Postcard from camp: Browns
Browns players are buying into Eric Mangini's system after a late run last season
With an influx of talent, the team's linebackers could be the defense's strength
Ex-Carolina QB Jake Delhomme is hoping to prove a subpar 2009 was a fluke
SI.com has dispatched writers to report on the 32 NFL training camps across the country. Here's what Damon Hack had to say about Browns camp in Berea, Ohio, which he visited on Aug. 6. For an archive of all camp postcards, click here.
"Is it Buh-RAY-A or Buh-REE-A?" I ask the man in the hotel parking lot. "It's Buh-REE-A," he says. I thank him and point my rental Fusion toward the home of the Browns and the Cuyahoga County Fair, the latter which began in 1893. A sign on Bagley Road says that the Pink Floyd tribute band "Wish You Were Here" will be playing the fair this year. Between Pink Floyd and the fluorescent cotton candy, it might be fun to stick around town for a few days. I could catch the Hall of Fame game in Canton and the PGA Tour in Akron, too. In the meantime, I continue onto Lou Groza Boulevard for a peek at the Browns.
1. The Browns are a happy bunch, pulling in the same direction for a change. A year ago, in Eric Mangini's first training camp with the team, that was not always the case, as some players questioned his tough coaching tactics and the team opened the season 1-11. "Often times there's a case where you get to know somebody and you need to understand why they do things and you get more comfortable in any relationship," Mangini said. Added linebacker D'Qwell Jackson: "It's familiarity and stability. You know what to expect from the guy. Last year's team was a combination of Romeo's [Crennel] guys and [Mangini's] guys. This year we have a better fit of his style of player. I feel good about this year." A lot of the smiles began last season, when the Browns ripped off four wins to close the season, a run that team president Mike Holmgren says showed a lot about Mangini. "Often times when you're having a season like that, all of the sudden the bags are packed, the cars are running, and they're playing it out," Holmgren said. "That didn't happen here. That told you a lot. That's a credit to Eric, his coaching staff and certainly the players." Mangini gave the Browns a day off from practice Tuesday, earlier than he did last summer. "It was lovely," said linebacker David Bowens.
2. Linebackers are crucial to the success of any a 3-4 defense, and the Browns are piecing together a feisty, intelligent corps. In March, they signed free-agent Scott Fujita, who played outside linebacker for the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. In April, they traded for Philadelphia Eagle Chris Gocong (along with cornerback Sheldon Brown). "One of the things that you need is smart guys," Mangini said. "You need to be able to adjust and you need to get everybody lined up. Chris was a guy I liked in college. Scott was a I guy I kind of followed. Two really bright guys that are talented coming into the system and have played multiple positions. Then you can mix and match. David Bowens has played inside and out. Eric Barton's played Mike and Will. [Jason] Trusnik's played inside and out." Mangini also pointed out Matt Roth, whom the Browns signed off of waivers. "He's like the enforcer in hockey," Mangini said. "I'm excited about that group."
3. If the Browns are going to win in the bruising AFC North, they have to run the football effectively. Cleveland didn't score a rushing touchdown until the 13th game of the 2009 season. Odds are, it's coming much earlier in 2010. After releasing Jamal Lewis in February and drafting Montario Hardesty in April, the Browns were left with an intriguing mix of runners and plenty of competition for carries. "One thing I learned from this league is, don't expect anything," running back Jerome Harrison said when asked if he thought he earned the starting spot last season. "After last year was over, it was over."
One thing Harrison said he wants to see carryover in 2010 is the play of the offensive line at the end of the year. "That was a huge finish for us," Harrison said. "My offensive line dominated across the board, from tight ends all the way to the backside guard. I think we are ahead of schedule. I think we're on pace and I think we have a real good feel for each other now."
The Browns brought in veteran Jake Delhomme to calm a quarterback position that has been unsettled and unproductive. Can Delhomme, at 35 and coming off an 8 TD, 18 interception campaign in Carolina, still get it done? Is he out to prove critics wrong? "That's not something that makes me get up every day," Delhomme said. "I've been a part of successful teams in the NFL, I know what it takes, and I want to be part of a winner again. I want to be a part of helping to turn this around." The Browns believe his 2010 season was an aberration rather than a sign of decline. "I know that he's a consistent performer and I believe that's what we'll see as opposed to some of what we saw last year," Mangini said. "In watching the tape, there were more picks than touchdowns and it was a high number, but there are a lot of reasons why a ball gets intercepted. You're behind, protection, running the wrong route, there are a lot of asterisks next to some of those [interceptions]."
While the starters won't be named for awhile, cornerback Joe Haden, the seventh pick over all, may push veteran Sheldon Brown (from the Eagles) and Eric Wright (in his fourth season in Cleveland) for playing time. He could also end up seeing time in the nickel package and on special teams. "Ever since I've been here I knew the expectations were going to be for me to be on the field and play," Haden said. "Ever since the first rookie minicamp, I've been trying to work hard and show that I deserve to be here."
Haden says if his duties extend to kickoff and punt teams, he will be ready. "Coach [Urban] Meyer had his best players on special teams, so I played every special teams when I was there," he said. On inking his rookie contract, Haden said: "Now that I have the money, I'm just trying to show that I deserve the money, too."
Hardesty, who earned huge praise during minicamps, tweaked his right knee during the rookie portion of training camp and has yet to return to practice.
I've been to many NFL offices, but Mike Holmgren's might be the tops. You could land an Embraer jet in there, for starters. It's big. Then there are the details. A huge picture of Cleveland Browns stadium, lit up at night, on one wall. A huge picture of Holmgren and the Packers winning Super Bowl XXXI on another wall. My favorite touch was a bank of shelves with three NFL team helmets. From bottom to top, the Packers, the Seahawks and the Browns - Holmgren's last three NFL stops.
The Browns provided us reporters with Caesar salad wraps, potato chips, chocolate chip cookies and a refrigerator stocked with soft drinks. I limited myself to one wrap, one bag of chips, two cookies, a Diet Pepsi, and a promise to have a vigorous week at the gym.
1. The versatile Josh Cribbs expects to line up all over the field this season -- including under center. "My role is just going to expand dramatically," he said. "A lot of things are going to happen where me and Seneca [Wallace] and Jake are all rotating and hopping in and out of there. We added a lot of diversity to the offense."
2. Losing Braylon Edwards -- despite his drops -- leaves the Browns' receiving corps with questions. Mohamed Massaquoi, Brian Robiske and Chansi Stuckey must answer them.
3. David Bowens on playing in the AFC North: "Snowy games. Everyone in our division has a cold game. It's not like we have to travel far. We're all in each other's backyard. We're all in the same gated community."
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