MARK DUNCAN / AP Enlarge
BEREA, Ohio - On coach Romeo Crennel's whistle, the Cleveland Browns sprinted across the field en masse as hundreds of fans dressed in various shades of brown and orange hooted and hollered as if they had just witnessed a Derek Anderson-to-Braylon Edwards touchdown pass.
As training camp officially opened, a loud air horn pierced the air.
Moments later, an unexpected chant rose from the aluminum bleachers ringing Cleveland's practice fields.
"Su-per Bowl! Su-per Bowl!" went the cry.
Around here, they're dreaming big.
With expectations higher than they've been since the late 1980s, when Bernie Kosar was under center, the Browns embarked yesterday on a 2008 season many believe has the potential to carry into 2009. So bad for so long, the Browns, yeah, you heard right, the Browns, have become a trendy pick to make a championship run this season.
"It feels good," said Edwards, who made the Pro Bowl after catching 80 passes and scoring 16 TDs last season. "At the same time, we know what we have to do and what is being called upon us to do. Last year, we were knocking at the door for the playoffs. So to go from not making the playoffs is a big step. But if we play our cards right and take it a game at a time, we have a chance to at least be in the running."
In the running. That's what the Browns have been building for.
After winning just four games in 2006, they went 10-6 last season with a high-scoring offense and just missed making the playoffs. It was an unexpected turnaround for a franchise in disrepair since its 1999 expansion return, and it came after general manager Phil Savage traded starting quarterback Charlie Frye following a 34-7 season-opening loss to Pittsburgh.
With a roster of rising stars including Edwards, Anderson, tackle Joe Thomas, tight end Kellen Winslow and others, the Browns are summer chic. It remains to be seen what will happen this fall and winter, when they tackle a killer schedule that will include five prime-time TV appearances.
For now, though, the Browns have believers.
Before camp began, Crennel, who is entering his fourth season, spoke with his team about managing the presumption that they belong among the league's best.
"I said people are going to be talking to you about the tough schedule, but the schedule is the schedule and we're going to play the schedule," Crennel said after putting his team through a light, one-hour workout. "I told them that everybody expects a lot from us because of what we did last year. And I told them that we are going to embrace that. That beats the alternative.
"Around here for a long time there were no expectations, so we're glad that people have some confidence and want to see us do good and we're going to try to prove worthy of those expectations."
Unlike a year ago, when Crennel determined his starting quarterback for the exhibition opener with a coin flip, Anderson is No. 1 on the depth chart with Brady Quinn again serving as his backup. That could change with an injury or if Anderson plays poorly in Cleveland's first four games, a rugged stretch with home games against Dallas and Pittsburgh followed by games in Baltimore and Cincinnati.
Anderson, the big-armed 25-year-old from tiny Scappoose, Ore., may never match Quinn in popularity but he's growing on Cleveland's fans, some of whom chanted "D.A., D.A." during the camp's opening practice. Anderson threw 29 TD passes and for 3,787 yards last season, and feels he can put up even bigger numbers now that he's more comfortable in second-year coordinator Rob Chudzinski's passing-friendly system.
Anderson cracked last summer in his head-to-head competition with Frye, and there's no guarantee he'll maintain his hold on the starting job with Quinn poised to steal it if given the chance.
But on the first day of camp, the Browns and their fans were bathed in a belief that this could be a special season, one that could end with the club's first Super Bowl trip.
"It has to be," said Dan Cordle of Thornville. "Phil Savage said two years ago to give him three years and we'll be there. This is it."
When practice ended, Crennel, who received a two-year contract extension during the offseason, huddled his team before sending them over to the ropes to sign autographs for fans who can't wait for the Sept. 7 opener against Dallas to arrive.
"There's a lot of optimism," said Quinn, who grew up in suburban Columbus rooting for the Browns. "That's something you need to have. However, it's our job now to convince people. That's what we're working towards.
"Saying it is one thing and proving it on the field is something different."41.36507 -81.85258