When Phil Savage became General Manager of the Cleveland Browns, he did
not inherit a train wreck. He inherited the football version of the
Chernobyl meltdown. In less than two complete off-seasons, Phil has nearly remade the entire roster. By the time the Browns kick off to the
New Orleans Saints in this years opening game, it would not be surprising to
see 3/4 of the 2004 roster replaced.
These moves were not as talent-related, as most would think but rather were made to improve team chemistry and attitude. The finger pointing and blame game is
being replaced with individual responsibility. "Team" is supplanting the
individual. The squeaky wheel is no longer being greased - it's being replaced. The injury excuse is not flying with Romeo Crennel as he has
inherited Bill Parcells theory of "injured players are useless players". The
sense of entitlement is slowly being replaced with earning your playing
time. Most importantly, the defeatist attitude is exchanged with a true
belief that this team can not only compete but also win.
The Browns wide receivers have been lacking in discipline and
consistency. Do not get me wrong, I remain a huge fan of Antonio Bryant but
the drops, mental mistakes and the penalties were not the aspects that you
want instilled in your future star, Braylon Edwards. If there are two words
to describe this group over the last few years, they are "disappointment" and "drops".
Exit Antonio Bryant and enter one of the most disciplined route runners
and all-around tough guys in Joe Jurevicius. Joe has a couple of question
marks with his lack of speed and durability issues, but his toughness and
knack for the big play far outweigh any negatives. He brings a reliable pair of hands - something that has
been missing in the wide receiver corps in recent years.
He will be the solid veteran presence with this extremely young receiving core.
Most importantly, Joe will not allow those key plays to bounce off his chest and
into the dirt.
There is no position more important to an offense than the center. The center
occupies the shortest path to the quarterback. He is the cornerstone position
when it comes to running the ball. He is also the only player other than
quarterback to touch the ball on every single offensive play. The center must be
the general in the trenches.
Former first round selection Jeff Faine was arguably the worst draft
pick the Browns have made since their return. He was not strong enough to
hold the line against the larger defensive tackles. He was to slow in
reacting to pick up the blitz. He consistently struggled with the
quarterback exchange and he was never able to put the ball above the
quarterback’s ankles in a shotgun formation.
Exit Jeff Faine and enter two time pro bowl center, LeCharles Bentley.
Bentley will immediately upgrade the interior of this offensive line. He is a
solid pass protector but his true strength is physically dominating in the run
game. He brings a toughness and nasty demeanor to the middle. He is an upgrade
in every single aspect of the center position, except for pulling which he is
still able to do very effectively. Most importantly, LeCharles takes pride in being
the leader of the offensive line.
The Browns left tackle position has been a nightmare. At no time since the
return, has this position provided both effective run blocking as well as solid
pass protection. It has been one or the other and it many instances neither. To
often the play at the left tackle position has simply been soft.
Exit LJ Shelton and enter Kevin Shaffer, a tremendous run blocker
over the last two seasons, helping Atlanta become one of the very best running
teams in football. His pass protection has shown steady improvement even when considering he has been
protecting the mobile Michael Vick. Kevin simply brings toughness and that mean,
nasty approach to the game that has been sorely lacking.
The defense has also seen their fair share of free agent improvement, as the
Browns have added 28 years of experience to their defensive front seven, in nose
tackle Ted Washington and outside linebacker Willie McGinest. They should bring
immediate impact to the defense with Ted's ability to dominate in the run game
and Willie's ability to rush the pass. Their experience and leadership will be
invaluable when you consider the talented youth that is playing behind them.
It would not have been a complete free agency signing period without
replacing one of the most disappointing positions on this roster. The Browns
have not had any consistency at punter since the departure of Chris Gardocki. This definitely changed when the Browns acquired punter Dave Zastudil. Zastudil brings
both consistency and tremendous leg strength to the special teams unit. He
has a knack of planting the ball inside the 20 and his hang time sets him
apart from most of the league.
Not all the moves made by the new regime have worked out as planned but
there is now a solid core of veteran players with remarkable leadership
qualities. These moves may not equate to immediate success but the seeds of
success are being sown throughout this roster. For now, it is a question of
continuity and belief. If the new can blend with the old and truly believe they can not only compete - but win - against the elite competition, Browns
fans may not (for once) be talking draft at the end of November.