Reverse Play

With Browns on the rise and Ravens falling fast, teams linked by history see a shift in fortunes

Ravens Weekend

November 16, 2007|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN REPORTER

The franchises have been intertwined from the moment the Cleveland Browns were resurrected in 1999, three years after Art Modell packed up more than three decades of memories and months of festering animosity and moved his team to Baltimore, renaming it the Ravens.

Since then, the Ravens and Browns have had little in common.

Nothing has changed much going into Sunday's game at M&T Bank Stadium, with the teams seemingly headed in opposite directions. This time, however, the 4-5 Ravens and the 5-4 Browns have traded places in the AFC North hierarchy, as well as the pecking order in the NFL.

Asked whether it will feel strange coming to Baltimore as a three-point favorite, Browns coach Romeo Crennel laughed.

"When you look at my record for the last two years [10-22], yeah, I would say it is," Crennel said this week. "Whether I'm the favorite or the underdog, I need to win the game."

This season, the Ravens might need it more. Given the difficulty of their remaining schedule - and barring an unforeseen turnaround - the Ravens will be hard-pressed to finish .500. They have lost three consecutive games, the latest an embarrassing 21-7 defeat to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at home.

Their downfall from a team that finished 13-3 last season can be traced directly to an offense ranked in the bottom third of many offensive categories.

"The game is now an offensive game," former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski said last week. "I'm not just a believer that championships are won by playing great defense and stopping the run. To me, you've got to get explosive plays out of the passing game. It's too hard to grind out 80-yard, 15-play drives in today's game."

The Browns might not be proof that offense wins championships, but a more explosive offense has certainly overcome a defense ranked near or at the bottom in a number of categories. Before Sunday's 31-28 loss in Pittsburgh, the Browns had won three straight for the first time since 2001. They are looking for their first winning season since 2002.

"The guys have a little more confidence, we have better football players, there's been some continuity to the program. I think all those things helped us improve," Crennel said. "Sometimes in this business, improvement is not a straight line."

Former NFL coach Dan Reeves, who saw the Ravens play this season in his role as a radio analyst and has watched the Browns a couple of times on television, said the difference in the teams correlates to the quarterback position.

"The Browns have been searching for a quarterback, and now they've found one," Reeves said, referring to Derek Anderson, a third-year player who was drafted and waived by the Ravens in 2005. "The quarterback position has been unsettled in Baltimore with the injury to Steve [McNair]."

John Wooten, who played nine seasons in Cleveland and helped build the Ravens from the ground up as assistant director of player personnel, said the performance of the teams this season comes down to age and injuries.

"It's no secret that when you get past that 30 mark or get into that 30 area, you have to work harder to maintain your physical conditioning," Wooten said. "Braylon [Edwards] and Kellen [Winslow] were injured early, but because of their youth, they were able to come back quickly."

The turnaround in Cleveland can be linked directly to the college draft, something Browns general manager Phil Savage learned in his years working under Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore.

In 2004, before Savage's arrival in Cleveland, the Browns picked Winslow with the sixth overall selection. In 2005, they picked Edwards at No. 3. This year, it was offensive tackle Joe Thomas at No. 3 and quarterback Brady Quinn, who slipped to No. 22.

"We're finally on the landscape of the NFL, and we have something to build on," Savage said last night. "I hope we're able to keep going and win some games. It's been a lot of fun this year. The first two years were not much fun for anybody. I'm not saying that we have arrived, but some of the things we've done have come to fruition."

Said Reeves: "Teams like Cleveland, you keep drafting in the top five every single year, it's hard to do a bad job. You're going to get players, and players are going to do the job. I'm not taking anything away from Romeo; he's done a great job."

A team spokesman said yesterday that Newsome would not comment for this story.

Matt Stover, who played five seasons in Cleveland before moving with the team to Baltimore, said the Ravens helped pave the way for the Browns to become a team that can separate itself from a mostly miserable recent past.

"I think [the fans] did realize as time went on that the best thing that could have happened to them were those three years without football," Stover said. "They got a new stadium and a billionaire owner, which would have never happened if the team didn't come to Baltimore."

The differences between the teams are not simply found in their inverted records.

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