Cleveland Browns: Dawn of the Phil Savage Era

Justin LadaCorrespondent IMarch 11, 2008

The Browns' 2007 season can be considered a zero-to-hero story of sorts. After a disastrous 2006 season of 4-12, a step back from 6-10 in 2005, Cleveland's preseason prospects looked dim. They had no quarterback, their running back looked shaky, as did the offense as a whole.

The Browns had the third overall draft choice in the 2007 draft. The speculation was between Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson, Wisconsin offensive tackle Joe Thomas, and Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Since 1999 the Browns had been panned for taking picks like Gerrard “Big Money” Warren, Courtney Brown, Tim Couch, William Green, so naturally fans figured the Browns would take someone who wouldn’t help them.

But people forgot that Phil Savage is a mastermind when it comes to evaluating college football players. In his first two seasons, he drafted Braylon Edwards and Kameron Wimbley. Edwards had been a headache in his first few seasons, but there was never any question of his talent. Wimbley had a great rookie season and was Cleveland’s best defensive player. This draft was important to Savage—more importantly hot-seat coach Romeo Crennel and the fans as well, who had seen one playoff appearance since their rebirth in 1999.

The Browns also had little luck in addition to bad prior decisions. After ruining Tim Couch around a bad team, they had all his talent get hurt. Kellen Winslow played his rookie season in the Jeff Garcia era in Cleveland, but was hurt in game two that season, thanks to an onside kick return that he didn’t need to be on the field for. Couch did lead the Browns to the playoffs in 2003, but was hurt and the Browns used backup quarterback Kelly Holcomb in the playoff game.

Every Browns first round pick seemed to get hurt. Brown never had a full season with the Browns as he was always injured after being the number one overall pick in the 2000 draft out of Penn St. Warren was always hurt and always played well below ability. Winslow was hurt his rookie year and even Edwards tore his ACL in 2005.

The Browns first full off season with Savage was new. The team was aggressive in free agency early on that year. They signed local products such as WR Joe Jurevicius, OL LeCharles Bentley, and P Dave Zastudil. They also signed tackle Kevin Shaffer. The first day of non contact drills Bentley, and OSU alum and Pro Bowler tore his patella tendon. That was in the beginning of 2006 and it is now 2008 and Bentley has yet to return to practice with the team.

So naturally with all the bad luck and bad choices, the Browns would take a player in the 2007 draft that wouldn’t help. Savage chose the unpopular choice of Wisconsin offensive tackle Thomas. Thomas would go on to be a Pro Bowler and was credited with never being beaten for a sack all season.

Then more fortunes changed. The only other player the Browns considered drafting was Notre Dame’s Quinn. Quinn fell to 22nd pick, which was the Cowboys. Savage made a trade that would only shock the people that know him closest. He traded the 2008 first round pick and his 2nd rounder in 2007 to get Quinn at 22nd overall.

Savage loves his draft picks like children, because had found players like Ray Lewis among others in Baltimore. He drafted multiple Pro Bowlers with the Ravens so naturally he loved his draft picks. Trading a first rounder was absurd for Savage.

Of course people panned him for this, saying "there goes his job next season."

The Browns were again aggressive in free agency. They signed RB Jamal Lewis from Baltimore and OL Eric Steinbach. The Browns re-signed C Hank Fraley, who plugged the hole at center when Bentley went down.

The one problem was quarterback. 2005 third-rounder Charlie Frye had been the starter, but Derek Anderson, claimed off waivers started and led them to a comeback overtime win over Kansas City.

And then there was first-rounder Quinn. Quinn held out late and never had a chance to start, but it was actually for the better, so much so people speculated that they asked him to hold out, so there would be no controversy and the Browns could decide who to keep between Anderson and Frye.

Fast forward to Week One. Frye started, despite being outplayed by Anderson. He threw two interceptions and was sacked five times. That Tuesday, he was traded to Seattle and Anderson became the starter, with Quinn as the backup. Anderson threw five touchdown passes against the Bengals next week in a 51-45 win. He never looked back.

Anderson went on to be a Pro Bowler as a reserve. For the first time since 1999, a Brown made the trip to Hawaii to play. But he was not the only Brown to go. Josh Cribbs, a return man made it. Thomas, the rookie, made it. Edwards, the one-time headache Savage drafted, made it. And Winslow made it, the one-time injury-prone tight end.

Quinn only threw a handful of passes in a Week 17 win over the 49ers. But he did more for the Browns than that. He pushed and pressured Anderson into the Pro Bowl. Had Quinn not been there, Anderson may not have worked hard enough to win and keep that job and make the Pro Bowl. Quinn’s presence made him that much better, despite Quinn never starting. Who knew a player who never started would make such an impact?

The Browns went 10-6, and at one time controlled their playoff destiny. Anderson lost the chance at big money this offseason by throwing four interceptions in a Week 16 loss to the Bengals. He also opened the door for Quinn to challenge him for 2008.

The Browns have caught the national media’s eye this offseason. Savage didn’t have a first rounder. He figured, why not get rid of two more?

The Browns traded their second-round pick for emerging nose tackle Corey Williams. Getting Williams was huge, because Williams is a huge. He is 6'4", 300-plus-pounds, and had seven sacks per season two years in a row. This is important for a Browns team who was nearly dead last in the NFL in defense, and even worse against the run.

Cleveland then traded their third-round pick and DB Leigh Bodden for two time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Shaun Rodgers. Rodgers has had issues in the past, but has made two trips to Hawaii and is only 28. Both defensive tackles are young and locked up for long years. They also have a chance to win, which motivates the unmotivated.

After filling their biggest needs. the Browns re-signed Pro Bowl QB Anderson, 1,300 yard rusher Lewis, and got two young run-stuffing lineman. They also signed lightning-quick WR Donte Stallworth. Stallworth adds a speed receiver to an already great offense and lightens the pressure on Joe Jurevicius, who requested fewer duties because of health concerns.

The Browns no longer have a pick on the first day of the NFL Draft this season. But if you ask Coach Crennel. “Quinn is the first rounder, Williams is my second rounder, and Rodgers is a third rounder” The brilliant thing is, can you draft a two-time Pro Bowler in the third round? No, and there is no Quinn in this years draft and there is no guarantee you could get a run-stuffing tackle with the second rounder.

The Browns now are considered the AFC North frontrunners and dark horse Super Bowl contenders. They went from the doormat to getting the valet, and the 2007 draft and offseason started it all. If they are a zero-to-hero story, look for a phone booth in Savage’s office in Berea, Ohio. 

Being a Cleveland fan, you have to have a few things. Optimism, patience, and a glass-half-full attitude. Savage has given Browns fans the feeling of the cup runneth over for the 2008 season.

With guarded optimism, I believe the Browns can make a deep playoff run for the first time in my life. If Anderson continues his growth as a quarterback and keeps his job, Quinn may again make a big impact on the team, despite not playing. And once again, Savage can emerge from his phone booth as Clark Kent and watch the team he built up from an automatic win on everyone’s schedule to a possible Super Bowl opponent in just a matter of one draft two off seasons, and a QB that hasn’t started a game yet.

The Browns may have been reborn in 1999, but 2005 was their second rebirth, with the start of the Savage era.