A week ago heading into the Browns' game at Baltimore, we wondered what would have happened had Ozzie Newsome become general manager of the Browns in 1996 instead of the Ravens – if, of course, the Browns had remained in Cleveland and the Ravens never would have been born that year.
Now, as the Browns get ready to meet Marvin Lewis' Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium, the question is: What would have happened had Lewis become head coach of the Browns in 2001 instead of getting the job in Cincinnati in ‘03?
It almost happened.
In 2000, after coach Chris Palmer was fired following a 3-13 finish and a two-year record of just 5-27, the Browns began an intensive search for a successor. With much, much more time to look than they had in that 1999 expansion year when they ultimately hired Palmer because the NFL Expansion Draft was fast approaching and they desperately needed a coach they wanted to – and were sure they would – get it right this time.
Looking for a winner who would quickly grab the attention of the players and soon thereafter earn their respect, the Browns finally decided on Lewis, fresh off of serving as the defensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens, whose defense suffocated foes on the way to an easy Super Bowl victory over the New York Giants following the 2000 season.
The Browns were finalizing their deal with Lewis when University of Miami head coach Butch Davis, whom they had also pursued heavily without any success, had a change of heart and finally said yes. As much as the Browns liked Lewis, they liked Davis even more because he had head coaching experience and had been a big success, building the Hurricanes into one of the top programs in the country.
So they dropped Lewis like a rock and turned all of their attention to the pursuit of Davis, who, after saying he would never leave Miami, changed his mind and decided to bolt to the Browns for big bucks.
Davis got the Browns turned around immediately. They started 6-4 in that first season of 2001, surpassing their win total of the previous two years combined through just six games, before fading down the stretch and finishing 7-9.
The following year, the Browns came back from a 2-4 start to go 9-7 and squeak into the playoffs with that last wild-card spot, but then blew leads of 24-7 in the third quarter and 33-21 with three minutes left to lose 36-33 at Pittsburgh in a first-round game.
Citing salary cap reasons, he broke apart the team in the ensuing offseason, getting rid of a slew of veteran leaders who had led the Browns to the postseason berth.
The result was finishes of 5-11 in 2003 and 4-12 in '04. Davis didn't stick around long enough to see things through to that point, saying he was near a breakdown and then resigning with five games left in '04 and the team having dropped five straight to fall to 3-8.
The last defeat in that string? A wild 58-48 decision.
And the Bengals.
Davis, after sitting out the 2005 and '06 seasons while continuing to collect fat paychecks from the Browns, is in his third season at North Carolina and, just like he did with the Browns in those first two years, immediately got the long-suffering Tar Heels turned around.
Matt Merletti, the son of Browns senior vice president Lew Merletti, who was with the club when Davis was here, is a defensive back with Heels who is being redshirted this year after suffering a knee injury.
As for Lewis, he is still entrenched with the Bengals, long after Davis has departed the Browns. He is in his seventh season, putting him one year away from tying Sam Wyche and Pro Football Hall of Famer Paul Brown for the longest tenure by a Bengals head coach. At 48-51-1 overall, he needs eight wins to surpass Brown and move into second place on the club's career victories list. He could easily get them – and some more – this season, as Cincinnati is 2-1 and coming off its most significant back-to-back triumphs since its second Super Bowl season way back in 1988. They gained their first home win over the Steelers in Cincinnati in eight years last Sunday with a 23-20 decision, and two weeks earlier beat the Green Bay Packers for the first time at Lambeau Field with a 31-24 decision. To make things even better for the Bengals, they came from behind in both games.
All this on a shoestring budget. The Bengals, the thriftiest organization in the NFL, spend next-to-nothing in player procurement.
Despite being given everything he needed to be successful – and then some – by the Lerner family, Davis was just 24-36 overall in Cleveland for a .400 winning percentage.
What would Lewis have done with the Browns since 2001 with all of those bells and whistles?
Obviously, we'll never know, but with the Browns at 0-3 and seemingly headed for their second straight losing record, and seventh in nine years, since they chose Davis over Lewis, and the Bengals flexing their muscles, it is in the very least an interesting thing to consider.