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Browns ready to rebound

Franchise tired of foundering

CLEVELAND -- On a recent campaign stop, President Bush dropped in to visit the Cleveland Browns before one of their training camp practices.

Looking for votes in November, Bush shook hands, posed for pictures, and even tossed the football around. Wisely, perhaps, he didn't ask the team for a blanket reelection endorsement.

Truth is, the Cleveland Browns haven't been associated with many winners lately.

Since their NFL rebirth as an expansion franchise in 1999, the Browns have been hopeless. Their woeful 26-55 record in five seasons includes one playoff appearance (a loss to Pittsburgh), an 11-29 mark at home, one winning season (9-8), and a 2-14 start with a '99 team of misfits and rejects that could give any of Tampa Bay's squads in the 1970s a run as the worst in league history.

"Not winning has been really tough," said safety Earl Little. "To only have one winning season . . . that's not a good thing."

It wouldn't be so bad if it was just the losing. But the Browns, whose logo-less orange helmets and throwback jerseys are boring in the era of splash, sparkle, and Sharpies, have amassed a decade's worth of calamity in half the time.

Coaching changes. Questionable draft picks. Disastrous injuries. Suspensions. Arrests. A bottle-throwing riot by fans. A front-office purge. Endless roster turnover. Dwayne Rudd's helmet toss. Orlando Brown's referee toss.

The untimely death of a beloved owner.

In five years, the Browns have experienced it all -- most of it bad.

"It's been tough," said kicker Phil Dawson, who along with cornerback Daylon McCutcheon are the only leftovers from the '99 Browns. "I think the part that wears on me the most is when you watch a commercial about the NFL, you never see the Browns on there. We haven't deserved to be on a national stage."

Sad but true. Cleveland was once one of the league's model cities and franchises. The Paul Brown-coached teams featuring Hall of Famers Otto Graham, Jim Brown, Paul Warfield, Lou Groza, and Leroy Kelly dominated while carrying pro football through its adolescence.

Nowadays, the Browns' few appearances on the national radar screen have been because of failure or folly -- like in 2002 when Rudd flung his helmet in celebration only to be slapped with a penalty that allowed Kansas City to kick the winning field goal on the game's final play.

Once revered, the Browns are now roasted. "When you go back home like I do in the offseason," said Dawson, a Texan, "that's the one thing I'd like to see changed is that we really elevate this program to be one of the top in the NFL -- so that we're known as a credible team."

Butch Davis has bigger plans.

Now entering his fourth season as Cleveland's coach, Davis finally thinks he has the right staff and enough talent on his roster to get the Browns back to respectability -- and beyond.

And if he can't, Davis has no one to blame but himself.

Despite leading the Browns to a 5-11 record last season, Davis was handed a two-year contract extension through 2007, a new title of executive vice president, and complete, unchallenged control of football operations.

Given the complexities of running an NFL team, that's a heavy load for one man to carry. That's why the club hired Ron Wolf, the former Green Bay general manager who built the Packers into Super Bowl champs, to assist Davis on a part-time basis.

Wolf was more short-timer, resigning less than three months on the job. His departure came on the heels of president Carmen Policy's stunning resignation, which was followed by the departure of the team's chief administrator as well as the firings of the top contract negotiator and spokesman.

Davis, 21-28 in three years since leaving the University of Miami, insists the executive shake-up was planned, merely an extension of owner Randy Lerner's reorganization plan. Lerner inherited the Browns following the death of his father, Al, two years ago.

"Randy, although he has the same name as his father, is a different man and a different guy," Davis said.

The changes underscore the franchise's struggle to find its footing on the eve of its sixth, and most important, season.

The pressure is squarely on Davis, whose credibility is still in doubt. However, he's convinced he can restore the Browns' pride.

"For every coach of every team in the league, there is pressure to play well," he said. "You want to play well. You want to win. I am confident in my abilities as a coach. I am confident in this team and this coaching staff that we're going to have a very good year."

The team's recent woes didn't stop quarterback Jeff Garcia from signing a four-year, $25 million free agent contract with Cleveland in March. Also courted by Tampa Bay, Garcia, released after five years with the San Francisco 49ers, saw positives and potential with the Browns.

"I wasn't concerned with what had taken place in the past," Garcia said. "This team was a playoff team two years ago. If this team was a playoff team two years ago, there is no reason why that can't happen again now. I really felt that things were headed in the right direction."

Garcia's optimism could be shaken by a schedule that begins with a home game against Baltimore, followed by three road games in the first five weeks (Dallas, the New York Giants, and Pittsburgh).

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