Paul Domowitch: Ex-Eagle Sheldon Brown starting over in Cleveland

Sheldon Brown (right) moves in on Browns teammate Brian Robiskie.
Sheldon Brown (right) moves in on Browns teammate Brian Robiskie.
Posted: August 25, 2010

BEREA, Ohio - Sheldon Brown saw something last season that he had never seen before in his NFL career.

Something disturbing. Something that he feels was every bit as responsible for the Eagles defense's struggles last season as the never-ending injuries and the departure of Brian Dawkins.

What he saw were teammates - some, certainly not all - who didn't buy into what the team's new defensive coordinator, Sean McDermott, was selling.

"You have to believe in what's in place," said Brown, who was traded in April along with linebacker Chris Gocong to the Cleveland Browns. "I didn't always feel that everybody felt that way last year. That's my personal opinion. Other people might disagree, but that's my personal opinion."

McDermott, 36, was thrown into a tough situation last season when he replaced the late Jim Johnson as Andy Reid's defensive lieutenant just before the start of training camp. Replacing a legend never is easy, but trying to replace one on the run when you're not all that much older than many of the players you're coaching is particularly difficult.

No time to develop your own plan. No time to really earn the trust and respect of your players.

"I'm not saying this guy or that guy didn't buy in," said Brown. "I'm saying that's the way I felt. To me, when Jim said something, nobody dared question him. I've known Sean since I got there [in 2002]. He knows what he's doing. He's a good coach. I enjoyed playing for him. He's a heckuva young, talented coach. But there were some guys in that locker room who questioned some of the things that were being done."

This much is clear: The defense didn't play nearly as well last year as it did in 2008 when it finished in the top five in the league in just about every significant defensive category.

It slipped from fourth to 19th in the league in points allowed, from third to 12th in yards allowed and from third to 17th in passing yards allowed.

The Eagles were fourth in the league in interceptions with 25, including a league-high nine by Asante Samuel and a career-high five by Brown. But they gave up a disturbing 27 touchdown passes, which tied for eighth most in the league and the most by an Eagles defense in nearly a quarter century.

"That's [lack of] communication across the board," Brown said of the 27 TDs. "I had people tell me, 'Well, it was your best year.' I said, 'Why?' They'd say, 'Well, you had more picks than you ever had.' But sometimes the fans and the media don't get the clips and the real film that really tells the truth about a football player.

"I'd much rather have a guy that's going to set a tone and be fundamentally sound every play, make consistent tackles, than have somebody who's just going to make big plays. That's me. And I know that's how most people think."

You don't have to have a Ph.D. in reading between the lines to figure out that the guy Brown is referring to in the previous paragraph is Samuel, who pretty much made it clear the last two seasons that interceptions trump all other responsibilities for a cornerback. In fact, he made it clear that interceptions were the only responsibility for a corner.

The Eagles made Samuel the highest-paid cornerback in the league 2 years ago and still couldn't get him to tackle or play press coverage. Brown, meanwhile, couldn't get the Eagles to rework the contract he signed in 2004, which led to his trade to the Browns.

He isn't the playmaker Samuel is (just 10 interceptions in the last 4 years compared to Samuel's 29), but he's a tough-as-nails warrior who has started 128 straight regular-season games. Last year, he put his unhappiness over his contract on the back burner and managed to answer the bell for every game, despite playing more than half of them with a partially torn hamstring.

After aggravating it in a late-November game against the Bears while chasing Khalil Bell on a 72-yard run, he limped off the field, then ran back on a short while later without even being asked after Samuel went out with a neck stinger.

"Everybody can say I was selfish, selfish, selfish [for wanting the contract redone]," Brown said. "But in the whole scheme of things, I was still a team guy. I still thought about my teammates. I thought me [playing with a torn hamstring] at 50 or 70 percent would be better than throwing a young guy out there that didn't have time to prepare."

After eight seasons with the Eagles, all but two of which ended in the playoffs, the 31-year-old Brown is starting over again here in Cleveland with a franchise that has had just two winning seasons in the last 11 years.

Yet he is happy to be here, referring to his new home as "a better place," perhaps because the Browns were willing to redo his contract and give him a $5 million bonus up front, which would seem to indicate they want him around for a while.

"As soon as I got here, Coach Holmgren [club president Mike Holmgren] talked to me and treated me like a man from Day 1," Brown said. "It's been awesome."

What hasn't been quite as awesome has been the challenge of learning a defensive system that is nothing like the Eagles'.

"It's totally like a rookie year for me," he said. "Going back to ground zero and learning a whole new system, coming from a 4-3 to a 3-4. It's been tough.

"Last week was really the first week I really started to get comfortable. It's not just learning the defense. See, it's learning the overall philosophy of how practice runs, the terminology they use on the field, everything."

The Browns' locker room seems to be a good fit for Brown, a combination of veterans and kids who can pick his brain, including rookie cornerbacks Joe Haden and T.J. Ward.

"Football is like a brotherhood," he said. "The more years you have in, the more respect guys have for you. Me, here, I'm the same I was in Philly. I don't say much. I go into the locker room, if guys want to come to me and get information, I give it to them.

"I always talk to them like Troy Vincent talked to me. I'm not going to go in there and say, 'Yeah, there's a new sheriff in town.' That's never been my style and never will be my style."

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