NFL 2000: Younger Browns starting over in Year 2
By Tom White, Associated Press, 08/29/00
CLEVELAND -- Getting back in the NFL sure was fun around here.
During the 10-month celebration, Browns fans barked and woofed their way through the expansion draft, the opening of a new stadium, downtown parades and tailgate parties.
Then the season started.
Cleveland's return to pro football after a three-year hiatus was tough. Tougher than anyone could have imagined. The expansion Browns went 2-14, didn't win a home game and were easily the worst team in the league.
"I expected a lot more out of us and me," said cornerback Corey Fuller. "The losing took its toll."
Year 2 for the Browns might not be a whole lot better.
In many ways, Cleveland is starting over again. Gone are most of the high-priced veterans who grumbled about broken promises and never bought into rookie coach Chris Palmer's system. Palmer has also replaced virtually his entire staff.
It's a new year with new faces. Of the 53 players on last year's Week 1 roster, only 25 remain and there are only four offensive starters returning, three on defense.
"It's almost like we're an expansion team all over again," said free safety Percy Ellsworth, one of the new arrivals.
The Browns are younger, less experienced and not as deep at some positions.
"I hope we can grow each week," said Palmer. "I think we have enough guys who have played enough football that not a lot of those young guys are in key roles like they were last year. Guys will have to come in and make plays, but I don't think the burden is as great on this group."
The Browns will place their hopes this season on the development of two of their youngest and wealthiest players: No. 1 overall draft picks Tim Couch and Courtney Brown.
After being named the starter in Week 2 last season, Couch set rookie franchise records and led all NFL rookie QBs in completions (223), attempts (399), yards (2,447) and touchdown passes (15).
He threw just 13 interceptions despite spending much of the time scrambling for survival or picking grass clumps from his facemask. He was sacked a league-leading 56 times, and missed the season finale with an ankle injury incurred on a sack.
He showed he was tough. More impressively, he showed he could lead.
"I call him the Baby Brett Favre," said Fuller. "He kept getting knocked down, getting back up and hanging in there. That's my man."
At least Couch knows he has one true fan.
The second-year QB, who bulked up during the offseason, has been under attack all summer, criticized for throwing interceptions during the Browns' 1-3 exhibition season.
But he was sharp last weekend at Green Bay, again showing nice touch and the swagger which helped him win over Browns fans last season.
"At times, I'd be sitting around by myself and it was like 'I can't believe I'm not playing as well as a I did a year ago, I worked so hard in the offseason"' said Couch. "But I started relaxing and going out and playing my game, so I think it's going to finally turn around and go my way."
But for Couch to get better he'll need more help on offense. He developed a nice chemistry last year with wideout Kevin Johnson, who caught 66 passes for 986 yards and eight TDs. This season, he'll have some new weapons in free agent David Patten and rookies JaJuan Dawson and speedy Dennis Northcutt, who will also return punts.
Any improvement in the Browns' running game would be a plus.
Cleveland averaged just 71.9 yards per game, 100 fewer than its opponents. Errict Rhett, who gained 852 yards in Baltimore, is the Browns' new feature back and rookie Travis Prentice has been a pleasant surprise.
The offensive line has been revamped with tackles Lomas Brown (free agent) and Orlando Brown (eye injury) replaced by Roman Oben and Steve Zahursky.
Courtney Brown could be this year's Jevon Kearse. Lightning quick off the snap, he plays the run well, and with his 86-inch wingspan, Brown routinely swatted down passes during training camp.
"I just love the guy," guard Jim Pyne said. "He's not real flashy. He just does his job and keeps his mouth shut. He's going to dominate someday in this league."
Fuller, returning to cornerback, is the only starter remaining in a secondary which now includes Ellsworth, who had 18 interceptions in four years with the Giants.
The NFL didn't do Cleveland any scheduling favors. Once again, the Browns don't get a bye until Week 17, and they'll play three straight road games in October and November.
And while the doomsayers predict another painful season, Palmer isn't buying it. At a kickoff luncheon last week at Cleveland Browns Stadium attended by his players, Palmer did his best to paint a rosy picture.
"I think we're going to win, and win big this year," Palmer said.
The public remarks seemed to surprise everyone except the Browns.
"He believes," Rhett said. "I believe. I just wish everybody believed."