The new Eric Mangini era in Cleveland has begun, and it is evident that there will be changes in more than just the clubhouse culture.
The Browns draft was littered with high academic achievers. The free agency class has brought in a number of intelligent, versatile, and tough-minded veterans who are willing to put the team ahead of their own interests.
But there will also be a big change in the team’s offensive philosophy, or to put it more bluntly, this team might actually have an offensive philosophy.
Brian Daboll, the former Jets quarterbacks coach, takes over the play-calling duties from ex-Browns’ offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.
Chudzinski was a rising star after the Browns’ lit up the scoreboard in 2007. He preferred to keep teams on their heels with a rather unpredictable offense.
But injuries and inconsistent play mired the teams’ offense in 2008, which fell to 31st in the league. The Cleveland Browns, version 2008, had no offensive identity at all.
Because Daboll is in his first year as a coordinator, there is no real read on him as a play-caller. However, his background as a former college defensive back is unique and might provide some clue.
The guess is that a coach who once intercepted three passes in one college game might have a tendency to play it a little closer to the vest.
As Gen. Robert Neyland of the University of Tennessee once said, “When you throw the ball, three things can happen—and two of them are bad.”
Coach Mangini learned that lesson the hard way after watching Brett Favre throw caution to the wind (as well as ducks in the air).
Mangini would most likely still be on the New York sidelines minus a couple of Favre interceptions down the stretch in 2008.
The draft and the teams’ off-season moves provide a little more insight into the direction of the teams’ offense.
On the surface, the trade of tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. might lead the casual observer to brush it off as Mangini simply removing a perceived bad apple.
But a closer look of the game tape would make it apparent that Winslow was a tight end in name only. The truth is that Winslow treated blocking in the running game as if it were a dive in a snake pit.
Thus, in his place are Steve Heiden and former Bills tight end Robert Royal. Both are wider bodies who are better known for their blocking abilities than pass-catching acumen.
The Browns already had a pair of solid run blockers on the left side of the line in tackle Joe Thomas and guard Eric Steinbach. But the organization has undergone a complete makeover on the right side of the line.
Hank Fraley has done yeoman’s work at the center position for the past two years. However, he is more of a finesse blocker who was over matched against larger, stronger nose tackles (especially in the rugged AFC North).
Alex Mack was drafted to eventually take over the line-calling duties. A lot has been made of Mack’s exceptional intelligence (he won the Draddy Award, considered the academic Heisman).
But Mack is more than just a cerebral football player. He is a physical, nasty, mauler-type center, who is nimble enough to trap and pull in the run game.
In addition to Mack’s numerous college awards, which included All-American and PAC-10 offensive lineman of the year twice, Mack set a school weight lifting record in the clean-and-jerk.
With holdovers Rex Hadnot, Ryan Tucker, and Isaac Sowells, there is plenty of versatility, size, and depth on the Browns’ offensive line for the first time in years.
There is no question Mangini wants a ball-control type offense with this group of offensive lineman.
The Mangini regime was even careful to draft wide receivers in the second round who are willing blockers.
Neither Brian Robiskie nor Mohamed Massaquoi put up prolific pass-catching numbers in college. But both come to the Browns with the same reputations: intelligent, good size, smooth route runners, who are not afraid to stick their nose into the fray.
Even Braylon Edwards, for all the talk about his diva-like tendencies, has the ability to show up in the run game.
A big question mark still surrounds who Mangini will choose as his quarterback (Derek Anderson or Brady Quinn). But one gets the feeling that the winner will be handing it off a lot more than they will be putting it in the air.
There is a scary lack of depth at the running back position which may hinder the teams’ plans.
Certainly, Jamal Lewis fits the profile of the bruising running back suited for the smash-mouth attack the team is expected to run. Lewis often clashed with Chudzinski over the latter’s tendency to abandon the run game at the first sign of trouble.
There is some worry that age and wear-and-tear are beginning to take their toll on Lewis. The hope is that other factors played a part in his drop off in production.
Daboll will probably look to employ running back Jerome Harrison as he did Leon Washington with the Jets last season. Both are diminutive scat-backs who can still run between the tackles and catch the ball in space.
Most Browns’ fans were frustrated with Harrison’s lack of use by the coaching staff in 2008. When he did touch the football, Harrison was productive as evidenced by his 7.2 yards per carry and 9.7 yards per catch averages.
Look for Harrison to become a bigger part of the teams’ plans in 2009.
Lawrence Vickers and Charles Ali are both big, capable blocking backs who will help in the running game. Vickers also has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield.
Mangini and Co. will also get good use out of WR/RB/QB/KR Joshua Cribbs. His 2008 Jets’ staff had a similar weapon in college quarterback turned “slash” in Brad Smith.
Smith did not possess nearly the electricity and toughness that Cribbs brings to the table. There is even talk of using Cribbs on the defensive side of the ball after seeing tape of him blowing up kick returners on a regular basis.
The new staff has made it perfectly clear that they expect concentration and hard work out of the team. Those were virtues severely lacking under Romeo Crennel.
They have gone so far as to make players run laps for miscues, and have even hired referees for mini-camps.
It is equally apparent that the new mantra will be to go back to the basics: stop the run on defense and control the football on offense.