PITTSBURGH - An XFL refugee quarterback, a former Division III college running back and a former Browns' preseason star and the balance of the Pittsburgh Steelers' bench warmers helped end the first year of the Butch Davis era on a sour note.
The Cleveland Browns closed the 2001 season with a disappointing 28-7 loss to the Steelers Sunday at Heinz Field, missing their chance to finish the year with a .500 record.
It was not the outcome Davis expected after watching the Browns' starters play the Steelers' starters to a 7-7 stalemate in the first 30 minutes.
"The way the game started, I thought we were going to pick up where we did last week," Davis said, referring to the Browns impressive 41-38 comeback victory over Tennessee. "We moved the ball reasonably well. We scored a touchdown to take the lead. Our defense was doing a good job of getting us off the field."
That all changed in the second half when Steelers coach Bill Cowher pulled Kordell Stewart, Hines Ward, Plaxico Burress and the majority of the Steelers stars to rest them for the upcoming playoffs. With journeyman Tommy Maddox at quarterback, little-known R.J. Bowers carrying the rushing load and former Browns receiver Lenzie Jackson making plays on special teams and on offense, the Steelers suddenly came alive.
Jackson, who drew raves from Davis during the preseason before being cut by the Browns just before the start of the season, authored the game's turning point when he forced Ben Gay to fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half. Troy Edwards picked up the loose football at the Browns' 32 and raced down the sideline for a touchdown, giving the Steelers a 14-7 lead.
Jackson turned in another big play at the end of the quarter, taking out Browns linebacker Brant Boyer with a downfield block that helped spring fellow Steelers receiver Bobby Shaw for a 40-yard touchdown pass from Tommy Maddox. The score extended the Steelers' lead to 21-7 with just 7 seconds remaining in the quarter.
While the Steelers' backups got all the glory, the unit that was the backbone of the Steelers' AFC best 13-3 season remained on the field and provided the key to their second-half success. The starting offensive line of Wayne Gandy, Alan Faneca, Jeff Hartings, Rich Tylski and Marvel Smith helped the Steelers run for 221 yards on 36 carries - even with Pro Bowl back Jerome Bettis and his primary backup, Amos Zeroue, sidelined with injuries.
"They blocked us pretty good," said Davis. "That's what having four No. 1 (draft picks) on the offensive line will do ... They are talented players. They blocked us. We also missed some tackles, and that is something we've struggled with off-and-on throughout the course of the year. It's an area that we will certainly address in the offseason."
Chris Fuamatu Ma'afala - the Steelers' No. 3 running back - frustrated the Browns' defense, rushing for 98 yards on 17 carries before leaving the game in the third quarter with a minor groin injury. Ma'afala followed key blocks by Gandy and tight end Jerame Tuman on a 17-yard touchdown run that tied the score early in the second quarter.
The Steelers proved just about anyone can run the ball behind their offensive line when Bowers replaced Ma'afala. The 27-year-old rookie from Grove City College ran wild against the Browns' starting defense, rushing for 67 yards on 11 carries, including a 21-yard touchdown that broke the game open in the fourth quarter.
"The conditions with all the snow made the game a little bit difficult to play in, but that's no excuse," said linebacker Jamir Miller. "All you have to do is, once you get your hands on them, wrap them up and drive your feet. We missed too many tackles, and that's what contributed to their getting a lot of yards. I'll bet that if I watched the film to see how many yards they got after the first contact, it was probably at least two-thirds of what they ended up gaining."
While the Steelers' backups ran up and down the field in the second half, Tim Couch and the Browns' No. 1 offense struggled. Couch passed for his 3,000th yard of the season, but also threw a pair of fourth-quarter interceptions to spoil the Browns' hopes for a second consecutive comeback win.
"Any time you turn the ball over, you are going to have mixed reviews," said Davis. "But I think early in the game, he threw the ball extremely well, knowing the type of pressure they were bringing and with the number of times he was getting sacked and hit while throwing in the pocket. On the drive (in the fourth quarter) when we went for it on fourth-and-one, he hit some laser shots to Kevin Johnson over the middle."
After passes of 17, 18 and 9 yards to Kevin Johnson helped the Browns march to the Steelers' 17-yard line, Couch spoiled the drive with a poor throw on fourth-and-one. With O.J. Santiago breaking open at the 5-yard line, Couch lofted a weak pass that allowed backup cornerback Deshea Townshend to catch up to Santiago and make a leaping interception with 11:31 left in the game. According to Couch, had he put a little more on the pass, he and Santiago could have hooked up on a 17-yard touchdown, cutting the Steelers' lead to just seven points.
"The ball kind of floated and slipped out of my hand a little bit," said Couch, who completed 13-of-26 passes for 150 yards. "You hate to make excuses, but I wasn't able to drive the ball into O.J. the way I wanted to. That comes with knowing the elements and knowing what routes you can throw and what routes you can't with a wet ball. I tried it and it kind of backfired on me."
Couch's next throw also backfired. Trailing 28-7 after Bowers' 21-yard touchdown run, Couch tried to make a big play to bring the Browns back, but was intercepted again by Townshend on a deep, sideline throw to Quincy Morgan.
The Browns defense intercepted three passes of their own, establishing a new team record with 33 interceptions on the season. Anthony Henry made the record-breaking pick, stepping in front of Steelers' wide receiver Plaxico Burress to intercept a third-quarter slant from Maddox. Not only did Henry give the Browns the team record, breaking the old mark set in 1968, he earned a share of a Browns individual record with his 10th interception of the season, tying Thom Darden's mark set in 1978.
The Browns first interception of the game set up their only touchdown. When Burress failed to pull in a third-down pass from Stewart, he tipped the ball into the waiting hands of defensive back Ray Jackson at the Steelers' 27-yard line. Three plays after the interception, Jamel White scored on a 3-yard touchdown run, giving the Browns a 7-0 lead with 3:29 remaining in the quarter.
Even with the season-ending loss, Davis said he was encouraged by the way his team fought througout the season.
"I'm proud of this football team, because for 16 games they competed and they played hard," said Davis. "They left their heart on the field every time we left the stadium, and that goes a long way ... in retrospect. the guys that finished the season continued to compete and play hard, and I think we closed the gap on some teams in this league."
ON TIM COUCH
Three days after being paid a whopping $8.75-million bonus that will keep him in a Browns uniform for the next four years, Tim Couch reached a pair of milestones in a loss to the Steelers. For the first time in his pro career, Couch competed in all 16 regular-season games. He also became only the fourth quarterback in team history to throw for 3,000 yards in a season.
While Couch has endured an up-and-down 2001 season, he is eager to prove himself worthy of the financial commitment made by the Browns.
"It feels great to have those people behind me," Couch said. "As the quarterback of the team, you want that. I love playing here and I love the fans here. I love what this team is going to do and I just want to be a part of it all."
The Browns had to pay Couch's bonus by Feb. 28 to keep the young quarterback from becoming an unrestricted free agent. By kicking in the final four years of the contract, the Browns will pay Couch $4.4 million next season, $6.2 million in 2003, $7.6 million in 2004 and $8 million in 2005.
With his 150-yard performance against the Steelers, Couch finished the season with 3,040 yards.
"I think any quarterback comes into the league with a goal of throwing for 3,000 yards," said Couch. "For me it is a good feeling because it shows I've progressed each year. My first year I threw for 2,400 yards. Last year, I missed most of the season. Then this year I get a 3,000-yard season when I get to play the whole year. Hopefully next year I'll come out and have a better, more explosive year.
"I learned so much this year. I've grown up so much as a player. It didn't always show, but I think it will next year, when he have a few more pieces of the puzzle. I think it's going to come out that I've grown up a lot in the last year or so as a quarterback."
Butch Davis and the Browns front office are counting on Couch continuing to grow in the next four years.
"He's the kind of guy you want to build the team around," said Davis. "He's clearly the future of this franchise. Not only is he a great player. He's a great person. To attain the success he's had has been difficult given the supporting cast over the last couple years. I think his success will continue to grow. He's going to be the leader of this franchise for a long time."
THE 2002 SCHEDULE
The Browns schedule is now set for the 2002 season.
Sunday's game in Heinz Field was the last for the Browns and Steelers as AFC Central Division rivals. Next year, the two teams will join the Bengals and the Ravens in the new AFC North Division.
The Browns will play each division opponent at home and on the road next season. In addition, the Browns will play home games against the Colts, Falcons, Panthers, Chiefs and the expansion Houston Texas.
The Browns' road games will include trips to play former central-division rival Jaguars and Titans. They will also play road games against the Saints, Buccaneers and Jets.
ONTO NEXT YEAR
Steelers coach Bill Cowher had some nice compliments for Butch Davis when the two met at midfield following Sunday's Steelers victory.
"I told (Davis) that I thought he did a good job this year," said Cowher. "I thought he instilled a lot of confidence in his football team, and I think they're going to be a team to be reckoned with ... I congratulated him on a job well done up there in Cleveland."
The Browns are determined that this year's turnaround is just the beginning.
"I think we made a huge improvement from last season, and it gives us something to look forward to next year to show that if we work hard and stay together, we can get even better next year," said Browns cornerback Daylon McCutcheon, who will be a restricted free agent in the offseason. "Hopefully, we will be a playoff team."
Davis said he felt fortunate to be in the same division with the Steelers - a team he called "the cream of the AFC."
The reason: "It's a measuring stick as far as where we've got to try to go," said Davis.
"I think one of the motivating forces that helped us to win Super Bowls in Dallas (where Davis was an assistant in the early 1990's) was being in the same conference with the Redskins, who had won three, and the New York Giants, who had won two, because you didn't have to look very far to figure out how far you need to go. Once you can start beating the teams that win Super Bowls ... you've got a chance to be there."
Davis was reminded that the Browns beat the defending Super Bowl champion Ravens twice this season. "Yep," he responded with a wry smile. "Beat them twice."
HOW THEY SCORED
BROWNS - Jamel White 3 yard run (Phil Dawson kick). Drive: 3 plays, 27 yards, 1:54. Time Rem. 3:29. BROWNS 7, STEELERS 0.
STEELERS - Chris Fuamatu-Ma'afala 17 yard run (Kris Brown kick). Drive: 8 plays, 73 yards, 4:51. Time Rem. 13:38. BROWNS 7, STEELERS 7.
STEELERS - Troy Edwards 32 yard fumble return (Brown kick). Time Rem: 14:44. STEELERS 14, BROWNS 7.
STEELERS - Bobby Shaw 40 yard pass from Tommy Maddox (Brown kick). Drive: 5 plays, 56 yards, 2:22. Time remaining: 0:07. STEELERS 21, BROWNS 7.
STEELERS - R.J. Bowers 21 yard run (Brown kick). Drive: 7 plays, 88 yards, 4:00. Time rem.: 7:31. STEELERS 28, BROWNS 7.