The NFL

September 23, 2007

Turning Points?

After the Browns score 51, there's hope that the situation in Cleveland isn't as desperate as was first thought

FORTY-FIVE minutes after witnessing the greatest offensive performance in the Browns' nine-year expansion history, a 51--45 victory over the AFC North--rival Bengals that was exhilarating, exhausting and totally unexpected outside the team's circle, Cleveland general manager Phil Savage leaned against a cement wall in the locker room and talked about his club's arrival.

Against the same team three years ago the Browns absorbed a 58--48 whipping that would be the fifth of nine consecutive losses that season. Afterward, coach Butch Davis would make like his defense and hoist the white flag, submitting his resignation with five games to go and only one winning season in his three-plus years on the job.

It was another kidney punch to a city that had lost the original Browns to Baltimore in 1995 and four years later got behind an expansion club that sputtered from the start. If Davis, who had won big at the University of Miami, couldn't breathe life into this team, who could? He had gotten Cleveland into the wild-card playoffs his second year but then lost 11 games in 2003 and laid the foundation for a 12-loss season before quitting.

"From that point on, the Browns have really been on a downward path," said Savage, who was hired in January 2005. "But I think today will be a game that marks that we're out of the hole. The way we won today shows what the team is capable of."

For one thing, the victory silenced talk about rookie first-round pick Brady Quinn becoming the starting quarterback and coach Romeo Crennel moving out of town—popular topics after Cleveland was embarrassed 34--7 by Pittsburgh in the season opener. (Crennel's record against AFC North teams dropped to 1--12.) The defeat set off a chain reaction in which starting quarterback Charlie Frye was traded to the Seahawks, third-year pro Derek Anderson was handed the keys to the offense and Quinn was told to be ready to take over before the engine was warm.

Then on Sunday, Anderson threw for 328 yards and five touchdowns (matching his career total entering the season), Jamal Lewis ran for 216 yards (the first Browns back in 22 years to surpass 200) and wideout Braylon Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow had career highs in receiving yards, with 146 and 100, respectively. It was the first time since the Browns joined the NFL in 1950 that the team had a 300-yard passer, a 200-yard rusher and a 100-yard receiver in the same game. The 554 yards of total offense were the most since the second coming of the franchise and the third-most ever for Cleveland.

"We didn't come [into the Bengals game] down in the dumps from the week before," said Edwards, the Browns' first-round pick in 2005. "We came in and said, 'You know what? Back to the drawing board. We know what we can do, let's go out there and do it.'"

One reason Cleveland has been playing catch-up with the rest of the NFL since returning to the league is that it didn't help itself in the draft. The high picks that normally come in the first few years for an expansion team are expected to form the foundation of a winning lineup. But the Browns have only Winslow to show for their six first-round selections from 1999 through 2004. Quarterback Tim Couch ('99), defensive end Courtney Brown (2000) and running back William Green ('02) are no longer in the league; defensive tackle Gerard Warren ('01) is playing for the Raiders, his third club in four seasons; and center Jeff Faine ('03) was traded to the Saints before last season. Couch, Brown and Warren were top-three picks.

Juxtapose that draft record with those of Cleveland's AFC North brethren and the issue becomes high-definition clear. Four of Pittsburgh's first-round picks in that same period—defensive tackle Casey Hampton, guard Kendall Simmons, safety Troy Polamalu and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger—are starters. In Baltimore (where from 1996 to 2004 Savage was a scout director and then player personnel boss), cornerback Chris McAlister, tight end Todd Heap, safety Ed Ree and defensive end Terrell Suggs start (plus former starting quarterback Kyle Boller still gets the nod on occasion). And in Cincinnati, defensive end Justin Smith, tackle Levi Jones and quarterback Carson Palmer are starters.

The Browns have tried to compensate for their draft errors through free agency, but they have often overpaid. By signing players to guarantees totaling almost $50 million in the last three off-seasons, Cleveland has raised expectations and increased the scrutiny of Crennel, whose cause has been hurt by freak injuries to key signees such as cornerback Gary Baxter and center LeCharles Bentley. Savage shot down the notion that Crennel is on the hot seat this season.

"I tried to address it before the season started that there was no Romeo watch," Savage said after Sunday's win. "People have a tendency to go to extremes. They want to bury teams, bury individuals. Today just goes to show that that is why the game is played. We've got a lot of talent, and people have to realize that it takes time for it to gel. I really feel this is the start of something good for us."

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Trotter's Take

Love Chad Johnson's enthusiasm, but the Bengals wideout should limit his TD celebrations to the field. He was lucky to come away from his leap into the Dawg Pound with nothing more than a cup of beer thrown on him.... The Cardinals' Edgerrin James has run for 100 or more yards in four of his last seven games. Make it four of eight, considering Arizona plays at Baltimore this Sunday.... Tight ends Heath Miller (above) and Matt Spaeth have three of the Steelers' five touchdown catches. Last season Pittsburgh TEs had six, total.... The Bills' Lee Evans is a talented wideout, but no player should have more than twice as many penalty yards (40) as he has receiving yards (17), which Evans had against Pittsburgh.

PHOTOTHOMAS E. WITTEHIGH TIME Anderson (inset) gave Edwards (17) and Joe Jurevicius cause for joy. PHOTOTHOMAS E. WITTE[See caption above] PHOTORICK STEWART/GETTY IMAGES (MILLER)

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)