First, the good stuff.
The Cleveland Browns at 7-2 are sitting atop the AFC Central and are tied with the Miami Dolphins and the San Diego Chargers for the best record in the conference. The consensus in the preseason was that the Browns would finish third in their division.
Sunday's 13-6 victory over the New England Patriots in windblown Cleveland Stadium was a clinic on how to shut down the NFL's leader in yards passing, Drew Bledsoe, and the AFC's top receiver, tight end Ben Coates.
Quietly, Bill Belichick has been performing one of the league's most solid coaching jobs, and his assemblage of castoffs and young talent has paid off in Cleveland—so far.
That's the good news, but hanging over the whole operation, like storm clouds over Lake Erie, is the history book. We're not talking about the old days, the glorious 1950s, when the Browns had a stranglehold on the NFL, or the Jim Brown era that followed. Cleveland's dark period began in 1980. That year quarterback Brian Sipe and the Kardiac Kids won the AFC Central title, but Mike Davis of the Oakland Raiders picked off a Sipe pass in the end zone in the divisional playoffs and the Browns were finished.
Then John Elway and the Denver Broncos shut the door on Cleveland's hopes for a Super Bowl trip three times, in 1986, '87 and '89, a trio of losses that established the Browns as the best team never to have played in the Big One. That fact will haunt Cleveland owner Art Modell forever. It has him, even in these happy times, joking, "We hosted a Billy Graham crusade, and I asked people, 'What does Art Modell have in common with Billy Graham?' The answer is, each of us has 80,000 people on their feet yelling, ' Jesus Christ!' "
And then there was the Bernie Kosar episode last year. A local kid and a darling of the fans for more than eight seasons, Kosar was cut after eight games in 1993. When his replacement at quarterback, Vinny Testaverde, went down with a separated-shoulder injury in Game 7, the faithful sat in front of their TV sets and watched in horror as the Browns, led by someone named Todd Philcox, turned the ball over seven times in a 22-5 loss to the Seahawks in Seattle. Worse, Cleveland fans punched the remote and saw Kosar leading the Dallas Cowboys to victory over the Phoenix Cardinals.
Those fans have not forgiven Belichick for cutting Kosar, though he has never hesitated to explain his decision, citing Kosar's diminished skills and lack of mobility. It was a hard coaching decision, and only time, plus some serious playoff activity by the Browns, can soften it.
"Look, I held out longer than anybody for keeping Bernie," Belichick says. "But after a while you could just see that it wouldn't work out. That's why we got Vinny before the season. It's why we got Mark Rypien this year. It's one position where you've got to be fortified, and I've seen a lot of contending teams go down the drain because they weren't."
The Washington Redskins cut Rypien last April. Mired in an offense that needed three completed passes to get a first down and playing behind a crippled line, Rypien went from Super Bowl MVP in 1992 to the bench within two years. The Browns saw something, though, and in May they signed him.