AFC North: Jim Brown

Those lucky enough to be able to say they saw Jim Brown play have no doubt: He was the greatest NFL player. This statement does not disparage anyone else; it simply recognizes the unique combination of power, speed, grace and vision that Brown possessed.

Nobody has had it since.

Tonight, the Cleveland Browns will put Brown’s name in the team's Ring of Honor, a gesture that didn’t take place last season because Brown and then-president Mike Holmgren were going through a public spat. Brown’s principles would not allow him to go along with Holmgren’s wishes after Holmgren changed Brown’s role with the team.

[+] EnlargeJim Brown
AP Photo/David RichardTonight, the Cleveland Browns will induct Hall of Famer Jim Brown into their Ring of Honor.
Jimmy Haslam brought Brown back and put him back on the payroll, and tonight is his night.

Try to explain Brown's greatness in a few hundred words. There’s the old films, some grainy, of Brown bouncing off tacklers, sometimes leaning backward. There’s the games in which he accelerated past people as if they were standing still. There’s the short-yardage run against Dallas when he ran left and somehow scored despite the entire Cowboys defense having a chance to stop him. The game was different then. Defenders weren’t as fast or strong. But Brown’s game would translate to any era, any style.

There’s the stats. Brown averaged 5.2 yards per carry in his career. He had at least 1,200 yards in seven of his nine seasons. In three of those seven seasons he played 12 games; in the others he played 14 -- and never had fewer than 1,400 yards. He averaged more than 100 yards per game seven times and averaged 104.3 per game for his career. In 1963, he averaged 133.1 yards per game, 6.4 per carry.

No other player in NFL history has averaged more than 100 yards per game in a career. Brown did it starting 118 of his 118 games.

He finished his career with 12,312 yards -- and retired at the age of 30 because of a spat with former owner Art Modell over his return from the filming of "The Dirty Dozen." Those 12,312 yards came in nine seasons, meaning he averaged 1,368 per year.

Brown also starred in lacrosse at Syracuse. To this day, he is considered one of the best lacrosse players ever, if not the best.

He achieved all he did as an African-American playing a sport in a time when “blacks not allowed” signs were posted in cities where he played. Prejudice shaped his attitude -- but on the field, talent and drive shaped his play.

The great journalist Red Smith once wrote of Brown: “For mercurial speed, airy nimbleness, and explosive violence in one package of undistilled evil, there is no other like Mr. Brown.”

There still has been no other like him. Tonight, he'll have his moment in front of the Cleveland fans.
The federal investigation into owner Jimmy Haslam's family-run business has been another black eye for the Cleveland Browns organization. But Haslam fixed one embarrassment for the Browns on Wednesday, officially mending the relationship with Jim Brown.

The Browns named Brown a special adviser, a role that will put the Pro Football Hall of Fame running back in the Cleveland community and in the Browns locker room as an adviser.

[+] EnlargeJim Brown
AP Photo/Matt YorkThe Browns are bringing Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown back to the team as a special adviser.
Brown, 77, has been estranged from the Browns since 2010, when former president Mike Holmgren fired him as an adviser to then-owner Randy Lerner. After that, Brown boycotted the team's ceremony to launch a Ring of Honor as well as the last two Legends Weekends, where former players come back to town to attend a game.

Last October, the same month Haslam was unanimously approved to take ownership of the Browns, he reached out to Brown to start the process of welcoming him back. On Wednesday, Haslam made it official and even took a picture with Brown in front of the Ring of Honor.

“I am excited to be back and a part of a franchise that will always be very close to my heart,” Brown said. “I want to thank Jimmy Haslam and Joe Banner for giving me this chance to return to the organization and the great city of Cleveland, whose fans are the best in the NFL and who always have supported me. I look forward to getting started and once again make a difference, not just with the franchise but in the Northeast Ohio community.”

Brown said he had no animosity toward the previous regime but he took a shot at Lerner's absentee ownership when he said a team can't be successful if ownership isn't around. This is where Haslam gets it. He is from Tennessee but he has tried to show the utmost respect to the Browns' history.

"Jim Brown is one of the most iconic figures, not just in Cleveland, but the entire NFL,” Haslam said. “His playing career still stands as one of the most remarkable in league annals, and his work in the community since his retirement, especially with our youth, has been just as impressive. He will be a tremendous asset to our organization and we are thrilled that he will be representing the Browns in many different capacities.”

Haslam called it "a very special day in Cleveland Browns history."

Brown has Haslam to thank for it because he made it happen.
Owners and coaches continue to provide some notes from the NFL owners meetings, which are beginning to wind down in Arizona. Here's another packed edition of the wake-up call ...

  • Owner Steve Bisciotti told The NFL Network that he has a gut feeling that safety Ed Reed will remain with the Ravens.
  • The Ravens are interested in a handful of free-agent pass-rushers: Elvis Dumervil, James Harrison, Osi Umenyiora and Dwight Freeney. "We’re never going to walk away from a good player, and there just happens to be some pass rushers available right now,” coach John Harbaugh said, via the team's website.
  • Baltimore is planning to meet with Raiders free-agent safety Michael Huff by the weekend, according to The Baltimore Sun. Huff, 30, is seen as a fallback option if Reed signs with the Texans, the paper reported.
  • The Ravens' "aura" led Marcus Spears to sign with Baltimore in free agency, the former Cowboys defensive end told the Ravens' official website. The Chiefs, Jaguars and Patriots showed interest in him.
  • Head coach Marvin Lewis told the Cincinnati Enquirer that getting to the postseason isn't good enough. The Bengals have made the playoffs three of the past four seasons but have yet to win a postseason game. "We’re not satisfied at all," Lewis said. "There was a perception they never got to the playoffs, now there is the perception we are satisfied with it. Someone is putting words in people’s mouths again.”
  • Lewis told the team's official website that he doubts he'll move Rey Maualuga, who recently re-signed with the team, from middle to outside linebacker. "We're very comfortable how we played on defense and all we do is keep getting better with those kids," Lewis said. "Rey had to manage KinderCare out there and he did a good managing it," Lewis said. "I never said we would move (Vontaze Burfict) to the middle before."
  • Head coach Mike Tomlin delivered a strong message to those who doubt the Steelers can be a playoff team this season after losing the likes of linebacker James Harrison, cornerback Keenan Lewis and running back Rashard Mendenhall. "That's March talk," Tomlin said, via The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I'll see you at stadiums in the fall."
  • Tomlin isn't a believer in the read-option offense. "I think it's the flavor of the day," Tomlin said, via NFC East blogger Dan Graziano. "We will see if it's the flavor of the year. We'll see if guys are committed to getting their guys hit." In the Steelers' only game against the read option, they held the Redskins to one touchdown and limited Robert Griffin III to 185 yards of total offense.
  • Team officials said there is a chance that Charlie Batch could return next season even though the Steelers signed Bruce Gradkowski to be the primary backup to Ben Roethlisberger, according to the Tribune-Review. Batch has played the past eight seasons in Pittsburgh.
  • It's unclear if the Browns made kicker Phil Dawson an offer or how hard they tried to keep him before he signed with the 49ers, The Plain Dealer reported. This is part of the Browns' statement on Dawson: "We know how much Phil meant to our organization and our fans, and he will always hold a special place in our franchise's history and with the city of Cleveland. We want to wish Phil and his family the best of success in San Francisco."
  • The Plain Dealer's Terry Pluto believes the Browns are taking a calculated risk in letting Dawson sign with the 49ers. "(D)on't be surprised if the Browns look for a young kicker, be it low in the draft or perhaps someone who has been cut once or twice -- as Dawson was back in the late 1990s," Pluto wrote.
  • Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown will have a formal role with the Browns again, owner Jimmy Haslam told the Akron Beacon Journal. Haslam wouldn't elaborate on the specifics of Brown's responsibilities. An announcement will be made over the next couple of weeks.
  • The Cardinals are waiting for Josh Cribbs' surgically repaired meniscus to heal before continuing talks with the Browns' free-agent wide receiver/kick returner, his agent told multiple media outlets.
Let's take a look at what's happening around the division in the wake-up call ...

RAVENS: Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata told USA Today that his injured left knee was feeling better. It was good sign that he was seen jogging through the team's New Orleans hotel Monday, less than 24 hours after he was unable to finish the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, safety Bernard Pollard played the majority of the season with six cracked ribs, according to The Baltimore Sun. "It's tough dealing with pain," Pollard said. "For us as football players, we know we're going to go through it."

BENGALS: Rookie linebacker Brandon Joiner has been activated off the reserve-did not report list after completing a prison term. The Bengals signed Joiner out of Arkansas State as an undrafted free agent last year, knowing he would be going to prison in Texas over a robbery that led to his indictment in 2008. He was placed on a reserve list and missed all of last season while completing his sentence. Joiner is expected to compete at strong-side linebacker.

STEELERS: The team placed running back Chris Rainey on waivers on Monday, according to Steelers Digest. The Steelers announced it was parting ways with Rainey on Jan. 10, only hours after his second arrest for a domestic violence incident. But Pittsburgh had to wait until after the Super Bowl to officially waive a player. Rainey has since pleaded no contest to a charge of disorderly conduct and paid nearly $500 in fines and court costs.

BROWNS: The Ravens won their second Super Bowl since relocating from Cleveland, and the Browns have yet to win a playoff game since rejoining the league in 1999. While this only adds to the sting, Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown believes Browns fans have to move on. "That's old news now," Brown told "Baltimore has proven themselves on the football field. We can't take that away. Art did not make the correct move in my opinion, at the time. It hurt the people, but now it's time to get over it."

Final Word: AFC North

December, 7, 2012
NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 14:

Return of Roethlisberger: The Steelers should get a boost with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger starting Sunday after missing three games with rib and shoulder injuries. In nine games with Roethlisberger this season, the Steelers scored 21 offensive touchdowns, including 17 through the air from the franchise's all-time leading passer. In three games without him, Pittsburgh scored four offensive touchdowns. Roethlisberger is also playing at Heinz Field, where he has been exceptional this season. He has thrown seven touchdowns and zero interceptions at home for a 104.2 passer rating.

[+] EnlargeJoe Flacco, Torrey Smith
Evan Habeeb/USA TODAY SportsJoe Flacco and Torrey Smith haven't been able to find much of a deep connection lately.
Off target: The Ravens aren't strong where the Redskins are vulnerable. Washington has allowed 10 completions longer than 40 yards, which is tied for the second-most allowed in the league. But the Ravens' Joe Flacco has struggled throwing the ball deep consistently this season. On passes beyond 10 yards downfield, his rate of overthrowing receivers (35 percent) is almost as high as his completion rate (39.3 percent), according to ESPN Stats & Information. In the Ravens’ past three games, Flacco has completed 2 of 14 attempts (14.3 percent) to Torrey Smith more than 10 yards downfield.

Keeping grounded: Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis got off to a slow start in his first season with the Bengals. In his first nine games, when Cincinnati went 4-5, he ran for 537 yards, an average of 59.7 yards per game. In his past three games, all victories, Green-Ellis has nearly doubled his average per game (116), gaining 348 yards rushing. He is one of three running backs to gain more than 100 yards in three consecutive games. If Green-Ellis can crack 100 yards against Dallas, he will become the first Cincinnati back in 44 years to surpass 100 in four straight games. (Paul Robinson did it in 1968.)

Not so ordinary: In the past five games, Browns rookie running back Trent Richardson is averaging 95.8 rushing yards per game. Cleveland is 3-2 during that stretch. His three games with more than 100 yards rushing is tied for the most ever by a Browns rookie. Richardson also leads AFC rookies with 827 yards. He needs 116 yards Sunday against Kansas City to surpass Hall of Fame back -- and onetime Richardson critic -- Jim Brown for the most rushing yards by a Browns rookie.

Bad neighbors: The home stadiums for the Ravens and Redskins are separated by 33 miles. This regional rivalry hasn't been that close. The Ravens have won three of the four meetings with the Redskins. Baltimore has allowed a total of 47 points in those four games (an average of 11.8) and hasn't given up more than 17 points in any meeting with Washington. The only time the Redskins defeated Baltimore was 2000, which was the season the Ravens won the Super Bowl.

Jim Brown praises Trent Richardson

October, 29, 2012
Rookie running back Trent Richardson did more than win Sunday's game for the Browns. He also won over his biggest critic.

Following the Browns' 7-6 victory over the Chargers, Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown went to Richardson's locker, where they reportedly posed for photographs and exchanged telephone numbers. No one would've expected a scene like this six months ago, when Brown called Richardson "ordinary" after the Browns selected him with the third overall pick.

"That's my partner, man," Brown said, via The Plain Dealer. "He's done everything I thought he should do. He never took anything I said the wrong way. He's interested in his family. He's interested in this team. And he's willing to make sacrifices because really, he's hurt more than you think he is right now."

Brown was right that Richardson never took the criticism the wrong way. But what Brown should have said Sunday was: he was wrong in his original assessment of Richardson.

My theory is Brown wouldn't have liked anyone that the Browns drafted in the first round that day. He was still upset at Mike Holmgren and the organization for being dismissed as a special adviser a couple of years ago.

Brown did the right thing in reaching out to Richardson on Sunday. Richardson gained a career-high 122 yards and scored the game's only touchdown. He did all of this with a rib cartilage injury. He deserved everyone's respect for that performance, including Brown's.

It was a good moment for the greatest running back in Browns history to endorse a player who is key to the team's future. This just should've happened six months ago.
Trent RichardsonAP Photo/David KohlTrent Richardson's bruising running style might help finally turn the Browns around.

Teams shouldn't spend a top-five pick on a running back in this pass-happy age of football. Two knee surgeries in less than a year reveal that Trent Richardson is damaged goods. Even Jim Brown, the greatest runner in Browns -- and perhaps NFL -- history, took a shot at Richardson, labeling the first-round pick as "ordinary."

Two weeks into the regular season, all of this criticism seems laughable. While it's correct not to make any sweeping conclusions after a couple of games, no one can consider the Browns' drafting of Richardson a mistake at this point. His power, speed and jaw-dropping moves in the open field prove he's the key piece in turning around the NFL's worst offense over the past decade.

Richardson's attitude is the perfect jolt to a Browns franchise that has accepted last place as a way of life since returning to the league in 1999. He runs angry. Knocking off the helmet of would-be tackler Kurt Coleman in the season opener -- it flew five yards after the crushing collision -- is a great example of that. He gets ticked off. Delivering a breakout game following Rey Maualuga's lukewarm assessment of him is another warning that you don't want to challenge him.

Richardson is a violent right hook for the usually punchless Browns, who have ranked 28th or worse in offense nine times in the previous 13 years. Relying on a running back like Peyton Hillis, who missed a game because of strep throat, wasn't going to cut it. Drafting a hard-nosed playmaker like Richardson is Cleveland's best hope to change its culture of losing, even if it has yet to provide immediate results for the winless Browns (0-2).

For entertainment purposes alone, Richardson made a Browns game worth watching Sunday. Richardson totaled 109 yards rushing and 36 yards receiving against the Bengals on Sunday. Those numbers don't illustrate how impressive Richardson looked. On his 32-yard touchdown run, he took a delayed handoff and raced to the end zone without being touched. On what will go down as a 23-yard touchdown reception, Richardson caught a short pass before running through two tackles and spinning out of another to reach the end zone.

"He’s a special player," Browns rookie quarterback Brandon Weeden said. "He’s a difference-maker."

Richardson became first NFL rookie to record 100 yards rushing, a rushing touchdown and a receiving touchdown in the same game since Samkon Gado seven years ago. He also scored two 20-yard-plus touchdowns for a team that had seven of them all of last season.

"I think I was just more comfortable with myself that, ‘Hey, I'm still able to run like I used to' and do it much better," Richardson said of his improvement from Week 1. "In my head, [I was thinking] ‘I've got to run much stronger because these guys are much stronger than the guys in college.' Hopefully I'll come out stronger next week."

Five months ago, everyone christened Andrew Luck as the next great franchise quarterback and applauded the Redskins for moving up to take Robert Griffin III. The Browns received mixed reviews when they jumped one spot up to make sure they landed Richardson.

Teams have gotten burned in the past by taking a running back that high. Before Richardson, there were five running backs selected in the top five over the previous 10 drafts: Cadillac Williams (2005), Cedric Benson (2005), Ronnie Brown (2005), Reggie Bush (2006) and Darren McFadden (2008). Only Brown has reached the Pro Bowl and only McFadden is still with the team that drafted him.

[+] EnlargeTrent Richardson
Frank Victores/US PresswireTrent Richardson celebrates his 23-yard catch-and-run TD in the third quarter against the Bengals.
Richardson's stock didn't rise when a second procedure on his left knee in less than a year sidelined him for the entire preseason. In his NFL debut, he managed 39 yards, which prompted Bengals linebacker Maualuga to say "he didn’t do nothing spectacular." Maualuga was wrong. Exactly one month after knee surgery, no matter if it's minor or not, Richardson carried the ball 19 times. In terms of toughness, that is spectacular.

Richardson can be a top-five running back in the NFL as early as next season. That isn't to say he's the next Adrian Peterson right now.

"I still think he can do some things better when he doesn’t have the football, which means we probably ought to give him the ball every time he’s in there," coach Pat Shurmur said.

Richardson still has a ways to go before he convinces everyone about his talent. Jim Brown, who was critical of Richardson after the Browns drafted him, told The Plain Dealer that he was impressed with Richardson's performance against the Bengals. But he stopped short of fully endorsing the former Alabama star.

"Richardson has to show he can consistently carry a team," Brown told the paper. "The Browns have had some players that looked like they could, and it didn't work out. (Peyton) Hillis had a lot of talent."

Brown is right in that respect. It doesn't matter how many 1,000-yard seasons Richardson records. He was drafted to turn around a franchise that regularly loses more than 10 games a season and hasn't won a playoff game since 1994. Losing hasn't been easy on Richardson, who went 36-4 in three seasons at Alabama and won two national championships.

“At some point we have to put up more points than the other team is putting up,” Richardson said. “If they score on special teams, we have to come back and score. We did a good job (offensively), but I think we can do an even better job. When we start winning, it’s going to be much better."

Based on the first couple weeks of the season, Richardson is at his best when faced with a challenge.
Cleveland Browns running back Trent Richardson doesn't have any desire to sit down and talk to his toughest critic.

Earlier this month, Richardson told that he'll use Jim Brown's repeated remarks about him as motivation but he doesn't need any explanation from the Hall of Fame running back.

"He has his own thoughts. That’s him being him," Richardson said. "I have no problem with it. I just wish the best of luck for him whatever he’s doing in life."

Browns president Mike Holmgren is attempting to reconcile the team's relationship with one of its best players, saying last week that the Browns welcome him "with open arms."

Brown has been very critical of the Browns since he was removed as an advisor to the team and has sounded off recently on Richardson, the third overall pick of the 2012 draft. He described Richardson as "ordinary" and said he didn't see "anything outstanding about him."

"I laugh at the situation," Richardson said. "You don’t know me from spic to span. But he’s Jim Brown. He’s done a lot here and I haven’t done anything yet. I have a lot to accomplish and big shoes to fill. When it comes down to it, I have to work and make sure I make him a believer. I haven’t done anything yet."
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

When it comes to contract talks with the Pittsburgh Steelers, all the talk focuses on wide receiver Mike Wallace. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ron Cook suggests another priority -- coach Mike Tomlin.

He is signed through this season with a team option for the 2013 season, according to the Steelers' official website.

"It seems likely there will be an announcement -- quietly, of course, with no fanfare -- of an extension for Tomlin before camp," Cook wrote. "But if it doesn't happen before the start of the season in September, it will be reason for great concern. Bill Cowher led the Steelers to a win in Super Bowl XL after the 2005 season but didn't get an extension that offseason when he had two years left on his contract. After coaching the team in '06, he was gone. What a shame it would be if Tomlin left."

Hensley's slant: Tomlin deserves an extension and should continue to rank among the highest-paid coaches in sports. He's currently eighth with an annual salary of $5.8 million. He is only one of seven coaches in league history to win a Super Bowl in his first two seasons as an NFL head coach and became only the sixth to win at least nine games in each of his first five seasons since the 1970 merger. (George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Bill Cowher, Chuck Knox and Mike Sherman were the others.)

BENGALS: Wide receiver Armon Binns became the first member of his family to graduate from college when he received his degree in criminal justice at the University of Cincinnati last week, according to the Dayton Daily News. Now, he is looking to take the next step with the Bengals, going from a practice squad player in 2011 to a starter this season. “He was a star on the scout team,” Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton said. “He was always making a big catch, big play. He kept improving, and by the end of the year he was on the roster. It just shows that when you put in the hard work, good things will happen to you.” Hensley's slant: Binns is considered one of the favorites to win the No. 2 receiver spot opposite A.J. Green. He will have to beat out Brandon Tate and rookie third-round pick Mohamed Sanu. This competition is close heading into training camp and will be decided in the preseason.

BROWNS: Last week, Browns president Mike Holmgren said he would welcome back Jim Brown "with open arms," and the Hall of Fame running back said that showed "showed a lot of class." But the Cleveland Plain Dealer's Bud Shaw believes Holmgren and Brown still have work to do to resolve their feud. "That's a first step, I guess, but a small, shaky first step," Shaw wrote. "It's like putting yourself out there on eHarmony. That's the easy part. As far as chances of a budding relationship go, Albert Belle and the Indians might be the better bet (and I can't believe I'm saying that)." Hensley's slant: Holmgren is in a tough spot. He obviously thought there were too many voices in the organization when he demoted Brown. But he can't have a franchise legend publicly criticizing the organization on a regular basis. I'm just not sure if there is a middle ground that would satisfy Brown.

RAVENS: Defensive end Art Jones knows about toughness from his family. Just look at his brothers. Jon "Bones" Jones is the UFC light-heavyweight champion, and Chandler, a defensive end, was a first-round pick of the New England Patriots nearly two months ago. Art Jones is looking to take the starting spot of Cory Redding, who went to the Indianapolis Colts in free agency. "He showed endless pursuit running down ball carriers to the opposite side of the field," The Baltimore Sun's Mike Preston wrote. "Now, if he gets better at pass rushing, he could become a complete player. Until then, he is one of several young players with great potential who need to step up this season." Hensley's slant: I see the Ravens using the combination of Jones and Pernell McPhee to replace Redding. Jones has a 33-pound weight advantage and is stronger in stopping the run, and McPhee is better at pressuring the quarterback.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

Derrick Mason retired from football five months ago, but it appears that he now wants to do so as a member of the Ravens.

The team announced a news conference for Monday afternoon that will include Mason, general manager Ozzie Newsome and coach John Harbaugh. Mason, 38, is the Ravens' franchise leader in receptions (471) and yards receiving (5,777).

Mason was released by the Ravens before the 2012 season. He decided to join the New York Jets instead of re-signing with the Ravens that season and was eventually traded to the Houston Texans.

Hensley's slant: I will provide my extended take on this later this afternoon when the news becomes official. It just seems a little strange that Mason has opted to retire as a Raven when he spent more seasons with the Tennessee Titans (eight) than he did with the Ravens (six). Mason had some excellent seasons with Baltimore, but I don't really put him in the same category as other players who retired as Ravens (like Jonathan Ogden and Matt Stover).

BENGALS: Starting running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis believes it's too early to tell how the carries are going to be divided up on the team. Last week, backup running back Bernard Scott said he expected to come close to splitting attempts with Green-Ellis. “Everyone is at the bottom and working themselves up the depth chart. We have a very good group right now,” Green-Ellis told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “It's not just about me and Bernard splitting carries right now because you don't know who the starters are going to be.” Hensley's slant: This attitude is much different than the one last year's starter Cedric Benson had. Benson made it known that he didn't like sharing time with Scott. Maybe that's one reason why Benson is no longer with the team.

BROWNS: Jim Brown hasn't been overly impressed by running back Trent Richardson, but Browns strength and conditioning coach Kent Johnston is among those who are. “You know that old term, country-boy strong? He is country-boy strong,” Johnston told the Canton Repository. “Trent’s the type of guy who, if he never touched a weight, he’d be a strong man. But he has really enhanced that by the work he put in at Alabama. And what we want to do ... he has a strength and power ratio right now that can allow him to be elite, physically. I want him to maintain that, and I would like to work on things that can help him stay durable.” Hensley's slant: Richardson's toughness will get tested in a division with Ray Lewis and James Harrison in it. His ability to take a hit will be a big factor in whether he succeeds in the AFC North. The backs that bounce to the outside (like Rashard Mendenhall) often don't reach their full potential in this division.

STEELERS: Safety Troy Polamalu not only acknowledges the dangers of playing football. He thinks about it on game days. "People are paralyzed on a football field. People die ... You just never know when it's going to be your last moment," he told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. "I was the kind of guy who would never talk to my wife on game day. Now I'm the guy who's like, 'I love you.' I want my children to know I love them because I don't know what's going to happen out there. I'm not trying to play the martyr here. I love football. It's something we choose to do. We all know how much of a gamble it is to play this game." Hensley's slant: Polamalu is one of the hardest hitting defensive backs in the NFL. He continues to play tough even after numerous head injuries. But these comments shouldn't surprise anyone. He's also one of the game's deep thinkers. You have to wonder if the seven-time Pro Bowl player has a timetable in mind when he plans to call it quits.

AFC North links: Ravens lose McAdoo, too

June, 2, 2012
Baltimore Ravens
Linebacker Michael McAdoo, one of the candidates to fill in for the injured Terrell Suggs this season, will likely miss the season himself after suffering a torn Achilles tendon during organized team activities. McAdoo, who was entering his second season after spending his first on injured reserve, underwent surgery Friday, the Carroll County Times reports; Suggs partially tore an Achilles tendon during an April workout.

Cincinnati Bengals
Andrea Hangst pegs quarterback Andy Dalton and receiver A.J. Green as two of the four Bengals most likely to take a step backward in 2012.

Cleveland Browns
Not content to rip general manager Mike Holmgren and first-round draft pick Trent Richardson, former Browns star Jim Brown lit into team owner Randy Lerner during an interview with the NFL Network. "There's always a question mark when your owner is in England," Brown said.

Scott Fujita denied a charge from the filmmaker who leaked audiotape in the New Orleans Saints bounty scandal that the linebacker knew about the bounty program and that he pushed for the release of the audiotape.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Hines Ward broke his silence in the wake of news Thursday that he'd signed on as an analyst with NBC. "I'm looking forward to starting the next chapter of my life and working on the other side of football," the retired receiver wrote.

AFC North links: Wallace upset with status

May, 30, 2012
Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens signed undrafted rookie kicker Justin Tucker, perhaps, Matt Vensal writes, to put some pressure on veteran Billy Cundiff.

Damian Berry, who made the team as an undrafted free agent last season, has been getting many of the first-team reps at running back in organized team activities with Ray Rice out of the picture, reports Jason Butt of

Cincinnati Bengals

Kicker Mike Nugent, who didn't play much of the 2009 season after being cut twice, tells that he's fine wearing the Bengals' franchise tag.

Offensive coordinator Jay Gruden is happy with the competition at the wide receiver position. "We’ve got some good competition. They are all excelling and taking the challenge right now. Nobody is hanging their head about not getting a rep here or there, they are all competing, they are all attentive in the meetings, and they are all positive guys to have on the team right now," Gruden said.

Wide receiver Jordan Shipley, who's rehabbing from an ACL injury, had his most active day of OTAs on Tuesday, and Jay Gruden said he "wouldn't be surprised if [Shipley] is 100 percent by training camp," reports Paul Dehner Jr. of

Cleveland Browns

Tim Bielik of the Morning Journal took exception with Hall of Famer Jim Brown's unflattering assessment of new Browns running back Trent Richardson. "There is already enough negativity around the Browns that Brown just needs to shut his mouth," Bielik writes.

Pittsburgh Steelers

Ryan Clark admits he probably talked "a little too much" last season. So the Steelers safety says he'll make an effort this season to "be a little less controversial so the young guys can just play and not deal about hearing things about me," reports Mark Kaboly of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Ike Taylor says his teammate, receiver Mike Wallace, is upset with his contract status, reports Kaboly. "There is a lot of frustration with Mike right now,” Taylor said. “He wants to be here. ... But at the same time he wants his paper. Mike feels like he outperformed his last contract. But he’s dealing with a monster, and that’s the Pittsburgh Steelers … they are not going to let you dictate to them on how you feel."

Recently retired receiver Hines Ward not only has a cameo in the upcoming Batman installment "The Dark Knight Rises," but, USA Today reports, that gig will also be memorialized in the form of an action figure, due in November, showing Ward in his Gotham Rogues uniform.
Every morning, grab a cup of coffee and get your AFC North wake-up call here:

Browns Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown described Trent Richardson as an "ordinary" talent on draft day and he isn't backing down from his assessment of the team's first-round running back.

“I think the kid is a good working back, and if you’ve got everything else around him he can play his role,” Brown told ESPN WKNR in Cleveland. “But when it comes to outstanding, I don't see anything outstanding about him. It’s not said in a cruel manner. He’s very efficient, and that’s what you want.”

Brown added, "I’m not trying to be mean. There are certain people you look at and there’s something special about them. I don’t see it.”

Brown went on to criticize team president Mike Holmgren. “What have I said about the Browns other than the fact that Richardson is an ordinary back?," he said. "There’s so much I could say. So you tell all those people that want to look at me, look at what you’ve got. You’re sitting on a mess. You’ve got a guy that doesn’t give interviews except in other cities. I ask all the people in Cleveland, do you get the impression that Mr. Holmgren wants to be there? If you do, then tell me.”

Hensley's slant: From my viewpoint, Brown's criticism stems from the fact that he was fired by Holmgren as an executive advisor two years ago. There are many other analysts, including a former general manager in Bill Polian, who consider Richardson the best player in the draft. We'll see if Brown is wrong in a couple of years.

BENGALS: The AFC North blog would like to extend a happy 45th birthday to the Bengals franchise. The American Football League officially awarded a franchise to Paul Brown and Cincinnati on May 24, 1967. Brown named the team the Bengals after the Cincinnati franchise that played in the AFL in the late 1930s. Hensley's slant: The Bengals can really celebrate by winning their first playoff game in 21 seasons, which would end the NFL's longest drought. The team is certainly poised to do so by bringing back young talent like A.J. Green and Andy Dalton and putting together one of the best offseasons in the league this year.

RAVENS: A year ago, left tackle Bryant McKinnie ballooned to 400 pounds during the NFL lockout and was cut by the Minnesota Vikings. The 6-foot-8 lineman told the Carroll County (Md.) Times that he's down to 358 pounds with a target goal of getting down to 345 pounds. "I'm glad I'm here so I can go through this now instead of what happened last year," McKinnie said. "Last year, I felt like I was on Celebrity Fit Club." Hensley's slant: McKinnie started off strong in his first season with the Ravens before fading down the stretch. Maybe getting in better condition will allow McKinnie to be more consistent through the season. This is a big year for McKinnie, who is in the final year of his contract and turns 33 during the season.

STEELERS: Tight end David Johnson is now a full-time fullback, according to running back Isaac Redman. Johnson split his duties between tight end and fullback in Bruce Arians' offense. Now, Johnson has a different focus in Todd Haley's attack. "Instead of him being a tight end in the tight end room and kind of doing fullback as a second job, he's strictly focusing on fullback," Redman told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I think that will help him a lot." Hensley's slant: This move will definitely help the Steelers' running game. But I still see the Steelers as a pass-first offense. Haley tailors his system around the talent on the team, and the talent in Pittsburgh (Ben Roethlisberger, Mike Wallace, Antonio Brown and Heath Miller) says to throw the ball.
As many of the loyal readers of the AFC North blog know, I believe the Cleveland Browns made the right move in draft running back Trent Richardson. The Browns need an offensive playmaker, and Richardson was clearly the top one remaining after Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III.

Others don't agree. ESPN's Jeffri Chadiha sees Richardson-Browns as the "worst marriage" in this year's draft. Here's how Chadiha sees the situation:
There are plenty of reasons to like Richardson, including his college production, intangibles and overall toughness. What's hard to ignore is the recent history of highly drafted running backs in the NFL. Only two runners taken in the first round since 2007 have turned into stars -- Minnesota's Adrian Peterson and Tennessee's Chris Johnson -- and Richardson doesn't possess the explosiveness or speed of those two.

The Browns also have a lousy passing game, which means Richardson will find more defenders focused on him every time he lines up. That doesn't mean he won't be productive at all. It just means he isn't as likely to live up to the status of being the third overall pick in the draft. Keep in mind, Browns Hall of Famer Jim Brown already has called him "ordinary." From this vantage point, it's easy to think other people might have a similar opinion of Richardson this season.

While he makes valid points, I'm going to have to disagree. I see this as a perfect pairing. The Browns' offense got pushed around too much last season, and it gained a tougher attitude with Richardson. He's the type of back that Cleveland needs to compete against the likes of the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals.

What will help this "marriage" in the future is the addition of deep threats. When defenses began to stack the box against Richardson, the Browns need to be able to counter with a strong-armed Brandon Weeden throwing downfield to receivers who can gain separation.

One point that everyone can agree on is Richardson is the type of talent that will cause defenses to adjust and react. You couldn't say that about anyone on the Cleveland offense last season.
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