Grass Is Suddenly Greener on Browns' Side

Derek Anderson passed for 310 yards and two touchdowns against the Giants on Monday after a poor start to the season endangered his role with the Browns.
Derek Anderson passed for 310 yards and two touchdowns against the Giants on Monday after a poor start to the season endangered his role with the Browns. (By Gregory Shamus -- Getty Images)
By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 15, 2008

It could have been a crossroads sort of day for the Cleveland Browns and their coach, Romeo Crennel.

Yesterday could have been a day when Crennel was left trying to salvage a broken season, a day when he would have had to decide whether to give up on quarterback Derek Anderson and bench him in favor of former first-round draft pick Brady Quinn.

That would have been Crennel's predicament if the Browns had lost Monday night at home to the New York Giants, who had been the NFL's most dominant team early this season. The Browns, meantime, had been struggling mightily to meet the lofty expectations created by last season's 10-victory surprise.

But just when it appeared the Browns' season might be all but lost, they responded with the sort of performance that can serve to restore hope and save starting jobs. They intercepted Giants quarterback Eli Manning three times and rode the passing of Anderson to a 35-14 triumph. Instead of contemplating a quarterback switch yesterday, Crennel could look forward to Sunday's game against the Washington Redskins at FedEx Field as a chance for his club to climb back to .500.

"Everybody just stuck together and played as a team," Browns tailback Jamal Lewis told reporters after the game. "Everybody played together. The defense played well. . . . This felt like the Browns of last year. We have to build on this."

Heading into the season, the Browns appeared to be a threat to become an AFC heavyweight. They had the parts on offense with a Pro Bowl quarterback in Anderson, dynamic pass catchers in wideout Braylon Edwards and tight end Kellen Winslow, a hard-running tailback in Lewis and an offensive line anchored by superb young left tackle Joe Thomas.

Crennel and General Manager Phil Savage had gotten contract extensions after last season's playoff near-miss, and the Browns had used the offseason to add wide receiver Donte' Stallworth and bolster the middle of their defensive line by obtaining tackles Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams.

Anderson, too, had gotten a handsome new deal after throwing for 3,787 yards and 29 touchdowns. The former Baltimore Ravens castoff was an unlikely franchise quarterback in the making. He was supposed to be keeping the seat warm for Quinn when he took over as the starter one game into last season after Crennel abruptly got rid of previous starter Charlie Frye.

Anderson's passing exploits kept Quinn on the bench all of last season as a rookie, however, and the Browns signed Anderson to a three-year, $24 million contract early in the offseason to keep him off the restricted free agent market. The Browns, it seemed, had a pleasant problem: too many quarterbacks instead of too few.

But Anderson missed time in the preseason after a concussion, and he had company. Edwards and Lewis also were sidelined by injuries, with Edwards's coming when he gashed his foot while running a post-practice sprint in his socks.

When the season began, the Browns didn't look ready. They were no match for Dallas in a 28-10 loss at Cleveland Stadium. But there was no immediate panic. It was the Browns' ninth loss in 10 season openers, all at home, since the franchise had resumed play in Cleveland, and the Browns had rebounded from an opening defeat last season to play so well.

The loss to the Cowboys was followed by defeats to the Pittsburgh Steelers and Ravens, though. Anderson wasn't playing like the quarterback he'd been last season, and Crennel faced public clamoring for a switch to Quinn. He even left open the possibility of making the move, announcing he would get more practice-field snaps for Quinn.

But Crennel never went to Quinn, and the Browns have steadied themselves with victories over the winless Cincinnati Bengals and the Giants, sandwiched around a bye week. Anderson entered the Giants game having completed 49.6 percent of his passes this season, with three touchdowns and six interceptions. But he threw for 310 yards and two touchdowns against New York in a 18-for-29 passing performance.

"This is us, and we are going to keep fighting," Anderson said during his postgame news conference. "We set the bar high for ourselves."

Manning had thrown one interception this season before throwing three against the Browns, the last of which was returned 94 yards for a touchdown by cornerback Eric Wright. The Browns won without Winslow, who spent three nights at the Cleveland Clinic because of an undisclosed illness. He was released from the hospital on Sunday, and there was some speculation Monday he might play against the Giants, but he didn't. No matter. One of his replacements, Darnell Dinkins, had a touchdown catch.

"I said after the Cincinnati game that the win was a step in the right direction," Crennel said during his postgame news conference. "I think that win gave us some confidence."

Winslow could be back in the lineup against the Redskins. A few days ago, this might have looked like a stress-free game for the Redskins. But that was before the Redskins lost Sunday at home to the previously winless Rams, and before the Browns began resembling last season's Browns again Monday night.

"We have a great team, and our best football is still to come," Wright told reporters late Monday night. "We were just looking forward to the opportunity to play the defending champs. As long as we play to our potential, we can play with anybody."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company