29 Sep 2006
by Mike Tanier
The Browns finished the 2005 season with six wins and a plan.
Rookie quarterback Charlie Frye showed just enough potential to earn "quarterback of the future" status. Receiver Braylon Edwards flashed superstar potential before getting hurt. Tight end Kellen Winslow was scheduled to return to the field in 2006. Veterans Reuben Droughns and Dennis Northcutt provided sturdy production at running back and receiver.
The Browns had young talent at the skill positions. Young talent develops more quickly when protected by a top-notch offensive line. The two most important building blocks of any offensive line are the left tackle and the center. No elite left tackles were on the free agent market, but the Browns signed a pretty good one, Kevin Shaffer. There was a premier center on the market, however, and signing him became the team's top priority.
The Browns got their lynchpin center. But they didn't have him for long. This is the story of how a simple plan to rebuild an offensive line touched off a month-long effort to plug a hole in the starting lineup.
Center #1: LeCharles Bentley
Resume: Four-year starter. Pro Bowler. Highly touted free agent.
Status: Injured. Out for season.
LeCharles Bentley made the Pro Bowl twice while playing for an awful New Orleans team, protecting a quarterback who couldn't protect himself. He's the complete package, a tough guy with a high IQ who can knock a defensive tackle backwards or read a blitz and alter the protection scheme before the snap.
The 26-year-old Bentley was one of the top free agents to hit the market in the off-season. The Eagles coveted him, and news broke in Philadelphia that the team had signed Bentley just hours before an extension to the collective bargaining agreement pushed back the start of free agency. When the smoke cleared, the Browns out-maneuvered the Eagles, signing Bentley to a six-year deal that made him the highest paid center in league history.
"He was the face of our free agent class," Browns GM Phil Savage said of Bentley, an Ohio native and Buckeye alum. The Browns made a big splash at the start of free agency, signing receiver Joe Jurevicius, defensive end Willie McGinest, and Shaffer, but Bentley was the prize acquisition. And he was happy to be back in Ohio. "He probably wanted to play for the Browns more than anybody we have as far as the desperation of wearing that brown jersey and orange helmet," Savage later said.
Bentley wore the brown jersey and helmet on the first day of training camp, but not a full uniform. Coach Romeo Crennel didn't want anyone to get injured, so he had the team work out in shoulder pads and shorts. "I thought by just going shoulder pads, those guys might stay off the ground," Crennel said. At 10 a.m., on the first 11-on-11 snap of training camp, Bentley pulled right to block for Reuben Droughns. He briefly tangled with Ted Washington, then fell to the ground in agony. In a few seconds, he was pounding his fist to the ground and shouting "No!" Trainers rushed to his aide. Teammates stood frozen.
One snap. Torn left patellar tendon. Out for the season, maybe more. Savage's plan was in ruins before the first day of camp ended.
It was time to go to the backup plan, and to the waiver wire. There would be no replacing Bentley, but someone had to snap the ball to Frye. "There's not a lot of Pro Bowl centers walking around out there," Savage said of his free agent options.
Center #2: Bob Hallen
Resume: Itinerant starter and multi-position backup
Status: AWOL, then retired.
The writers of the Final Destination movies must be Browns fans. Sudden, season-ending injuries are common among the team's elite free agents and draft picks. Some have even suggested that the franchise is jinxed.
Just days after Bentley's injury, a fight broke out on the practice field. Jurevicius started mixing it up with linebacker Chaun Thompson. Thompson jumped on the receiver's back. Willie McGinest also leapt onto Jurevicius in an effort to break up the fight. There they were, the team's second and third biggest free agents, stacked like packing crates, waiting for a meteor to fall or lightning to strike. No meteor came, but Jurevicius was sidelined with back spasms.
Savage scoffed at "jinx" talk, but he knew to prepare for the worst when in Cleveland. When he signed Bentley, he also signed an insurance policy. Bob Hallen, an eight-year vet, came to camp expecting to be a three-position backup. Most of his 47 career starts came at left guard. "They brought me in for a just-in-case," Hallen said after being named the team's starting center. Like Bentley, Hallen was a Northeast Ohio native. That's about all they had in common. "Bentley's a two-time Pro Bowler, the best in the business right now, big, physical, strong. I just go out and play the best I can," Hallen said.
Hallen's tenure with the team lasted just over a week. On August 7th, he left a morning practice, complaining of back pain. Team doctors examined him, but Hallen opted to see a specialist in San Diego (the Browns later said that they never examined Hallen). The next day, Hallen called Crennel. "He's AWOL," Crennel told reporters. "But we know why he's AWOL."
Hallen would never return. Officially, the team reported that he had "health and personal issues," both of which stemmed from his chronic back pain. "You're talking about a starting center in the NFL," Crennel said. "The next day he's got two issues that he has to deal with, which means I have to deal with them if he has to deal with them.'' Crennel briefly entertained the possibility that Hallen might come back, but it became clear that the parting wasn't amicable, and that Hallen's career was essentially over.
Two weeks, two centers down.
Center #3: Alonzo Ephraim
Resume: Veteran backup
The day that Bentley got hurt, Savage contacted Alonzo Ephraim, an unemployed bit player with a handful of career starts as a guard for the Eagles and Dolphins. Ephraim's girlfriend was due to give birth to their first child. The couple opted to induce labor a day early so Ephraim could rush to camp. "I can't see the future, but I can see an opportunity when it arises," Ephraim said.
When Heller left camp, Ephraim took over as the starting center. He started the Browns first exhibition game, playing well against the Eagles. The team's problems on the interior line appeared to be solved.
When the Browns returned from Philadelphia, they learned that Ephraim would be suspended for four games. He had violated the league's substance abuse policy while playing for the Dolphins in 2005. Ephraim's appeal was still pending when he signed with the Browns, but the team was in such a hurry to acquire a replacement for Bentley that they didn't check Ephraim's status with the NFL before signing him.
Ephraim would still work out and attend meetings with the team until the start of the season. He saw action in other preseason games, but would not start again. "I'm just practicing and trying to get better," he said after the suspension. The Browns needed another starter, if only to get them through four games.
Center #4: Rob Smith
Resume: Undrafted rookie free agent
Status: Not ready.
The Browns were ready to start grasping at straws. Rookie Rob Smith started two games at center at University of Tennessee, 22 more at left guard. He had a reputation as an undersized, heady blocker, the kind of guy you hide on the practice squad for a year to see if he develops. When Bentley got hurt, Smith got a chance to stick on the roster as a multi-position backup, or even as the starter.
Smith suffered a sprained against the Eagles. He would miss several days of practice and some preseason games. There was no way to make him game-ready. He was out of the picture.
Guard Joe Andruzzi can play center in a pinch. Unfortunately, the Browns were also thin at guard. Hallen, remember, was supposed to be the top backup. Veteran Todd Washington signed with the team and promptly retired. In desperation, Crennel moved defensive tackle Andrew Hoffman to guard. During a scrimmage, the Browns ran a play-action pass, and the confused Hoffman ran far down the field. "You ran a great route," Andruzzi told his fellow interior lineman.
So there was little chance that a veteran like Andruzzi would move over. Savage had to keep going back to the center barrel. Every time he did, he had to dig a little deeper.
Center #5: Ross Tucker
Resume: Career backup at guard
Just before the preseason opener at Philadelphia, Savage sent a conditional late-round draft pick to the Patriots for Ross Tucker, a journeyman guard buried on the depth chart. A few days later, Tucker was the Browns' starting center, the fourth player in three weeks to claim the job.
Tucker began his career with the Redskins and spent a season in Dallas. He started 17 games in two seasons with the Bills, always as a replacement somewhere on the interior line. He injured his back in Bills minicamp in 2005, then was cut in August. He signed with the Patriots in December to fill out their bench for the postseason.
Crennel didn't mince words when asked about Tucker's qualifications as a starter. "He's here," was all the coach said. Tucker was more optimistic after a few practices. "There hasn't been one time out here when I didn't know what I was doing." But Tucker knew that the job wasn't his forever. "I've been around too long and seen too many things happen," he said.
Savage and the Browns weren't waiting around for Tucker to get hurt, suspended, or retire. They signed Mike Mabry and Lennie Friedman, two more veteran fringe players who had snapped a few footballs in the NFL or college. Tucker started the remaining preseason games, but Friedman, Ephraim, and Smith would also play. Nothing was guaranteed.
Then, in the final round of cuts, Tucker was released. The beggar Browns were suddenly choosers. What was going on? Were they placing their faith in...
Center #6: Lennie Friedman
Resume: Yet another iterant backup
Late in August, the Browns traded another conditional late-round pick to the Bears to acquire Lennie Friedman, who started for two seasons at guard in Denver. Friedman's days as a starter were behind him -- he spent the last few seasons subbing in Washington and Chicago -- but he weighed around 300 pounds, owned shoulder pads, and had a pulse. Friedman immediately began pushing Tucker for playing time, which may say something about Tucker's performance. When Tucker was released, Friedman became the nominal starter, if only for a few hours.
By this point, Crennel had lost the ability to be upbeat. "I like the guys I have," Crennel said. "What am I supposed to do, sit up here and say, 'I hate the guys?' C'mon -- they have to play for me. I have to give them as much support as I can." Crennel knew by that time that more help was on the way. Savage didn't mean to save his best acquisition for last; he had no choice.
Center #7: Hank Fraley
Resume: Actual NFL-caliber starting center coming off an injury
Status: Starting. Hallelujah.
Hank Fraley started 71 games for the Eagles before getting hurt in 2005. Youngster Jamaal Jackson played well in Fraley's absence, so Fraley came to Eagles camp fighting for a job. He worked out at both center and guard in preseason games, proving that he was healthy enough to play and versatile enough to make a roster even if he didn't start.
Savage had his eye on Fraley from the moment Bentley got hurt. The Eagles and Browns were rumored to be in negotiations throughout the late summer. Various Fraley-for-Lee Suggs trades reached the rumor mill, but nothing came of them. Some speculated that the Eagles were still mad that the Browns won the Bentley derby. More likely, Andy Reid simply didn't want to trade a veteran lineman until he knew he had enough depth.
The Browns savior was a center who never played for them: Nick Cole, an Eagles rookie who played so well that he made Fraley expendable. Savage landed the veteran Fraley for a sixth-round pick. When Tucker was cut, the Browns got back one of the conditional picks they traded. After all of the injuries, the Browns had a dependable starter with a playoff pedigree, plus two serviceable backups who could also play guard in Friedman and (when his suspension ends) Ephraim. "We weathered the storm," Savage said after signing Fraley.
All that was left was to get the line to play as a unit. No problem; Fraley signed with five days to spare. "He still needs time with the guys on either side of him and he still needs to learn the terminology, which is the biggest thing," Crennel said when Fraley was signed. "We might call things potatoes and (the Eagles) might call them tomatoes." There was some brief speculation that Friedman, with his two-week head start on learning the offense, might start the opener against the Saints. But one look at Fraley should tell you that he knows the difference between a tomato and a potato. He started against the Saints. And he has started ever since.
With Fraley on the roster, the Browns have a pretty good center. With Bentley, they would have had a great one. With Heller, Smith, Salaam, Tucker, or Friedman, they probably would have had an awful one, a stopgap player who would have left Charlie Frye vulnerable to an inside rush on every pass play. Even with Fraley in the fold, the lack of continuity on the Browns line is obvious. There are false starts and blown assignments. Often, the run blocking is ragged. But there are five competent players on the field, and they should improve over the next few weeks.
Savage took some heat over his handling of the center crisis, and he's under some pressure from the Cleveland media after the Browns' 0-3 start. Could he have done a better job of replacing Bentley? He certainly could have handled the Ephraim situation better. Signing two players who were ready for retirement -- Hallen and the guard Washington -- just wasted energy, money, and roster space. Might he have acquired Fraley in early August instead of early September? Possibly, but the price was probably too high for an aging, overweight player in the final year of his contract. Savage hustled, brought in warm bodies by the truckload, and eventually got the best replacement center possible for a discount price. In the end, the Browns were deep enough to cut the centers they didn't want. It didn't seem like they would have that luxury in mid-August.
But while Savage did all he could, the center crisis sapped team resources and slowed the team's development. The 0-3 start has all but doomed the Browns to a losing record this season. Even as the line starts to come together, injuries are mounting at other positions. Maybe the franchise is jinxed after all.
And next year, they may have to do the center dance all over again. Bentley faces a long rehab with no guarantees. Fraley is old. Rob Smith isn't an top prospect. The journeymen should probably journey on after season's end. The Browns may have to draft a center next year.
Here's hoping the kid takes out a good insurance policy.
35 comments, Last at 03 Oct 2006, 3:19pm by Scorpious