Thursday, December 27, 2007

Browns Made Big Strides in 2007.

The Cleveland Browns surprised almost everybody this year. Regardless of whether they win or lose their final game, the outcome of which has no impact on their playoff aspirations, this 2007 campaign has been a success. Granted, this is a team that shot itself in the foot several times over the course of the season and the defense leaves a lot to be desired but back in April, when the Browns traded for Dallas’ pick to land Brady Quinn, a lot of people wrote the Browns off as a bust.

Joe Thomas has proven himself to be as good as advertised. That’s big. Plenty of teams have played it “safe” in the draft by selecting a highly-touted lineman with a top five pick only to find themselves struggling to mitigate that selection years later. Thomas is going to be a stalwart tackle in the NFL. For every Chris Samuels there is a Robert Gallery. Thomas is the real deal. That was a smart move. The Browns also got a lot of mileage out of Eric Wright and Ben McDonald. The rookie corners made big strides throughout the season.

Landing Quinn with the 22nd pick was a coup for the Browns who needed to take out an insurance policy against the Charlie Frye experiment. Frye narrowly won the starting job over a lackluster Derek Anderson in preseason only to find himself run out of town on a rail after regressing in the season opener against Pittsburgh. Anderson stepped in and stepped up, elevating his game to a remarkable level. Now the only question about Quinn is whether he’ll ever get a chance to lead the Browns.

But Anderson is a sketchy proposition. As impressive as his stats appear at first blush, a closer look reveals a very raw QB who could very well end up playing in the AFL if he doesn’t make some improvements. Anderson can be reckless at times, firing the ball into tight coverage. He’s been bailed out by great receivers and aided by a resurgent Jamal Lewis. But what happens when defenses start keying on his weaknesses? Anderson’s four interception performance against the Bengals is an indication that the NFL might be on the verge of figuring him out. We’ve seen it happen a hundred times before. The fact is that there are more Kerry Collins stories than Tom Brady epics. The law of averages tells us that Anderson is on a collision course with mediocrity. Anderson can’t throw short and intermediate passes with any consistency. That’s bad news for an NFL team with any hope of winning a title.

But that doesn’t mean the Browns should cut him loose. Until he hits that wall he’s a great player. The Browns need to hedge their bets and that means keeping Anderson and Quinn on the same team. If somebody outbids the Browns for Anderson’s services so be it. Take the compensatory draft picks and move on but don’t let Anderson slip away for a song. The best move for the Browns is to start the 2008 season with a lively battle of the starting spot and hold onto a promising backup for another year. If Anderson proves to be a flash in the pan, you got exactly what you wanted: a solid year of preparation for the future of the team. If Anderson improves and becomes the franchise the Browns have been looking for Quinn will still command some value on the trade market. GM Phil Savage has already indicated that they will offer Anderson the maximum tender which means that the Browns will receive first and third round picks if another team scoops him up. It’s doubtful that a team would want to beat the Browns offer and give up two picks in the draft but stranger things have happened. Look at what the Dolphins did.

The Browns look good on offense. Edwards and Winslow matured a lot heading into this season and should get better next year. They’ll anchor one of the best receiving corps in the NFL for a few more years. Retaining Jamal Lewis is a good idea, especially if they can keep him as hungry as he was in 2007. LeCharles Bentley is rehabbing his knee and should be ready to bolster a much improved line. Finding an explosive compliment to Lewis is a nice idea but it won’t be feasible without a first round pick. The real focus needs to be the defense. Romeo Crennel earned his chance to coach the Browns because of his pedigree as a championship-caliber defensive coordinator. Since he took the helm, the Browns have been struggling to implement the 3-4 defensive scheme employed by the Patriots. The Browns are awful against the run and generate no pressure on the QB during the two minute drill. Teams seem capable of moving the ball at will.

While there’s no question that the Browns could use some help on the defensive line, blaming the deficiencies on talent alone is unfair. There are some solid athletes on that defense but they aren’t being deployed effectively. The Browns are running a 3-4 defense with 4-3 personnel. Something has to change. If the Browns aren’t willing to overhaul the defensive personnel in the off season then a change will have to be made with the coaching staff. Crennel might have to relinquish control of his defense to 4-3 guru.

For the Browns it’s great to be in this position. For the first time in ages it looks as though the Browns can stop rebuilding the franchise and start tweaking the team for a championship run. It’s still a long road ahead but long roads are much easier to deal with when the engine is finally running.

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