More than an hour into the Browns' final full-scale practice
before a preseason game against the Buccaneers earlier this
month, Cleveland's running backs hadn't taken a handoff. While
the offense ran an array of pass plays featuring rookie
quarterback and No. 1 draft pick Tim Couch, some 50 yards away,
in a corner of the practice field, running back Terry Kirby and
fullback Marc Edwards moped around and took turns blocking a
If the Browns' ground game appears to be something of an
afterthought in 1999, well, that's by design. When president
Carmen Policy, director of football operations Dwight Clark and
coach Chris Palmer devised their blueprint for building
Cleveland's expansion team, they knew they would have to
prioritize positions. Not impressed with the free-agent crop of
running backs, they decided to wait at least a year before
spending top dollar on a ballcarrier. "No organization can fill
all its needs in one year," says Palmer, who served as the
Jaguars' offensive coordinator the past two seasons. "It just
takes time. Look at Jacksonville. It didn't get Fred Taylor
until the fourth year."
So in their first off-season, the Browns invested in offensive
linemen they believe can protect Couch and open holes wide
enough for any back to run through. Cleveland anchored its line
with three free agents: right tackle Orlando Brown (six years,
$27 million), center Dave Wohlabaugh (seven years, $26.25
million) and 15-year veteran left tackle Lomas Brown (three
years, $10.75 million). "We have some semblance of what we
intend to do running the ball," says Palmer, "but we've got a
long way to go." That said, success with the ground game won't
be measured in 1,000-yard increments but by yards per carry and
by how effective the Browns are in making opponents respect the
run, thus giving Couch and fellow quarterback Ty Detmer time to
"Any team that wants to win in this league has to run the ball,"
says Kirby, "but running is an attitude. Look at the guys we
have up front. They're feisty. They like to fight. They can
power people off the field. It's a runner's dream: I just take
the ball, pick whichever huge hole I want to run through and go.
None of our backs has to be the Man."
That's good news for Cleveland fans, because, frankly, none of
the backs on the roster fits that description. Kirby and
Edwards, both former 49ers, excel at pass catching, which is a
big part of Palmer's plan. But Kirby has never been a dynamic,
workhorse back who hits holes hard. In six seasons as a backup
with the Dolphins and the Niners, he averaged 379 rushing yards
a year. During camp his tendency to fumble didn't please Palmer.
Kirby's understudy is former Patriot Sedrick Shaw, who has 48
carries in two years as a pro. Shaw was traded to the Browns in
April for nothing more than "past considerations," even after
New England had lost starter Robert Edwards to a
career-threatening knee injury.
Another running-back candidate is Madre Hill, a rookie
seventh-round draft pick from Arkansas who has had
reconstructive surgery on both knees. In the first half of the
Browns' preseason opener, against the Cowboys, Kirby, Shaw and
Hill combined for 15 rushing yards on 10 carries. Five days
later against Tampa Bay the trio picked up 20 on eight. "Maybe
we don't have a pure runner with a big name, but we'll be fine,"
says Edwards. "Great backs and a mediocre line make for a
mediocre running game. But if you have a great line, you are
always going to have a great running game."
Cleveland's management buys that. Wohlabaugh was one of the
first free agents the team signed. With their first pick in the
expansion draft, the Browns took the Lions' Jim Pyne, who will
start at left guard. One of two third-year players picked up in
the expansion draft--Orlando Bobo (Vikings) or 6'8", 330-pound
Scott Rehberg (Patriots)--will start at right guard. Imagine the
concussive combo Cleveland could line up on the right side with
Rehberg and the 6'7", 350-pound Orlando Brown. Like the Browns,
Brown, a.k.a. Zeus, is making a comeback in Cleveland. He was
signed to a free-agent deal by the Browns in May 1993 after he
broke an equipment manager's shoulder and nearly knocked a scout
unconscious during a blocking drill.
"Right now we're doing a lot of passing," says Brown. "But it's
gonna get cold up here in Cleveland. The wind, the cold, the
snow, the ice--you have to run the ball in Cleveland. I want to
pancake people. I want to run over people. I want to block a guy
into the ground and make him hurt. You do that running the ball.
Cleveland is a running-the-ball town."
One look at where the Browns spent their free-agent money in the
off-season suggests as much.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Winging it Without a marquee running back to carry the load, the Browns will rely on the right arm of Couch to move the ball.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE
Sept. 12 PITTSBURGH
19 at Tennessee
26 at Baltimore
Oct. 3 NEW ENGLAND
17 at Jacksonville
24 at St. Louis
31 at New Orleans
Nov. 7 BALTIMORE
14 at Pittsburgh
Dec. 5 at San Diego
12 at Cincinnati
Jan. 2 Open date
1999 Schedule strength NFL rank: 31 Opponents' 1998 winning
percentage: .395 Games against playoff teams: 3
The Browns' first-round selection of Tim Couch marked only the
fourth time since 1960 that an expansion team has selected a
quarterback in the first round of its first draft. None of the
other quarterbacks drafted under such circumstances lasted more
than five years with the expansion team that drafted him.
Quarterback How fared
1995 Panthers Started only 42 games for Panthers but led them to
Kerry Collins 996 NFC Championship Game
1966 Dolphins Won only one game as a starting quarterback in his
Rick Norton NFL career
1966 Falcons 8-30-1 record for Atlanta with a 50.3 passer rating;
Randy Johnson traded to Giants in 1971
PLAYER TO WATCH
Kevin Johnson, a wideout who was one of the Browns' second-round
picks last spring, has had quite a preseason. On July 29 he
became a father when his girlfriend, Shaniece Diaz, gave birth
to a 6-pound, 11-ounce boy. Then in his first game as a pro,
Cleveland's nationally televised 20-17 overtime win over the
Cowboys on Aug. 9, he caught two passes for 30 yards, including
a 24-yard fingertip reception for a touchdown from No. 1 pick
Tim Couch. "It was like a dream come true," says Johnson. To get
on the same page with Couch, Johnson, who starred at Syracuse
and runs a 4.31 in the 40, spent time this summer working out
with him, but Johnson's initiation into the NFL hasn't been all
smooth sailing. At minicamps Browns coach Chris Palmer was
critical of Johnson for dropping too many passes. The message
was clear: For Couch to develop, he needs a speedy receiver to
perform reliably in part to keep defenses from loading up on
veteran wideout Leslie Shepherd.
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1998 STATISTICS
Coach: Chris Palmer
First season with Browns (0-0 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Ty Detmer 129
38 att. 24 comp. 63.2% 312 yds. 4 TDs 3 int. 91.1 rtg.
RB Terry Kirby 136
48 att. 258 yds. 5.4 avg. 16 rec. 134 yds. 8.4 avg. 3 TDs
RB Sedrick Shaw 207
48 att. 236 yds. 4.9 avg. 6 rec. 30 yds. 5.0 avg. 0 TDs
FB Marc Edwards 262
22 att. 94 yds. 4.3 avg. 22 rec. 218 yds. 9.9 avg. 3 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Kevin Johnson (R) 94 60 rec. 894 yds. 9 TDs
WR Leslie Shepherd 126 43 rec. 712 yds. 8 TDs
WR Darrin Chiaverini (R) 232 52 rec. 630 yds. 5 TDs
TE Irv Smith 151 25 rec. 266 yds. 5 TDs
K Phil Dawson 266 26/29 XPs 13/16 FGs 65 pts.
PR Damon Gibson 276 27 ret. 8.1 avg. 1 TD
KR Damon Gibson 276 17 ret. 21.9 avg. 0 TDs
LT Lomas Brown 6'4" 290 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Jim Pyne 6'2" 297 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Dave Wohlabaugh 6'3" 292 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RG Orlando Bobo 6'3" 299 lbs. 4 games 0 starts
RT Orlando Brown 6'7" 350 lbs. 13 games 13 starts
LE Roy Barker 40 tackles 12 sacks
LT John Jurkovic 27 tackles 1/2 sack
RT Jerry Ball 31 tackles 0 sacks
RE Derrick Alexander 41 tackles 7 1/2 sacks
OLB John Thierry 30 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
MLB Chris Spielman 68 tackles 1 int.
OLB Jamir Miller 113 tackles 3 sacks
CB Corey Fuller 80 tackles 4 int.
SS Marquez Pope 20 tackles 1 int.
FS Marlon Forbes 22 tackles 0 int.
CB Antonio Langham 34 tackles 1 int.
P Chris Gardocki 79 punts 45.4 avg.
(R) Rookie (statistics for final college year) *PVR: Player
Value Ranking (explanation on page 122) 1997 college
statistics 1997 statistics