The nightmare really started in 1991 with the hiring of Bill Belichick. The sullen Belichick traded away or released as many popular Browns players as possible and tried to turn the team into the New York Giants west. Five years of boring, mediocre football.
The Belichick era in Cleveland ended not with his dismissal, but with Art Modell taking a wad of cash and hijacking to team to Baltimore. So we went from the uninspired Belichick coached teams to no team at all.
Three long years without football followed. The massive uprising of protest over Modell's evil deed forced the NFL to give Cleveland an expansion team to begin play in 1999, with the team's records, colors and tradition intact.
With precious little time to prepare and a crappy selection of talent available in the expansion draft the Browns struggled to a 5-27 record in their first two seasons under Chris Palmer. The second season ended with a final bitter pill for Browns fans to swallow, a Super Bowl title for Modell and his evil Ratbirds.
Then the worm started to turn: The cerebral Palmer was jettisoned and Carmen Policy enticed Butch Davis to Cleveland as head coach, luring him away from Miami. Davis, a mercurial ball of optimistic energy, brought the Brownies back to respectability, posting a 7-9 record in his first year as coach. The Ratbirds had to release tons of talent to get back under the salary cap, effectively closing their window of opportunity for the time being.
That brings us to the 2002 season and I for one really like our chances to win the division. Baltimore has no shot this year after seeing their team decimated. The Bengals are, of course, the Bengals. I think the race will come down to Cleveland and their hated rivals the Pittsburgh Steelers. Let's take a quick look at the four teams making up the AFC North:
I think I'm going to enjoy watching Modell and Billick suffer through 2002 as much as I'll enjoy the Brown's resurgence. Billick is so smarmy his picture should be in the dictionary next to the word. He'll have to be every bit as smart as he thinks he is to get anywhere with this year's version of the Ratbirds. Ron Woodson, mammoth Tony Siragusa and Rob Burnett all gone from their vaunted defense. Shannon Sharpe no longer there to stretch the field as a tight end. Elvis has left the building and taken his 18 interceptions with him. The plan is to go with young and inexperienced Chris Redman with Jeff Blake waiting in the wings should Redman falter. The word out of Baltimore is that Blake has not exactly taken to the role of elder tutor to Redman and is not happy with a backup role. With uncertainty at quarterback a lot rides on the reconstructed left knee of Jamal Lewis. He has reportedly looked good in the early mini camps, we'll have to wait and see how he holds up when the hitting is for real. All-Pro Jonathan Ogden returns to anchor the line. If Lewis is truly healthy the offense might be mediocre. If he's not they will have trouble moving the ball.
Ray Lewis and Peter Boulware are the two stars left from the defense, but they will be minus a lot of the help they are accustomed to. It will be interesting to see how well Lewis performs without the protection of Siragusa and others. The defense will most definitely not be the immovable force anymore.
I delightedly foresee the Ratbirds residing in the basement in the first year of the AFC North. I also see the Browns stomping them twice to the delight of all true Browns fans. It will take Baltimore a few years to recover from having to pay the piper for their previous salary cap excesses. So thank God we don't have to worry about Art accepting any trophies from Paul Tagliabue anytime soon.
The Bengals are not without talent, and I admire their head coach, Dick Lebeau, a good Ohio State man. However, the Bengals usually manage to screw it all up somehow, and I expect no less this time around.
Offensively the key is getting good quarterback play, something Cincinnati has lacked the past several seasons. They've brought in Gus Ferotte to compete with the inconsistent Jon Kitna, with 1999 top pick Akili Smith back to hold the clipboard. Smith has been a huge disappointment, the Browns obviously made the right choice when they passed on Smith and opted for Tim Couch. Corey Dillon is the focal point of the offense here and he has shown up with an improved attitude this summer. He's among the league's best and anyone lining up against the Bengals have to make stopping him their # 1 priority. Levi Jones, the Bengals controversial first pick in last year's draft, has been impressive and the Bengals may get the last laugh on Mel Kiper yet. Peter Warrick has not lived up to his potential in his first two years and the Bengals have him wearing contact lenses, thinking his problem with dropped balls is related to vision problems.
Defensively the Bengals have upgraded at cornerback, signing Jeff Burris and Artrell Hawkins, and have stars on the rise in Takeo Spikes and Brian Simmons. Lamont Jackson, a 2002 pick from Washington State, will be given every opportunity to start at free safety. The Bengals finished 7th defensively last year in the AFC in both run defense and pass defense, and they should finish in that range again this year.
As I said before, the Bengals kind of worry me because they do have some talent. But problems at quarterback and bad karma will probably relegate them to third place in 2002.
The Browns finished 7-9 in 2001, and that record could have been much better if not for some bad breaks. Butch has the Browns on the move and excitement is building for the direction he has taken the franchise. Butch Davis has won big everywhere he has been and he plans to do that here too. I truly loved the Browns 2002 draft, I think it accomplished 3 main things: 1) more tools for Tim Couch 2) a major upgrade in the critical special teams area 3) new blood at the linebacking position.
Couch is poised for a breakout season this year if the health of the offensive line holds up. The return of Tre Johnson, the free agent signings of Barry Stokes and Ryan Tucker, and the addition of rookies Joaquin Gonzalez, Qasim Mitchell and Konrad Dean have upgraded the offensive line considerably. William Green is a star waiting to happen at running back and will take a lot of heat away from Couch. Quincy Morgan, Jujuan Dawson and newly drafted Andre Davis should provide Couch with more targets than Kevin Johnson for a change. Couch buried himself in a film room watching his performance from last year and Butch says his improvement has been apparent in the various mini- camps. I expect Couch and the offense will score some points and consistently move the ball this year. This will also help the defense out by keeping them off the field all the time.
Defensively the Browns had trouble stopping the run and the addition of middle linebacker Ernie Holmes, strong safety Robert Griffith, and defensive end Kenard Lang will shore up our run defense considerably. The defensive line of Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren, Lang and Orpheus Roye could be dominating. Much needed depth has been added at linebacker in BenTaylor, Kevin Bentley and Andra Davis, and the secondary is deep and talented.
I think the Browns will battle it out with the Steelers all year and emerge victorious, winning the inaugural season of the AFC North.
My three favorite moments from this storied and bitter rivalry: 1) Turkey Joe Jones picking up Terry Bradshaw and throwing him headfirst into the ground 2) Fred Hoaglin picking up dirt from the infield section of the old stadium and throwing it at Mean Joe Greene during an altercation and 3) Eric Metcalf returning two punts for touchdowns to beat the Steelers.
The Steelers should be formidable. They've spent a lot of cash to keep key veterans on both offense and defense. The Bus is back and ready to rumble through opposing defenses. Former slash back and current quarterback Kordell Stewart is joined by new slash back Antwaan Randle-El. Free agent acquisition Terance Mathis joins holdovers Hines Ward and Plaxico Burress as solid wide receivers, and Mark Bruener is an inviting target at tight end. If Kordell's turnaround wasn't a mirage the Steelers should be better on offense, though if he would struggle or get injured the Steelers the Steelers would have problems with Tommy Maddox now the backup. The signing of place-kicker Todd Peterson to replace inconsistent Kris Brown is a plus too.
Pittsburgh is always tough on defense and that isn't changing. They led the AFC last year in run defense and were second versus the pass. The names change but the Steelers formidable defense doesn't.
So, expect the Steelers to fight it out with the Browns for the AFC crown. It may come down to the two head-to-head meetings and I wouldn't have it any other way. I'm picking the second, but it could go either way.