FOUR HOURS intothe 2007 season, Phil Savage pulled his car out of the Cleveland Browns Stadiumparking lot and into city traffic, sharing the streets with the sullen, thefatalistic and the downright livid. The routine had become familiar to Savagesince he took over as general manager of the Browns in 2005: Watch the teamlose, head downstairs and drive past fans in their Tim Couch and Courtney Brownjerseys, ancient reminders of a franchise's mistakes still raw to the touch. ¬∂On his drive home following Cleveland's 34--7 blowout loss to the PittsburghSteelers on Sept. 9, his cellphone rang several times with calls from reporterswondering where this year's ragtag team was headed and when coach Romeo Crennelwould be fired. Savage responded that the Browns were not on the brink of acollapse, throaty protestations of the fan base notwithstanding.
"Some ofthose guys were ready to walk the plank," Savage says now, reflecting onthe fans' opening day frustration. "They have just taken so much grief. Theteam left, then the team comes back and it's not that good. Then Romeo and Iget here, and we're like, You can't blame us for all that, just give us achance. I think we're starting to gain the trust of the public again as anorganization. And the exciting thing is, I don't even think we're close towhere we could be when we get everything in place."
Eight years afterthey returned to the Lake Erie shoreline, the Browns are stirring the ghosts ofa star-crossed franchise with rangy receivers, a powerful blue-collar runnerand a quarterback who plays loose when the game is tight. On Sunday at theirhome park the Browns launched themselves into the heart of the AFC playoffpicture with a 27--17 victory over the Houston Texans, raising their record to7--4 and adding to their goodwill in a town that has been tempted and torturedthrough the decades.
Whether it wasbad luck, bad personnel moves or big, bad John Elway, the Browns of yesteryearcould always be counted on for the spectacular flameout. Now, in 2007, theyhave patented the heart-stopping comeback. Clevelanders raised on tales of theDrive are now taking comfort in Derek Anderson's right arm. Fans oncefrightened by memories of the Fumble are talking endlessly about Phil Dawson'sright leg, which two Sundays ago at Baltimore uncorked a bank shot off the leftupright and the crossbar support to send the game into overtime and set up a33--30 win.
Sure, so historysays Couch rarely got into a groove after being chosen first overall in 1999,and Brown rarely got out of the training room after being taken first in 2000.Those guys are gone, and maybe, so is that karma. An organization that wasburied when owner Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore in 1996 andreborn in northern Ohio when the NFL granted the city an expansion team may becoming of age after nearly a decade of growing pains.
"Every yearthe roster was getting blown up," says Dawson, the only player who has beenwith the Browns since their rebirth. "Phil Savage has come in with a plan.We have a head coach who makes it clear what he wants to accomplish with asimple, straightforward approach. You can see the building blocks. We have agroup of guys who are starting to jell, and it's exciting."
Savage, who whileon the Ravens' staff had a hand in constructing Baltimore's 2000 Super Bowlteam, and Crennel, the defensive coordinator for Bill Belichick's threechampionship teams in New England, have put together an interesting brew ofyouth and veterans (chart, page 36), many of whom play football as if they havea score to settle. Kellen Winslow, who caught 10 passes for 107 yards and atouchdown against Houston, has returned from a broken right fibula in '04 and amotorcycle crash in '05 to become one of the league's top tight ends. BraylonEdwards, two years after sustaining a season-ending right knee injury as arookie, has 55 receptions for 894 yards and 11 touchdowns. Rookie left tackleJoe Thomas has been a starter from the outset, helping solidify the offensiveline. The roster even has room for past Super Bowl champions such as runningback Jamal Lewis and linebacker Willie McGinest, players buying into thefranchise with all of its history, including the heartbreak.
"These fansgive us a lot," says McGinest, who signed with Cleveland last year afterwinning three rings with the Patriots. "They've been bleeding brown a longtime before any of us got here."
IF GRADY SIZEMORErepresents Cleveland's heart and LeBron James the town's soul, Derek Andersonis just finding his place in the city's sports psyche. He entered the season asa backup quarterback but was on the field by the second quarter of the opener,after Charlie Frye had performed disastrously. Frye was traded to Seattle for asixth-round pick two days later, and Anderson became the No. 1. Hisrecollection of the days leading to his Week 2 start against Cincinnati reflectthe straightforward way such momentous business is transacted in the NFL.
"The coachescame up to me and said, 'Hey, it's going to be your deal, go take it, don'tlook back,'" Anderson says.
A sixth-roundpick of the Ravens in 2005, Anderson spent last summer in Salem, Ore.,preparing for the competition with Frye and Brady Quinn, whom the team drafted22nd overall in April. He spent mornings doing sprints and lifting weights withhis best friend and former teammate at Oregon State, Bill Swancutt. Afternoonsincluded long study sessions with the Browns playbook.
In his firststart of the season Anderson threw for 328 yards and five touchdowns in a51--45 win over the Bengals, and he has unfurled additional magic since. Themore he wins, and the more his rapport with the offense grows, the more hisvalue rises, not only in Cleveland but also around the league. The 24-year-oldAnderson, whom Savage picked up on waivers from Baltimore in September 2005,will be a restricted free agent after this season, and the Browns have severalchoices regarding his future.
They could signhim to a long-term deal. They could give him the league's highest tender(approximately $2.5 million for 2008), meaning another team wanting to sign himwould have to give the Browns a first- and a third-round pick. They could putthe franchise tag on Anderson—which would mean paying him an average of theleague's top five quarterback salaries—and force another club to turn over twofirst-round picks to sign him. Or they could hand the reins to the highlytouted Quinn, 23, as the Chargers did with Philip Rivers in '06 when theydidn't re-sign Drew Brees.
"We're kindof letting the situation play itself out," Savage says. "I think it's alittle different [from the San Diego scenario]. With Brady being the 22nd pick[Rivers was taken No. 4 overall in 2004], we have not paid an exorbitant amountof money for a backup quarterback, if indeed he became a backup. This is thefirst time the Browns have had legitimate depth at the position, and we'd liketo hold on to it for a while."
When Anderson wasasked after Sunday's game about leading Cleveland beyond 2007, he said, "Itry not to get caught up in it. If we continue to win and do the right things,the outside stuff will take care of itself. I'm really happy right now to be apart of it, and with Braylon, Kellen, the guys on the O-line, we have somereally good pieces that have pushed us over the edge and made ussuccessful."
WITH ANDERSONwinging passes to Winslow over the middle, Joe Jurevicius in the flat andEdwards down the sideline, what is a defense to do? Lewis, who has beenbursting through gaps in the line, says that in Baltimore he never played on anoffense with such versatility. "The way we open up things offensively, itjust spreads a defense out," says the 28-year-old Lewis, whom Savage signedto a one-year, $3.5 million free-agent contract (which could rise to $5 millionwith incentives) last March. "No more eight in a box, which is what I sawfor the last seven years [with the Ravens]. I'm seeing these holes, and I'msaying, 'Is that really there?' This is the time of year when it's cold anddefenses wear down and don't want to tackle. It's my time of year."
The holes werethere on Sunday to the tune of 134 yards on 29 carries, including a one-yardtouchdown in the fourth quarter that put Cleveland up 27--10 with 5:48 left inthe game.
Crennel wasn'thappy that Houston came right back and scored on the next drive, the sort ofdefensive lapse his team has suffered too often this season. Why talk about theplayoffs when there is more work to do? "We have a tendency to get aheadand then relax," says Crennel. "We let the other team come back. We'regoing to have to fix that."
The way thingsare going, Crennel will have time both this year and beyond to work on it. TheBrowns are well-stocked for the future and have a favorable stretch to closethis season. They travel to Arizona and the Jets in consecutive weeks, hostBuffalo, play at Cincinnati, and finish at home against San Francisco. Whilerunning the table is a long shot, none of those opponents have a winningrecord. The Browns, who've been to the playoffs just once since returning tothe NFL, are in the driver's seat for a wild-card berth; the AFC North title isnot out of the question.
The players sayCrennel, who was 10--22 in his first two seasons, has never lost faithregardless of the score on the board or the rumblings in the streets. "He'salways been a good coach," says McGinest, who played for Crennel in NewEngland. "He just deserved a chance to show it. I think a lot of peoplewere prejudging him. It's a tough job being a coach in this league. Even withthe Patriots, when Belichick got there, we didn't just take over. It takes timeto get everything you want into play."
Says Savage,"People want instant coffee, microwaves and throwaway razors—people want itnow."
Judging by thelooks on the faces on Sunday, people in Cleveland—even the ones in the old TimCouch and Courtney Brown jerseys—are finally getting what they want.
Before thearrival of Phil Savage as general manager in January 2005, the reborn Brownshad become notorious for disastrous personnel moves. Savage, formerly thedirector of player personnel for the Ravens, has turned that reputation on itshead, building this year's surprise contender through deft drafting—includingthe selection of Braylon Edwards (above) in 2005—canny free-agent signings andthe discovery of some valuable castoffs from other teams. Here's how Savageconstructed Cleveland's 2007 starting lineup.
"Some of those guys were ready to walk theplank," Savage says of the fans. "We're starting to Gain the trust ofthe public."
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OPEN SEASON Thanks to stout blocking and a diverse offense, Lewis (31) is finding more holes in Cleveland than he did in recent years with Baltimore.
HIDDEN GEM Picked off the Baltimore scrap heap, Anderson seemed destined for a backup's career—until this year.
SOLDIER'S STORY His injury woes behind him, Winslow is helping to carry the fight to opposing defenders.
STRONG FRONT Guard Ryan Tucker (left) and center Hank Fraley provide veteran experience on the offensive line.