In the aftermath of the surreal Bob Hallen dustup and subsequent collapse of
the center position for the Cleveland Browns, it was pretty darn amazing to
watch Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel operate. A confluence of events that might
have broken another young GM seemed to spur Savage into the sort of calm, urgent
action reserved for firefighters and paramedics.
Rather than force feed a trade that would cost the franchise dearly in draft
picks, Savage picked his way through the minefield like Eric Metcalf tiptoeing
through a defense. The Browns GM had signed Alonzo Ephraim soon after Bentley
went down. The former Alabama
standout impressed in his first preseason start, then promptly shocked fans by
earning a four game league drug suspension on August 16. It was an embarrassing
miss for Savage, who had been blindsided by Hallen just a week before.
Savage, however, already seemed a half-step ahead of the rolling calamity on
the offensive line. On August 12 he swung a modest deal with
New England -
a team known for depth and competence on the line - to
land reserve center Ross Tucker. Acquired for a conditional seventh-round draft
pick, Tucker was rushed into preseason action and impressed with his composure
and play. Then on August 24, eight days after the announced Ephraim suspension,
Savage dealt another conditional seventh-rounder (the Browns had two in the
round, thanks to the Dilfer trade) for Bears reserve center Lennie Friedman.
That move was met with a collective "huh?" from fans, but fellow GMs were
impressed. When the Browns briefly waived Friedman in order to rework portions
of his contract, seven NFL ballclubs reportedly tried to claim him off waivers.
With the arrival of Friedman, the vibe from fans began to change, from
apocalyptic grief to what I can only describe as optimistic dismay. We worried
that Lennie weighed in at a svelte 293 pounds, putting him firmly in the Faine
weight class. And we wondered if Ross, who was buried deep on the New England depth chart, could really pass muster as an
Despite the signings, the middle of the line was held together with spit,
tape, and bailing wire. Heck, some fans were still calling for the Browns to
sign disgraced center Jeff Mitchell, despite the fact that the former Carolina
Panther had been implicated in an ugly steroid use scandal. So when it was
announced that Ross Tucker had been waived, you could feel the panic. Another
serviceable center, gone. After all that had happened, one could not help but
wonder what it was this time: Retirement? Felony child abuse? Alien abduction?
And then Savage did something totally crazy. He traded for the guy we all
wanted in the first place.
On September 2, the Hank Fraley deal hit the collective Cleveland consciousness
like a double-shot martini after a bad day at the office. You could almost feel
the warmth creep across the soul of every Browns fan, as we realized that we no
longer had to hope for the best and expect the worst.
Fraley is a real, honest-to-nose-guard starting center in this league—a
seven-year veteran out of Philadelphia who has played at the highest level in
front of some of the toughest fans on the planet. He's played in ice and snow,
he's played against hated division rivals like New York, Dallas, and Washington, and he's survived the lunar surface of
Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia.
Fraley has also earned the attention of pundits. Daryl Johnston named him to his
All Lunch Pail Team, and Dr. Z had Fraley inked him to his All-Tough Team. If
Fraley isn't a fit for the Cleveland Browns in their hour of need, I don't know
Have I been critical of Savage's role in acquiring guys like Hallen, Todd
Washington, and Alonzo Ephraim? Absolutely. When you sign quitters and drug
users, you should be called to task when they do things like… quit and do drugs.
But I applaud Savage's methodical approach to repairing the hole in the line.
Two weeks ago, our center situation was—to paraphrase Savage himself—among the
worst in the league. Today, I'd regard our center talent and depth as being
average, at worst. And that is really saying something.
Perhaps most remarkable, we didn't break the bank to do it. For Friedman and
Fraley, we gave up one conditional seventh-round pick in 2007 and a reported
conditional late-round pick in 2008. The seventh-rounder for Tucker returned to
the Browns when he was cut before making the final 53-man roster.
If the events of August and early September have revealed one thing, it is
that Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel are not prone to panic. Neither lunged at an
instant solution when centers began dropping like leaves in October. The same
composure that allowed Savage to stare down Ross Verba during his bizarre
2005 contract push, today let him wait out the crisis at center.