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AFTER 24 YEARS of paying his dues as an NFL assistant, Romeo Crennel knew where he stood as he presided over his first minicamp as Browns coach last spring. At least Crennel thought he knew. Shortly after the start of that first practice, Crennel looked up to watch a downfield pass play develop and was nearly run over by a Cleveland receiver. "I'm standing there looking around, and all of a sudden, whooom--the player whizzes right by me," Crennel recalls. "It was then that I realized that part of my job was strategic positioning on the football field."
When he accepted the Browns' job last February, shortly after he had helped the Patriots win their third Super Bowl in four seasons as the team's defensive coordinator, Crennel had a much better idea of where Cleveland stood: near the bottom of the NFL. Since the reincarnation of the Browns six years ago, they have lost a league-high 66 games, including 12 in 2004, mostly because of a shallow talent pool.
Its roster depleted by years of dubious front-office personnel decisions, its players deserted by former coach Butch Davis, who resigned with five games left in the dismal 2004 campaign, Cleveland was as down as an organization could be. "We are a long way away from being the team we want to be," concedes sixth-year wideout Dennis Northcutt, "but we are making progress. Whenever you have a new regime coming in, it's not going to happen all at once. But I see a transformation."
Crennel's no-frills, upbeat approach has played well in the locker room, where so-called character guys, players with the presence to dominate the workplace, are more conspicuous, as at Crennel's previous stops. The free agents brought in by new general manager Phil Savage-- cornerback Gary Baxter ( Ravens), guard Joe Andruzzi ( Patriots) and quarterback Trent Dilfer (Seahawks), among others--all have reputations for toughness and for being team-oriented. Dilfer, in particular, has made an instant impact on team chemistry. "He's a great leader, and that's something we've lacked here," says veteran right tackle Ryan Tucker of Dilfer, who quarterbacked the Ravens to an NFL championship five seasons ago. "Until now, we haven't had somebody who's had the confidence to get on a player's ass and not give a crap if it hurts his feelings. People say [of Dilfer], 'He can't throw. He can't run.' I don't want to hear it. He's getting us together right now."
A trio of talented running backs led by holdover Lee Suggs and an explosive receiving corps headlined by former Michigan star Braylon Edwards, the fifth pick in this year's draft, could give Dilfer, at 33, a final shot at proving he's a first-rate NFL starter. His career marked by Baltimore's not re-signing him after the Super Bowl triumph, Dilfer started all of 12 games in four seasons with the Seahawks. He was the sixth pick in the 1994 draft, but he struggled in the role of would-be savior of the long-suffering Buccaneers until Tony Dungy arrived as coach in 1996 and reenergized the franchise. In Crennel, Dilfer sees a similarly poised and purposeful leader.
"He seems like he's been a head coach for 10 years, like he was always meant to do this, which is the same way Tony was," Dilfer says. "There's no insecurity, no trying to prove something. He says what he means and he means what he says."
Crennel has installed the same 3--4 defense that was so successful in New England, though it's doubtful the Browns will be able to run it as deftly the first year. Cleveland's front seven is painfully thin, and the secondary could have four new starters. One other difference between last season's defense and this season's is that the players vow to work through the rough times as a unit, as opposed to 2004, when they were a fractured mess. "All year we heard all this b------- about togetherness, and then the head man went and ran off," Tucker recalls. "The last few games were kind of a joke. Not everybody here has to be a household name, but we all want to follow Romeo."
Crennel is taking the high road. "We do have some ability on this team," he says. "We're trying to start something new, to develop an attitude. I want a group of tough-minded, physically tough guys who value winning, the team and their jobs. If we can get those kinds of guys, we'll be on the right track." --M.S.
Less than 18 months ago, Dennis Northcutt's agent, Jerome Stanley, vowed that his client would never play for the Browns again in the wake of a contract filing-date dispute. But the issue was resolved, and the 5'11", 171-pound wideout caught a team-leading 55 passes for 806 yards in 2004, including eight receptions of 30 yards or more. A gifted return man as well, Northcutt had eight touchdowns in '02--two on punt returns, five as a receiver and one as a rusher--despite not being a regular starter.