BEREA, Ohio The new face of the Cleveland Browns comes complete with a track record of success, a Super Bowl pedigree, an unflagging work ethic, leadership skills and an impeccable reputation.
Many of the new faces of the recently bedraggled Browns, and there are plenty of them, also sport those kinds of credentials. And it's not just happenstance that, in surveying the new-look Browns at a minicamp session this week, one is drawn more now to the players' résumés than to their rap sheets.
"Oh, definitely, the plan of the people upstairs was definitely to [alter] the culture around here," acknowledged cornerback Gary Baxter, arguably the highest-profile veteran free agent signed in what has been an offseason of a well-orchestrated makeover by first-year general manager Phil Savage and rookie head coach Romeo Crennel. "The turnover around here isn't by accident. They had a certain model in mind when they started making changes, and I think at the top of the list [were] things like structure, chemistry, character, attitude."
Not to diminish the football skills of the several newcomers to a franchise that remains a passion for the hearty Rust Belt fans here, but it's obvious some veterans were added not only for the difference they might make on the field but also for the presence they will provide in the locker room.
It isn't as if the Cleveland locker room was totally devoid of solid players who were also solid people. No one can question, for instance, the significance of holdover veterans such as right offensive tackle Ryan Tucker, cornerback Daylon McCutcheon, linebacker Brant Boyer and defensive end Orpheus Roye.
There weren't enough of those players, though, to go around. But with the offseason roster refashioning, it appears the Browns' brain trust has infused the team with a significant character upgrade.
When Savage suggested on Tuesday that the fresh coat applied to the Browns was still at the finger-painting stage, he was being a tad too modest. It has been more like a paint-by-numbers exercise, taking the proven route and avoiding risks, and moving deliberately through the palette. And if Cleveland is not yet a masterpiece, the portrait of the Browns seems a much brighter one now.
This remains a relatively young team. Of the 96 players listed on the roster on Tuesday, there are only 16 nonkickers with more than four years of NFL seniority. And not too surprisingly, half of that group is comprised of players acquired this offseason, including five who have Super Bowl rings stashed in their safe-deposit boxes.
When the Browns released starting left offensive tackle Ross Verba last week after he reiterated that he would not participate in any on-field activities until his contract was upgraded, it raised to 20 the number of players who started at least one game in 2004 but have been jettisoned.
The malcontents, the malingerers and the miserable regardless of their perch on the old Cleveland depth chart have for the most part been weeded out. There has been plenty of addition by addition, for sure, but just as much addition by subtraction. Any time there is a new football regime at a franchise, when the guys making decisions have no loyalties to the players they inherited, such an overhaul is inevitable.
Still, in releasing one former first-round draft choice and trading another, in dispatching both starting safeties from a year ago, and by whacking the starting quarterback who only a year ago had been hailed as a savior, Savage and Crennel have hardly been indiscriminate. The charge here, defined more by deeds than words, is a simple one: Fit in or get out.
"When we started to [reshape] this team," said Crennel, who has five Super Bowl rings as an assistant coach, "we knew the kind of player we wanted. Winners. Quality people. Leaders. Now, don't get me wrong, they had some of that here. But with the guys we brought in, we're hoping some of what they've got rubs off on people, mixes in well and then, boom, you've got something."
Whether the elements of the makeover mesh quickly enough to translate into a dramatic difference in the wins column remains to be seen. The Browns amassed a dismal four victories in 2004. And their poor performance demanded a refurbishing in virtually every area.
The reality that the Browns are essentially starting over again, in Year 7 of the city's second NFL incarnation, is a tough pill for fans to swallow. But the sins of the past squandered talent, a draft record that would have been better had team officials simply thrown darts at the board, imprudent spending on free agents, a palpable disconnect with the city clearly cannot be atoned for overnight. The recent reign of terror and tumult promulgated by former coach Butch Davis is a stark reality, as is the fact that Cleveland is now working on a third different football hierarchy since re-entering the league in 1999.
But the perception is that the Browns are doing things right now, with an understanding that a turnaround might not be swift. What has been created, and in a very short time, is a much better mix in the locker room.
"There are things that a few of us older guys can convey to the younger players, things that deal with the [realities] of the game, and maybe they'll listen because of the voice they're hearing it from," said guard Joe Andruzzi, who won three Super Bowl rings with the New England Patriots. "Me, I'm not a rah-rah guy who is going to jump up in the middle of the locker room and give a speech. But if a guy comes to me with a question, I'm going to be straight with him. And I'm going to work hard every day and try to set the example there. That's my brand of leadership."
Such a sentiment, that a player earns his "team leader" title (and respect) with his work ethic, was echoed by quarterback Trent Dilfer, another former Super Bowl winner.
On the long flight to Cleveland from Seattle, after Dilfer was dealt to the Browns, the veteran quarterback had plenty of time to consider his role with his new team. Dilfer broke out a legal pad, began scribbling down his thoughts about leadership and how he could connect with a bunch of players he didn't know well, and didn't stop until he had filled five pages.
"Look, this is still a bottom-line game, and you're still judged by how you perform on Sunday afternoons," Dilfer said. "It's a lot easier to [command] respect when you win. But, yeah, I kind of made sure I came in here with a strategy about how to approach this. I thought about all the experiences I've had in the game, good and bad, and settled on a way to incorporate all those things. But the fastest way to do it, no matter what, is to go out every day and work the hardest you can, and have guys see that's what you're doing. Then the intangible stuff, leadership and respect, falls into place."
Dilfer saved his leadership manifesto, has it stashed at the apartment he's renting close to the team complex, but hasn't yet had to refer back to it. Chances are, given the respect he has already commanded, Dilfer won't have to dig it back out for review. He and several other new players have brought with them a sense of professionalism and presence that has reenergized many of the veterans who have suffered through lean times here.
"More than anything," said tight end Steve Heiden, who has spent his entire six-year NFL tenure with the Browns, "I thought we just needed more veteran guys. There have been times when you looked around the huddle, and we had so many young guys who just didn't understand yet what it takes to win that you knew we were in trouble. You know how much easier everything becomes, even practices, when the huddle is filled with people who know the ropes? And the fact so many of them have been on winners and experienced success in the league, that adds even more to the mix."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.