BEREA, Ohio -- Just a few minutes after the Tuesday morning practice here, Cleveland Browns head coach Butch Davis sauntered into the field house that is part of the team's marvelous complex, and sought out defensive tackle Gerard Warren, who was typically sopping from the effort he had just expended during the 90-minute session.
"Now that, big man, was a real yellow-jersey performance," enthused Davis.
The reference, of course, was to the yellow jersey awarded to the overall leader in the Tour de France, a ritual picked up upon by the Browns this summer, and an honor that is figuratively conferred on the Cleveland player who had the most outstanding practice.
At 320 pounds, you probably wouldn't want Warren challenging the titanium frame of any vehicle that includes just two wheels and zero shock absorbers. This much, though, can be said for the big guy, who is entering his fourth NFL season: He is pedaling along pretty nicely toward what he insists will be the season in which he silences his critics.
Camp has gone well for Warren, who has shed about 20 pounds, and appears notably trimmer. His stamina and quickness have improved along with his work ethic. And he understands what is expected of him and what he expects of himself.
"The team goals, well, those are pretty obvious," said Warren, who has started in all but one of his 47 appearances during his first three NFL campaigns. "As for personal stuff, not even a Pro Bowl (berth) would probably be good enough to satisfy me. This is about being the best tackle ever in the league. I need to get to the point where there's never a doubt over who is the best tackle. I think my opponents and teammates know how well I have played, but the fans and the media, they haven't gotten it yet. But this is the year, man. This has to be the year."
Reminded that he has made similar claims in past seasons, Warren, admittedly one of our favorite interview subjects, offered just a knowing smile. Certainly he has heard whispers that, like Cleveland defensive end Courtney Brown, this is put-up or shut-up time for him with an organization that has invested mightily in the two former first-rounders and feels it has yet to cash a commensurate dividend.
The third overall choice in the 2001 draft, Warren, 26, has been excoriated by the local fans and media only slightly less than Brown, the first pick in the 2000 lottery. In tandem, they were supposed to be the inside-outside twin cinder blocks for the construction of a defense that would feature one of the NFL's premier front four units.
Of course, it hasn't happened that way.
Brown's résumé includes more games missed to injury than sacks over his first four NFL seasons. He has been moved from the left side to the right and back to the left again and it is now clear he lacks the quick twitch that is requisite to being a consistent pass rusher. He is a solid enough player but the Browns didn't lead off the 2000 draft hoping to get just a run-stuffer.
Warren has dominated in spurts, suffered through a few indiscretions on and off the field, but hasn't yet reached an acceptable level of consistency. He can take over games for a short time and then disappear for a while.
Said one Cleveland assistant coach: "With his ability, he ought to be kicking the (crap) out of people. If he played every snap the same way, with the intensity you see in bits and pieces from him, he'd be unstoppable."
Then again, Warren's performance hasn't been nearly as shoddy as is perceived in these parts. It is difficult to gauge the play of a defensive tackle because of myriad standards used around the league. The measuring stick certainly varies from one team to the next, depending upon the scheme, and the demands of the job. Some tackles are supposed to merely eat up blockers, command the double-team, and essentially serve as the sacrificial defender who allows the linebackers to run to the ball. Others are meant to be playmakers and penetrators.
Warren, a former University of Florida star, is a little of both. But in the second season under coordinator Dave Campo, and in a one-gap scheme that emphasizes penetration and disruption, Warren acknowledged he needs to ratchet things up. The goal is to chase the quarterback, to stop the run on the way to the pocket, to get quickly up field.
And Warren, whose career totals include 196 tackles and 12½ sacks, at least mentally, has bought in to Campo's package. Now he needs to translate acceptance of the scheme into performance on the field.
"It's definitely (conducive) to what I do well," said Warren, whose pure, athletic skill set is rare at the tackle position. "I liked it last year, when Coach Campo came in, and I like it even more now. We should be much better now that we're into the second year with it. I should be much better in the second year playing it."
There are certainly some numbers upon which to build. Warren's tackle total last year, 64 total stops, was still 14 shy of the career best he registered as a rookie in 2001. But he had a career-high 5½ sacks and his 34 quarterback pressures tied his personal best. The best, he said, is yet to come, and some of his opponents agree.
Pittsburgh left guard Alan Faneca, a three-time Pro Bowl performer, allowed last week that Warren has "scary" physical tools. One longtime league personnel director, when asked to pick 10 players he felt could have breakout seasons in 2004, cited Warren as a player who was ready to move to the next level.
The near-universal rap on Warren is that he takes too many downs off. But at least in the practices we have witnessed over the years, that hasn't been the case in training camps. The erudite Brown, who may simply be too smart to ever embrace the same, can come off the practice field with nary a bead of sweat on him. On the other hand, Warren is the real-life Fat Albert (OK, maybe Not-So-Fat Albert now), the unkempt slob, with his sweat-soaked shirt dangling from out of his pants.
Indeed, if there was sweat equity in the league, Warren would own the NFL by now.
Noted in the past as "Big Money," a nickname hung on him by his high school coach, Warren said he is known more familiarly now by the nickname "Penny." It is not, he hastened to add, indicative of any depreciation of his value.
That value, we should note, will essentially be set after this season. Warren is loathe to discuss his contract situation. He restructured his deal to lower the cap charge for this season but, come 2005, it skyrockets again. So for the newly-minted "Penny," this season is a money year, even if he prefers to regard it as just the next chance for a breakout year.
"You know me, I'm not an excuse-maker, and I'm not going to start being one now," Warren said, before heading for a welcomed shower. "I'm the no-alibi man, right? So no excuses if I don't dominate people this season. None whatsoever."
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.