Today I conclude my 2007 Browns training camp preview series by tying up some loose ends on and off the field.
Phil Dawson has been a placekicking rock for the Browns since the franchise returned to action in 1999, so there is no reason to overreact to his shaky second half last year. But there are some definite concerns. After a career-high 93.1 percent of his field goal attempts in 2005, his percentage plummeted to 72.4 percent in '06, the second-lowest percentage of his career behind his rookie year.
Most alarmingly, he made just more than 50 percent (7-of-13) of his field goals from beyond 40 yards. For an offense that had trouble sustaining drives a year ago, it made a bad situation worse.
Kickers, unfortunately, are the most disposable players on NFL rosters. Dawson has to show marked improvement in '07, or the Browns might look elsewhere for a kicker in '08.
Dave Zastudil stepped into the punter's role last year, and was solid, if not Chris-Gardocki-in-his-prime-esque. Eighty-one punts, zero blocks, a 44-yard average with a 38.4-yard net. Sure as heck better than sitting through two years of Derrick Frost and Kyle Richardson.
Josh Cribbs has emerged as arguably the best kickoff returner in the NFL. With blazing linear speed, he amassed 1,494 yards and one touchdown on 61 kickoff returns last season.
The downside? those 61 kickoffs mean the other team was scoring a lot of points on the Browns. If your kickoff returner constitutes a major bright spot on your team, chances are there are other problems that need to be addressed.
The real question mark heading into the dog days of August is who will return punts. Dennis Northcutt, at one point statistically the best punt returner in the league (I still don't know how that happened), is gone to Jacksonville. That leaves a throng of players trying out for the position.
Have legs? Good vision? Able to signal for a fair catch? The Browns might have a job for you.
Right now, receivers Tim Carter and Travis Wilson might get a look as returners, as might Cribbs, who appears to lack the lateral mobility to be a great punt returner if last year's quasi-failure in the role is any indication.
Rookie Syndric Steptoe, a returner in college, could be the long-term solution. But at this point, Vince Papale might be a better kick-returning option than anyone the Browns have in camp.
The biggest story heading into camp is the new-look Browns offense under first-year coordinator Rob Chudzinski. Chud was a former tight ends coach for the Browns under Butch Davis, and returns to Cleveland after spending two seasons coaching Antonio Gates in the same role with the Chargers, one of the best offensive teams in football.
Needless to say, Chudzinski figures to employ a lot of plays that call for tight ends Kellen Winslow Jr. and Steve Heiden to get the ball -- not the worst idea, considering they were the two most reliable receivers for the Browns a year ago. Chudzinski previously coached Winslow at the University of Miami, so the two go way back.
Chudzinski will also attempt to rely heavily on a between-the-tackles running game that utilizes the Browns' revamped offensive line and the horseplow running style of new feature back Jamal Lewis. If Lewis can stay on the field and productive for 16 games, it's a good idea ... if he can, that is.
Romeo Crennel enters the season on one of the hottest hot seats of any NFL coach. Coming off a 4-12 season and facing a brutal September/early October schedule, Crennel is fighting an uphill battle to show any progress. In the span of the first four weeks of the season, Crennel will face all three divisional opponents -- all at home, no less.
Crennel is infamously 1-11 versus the AFC North in two seasons as the Browns coach. If that record drops to 1-14 before the bye week, odds are slim Crennel is going to end the season as the Browns coach.
Already, the vultures are swirling and ready to prematurely name Bill Cowher as the Browns coach in 2008.
There is no question Phil Savage has been able to ramp up the talent level on the team in two years, even if the record doesn't show it. Last year, he drafted two potential defensive studs in Kamerion Wimbley and D'Qwell Jackson. In each of the last two years, he's drawn top-flight free agents to Cleveland. This year, he addressed the offensive line through the draft, selecting Joe Thomas third overall.
But there is that little nagging problem of Savage performing the role of a super-scout and not really providing the team with any kind of administrative backbone on the homefront. Most of the season, Savage is off scouting the college ranks in preparation for the following year's draft. That's necessary, but for a team that is still trying to crawl out of the muck of years and years of awful football and off-the-field indiscretions too numerous to count, more on-site leadership is probably needed.
Randy Lerner could try to become a front-office owner like Dallas' Jerry Jones or Oakland's Al Davis, but I just don't think that's in his blood. If this little nugget uncovered by TheClevelandFan.com's own Hornless Rhino is true, Lerner might have scones and shepherd's pie in his blood far more than mom and apple pie. Lerner also owns Aston Villa of the English Premiership, and it's becoming painfully obvious that he enjoys English "footie" far more than stars-and-stripes football.
Sooner or later, Lerner might come to the conclusion that he simply can't satisfy two mistresses in the realm of sports. The Browns might be the one he casts adrift.