Chasing a reigning AFC North winner with whom they share the passions of Ohio's legions of NFL fans, and in pursuit of the defending Super Bowl champion from the same division, the Cleveland Browns have cut into the talent deficit with an outstanding offseason.
Flush with salary cap room, the Browns broke aggressively from the gate in free agency, refurbishing their offensive line with two critical signings and adding veteran leadership on defense. Two weeks ago, general manager Phil Savage turned in another typically solid draft, principally by bolstering the linebacker corps with the team's top two selections. But for the Browns to snap a streak of three consecutive last-place finishes in the AFC North, there's one more piece of the puzzle that must slide into place.
"Part of us getting better," acknowledged cornerback Gary Baxter, "is us getting healthy."
Baxter should know. The team's most notable free agent addition last spring, and a player signed not just for his coverage abilities but also for his locker room profile, Baxter saw his season ended after just five games by a torn chest muscle. Unfortunately for the five-year veteran and for the Browns, he had plenty of company on the injured reserve list.
The Browns didn't lead the league in players who finished the season on one of the NFL's several injury-related lists or even in games lost to injuries. There were times, however, when the Cleveland training room resembled the famed Cleveland Clinic. Beyond Baxter, the Browns played without former first-round tight end Kellen Winslow for a second straight year and without wide receiver Braylon Edwards, their top pick in the 2005 draft, for the final month of the season.
Rookie head coach Romeo Crennel experienced an exemplary first season in squeezing out six victories. He'll have a better chance of advancing that number in 2006, though, if the Browns can get key players off the injured rolls and back onto the field. Every team counts on improvement from within its own roster to speed progress. The Browns are looking inside their infirmary for immediate help.
Getting veteran players out of rehabilitation programs and back into the starting lineup certainly is crucial for Cleveland in 2006.
"I think getting all those guys back legitimizes us as a team," acknowledged Savage. "We developed some depth at cornerback when Gary was injured, and having him again certainly stabilizes our secondary. And there are days when you watch Kellen and Braylon walk down the hall and you can't help but imagine how intriguing it would be to have them on the field together."
The urgency for the return of Winslow and Edwards was exacerbated last week when the Browns dealt veteran quarterback Trent Dilfer to San Francisco, leaving second-year pro Charlie Frye atop the depth chart. Despite logging only five starts in 2005, when he posted a 2-3 record but won the admiration of many veterans, the former Akron star has been handed the keys to the car. How quickly Frye gets up to speed might be determined by how many of the Browns' fractured playmakers are on the field with him.
Edwards demonstrated great potential last season, snagging 32 receptions for 512 yards and three scores before a knee injury shelved him after only 10 appearances and seven starts.
Winslow, of course, has played in just two games in two seasons, victimized his rookie year by his own hustle, when he threw himself into a pile attempting to recover an onside kick, and then last spring by his indiscretion, as he wrecked his knee and dented his bank account with his ill-advised motorcycle escapades. But there is still a chance for the wondrously talented Winslow to go from the ESPN.com "all-scar" team to a Pro Bowl berth, and the fortunes of Frye and the Browns figure to be significantly enhanced if the tight end can return whole from his injuries.
"It will be huge," said Frye of Winslow's pending return.
All around the league, coaches and general managers are looking to players returning from 2005 injuries to play big roles for them in '06. And there are, as usual, a lot of players rehabilitating from injuries of varying severity, guys who obviously can make a difference in their clubs' performances this season.
At the end of last season, there were 323 players on injured reserve or one of the NFL's other injury-related reserve lists. Of the group, 188 players missed 10 or more games in '05 and 264 missed at least five games. That represents a lot of man-hours missed to injury and, in many cases, a lot of victories lost, as well. Clubs hope that diligent offseason rehabilitation can help recapture some of those wins in 2006.
Think about Super Bowl XL, when the Seattle Seahawks lined up without starting free safety Ken Hamlin, and then lost his replacement, Marquand Manuel, in the second quarter. Third-team free safety Etric Pruitt was victimized for two of the Pittsburgh Steelers' three big offensive plays, taking a poor angle on tailback Willie Parker's 75-yard touchdown run and then biting on the reverse that turned into the game-clinching 43-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward.
Maybe the outcome of the title game wouldn't have been different with Hamlin, whose season ended after he suffered serious head injuries when beaten outside a Seattle night spot, in the Seahawks' secondary. But the return of Hamlin to minicamp this week, his first action of any kind since last October, albeit with no contact yet, is reason for optimism in 2006.
Coaches tend to be pragmatic in dealing with injuries, rarely using them as a crutch for poor performances, and generally chalking them up to an unfortunate and unavoidable part of the profession. But those same coaches, in looking forward to an ensuing season, tend to look to the previous year's injury lists for relief.
"It's like a bonus, getting a guy back [from injury], especially if he missed most of last season," agreed Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher recently. "It's almost like having an extra draft choice or something. It can really change things."
Some, not surprisingly, can change things more than others, even with new teams.
Five projected 2006 starting quarterbacks -- Carson Palmer (Cincinnati), Daunte Culpepper (Miami), Chad Pennington (New York Jets), Donovan McNabb (Philadelphia) and Marc Bulger (St. Louis) -- finished last season with injuries. Questions remain about whether Culpepper, Palmer (injured in the playoffs, when he tore two ligaments in his left knee) and Pennington will be fully rehabilitated for the start of the season. The fates of their respective franchises could well rest on their readiness.
Having left offensive tackle Matt Light, center Dan Koppen and strong safety Rodney Harrison back from injuries could lift New England back into Super Bowl contention. Getting back sure-tackling free safety Madieu Williams isn't quite as important to the Bengals as having Palmer on the field, but his presence will immediately address Cincinnati's run defense. A healthy Matt Birk back at center in Minnesota will allow aging quarterback Brad Johnson considerably upgraded security. If wide receiver Javon Walker can come back from knee surgery and approximate the gaudy numbers he rang up in 2004, Denver will have made a wise move in acquiring him from Green Bay in a draft-weekend trade. The Atlanta Falcons will be considerably stouter versus the run, and the Buffalo Bills better in general on defense, if linebackers Ed Hartwell and Takeo Spikes, respectively, are recovered from Achilles injuries.
"I don't think there's a team in the league," said Spikes, "who isn't counting on at least one impact player coming back from an injury, some guy who can make a huge difference for [the 2006] season. It's like that every year and this one is no different."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.