Telling it the way it is, separating fact and fiction, from what we've been told.

A couple of weeks ago, Lane dropped a nugget into the Rumor Central Forum that there may be talks between the Browns and the Texans regarding a player made available for the expansion draft.  As the story goes, the Texans could take a player of interest to the Browns, and then ship him off to Cleveland.
Fast-forward to Thursday, when the Florida Times-Union reported that the Browns have an interest in Jaguars wide receiver Keenan McCardell if he were to be available this offseason.  Of course, McCardell, who played for the first incarnation of the Browns from 1992 through 1995, was one of the five players Jacksonville left exposed for the expansion draft.
Are you starting to see the connection?
While we are not saying that there have been conversations between the two clubs regarding McCardell (wink wink, nudge nudge) as he is currently the property of another NFL team, what we are saying is don't be surprised if the name "McCardell" and "Browns" are in the same sentences of a lot more stories this offseason, particularly sometime after the February 18 expansion draft.
BROWNS NOTES: As it stands now, soon-to-be former Vikings wide receiver Cris Carter is nowhere near the Browns' free agent radar screen. However, there are two names at the receiver position who should definitely pencil in on your offseason to-do lists -- McCardell, as mentioned above, and Michael Westbrook.  Word out of Berea is that the organization will look very seriously at bringing in a quality veteran wide receiver, not only for the benefit of Tim Couch but also to help take the heat of Kevin Johnson in the passing game. And, for you beef-eaters in the audience, no, that doesn't mean the Browns will neglect offensive lineman in free agency, so feel free to continue sporting the wildly popular "Have U Hugged An Offensive Lineman Today?" bumper stickers while tooling around the Cleveland area. ... Forget the story that appeared on an NFLtalk-wannabe website a couple of weeks ago, which stated that several members of the Browns' front office had strong objections to giving Couch a second "signing bonus".  Certainly there were those that expressed reservations over committing that type of money to any player, even the future of this franchise's offense.  But, it never got to the point of serious, podium-pounding debate.  Or, as one Browns source succinctly expressed to Bernie's Insiders:  "That's a crock of (two very bad words combined to make one really, really bad word). Of course there's going to be disagreements [in every organization], but nothing nearly to the level that story made it out to be." ... There was some serious debate in the inner sanctums of the Berea compound shortly after the end of the 2001 regular season in regard to running back Benjamin Gay.  Several members of the front office and coaching staff lobbied hard for the talented but inexperienced back to make a trek across the pond and get a few games of seasoning in NFL Europe.  In the end, though, head coach Butch Davis won out over the mild dissenters and Gay will remain in Cleveland.  Davis wants Gay to get a full offseason in an NFL strength and conditioning program under his belt, in addition to continuing his immersion in the Browns' offense. ... You can't really blame Browns director of football operations if he's cast more than one envious eye toward the situation in Houston.  While the likes of Antonio Langham, Scott Rehberg and Hurvin McCormack stared (scared?) him in the face for Cleveland's expansion draft, the Texans are looking at such luminaries as Tony Boselli, Jamie Sharper and Jessie Armstead as potential expansion selections.  "There are a lot of really good players on that list," Clark told the Houston Chronicle. "I would think the expectations would be comparable to Carolina in 1995, if not better." ... The Browns will find out at either the Indianapolis Combine in early March or at the NFL owners meeting in the middle of March whether they will select 16th or 17th in the 2002 draft.  A coin flip between Cleveland and Atlanta will determine their slotting. ... So, Butch Davis tells the Cleveland Plain Dealer that the team has an interest in Saints running back Ricky Williams?  Well knock us over with a feather, we hadn't read that anywhere before.
BUNGLING DREW: As the hangovers begin to subside from their champagne-drenched Lombardi parties, the Patriots must now turn their attention to the offseason and attempt to keep their Super Bowl-winning team intact. While free agency will draw some interest, most eyes will be focused squarely on Drew Bledsoe.
It has become painfully obvious to even the most casual observer that the first overall pick of the 1993 draft will not be in a Patriots uniform next season.  When and where he lands is now the only question.
Through numerous league sources, Bernie's Insiders has learned that there are four teams currently considered the frontrunners for Bledsoe's services: the Redskins, Bears, Bengals and Broncos.  Additionally, two other teams -- the Bucs and Seahawks -- are seen as dark horses that could sneak into the race if it stretches into late March or early April. 
Of the first group of teams, Cincinnati and Washington are seen as the early leaders of the leaders.
The Bengals, in particular, are starting to show signs that they make an all-out effort for the quarterback and may -- and we stress the word "may" -- be willing to go to the mattress to acquire Bledsoe.  According to one member of the Bengals' front office, the organization is preparing to offer a package that consists either entirely of draft picks; a combination of a draft pick(s) and a player(s); or simply one player.
In fact, one source confirmed, the Bengals may be willing to give up one of their most prized defensive players and team leaders -- Pro Bowl linebacker and 2003 free agent Takeo Spikes.
In Washington D.C., new head coach Steve Spurrier is looking for a triggerman to run an offense that rely heavily on the passing game.  Currently, that QB is not on the roster and could be acquired via the trade route, with both Bledsoe and Jacksonville's Mark Brunell showing up on the radar screen in the Nation's Capitol.
The Redskins, however, have one thing in their favor that the Bengals can do nothing about: they play in the AFC.  Word out of Foxboro is that the organization, if they trade Bledsoe, would like the franchise QB as far away from the AFC East as possible, with anywhere in the NFC being the preferable destination. 
NORTH-SIDE NOTES: The Ravens, at least temporarily, stopped the bleeding from their organization as they denied the Falcons permission to speak to vice president of football operations Ozzie Newsome about their vacant general manager position, in addition to retaining long-time defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis.  As a result of the interest shown by Atlanta, Newsome will likely see a bump in future paychecks.   Lewis was expected to jump ship for the Redskins, but backed out of a meeting with head coach Steve Spurrier yesterday.  Both the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun are reporting that Lewis has a tentative agreement with Baltimore on a two-year contract that averages in the neighborhood of $800,000 per season. ... The Steelers are breathing a sigh of relief as it looks as though they will retain the top two rungs on their offensive ladder.  Offensive coordinator Mike Mularkey was passed over for the Buccaneers head-coaching vacancy and will likely not be reconsidered by Team Blunder.  Quarterbacks coach Tom Clements just said no to Jacksonville's offer to become their coordinator, then finished second to Kevin Gilbride for the same position in Buffalo. ... In a stroke of sheer marketing genius, the Bengals, owners of a 53-123 record the last 11 years, have raised ticket prices $4 across the board.  In a related story, the Ford Motor Company has announced they have raised the sticker price of their Escort line after adding a cup holder to their standard package.
KEN GETS DILGERED: In a somewhat surprising move, the Colts have notified Pro Bowl tight end Ken Dilger that he will not be a member of the organization in 2002.
Dilger told the Indianapolis Star that the club informed him via a letter that he would be released if the Texans do not take him in the expansion draft later this month.  The veteran is due a roster bonus in excess of $600,000 in mid-March, so he will likely be released before then.
If Dilger is released immediately following the expansion draft on February 18, he can begin negotiating with any NFL team on a contract even before the start of free agency on March 1.
This is a situation to keep an eye on as Browns offensive coordinator Bruce Arians was on the Colts' staff during three of Dilger's seven seasons in Indianapolis.  With Ricky Dudley coming off an injury, and Arians' familiarity with the TE, expect the Browns to be major players when Dilger hits the street.
TAG, YOU'RE IT?: For those in the audience hoping the Browns will have a chance at signing middle linebacker Sam Cowart, there is good news coming out of Buffalo.
According to the Buffalo News, the Bills and Cowart are not any closer to reaching an agreement, and there's a very real possibility that the talented MLB could hit March 1 -- the start date for free agency this year -- without striking a deal.
"There is nothing going on regarding Sam's situation, and I'm beginning to wonder if it will," Gene Burrough, Cowart's agent, told the paper. "We've reached a roadblock, and I don't know if we'll be able to get through it."
In this case, the roadblock is the structure of the signing bonus.
The Bills would like Cowart to take a tiered bonus, with part coming upon signing the new pact and the remainder payable next spring.  Cowart suffered an Achilles tendon injury in the season opener and did not return for the remainder of 2001, leading the organization to propose the tiered bonus as insurance against a less-than-100% return to health.
Burrough, on the other hand, has proposed a deal that's tiered differently, with his client receiving all of the signing bonus -- expected to be in the $7-$9 million range -- by the start of the 2002 season.
If the two sides cannot reach agreement on a new contract before the start of free agency, there is a chance the Bills could place the franchise tag on Cowart.  To franchise a LB this season, it will cost the Bills $5.5 million and would preclude them from negotiating a new deal until after July 15.
SOAPBOX TIME: While every writer with a keyboard is hell-bent on bashing the Bumbling Bucs, we come today not to bury Tampa Bay, but to praise them.
Following the firing of Tony Dungy -- which was preceded by none-too-secret rendezvous with Bill Parcells and his henchmen -- the Buccaneers have seen themselves bent over sans Vaseline by a hefty Tuna and a balding Maverick, in addition to usurping the power of one of the most respected executives in the National Football League.  Then, just two days ago, they kick a quality, qualified trick to the curb with nary a tissue.
In the last month, the Bucs have done the anatomically impossible and screwed themselves and others without the courtesy of reach-arounds from any of the parties involved.  Their coaching expedition has made the Donner party look like a rousing conquest.
And this carnage is the stuff of worthy of praise? Absolutely.
Only the sideshow of Larry, Curly and Moe Glazer -- sons of owner Shemp Glazer -- could get us to keystroke the following: the Bengals and the Son of Paul are no longer the laughing stocks of NFL front offices.  In a deft move that would make the late Dale Earnhardt proud, the Bucs were able to find an extra gear and slingshot themselves past the Bungles, careening wildly down the back straightaway with no other league vehicles in their rear view.
So, congrats all around to the Glazer family.  We're certain you'll be happy with whatever reincarnation of Rich Kotite you happen to suck into your coaching black hole.
LEAGUE-WIDE BAUBLES: The Jets are prepared to make a major push toward re-signing starting left tackle Jason Fabini, a source close to the organization tells The Insiders.  Within the next five to seven days, the soon-to-be unrestricted free agent and his agent should receive an initial proposal from New York.  The source stated that the Jets desperately want to lock down the four-year veteran before he hits the open market due to the expected dearth of quality LTs available in this year's free agent crop. Fabini, of course, may have some interest to the Browns as their current offensive line coach, Larry Zierlein, coached Fabini during his senior season at the University of Cincinnati. ... The Bears have reached an agreement on a three-year contract extension with defensive coordinator Greg Blache and will now turn their full attention to nailing down a long-term deal with head coach Dick Jauron.  The Bears and Jauron, who has one year remaining on his current contract, have been involved in serious talks on an extension for the past two weeks. ... Rumblings out of Green Bay have the Packers interested in Saints defensive tackle La'Roi Glover, provided the price is right.  New Orleans refused to pick up a $5.5 million option bonus on Glover's contract, making the six-year veteran eligible for unrestricted free agency. ... The Vikings have opened negotiations with several of their own potential free agents, the St. Paul Pioneer Press is reporting.  Included amongst the several FAs Minnesota would like to retain are two who may get at least a passing glance from the Browns: safety Robert Griffith and linebacker Kailee Wong. ... Patriots ultra-clutch kicker Adam Vinatieri is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in less than three weeks, but an inside connection may help prevent New England from losing the ultra-clutch kicker.  It seems that the agent who represents Vinatieri -- Neil Cornrich -- also represents head coach Bill BelichickSuffice to say, Belichick will use that connection for all it's worth as the club does not want to lose one of the best pressure kickers in football. It should be noted, however, that Vinatieri will likely seek to become the highest-paid kicker in the game, which means that the Pats may be forced to fork over a contract that exceeds an average of $1.5 million per season and a signing bonus in the seven figures.  That's a steep price to pay for a part-time player, but an investment that the organization must make. ... Even if Michael Westbrook leaves the Redskins via free agency this offseason, he will still have an effect on the club's 2002 salary cap.  Westbrook, who restructured his contract last year to help Washington resolve their cap issues, earned $1.1 million in incentives this past season.  Last spring, the wide receiver reduced his base salary by $530,000, with the incentives added to the deal as a thank you for the cap help.
AND THERE WAS MUCH REJOICING...: Finally, we bring you the following bit of good news on the semi-football front.  CBS has announced that former Bengals and Jets quarterback-turned-broadcaster Boomer Esiason will be joining the network's NFL pregame show this coming season.  And, no, that's not the good news.  The good news is the fact he will replace Jerry Glanville, whose contract has expired and will not be re-signed.  The nation's eardrums owe you a debt of gratitude, Columbia Broadcasting System.

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