Browns coach Romeo Crennel isn't saying what illness is forcing Ryan Tucker to stay away from the training complex in Berea, and he won't say when Tucker might line up at right tackle again.
It is a near certainty Tucker will not play against the Chargers in San Diego Sunday. If he does not, Kelly Butler will make his second straight start after spending the first six games either on the bench or on the inactive list.
Tucker showed up on the injury report Oct. 19 and was listed as probable with an undisclosed illness. By the next day he was downgraded to questionable. He played against the Broncos but has not been seen in the training complex since.
Teammates seem genuinely baffled.
"Ryan Tucker is dealing with a medical illness," Crennel said. "It hasn't been diagnosed yet and he's dealing with it on an outpatient basis. He's not on his death bed or anything like that. We have to take time to get that illness figured out."
Crennel refused to describe symptoms Tucker has because he said doing so would lead to speculation.
Meanwhile, Butler and Nat Dorsey have been practicing at right tackle. Butler held his own against the Jets last week. He started 16 games for the Lions last season but was waived because he was third on the depth chart behind Rex Tucker, Ryan's brother, and Barry Stokes.
"I put a value on experience, good experience particularly," Crennel said. "Kelly started 16 games last year. That says he knows a little about playing the game and knows how to handle himself with things that may come up in the game. That goes a long way I believe."
Injury problems also exist at left guard. A knee injury forced Joe Andruzzi to leave the game against the Jets in the second quarter. Lennie Friedman played well as a substitute. The Browns rushed for a season-high 147 yards, but they did it against the defense ranked 30th in the NFL. The Chargers are second.
Andruzzi's injury is only a bruise, but there is no guarantee he will start against the Chargers' quick defense. If Butler and Friedman start, with Hank Fraley already at center, it would mean three of the five starting offensive linemen began training camp on other teams. Friedman was acquired from the Bears for a seventh-round draft pick and Fraley from the Eagles for a sixth-rounder in a pair of August trades.
"Butler was able to hold his own (against the Jets) and didn't give up any sacks," Crennel said. "He was able to get some movement on the goal line. He was excited and fired up about having an opportunity to play. He did well."
The Browns were successful running the ball against the Jets when they used formations with two tight ends on one side and one on the other. It was a conservative offense designed not so much to help Butler as to give the Browns control on the edge. New offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson will have to come up with another scheme to help Butler in pass protection if the Browns fall behind and the Chargers use a heavy rush from Charlie Frye's right.
OFFENSIVE APPROACH VS CHARGERS : The Browns catch a break because NFL sack leader Shawne Merriman is beginning his four-game suspension Sunday. Plus, linebacker Shaun Phillips (four sacks) has a calf injury. Even so, the biggest concern going into San Diego is keeping Charlie Frye upright.
Last week against the Jets the Browns used three tight ends, mainly for running plays. They could use the same formation to protect Frye this week and slip Kellen Winslow into a pass pattern. Frye said the Browns also need to get Joe Jurevicius (10 catches) more involved in the offense.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
Browns RT Kelly Butler vs. Chargers DE Luis Castillo. Butler, who started 16 games at right tackle with the Lions last year, made his first Browns start last week. Butler did not allow a sack in the game vs. the Jets but he faces a sterner test in San Diego. Castillo is second on the Chargers with six sacks. The Browns will likely give Butler help with a tight end or chip Castillo with fullback Terrelle Smith.
Browns OLB Kamerion Wimbley vs. Chargers RB LaDainian Tomlinson: Tomlinson is the most dangerous runner in the NFL because he has success inside and outside. Wimbley was a liability in run defense early in the season, but he improves every week and leads the Browns with six tackles behind the line of scrimmage.
21st meeting. The Chargers lead the series 12-7. The Browns and Chargers played to a 16-16 tie in 1973. San Diego has won five of the last six games played between the two teams.
The Browns had many low points in 2004, but one of the lowest was a home game against San Diego on Dec. 19. The Chargers won 21-0. The crowd figure announced was 72,489, but the stadium was barely half full. As a matter of policy the Browns do not announce actual attendance.
Browns tight end Steve Heiden started his career with the Chargers. The Browns got him for a seventh-round draft choice in 2002. It was the best trade Butch Davis made.
The last time the Browns beat the Chargers was Oct. 7, 2001 when they won 20-16. It was the third straight victory and made Davis 3-1 in his first year as head coach. It remains the longest winning streak since the Browns returned to the NFL in 1999.
Two of the Browns' seven victories over the Chargers were in overtime. On Sept. 25, 1983, the Browns won the coin toss to start overtime. Brian Sipe connected on a 48-yard touchdown pass with Harry Holt 1:53 into the extra session for a 30-24 victory.
On Oct. 20, 1991, the Browns again beat the Chargers 30-24 in overtime when David Brandon scored on a 30-yard interception return on a pass thrown by John Friesz.
The game in San Diego will be a homecoming for tight end Kellen Winslow Jr. His father had a Hall of Fame career with the Chargers. Winslow leads NFL tight ends with 40 catches.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The first part of the season is still there and you can't wipe that off your record. For a 10-game stretch, you mentally know that you have 10 games to show what you can do. You have to latch on to that and use it as reinforcement." -- Head coach Romeo Crennel on the feeling that the Browns 'started over' when Jeff Davidson replaced Maurice Carthon as offensive coordinator before the Jets game
INJURY LIST: G Joe Andruzzi (knee), LB Willie McGinest (ankle) DE Orpheus Roye (hamstring), RT Ryan Tucker (undisclosed illness), CB Daven Holly (ill), WR Dennis Northcutt (ribs), CB Leigh Bodden, S Justin Hamilton, CB Jereme Perry (all ankle injuries) and TE Kellen Winslow (knee) are questionable.