Thursday July 31st, 2008

BEREA, Ohio -- Braylon Edwards admits nothing in his first three NFL training camps really came close to preparing him for what the Cleveland Browns are experiencing this summer. Until this year, Edwards thought the Browns preseason would always be filled with more questions than answers, and played out amid an ever-present backdrop of controversy, distraction, or football misfortune.

But that was then, and this is now. Cleveland has Camp Harmony unfolding in northeast Ohio, and as July draws to a close, the Browns are on, by far, the smoothest, quietest preseason ride they've ever enjoyed among their 10 seasons back in the NFL. I made a stop at the team's suburban complex this week, and best I can tell, there's nothing going on juicier than the battle to decide the fourth cornerback slot.

"It feels good, because I think every year here there has been something negative to focus on,'' said Edwards, the team's first-round pick in 2005. "You'd come to camp every year and there'd be some huge distraction to take the attention away from the football playing. For a change, all the talk is about the Cleveland Browns playing football. That's it.

"It's not a case of worrying about this guy not coming to camp, or this guy being hurt, or this guy wanting more money, or who's going to be the quarterback, or is the coach going to stay around? All that ever did was take away from the football, and the overall focus.''

The near-constant calamity that was Cleveland football before last season left Edwards disillusioned and pining for an opportunity to become an ex-Brown. He told me he had basically made up his mind to get out of town the first chance he got, which was after his rookie contract expired following the 2009 season. He was just doing time, waiting for his parole from football purgatory.

"I'd be lying if I said I thought it would happen like it has here in the past year,'' Edwards said. "I was on the verge of not wanting to play here any more, dealing with the fans, and not winning, I was like, 'All right, I'll get through with my contract and I'll see what happens.' But now we're on the verge of something special. We had a good year last year, and this is definitely a football town, and it's turning back around. This is a fun place to play when you're winning.''

The football renaissance underway in Cleveland is one of the NFL's most irresistible centerpiece stories as the 2008 season starts to unfold. The Browns are coming off their first 10-win season in their reincarnated form, with five primetime games on their '08 schedule, and their playoff-starved fans chanting "Super Bowl'' at this month's opening training camp practice. The expectation level is sky high, presenting its own set of challenges, but after where Cleveland has been since 1999, no one within the Browns is complaining. How could they?

"What I told the organization before we got started this year was, 'Hey, it beats the alternative,' '' Browns general manager Phil Savage told me, just after a scorching Tuesday afternoon camp workout. "This is what we've been wanting. This is where you want to be. Now you've got to grit your teeth, keep your poise and whether it goes good, bad or indifferent, we kind of know this is what we're supposed to be doing. So let's do it.''

I found plenty of "let's do it'' attitude among the Browns-folk I talked to this week. The anticipation for this season is palpable throughout the building, While last year ended with the disappointment of becoming just the third 10-6 team to miss the NFL playoffs since 1999, the Browns' key offseason moves -- trades for defensive linemen Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams and the signing of receiver Donte' Stallworth -- jacked the decibel level to new heights.

Even Browns head coach Romeo Crennel, whose job it is to tamp down some of the talk to keep his players from getting ahead of themselves, seems to be enjoying the early enthusiasm that Cleveland has generated.

"For a long time around here, there has been no expectations, and you don't want that,'' Crennel said. "You do have to screen some of it out, though, because everybody's saying how good you are, and you're going to the playoffs, and they're chanting 'Super Bowl' out here at practice. And we're a long way from that.

"I try to remind them every so often that we didn't even make it to the playoffs last year. You never know in this game. Each year is a new year, and you start new. But we're able to start with some confidence this year.''

Stallworth, the ex-Patriot, should be particularly useful to Crennel in his effort to keep his highly regarded team grounded in the moment, rather than letting the playoff talk obscure the hard work that still lies ahead. Playing in New England last season taught him a painful lesson of a task left undone, which is the only scenario in which an 18-1 season can feel like failure.

"The one thing I learned from last year, being one game away from 19-0, there are no guarantees,'' said Stallworth, who is on his fourth team (Saints, Eagles, Patriots and Browns) in the past four years. "In New England, we had, if you want to call it, the dream team. But this team is kind of the opposite, with a lot of young, upcoming guys who are getting a taste of it for the first time.

"There [are] pretty huge expectations here for us this year, with them winning 10 games last year and being 7-1 at home. But you definitely have to manage the expectations, because if you come out there think that it's going to be easy, or thinking that because you won 10 games last year, now you'll be able to win more, it doesn't work that way. That's one thing I'm trying to stress over and over to the younger guys.''

The Browns' current state of confidence is understandable, given how it's grounded on several indisputable tenets: They've solidified their offensive and defensive lines in the past two offseasons, and football is just a much easier game when a team has rock-solid foundations to lean on up front. Also, the team's long-troubled quarterback situation finally appears to be in the hands of a player on the rise in Derek Anderson, whose emergence in 2007 was one of the surprises of the year in the NFL.

No wonder Cleveland's camp is so quiet, and seemingly free of worry. There's not much for the Browns to fret about, unless they care to fixate on a brutal regular-season schedule, and whether or not they really will be ready for the close-up that the NFL is prepared to give them this year.

"We're a far cry from where we've been,'' Savage said. "I mean, normally there's some No. 1 holdout, or some crazy thing has happened to us, either an injury or whatever. But fortunately, this year we've had a good offseason and kind of kept some momentum going from the [2007] regular season. That's really what you're hoping to get to entering camp. We're just getting ready for the season. It's nice for us just to focus on the football.''

Sounds simple enough. But in Cleveland, where training camp was once where all the real trouble seemed to start, it's a refreshingly new concept.

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