Cornerback Corey Fuller likes to compare the Browns' 1999
inaugural season to The Perfect Storm. In that film a group of
resolute men head out to sea with big dreams, only to run smack
into an unimaginable disaster. That's what happened to
Cleveland, which faced overpowering elements, took a pounding
and wound up with a 2-14 record. Heading into the 2000 season,
the waters probably won't be much calmer.
The second time around the Browns will go with a younger team.
Gone are veterans such as tackle Lomas Brown, linebacker John
Thierry, cornerback Ryan McNeil and strong safety Marquez Pope,
some of whom left for more money and others because they couldn't
adapt to coach Chris Palmer's intense program. Now Cleveland has
a starting lineup that is one of the youngest in the league and
is three years younger, on average, than last year's starters.
"By the end of last season we had seven rookies starting," says
Palmer, who expects that the valuable experience will start to
pay dividends. "Hopefully, they'll continue their growth, along
with the others. What I've tried to tell everyone is that there's
no substitute for learning on the field." The organization still
believes it can contend for a playoff spot in three to four
years, when its nucleus of young players will be reaching its
prime. That sounds good and well, but it will be a test of
patience for some of the NFL's most loyal fans.
Palmer and Dwight Clark, the club's vice president of football
operations, are more comfortable with the chemistry of this
year's team than they were with last season's. The Browns had
only 10 months to put together a coaching staff and roster before
the start of training camp last summer, and too many veterans
found it difficult to adjust to life on an expansion team. This
year there seems to be less confusion, more commitment.
"With a lot of young guys around, you don't have to worry as much
about them buying into a system," says outside linebacker Jamir
Miller, a seven-year veteran who signed a four-year, $18.3
million extension last October. "They just assume this is the way
things are supposed to be and go with it."
"There's a totally different atmosphere and attitude among the
players," Clark says. "Last year I'm not sure we knew what was
happening to us. There was so much to get done, and we spent all
our time taking care of those things. I don't think any of us
stepped back to look at the big picture."
The Browns' present and future depend greatly on the two players
they chose with the No. 1 selections in the last two drafts:
second-year quarterback Tim Couch and rookie defensive end
Courtney Brown. Last season Couch set franchise rookie records
for completions (223), attempts (399), yards (2,447) and
touchdown passes (15) while throwing only 13 interceptions. His
most glaring weakness, though it's something you love to see in a
leader, was a penchant for trying to prove his toughness. He was
sacked 56 times, and many of those takedowns were the result of
his holding on to the ball too long. This season Couch says he is
wiser and far more confident. "When you come in as a rookie, you
don't feel like it's your team," he says. "You feel like you're
just trying to win a starting job. Last year I didn't feel like
the guy in charge, but I do now."
One way in which Couch's new attitude has manifested itself is in
his willingness to challenge his teammates when they make
mistakes. Considering the lack of experience at receiver--the top
four wideouts and two best tight ends are all rookies or
second-year players--Couch might get hoarse from yelling. The
running game, which accounted for a league-low 71.9 yards a game,
is also suspect. Former Raven Errict Rhett is expected to be the
featured back behind a line with three new starters.
Defensively, Courtney Brown seems to be exactly what Cleveland
had hoped: Blessed with speed, agility and an 86-inch wingspan,
he impressed the coaching staff by reporting to camp at 279
pounds, 10 pounds more than he weighed at Penn State. Brown
looked so impressive early on that Palmer moved defensive end
Orpheus Roye, a free-agent pickup from the Steelers, to tackle.
"I think he's going to be everything we expected, and more,"
Palmer says of Brown.
Brown, Roye and end Keith McKenzie, a free-agent signee from the
Packers, were brought in to bolster a defense that gave up a
league-high 171 yards rushing per game and totaled only 25 sacks.
Having experienced players such as McKenzie and Miller helps, but
Palmer needs his youngsters to grow up fast. "I think we have
more talent than a year ago," Palmer says. "We just have to work
through the tough times."
COLOR PHOTO: TOM HAUCK/ALLSPORT OLD HAND Cleveland's youngsters can rally around Miller, one of the team's senior members and among its best defenders.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID LIAM KYLE
SEPT. 3 JACKSONVILLE
10 at Cincinnati
24 at Oakland
OCT. 1 BALTIMORE
8 at Arizona
15 at Denver
22 at Pittsburgh
NOV. 5 N.Y. GIANTS
12 NEW ENGLAND
19 at Tennessee
26 at Baltimore
DEC. 3 at Jacksonville
24 Open date
1999 Record 2-14 (6th in AFC Central)
NFL rank (rush/pass/total): offense 31/29/31; defense 31/11/31
2000 Schedule strength
NFL rank: 14
Opponents' 1999 winning percentage: .508
Games against playoff teams: 4
PLAYER TO WATCH
Six weeks into last season outside linebacker Rahim Abdullah
realized things had to change. The Jaguars kept pulling their
guards in Abdullah's direction, but he rarely touched the
ballcarrier. It was an eye-opener for a player who had handled
similar plays with relative ease at Clemson. "I learned that
having talent isn't enough at this level," says Abdullah, a
second-round pick in '99. He's put on about 25 pounds (to 254)
and is excited about his new role. Rather than line up off the
ball as he did in 1999, Abdullah will play as a strongside
backer. "He has a chip on his shoulder," says vice president
Dwight Clark. "He has something to prove."
PROJECTED LINEUP WITH 1999 STATISTICS
Coach: Chris Palmer
Second season with Browns (2-14 in NFL)
Offensive Backs PVR*
QB Tim Couch 76 399 att. 223 comp. 55.9% 2,447 yds.
15 TDs 13 int. 73.2 rtg.
RB Errict Rhett65 236 att. 852 yds. 3.6 avg. 24 rec.
169 yds. 7.0 avg. 7 TDs
RB Terry Kirby 146 130 att. 452 yds. 3.5 avg. 58 rec.
528 yds. 9.1 avg. 9 TDs
FB Marc Edwards 290 6 att. 35 yds. 5.8 avg. 27 rec.
212 yds. 7.9 avg. 2 TDs
Receivers, Specialists, Offensive Linemen
WR Kevin Johnson 67 66 rec. 986 yds. 8 TDs
WR JaJuan Dawson (R) 153 96 rec. 1,051 yds. 8 TDs
WR Dennis Northcutt (R)133 88 rec. 1,422 yds. 8 TDs
TE Aaron Shea (R) 264 38 rec. 289 yds. 3 TDs
K Phil Dawson 277 23/24 XPs 8/12 FGs 53 pts.[#]
PR Dennis Northcutt (R)133 23 ret. 19.0 avg. 2 TDs
KR Ronnie Powell 299 44 ret. 22.4 avg. 0 TDs
LT Roman Oben 6'4" 305 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
LG Jim Pyne 6'2" 297 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
C Dave Wohlabaugh 6'3" 292 lbs. 15 games 15 starts
RG Everett Lindsay 6'4" 302 lbs. 16 games 16 starts
RT Steve Zahursky 6'6" 305 lbs. 9 games 7 starts
LE Courtney Brown (R) 55 tackles 13 1/2 sacks
LT Stalin Colinet 14 tackles 0 sacks
RT Orpheus Roye 58 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
RE Keith McKenzie 30 tackles 8 sacks
OLB Rahim Abdullah 72 tackles 1 int.
MLB Wali Rainer 136 tackles 1 sack
OLB Jamir Miller 117 tackles 4 1/2 sacks
CB Corey Fuller 75 tackles 0 int.
SS Marquis Smith 34 tackles 0 int.
FS Percy Ellsworth 75 tackles 6 int.
CB Daylon McCutcheon 79 tackles 1 int.
P Chris Gardocki 106 punts 43.8 avg.
 New acquisition (R) Rookie (statistics for final college
year) *PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page
139) [#]Includes one rushing touchdown
THE BOOK an opposing team's scout sizes up the Browns
"You have a young quarterback [Tim Couch] with some young
players to throw to. At wide receiver Dennis Northcutt and David
Patten are good additions, and Kevin Johnson showed his talent
last year. I think JaJuan Dawson will be a player for them...
Errict Rhett will help the running game, but the weak link in
the offense is the line--specifically at right tackle, where, in
camp, the Browns were going with Steve Zahursky. I want to see
how that goes.... Defensively, the line should be a strength.
Courtney Brown is a talent, and Orpheus Roye and Keith McKenzie
should play well.... The linebackers are aggressive. They'll be
good against the run, but I don't know how well they'll handle
pass coverage.... Their secondary is sound, but there isn't a
marquee player back there. Daylon McCutcheon has been a pleasant
surprise, and keep an eye on Marquis Smith.... With these guys
having a year in the system and a year to get comfortable with
themselves, they could win a little more than they did last