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Cleveland Browns
4th in AFC North
Lewis is once more running with the burst and power of a workhorse back.
Steve Dykes/Getty Images
2007 Schedule
Date Opponent Date Opponent
Sept. 9 PITTSBURGH Nov. 11 at Pittsburgh
Sept. 16 CINCINNATI Nov. 18 at Baltimore
Sept. 23 at Oakland Nov. 25 HOUSTON
Sept. 30 BALTIMORE Dec. 2 at Arizona
Oct. 7 at New England Dec. 9 at N.Y. Jets
Oct. 14 MIAMI Dec. 16 BUFFALO
Oct. 21 Bye Dec. 23 at Cincinnati
Oct. 28 at St. Louis Dec. 30 SAN FRANCISCO
Nov. 4 SEATTLE    
The King 500
170 Joe Thomas, Tackle
The first-rounder got smoked in his first week of practice by linebacker Kamerion Wimbley, who made him whiff in a pass-rush drill. "That was a move I never saw in college," Thomas says. But schooled in the pro technique and with a power forward's wingspan, Thomas should handle the league's Wimbleys. He's got one early fan in running back Jamal Lewis. "Joe's a man already," says Lewis. "He's not going to get pushed around."

On the strength of a superb draft and some savvy off-season pickups, the future is... later. But at least things are looking up


Cleveland enters the season the clear-cut No. 4 team in a four-team division during a time of nearly unprecedented strength in the AFC and with no idea who its quarterback will be on Oct. 1. But as general manager Phil Savage said the day after the draft in April, "I think the sun might finally be out over this franchise." He's right: No team was as rejuvenated on draft weekend as the Browns, who got their left tackle of the future, Wisconsin's Joe Thomas, with the third pick and, they hope, their quarterback of the future, Notre Dame's Brady Quinn, at No. 22. In the second round Cleveland plucked a huge risk-reward cornerback, Eric Wright, who might be the long-term twin for underrated Leigh Bodden.

But the best thing the Browns did in the off-season was to try to establish offensive consistency by building a running game. They signed Pro Bowl-alternate guard Eric Steinbach (seven years, $49 million) on the first day of free agency; Steinbach, 27, and Thomas, 22, should form a solid wall on the left side of the line. Cleveland followed by picking up discarded Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, who'll be looking to rejuvenate his career.


If Savage knows what he's doing, this will be a good team, and maybe a very good one -- in 2009. The Browns just might have five of the most important positions on the field covered for the long term in Quinn, Thomas, corners Bodden and Wright and pass-rushing outside linebacker Kamerion Wimbley. All are 25 or younger. Bodden and Wimbley had breakout years in '06; you may not have heard of them, but they're on their way to becoming premier players. Cleveland also may have a game-breaking wide receiver, 2005 first-rounder Braylon Edwards, who had 61 catches last year, but he's been plagued by injuries and off-field issues (a torn right ACL; flare-ups with staff and teammates) since being drafted. If the Browns really are living right, and all six pan out, they'll be contenders for years. If two or three of those players go in the tank or Cleveland doesn't continue to build successfully around them, this will continue to be the Pigpen of football franchises.

Lewis should help bridge the gap to respectability. After rushing for 2,066 yards in 2003 (the second-highest single-season total in NFL history) and gaining a solid 4.3 yards per carry in '04, he totaled only 2,038 yards over '05 and '06, at a measly 3.5-yard clip. But he was slowed by right-ankle surgery in '05 and bone spurs in the same ankle last year. (They were removed early in '07). Properly motivated, the 5' 11" Lewis came to Browns camp at a rock-solid 239 pounds and early on surprised the coaches and personnel staff with a burst they didn't expect from him. "I know I can be a dominant runner again in this league," says Lewis, 28. "I'm making cuts I haven't made in years because I feel like a kid again. This line is suited to me -- I have mean, hungry guys in a system that stresses running first. I'm seeing holes I haven't seen in a long time." It'll be up to the line, and eventually Quinn, to make sure Lewis isn't battered into submission before this team gets good.

On defense Cleveland still is too stopgap at too many positions. Defensive tackle Ted Washington played 48.5% of the defensive snaps last year and could play as many this year -- at age 39. The Browns were 2-7 in the last two months of the season and got strafed for 22 points or more in seven of those games. They're hoping better coverage and consistent pressure from Wimbley can be the start of something good, though the run defense must significantly improve on the 4.4 yards per carry it allowed in '06. In fact, the Cleveland defense has not been under 4.0 for a season since the reincarnation of the team in 1999, a horrible streak of generosity against the run.

Opponents outrushed the Browns by 59 yards a game last year, and until that changes, all the shouting for Quinn to take over the starting job will drown out the real issue: The Browns simply have to run better and stop the run better. "We know we have to knock people off the ball, and stop getting knocked off the ball, in order to win," says coach Romeo Crennel. "But that's usually what you need to get done on a team that hasn't been very good for a while."

If the Browns are this year's Miracle Mets, we'll know early. They play the Steelers, Bengals, Ravens and Patriots in the first 29 days of the season. Crennel probably won't be around to oversee Cleveland in the long term; he's not even the one who brought in new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski, the choice of Savage. But the coach from the Parcells-Belichick school can get things headed in the right direction. "I see this team being in Year One of a great turnaround," says Steinbach. If nothing else, at least the Browns are talking a good game these days. -- Peter King

Issue date: September 3, 2007