CLEVELAND _ When the National Football League released its 2001 schedule, who would have believed the San Diego Chargers visit to Cleveland would end up being a marquee matchup?
Add the two team's records together from last season and you have a miserable 4-28 record.
What a difference a year makes. In just three weeks, the rejuvenated Browns (2-1) and Chargers (3-0) already have combined for more wins than all of last year. The two clubs take the field today hoping to prove their starts are no fluke.
"You never know what to expect," said Chargers coach Mike Riley. "We thought we were going to be a better team, and we thought it was important to get off to a nice start. We're pleased with it, but we know we've got a lot of stuff in front of us. This is a long season. You have to go prove yourself every week."
Much of the credit for the Chargers' early success has to go to a trio of high-profile newcomers _ quarterback Doug Flutie, running back LaDainian Tomlinson and offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
For a Browns team loaded with ties to the University of Miami, the specter of Flutie evokes some bad memories.
In one of the most memorable play in college-football history, Flutie tossed a 48-yard Hail Mary to lead Boston College to a thrilling victory over Miami in 1984.
Browns coach Butch Davis was a young assistant in his first year on Jimmy Johnson's Hurricanes staff that season.
The five former Hurricanes on the Browns' current roster were kids when Flutie lofted the pass that helped him win the 1984 Heisman Trophy, but they endured the ghost of his heroics.
"Every year, whenever we would play Boston College, they would always show the replay of Flutie's pass on television," said rookie running back James Jackson, a Florida grad who was just 8-years-old in 1984.
Browns strong safety Earl Little graduated from Miami 12 years after the Hail Mary, but remembers watching Flutie's pass on TV and being heartbroken.
"I remember that game very well," said Little. "It was a rainy day down in Miami, and we were watching the game over at my friends house. I was a Miami fan. I couldn't believe it when it happened ... Now here I am all these years later, and I get to play against Flutie. You have to respect him. People say he's old and he's too short, but he's proven that it's all about heart. I enjoy watching him. He's an old guy, but he still has a good arm."
The 5-foot-10 Flutie, who turns 39 later this month, has spent a lifetime proving the experts wrong. When people thought he was too short to win in the NFL, he moved to Canada where he won six trophies as the Canadian Football League's Most Outstanding Player. Further proving the experts wrong, in seven seasons in the NFL _ 1986-to-89 with Chicago and New England and 1998-to-2000 with Buffalo _ Flutie compiled a 30-14 record as a starting quarterback.
Since joining the Chargers, Flutie is 3-0. In those three wins, he has completed 45-of-75 passes for 615 yards. He's been on a mission to prove the Buffalo Bills wrong for dumping him and handing their starting job over to Rob Johnson.
"You can see why (the Chargers) added Doug Flutie," said Butch Davis. "He's making plays and throwing the ball well."
Flutie has benefited from an improved running game featuring Tomlinson. The rookie running back from Texas Christian is second in the NFL in rushing with 310 yards in his first three games. He also leads the league with five rushing touchdowns.
Tomlinson's early success in Norv Turner's offense should come as no surprise. The player Tomlinson is most often compared to is Dallas future Hall-of-Famer Emmitt Smith, who starred in the same offense for three years when Turner was the Cowboys offensive coordinator from 1991 to 1993.
Butch Davis was a defensive assistant on that same Cowboys' staff. In fact, as defensive coordinator in 1993, Davis' defense worked against Turner's offense every day in practice. Former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar was a backup for the Cowboys that season, and he remembers watching the two coaches go head-to-head.
"Make no doubt about it, they competed against each other, especially in practice," Kosar said this week on his website, berinesindsiders.com. "It actually made practice a lot of fun, and more importantly the team was much better for it."
According to Kosar, the matchup of Davis vs. Turner adds a little spice to today's game. "They absolutely know each other's tendencies," said Kosar. "Not only that though, they know each other's personalities as well. For instance, Norv knows that certain formations get Butch's defneses to check to certain coverages. This potentially might have created a huge advantage for San Diego this week. However, Butch knows that Norv knows their coverages, so expect Butch to change them before the game."
Davis isn't the only coach on the Browns' staff who knows a thing or two about Turner. Browns wide receivers coach Terry Robiskie had the same role with Washington when Norv Turner was the Redskins' head coach. Robiskie took over for Turner when he was fired last year by Redskins' owner Dan Snyder.
Robiskie and Davis have been preparing the Browns' defense all week for what Turner will throw at them.
""Norv's offense ... tries to create a lot of mismatches,'' Davis said. "They try to put you in some compromising situations. It takes an awful lot of film study and a lot of work (to combat). I think our defensive coaches have done a good job trying to help our players get some kind of conceptual idea about what they're going to face.''
BROWNS OFFENSE VS. CHARGERS DEFENSE ... The Chargers knew coming in to the 2001 season that they had a defense that could compete in the NFL. Led by linebacker Junoir Seau, the Chargers were No. 2 in the NFL against the run last season, allowing opponents an average of just 3.0 yards per carry. The front-seven of defensive linemen Marcellus Wiley, Jamal Williams, John Parrella and Raylee Johnson and linebackers Seau, Gerald Dixon and Orlando Ruff are off to another strong start, allowing just 256 yards rushing in the first three games.
That doesn't bode well for a Browns running game that features rookie running back James Jackson wearing a flack jacket to protect bruised ribs. He'll be running behind a line that includes Jeremy McKinney making his first start at right guard replacing Tre' Johnson, who is out for the year after having surgery on his left knee.
If the Browns' running game struggles, the key for the Browns will be quarterback Tim Couch.
The weakness of the Chargers' defense has been its inability to generate a pass rush without bringing the linebackers. If the Browns' line can keep the front seven from getting to Couch, the short-passing game could benefit from single coverage by the Chargers' secondary. That secondary includes former Browns' cornerback Ryan McNeil, who leads the NFL with eight interceptions.
"They have a good front-seven, so Ryan knows the ball is going to be coming out quickly," said Browns receiver Kevin Johnson. "I remember Ryan from when he played here in 1999. He's a big corner, and he works hard."
If McNeil has an advantage, it is his size. At 6-foot-2, he is taller than any of the Browns' five receivers.
BROWNS DEFENSE VS. CHARGERS OFFENSE ... The key for the Browns will be to contain Flutie, who likes to roll out of the pocket and make things happen on the run. If the Browns are to put pressure on Flutie, the matchup to watch could be Chargers' left tackle Damion McIntosh vs. Browns' right defensive end Keith McKenzie. McIntosh, who was a third-round pick of the Chargers in 2000, spent most of his rookie season on the bench. McKenzie, who led the Browns in sacks last season with 8 sacks last year, has just one sack in the first three games this season. At this stage last season, McKenzie already had four sacks.
The Browns defense leads the NFL with 11 forced turnovers _ all coming on interceptions. Flutie has thrown just two interceptions in 75 attempts this season. The Browns' run defense will have its best challenge of the season in Tomlinson. So far, the Browns have allowed opposing backs to average 4.3 yards per carry on the ground. Tomlinson is averaging just 3.7 per carry this season.