|Top receiver Edwards will strut his stuff with six national TV dates.|
21 at Baltimore
28 at Cincinnati
13 N.Y. GIANTS (M)
19 at Washington
26 at Jacksonville
6 DENVER (T)
17 at Buffalo (M)
7 at Tennessee
15 at Philadelphia (M)
28 at Pittsburgh
|Joe Thomas, Left Tackle: Last year the Browns kept waiting for their first-rounder to show a weakness. Didn't happen. He wasn't intimidated by a road game at Foxborough or two matchups with Ray Lewis's yappy Ravens. In 16 games Thomas surrendered one solo sack. Says G.M. Phil Savage, "How many rookie left tackles start from opening day and play like Pro Bowl players?"|
What's all the fuss about? A franchise on the rise has playoff potential, but a rebuilt defensive front has to deliver first.
Nowhere was the release of the 2008 NFL schedule as newsy as it was inCleveland. Quarterback Derek Anderson was on the golf course when he got a callfrom his dad. "You see how many times you're on national TV?" Glenn Andersonsaid. Fans bombarded wideout Braylon Edwards with the news. "Three Monday nightgames!" one of them told Edwards, who went to a computer to see for himself.
There it was: A Fox national game at home against the Cowboys in Week 1,a Sunday night NBC game with the Steelers in Week 2, Monday-night ESPNgames in Weeks 6 (Giants), 11 (Bills) and 15 (Eagles), and aThursday-nighter on NFL Network against the Broncos in Week 10. The Brownshadn't played on Monday night in five years or on Sunday night in three; nowthey were going to play five night games in one season -- one more than the SuperBowl-champion Giants.
"Prime time," Edwards says. "Now that's what I'm talking about."
And Cleveland didn't even make the playoffs last year.
So, the theory goes, the Browns must be a team about to break out. Or they'rebeing set up for a big tumble. "When I saw the schedule I said, 'That's whathappens when you play exciting football,' " says sixth-year guard EricSteinbach. "The flip side, of course, is being a younger team, and after havingyour first winning season in a while, you worry about how all the exposure isgoing to affect your young players. The true test will be surviving thatexposure and playing your best instead of playing like a deer in theheadlights."
The Browns were a bunch of sluggers without a pitching staff last year,winning 51-45, 41-31 and 33-30 (twice). And when Anderson struggled inDecember -- he threw seven TD passes and eight interceptions in five games -- thedefense wasn't able to cover for the offense's drop-off and Cleveland sufferedcrushing losses to Arizona and Cincinnati. The Browns wound up 30th in theleague in yards allowed per game (359.6) and in yards allowed per rushingattempt (4.5).
That's why general manager Phil Savage, already without a first-round pick in2008 because he traded it to move up and draft quarterback Brady Quinn lastyear, dealt his second- and third-round choices plus starting cornerback LeighBodden for two monstrous defensive linemen: former Packer Corey Williams, who'llplay left end in coach Romeo Crennel's 3-4 scheme, and Shaun Rogers, late of theLions, who'll be the nosetackle.
Strange but true: The 340-pound Rogers has never played the position. But theBrowns believe he's well-suited to occupy more than one blocker and plug themiddle of the line, creating the kind of congestion that makes for a greatrun-stopping unit.
"Our model is the Patriots," says Rogers. New England is a 3-4 team with ahistory of playing good run defense, and Rogers has studied the Pats' scheme."[The Browns] got me because they were looking for beef in the middle, andthat's so important to a 3-4 team," he says. "I don't want to be the wholesolution, just part of the solution."
Cleveland needs some other defensive players to be part of the solution too.Pass-rush specialist Kamerion Wimbley has to play hungrier. "How can I putthis?" says Savage. "He played a little safe last year." It's not often that arookie gets 11 sacks and follows with a five-sack season, but that's what ahealthy Wimbley did. The Browns have told him to take more chances, become morereckless. Also, second-year cornerbacks Brandon McDonald and Eric Wright will bepicked on by opposing quarterbacks from Week 1, and by midseason fans maybe wondering why their team invested so heavily in the defensive line when it'sthe secondary that's killing the Browns.
"We couldn't fix everything in one off-season," Savage says. The question is,have they done enough to help the Browns win their first division title since1982 -- and make them a featured team on the 2009 schedule? -- Peter King