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Original Issue


SURELY THERE would be hugging. Perhaps there would even be a
sprinkling of happy tears. Having led his team to victory in his
first NFL start, Eric Zeier was striding toward his father and
what seemed certain to be an emotional rendezvous.

As Eric, the Cleveland Browns' 23-year-old rookie quarterback,
emerged from the belly of Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium on
Sunday, his father Rick, a retired Army major, removed the
stogie from his mouth and patted him on the shoulder. "Way to
go, Dawg-man," he said. For all the enthusiasm that went into
the greeting, it was as if Eric had just picked up a spare at
the local bowling alley.

"Thanks, Dad," said young Zeier, which rhymes with fire, which
is what he lit under the Browns on Sunday. Eleven months after
his final game for the Georgia Bulldogs (hence the old man's
nickname for him) and six months after Cleveland drafted him in
the third round, despite concerns that at six feet he might be
too short to play quarterback in the NFL, Zeier showed
remarkable patience and poise in leading the Browns to a 29-26
overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals. These old divisional
rivals had taken 3-4 records into the Battle of Ohio, and
Cleveland, thanks also to five Matt Stover field goals, left in
a tie for first place with the Pittsburgh Steelers in that
repository of mediocrity, the AFC Central.

By guiding his teammates to their first victory in four games,
Zeier vindicated Brown coach Bill Belichick, who touched off a
controversy in Cleveland six days earlier by benching incumbent
quarterback Vinny Testaverde. Zeier also did what Testaverde had
been unable to do in seven starts this season: get a monster
game out of Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre (Bad Moon) Rison, who
hauled in seven passes for 173 yards and a touchdown. Coming
into the game, Bad Moon was having a bad season, having caught a
meager 17 passes. It was an easy number to remember, since the
Browns had signed Rison in the off-season to a five-year, $17
million contract.

Testaverde will be hard-pressed to get his job back, judging by
the praise the Cleveland coaches heaped on Zeier after the game.
"He responded like a 10-year veteran," said Belichick.

Zeier's numbers--he completed 26 of 46 passes for 310 yards,
threw one touchdown and was intercepted once--become all the more
impressive when one realizes that the Browns were down to two of
their regular wide receivers, having lost Michael Jackson and
Derrick Alexander to injuries. Zeier picked up blitzes and
dumped the ball off expertly. He consistently hit his second,
third and fourth receivers against the weak Cincinnati
secondary. And to the surprise of the Bengals, whose scouting
reports had pegged him as a sluggish scrambler, Zeier repeatedly
hurt them by pulling the ball down and running eight times for
44 yards.

"I liked them scrambles, Dawg-man," said the Major, handing Eric
a stack of mail from home. "But who were you trying to go to on
that interception?" One gets the impression that Rick parcels
out praise in modest doses. Once Eric was out of earshot,
however, he said proudly, "The kid's always had some magic dust
up his sleeve. There's something about him that inspires the
guys around him."

One man's magic dust is another man's spark, which was the
buzzword around the Browns last week. Belichick spoke repeatedly
of the need for an offensive spark in announcing Zeier's
promotion. "I'm not blaming Vinny for our problems," said
Belichick. "We just needed something to get us going, and I
didn't want to make 14 changes."

Because Testaverde had been one of the few Browns playing well,
Belichick's announcement seemed to indicate a mild panic on his
part. Testaverde's demotion also achieved the near impossible:
his transformation in the minds of doubting Cleveland fans from
a scapegoat to a sympathetic figure.

Testaverde did not go gently into the realm of clipboard
caddies. "Bill says he wants to add some spark? Well, if you
catch a touchdown pass, that's a spark," said a testy Testaverde
while dressing for practice last Thursday. His point? On at
least three occasions this season, he has had passes dropped in
the end zone.

Testaverde's demotion was greeted with genuine regret by his
teammates...followed almost immediately by excitement. "Let
me tell you Zeier doesn't play like a rookie," said left tackle
Tony Jones last Thursday. "He doesn't carry himself like a
rookie. In our first preseason game, he came into the huddle so
arrogant. He just came in and said, 'Well guys, ---- it. Let's
score.' I like that in a guy."

A staph infection in Testaverde's left leg--local cynics
described it as "a Zeierus"--kept him out of the second and third
exhibition games, opening the door for Zeier. When he decided to
start Zeier instead of fifth-year veteran Brad Goebel against
the Chicago Bears on Aug. 14, Belichick says he did everything
he could to "turn the heat up on him." He announced his decision
on Tuesday, forcing Zeier to cope with a week's worth of intense
media attention. "He handled everything we threw at him," says

Zeier responded by completing 14 of 16 passes, throwing for one
touchdown and running for another in a 55-13 rout of the Bears.

And it quickly became apparent that Zeier's preciosity was by
no means limited to the field. Last week, for example, he
expertly parried reporters' attempts to draw him into making
controversial statements about Testaverde. He did this by
spouting bromides, as when he served up this triple-decker of
cliches, "I'm going to go out there and just play. We'll take
them one game at a time, and hopefully we can get this thing
turned around."

The Browns were visiting a team that appeared to have executed
just such a U-turn. The Bengals had won only 14 games in the
previous four seasons but had already won three times this year
and were coming off a startling 27-9 whipping of Pittsburgh. In
that win Cincinnati quarterback Jeff Blake had connected on
touchdown bombs of 47 and 41 yards--one apiece to his sensational
young wideouts, Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott. Blake, as of
Sunday, led the NFL with eight pass completions of 40 yards or
more and four of 50-plus.

The Browns beat the Bengals, in large part, by depriving Blake
of the long ball. Cleveland's safeties lined up 25 yards deep
and made sure Cincinnati's wideouts couldn't get behind them.
That turned the Mad Bomber into a frustrated dink-baller.
Blake's longest completion of the day, a 32-yarder to running
back Eric Bieniemy, was really a 25-yard run tacked on to a
seven-yard pass.

Zeier out-Blaked Blake, connecting on a pair of sweet rainbows
to Rison. The first, a 46-yarder in the second quarter on which
cornerback Leonard Wheeler was crisped, set up the third of
Stover's five field goals. The second, which went for 59 yards
in the third quarter as Rison split the safeties, was squandered
three plays later when Zeier was picked off by Cincy linebacker
Steve Tovar.

Redemption came two possessions later. With Cleveland trailing
16-12 and 7:49 left to play, Zeier marched the Browns 73 yards
in five plays. On the sixth play of the drive, he took a
five-step drop and felt immediate pressure from Bengal outside
linebacker James Francis, who was bearing down from Zeier's
right. With Francis's hand on his shoulder--"I was just getting
ready to jerk him down," said the heartsick Francis
afterward--Zeier fired 17 yards into the end zone, where a
well-covered Rison leaped to make the catch between two
defenders and gave Cleveland a 19-16 lead. "I dropped one in
the end zone last week," Rison said afterward. "There was no way
I was dropping that one."

Weary of being reminded of that error and of his modest number
of receptions this season, earlier last week Rison felt
compelled to remind reporters that on numerous occasions,
Testaverde had failed to spot him when he was wide open. Coming
off the field on Sunday, Rison had no such complaints about his
new battery mate. "I'll tell you what," he said. "That kid can

Zeier's efforts were almost for naught as the Browns' defense
squandered a 10-point lead after Cleveland went ahead 26-16 with
2:51 to play. The Bengals got a 41-yard field goal, recovered
the ensuing onside kick and sent the game into overtime after
Pickens caught a one-yard alley-oop from backup quarterback
David Klingler with 15 seconds left. Klingler had entered the
game after Blake had his bell rung just before the two-minute
warning. Blake returned for the extra period but should have
taken the rest of the day off. He was intercepted on
Cincinnati's second possession in overtime, and Zeier moved the
Browns 34 yards to set up Stover's game-winning, 28-yard field

As Zeier made his escape from a scrum of reporters following his
postgame press conference, a white-haired gentleman in gold wire
rims approached him. He was Brown owner Art Modell, who
congratulated Zeier and, unlike Zeier's dad, embraced him. And
though Zeier had been dishing up his usual, self-effacing
pabulum to the media, surely he would have something memorable
to say to the patriarch of the franchise.

Leaning forward, an eavesdropper heard Zeier say this: "Let's
get this thing turned around."

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Zeier emerged from behind Testaverde to complete 26 of 46 passes against Cincinnati. [Eric Zeier]

COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL [Eric Zeier and others]

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Cleveland's defense took away Blake's bread and butter, the bomb, and then it rang his bell. [Jeff Blake]

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE Stover's career-high five field goals gave Cleveland a leg up in the AFC Central. [Matt Stover]