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The recent opening of Browns training camp in Berea, coupled with the Indians being "Shapiroed" in mid-season, has generated a furor of anticipation and optimism that football fans in this city have not experienced in roughly ten years. After winning just five games in our first two seasons back in the NFL after The Betrayal, coach Butch Davis led the team to an encouraging seven win season in 2001. The signs of maturation were finally visible on the playing field and the impact Butch and his staff had on the teams attitude as a whole was notable. The Browns started 6-4 and were right in the middle of the playoff race until the debacle in the Jacksonville game, and have improved themselves as much as anyone in the league this off-season via free agency and the draft. Understandably, the city of Cleveland is waiting with baited breath for 1:00 PM on Sunday, September the 8th to finally arrive.
This city deserves a magical season out of our beloved Brownies this year. The pain and suffering dealt to sports fans in this town is unparalleled, and no city with three professional sports team has been waiting longer for a title. Cleveland's last championship was thirty-eight years ago, when the Browns defeated the Baltimore Colts 27-0 in the NFL Championship game. Making matters even worse for the battered Cleveland sports fan is how cruel the recent torture has been since that fateful November day in 1995, when The Traitor announced he was moving the team to Baltimore, Maryland.
For three years and ten months the NFL was ripped from the most supportive football fans in the world. Without football, we turned to the suddenly competitive Indians to fill that void in all of our lives. Just prior to The Betrayal, our Tribe had just fell in five games in the 1995 World Series to the Braves, but we felt the best was still yet to come for our young, promising, and charismatic baseball team. The Indians would fail to eventually bring home the sausage, and were eliminated in 1997 in the most inhumane way possible when we lost the seventh game of the World Series in the bottom of the 9th inning to a Marlins team that was purchased for a one year shot at the crown. In addition to those two World Series losses we were also dealt crushing playoff exits at the hands of the Orioles, Yankees, Red Sox, and Mariners before seeing our team dismantled this season, with all hopes of a title now once again years from becoming a reality.
And the Cavs? Well, they've been…the Cavs. First round beatings by the Knicks in '96 and the Pacers in '98 is all our beleaguered NBA franchise has been able to offer up in the past seven seasons. Basically, in the time that has spanned since we lost the Browns, the Cavaliers have replaced the Clippers (who we ironically just traded our franchise player to) as the biggest joke in the NBA, and are now considered one of the biggest jokes in all of professional sports.
When we did finally get the Browns back after three of the most hollow years of my life, the pain didn't stop there. In our first game back in the league on September 12, 1999, we were pummeled in an embarrassing fashion (43-0!) by our arch-rivals, the hated Pittsburgh Steelers. The other game everyone had circled on their schedules that season saw the Ravens come to town in week 9, and we were manhandled once again, this time coming out on the wrong end of a 41-9 shellacking. We ended the season with just two victories, after many of the pundits (and players in the locker room) were predicting one of the more successful seasons in expansion history for the team.
The year 2000 brought with it little progress for our Browns, and we won just three games. The team lost twelve of their last thirteen games after a 2-1 start, and Tim Couch was lost for the season early on when banging his finger on a teammate's helmet in practice. We fell to 0-4 against The Traitor, with a shutout loss coupled with a 44-7 waxing later in the season at the hands of the Ravens accounting for two of the more unpleasant losses that season.
Last season was a breath of fresh air, but once again ended harshly as we watched the team drop five of their last six games, confirming what we all knew deep down inside. That our Browns, 6-4 start and all, were just not yet talented enough to secure a playoff spot.
The time has come for the pain to end. Enough is enough already. Call me an eternal optimist, and I point out that the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl last season as a 40-1 long shot and the two years prior the Super Bowl winners went off at 30-1 and 70-1. Call me a homer, and I'll proceed tell you that the league's most aggressive and opportunistic defense last season added Kenard Lang, Earl Holmes, and Robert Griffith and lost no one but a pair of role players. Call me a crazed Browns fan blinded by optimism, and I will agree with you, but at the same time insist without prejudice that this team has a chance to be special this season.
The two biggest keys to this Browns team being successful enough to either unseat Pittsburgh as division champion, or win enough games (likely 10, since only two wildcards from each conference make the playoffs this season) to advance to the post-season were their two glaring weaknesses last season: Running the ball and stopping the run.
The former was addressed in the off-season with the 1st round draft selection of Boston College star RB William Green, as well as the free agent acquisitions of Rams tackle Ryan Tucker and Packers guard Barry Stokes. The team also re-signed run blocker extraordinaire (when healthy) Tre Johnson, drafted Maryland C/G Melvin Fowler, and should once again have a healthy Ricky Dudley and Mark Campbell (both overlooked keys to the run game) back in the fold.
The latter will depend largely on the health of three players: Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren, our talented and high priced duo on the defensive line that have both shown flashes of their incredible talent, and Earl Holmes, the former Steeler interior linebacker signed as a free agent to replace Wali Ranier in the middle. Also, our off-season acquisitions of defensive end Kenard Lang and strong safety Robert Griffith should pay dividends when it comes to stopping opposing backs.
Two other players that can play huge roles in regards to running the ball and stopping the opponent from doing so are center Dave Wohlabaugh and defensive tackle Orpheus Roye. Both make a ton of cash and are coming off disappointing '01 campaigns, but both have been consistently praised by Butch for their hard work in the off-season, and impressive play at the mini camps and early in camp.
Of course, there are many other questions that need answered before this team is ready to be playing ball in January. The critics will point to the lack of a receiving threat to complement KJ, and I will tell them to look at all of the 2nd year wide receivers (P.Burress, L.Coles, D.Jackson, T.Pinkston) with less talent than Quincy Morgan. All of these players emerged as consistent options last season for playoff-caliber teams.
The kick return and kick coverage teams will have to be much improved in '02, and the weakness of those two units a year ago played a large role in the selections of Andre Davis, Kevin Bentley, Ben Taylor, and Andra Davis.
Also, the team desperately needs to avoid major injuries. While the depth of the team has been improved once again this season, we are still vulnerable (depth-wise) at nearly every position on offense. The Patriots showed us all just how valuable depth is today's NFL.
Finally, it wouldn't be a pre-season Browns column unless I mentioned that this is a "make or break season" for the deuce, Tim Couch. These columns will be archive