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29 Sep 2006

Too Deep Zone: Snapped Out of It

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.

Plans A and B

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.

Plans C and D

Center #3: Alonzo Ephraim
Resume: Veteran backup
Status: Suspended.

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.

We May Need a Longer Alphabet

Center #5: Ross Tucker
Resume: Career backup at guard
Status: Cut.

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
Status: Benched.

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.

No Perfect Solution

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.

Posted by: Mike Tanier on 29 Sep 2006

35 comments, Last at 03 Oct 2006, 3:19pm by Scorpious


by Tom S (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 12:14pm

First! Wow, glad I'm not under center for the Browns, Signed, Charles Frye.

Opp, wait, I'm Charlie Frye!


by Spartacus (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 12:20pm

I'm Charlie Frye

by James C (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 12:31pm

I'm Charlie Frye

by Pat (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 12:33pm

There are false starts and blown assignments.

Mike, I hate to point this out, but: the only false start that Cleveland has committed so far this year has been Kellen Winslow's jump in Week 3. Not one offensive lineman has committed a false start penalty.

Now, there have certainly been problems: Cleveland gave up 7 sacks versus Baltimore, so certainly there were blown assignments. But there haven't been false starts.

by Abarine (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 12:49pm

Actually, there haven't been false starts; we've only been penalized offensively eight times this season, and four of those were in the first game. Holding calls were an issue in the Saints game.

Granted, the offensive line looks awful...but that's got a lot to do with poor guard play (some of which is being misinterpreted as being poor tackle play; Shaffer can't block two guys, Andruzzi!) Our running game is meh, but Reuben's not been 100% ever since Pollack hit him (although Droughns clearly came out better than Pollack, his shoulder was messed up in the Bengals game and he sat out the Ravens game), so it's hard to blame that 100% on the offensive line. I'd say 85%-90% is the line's fault, though.

by MJK (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 12:51pm

All Patriots fans who have been moaning about losing WR's, and Broncos fans who have been moaning about Plummer's poor play, and Bengals fans who have been moaning about injuries...basically, any moaning fans of teams that will probably make the playoffs should take note. It seems like Browns fans really know about suffering.

by Trogdor (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 12:56pm

Nice article, but you left out some of the other centers they tried: John "Stumpy" Pepys, Eric "Stumpy Joe" Childs, Peter "James" Bond, Mick Shrimpton, Joe "Mama" Besser, Richard "Ric" Shrimpton...

by White Rose Duelist (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 12:57pm

I'm Charlie F*thump*


by David (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 1:04pm

Am I the only one who's immensely bitter about that sixth-round pick? Seriously, Fraley started for his entire non-rookie career, plays well at a position the Browns desperately needed someone to play, and that's all we get? Aaaaaaargh.

by ToxikFetus (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 1:08pm

Re: 9

Something's better than nothing. When it was clear that Honey Buns wasn't winning the starting job and Nick Cole wowed the coaches, Fraley became expendable. He was getting cut anyway, so it was either a sixth rounder or zippy.

by JPS (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 1:14pm

Wow, what a saga the Browns have had to go through with this! And all this happened within a month's time? That's amazing. I wonder if a sage-burning ceremony would help unjinx the Browns -- I understand the Rams did it prior to Kurt Warner's Super Bowl season. :-)

by Justanothersteve (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 1:45pm

#11 - If the Rams did it before their Super Bowl season, it didn't help. Their expected starting QB, Trent Green, was injured due to a cheap hit by then Chargers safety Rodney Harrison. They were lucky that former stockboy Warner was already on the roster as his backup.

by Dave (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 2:13pm

I wonder if a sage-burning ceremony would help unjinx the Browns

I will try anything. this has been the worst 7 years of football. I don't think jinxed says it, with the other teams history(Cavs, pre-Lebron and Indians) in this city I beleive we are doomed for nothing more than sub-mediocre sports.

As for injuries, we expect it to happen, we have become use to it.

...where's my nuse

by Bobman (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 2:38pm

This was a great in-depth piece for an Indy fan living in Seattle who would have never learned this stuff otherwise. I now have a little more sympathy for the Browns. Not that that helps much.

And Dave (#13), hang in there. I've seen some lean years rooting for the Colts in Balto and now Indy. The shining moments seem to cover up the atrocities (a no-win strike-shortened season, 2-win seasons, back-to back 3-win seasons...), but I think we have had the most #1 draft picks in the last 35 years--that's NOT good news, especially when Art Schlichter was considered a typical 1st rounder for the Colts before the Polian regime arrived.

by Random Bengals Fan (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 2:54pm

We've only lost one center, thus far. Praise Jebus!

by Basilicus (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 3:24pm

Whatever happened to baby Faine?

Oh, wait, solid starter for the Saints. That's not ironic.

by Andrew (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 3:30pm

David #9:

Am I the only one who’s immensely bitter about that sixth-round pick?

A 6th from the Browns is almost like a 5th from a real team.

The Eagles have done pretty well with 5th's recently - Tony Stewart, AJ Feeley, Thomas Tapeh, Trent Cole, Scott Young, Jeremy Bloom, and Omar Gaither.

by Pat (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 3:38pm

It's a 2008 6th. So who knows where it'll be, although likely it'll be high. They really didn't get much, and unlike #9, I don't believe Fraley would've been cut, since he was a backup C/G. But I kinda think Fraley deserved the trade, in some sense, and it didn't really hurt Philly, though I don't really think that it helped them either.

by Adam Gretz (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 4:23pm

For a quick and dirty comparison, I don't think the Steelers have had more than 5 guys start at center for them since 1974.

You had Webster and Dawson start every game until, what? 2000?

Then you had 1 or 2 random guys named Harry step in for a game or two during the 2000 season to fill in for Dawson as his career was winding down and then the Steelers went and signed Jeff Hartings who has played the position since 2001....minus the rare start by Chukki Okobi every blue moon.

by DGL (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 4:47pm

19: Go back even further, and you have the Ranger, Ray Mansfield, who was on the team since 1964, though I don't know when he took over the starter's job.

So, basically, aside from some spot starts, you've had Mansfield, Webster, Dawson, and Hartings starting at center for the past 40 years.

by ZS (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 5:31pm

There's a Jim Otto joke somewhere in this article, I just haven't found it yet.

by ZS (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 5:31pm

Oh, and I'm Charlie Frye.

by mattman (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 5:55pm

Fraley is clearly better than options 2-6, but I don't know if I'd call him 'pretty good'. He was a good center for several years, but he had already taken a step backwards before getting hurt in '05, and in the preseason it became clear that his physical ability (always limited) was vanishing quickly. He couldn't hold up at all, as Jeff Garcia's nonstop preseason chuck-and-duck can attest. Haven't gotten to see any Browns games (Or maybe I should say I've been lucky enough to not see any Browns games yet), so I don't know how Fraley's looked so far, but I'll say this - Maybe the biggest reason, and one nobody's talking about, that the Eagles look so impressive in the early going is the upgrade of C Jamaal Jackson and LG Todd Herremans over Hank Fraley and Artis Hicks. The interior line is night and day over last year. Fraley had become a liability.

by Pat (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 6:33pm

"Liability to the Eagles" is not exactly the same thing as "liability to the Browns", though. Philly had the luxury of upgrading - Cleveland did not.

by Harris (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 8:21pm

A sixth-round pick two-years from now for a guy who started as recently as last year is a jack move considering how desperate the Browns were. I've heard Savage's job is on the line, but that transaction should save him.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Fri, 09/29/2006 - 9:06pm

RE: 21

ZS, man is that sad and scary. Plus I'm envious I didn't think of it first. Ya think Frye has the old man on speed dial?

by ZS (not verified) :: Sat, 09/30/2006 - 12:43am

Actually I'm refering to the whole LeCharles Bentley/Jim Otto Double-Zero debacle, but come to think of it, he IS in the Hall Of Fame.

by Bobman (not verified) :: Sat, 09/30/2006 - 2:15am

ZS, That's excellent, I forgot about the 00 debacle.

I assumed your comment was a straight-over-tackle joke about wanting a 65 year old, 99% arthritic HOFer snapping and protecting the middle of the line, because he'd still be an improvement over the present situation.

Would the league allow him to use his walker on the field? Probably allow that sooner than they'd allow him to use 00 again.

by Mike Carlson (not verified) :: Sat, 09/30/2006 - 2:20pm

Little known Lenny Friedman fact: when he played (guard) for the Barcelona Dragons he was voted team MVP by his teammates...it wasnt a very good NFLE team though

by Fargo (not verified) :: Sun, 10/01/2006 - 10:08am

#29 - are you Mike Carlson, as in "Channel 5 football legend" Mike Carlson? If so, you rock. You should totally plug this site to UK fans.
If you're not, this probably doesn't make much sense to you. Don't worry 'bout it.

by noah of the ark (not verified) :: Sun, 10/01/2006 - 2:15pm

The Dolphins are down to right guard #5, and he is not nearly as good as Fraley... darn. What hurts more is that even guy #3 was decent. All out of those, I'm afraid...

by Theo (not verified) :: Sun, 10/01/2006 - 5:49pm

what the hell is AWOL?

by Fargo (not verified) :: Sun, 10/01/2006 - 6:32pm

Absent Without Official Leave

by Fargo (not verified) :: Sun, 10/01/2006 - 6:32pm

ie. he buggered off without telling anyone

by Scorpious (not verified) :: Tue, 10/03/2006 - 3:19pm

The Browns are becoming the Colts of the 90's... the team where older, formerly good players go to die.