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Playing it smart

Browns do all the right things to earn impressive opening-week victory

Posted: Monday September 13, 2004 9:24AM; Updated: Wednesday September 15, 2004 2:13PM
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CLEVELAND -- Lest you take the first game of the season as some indicator of January success or failure, let me remind you of these scores from opening weekend 2003:

Buffalo 31, New England 0.

Atlanta 27, Dallas 13.

New York Giants 23, St. Louis 13.

Pittsburgh 34, Baltimore 15.

And, on Monday night, Tampa Bay 17, Philadelphia 0.

The Bucs went on to win seven, Buffalo and Pittsburgh six, Houston five and the Giants four. The five losers made the playoffs. The Patriots, you might recall, had a pretty decent year. After such decisive openers, the fortunes of all 10 teams turned radically in the next four months.

I write that because the team I'm going to write about, Cleveland, had an inspiring win over Baltimore yesterday, 20-3. But history says we shouldn't attach too much meaning to it. I like Cleveland more than most people do. I wrote a few weeks ago that I thought they'd be a winning team this year. But I don't want to make any more judgments on the Browns right now. Too early. I just want to tell you what an intelligent game they played against Baltimore, and how it could bode well for their future.

"You really needed this one," I told Butch Davis after the game, when most everyone had cleared out of the Browns locker room. Davis was there with his polite and energetic son, Drew.

"We did," he said, "especially after the way we opened the last two years. Two years ago, we've got the Kansas City game won and then we get that helmet throw. [Dwayne Rudd took off his helmet and tossed it in exultation late with the Browns ahead, got penalized for it, and the Chiefs kicked a field goal to win.] Last year, we lose to the Colts 9-6 here after we get inside the 10 twice and have to settle for field goals. I'd say we had just as good a defensive performance that day as we had today."

The Cleveland defense may not belong in the same league with Baltimore's, but it played the same in this game. Last year, in two games, Jamal Lewis ran 52 times for 500 yards in the two Baltimore wins over Cleveland, an NFL record for rushing yards against one team in a season. (I mean, duh. No kidding.) This year, he never could bust free. Twenty carries, 57 yards.

What was so inspiring about the Cleveland effort was the team-ness of it all. On five Lewis runs, at least five Browns were in on the tackle. Not just in on the tackle in that jump-on-the-pile-at-the-end way. But on a quarter of his attempts, at least five guys pushed and grabbed and gnawed at the ankles of the NFL's reigning rushing king.

When I told Davis that, he said: "That was the plan. Our defense made a pact. They were on a mission. Everyone to the ball. In fact, in the last couple of weeks at practice, all 11 defensive players had to touch the ballcarrier on every play. You don't hear this a lot, but we had to be disciplined gang-tacklers. Last year, when we played Jamal, it reminded me of one of those old Oklahoma games, with J.C. Watts and Billy Sims playing. You'd control them on nine plays, but on the 10th ... boom! They break a long one. Same with Jamal. We just pounded home the message that the only way we were going to get it done was by an 11-man effort on every play."

Lucky for the Browns that left tackle Jonathan Ogden was missing with and injured knee he tweaked in the preseason against the Giants, and center Mike Flynn was out too. But there was something about this run defense. Baltimore would certainly have given Kyle Boller a better pocket with Ogden playing instead of Ethan Brooks at left tackle. Still, I'm not sure Lewis would have dented 100 with Ogden on the field.

The one other thing I liked about the Browns was the smarts of Jeff Garcia. Case in point: his touchdown pass to Quincy Morgan against what looked like a Baltimore defensive breakdown late in the third quarter. All day, Garcia had been throwing the dinks and dunks, mostly because the Ravens were coming after him so hard and not giving him time to throw. Now, with the game tied at 3 with 35 seconds left in the third quarter, from the Baltimore 46, Garcia did the bait-and-switch. Buying time in the pocket, shifting nervously, looking everywhere, he pumped and drew the Baltimore safeties in. And here came Morgan, stepping free beyond safety Ed Reed. Garcia lofted the ball right into his hands, and this stadium exploded almost at the moment the ball landed in Morgan's hands. An amazing, pent-up explosion. Morgan pranced in, and the game was starting to be over.

"That's a great example of what we preached to our defense," said Davis. "Stay alive, stay alive. By that I mean, don't give up on a play. The play's never over till the whistle blows.''

Then Davis started to walk out of the stadium. There was one player left in the locker room, defensive end Courtney Brown. Davis went to him and gave him a one-armed hug around the shoulders.

"One down, coach,'' Brown said.

It's an optimistic Monday in Brownstown.

WEEKLY AWARDS

Offensive Player of the Week

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Curtis Martin's 196-yard performance on Sunday was his best single-game output since he ran for 203 yards against Indianapolis in 2000.
AP

Three-way tie among New York Jets RB Curtis Martin, Philadelphia QB Donovan McNabb and Minnesota QB Daunte Culpepper. How in the world do you choose? Martin rushed 29 times for 196 yards against Cincinnati and when asked following the game whether this was the best of his career, he said, "I believe so." McNabb was exquisite, completing 72 percent of his passes -- 15 percent more than his career average -- and throwing four touchdown passes in routing the Giants. And Culpepper threw five touchdown passes against one of the best defenses in football, Dallas. And there are about five other guys who deserve this award, too.

Defensive Player of the Week

Detroit S Bracy Walker, whose 92-yard return of a blocked field goal gave the Lions their first lead of the season and whose end-zone interception with 18 seconds left sealed Detroit's first road win since 2000.

Special Teams Player of the Week

Detroit DT Shaun Rogers, who blocked that field goal I was just talking about, and added four tackles and a sack in the first game of what should be a breakout season for the Leos.

Coach of the Week

Washington defensive coordinator Gregg Williams. It was supposed to be Joe Gibbs' day in Redskinville yesterday and it was. But let's give a nod to a defense no one thought was going to be this good. Williams orchestrated a group that held Tampa to 169 net yards, including a measly 30 rushing. And the Redskins, desperate for a kernel of a pass-rush, had four sacks. The hiring of Williams will prove to be Gibbs' smartest decision.

Goat of the Week

Indianapolis RB Edgerrin James. Strange giving this to a man who rushed for 144 yards and had 2003's stingiest scoring defense on its heels most of last Thursday night. But there is no excuse -- none -- for fumbling twice in the red zone. Tony Dungy does not usually look distraught after a loss, but he appeared especially grim around midnight on Thursday. "When you're not fundamentally sound, it's disappointing,'' he said. "You can't fumble at the one-yard line. You can't fumble going in.''

FACTOID THAT MAY INTEREST ONLY ME

"Please turn all cell phones to the off, or vibrate, position,'' said the press box announcer in Cleveland yesterday. Hallelujah.

STAT OF THE WEEK

Jerome Bettis' rushing line against Oakland: Five carries, one yard, three touchdowns.

Seven inches per carry.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"I don't want to be no backup. That's their decision, not mine. My time will come. Only one person can start, and unfortunately he's the one that's starting.''

-- Bills running back Willis McGahee, who lost the Buffalo starting running back competition (there never was one, to be honest) to Travis Henry.

Now there's the kind of esprit de corps a team wants heading into the season! I will just say one thing about this. The Bills risked this undercurrent of discord when they drafted McGahee in the first round of the 2003 draft with a stud running back already in-house, and the coaching staff knew it was something it would have to live with this year. For their sake, they'd better be winning, and Henry had better be starring, or Mount McGahee may erupt at any time.

ENJOYABLE/AGGRAVATING TRAVEL NOTE OF THE WEEK

Thirtyish Man, a full four sheets to the wind, sitting two stools down at the Winking Lizard in downtown Cleveland Saturday night around 10:30: "You a Browns fan?''

Me, trying to watch Red Sox-Mariners: "No, not really.''

Thirtyish Man: "Ravens?''

Me: "Nah. I like football, but I don't really root for one team.''

Thirtyish man: "You gotta like somebody!''

Me: "No I don't.''

Pause.

Thirtyish man: "I don't believe you.''

No words were exchanged between the two Winking Lizard patrons after that.

TEN THINGS I THINK I THINK

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Terrell Owens caught eight balls for 68 yards and three TDs on Sunday against the Giants.
AP

1. I think I've got to hand it to Terrell Owens. The man does have a sense of theater. And Andy Reid might lead the league in brains for making Owens a priority on routes when the Eagles got to the end zone. Not just because it's a smart thing to do football-wise, but because it's a smart thing to do Terrell-wise. Three touchdowns on opening day in his new environs is a great way to make Owens one of the guys, one of the very big guys.

2. I think it's going to be a very long season for the Giants. The one thing that won't happen, though, is an eight-game losing streak. Tom Coughlin will not allow that. The Giants will win some games after Thanksgiving no one thinks they should, because Coughlin will make them seem like the seventh game of the World Series.

3. I think no team suffered a more damaging loss over the weekend than my candidate for most overrated team of the off-season, Houston. Losing to San Diego at home? Uh, Houston, we have a problem. I saw the Texans lose the most one-sided preseason game I've ever seen in Pittsburgh last month, and I kept wondering if that was a fluky August thing. Apparently not.

4. I think Shannon Sharpe might be the genuine item. Heard him say on his first regular-season CBS show yesterday: "You know what's worse than the New York Giants offensive line? The New York Giants defensive backfield. They are atrocious.''

5. I think these are my non-football thoughts of the week:

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a. If the baseball season ended today, my two MVPs would be Derek Jeter (by the way, Jeter and Mary Beth King were born 11.5 years apart in the same hospital in suburban New Jersey) and Barry Bonds, by a hair over Adrian Beltre. Why Jeter, whose numbers (.283, 20 homers, 70 RBI, 22 steals) are pedestrian, especially when Gary Sheffield has been so important in keeping the Yanks afloat? Because a week ago, with the lead over Boston at 2.5 games and slipping fast, Joe Torre put Jeter in the leadoff spot. Jeter knew his job. Make something happen. In the first game he batted there, against Baltimore, Jeter led the game with a hustle double, stole third, and scored when the catcher threw the ball into left field. The Yanks are 6-1 since and Jeter's been hot. The lead is up to 3.5.

b. I am taking no joy whatsoever, believe me, in the fact that it looks like Nomar is breaking down. Saw him jog from first to third when a teammate doubled the other day. Folks, he's not dogging it. The Achilles is just too sore for him to be the real Nomar.

c. Coffeenerdness: Four Browns cheerleaders, in brown Browns' warmup suits with their names embroidered on their hineys, were in the downtown Starbucks Sunday morning before the game here. They took a very, very wide turn to avoid the deranged homeless man sitting on the sidewalk in front of the place.

d. Poor Rutgers, my adopted homestate U. Beat Michigan State. Lost to New Goshdarn Hampshire by 11. Men of Schiano, there have been bad losses in recent years. I don't know which would be worse than losing to a pretty good Division I-AA team by double digits at home.

e. Re: My Daryn Kagan "say it ain't so'' plea last week ... Uh, after tireless investigative work last week, I can report it is so. Very so.

6. I think the one result that obscured some progress over the weekend was Pittsburgh 24, Oakland 21. I only saw the highlights, but Rob Ryan's defense looked like it showed up. The Raiders held Pittsburgh to 237 total yards, including just 3.2 yards per rush, and made Plaxico Burress (one catch, 11 yards) a non-factor.

7. I think the Falcons must be somewhat encouraged by Mike Vick yesterday, but I wouldn't say he exactly had a game for the ages. Thirteen of 22, 10 yards rushing. One completion in the second half. The West Coast Vick-run offense will be a work in progress all season.

8. I think you might get a kick -- well, might not -- knowing that Monday Morning Quarterback is expanding. There will be a Tuesday morning version of MMQB, out tomorrow for the first time. Very short, but the franchise is expanding, folks.

9. I think two things about Peyton Manning's 2004 opener really give me pause about his decision-making in this game. His first-quarter interception, when Roman Phifer was draped over the back of tight end Dallas Clark at the goal line with Tedy Bruschi knifing in from the side, was a horrible decision; Bruschi looked like the intended receiver. And how in the world do you not know where Willie McGinest is on that final sack? How are you not watching, or feeling, a very good pass-rusher coming from your blind side? Clearly Manning was expecting McGinest to be accounted for, but this was too vital a time of the game for him not to know where the rush was coming from. The sack pushed the Colts back from the New England 17 to the 29, and made the potential game-tying field goal a 48-yard try instead of a 35- or 36-yard attempt.

10. I think you are going to hear a hundred times from the Patriots early this season that they don't miss Ted Washington all that much. Yeah, right. Washington did play only 30 percent of the snaps last year, so they did win without him. But the difference between Ted Washington and Keith Traylor is something like the difference between Ernest Hemingway and Peter King. Come on now.

WHO I LIKE TONIGHT AND I DON'T MEAN AL MICHAELS

I asked Brett Favre the other day about Carolina's defense, and he said this: "Their front is probably as good as Tampa's was. And Carolina's bigger. Sapp and Rice were fast, but they were smaller, quick guys compared to Carolina's. Carolina's got size and quickness we don't see much. Two years ago, we played 'em up here and they were tough. We beat 'em on sort of a fluke play.'' Favre's prognosis: "If we have to rely on the run in this game, we won't win.'' Scary prognosis, especially when Ahman Green is coming off the most prolific rushing season in the Packers' storied ground-hugging history. Carolina, 27-20.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Peter King covers the NFL beat for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com. Monday Morning Quarterback appears in this space every week.

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