It is officially the dog days of August and within that shimmering heat is a reflection of years past. Futility and frustration always a constant companion. Heartache only moments away.
That last gasp of desperation and hope fading into a symphony of chaos...All of that and more are strewn about the ten year history of the reborn Cleveland Browns.
Too many Quarterback battles to rehash, too many Head Coaches to think about, too many injuries, too many this, too many that. Eric Mangini comes into this storm and is facing it head on. Making drastic changes that have sent ripples all the way to the casual fan, Mangini has most definitely started to put his stamp on the Cleveland Browns.
Already just one week into training camp, the adjustments and efforts seem to be paying off. Gone are the good old days of loafing and laughing, replaced by a palpable sense of determination and discipline.
Loud music blares on the speakers. Player are routinely seen running laps for infringements of the basics of the game. Actual contact and game situations are the norm. Coaches are seen barking out orders at players. All are welcome sights heading into the 2009 season.
Although the changes are welcome, some things will never change. There is still a Quarterback battle going on. The nagging questions about Braylon Edwards' maturity, Josh Cribbs' contract status, and Jamal Lewis' remaining gas in the tank are still here.
And what about the defensive line? Each of these are legitimate concerns, and when broken down, provide insight of what to expect of the Orange and Brown in '09.
Once again, the controversy of who should call the shots on the Browns' offense is the first thing that springs to any observers mind. Both Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn have thier pros and cons. After a sensational 2007 campaign that saw him named as a Pro Bowl alternate, Derek Anderson crashed back to earth in 2008.
Never quite finding his groove and slowly losing fan support, Anderson ended his season on a sour note against the Indianapolis Colts.
In yet another embarrassing incident for Browns fans, Anderson was cheered as he lay on the turf with a knee injury. Going on the Injured Reserve and Crennell still the coach, Anderson was told that Quinn would be the starter heading into 2009.
The book on DA is the same as it has been since his days at Oregon State . With a cannon for an arm and the big play ability comes woeful inaccuracy and a tendency to throw inexplicable interceptions.
Quinn comes into 2009 as the supposed favorite to be named starter. After being selected in the first round by the Browns in '07, Quinn reported to camp late, never recovered and watched from the bench as Anderson tightened his grip on the starting position throughout that year.
Certainly the fan favorite (Quinn grew up in Dublin, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus as a Browns fan), Quinn entered 2008 determined to wrest the starting job from Anderson.
After a shaky start to the season doomed the franchises hopes for a return to the playoffs and with his coaching job on the line, Crennell handed the reigns of the offense over to Quinn in week nine against the Denver Broncos.
His taste of NFL starting status was to be shortlived as he suffered a fracture and ligament damage to his finger the following week and was shelved for the year just three games later. Quinn comes advertised as a high completion percentage, cerebral quarterback that can make all the short throws, but has a problem with the deep ball.
Mangini has declared the competition open and added that he will split reps evenly amongst the two in order to get a fair assesment of both. Thus far in camp, niether has pulled away and distinguished themself.
Both appear to be comfortable and at ease with the pressure and are both, thus far, saying all the right things. The starter will not be named until after week 3 of preseason supposedly, so don't look for this issue to be resolved any time soon.
Already Braylon Edwards has been the talk of camp, and it has been for both his play and lack thereof. Reporting to camp late and with an undisclosed injury, Edwards spent the first four days of camp riding a stationary bike. When asked about his injury, the answer was to ask Mangini.
That proved fruitless, as Mangini issued his stock answer that Braylon would be out on the field when he could be. Rumored to be an ankle injury suffered in a pick up basketball game in June, Edwards appeared poised to start out his future under Mangini in the proverbial doghouse.
However, Edwards made his debut on Wednesday and was nothing short of phenomenal. Making hard catches look routine, he has electrified both the fans and teammates since his return.
When asked about his relationship with Mangini, Edwards said that he has tremendous respect for him and is excited about the changes he has implemented. The only question is how genuine that sentiment is.
Browns fans are by now accustomed to Edwards' frustrating ability to be the good guy one day, a malcontent the next. Will that tendency rear its' ugly head? It seems doubtful, given that Edwards is in the last year of his rookie contract and stands poised to make millions more on a new contract if he proves his worth both on the field and off.
That takes on a significant new angle when considering that the Browns have two rookies trying to break in behind him and a handful of veterans to complement the receiving corps.
Since breaking into the league as an undrafted free agent Quarterback out of Kent State, Joshua Cribbs has established himself as one of the most versatile and valuable players on the Browns' roster.
A true special teams standout, Cribbs has already set the record for most return yardage in Browns history, overtaking Eric Metcalf as the all time leader. Not only does he return both kicks and punts, he has been the leading tackler on the special teams units.
He also lines up as a widerReceiver at times and has lined up in the now infamous "Wildcat" package as the lone set back.
At the close of the 2006 season, Cribbs was approached about a new contract. Taking into consideration his path to the league, $6 million for six years seemed reasonable.
Then came 2007 and the NFL turned into Josh Cribbs' playground. Three total return touchdowns, among them an electrifying 100 yard return against the Pittsburgh Steelers, an average of 31 yards per return along with 17 tackles and a forced fumble led him to the Pro Bowl and also caused him to reevaluate his worth to the team and how he was being rewarded for that worth.
There were rumblings headed into 2008 that Cribbs was unhappy with his deal, but he played the season out, and while not quite up to the impressive stats of 2007, he was one of the lone bright spots on the team.
Under the new regime of Mangini and GM George Kokinis, Cribbs has gone public with his desires and has recently stated that he will not play in the regular season if there is not "significant" progress made towards getting a new deal done. The tought of a season without Cribbs seems impossible at this point, and Cribbs has also stated that he wants to do right for the fans. Stay tuned.
Another standout in 2007, Jamal Lewis also took a significant step backward last year. He recently admitted that he battled through injuries last year and toughed it out for the fans. He underwent surgery in the offseason and comes into the 2009 season 30 years old. Conventional wisdom in NFL circles dictates the 30 is the deathknell for most, if not all, Running Backs.
So, how much does Jamal Lewis have left? It will be interesting to see, considering this may be the most talented group of offensive linemen assembled since the rebirth.
Given holes to run through in 2007, Lewis gained 1304 yards and rushed for 9 touchdowns. While not quite as quick and fast as he has been in years past, Lewis still posesses a bullish ability between the tackles. T
he competition behind him becomes the real story as Jerome Harrison showed real flashes of brilliance last year with 246 yards on 34 rushing attempts for a whopping 7.2 yards per carry! Battling with Harrison for the backup RB position is James Davis, a rookie from Clemson drafted in the sixth round.
An early camp sensation, Davis shows the essential combination of vision, cutback ability and instinct that is the hallmark of a good runningback. Davis and Harrison will both almost assuredly make the team, providing depth and a change of pace for Lewis.
After finally securing the Nose Tackle that they need as the centerpiece to thier 3-4 defensive front in Shaun Rogers, who do the Browns have beside him ready to step up?
Rogers deservedly made the Pro Bowl in '08 after a stellar season that saw him as a supremely disruptive force and aside from NFL tackles leader D'Qwell Jackson, the only reason to watch the Browns later in the season.
After bringing Rogers over from Detroit and trading for Corey Williams from Green Bay, it finally appeared that the Browns were assembling what could have been a good defensive line.
However, shortly into the season, the Browns lost Robaire Smith to an Achilles injury and Williams never fully adjusted to the 3-4 and played with an injured shoulder, as well. With Robaire Smith shelved, Shaun Smith was forced into action at defensive end, which is not his natural position and it showed at times.
Now with Robaire Smith back and Corey Williams supposedly healthy and adjusting to his role in the 3-4, is there hope for the Browns defensive line? New Defensive Coordinator Rob Ryan schemes with his defensive linemen playing virtually anywhere along the line and occasionally dropping into pass coverage.
As long as health is not a concern and the 3-4 allows the linemen to tie up blocks and occasionally disrupt the play, there is reason to hope that this year may finally be the year the Browns D Line is a bit more formidable.
Optimism is in full bloom again in Berea. Orange and Brown is in full bloom throughout the city. The sights and sounds of training camp are real once again. The Browns are back. Mangini has brought with him sweeping changes.
The only question is whether they will be enough to erase the memories of frustration and hopelessness that has permeated this once proud franchise, or will they be whispered promises fading into the bitter gusts of arctic air in the long, cold Cleveland winter?
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