The best thing about the 2005 Browns? It just might be that they're not making cheesy promises about going to the playoffs. During a lightning delay in last Saturday's preseason game against the Giants, Cleveland owner Randy Lerner pondered the question of whether he finally had the right people--new coach Romeo Crennel, the former Patriots defensive coordinator, and new general manager Phil Savage, formerly the Ravens' director of player personnel--to get the seven-year-old franchise on a winning track. Lerner thought for a moment, then said, "I am cautiously optimistic. Romeo is a student of success, but let's see what happens on the field."
Then Lerner looked into the stands at the home crowd. "I bet 90 percent of these fans, including the women, have played football, or least thrown it around in the backyard," he said. "They know the game. I don't want to insult them by making promises, and I don't have the credibility to say, 'Trust us.' But I want it as badly as these people do."
After three years without an NFL team in Cleveland, the Browns returned to the league as an expansion club in 1999 to great fanfare and a shiny new stadium. But this second coming has been a flop. Though it got into the playoffs as a wild card on the last day of the 2002 season, Cleveland lost a league-high 66 games over the last six seasons. The brain trust wasted the No. 1 picks in the '99 and 2000 drafts on quarterback Tim Couch and defensive end Courtney Brown, respectively, then blew the No. 3 pick in '01 on defensive tackle Gerard Warren. (Couch is out of football; Brown and Warren are fighting for roster spots in Denver.)
The 2005 team looks weak, at best. Savage and two of his scouts rate only 12 of their players as bona fide NFL starters, whereas Savage counted 27 members of his 2000 Baltimore team as starting caliber. All Crennel can do is work hard to make a bad situation better. At a team meeting in June he laid out the three Super Bowl rings he won with the Patriots and invited the players to look at them. "This is what we're playing for," he told the team. "But this is the last time you'll see me wearing them, because now they don't mean anything. Only what we do from this day forward means something."
The Browns' 17-14 win over the Giants was a start, but there was little cause for celebration. Cleveland's No. 1 offensive unit, quarterbacked by journeyman Trent Dilfer, was flagged for four holding penalties on its first two drives and had a net total offense of minus-six yards for one quarter of work. The Browns' new 3-4 defense allowed New York's top three runners--Tiki Barber, Michael Cloud and impressive rookie Brandon Jacobs--139 yards on 19 carries, a 7.3-yard average.
Turnarounds such as the Chargers' going from 4-12 in 2003 to 12-4 last year happen in the NFL. The Browns were 4-12 last year, but Lerner can only hope that Crennel and Savage show they are better suited to building a team than the previous regimes, headed by coaches Chris Palmer and Butch Davis, proved to be. In Baltimore, Savage's biggest contribution was finding talent in the middle and late rounds of the draft. In New England, Crennel did a good job of integrating middle- and low-cost free agents into the defense.
The new architects will need time. And it appears the Browns will be drafting very high again in '06--maybe high enough to get USC quarterback Matt Leinert.