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It's another season of change as Cleveland Browns approach opening of training camp: Analysis

Published: Sunday, July 18, 2010, 7:30 AM

Tony Grossi, The Plain Dealer


CLEVELAND, Ohio — In 14 days, the Browns will walk onto the field in Berea for their first practice of training camp. It's the official beginning of another new era. In a strange twist, the only major component remaining from last season is the coaching staff.


There's a new president (Mike Holmgren), a new general manager (Tom Heckert), three new quarterbacks, new running backs and a new tight end, plus potentially a totally revamped defensive secondary.


When the Browns were last on the field completing coach Eric Mangini's off- season program with a minicamp in June, the team was brimming with optimism about building off the four-game winning streak that ended last season.


Hello, my name is . . .

For the first time in memory, the Browns are breaking in three new quarterbacks at the same time. Former Carolina Panthers folk hero Jake Delhomme ($7 million in guarantees in 2010) is the starter. Seneca Wallace, Holmgren's quarterback insurance blanket for seven seasons in Seattle, is the backup and potential trigger of a new gimmick package with Josh Cribbs. The young hope is Texas farm boy and Longhorns record-holder Colt McCoy, who, remember, was not drafted in the third round to play in 2010, according to Holmgren. The lone holdover at the position is Brett Ratliff, a Mangini prodigy from the Jets who disappointed his coach with a poor preseason in 2009. Whoever is introduced on opening day -- barring something unforeseen, bank on Delhomme -- will be the team's ninth different Game 1 starter in 12 seasons.


Running back by committee . . .

Despite smashing two franchise records, posting the third-highest rushing game in NFL history and totaling 561 yards in his last three games last season, Jerome Harrison probably begins camp as the No. 2 back behind rookie Montario Hardesty. The second-round pick from Tennessee took advantage of Harrison's absence from most of the off-season practices and impressed coaches with his running ability, instincts and knowledge of the position. Newcomer Peyton Hillis, acquired in the Brady Quinn trade with Denver, also figures in the mix. Considering Hardesty's well-chronicled knee problems, the Browns are likely to follow the NFL trend of using multiple backs. But somebody has to be the feature back and Hardesty and Harrison should battle for the role.


Receivers who are 3s and 4s . . .

No position on the Browns gets less respect externally than wide receiver. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has used it as motivation, referring to the receiving corps of Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Robiskie, Josh Cribbs and Chansi Stuckey as a bunch of "3s and 4s," meaning, nobody regards them as No. 1 or No. 2 receivers on a contending team. Daboll was on the New England staff when similarly regarded Deion Branch, David Givens and Troy Brown helped take the Patriots to a Super Bowl championship. After months of perusing the list of unsigned veterans, the team recently added Bobby Engram, 37, who started on Holmgren's Super Bowl team in Seattle.


Righting the offensive line . . .

The quest to form a solid offensive front from left to right seemingly is endless. After doling out big bucks in free agency in 2009 to veterans Floyd Womack and John St. Clair, the Browns made two more additions this year. They signed ex-Raven Tony Pashos in free agency and drafted Arizona State's Shawn Lauvao in the third round. Pashos was signed to start at right tackle. Lauvao will compete with Womack to start at right guard. Left guard Eric Steinbach, one of a handful of NFL starting offensive linemen under 300 pounds and thought to be a potential casualty because of a $5.75 million salary, would appear to be safe another year. The absence of a salary cap certainly helps Steinbach.


Suspensions on defensive line looming . . .

In the span of five months, end Robaire Smith and nose tackle Shaun Rogers were arrested in separate incidents for having a loaded gun in a bag in an airport. Each could face NFL suspensions under terms of the league personal conduct policy. The league is reviewing the cases. One or both could miss a game or two. If both are suspended, depth in the early games can be a problem -- unless rookie behemoths Clifton Geathers and Kwaku Danso defy the odds and develop quickly in training camp.


Shakeup at linebacker . . .

Last year's starters in Game 1 were Kamerion Wimbley, Eric Barton, D'Qwell Jackson and David Bowens. A year later, who would have guessed Bowens would be the only one to retain his status on the team? Wimbley was traded to Oakland, Barton's playing future is uncertain after a neck injury and Jackson's playing time could be in danger. With an emphasis on "position versatility," the names to watch are Matt Roth, Scott Fujita, Chris Gocong and Jason Trusnik. There are also three developmental LBs entering their second season -- David Veikune, Kaluka Maiava and Marcus Benard. This position forms the nucleus of the linebacker-centric defensive system of Mangini and coordinator Rob Ryan.


More than a secondary concern . . .

In 2009, the Browns were a respectable seventh in sacks per pass play and 29th in interceptions. Translation: The secondary was unbearably bad. Whoosh! In came Heckert-favorite Sheldon Brown from Philadelphia and three picks in the draft -- cornerback Joe Haden in the first round and safeties T.J. Ward and Larry Asante in the second and fifth rounds. Actions speak loudly. All the newcomers are being counted on to contribute immediately. Returning safeties Abram Elam and Mike Adams will warm their seats until Ward and Asante are ready. Haden -- if he's as good as Heckert believes -- could challenge Eric Wright for a starting job fairly soon. Forget about seeing Brown, 30, converted full time to safety. That's not going to happen.


Stop the drama . . .

Rookie contract holdouts are always a possibility, but they seem woefully out of date in these tough economic times, especially with the league embroiled in a global labor dispute that could prompt an owners' lockout in 2011. No doubt, Haden will be the last Browns' draft pick to sign. No matter how much time in camp he may miss, he's not going to hold up the team's development. Kicker Phil Dawson, who has been unhappy with his contract situation, elected not to boycott the mandatory minicamp in June, so it's doubtful he would do so at training camp -- where team fines can be greater. The absence of a quarterback "competition" should be a refreshing change.


Keep the dates . . .

First team practice open to the public: July 31, 8:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m.

Practices closed to public: Aug. 3, Aug. 8, Aug. 11, Aug. 18.

First look in simulated game: Aug. 7, Family Day Scrimmage at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Parking is $5 in Port Authority Lots, but no ticket is needed to get inside

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Published: Sunday, July 18, 2010, 6:00 AM

Terry Pluto, The Plain Dealer






1. Desperately needing a break from All LeBron, All the Time, I was wondering if the Browns actually could stop the run this season. Since they returned in 1999, their average rank against the run is . . . 29! That's also what they ranked last season. They have never ranked higher than 23rd (2003), the next best being 27th. In the past six years, the rankings are 29-28-27-29-30-32. How's that for consistency?


2. Can this change? Hey, why not? Hey, D'Qwell Jackson forced the first fumble of his four-year pro career in 2009, so anything is possible. (That note comes from dawgsbynature.com.) The possibility that Jackson won't be doing heavy duty is a reason to believe the run defense could improve.


3. It starts on the line, where Ahtyba Rubin made an impact at nose tackle after Shaun Rogers was injured. If Rogers can adapt to playing one of the ends in the 3-4 defense -- with Rubin in the middle and Robaire Smith at the other end -- that has to be positive. It's especially true as the Browns have some depth on the line with veterans Kenyon Coleman and C.J. Mosley. While some fans are high on seventh-rounder Cliff Geathers, free agent Brian Schaefering is more likely to help on the line.


4. In Eric Mangini's three years with the Jets, they ranked 7-29-24 against the run. So he and defensive coordinator Rob Ryan need to find a way to make the mass of linebackers effective. Last season, they started Eric Barton, David Bowens, Kamerion Wimbley and Jackson at linebacker. This season, Bowens may be the only starter in that group. They added veterans Scott Fujita, Chris Gocong and Matt Roth (who played only six games in 2009). They have Jason Trusnik, Marcus Benard and David Veikune, who the Browns say is progressing.


5. I know none of the linebackers is Clay Matthews or even Galen Fiss. But when the Browns started Bowens at inside linebacker with Rubin at nose tackle last season, the run defense improved. In the final five games with those two in the lineup, the Browns allowed 44 fewer yards on the ground than they did in the first 11 games. Even more important, they gave up 13 rushing touchdowns in the first 11 games -- but only two in the final five.


6. Yes, you can say the vast improvement of the Browns' running game with Jerome Harrison in the final weeks helped the defense by keeping it off the field. But the Browns' defense still had to keep the opposition out of the end zone.


7. Another reason the run defense should be better is that Sheldon Brown, a solid tackler, will start at cornerback instead of Brandon McDonald, a terrible tackler. First-rounder Joe Haden is supposed to be a strong tackler at cornerback. Rookie safeties Larry Asante and T.J. Ward are supposed to be run-stoppers.


8. Yes, there are a lot of "supposed to be's" in this analysis, but the Browns at least have more players on defense for coaches to employ. As last season progressed, Ryan used more variety on defense with as many as six linebackers on the field. All of this has to add up to a better ranking than 29th against the run, doesn't it? Please?

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Pittsburgh Steelers are on a steady decline:

Tony Grossi's AFC North preview


The Steelers are hoping QB Byron Leftwich can keep them afloat until Ben Roethlisberger returns from a six-game suspension.

As NFL training camps prepare to open next week, Plain Dealer pro football and Browns beat reporter Tony Grossi takes a closer look at Cleveland's rivals in the AFC North Division. No team in the AFC North suffered a worse off-season than the Pittsburgh Steelers.


To wit:

• Franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger drew nationwide and civic scorn, plus a six-game NFL suspension, following accusations that he sexually assaulted a 20-year-old woman March 5 in Milledgeville, Ga.


• Receiver Santonio Holmes, MVP of the team's 2008 season Super Bowl championship, was traded to the Jets after an off-field transgression in March.


• Right tackle Willie Colon and receiver Limas Sweed were lost for the season after suffering Achilles tendon injuries in off-season practices. Charles Scott, a rookie tackle who may have competed to fill Colon's starting spot, broke a bone in his foot working out and will need three months to recover from surgery.

Then came news that top draft choice Maurkice Pouncey, a natural center expected to start at right guard, is the focus of an NCAA investigation of the Florida football program. That won't affect Pouncey's NFL career, of course, but it piled on the bad news for a franchise that has declined steadily since winning the Super Bowl in the 2008 season.


At a youth football camp in Pittsburgh last week, Kevin Colbert, the Steelers' director of football operations, said: "We know we have a huge challenge ahead of us. We didn't have the type of off-season that we're proud of."


Roethlisberger may have his suspension lifted after four games. In his place, the Steelers plan to use Byron Leftwich, who appeared in five games for them in their most recent Super Bowl year. Leftwich was immobile when he was 24 -- six years ago. His effectiveness behind an offensive line in disrepair is a huge question mark.


As always the case with Pittsburgh, there are fewer questions on defense. Draft selections Jason Worilds and Thaddeus Gibson will be phased in gradually as situational rushers, per the Steelers Way. But with age creeping up on their formidable defensive front and rock-solid linebacker James Farrior, who is 35, the Steelers need to have an offense on the rise, not on the descent, to remain an elite contender.




Full camp opens: July 30, Saint Vincent College, Latrobe, Pa.

2009 result: 9-7, missed playoffs.

2009 vs. Browns: 1-1. 27-14 in Pittsburgh, 6-13 in Cleveland.

2010 outlook: Back to the pack.

2010 uncommon opponents: Tennessee and Oakland.


Rookie to watch: OL Maurkice Pouncey. The Florida center, who had higher rankings than the Browns' Alex Mack in 2009, will break in as a starting guard.


Veteran to watch: QB Byron Leftwich. Reacquired in a trade with Tampa Bay in April, the immobile passer will start while Ben Roethlisberger serves a six-game league suspension.


Training camp issues: How will Roethlisberger's off-season troubles affect his relationship with teammates while coaches ready Leftwich for the season opener? How does the depleted offensive line scramble to protect the immobile Leftwich? Can safety Troy Polamalu prepare for the season without suffering another injury?

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Cleveland Frowns calling out Grossi





Here We Go Again (Tony Grossi sets new low for 2010 Browns coverage)


Coming off a season-closing smashmouth four-game win streak where it looked like Eric Mangini's teachings had finally gotten through to a finally cleaned-up locker room, and an offseason that saw several key positions upgraded and critical holes filled, Brownstown is flush with optimism heading into 2010. Yet there's no telling from this morning's Plain Dealer, where all that our favorite Browns beat reporter Tony Grossi wants to do is generate intrigue over Mangini's job security, going out of his way to avoid talking about football in our early front-runner for worst Cleveland Browns column of 2010.


Grossi published this morning his "Five key storylines as the Cleveland Browns open training camp." A most basic mold for a column, sure, but plenty of rich material to work with here: Will the Browns offensive line continue to emerge as one of the best in the NFL behind Joe Thomas and the continued development of second-year center Alex Mack? Will the Browns rushing attack carry through on the record breaking performance of 2009's last quarter? Will Jake Delhomme be able to rescusitate his career in Cleveland? How much of a difference will the new quarterback make? Will the new additions in the secondary hold up in year 1? What kind of difference will the new linebackers make? Will Shaun Rogers plug the middle effectively, or is the defense really better off without him as it seemed to be in the final games of 2009? Will an inexperienced and unheralded group of receivers be able to erase doubts in 2010? Will Josh Cribbs continue to electrify with his kick returns even after having cashed in with a new contract? Will the Browns continue to develop the WildDawg offense that emerged with some success late last season? What new wrinkles with the versatile Seneca Wallace in the mix?


All kinds of important, interesting and exciting storylines there. It's hard to choose just five. Yet none of them make Grossi's list, because he had to use no less than three slots on his list of five to cast doubts over the security of Mangini's job.


You might want to talk about football, but Tony Grossi wants to talk about pundits, rumors of front office disagreements that can't be confirmed or denied, and speculation as to whether Mike Holmgren "will be able to stomach" another season away from the sideline. Grossi couldn't manage to combine these into one category, instead telling us that three of the (presumably top) five key storylines are 1) Mangini's future; 2) Holmgren's potential return to coaching; and 3) potential friction between the coach and GM.


Starting from the bottom of the list to show you just how deep this gets, Grossi purports to enlighten us on the "deep deep background on why the rookies will play."

There is always a natural, even healthy, friction between a general manager given the "top football authority" label and a coach. GMs want to see their draft picks develop. Coaches know they have to win games to preserve their job and they generally favor playing veterans over untested rookies.

Now that the season is starting, the dynamic between Heckert and Mangini will be interesting to observe. All parties held hands and sang "Kumbaya" during the draft, but rumors have since leaked out that Mangini's draft would have looked different from Heckert's if the coach were still in charge of those decisions. The way their responsibilities are divided, Heckert has control over the selection of the 53-player roster and Mangini has control over who plays where and how often on game days. Disagreements are inevitable.


See how deep? Deep deep. Because there's "always a natural friction between a GM and coach" and such "disagreements are inevitable" with any NFL franchise, yet this inevitable disagreement and natural friction is a top five storyline here in Cleveland. Why? Because "rumors have leaked out" that Mangini's draft wouldn't have been exactly the same as Heckert's. Why that's not part of the inevitable disagreement and natural friction that Grossi writes about is anyone's guess, but anyway, who leaked these rumors? Probably, of course, the same "coaches around the league" who told Mike Lombardi that Joe Haden was too slow at Browns mini-camp. If these coaches were invited to Browns mini-camp, there's no reason why they wouldn't have been invited into the draft room too. And of course, if it was an insider who leaked these rumors, it was an insider with an agenda and thus inherently not credible. But these rumors are important to Tony Grossi, who doesn't mention a single player over whom controversy over playing time might arise, let alone a basis for any such controversy.


But why get bogged down in details when you can speculate about Mike Holmgren's potential return to the NFL sidelines. Amazingly, Grossi calls it the "storyline that won't go away."


Holmgren has tried to lay to rest rumors of a return to the sideline, but every once in a while he re-opens the door.

In his most recent national interview, he told USA Today, "I think there is that possibility [of coaching again]. But really not until I think I have accomplished what I need to do here."


Question as to who's re-opening what door here. Wasn't Holmgren just answering a reporter's question? Anyway, isn't he saying that he has a job to do in Cleveland as President of the Browns, and that he wouldn't think of taking a head coaching job until he finished what he needs to do as President? Isn't that technically closing a door?

In all fairness, Holmgren has repeatedly endorsed Mangini and has also been intrigued with the task of mentoring -- if not re-inventing -- him. But it remains to be seen how Holmgren stomachs the helpless feeling of being responsible for the football product while not being able to do anything about it on game days.


"In all fairness." Nice of Tony to throw us a bone here. But despite Holmgren's repeated endorsements of Mangini, this remains a top five storyline because Holmgren might not be able to "stomach the helpless feeling of being responsible for the football product while not being able to do anything about it on game days." No word on why Holmgren wouldn't be able to find a working telephone on game day, why he wouldn't be able to talk to Mangini between games, or how he'll be able to stomach the feeling of being able to get 7 hours of sleep in one night during football season. Has this been a concern at any point in NFL history? Has anyone with such an absurdly well-compensated front office job with final authority on every football decision ever itched so badly for the 120 hour workweeks that he ripped the headset off his own coach's head? Suppose there's no telling what a truly helpless man might do.


Also note that if the Browns do well this season, it will be because Mike Holmgren has "re-invented" Coach Mangini.


So who needs a segue if three storylines are really just one? What Grossi calls the "dominant storyline nationally, Mangini's future."

Despite winning his last four games, Mangini is appearing at, or near, the top of every pundit's "coaches on the hot seat" list entering 2010. Technically, Mangini's contract runs three more years through 2012. But when Holmgren completed weeks of research and two days of intensive meetings with the coach, he announced Mangini "will return as head coach of the Cleveland Browns in 2010."


Holmgren later sought to diffuse the significance of the statement's wording, but that was like trying to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube.

Josh Cribbs who? WildDawg what? Hey, what do you think Holmgren really meant when he added "in 2010" to the end of that sentence!?


Like trying to squeeze the toothpaste back into the tube. We can only hope that describes what the Plain Dealer's editors think of every time they think of what their leading Browns beat reporter has turned into.




*The words "Josh," "Cribbs," and "WildDawg" don't appear at all in Grossi's piece, nor does the name of a single defensive player.

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