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The Next Step Is the Hardest

The Browns missed out on a playoff berth on the last day of the 2007 season, then spent the next eight months working to ensure it didn't happen in '08. SI got an inside look at how a team tries to make the leap from also-ran to contender

IT'S A blusterymid-May day in downtown Cleveland, a day that has a football feel to it—which,for Cleveland, can be any of 365 days a year. This is Browns Town. And thisafternoon at Public Square, there's the added attraction of Braylon Edwards,the star wide receiver, who is shooting a team promo in his number 17 homejersey ... until a well-dressed man, maybe 25, walks into camera range. ¬∂"Dude!" Edwards cries out. "We're filming!" ¬∂ "Sorry,sorry," says the dude. "I just had to tell you, This is our year!"¬∂ Maybe. Cleveland shocked the NFL by winning 10 games in 2007, but as BillParcells tells every team he's ever coached or run, "You never pick upwhere you left off last year." Of the 14 teams that have gone to the SuperBowl between 2000 and '06, for instance, nine failed to even make the playoffsthe next season. ¬∂ But as the Browns enter season 10 of their return to theNFL, it's the first time fans have justifiable playoff expectations. This isn'tto be confused with expansion giddiness or misplaced hope after what turned outto be bad drafts and poorly spent free-agent millions. This is hope founded onCleveland's explosive offense, which scored 25 points a game last year, andyoung stars such as Edwards, who set the franchise record with 16 touchdownreceptions, and general manager Phil Savage's two big February trades thatplugged holes in a leaky defense.

The TV networksnoticed, giving Cleveland five prime-time games in 2008. That's one more thanthe Super Bowl--champion Giants. "I've been waiting to play on Monday NightFootball my whole life," says Edwards. "I've been waiting to look intothe camera and say, 'Braylon Edwards, University of Michigan.' And we've got aMadden game—a Sunday-night game! I can't wait to TiVo the game, go home andhear John Madden say, 'Boom! Look what Braylon Edwards did!'"

Yes, Edwards andhis teammates are on unfamiliar turf. Last year was just the second winning NFLseason in Cleveland since 1994. So SI kept close tabs on the Browns from lastDecember, when they lost out on a playoff berth, to the final preparations fortheir 2008 season, which begins on Sunday with a national-TV game against theNFC powerhouse Cowboys. Some of the optimism surrounding the club iswell-founded, some is built on shaky ground. This is a story of how a longtimeNFL doormat tries to build itself into a playoff team.


THREE HOURS afterCleveland's 2007 season ended with a 20--7 home win over the 49ers, Edwardstried to avoid the 30 family members and friends who filled his house. Hewasn't thinking about that day's victory, which gave the Browns a 10--6 finalrecord, but about the game seven days earlier: Bengals 19, Browns 14. DerekAnderson threw four interceptions that day, and on a third-quarter play thatwould haunt the Cleveland quarterback for months, he checked down to a saferoption and missed a wide-open Edwards in the end zone. The receiver verballysparred with Anderson on the sideline afterward.

Now, as Edwardsshot pool, the Titans were beating the Colts on a TV in the background.Tennessee's victory would give it a 10--6 record and the final AFC playoffspot, by virtue of a tiebreaker over the Browns. All Edwards could think aboutwas how Cleveland had bungled the Cincinnati game. "We didn't deserve it,but the Titans in the playoffs?" he said. "Tampa Bay? The Redskins! Youcan't tell me we couldn't beat the damn Redskins."

Throughout theCleveland area other Browns players and staffers clicked off their televisionsin disgust. Edwards spoke for them all when he said, "I do not want to feelthis way again the rest of my career."


SAVAGE, 43, is anobsessive note taker, scribbling his observations and thoughts during games andmeetings, then later typing them into his office computer. At 5'10 1/2" and160 pounds, he looks more like a former English major and small-collegeshortstop (which he was, at the University of the South) than a career footballcoach, scout and executive. He is, in fact, the quietly daring architect of theBrowns, with complete authority over the 53-man roster he hands to coach RomeoCrennel in September. Savage loves his job, and his fingerprints are all overthis team.

It was animportant day, the start of the annual three-day organizational meetings at theteam's training facility. Pro and college scouts, coaches and trainers gatheredto assess the 2007 season and get Savage's vision of the future. "It was agood season," he began. "We revamped the offensive staff, establishedan offensive identity. Now we have to avoid complacency. We have to finesse andmanage our quarterback situation. I want to focus not only on Pittsburgh andBaltimore and Cincinnati in our division, but also on the rest of theAFC."

The G.M. laid outthese priorities: re-sign power back Jamal Lewis; retain Anderson, a restrictedfree agent, while developing 2007 first-round draft pick Brady Quinn; and fix adefensive front that allowed 4.5 yards per rush in '07.


CORNERBACK LeighBodden, a sixth-year vet, met with Savage and Crennel, looking for a newcontract (he was due $4.47 million over the next two years) or a trade. Thoughlosing Bodden would further weaken a poor secondary, the Browns didn't lovehim. Now they'd have a bargaining chip in any deal for a defensive lineman.


RETURNING FROM theNFL combine in Indianapolis, where, in addition to sizing up draft prospects,he queried other G.M.'s about available veterans, Savage identified twodefensive linemen he has targeted for Crennel's 3--4 scheme. Green Bay wanted ahigh draft choice for relatively unknown end Corey Williams, who's had twostraight seven-sack seasons; Cleveland's mid-second-round pick would be enoughto get him. Detroit's Shaun Rogers, a two-time Pro Bowl nosetackle, was on theblock as well. The book on Rogers: plays great when he wants to; weightfluctuations between 355 and 395; smart guy with a reputation for being nottotally committed to football. Browns staffers checked into Rogers and decidedhe was worth the risk. Savage thought he could get him for Bodden and a third-or fourth-round pick.

Cleveland didn'thave a first-round pick, having used it in 2007 to trade up to draft Quinn. Yetthis raffling of high draft picks was heresy to Savage. To be without a pick inthe first three rounds scared him. To keep his picks and miss out on Williamsand Rogers scared him too.

Savage convenedhis kitchen cabinet: Crennel, assistant head coach Rip Scherer, defensivecoordinator Mel Tucker and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, director ofplayer personnel T.J. McCreight, pro personnel director Steve Sabo and capanalyst Trip MacCracken. "To make the Browns as good as we can be thisyear, we're going to have to sacrifice something—and it could be thedraft," he told his staff. "If we could sign Derek Anderson and tradefor Corey Williams and Shaun Rogers, would we be willing to get rid of Boddenand not draft till the fourth or fifth round?"

All eight men inthe room said yes.

That night Savageoffered Lions president Matt Millen a third-round pick and Bodden forRogers.


THE NEXT morningsome of the Browns' brass were having second thoughts about the offer forRogers. Millen had responded to Savage by saying he had other teams interested,but was that the sort of white lie G.M.'s told when they were trying to getmore out of a deal? "Millen's bluffing," one of Savage's aides toldhim. Late in the day Savage called Millen to say he'd keep Bodden in the tradebut wanted to switch to a lower draft choice.

"We had adeal!" said Millen, who was somewhere between angry and livid. "I won'tdo it for less than that."

Said Savage,"Let me sleep on it."

A restless nightfor Savage: It was as if half of his brain reminded him he had to have Rogersto fix a horrible run defense, and the other half told him a third-rounder andBodden was too much to pay. (And besides, it seemed likely he would getWilliams from Green Bay.) Such decisions define a G.M.'s career. By the timeSavage went to sleep, he felt as if he were paying tricked-out Escalade moneyfor a baseline SUV.


ON HIS WAY towork, Savage called Millen. "It's too much for us," Savage said. "Ithink you're going to have to count us out." He hoped Millen's next wordswould be, "O.K., I'll take a fifth-rounder and Bodden." Theyweren't.

"Don'tworry," Millen said brusquely. "I've got a deal withCincinnati."

Savage's heartsank. Cincinnati! We lost Rogers to a team in our division!

Savage asked whatthe terms were.

"A three and afive," Millen said.

When Savage got tothe office, he was despondent. And fuming. "Because we tried to get toocute, we not only lost this guy, but now we're going have to play him twice ayear!" he told his staff.

But there was ahang-up in the Cincinnati deal over the $1 million bonus Rogers was owed onMarch 1. The Lions wanted Cincinnati to pay it, but the Bengals insisted thatRogers pass his physical first; the Browns had been willing to pay the bonus,no strings attached. At 3 p.m. the NFL said it would not allow the trade to gothrough unless there was a binding agreement on the bonus. The Bengals heldfirm, as did Millen. "If I'm paying him the million, he's playing forus," said Millen, who had another team, the Bills, waiting to trade third-and fifth-round picks for Rogers in case the Cincy deal blew up.

By then Savage wasdesperately trying to reach Millen. He left a cellphone message saying theBrowns would accept the original terms: a three and Bodden for Rogers.

Millen returnedthe call. "Don't go back to Cincinnati," Savage said. "We'll do thedeal right now." Millen said yes, and Rogers was a Brown.

By sunup the nextday Savage had completed trades for Rogers and Williams—filling two big needsbut also eradicating the top of Cleveland's draft—and signed Anderson to athree-year, $24 million deal that had $7 million in bonuses due over the lasttwo years. (Lewis had been given a three-year extension on Feb. 21.) Thus, ifthe quarterback's 2007 season turns out to be a fluke, the Browns will be ableto cut him after a year without taking a huge cap hit.

Now the questionwas, With some big holes still left on the depth chart, could Savage fill themwith four low-round picks?


OVER A St.Patrick's Day lunch at the Brown Jug, a University of Michigan campus hangout,Braylon Edwards, the former Wolverine, picked the brain of one of hisoff-season workout buddies: current Wolverine Michael Phelps. Swimming, Phelpstold him, is the ultimate cardio workout. A light went on over Edwards's head:You can't sprain an ankle in the pool. You can't wear down your joints. Edwardsquizzed Phelps on setting up a workout. "This is what I'll do to stay inshape between minicamp in June and training camp in July," Edwardssaid.


THIS WAS crazy.Instead of huddling with his scouts in Berea and massaging the draft board,Savage hopped a 10 a.m. flight to Baltimore, rented a car, drove 24 miles toPrince George's Community College, and shook hands with one of the mostmarginal prospects in the 2008 draft: outside linebacker Alex Hall of DivisionII St. Augustine's College, in North Carolina.

The draft wasthree days away, and here was Savage, looking at a player he might take in theseventh round or try to sign after the draft as a long-shot free agent. Why?Because he was panning for draft nuggets, and one of his scouts, 25-year-oldBobby Vega, assigned to small colleges in the East and South, told Savage thiswas his top prospect at any position. Savage had watched some video of Hall andseen speed and production (26 sacks in three seasons). But before committing aprecious pick, he needed to see Hall in person.

Savage placed afootball eight yards beyond a line of four cones and asked Hall to high-step,fast, over the cones to the ball. Hall ran, knees high, over the cones and,without being told, accelerated to the ball, scooped it up in full stride andran back. The athleticism stunned Savage. Vega was right. Hall had a chance tofill a void, and he might last till the seventh round.

APRIL 26--27

WITH NO pick onthe first day of the draft, Savage jogged through his Bay Village neighborhoodwest of town. On Day 2 the Browns did not get a cornerback—every one they hadlisted on their draft board had been taken. But as Cleveland's final pick, No.231 overall, approached, Savage called Hall at his Glenarden, Md., home andasked him if he had the TV on. Hall said yes. "Well, look at the bottom ofthe screen," Savage said. "You're going to see your name." In amoment Hall saw it. His family exploded in celebration. Hall said what alldraft picks essentially say: "Now that they're giving me this opportunity,they'll never be able to get me out of there."

MAY 20

THOUGH THE Brownswere talking to a few teams about acquiring a corner, they were trying toconvince themselves they'd be O.K. with a marginal crew of Brandon McDonald andEric Wright as starters and Daven Holly as the nickel, none of whom had been inthe league for more than three years. But during a seven-on-seven drill pittingreceivers against corners, Edwards and Holly both went up high for a passdownfield, and their legs entangled. Edwards came down hard on his right leg,pain shooting through his hip. Holly came down hard on his left foot, bucklinghis knee.

Edwards got up.Holly stayed down. Within an hour Holly, 26, was lying in an MRI tube threemiles away. This was his first major injury, and his mind was racing. Will myspeed be gone? My quickness? I'll come back. I won't come back. I'll be fine.I'll never be the same. For 45 minutes he didn't know what to expect.

Then, in the examroom, team physician Tony Miniaci looked at the MRI and told Holly, "You dohave some ligament damage. We'll have to operate." Holly's stomach hit thefloor. He would miss the season.

Now what were theBrowns going to do? With Tony Romo and Ben Roethlisberger (combined touchdownpasses last year: 68) coming to town the first two weeks of the 2008 season,Cleveland had a crisis at cornerback. The Browns signed Terry Cousin, a veterannickelback who had been released by Jacksonville. It was not how they wanted togo into the season.


THREE NEWadditions impressed the Browns in spring workouts, which culminated in afull-squad minicamp.

Rogers lookedgood. The coaches, in fact, left for summer break somewhat giddy over him. Hewas willing to move from the knifing, pass-rushing tackle in the Lions' 4--3 tothe noseman in Crennel's 3--4, occupying two blockers to free teammates to makeplays. Still an enormous man with one of the biggest heads in NFL history(topped by a Mohawk), he was a good 30 pounds lighter than the player Crennelsaw on 2007 video of the Lions. "I'm not going to lie," Rogers said."I was too heavy last year. The first nine games, I was the Man. After thatI got too heavy. I'm going back to being a force this year."

Wide receiverDonte' Stallworth, dreadlocks flowing from under his helmet, pleased the staffby returning from a family funeral on a red-eye at 6:30 this morning, just sohe could have one day of practice with the first team. "I love theguy," Edwards said of the free-agent pickup. "Derek cannot overthrowhim."

Hall, theseventh-rounder, ran around like a colt, often not knowing what to do but doingit frenetically. Once, Hall, wearing number 96, and third-year rush specialistKamerion Wimbley, number 95, were attacking the passer at the same time. Whenscouts watched tape of the play later, one of them said, "If you didn'tknow Wimbley was 95 and Alex 96, it'd be hard to tell which was which."


THANK YOU, MichaelPhelps. In the second week of his pool workouts at Michigan, Edwards alternatedtrack drills in the water—high-knee, hurdler motion mostly—with swimming laps.One day track, the next day freestyle; one day track, the next daybreaststroke; one day track, the next day butterfly.

Edwards was surethis was taking his fitness to another level. So he and Phelps made a friendlywager. "For every gold you win in Beijing," Edwards told the Olympian,"I've got to score two touchdowns this year."


IF ONLY IT werethis easy in the NFL. Derek Anderson, in his postcard setting of a hometown,with Mount Hood looming to the east, is playing a game of team keep-away at theDerek Anderson Football Camp at Scappoose High. Kids running and jumping andcavorting; the NFL quarterback motioning and yelling, "Go deep!" toeight-year-olds, then airing it out and afterward signing autographs for everyparent and child and hanger-on for an hour. "Derek's made for this,"said his dad, Glenn, watching from the sideline.

But is he made forleading a team to the NFL playoffs? Drafted by the Ravens in the sixth round in2005, the former Oregon State star has gone from being a Baltimorepractice-squadder to going on waivers to fighting for a spot on the Brownsroster to being Cleveland's surprise starter. In '07 only four quarterbacksthrew more touchdown passes than his 29; only eight had more passing yards thanhis 3,787. In the off-season Scherer, the assistant head coach, worked hard ongetting Anderson to look to his left rather than immediately locking onto thereceivers on his right. Watching 2007 game tape, Scherer grilled Andersonwhenever the passer made a mistake.

At a restaurantacross from Scappoose High, Anderson settled into a side table and talked aboutthe mistake he can't forget, that Week 16 pass against the Bengals. It wasearly in the third quarter, and the Browns trailed 19--0 with third-and-sevenat the Cincinnati 20. Edwards ran a post-corner route, sprinting on a diagonalto the goalpost, then cutting to the corner of the end zone. Anderson wassupposed to wait for Edwards to come open, but when the corner went in front ofthe receiver, Anderson, instead of giving Edwards one more split second to getfree, checked down and threw to Joe Jurevicius at the nine. That was enough fora first down, but Edwards, who ended up running free in the end zone, wasmiffed.

"Next play Ithrew an interception in the back of the end zone," Anderson said."Instead of throwing the TD and we're back in it, we're still way down. Ikill myself for that throw to this day."

The following weekagainst the 49ers, Savage wrote this note to himself as he watched Anderson inthe Browns' last game of the season: 3's a little shaky, not as confident. Thefive games in December came down like a hammer on Anderson, who had a 53.1%completion rate, seven touchdowns and eight interceptions that month. Though itappears the players and coaches and front office are very happy to have theirpasser back this year, Anderson has to overcome that mediocre December andfinish the season strong to convince people he's a long-term, winning NFLquarterback. "Last year we just came out swinging and established anidentity," Edwards said of the offense. "This is the year we see ifDerek makes the passes under pressure and on Monday Night Football."

It's onlyCleveland's season that rides on Anderson. "We've got to validate what wedid last year," he says. "I've got to play football the way I know how.I can't play timid."


"FELLAS, YOUhaven't done anything yet," Crennel told his players at the start oftraining camp. "You haven't won a division. You haven't made the playoffs.Before you buy into all this hype about how great you are, just remember this:You've got five national-TV games this year. If you fail, they'll tear you downfaster than they've built you up."

Twenty-fivehundred fans showed up for the first workout. Four minutes in, a chant arosethat told the Browns all they needed to know about those fans' expectations:"Su-per Bowl! Su-per Bowl!"

"This could bea special year," said former NFL great Jim Brown, 72, a team adviser, whowatched practice from a golf cart. "I love this team. I love being backhere to share the adventure."

The first reviewswere upbeat. Rogers weighed in at 359 and spent part of the afternoon practiceoverpowering the middle of the offensive line. Williams, at left end, showedmore quickness in pads than the coaches thought he had. Wimbley, whom Tuckerhad been working with, exploded off the line. Anderson's primaryweapons—Edwards, Stallworth, Lewis, tight end Kellen Winslow—were all togetherfor only the second day since the 2007 season ended, and Winslow, angling for anew contract, looked fast and powerful coming off the line as a tight end or aslot receiver.

At dinner thatnight Savage was beaming. "When camp opened three years ago I put on ahappy face but knew we'd get our teeth kicked in," he said. "Two yearsago the big free agent we signed, LeCharles Bentley, went down for the year onthe first play of training camp, and it was like pulling a piece of thread on acheap suit. Last year it was the drumbeat of whether Romeo would [last throughthe season as coach]. This year what I'm concerned about is not getting ourplayers hurt before our first game. We can compete."


IS THERE NO end tothe bad news for the secondary? The Browns learned that cornerback Gary Baxter,the big-money 2005 free agent who was to come back from double knee surgery 22months ago, needed another operation, this one arthroscopic. The Brownsprepared to waive him. "Heartbreaking," Savage said. Baxter was abeacon of hope in his bid to return from having shredded the patella tendons ineach knee on a play in Week 6 of 2006. His new injury and pending surgeryturned the atmosphere at camp funereal.

But the show mustgo on, and one of the corners scheduled to start, Wright, was at least talkinga good game. "I hope teams want to come after us," he said. "We'llbe ready."

Oh, teams will becoming after Wright and McDonald. Rapidly, however, the safety net under themwas disappearing.


ANOTHER LATE nightfor Edwards, who was captivated by the swimming in Beijing. The previous night,he had left a screaming message for Phelps after his friend won the 100-meterbutterfly by a fingertip for his seventh gold medal. On this night, nearmidnight, Phelps called Edwards from Beijing soon after he won his final goldmedal and reminded him of their bet. "I got eight," Phelps said,"so that means you've got to get 16 touchdowns this year."

"Newsflash," Edwards said. "I did that last year. I'll give you 17."


"My God,"Ron Jaworski, the ESPN analyst working the Giants-Browns preseason telecast,said during a first-half commercial break. "We've got these guys [on Mondaynight] three times this year!" He was reacting to what he had seen in thefirst 17 minutes: Wright had been beaten badly twice by the less-than-immortalDomenik Hixon; Anderson had flubbed a goal line handoff to Lewis that theGiants recovered and ran back for a touchdown; Anderson had been steamrolledand suffered a concussion when his protection broke down; punter Dave Zastudilhad booted the ball into one of his blockers for a safety; and the Giants hadreturned the ensuing free kick for a touchdown. New York led 30--3 after barelya quarter of play.

Crennel fumed.Players shrugged. "It's the preseason," said Savage. "You neverknow what it means."

The next daySavage traded a seventh-round pick to the Dolphins for nickelback TravisDaniels, which was like sandbagging a flood. Imagine what Romo and TerrellOwens were thinking about the season opener as they watched Eli Manning strafethe Browns' secondary.


WITH LINEBACKERWillie McGinest nursing a strained groin, the Browns promoted Hall to the firstteam for the time being. Later, as they do three or four times a week, Crenneland Mel Tucker met to dissect the defense position by position. "The guywho keeps showing up is Hall," Crennel said. "He can rush, and he keepsshowing an ability to cover that I didn't expect from a kid who didn't have todo that in college."

"He's afootball player," Tucker said. "The game's not too big forhim."

"Give him morechances," Crennel said.

Both men wishedthey had such a solution for the secondary. "We need them to grow up,"Crennel said of the defensive backs, with a hint of resignation in his voice."I hope Monday's a wake-up call for Eric, because in this league they'regoing to keep coming at you."


BACK AT CAMP theday after another embarrassing loss, this one in Detroit, Savage told Crennelthat what happened in the preseason games shouldn't shake the solid foundationthe coaches and staff had built. Eight starters (including Anderson, Edwardsand Lewis) were among the 15 players who missed the Lions game because ofinjuries. And though Brady Quinn produced only six points in six sputteringpossessions against the Lions, he most likely wouldn't be needed when the realgames began; Anderson had assured the staff that the mild concussion he'dsuffered against the Giants wouldn't prevent him from playing on Sept. 7.

"The Giantslose [Osi] Umenyiora for the year. [Tom] Brady and [Peyton] Manning haven'teven played yet," Savage told Crennel, adding that the Patriots had lookedawful in losing their first three preseason games. "Nobody knows anythingright now. Let's just get through this week and get to the Dallas week healthy.The preseason's a mirage. We'll be fine."

Said Edwards, ashe prepared to return to action after cutting his foot in a fluke practiceaccident two weeks earlier, "When I come back, I'll provide energy,swagger, playmaking. The preseason sucks. We all know that. We're preparing forDallas, not these games."


AFTER A fairlypainless cutdown to the final roster, Savage scouted the Boston College--KentState game at Browns Stadium. Putting down his binoculars for a moment, heconsidered whether his team was fortified enough to win its first divisiontitle since 1989.

"This is goingto be a grinder of a season," he said. "Our schedule's tougher, and noteam in our division will be able to win five, six games in a row. I felt sogood about our team before camp that I knew we'd be fine, as long as we didn'tget any of the injuries that can kill a team, and we didn't. Now it's theopening kickoff. I think we're ready."

Savage, his staffand his players believe the Browns are talented enough to win the AFC North,but they also realize they could crash and burn if Anderson is erratic, Rogersdisappoints and the corners don't step up. That's the fascination of earlySeptember in the NFL and the reason why, from the dude on Public Square("This is our year!") to the hounds in the Dawg Pound, all of Clevelandwill be in full throat when the season starts on Sunday.


Wall-to-wall Week 1 coverage—Dr. Z's picks, Don Banks's Snap Judgments, PeterKing's Monday Morning Quarterback and more.


Photograph by Sports Age/Icon SMI

IN THE RUNNING Young, hungry stars created major buzz in Cleveland, and off-season acquisitions added to the optimism—but the preseason suggested plenty of work still remained.



MAN IN THE MIDDLE Savage, the G.M., was at the center of the Browns' off-season maneuvering, which focused primarily on shoring up his team's defensive weaknesses.



MEN ON THE MARGINS Hall (left), a 2008 seventh-round pick from tiny St. Augustine's College, shows pass-rush promise, and Wright is being counted on in a decimated secondary.



[See caption above]



A TEST OF METTLE After a rocky December marked by bad decisions in a Week 16 loss to the Bengals, Anderson must prove he can handle pressure and win the big games.



BEEFING UP THE 3-4 Defensive line coach Randy Melvin worked new run-stuffers Rogers (92) and Williams (99) into the scheme along with rush specialist Wimbley (left).



STAGE FRIGHT The Browns have five national TV games this year but hardly looked ready for prime time in a poor preseason performance against Hixon's Giants.



GET IT IN WRITING Forget the preseason, says Edwards—Week 1 against Dallas will begin the true test of how the 2008 Browns measure up against massive expectations.