BEREA — The beginning was supposed to be the end of the Browns. Three division home games and a trip to the West Coast in September were believed to be too much for coach Romeo Crennel and his team to survive.
But after home upsets of the high-powered Bengals and defensive-minded Ravens — the last two AFC North champions — the Browns sit 2-2 overall and 2-1 in the AFC North. They’re a game behind the division-leading Steelers, and optimism runs rampant.
“At the beginning of the year, a lot of people would’ve said the Browns didn’t have a chance to be that,” Crennel said Monday, a day after a 27-13 win over Baltimore. “That’s where we are right now. We’ll take that and get ready to play the next game.”
If not for a blocked field goal in Oakland, the Browns could be 3-1 and tied atop the division with Pittsburgh. But 2-2 is enough to excite the fans and silence the critics who predicted an 0-4 start and Crennel’s firing at the bye week.
“I want to thank the NFL for giving us this schedule at home, so we could start out early,” right tackle Kevin Shaffer said Sunday. “We put ourselves in some great shape for down the road. The schedule was either make it or break it, and so far we’re making it.”
Many, including general manager Phil Savage, questioned the league for giving the Browns all three home division games in the first month. The Browns had gone 1-11 inside the AFC North in two years under Savage and Crennel and appeared to be set up for failure.
Shaffer never bought into the negativity.
“I was excited when I saw it,” he said of the schedule. “I saw that as an opportunity rather than a problem. It was an opportunity to show people our new team and new offense.”
The first display was like too many others from the previous eight years. The Steelers, under a first-time head coach, invaded the lakefront and left with a 34-7 win. Quarterback Charlie Frye was traded in the fallout and the “dysfunctional” Browns appeared as hopeless as ever.
“We were shell-shocked,” receiver Braylon Edwards said of the loss to the Steelers. “We were all trying to figure out what the hell happened.”
But Derek Anderson has been a steadying presence at quarterback, the offensive talent has emerged on Sundays and a team with every reason to have a fragile psyche has been resilient. The Browns bounced back from the opening loss to beat the Bengals 51-45, then followed up a lackadaisical, final-second loss to Oakland with a dominating performance against the Ravens.
The tattoo on the inside of tight end Kellen Winslow’s forearm is correct: Without struggle there is no progress.
“To know that you can bounce back and against a good football team, that is encouraging,” Crennel said. “Guys have the ability, we just have to remain focused and play consistently every week. If we do that, we’ll be competitive and have our chance to win.”
That the Browns are brimming with confidence now makes sense. That they had enough in reserve following the difficult losses to Pittsburgh and Oakland speaks to the personalities of Edwards and Winslow and the widespread faith in first-year offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.
The offense carried the defense through September and has scored at least 24 points in three straight games. They scored 24 points three times in 2006. Anderson has been the driving force and allowed the team’s hierarchy to keep rookie Brady Quinn on the sideline, as it had hoped.
“He really hasn’t surprised,” Crennel said of Anderson. “I always refer back to the Kansas City game. He won the game for us and that let me know he’s capable of playing in the NFL. Overall he’s shown he’s capable, when he plays within himself and the scheme.”
Savage tried to end talk of Crennel entering the season on the hot seat with a preseason vote of confidence, but speculation persisted. When asked if the good start relieved the pressure, Crennel cracked a wry grin.
“It doesn’t take any pressure off anybody,” he said. “Every Sunday is a pressure-packed Sunday and you have to play your best to win. We’ve got 12 more to play.
“Hopefully we can get to the point where we can expect to win football games all the time.”
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7135 or email@example.com.