I can see the headline now: “Bentley’s Release Haunts Browns As (fill in the blank) Goes Down With Knee Injury.”
As much as you hate to say it, injuries are a part of life in the NFL. Every year it seems like a team loses at least one key player at some point in time.
If indeed that unfortunately does happen to a member of the Browns’ offensive line this year, general manager Phil Savage will be the target of critics from coast to coast for having granted LeCharles Bentley his release on June 11. Bentley’s absence definitely puts a dent in the Browns’ depth.
But let me state for the record right now: If something does happen and the team is devastated by injuries, I will not be one of the second-guessers.
I applaud the decision to release Bentley due in large part to the long hours of rehabilitation Bentley has gone through in working his way back from the original knee injury and the series of health-related problems that have followed.
Bentley would have been an unhappy camper if he had not started, and understandably so. He’s a proud athlete who has done a tremendous job of perfecting his craft.
Make no mistake, current starter Hank Fraley doesn’t have Bentley’s resume by any means. There have, as of yet, been no trips to the Pro Bowl for Fraley. There’s been no free agency windfall for the player acquired from the Philadelphia Eagles for a draft choice on Sept. 2, 2006 after all other efforts failed to fill the hole at center created by Bentley’s training camp injury and backup Bab Hallen’s decision to retire rather than become a full-time player.
But despite Fraley’s humble beginning, which included arriving in the NFL in 2000 as an undrafted free agent and having been released after his rookie camp by the Steelers, it would have been in all probability Fraley listed ahead of Bentley on the depth chart to begin camp this year and, in all likelihood, it would have been Fraley in the opening day lineup when the team opens the regular season at home against the Cowboys on Sept. 7.
That’s because Fraley and company truly developed a great deal of cohesion last season. They grew from a unit that looked like it was playing with ten left feet in the season-opening loss to the Steelers, to one that did everything in its power to give the team a legitimate shot at the playoffs right up until the final week of the season.
Maybe Bentley could have won a starting job at center, or possibly even guard, if given a legitimate chance during the preseason. Then again, maybe not. Maybe Bentley isn’t as close to 100 percent as we have been led to believe. Maybe he will never again be the same player he was prior to his knee injury even if he is fully recovered.
Maybe using him with the starting unit would have somehow hurt the team chemistry. Maybe benching Fraley, who is very much respected by his teammates because of his extremely hard work, would have somehow led to a negative mental impact.
It was just two years ago that Bentley, a Pro Bowl offensive lineman with the New Orleans Saints, was looked upon as the savior who would finally glue together an offensive line that had arguably been the worst in the NFL since the team returned in 1999.
Half-hearted efforts by previous regimes resulted in the Browns never developing or acquiring enough offensive line talent to effectively open holes for the running backs or provide adequate protection for any of the long list of quarterbacks, be it savvy veterans like Trent Dilfer and Jeff Garcia, or youngsters like Tim Couch and Charlie Frye.
Savage’s plan was to build the line around free agent Bentley, a hometown kid who had jumped at the chance to join the team he had followed as a youngster.
Those plans went awry when Bentley went down with a season-ending knee injury on the first day of camp in ’06. Not surprisingly the entire season followed suit as the Browns limped home at 4-12.
Now, just two years removed from Bentley’s devastating injury, Savage and Company have accumulated enough offensive line talent to be a legitimate playoff contender, even without Bentley.
The fact neither Savage nor head coach Romeo Crennel could guarantee Bentley a starting job speaks volumes for the work Savage has done in gathering offensive line talent through the draft, trades and free agency.
Bentley, understandably, didn’t want any part of being an insurance policy, thus asked for and received his release. The fact the Browns granted it to him is a reflection of the quality performance turned in by the offensive line a year ago and the belief that, barring injuries, the talent returning from a year ago will once again be able to get the job done.
Maybe I’m wrong. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time, nor the last. But I’m not about to play Monday morning quarterback with the somewhat controversial decision to release Bentley.
It has often been said that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. And last year, for the first time in more than a decade, the offensive line was not a problem. Rather, it was the answer the team has been searching for since 1999.