As off-seasons go, the Cleveland Browns' was one part lawn sale and two parts soap opera. Faced with a crushing salary cap, Butch Davis and the Browns spent the entire spring on a prolonged bulimic tear. The team cut, waived, fired, or otherwise regurgitated dozens of players—including the entire starting linebacker corps and just about every veteran who had signed onto the expansion roster back in 1999.
No one was safe. Corey Fuller was the team's best cornerback, yet he got chopped despite taking a pay cut the year before. Earl Holmes inked a four year deal a year in 2002 and found himself on the open market for his trouble. Dwayne Rudd, Dave Wohlabaugh, even long snapper Ryan Kuehl were sent packing.
When the smoke finally cleared, Browns fans found themselves embroiled in one of the most intense quarterback controversies in recent memory. Kelly Holcomb, a proud graduate of a compass point school in Tennessee, came out of literally nowhere to challenge first round draft pick Tim Couch for the starting quarterback job. The media had a field day even as fans obsessed. By August, tempers were flaring, friends were fighting, and families were tipping over living room furniture and trading small arms fire.
So it was no small relief when the Browns finally squared off against the Indianapolis Colts at Cleveland Brown Stadium. And things get rolling fast, as Holcomb completes six straight passes to four different receivers—including a pinpoint 27-yard strike to Andre Davis—to put the Browns up 7-0. It seems all the hand-wringing during the Couch-Holcomb derby has been wasted. Holcomb looks masterful, confident, and in command. Twice in the first three minutes he checks off at the line of scrimmage to produce big plays.
In fact, Kelly Holcomb looks more like Peyton Manning than Manning does. The pride of Indianapolis is a wreck. Manning tosses three straight INTs, including one to an utterly surprised Orpheus Roye, and fumbles two snaps in the first quarter alone. Midway through the second stanza, Manning trips over his own feet and falls into the end zone for a safety. Exasperated, Dungy calls 12 straight running plays rather than risk letting Manning handle the ball.
By halftime, the Browns are up 37 to 3, Marvin Harrison has exactly zero catches, and the Colts are beside themselves. Offensive coordinator Tom Moore and quarterbacks coach Jim Caldwell are on the sidelines, quizzing a clearly distraught Manning, when Dungy comes over and asks if Manning can play.
"I don't think so," answers Moore. "I'm afraid that somebody has stolen Peyton's mojo."
Dungy pauses a moment and shoots a glance across the sidelines, where Browns offensive coordinator—and Manning's former mentor--Bruce Ariens is cackling gleefully. For some odd reason, the 28-year coaching veteran is holding a large white cat and raising his right pinkie to the corner of his mouth.
Dungy slams his clipboard to the ground and puts Brock Huard into the game--with spectacular results. On the first play of the second half, Gerard Warren knocks Colts' center Jeff Saturday right into Tuesday and pile drives Huard into the turf. Without a third QB on the roster, Dungy continues to play a groggy Huard, who fumbles four handoffs and takes so many blows to the head that he finally leaves the field convinced he's Freddie Prinze, Jr.
With punter Hunter Smith forced to take snaps, the Browns offense pretty much has the field all to itself. Holcomb shows no mercy, commanding a series of drives that put the Colts so far in the hole that Dungy is seen weeping on the sidelines. Colts kicker Mike Vanderjagt is so disgusted by this display of unmanly behavior that he pummels Dungy with a kicking tee.
Colts owner Jim Irsay can't stand another moment of it. When his team emerges from the stadium, the players are met by a fleet of moving vans packed up and ready to take the franchise on another westward march—this time to Los Angeles. By 2009, the Baltimore/Indianapolis/Los Angeles Colts are the Honolulu Colts—though Irsay would later negotiate with Tokyo on a rich stadium deal. Less than 20 years after that, the team would return to Baltimore, having become the first NFL franchise to successfully circumnavigate the Earth.
Browns 321, Colts 3
And that's the way I see it.