Four hours into the 2007 season, Phil Savage pulled his car out of the Cleveland Browns Stadium parking lot and into city traffic, sharing the streets with the sullen, the fatalistic and the downright livid. The routine had become familiar to Savage since he took over as general manager of the Browns in 2005: Watch the team lose, head downstairs and drive past fans in their Tim Couch and Courtney Brown jerseys, ancient reminders of a franchise's mistakes still raw to the touch.
On his drive home following Cleveland's 34-7 blowout loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 9, his cellphone rang several times with calls from reporters wondering where this year's ragtag team was headed and when coach Romeo Crennel would be fired. Savage responded that the Browns were not on the brink of a collapse, throaty protestations of the fan base notwithstanding.
"Some of those guys were ready to walk the plank," Savage says now, reflecting on the fans' opening day frustration. "They have just taken so much grief. The team left, then the team comes back and it's not that good. Then Romeo and I get here, and we're like, You can't blame us for all that, just give us a chance. I think we're starting to gain the trust of the public again as an organization. And the exciting thing is, I don't even think we're close to where we could be when we get everything in place."
Eight years after they returned to the Lake Erie shoreline, the Browns are stirring the ghosts of a star-crossed franchise with rangy receivers, a powerful blue-collar runner and a quarterback who plays loose when the game is tight. On Sunday at their home park the Browns launched themselves into the heart of the AFC playoff picture with a 27-17 victory over the Houston Texans, raising their record to 7-4 and adding to their goodwill in a town that has been tempted and tortured through the decades.
Whether it was bad luck, bad personnel moves or big, bad John Elway, the Browns of yesteryear could always be counted on for the spectacular flameout. Now, in 2007, they have patented the heart-stopping comeback. Clevelanders raised on tales of the Drive are now taking comfort in Derek Anderson's right arm. Fans once frightened by memories of the Fumble are talking endlessly about Phil Dawson's right leg, which two Sundays ago at Baltimore uncorked a bank shot off the left upright and the crossbar support to send the game into overtime and set up a 33-30 win.
Sure, so history says Couch rarely got into a groove after being chosen first overall in 1999, and Brown rarely got out of the training room after being taken first in 2000. Those guys are gone, and maybe, so is that karma. An organization that was buried when owner Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore in 1996 and reborn in northern Ohio when the NFL granted the city an expansion team may be coming of age after nearly a decade of growing pains.
"Every year the roster was getting blown up," says Dawson, the only player who has been with the Browns since their rebirth. "Phil Savage has come in with a plan. We have a head coach who makes it clear what he wants to accomplish with a simple, straightforward approach. You can see the building blocks. We have a group of guys who are starting to jell, and it's exciting."
Savage, who while on the Ravens' staff had a hand in constructing Baltimore's 2000 Super Bowl team, and Crennel, the defensive coordinator for Bill Belichick's three championship teams in New England, have put together an interesting brew of youth and veterans, many of whom play football as if they have a score to settle. Kellen Winslow, who caught 10 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown against Houston, has returned from a broken right fibula in '04 and a motorcycle crash in '05 to become one of the league's top tight ends. Braylon Edwards, two years after sustaining a season-ending right knee injury as a rookie, has 55 receptions for 894 yards and 11 touchdowns. Rookie left tackle Joe Thomas has been a starter from the outset, helping solidify the offensive line. The roster even has room for past Super Bowl champions such as running back Jamal Lewis and linebacker Willie McGinest, players buying into the franchise with all of its history, including the heartbreak.
"These fans give us a lot," says McGinest, who signed with Cleveland last year after winning three rings with the Patriots. "They've been bleeding brown a long time before any of us got here."
If Grady Sizemore represents Cleveland's heart and LeBron James the town's soul, Derek Anderson is just finding his place in the city's sports psyche. He entered the season as a backup quarterback but was on the field by the second quarter of the opener, after Charlie Frye had performed disastrously. Frye was traded to Seattle for a sixth-round pick two days later, and Anderson became the No. 1. His recollection of the days leading to his Week 2 start against Cincinnati reflect the straightforward way such momentous business is transacted in the NFL.
"The coaches came up to me and said, 'Hey, it's going to be your deal, go take it, don't look back,' " Anderson says.
A sixth-round pick of the Ravens in 2005, Anderson spent last summer in Salem, Ore., preparing for the competition with Frye and Brady Quinn, whom the team drafted 22nd overall in April. He spent mornings doing sprints and lifting weights with his best friend and former teammate at Oregon State, Bill Swancutt. Afternoons included long study sessions with the Browns playbook.
In his first start of the season Anderson threw for 328 yards and five touchdowns in a 51-45 win over the Bengals, and he has unfurled additional magic since. The more he wins, and the more his rapport with the offense grows, the more his value rises, not only in Cleveland but also around the league. The 24-year-old Anderson, whom Savage picked up on waivers from Baltimore in September 2005, will be a restricted free agent after this season, and the Browns have several choices regarding his future.
They could sign him to a long-term deal. They could give him the league's highest tender (approximately $2.5 million for 2008), meaning another team wanting to sign him would have to give the Browns a first- and a third-round pick. They could put the franchise tag on Anderson -- which would mean paying him an average of the league's top five quarterback salaries -- and force another club to turn over two first-round picks to sign him. Or they could hand the reins to the highly touted Quinn, 23, as the Chargers did with Philip Rivers in '06 when they didn't re-sign Drew Brees.
"We're kind of letting the situation play itself out," Savage says. "I think it's a little different [from the San Diego scenario]. With Brady being the 22nd pick [Rivers was taken No. 4 overall in 2004], we have not paid an exorbitant amount of money for a backup quarterback, if indeed he became a backup. This is the first time the Browns have had legitimate depth at the position, and we'd like to hold on to it for a while."
When Anderson was asked after Sunday's game about leading Cleveland beyond 2007, he said, "I try not to get caught up in it. If we continue to win and do the right things, the outside stuff will take care of itself. I'm really happy right now to be a part of it, and with Braylon, Kellen, the guys on the O-line, we have some really good pieces that have pushed us over the edge and made us successful."
With Anderson winging passes to Winslow over the middle, Joe Jurevicius in the flat and Edwards down the sideline, what is a defense to do? Lewis, who has been bursting through gaps in the line, says that in Baltimore he never played on an offense with such versatility. "The way we open up things offensively, it just spreads a defense out," says the 28-year-old Lewis, whom Savage signed to a one-year, $3.5 million free-agent contract (which could rise to $5 million with incentives) last March. "No more eight in a box, which is what I saw for the last seven years [with the Ravens]. I'm seeing these holes, and I'm saying, 'Is that really there?' This is the time of year when it's cold and defenses wear down and don't want to tackle. It's my time of year."
The holes were there on Sunday to the tune of 134 yards on 29 carries, including a one-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter that put Cleveland up 27-10 with 5:48 left in the game.
Crennel wasn't happy that Houston came right back and scored on the next drive, the sort of defensive lapse his team has suffered too often this season. Why talk about the playoffs when there is more work to do? "We have a tendency to get ahead and then relax," says Crennel. "We let the other team come back. We're going to have to fix that."
The way things are going, Crennel will have time both this year and beyond to work on it. The Browns are well-stocked for the future and have a favorable stretch to close this season. They travel to Arizona and the Jets in consecutive weeks, host Buffalo, play at Cincinnati, and finish at home against San Francisco. While running the table is a long shot, none of those opponents have a winning record. The Browns, who've been to the playoffs just once since returning to the NFL, are in the driver's seat for a wild-card berth; the AFC North title is not out of the question.
The players say Crennel, who was 10-22 in his first two seasons, has never lost faith regardless of the score on the board or the rumblings in the streets. "He's always been a good coach," says McGinest, who played for Crennel in New England. "He just deserved a chance to show it. I think a lot of people were prejudging him. It's a tough job being a coach in this league. Even with the Patriots, when Belichick got there, we didn't just take over. It takes time to get everything you want into play."
Says Savage, "People want instant coffee, microwaves and throwaway razors -- people want it now."
Judging by the looks on the faces on Sunday, people in Cleveland -- even the ones in the old Tim Couch and Courtney Brown jerseys -- are finally getting what they want.