BEREA - Browns general manager Phil Savage is a rare breed in sports. He is an honest man, perhaps to a fault, especially when it comes to discussing his team.
"After our first game, I told somebody, â€˜I don`t think we`ll be favored to win a game the rest of the year,`" he admitted Wednesday. "If you had told me we`d be in this situation now -- I`d have asked, â€˜Where do I sign up?`"
Things, obviously, have turned around for Cleveland since its 34-7 season-opening smashing by Pittsburgh.
The Browns are 7-4 and holding down one of the AFC`s two wild-card playoff berths with five games to go. If they win four of their remaining games, they are virtually assured of advancing to the postseason.
According to Savage, the lion`s share of credit for the turnaround belongs to coach Romeo Crennel.
"I`m real happy for Romeo. A lot of people were coming after him over the summer, but he handled it with a lot of dignity," Savage said. "Romeo is man enough to handle it, and he`ll handle what success we have the same way."
Savage gave Crennel his first head coaching job in February 2005, just one month after becoming a GM for the first time.
Cleveland had a 6-10 record in their initial season and went
4-12 last year before experiencing this breakthrough year.
"You can say this or that about Romeo - defensive coach or offensive coach, (coming from Bill) Parcells` tree or (Bill) Belichick`s tree - but the fact of the matter is he`s a good man," Savage said. "I think that`s the thing that wins out with Romeo Crennel. I think our players recognize that and that`s why they enjoy playing for him."
Many of Crennel`s peers display the same affection for him, which Savage said is equally rewarding. He gave the lifelong assistant a chance to be the top guy with the Browns.
Now, both of them are reaping the product of their hard work.
"I was at the Mississippi State game a week or two ago and I saw (coach) Sylvester Croom," Savage said. "He said, â€˜Tell Romeo congratulations. I`m just so happy for Romeo.`
"The man has a lot of respect out there in the football world. I`m happy for him that we`re showing some signs that we`re a legitimate team and it`s coming together."
HOUSE OF CARDS
The Browns (7-4) meet the Arizona Cardinals (5-6) in Glendale, Ariz., on Sunday afternoon. Arizona is coming off a demoralizing 37-31 loss to the San Francisco 49ers, but remains in the NFC playoff race and owns victories over the Steelers and Bengals.
"I keep telling the guys that they did beat Pittsburgh, which we haven`t been able to do, and they also beat Cincinnati," Crennel said.
The Cardinals feature quarterback Kurt Warner, running back Edgerrin James, and wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald. Their coach is also a familiar name in Ken Whisenhunt, a former Pittsburgh offensive assistant who was the Browns` special teams coach in 1999.
"You have to be ready to play them because they`ve got some great offensive talent," Cleveland cornerback Brandon McDonald said. "We`re spending a lot of time preparing for Fitzgerald and Boldin this week."
Defensive ends Robaire Smith and Orpheus Roye, nose tackle Ethan Kelley, guard Kevin Shaffer and cornerback Eric Wright sat out the Browns` afternoon practice, while Antwan Peek saw light activity. All six players have knee injuries.
"None of these injuries are operational or anything like that," Crennel said. "They`re banged up and they need some rest."
Wide receiver Braylon Edwards (hamstring) also was a spectator, but said it wasn`t for physical reasons.
"I`ve worked hard and it`s a long season, so Coach just gave me a day off," he explained. "I`m certainly not going to challenge him on the issue. I`ll be fine for Sunday."
* The Cardinals held defensive tackle Ross Kolodziej (quadriceps) and safety Adrian Wilson (heel) out of practice, while safety Aaron Francisco (calf) and wide receiver Jerheme Urban (heel) were limited. Fitzgerald (groin) and Warner (elbow) are also on their injury report, but will play Sunday.
CHIP OFF THE BLOCK
Safety Gary Baxter has been chosen by his teammates as the Browns` recipient of the Ed Block Courage Award.
Baxter ruptured both of his patellar tendons in an Oct. 22, 2006, game against Denver, but worked his way back into shape to make Cleveland`s 2007 squad. He spent the first six weeks on the 53-man roster - but did not appear in a game - before being placed on injured reserve.
The Block Award is given to a player who best exhibits courage, compassion, commitment and community service. Other Cleveland winners include Derrick Alexander (1999), Jamir Miller (2000), Jeremy McKinney (2001), Mark Campbell (2002), Courtney Brown (2003), Lee Suggs (2004), Kenard Lang (2005) and Phil Dawson (2006).
In light of the shooting death of Redskins safety Sean Taylor, Crennel expounded on the message he gives his players.
"We tell them that they live in a glass house, and they have to be cognizant of that fact," the coach said. "They are basically instructed to take the precautions necessary to protect themselves."
Crennel added that he does not know how many members of the Browns own handguns, but "if they do have guns, I`ve told them to turn them in."
Running back Kory Chapman and tight end Jonny Harline were added to the Browns` practice squad. Chapman has spent three years on practice squads with the Colts and Patriots. Harline, a rookie from Brigham Young, was on Cleveland`s practice squad for six weeks earlier this season. They replace running back Chris Barclay (Titans) and tight end Richard Angulo (Jaguars), who were signed to other clubs` active rosters.
Safety Brodney Pool, an Oklahoma product, refused to offer a prediction on the Sooners` college football showdown with No. 1 Missouri.
"Everybody is asking me that this week," he said, laughing. "Call Coach (Bob) Stoopes."
The game - with huge Bowl Championship Series implications for Ohio State - is Saturday night.
"Everybody wants to say Heinz Field is a tough place to kick because of the wind (at the open end of the stadium), but I`ve been saying for years that it`s because of the field. What you saw the other night speaks for itself." - Phil Dawson on the swamp-like surface the Steelers and Dolphins played on Monday. Pittsburgh won the game 3-0.
Contact Brian Dulik at 329-7135 or email@example.com.