Thursday, September 28, 2006

Old guards

When Phil Savage took control of the Browns roster, we expected that we were getting an architect whose work would be rooted in research, analysis and logic. It was to be far more stable than the govern-by-edict style of Pope Butch I.

To a greater or lesser extent, Savage has given the Browns that. No more are they trading a first- and second-rounder to move up one spot in the draft, as Butch Davis did to nab Kellen Winslow Jr. in 2004.

But something still doesn't add up about the way the Browns roster is constructed. And, guess what? It's the offensive line. The omnipresent problem that was never tackled by Dwight Clark or Davis, and still appears to be an albatross hovering over Savage.

Funny we should mention tackling. That's all opposing defenses have been doing against Cleveland's O-line. Charlie Frye has been getting sacked and knocked down at such an alarming rate, it appears a forgone conclusion that he's going to wind up on a gurney a la Chris Simms at some point this season.

The only thing more shocking that Simms' ruptured spleen last Sunday was the fact that it didn't happen to Frye first.

Then there's the little problem of Cleveland's lack of a running game. Reuben Droughns, the Browns' 1,200-yard man of a year ago, might be lucky to crack 700 yards at his current pace. Behind him are a pair of undersized rookies in Jason Wright and Jerome Harrison.

We know just about all fingers can point to the offensive line. But why? Seven years ago, when Jim Pyne was starting, we could point to a lack of talent. But that's not the case now.

The Browns have among the most accomplished groups of offensive linemen in the league. All five of the Browns current starting offensive linemen have played for other teams -- good teams at that. Four -- Hank Fraley, Joe Andruzzi, Cosey Coleman and Ryan Tucker -- started in at least one Super Bowl. The fifth, Kevin Shaffer, protected Michael Vick on a respectable Falcons team.

This group of lineman have a long history of success in the league. And maybe that's part of the problem.

Not one of the Browns' current offensive line starters is younger than 26. Tucker and Andruzzi are the graybeards at 31, Fraley is 29, Coleman 28 and Shaffer is the baby of the bunch at 26.
If he were healthy, LeCharles Bentley would only tie Shaffer as the youngest.

Now, you might be thinking, "So? Isn't experience supposed to be a good thing? Isn't that what the Browns have been missing?" Well, experience is a good thing from the neck up. From the neck down, however, "experience" becomes "mileage."

That's the problem. The freakishly long careers of Lou Groza and Bruce Matthews aside, offensive linemen generally don't have long shelf lives. Once you've been in the trenches, having your 300-pound body hit, twisted, pulled, punched, kicked and scraped for the better part of 10 years, 30 seems more like 40, maybe 50 if you're talking about your knees.

The Browns' offensive linemen are a well-worn bunch, each with a long rap sheet of injuries that just about every lineman will accumulate. The injuries take their toll, the spring in your step gradually fades, and before you know it, Julius Peppers is blowing past your flank three downs in a row to make mincemeat of your quarterback.

That's the danger of building your offensive line from veterans. Along with the experience, you are also absorbing the years of wear when you decide to commit money to an offensive lineman with some years in the league.

Even more prevalent than the danger of losing a step is the danger of constant injuries. Outside of the center position, the Browns have been relatively lucky so far this year. But the odds say more Browns linemen will miss time with injuries this year, robbing the line of valuable snaps together. Playing together is the only way to build a cohesive five-man unit, and a lack of cohesion is a large factor in why the Browns line has looked so bad to this point.

The only cure to having your young quarterback and running backs sent running for their lives by an aging, deteriorating offensive line is to draft linemen, draft them high, and draft them every year until you build the depth to withstand some injuries. It's a concept no Browns personnel man has seemed to grasp yet.

If this decorated group of Super Bowl linemen continues to look like an old, sorry bunch as the season wears on, here's hoping the light goes on in Savage's head, and he starts thinking about offensive linemen in preparation for next April's draft.

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