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Cleveland Browns Caught Off Center

A cautionary tale for Steelers fans

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It would be easy for Steelers fans to revel in the Cleveland Browns' misery. Just like it would be simple to be smug about the Steelers' roster at the center position. Because while the Steelers are starting the season with their third center in as many decades, the Browns will start with their fourth center in about as many weeks.

The Steelers have always made center a focal point. As for the Browns, apparently their first-round draft pick in 2003, center Jeff Faine, was a disappointment: Even though he was only one element in their blocking schemes, the stats bear it out. The Browns ranked in the bottom 10 in rushing last year, averaging about 93 yards per game on the ground. (The Steelers ranked fifth, averaging nearly 139 yards per game.)

Cleveland's weak offensive line didn't help the starting QBs much either; the line surrendered 45 sacks to opponents throughout the season. Only six other NFL teams gave up more, and they were all likewise sitting at home when the playoffs started. (Conversely, the Steelers only gave up 32 — and remember, clay-footed Tommy Maddox played two and one-half of those games.)

To recap the drama across the turnpike, in March the Browns tried to anchor their line by signing a two-time Pro Bowler, LeCharles Bentley, away from the Saints. Bentley was to provide an upgrade to Faine — who is now in New Orleans. They made this move, I believe, because Faine could never stem the onrushing tide that is Casey "Snacks" Hampton, who they have to face twice every year.

So, like a baseball manager, Browns coach Romeo Crennel sought to shore up his team right up the middle. It was a great idea, but Bentley went down with a torn patellar tendon at the beginning of camp. He is out for the season.

After Bentley went down, the Browns made an emergency signing of Alonzo Ephraim, an undrafted free agent out of Alabama and member of the Eagles squad in 2004. Before the ink was dry on his contract, he tested positive for a banned substance. He'll be suspended for the first four regular season games.

This is all compounded by the fact that back-up center Bob Hallen suddenly retired, citing a back problem previously unknown to the team.

So, with training camp just ending, the Browns are looking to their fourth center, Ross Tucker, who was acquired in a trade from New England. (Hey, at least the guy already knows the head coach.) I'd have some misgivings, if I were Tucker. Signing on to play center for the Browns is like signing on to be the drummer for Spinal Tap.

It's a risk teams face at every position, but when you see these kinds of problems over and over with the same franchises, you start to wonder if it's systemic.

Either way, the Browns' problems at center could mean more sacks for Snacks this year, so why isn't this more fun?

Maybe it's because injuries happen to everybody, and the Steelers are in a tenuous position themselves.

Assuming starting center Jeff Hartings stays healthy, very few are better at his job. In the preseason game against the Vikings, Hartings, an 11-year veteran pulled from his center position to lead block on a reverse to Nate Washington. Hartings looked nearly as speedy as Dermonti Dawson. Nevertheless, he's got about as much give left in his old knees as is left in the suspension of my 20-year-old car. One bad hit or twist and then what? Backup center Chukky Okobi is out with a neck injury. Do the Steelers go with guard Kendall Simmons, who the Steelers are experimenting with? (Hartings, remember, is a converted guard himself.) Or do they try the new kid, sixth-round draft pick Marvin Phillip?

The Browns' ship has been listing ever since their return to the league; maybe Romeo Crennel is the man to right it. I hope he is, actually, because I'm not enjoying this Steelers dominance as much as I would. I must be getting sentimental, because I long for the days when the Browns were a bona fide rival. So here's wishing a complete and speedy recovery to Cleveland's offensive line.

Now, who can tell me again who their starting center is? I forgot already.

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