- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 1, 2002

BEREA, Ohio Cleveland's economic revival in the 1990s was welcome. The Indians' rise from laughingstocks to contenders was cheered. But the Browns now you're talking essential.
"If you're going to be in the football business, there's no better place to be than Cleveland," said Browns president Carmen Policy, who grew up 70 miles east in Youngstown, Ohio. "This city is about football. It understands the game. My wife grew up here. On Sundays, her family would go to 10 o'clock mass. On the way home, they would stop at a bakery and buy loaves of Italian bread. They would have the mid-day meal, clear the table and watch the Browns. God, family and football: That's the way it is here. It's almost like a community treasure had been stolen and you were given the responsibility of transporting it back and reinserting it into the community. It was almost a sacred mission."
So Clevelanders could celebrate even when the new Browns went 5-27 in 1999 and 2000 because they had a team again in the wake of owner Art Modell absconding to Baltimore with the original Browns in December 1995. A throng greeted the players at Hopkins Airport when they returned from New Orleans on Halloween night 1999 after the expansion team beat the Saints on a Hail Mary for their first victory. More than 72,000 fans filled Cleveland Browns Stadium for each of the wretched team's four meaningless games those first two Decembers.
And just when the joy at having the Browns back could have lessened in 2001, coach Butch Davis arrived from Miami (Fla.) to replace the fired Chris Palmer and went 7-9.
"The biggest challenge was changing the attitude, convincing the players that they could be winners," said Davis, who was 51-20 in six years with the Hurricanes after helping the Dallas Cowboys win back-to-back Super Bowls in 1992 and 1993 as their defensive coordinator.
"Last year, there was a feeling that this man was pulling us out of a quagmire that we had been in," Policy said. "This year, there's a feeling that we're out of the quagmire and this guy is hosing us off, dressing us up and getting us ready to take off."
Receivers coach Terry Robiskie, a 21-year NFL assistant and briefly Washington's coach in 2000, said Davis has the knowledge of the game, the organizational skills and the swagger that make a great head coach. Long-snapper Ryan Kuehl, one of 16 players left from the expansion Browns, said Davis made football fun again after the "rigid" Palmer era.
"Before Butch got here, practices were very business-like," Kuehl said. "Butch encourages you to try to make a play, to push your limits. Guys found out, 'Hey, I can make that play.' There was a lot more energy, a lot more enthusiasm."
That enthusiasm has only grown in the wake of last season's relative success. And with a schedule that includes just one 2001 playoff team the cap-depleted Baltimore Ravens over the final seven weeks, if the Browns get through Week 9 in good shape, they might cruise into the postseason for the first time since their predecessors made it in 1994.
Cleveland, despite losing Pro Bowl linebacker Jamir Miller to a season-ending torn Achilles' tendon during training camp has bolstered its defense. It ranked 22nd last year even with Miller, highly touted young linemen Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren and an NFL-high 33 interceptions with the signings of three free-agent starters: versatile end Kenard Lang, physical linebacker Earl Holmes and hard-hitting safety Robert Griffith.
"We've taken care of the defense," boasted cornerback Corey Fuller, one of five starters left from the 2-14 Browns of 1999. "With what we did last year and the players we've added, we can't sneak up on anybody anymore. That's fine. I don't like sneaking up anyway. I want to go right inside their house and bust them in their mouth."
Ultra-quick halfback William Green, Cleveland's top draft pick, should be just what the offense the NFL's worst overall and worst on the ground in 2001 needs to bust out.
"William has that special acceleration," Robiskie said. "When he's coming around the edge and there's no edge, he gets around it. You ask yourself, 'How did that happen?'"
Green should ease the burden on Tim Couch, the first pick in the 1999 draft ahead of other quarterbacks including Donovan McNabb and Daunte Culpepper. Couch, who hit 59 percent of his passes for 39 touchdowns and 43 interceptions while being sacked a staggering 117 times in his first 2 seasons as the starter, hasn't earned the Pro Bowl acclaim of McNabb and Culpepper but he's no bust like Class of '99 passers Akili Smith and Cade McNown.
In fact, Couch's three-year numbers are similar to those of former Cowboys star Troy Aikman.
Center Dave Wohlabaugh, who played with Drew Bledsoe when the 1993 top choice overall led New England to the 1996 AFC title, sees some similarities in their development.
"Tim is where Drew was when I was a rookie," said Wohlabaugh, another original Brown. "Tim's confident in who he is as a leader. He's comfortable with our scheme and the speed of the game. He's really reading defenses unlike his first couple of years when they just threw him to the wolves and let him grow."
Couch is well aware of the early struggles of such all-time great quarterbacks as John Elway and that the Cowboys went 1-15 during Aikman's rookie year and won the Super Bowl three years later.
"Hopefully history can repeat a little bit for us," Couch said. "We have a lot more confidence this year. We're in our second year in the system so we're more comfortable. And to have Butch turn things around in his first year was really a motivator after two frustrating years."
We all believe we can take the next step and get to the playoffs."


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