs. ``We won't have to have those sleepless nights getting ready for him anymore.''
Lewis, who rushed for 7,801 yards in Baltimore, signed a one-year contract that could be worth $3.5 million if he reaches performance incentives. If he's everything the Browns hope, the club will gladly offer the 28-year-old a long-term deal.
Lewis' signing raised some eyebrows around the league as clubs wondered if Browns general manager Phil Savage was merely doing it out of loyalty to Lewis, whom he scouted and drafted for the Ravens.
But while much of the focus this summer was on the starting quarterback duel between Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson, Lewis was arguably the most impressive player on the field at training camp.
Dropping 10 pounds has made him quicker, and offseason surgery took care of Lewis' ankle problems. He isn't making any predictions, but Lewis feels he can approach his 2003 level.
``I'm not going to say I am as good as I was then,'' he said, ``but I am smarter now, more patient with my running style and I am much wiser. That's what a veteran offers to a team and to this position.''
The Browns, whose rich history is built on the legs of Hall of Fame backs Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly and Bobby Mitchell, had the worst rushing offense - 83.4 yards per game - in the league last season, prompting Savage to revamp his offensive line.
On Day Two of free agency, guard Eric Steinbach, a two-time Pro Bowl alternate for Cincinnati, signed a seven-year, $49 million deal. He'll play on the left side with Thomas, the No. 3 overall pick who quickly displaced Kevin Shaffer as a starter and could anchor Cleveland's line for a decade.
Savage hired Rob Chudzinski, San Diego's tight ends coach the past two seasons, as his new offensive coordinator. The early reviews have been positive about Chudzinski's system which features constant shifting and is designed to take advantage of coverage mismatches against tight end Kellen Winslow (team record-tying 89 receptions in '06) and wide receiver Braylon Edwards.
Chudzinski spent two seasons as Winslow's coordinator in college at Miami.
``Our offense is finally in the 21st century,'' former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar observed while watching practice.
Frye, frequently under siege last year, will likely start the Sept. 9 season opener at home against Pittsburgh. The third-year quarterback is expected to hold down the job as long as he minimizes mistakes.
If he doesn't, it'll be Quinn's turn.
The former Notre Dame star got into camp two weeks late because of a contract holdout, a delay that probably prevented him from pushing Frye aside. That will come soon enough, although the Browns would prefer to have Quinn sit and learn as long as possible.
Quinn went 29-of-45 for 300 yards with three touchdowns and one interception while looking poised during three preseason games.
Crennel said he'll wait until next week to announce his Week 1 starter.
The Browns have had one player make the Pro Bowl since '99. Kamerion Wimbley could be their second.
A converted end, he thrived in his first season as an outside linebacker in the Browns' 3-4 scheme, recording 11 sacks as a rookie. His goal is one per game in 2007, which would take some pressure off a defense that ranked 29th in the league against the run.
Antwan Peek, who spent the past four years with Houston, will be on the other side behind an aging defensive front featuring 39-year-old behemoth nose tackle Ted Washington and dependable Orpheus Roye.
``We have more depth this year than last,'' Wimbley said. ``We've added some key players to the positions that we needed. If we can keep everybody healthy and continue to improve week to week. I think we can be a dominant team.''
A competitive one would be a nice start, and Crennel's job security - he's 10-22 in two seasons - could hinge on how the Browns play within their division. He's just 1-11 against the AFC North.
Cleveland sports fans have waited longer than any others for a major championship. None of the city's three professional teams have won it all since the Browns ruled the NFL in 1964. Watching the Cavaliers get to the NBA finals this year was a special treat, and the Indians look as if they'll be playing again in October.
But for Browns wide receiver and Cleveland native Joe Jurevicius, it's time for a football fix.
``The Cavs did what they did and the Indians are playing really good baseball,'' he said. ``It's time for the Browns to step up. This is no disrespect to the other teams, but this has always been Browns town.
``For us, there's no better time than now.''