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IT'S A blustery mid-May day in downtown Cleveland, a day that has a football feel to it—which, for Cleveland, can be any of 365 days a year. This is Browns Town. And this afternoon at Public Square, there's the added attraction of Braylon Edwards, the star wide receiver, who is shooting a team promo in his number 17 home jersey ... until a well-dressed man, maybe 25, walks into camera range. � "Dude!" Edwards cries out. "We're filming!" � "Sorry, sorry," says the dude. "I just had to tell you, This is our year!" � Maybe. Cleveland shocked the NFL by winning 10 games in 2007, but as Bill Parcells tells every team he's ever coached or run, "You never pick up where you left off last year." Of the 14 teams that have gone to the Super Bowl between 2000 and '06, for instance, nine failed to even make the playoffs the next season. � But as the Browns enter season 10 of their return to the NFL, it's the first time fans have justifiable playoff expectations. This isn't to be confused with expansion giddiness or misplaced hope after what turned out to be bad drafts and poorly spent free-agent millions. This is hope founded on Cleveland's explosive offense, which scored 25 points a game last year, and young stars such as Edwards, who set the franchise record with 16 touchdown receptions, and general manager Phil Savage's two big February trades that plugged holes in a leaky defense.
The TV networks noticed, giving Cleveland five prime-time games in 2008. That's one more than the Super Bowl--champion Giants. "I've been waiting to play on Monday Night Football my whole life," says Edwards. "I've been waiting to look into the camera and say, ' Braylon Edwards, University of Michigan.' And we've got a Madden game—a Sunday-night game! I can't wait to TiVo the game, go home and hear John Madden say, 'Boom! Look what Braylon Edwards did!'"
Yes, Edwards and his teammates are on unfamiliar turf. Last year was just the second winning NFL season in Cleveland since 1994. So SI kept close tabs on the Browns from last December, when they lost out on a playoff berth, to the final preparations for their 2008 season, which begins on Sunday with a national-TV game against the NFC powerhouse Cowboys. Some of the optimism surrounding the club is well-founded, some is built on shaky ground. This is a story of how a longtime NFL doormat tries to build itself into a playoff team.
THREE HOURS after Cleveland's 2007 season ended with a 20--7 home win over the 49ers, Edwards tried to avoid the 30 family members and friends who filled his house. He wasn't thinking about that day's victory, which gave the Browns a 10--6 final record, but about the game seven days earlier: Bengals 19, Browns 14. Derek Anderson threw four interceptions that day, and on a third-quarter play that would haunt the Cleveland quarterback for months, he checked down to a safer option and missed a wide-open Edwards in the end zone. The receiver verbally sparred with Anderson on the sideline afterward.
Now, as Edwards shot pool, the Titans were beating the Colts on a TV in the background. Tennessee's victory would give it a 10--6 record and the final AFC playoff spot, by virtue of a tiebreaker over the Browns. All Edwards could think about was how Cleveland had bungled the Cincinnati game. "We didn't deserve it, but the Titans in the playoffs?" he said. " Tampa Bay? The Redskins! You can't tell me we couldn't beat the damn Redskins."
Throughout the Cleveland area other Browns players and staffers clicked off their televisions in disgust. Edwards spoke for them all when he said, "I do not want to feel this way again the rest of my career."
SAVAGE , 43, is an obsessive note taker, scribbling his observations and thoughts during games and meetings, then later typing them into his office computer. At 5'10 1/2" and 160 pounds, he looks more like a former English major and small-college shortstop (which he was, at the University of the South) than a career football coach, scout and executive. He is, in fact, the quietly daring architect of the Browns, with complete authority over the 53-man roster he hands to coach Romeo Crennel in September. Savage loves his job, and his fingerprints are all over this team.
It was an important day, the start of the annual three-day organizational meetings at the team's training facility. Pro and college scouts, coaches and trainers gathered to assess the 2007 season and get Savage's vision of the future. "It was a good season," he began. "We revamped the offensive staff, established an offensive identity. Now we have to avoid complacency. We have to finesse and manage our quarterback situation. I want to focus not only on Pittsburgh and Baltimore and Cincinnati in our division, but also on the rest of the AFC."