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FOUR HOURS into the 2007 season, Phil Savage pulled his car out of the Cleveland Browns Stadium parking lot and into city traffic, sharing the streets with the sullen, the fatalistic and the downright livid. The routine had become familiar to Savage since he took over as general manager of the Browns in 2005: Watch the team lose, head downstairs and drive past fans in their Tim Couch and Courtney Brown jerseys, ancient reminders of a franchise's mistakes still raw to the touch. ¶ On his drive home following Cleveland's 34--7 blowout loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sept. 9, his cellphone rang several times with calls from reporters wondering where this year's ragtag team was headed and when coach Romeo Crennel would be fired. Savage responded that the Browns were not on the brink of a collapse, throaty protestations of the fan base notwithstanding.
"Some of those guys were ready to walk the plank," Savage says now, reflecting on the fans' opening day frustration. "They have just taken so much grief. The team left, then the team comes back and it's not that good. Then Romeo and I get here, and we're like, You can't blame us for all that, just give us a chance. I think we're starting to gain the trust of the public again as an organization. And the exciting thing is, I don't even think we're close to where we could be when we get everything in place."
Eight years after they returned to the Lake Erie shoreline, the Browns are stirring the ghosts of a star-crossed franchise with rangy receivers, a powerful blue-collar runner and a quarterback who plays loose when the game is tight. On Sunday at their home park the Browns launched themselves into the heart of the AFC playoff picture with a 27--17 victory over the Houston Texans, raising their record to 7--4 and adding to their goodwill in a town that has been tempted and tortured through the decades.
Whether it was bad luck, bad personnel moves or big, bad John Elway, the Browns of yesteryear could always be counted on for the spectacular flameout. Now, in 2007, they have patented the heart-stopping comeback. Clevelanders raised on tales of the Drive are now taking comfort in Derek Anderson's right arm. Fans once frightened by memories of the Fumble are talking endlessly about Phil Dawson's right leg, which two Sundays ago at Baltimore uncorked a bank shot off the left upright and the crossbar support to send the game into overtime and set up a 33--30 win.
Sure, so history says Couch rarely got into a groove after being chosen first overall in 1999, and Brown rarely got out of the training room after being taken first in 2000. Those guys are gone, and maybe, so is that karma. An organization that was buried when owner Art Modell moved the franchise to Baltimore in 1996 and reborn in northern Ohio when the NFL granted the city an expansion team may be coming of age after nearly a decade of growing pains.
"Every year the roster was getting blown up," says Dawson, the only player who has been with the Browns since their rebirth. "Phil Savage has come in with a plan. We have a head coach who makes it clear what he wants to accomplish with a simple, straightforward approach. You can see the building blocks. We have a group of guys who are starting to jell, and it's exciting."
Savage, who while on the Ravens' staff had a hand in constructing Baltimore's 2000 Super Bowl team, and Crennel, the defensive coordinator for Bill Belichick's three championship teams in New England, have put together an interesting brew of youth and veterans (chart, page 36), many of whom play football as if they have a score to settle. Kellen Winslow, who caught 10 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown against Houston, has returned from a broken right fibula in '04 and a motorcycle crash in '05 to become one of the league's top tight ends. Braylon Edwards, two years after sustaining a season-ending right knee injury as a rookie, has 55 receptions for 894 yards and 11 touchdowns. Rookie left tackle Joe Thomas has been a starter from the outset, helping solidify the offensive line. The roster even has room for past Super Bowl champions such as running back Jamal Lewis and linebacker Willie McGinest, players buying into the franchise with all of its history, including the heartbreak.
"These fans give us a lot," says McGinest, who signed with Cleveland last year after winning three rings with the Patriots. "They've been bleeding brown a long time before any of us got here."
IF GRADY SIZEMORE represents Cleveland's heart and LeBron James the town's soul, Derek Anderson is just finding his place in the city's sports psyche. He entered the season as a backup quarterback but was on the field by the second quarter of the opener, after Charlie Frye had performed disastrously. Frye was traded to Seattle for a sixth-round pick two days later, and Anderson became the No. 1. His recollection of the days leading to his Week 2 start against Cincinnati reflect the straightforward way such momentous business is transacted in the NFL.
"The coaches came up to me and said, 'Hey, it's going to be your deal, go take it, don't look back,'" Anderson says.