April 24, 2014

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Four fresh faces that will play key roles in 2012

New faces are everywhere.

From the owner’s suite to the practice squad, the Browns are filled with newcomers. Some are rookies or new to the job. Others are veterans making their Cleveland debut.

Here are four fresh faces that any fan needs to know. They will have a lot to say about how the Browns fare in 2012 and beyond.

THE BOSS

“Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.”

The famous The Who line from “Won’t Get Fooled Again” doesn’t apply to the Browns’ impending ownership change. Jimmy Haslam III is on the opposite side of the spectrum from outgoing owner Randy Lerner.

Haslam is a Tennessee businessman with a thick upper body and powerful handshake. Lerner is a New York businessman with a thin frame and friendly greeting.

Haslam is a big Republican supporter and his brother is the governor of Tennessee. Lerner might’ve been the most liberal owner in the NFL.

Haslam believes in taking a hands-on approach to running his businesses. Lerner preferred to hire people he trusted and get out of the way.

Haslam welcomes the spotlight and is comfortable with the media. Lerner borders on reclusive and refuses to talk in front of television cameras.

They are similar in one important way: They got the love of football from their fathers.

Lerner’s dad, Al, was a minority owner in the old Browns, then bought an expansion franchise for $530 million in 1998 to return a team to Cleveland. Randy grew up around the Browns and idolized Jim Brown.

Haslam’s father played offensive line on the University of Tennessee’s national championship team in 1951. He was coached in the service by Al Davis, who became Raiders owner and a Hall of Famer. He turned down an offer to be an assistant coach at Tennessee, and the job went to future Volunteers legend Johnny Majors.

“When I was 4 or 5 I can remember going to watch Tennessee practice,” Jimmy said. “Dad goes every day when he’s in town. When you grow up that way, it’s just a natural. Our whole family was exposed to it.”

Haslam played running back, receiver and safety for a good private-school team but knew he didn’t have the chops to continue playing when he enrolled at Tennessee.

“There’s a distinct difference in how they’re built and their ability,” he said of the best players on his high school team. “I could look at them and look at me and say they’re good enough to play there and I’m not. It didn’t take a rocket scientist.”

Now he’s made it to the pros. The sale will become official Oct. 16 at the owners meetings.

“First of all, it’s a business. We like business. Second of all, we like sports,” Haslam said. “If you like those two, it’s the ultimate.”

THE BEAST

The excitement surrounding rookie running back Trent Richardson has been muted by uncertainty following arthroscopic knee surgery Aug. 9.

Fans were giddy following the draft in April. President Mike Holmgren traded three draft picks to move up one spot to No. 3 to take the Heisman Trophy finalist from Alabama. Richardson overcame adversity as a teenager to become the nation’s best runner, then vowed to join Brown among the franchise’s greats – even after Brown called him “ordinary” on draft day.

The fans who rushed out to buy Richardson jerseys have yet to see him in an NFL game. He hasn’t been a full participant in practice in a month and only returned to the field Monday.

The fantasies of 200-yard, three-touchdown games were paused. The worries were fast-forwarded: Will Richardson ever be healthy again? Can he still be counted on to carry the Cleveland offense on his broad shoulders?

Those who have watched his rehabilitation aren’t asking those questions. They see the same legs-churning, arms-pumping, dreadlocks-flying beast who can transform an offense that ranked 30th in scoring with 13.6 points per game.

“Trent Richardson has a chance to be really good. I mean really good,” Holmgren said.

“When you have a dynamic running back, there’s synergy,” coach Pat Shurmur said. “When you hand the ball off, you’re going to get yards. Then, of course, they’ve got to decide how they want to defend him. If you got a guy that’s a runner that can make guys miss or break tackles, that’s important.”

Cornerback Joe Haden experienced the Richardson effect firsthand in college. Richardson with the Crimson Tide, Haden with the Florida Gators.

“I’m not a fan of trying to tackle him,” Haden said. “He gave me a good stiff-arm one time and I was good on that after that play.

“He can be as good as he wants to be. He can definitely be an All-Pro. He has everything you need to be a running back. He’s big, he can catch and he can pass block. He’s an every-down back.”

Richardson is on pace to start the opener Sunday. If he’s in the huddle for the first snap at Cleveland Browns Stadium, the excitement will be back.

THE HELP

Shurmur will never admit to having too much on his plate last season, his first as a head coach. But he’s embraced the assistance of Brad Childress.

Shurmur hired Childress as offensive coordinator following the 2011 season. They worked together for seven years on Philadelphia’s offensive staff and share a friendship, a philosophy and a playbook.

“Brad’s a real good coach,” general manager Tom Heckert said. “I hope it’s real big for us.”

Childress was head coach in Minnesota for five years after his time in Philadelphia, winning two division titles and coming within a Brett Favre interception of the Super Bowl. He adds another experienced voice in the coaches’ meetings and allows Shurmur to shift some of his focus from the offense.

Shurmur was the coordinator last year, in addition to his million responsibilities as head coach. He will continue to call the plays on gameday, but Childress runs the meetings during the week and oversees the offense during practice.

“I’ve got a lot of years with Brad and I am able for a lot of reasons — I know the team better, we’re more defined on what we’re doing offensively — I can sit back and kind of cherry-pick a little bit better than I did a year ago,” Shurmur said.

“It’s a huge thing, just for Pat to have the confidence he knows everything that needs to get done will get done whether he’s in there or not,” Heckert said. “He can go to defensive meetings, do whatever he wants, just because Brad is running the meetings. It’s already shown.”

Childress and Shurmur run the pass-happy West Coast Offense, but they’re not afraid to pound the ball on the ground. Shurmur did it with Steven Jackson in St. Louis, and Childress used Adrian Peterson to total the fourth-most rushing yards in the NFL in his first four years with the Vikings.

“When he hired him, I was excited,” tight end Benjamin Watson said. “The more offensive minds we have the better. Coach Shurmur is definitely an offensive mind, so it’s great to have him as the head coach. To add Coach Childress, it adds another dynamic.”

THE VETERAN

The defensive line had energy and talent in 2011. Tackle Phil Taylor and end Jabaal Sheard were the team’s first two draft picks, and tackle Ahtyba Rubin was in his fourth season.

Experience was missing.

Enter right end Frostee Rucker.

He was the team’s “marquee” free-agent signing in March after spending his first six seasons in Cincinnati. Rucker has made 19 starts, including 11 last year, when he totaled 60 tackles and four sacks in a deep Bengals rotation across the defensive line.

“He can stand in there against the run, but then I also feel as though he can still generate pass rush,” Shurmur said.

The Browns needed help in both areas, but stopping the run is job No. 1. The Browns have been bad in that area forever, and last year was no exception as they allowed 147.4 yards a game and ranked 30th.

Rucker is 6-foot-3, 280 pounds and knows how to set the edge. He isn’t afraid to take on a left tackle and force the running back toward the help in the middle of the field.

“He’s a physical defensive end. He’s got good size,” coordinator Dick Jauron said. “We’re in a division that runs the ball and will pound you if you don’t defend it.”

Rucker has shared his expertise with Sheard, who lines up on the left side. That’s part of being a veteran leader.

“I can’t do what he does, he’s a big, strong guy,” Sheard said. “But he’s able to help me where to focus at, where my eyes should be, how to recognize plays.”

Rucker missed part of camp with a knee injury but is ready to go. His influence will go beyond tackle numbers and sacks.

“We felt like when we got to know him that he would be a great teammate,” Shurmur said. “He’s done a good job. He vocal and he’s obviously proven he can play in this league.”

Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7253 or spetrak@chroniclet.com. Fan him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter.