BEREA, Ohio -- Five observations on the Cleveland Browns, gleaned from the team's Aug. 9 practices:
1. Unfriendly foes
General manager Phil Savage knows that to compete consistently in the AFC North, a division he understands well from his long tenure as the Baltimore Ravens' personnel chief, a franchise has to build systematically. The blueprint here is a good one, with an emphasis on the draft and on filling in with some key free-agent acquisitions. The Browns are starting to get some nice, young pieces into place. But this is a year in which progress may be measured qualitatively and not quantitatively, not so much in wins as in growing up in general. That's in part because Cleveland has experienced more than its share of misfortune with some pricey free-agent additions.
Cornerback Gary Baxter blew out both his patellar tendons in 2006 in one of the truly freak plays in league history. Center LeCharles Bentley tore a patellar tendon last summer in the first training camp practice. Left guard Eric Steinbach had an appendectomy this spring and on Tuesday sustained a sprained posterior cruciate ligament. Linebacker Willie McGinest had back surgery on Thursday for a bulging disk. Those are all setbacks for which any franchise would find it difficult to compensate. But the Browns have to find a way to overcome the adversities and to perform better in the division. In coach Romeo Crennel's two seasons, Cleveland has actually been relatively competitive outside the AFC North, with a 9-11 record. Inside the division, though, the Browns are a miserable 1-11. They have been outscored by an average of 13.5 points in those games, lost eight of them by 10 points or more, and three by 20 or more points. The Browns will find out quickly how they stack up against their division foes this year, since they face all three in the first month of the season.