The 2009 season was one to forget for tight end Robert Royal -- except for the unselfish way he blocked. That willingness and ability to block might be what saves Royal's job this year.
Royal was the first free agent signed in the Eric Mangini era. Seven days earlier Mangini traded Kellen Winslow Jr. to Tampa Bay. He needed a tight end to replace Winslow and targeted Royal, who caught 33 passes in 2008 with Buffalo. It wasn't a Winslow-like total, but Mangini as head coach of the Jets coached against Royal for three years. He was convinced Royal would be at least adequate catching the ball for the Browns.
Royal was terrible as a receiver last year, or maybe it's better to say he had terrible luck.
The ring finger on Royal's right hand was dislocated on the first day of training camp. It looked like a crooked stick when he tried to point with it. Next the ring finger on his left hand was dislocated and then the same thing happened to the index finger on his right hand.
Because of all the injuries, Royal taped the ring finger and little finger of his right hand together, the index and middle fingers of his right hand together and the ring finger and little finger of his left hand together.
Royal caught 11 passes last season, his fewest since catching eight with the Redskins in 2004.
"I had so many fingers taped together I was like a lobster trying to catch the football," Royal said.
In a year, Royal has gone from being the No. 1 tight end to a guy trying to make the team. Benjamin Watson and Evan Moore are ahead of him. Alex Smith, a third-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2005, is competing with Royal for the third and perhaps last tight end spot.
Fortunately for Royal, his fingers healed without surgery to the point where they are almost straight. Consequently he is catching the ball better. He still tapes the ring finger and little finger of his right hand together.
"He has good hands," Mangini said. "I saw that when he played in Buffalo. He's made a lot of nice plays in camp. I look forward to him getting more opportunities in the preseason games.
"He's very consistent as a blocker. He can play in line on the line of scrimmage. He can be off the line as a move guy. He's been in the backfield some when we've done that and I like that about him as well. He's a great communicator. He's really funny."
Royal's phone rang around 3 a.m. on Dec. 21 last year. It was Jerome Harrison. Twelve hours earlier Harrison set a Browns single-game record when he rushed for 286 yards against the Chiefs in Arrowhead Stadium.
"I called Rob and had to thank him for the way he blocked that day," Harrison said, pausing on his way to the locker room when he saw Royal being interviewed. "Then I had to call him every week about two or three in the morning after that."
Royal remembers exactly what he told Harrison.
"It was good to finally hear some inspiring words for the rough season I had," Royal smiled and said as Harrison walked away. "It was kind of touching. I told him if he made me cry like that in front of my girl at the time I'd hurt him."
Player & Personnel Notes
--In the wake of the firestorm created when Tony Dungy criticized Jets coach Rex Ryan for swearing on HBO's "Hard Knocks," Browns coach Eric Mangini was asked whether he would hire a coach who uses profanity.
"I don't always have the best language," Mangini said. "I've been around some guys that don't have the best language. I'm not saying that's right or wrong.
"My mom would probably call me, too, if she heard some of the things that were said. I don't know. I don't think I'm in a position to judge anybody else's language."
--Former cornerback Gary Baxter had nothing but bad luck in the two seasons (2005-06) he played for the Browns. His career ended when he jumped to defend a pass in a game against the Broncos. When he jumped he tore both patellar tendons.
Baxter tried valiantly to make a comeback, but failed and eventually retired. He visited training camp recently and wore a broad smile.
"I'm doing great," he said. "My knees feel fine."
Baxter said he and a business partner own 26 Burger King Restaurants in Texas.
--The return of rookie running back Montario Hardesty has been put on hold.
Hardesty was supposed to start practicing last week. Now Mangini is saying that might happen Tuesday. Hardesty's knee injury, which did not require surgery, has not healed sufficiently.
"He's in the next phase of rehab," Mangini said before the Browns played the Rams. "He's doing a lot more active stuff this week."
--Rookie cornerback Joe Haden has an unusually tattoo on his right biceps -- Mighty Mouse soaring into the sky with a football tucked under one arm and a basketball under the other.
"I have big ears and so does Mighty Mouse," Haden said.
Quote to Note:
"It's still early. I'll reserve judgment. I'm not good at evaluating, anyway."
-- Kicker Phil Dawson on the Browns' preseason.
Strategy and Personnel
What was supposed to be a battle to start at right guard isn't a battle any more. A knee injury to Floyd Womack means rookie Shawn Lauvao is winning the job by default.
"Pork Chop (Womack) is going to miss the rest of the preseason and then we will take it from there. It's just some knee issues that he has had," Coach Eric Mangini said
Sources said Womack underwent surgery, but Mangini would not confirm that.
The injury put the Browns in a bind for their game against the Rams because Lauvao was excused to be in his native Hawaii for personal reasons. With Womack and Lauvao unable to play, Billy Yates started at right guard and allowed a sack.
--Eric Wright was back as the starting left cornerback vs. the Rams after missing the preseason opener against the Packers. He made five tackles and broke up a pass.
--Twelfth-year linebacker David Bowens plans on returning to practice Tuesday. He has been out for 10 days with a left knee injury. When he wasn't practicing he was a quasi-coach.
--The injury to MLB D'Qwell Jackson forced Mangini to move Scott Fujita inside. Marcus Benard has replaced Fujita outside.
--Chansi Stuckey has taken a commanding lead in a bid to be the slot receiver. He caught three passes against the Rams.
--Safety Ray Ventrone is a key player on special teams, but he has been getting more practice time from scrimmage. Mangini wants him to throttle it down a little.
Battle of the Week
Brandon McDonald vs. Gerard Lawson -- The Browns are trying to settle on a sixth defensive back. Lawson seems to have worked his way out of the doghouse for getting a DUI. He can return punts. McDonald is a feisty competitor, but he was beaten for a touchdown pass in the preseason game vs. the Rams. Lawson is torched in practice.
Other Battle Fronts -- Titus Brown vs. Kaluka Maiava for backup inside linebacker; Billy Yates vs. Pat Murray for backup center.
Player of the Week
Josh Cribbs -- Cribbs had a rare fumble on a punt return in the game against the Rams, but he made up for it by catching a touchdown pass as he was spinning and falling away from quarterback Seneca Wallace. Cribbs has improved dramatically as a wide receiver this training camp.
First-round cornerback Joe Haden practiced as the starting left cornerback last week while Eric Wright mended from a hamstring pull. Wright started against the Rams and then went to the slot in the sub defense. Haden was on the left corner...Second round safety T.J. Ward had three tackles and a pass break-up against the Rams ... Second round running back Montario Hardesty has been out all camp with a knee injury ... Colt McCoy is taking his lumps. The third-round quarterback played two series vs. the Rams. He was sacked twice, threw two incompletions and scrambled out of bounds for two yards on third-and-10...Third round guard Shawn Lauvao was excused from practice last week and the Rams game for personal reasons...Fifth-round safety Larry Asante is getting little laying time...Two passes were thrown to sixth-round wide receiver Carlton Mitchell in the Rams game. He did not catch either. One bounced off his chest ... Sixth-round defensive end Clifton Geathers is third on the depth chart on the right side.
T Tony Pashos has missed two weeks with a shoulder injury. He is expected to resume practice this week. ...Linebacker David Bowens (left knee) says he will resume practice Tuesday. He missed the first two preseason games. ... RB Montario Hardesty (knee) might practice this week. ...DL Shaun Rogers (foot), DL C.J. Mosley (ankle) and CB Coye Francies (unspecified) are still on P.U.P.