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Browns still looking up in AFC North

By Tom Withers The Associated Press

CLEVELAND – On a spectacularly sunny Sunday in Maryland four years ago, Jamal Lewis ran into history.

“I was there,” Cleveland linebacker Andra Davis said.

Chasing Lewis.

Bursting down Baltimore’s field like a thoroughbred out of the starting gate at Pimlico, Lewis ran for an NFL single-game record 295 yards against the Browns – a team he once dominated and a franchise still searching for a foothold after years of ineptitude.

“We’re not the same Browns as then,” said Lewis, who rushed 2,066 yards in ’03 and is hoping to resurrect his career with Cleveland. “This is a new team.”

With some familiar problems.

The Browns went 4-12 last season, 6-10 in 2005,and 4-12 and 5-11 before that. Since being revived as an expansion team in 1999,Cleveland has had just one winning season and made only one trip (2002) to the playoffs.

A second one seems somewhere off in the distance.

The club enters 2007 with more depth up and down its roster; an exciting trio of rookies led by offensive tackle Joe Thomas and future franchise quarterback Brady Quinn; coach Romeo Crennel on the hot seat; and a brutal early schedule which could seal Crennel’s fate before the Oct. 21 bye.

Until they show otherwise,the Browns are only fourth-best in the rugged AFC North, where Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and the Ravens each possess more talent, proven quarterbacks and aren’t dealing with an impatient fan base desperate for success and already chanting Quinn’s name.

It’s a pivotal season for the Browns – and for Lewis, who left the Ravens as a free agent after seven seasons to sign with Cleveland.

“I’m glad he’s here,” Davis said of Lewis, who gained 1,132 yards last season while playing with painful ankle spurs. “We won’t have to have those sleepless nights getting ready for him anymore.”

Lewis, who rushed for 7,801 yards in Baltimore, signed a one-year contract that could be worth $3.5 million if he reaches performance incentives. If he’s everything the Browns hope, the club will gladly offer the 28-year-old a long-term deal.

Lewis’ signing raised some eyebrows around the league as clubs wondered if Browns general manager Phil Savage was merely doing it out of loyalty to Lewis, whom he scouted and drafted for the Ravens.

But while much of the focus this summer was on the starting quarterback duel between Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson, Lewis was arguably the most impressive player on the field at training camp.

Dropping 10 pounds has made him quicker, and offseason surgery took care of Lewis’ ankle problems. He isn’t making any predictions,but Lewis feels he can approach his 2003 level.

“I’m not going to say I am as good as I was then,” he said,”but I am smarter now, more patient with my running style and I am much wiser. That’s what a veteran offers to a team and to this position.”

The Browns,whose rich history is built on the legs of Hall of Fame backs Jim Brown, Leroy Kelly and Bobby Mitchell, had the worst rushing offense – 83.4 yards per game – in the league last season, prompting Savage to revamp his offensive line.

On Day Two of free agency,guard Eric Steinbach, a two-time Pro Bowl alternate for Cincinnati, signed a seven-year,$49 million deal.

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