Heading in the Right Direction

By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 15, 2006; 2:54 PM

An offseason that began with the Cleveland Browns not even knowing who would be making decisions for them -- much less knowing what those decisions would be -- somehow will conclude with the franchise at last headed in the right direction, albeit with a long way still to go before reaching respectability.

It appeared at the end of the 2005 season, in which rookie coach Romeo Crennel directed the Browns to a 6-10 record, that General Manager Phil Savage was on the verge of being fired. Savage, however, won his power struggle with club president John Collins and was retained to share decision-making responsibilities with Crennel and owner Randy Lerner, and Collins was ousted instead.

Savage followed with the sort of offseason performance that should leave Lerner pleased that he decided to stick with his general manager. The Browns might not be a good team quite yet next season, particularly with a youngster -- second-year pro Charlie Frye -- poised to be their starting quarterback. But they'll be far closer to being a decent club than they were last season.

The Browns struck early and often in free agency. They signed center LeCharles Bentley, one of the best players available on the entire unrestricted free agent market, to a six-year, $36 million contract that included $12.5 million in guaranteed money. They signed left tackle Kevin Shaffer to a six-year, $36.5 million deal that included $12 million in guaranteed money. They got veteran wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, punter Dave Zastudil and defensive tackle Ted Washington, who'd been released by the Oakland Raiders.

When the New England Patriots cut one of their cornerstone players, linebacker Willie McGinest, he decided to reunite with Crennel, the Patriots' defensive coordinator for their three Super Bowl titles, in Cleveland.

Those moves alone represent a major overhaul, and if tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. and wide receiver Braylon Edwards made successful comebacks from their knee injuries, suddenly this looks like a completely different team. The Browns had two of the first 34 picks in the NFL draft and got two linebackers who should be immediate contributors, first-rounder Kamerion Wimbley and second-rounder D'Qwell Jackson.

That's a significant infusion of talent, young and old. But Crennel's short-term problem is that he'll be playing, essentially, a rookie quarterback. Frye was a rookie last season and played in seven games, making five starts, while sharing time with Trent Dilfer. Dilfer was unhappy about the prospect of losing the starting job to Frye next season, so the Browns traded him to the San Francisco 49ers for quarterback Ken Dorsey and a seventh-round draft choice next year. With the Browns' proposed draft-weekend trade with the Detroit Lions for quarterback Joey Harrington having failed, it appears that Frye will have a relatively firm grip on the starting job next season.

That could keep the Browns' victory total from rising dramatically. Crennel will have to live with the ups and downs of a young quarterback, and taking his lumps next season to get experience for Frye will benefit him and the Browns in the long run. But that could keep the team from breaking .500.

Otherwise, the club is greatly improved. Winslow and Edwards should make a difference in the passing game, and Jurevicius provides some veteran stability. Shaffer and Bentley are major upgrades on the offensive line. McGinest, Wimbley and Jackson should be playmakers on defense, and Washington gives the unit the sort of blocker-occupying tackle up front to allow the linebackers to do their thing.

The Browns, behind Crennel and Savage, are on their way to being a good team. They probably won't get there next season, but at least now there's hope for an outfit that seemed so misguided under the direction of former coach Butch Davis.

Around The League

The Minnesota Vikings extended the contract of Scott Studwell, their director of college scouting. Studwell is one of the team's key front-office members after the club's firing of Fran Foley as its vice president of player personnel. . . .

People familiar with the Steve McNair grievance said in recent days they thought it was unlikely there would be a last-minute settlement in the case. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday.

The NFL Players Association filed a grievance on McNair's behalf after the Tennessee Titans barred the veteran quarterback from participating in offseason workouts at the club's training facility. McNair's contract with the Titans pays him a salary of $9 million next season, and team officials were wary that McNair would suffer an injury that would leave the club liable for his full salary. The Titans want McNair to agree to a reworked contract.

A proposed trade to the Baltimore Ravens during draft weekend wasn't completed. The union wants the Titans to release McNair or allow him to participate in workouts at their training facility.

According to several South Florida newspaper reports, the Miami Dolphins have offered a contract to former Virginia Tech quarterback Marcus Vick, who attended the team's recent rookie minicamp on a tryout basis. Vick practiced at wide receiver as well as at quarterback during the camp. Vick reportedly also has drawn interest from the Toronto Argonauts, the Canadian Football League team that would like to sign suspended Dolphins tailback Ricky Williams if the Dolphins give their approval. . . .

Doug Flutie has decided to retire, the Patriots announced today. The 43-year-old quarterback played five games for New England last season, and the Patriots wanted him back for another season as Tom Brady's backup. Instead, Flutie is calling it quits after a dozen NFL seasons. He also spent time in the CFL and the U.S. Football League.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company