The Browns Get Ready

The summer is winding down... the children head back to school... the final cuts are in... and the preseason is over. It's time for football, says the Owl, who talks to Earl Little, Barry Stokes, Butch Davis, and Kenard Lang about the job ahead. Oh yeah. Let's rock.

Hot and muggy weather, humidity so high at times - though they were fairly lucky this summer - stinging sweat flowed into their eyes in little rivers. Aches and bruises by the end of the third day that made dressing, walking and blinking normally almost impossible.

Training camp and preseason games are over for the Browns. On to the fun stuff.

In the most hope-filled September since the mirage of 1999, the Browns open their fifth season next Sunday against the Colts and their big name quarterback, Peyton Manning. For a defense that has been questioned from the first day of camp, it's like throwing a toddler into the pool to see if he can swim.

"I'm excited," safety Earl Little said recently. "We're not where we want to be yet, but we're getting there. It's exciting playing for (defensive coordinator) Dave Campo. He's another Miami (Hurricanes) guy.

"I can see it in his eyes. He wants us to be the best defense in the NFL. It's going to be hard. Nothing comes easy in this league, but everybody's ready to pick up where we left off last year. We're young, especially at linebacker, but I think we could be a pretty good defense."

The Browns were 2-14 in 1999, 3-13 the next year, 7-9 in 2001, the first season under Butch Davis and 9-7 last season, plus a playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The Browns were dead last (31st) in league offense and defense in 1999, last in offense and 26th in defense in 2000, last in offense and 22nd in defense in 2001and 23rd in offense and 21st in defense last season.

Little's optimism is shared on both sides of the locker room.

"I think everybody is heading to the season hungry," left tackle Barry Stokes said. "Every starter came to camp with the attitude they didn't have a job, because really, you don't. That attitude can only make us better. "In the NFL, you could lose your job any given Sunday _ not because you didn't do your job well, but because somebody is on the rise."

Stokes has big shoes to fill at left tackle, make no mistake about it. When Ross Verba was lost for the season Thursday because of a ruptured tendon in his right biceps, it meant moving Stokes from guard to tackle and moving a sub in to Stokes' spot at left guard. It means rookie center Jeff Faine will have to get used to a new dance partner, but Faine is up to the challenge.

As he has in the past with other injuries, Butch Davis will not dwell on what happened to Verba. It certainly does not mean the coach isn't compassionate. He said he feels "terrible" for Verba and meant it. He feels compassion for the injured player, but if he moped and whined his players would pick up on that and start making excuses. Davis won't allow that.

As always, Davis has his eyes dead ahead on the next game in particular and the season as a whole.

"Our theme is going to be finishing," Davis said. "We were terrible at it in 2001. We didn't finish ballgames very well. Last year, about 50 percent of the time, we were better. But we had some games we didn't finish as well."

The best example of not finishing is the playoff loss in Pittsburgh. The Browns blew a 24-7 lead in the second half and lost, 36-33. That game is the fuel to the fire heading into camp.

"What's done, is done," defensive end Kenard Lang said. "That Pittsburgh game was really devastating. I never experienced anything like that in my whole life.

"The way I feel, 'to be continued' should have been put on the end of our season last year. The finish is the Super Bowl in Houston (in January)."

Oh, yeah. Let the games begin.

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