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Pre-Game Recon With Dawgs By Nature

Happy Thanksgiving to all; hope everyone is gorging themselves at the trough and simultaneously rooting for Dallas to spit the bit.  Despite today's appetizer, every true fan knows that the most important game in NFL history will be played at Cleveland on Sunday at noon CST.  To that end, Chris Pokorny, the proprietor of SB Nation's superb Browns blog (Dawgs by Nature), was kind enough to answer five (5) of my interrogatories about his beloved squad:

1.  First off, congratulations on an amazing season.  It's got to be pretty sweet watching so many people eat crow as the Browns are back in the thick of the playoff chase.  But be honest--did you ever think your beloved team would be a mere game out of first place in the AFC North after ten (10) games this season?  What were your original expectations entering the 2007 season?  And what are your adjusted expectations now?

DBN: Since you stressed the word "think" rather than "hope", I'll have to say 'no', I did not expect the Browns to be this close to a playoff spot at this point in the season. I believed in all of the talent we had offensively, but we had done nothing to really address the defensive line, and I felt teams would be able to score on us so often that it wouldn't matter what our offense did. Teams are scoring on us like crazy, but because the offense (and special teams) is better than anyone could have imagined, my expectations are to be in the playoffs as a wildcard team. That's actually not too far from the 7-9 record I predicted at the start of the season, but still, it shows the progress the Browns have made.

2.  Once Brady Quinn finally ended his ill-advised holdout, the clock began ticking as to when he'd be named the starting QB; everyone seemed to think it was a foregone conclusion.  Obviously, the completely unexpected (at least to me) and meteoric rise of Derek Anderson has kept Quinn chained to the bench and left Romeo Crennel mercifully free of a quarterback controversy.  But what do the Browns do next year?  Follow San Diego's lead and jettison the veteran QB?  Or learn from San Diego, which increasingly looks to have made a poor decision, and hang on to Anderson?  If they do the latter, does that mean Quinn is gone before he even takes a meaningful snap?

DBN: There have been quite a few sources around the Cleveland area stating that the Browns may try and do what the Chargers did, at least at first. Remember, Drew Brees had a great season, and the team still kept him for another season following that. If the Browns believe they can make all of the proper defensive adjustments in the offseason, then ideally we will be heading into next season as the favorites to win the AFC North. That would give the Browns another season to assess Anderson, and allow the team to officially decide what to do with each quarterback.

Now, this is where I hope the Browns differ from the Chargers. Rather than basically ridding themselves of Anderson after next year if he does a solid job again, I hope they lock him up long term (if they don't do so already in the next few weeks) and then find a team to trade for Quinn.  I'm sure we can find a great deal for him too -- after all, the Texans experienced a similar situation in the process of acquiring Matt Schaub, didn't they?

3.  Let's stay with the rookies...I'd be remiss if I didn't address Cleveland's ballsy (and correct) decision to draft Joe Thomas third overall last April.  From what I've read, he's come in and immediately shored up what was a suspect line, as the mere eight (8) sacks of Anderson can attest.  Given what had to be the disappointing news of LeCharles Bentley's continued absence, how would you rate the impact the rookie left tackle has had on the offense?  With regard to the offensive line in general, what else has happened to make it such a stalwart unit?

DBN: I wouldn't really say it was a "ballsy" decision to draft Thomas, at least in terms of fan reaction. The general consensus around the NFL at the time seemed to be that the Browns should take Brady Quinn or Adrian Peterson with the third overall pick, but the majority of Browns fans were going to declare war if we passed up Thomas. He has done a tremendous job each and every week, with the exception of a couple of occasional false starts. With most rookie left tackles, match-up problems are usually created when they face high-powered defensive ends. I don't recall a single defensive end having a spectacular game against him this season, and I'd go as far as saying that Thomas may be the best left tackle in the AFC North right now.  However, I will say that I'm a little nervous about Mario Williams this Sunday, not because I lack confidence in Thomas, but because Williams has seemed to play better when Andre Johnson gives him a lead early in games.

As far as the offensive line improving as a whole, it really came down to an entirely revamped line, almost from top to bottom. If you look at the Browns' primary offensive line from last season, only one position remained the same: center Hank Fraley. Thomas is now at left tackle playing great, Eric Steinbach is a Pro Bowl guard acquired from the Bengals in the offseason, and former starting left tackle Kevin Shaffer simply shifted over to right tackle. Seth McKinney had been our free agent signing to start at right guard, but he suffered a season-ending injury a few weeks ago. That's where depth, something the Browns lacked on the line in the past, was critical. Former starting offensive tackle Ryan Tucker simply stepped in, ensuring that the line didn't miss a beat.

4.  Why would anyone ever kick the football to Joshua Cribbs?  Seriously, if the Texans deliver one anywhere in Cribbs' zip code on Sunday, I'm going to have an aneurysm.  Traditional strategy aside, doesn't it make more sense to just concede the field position and kick it out of bounds?

DBN: Based on what Cribbs has been doing, yes, teams are better off kicking it out of bounds. The preferred strategy would be to continue kicking it to one of the up backs, because they are more likely to return it to around the 35 yard line or so instead of the 40. The only positive thing about the Browns allowing so many points on defense is that is gives Cribbs a chance to have the ball in his hands. How he is able to run so fearlessly and powerfully on kickoffs is amazing; I just hope that he doesn't get a serious concussion one of these weeks.

5.  PUT YOUR NAME ON IT:  The final score of Sunday's game will be Houston ???, Cleveland ???.  Bonus Query:  You have five (5) minutes alone with Art Modell and the laws of society do not apply.  What happens to the Man Who Ripped Football From Cleveland's Bosom?

DBN:  The Texans are undefeated with Andre Johnson in the lineup, but the Browns are also 4-0 at home since Derek Anderson has been the Browns' starting quarterback. Cleveland's offense has been unstoppable at home, and I have less faith in the Texans' ability to make many defensive stops when they are playing from behind. I'm going to go with Cleveland 28, Houston 21, making it a game plentiful of touchdowns.

As far as being alone with Art Modell goes, I think I'd better reserve that answer to myself just to be safe.

As always, a big thanks to Chris for playing along.  You can check out my replies to his questions here.