Testaverde's demotion was greeted with genuine regret by his teammates...followed almost immediately by excitement. "Let me tell you, Zeier doesn't play like a rookie," said left tackle Tony Jones last Thursday. "He doesn't carry himself like a rookie. In our first preseason game, he came into the huddle so arrogant. He just came in and said, 'Well guys, ——— it. Let's score.' I like that in a guy."
A staph infection in Testaverde's left leg—local cynics described it as "a Zeierus"—kept him out of the second and third exhibition games, opening the door for Zeier. When he decided to start Zeier instead of fifth-year veteran Brad Goebel against the Chicago Bears on Aug. 14, Belichick says he did everything he could to "turn the heat up on him." He announced his decision on Tuesday, forcing Zeier to cope with a week's worth of intense media attention. "He handled everything we threw at him," says Belichick.
Zeier responded by completing 14 of 16 passes, throwing for one touchdown and running for another in a 55-13 rout of the Bears.
And it quickly became apparent that Zeier's preciosity was by no means limited to the field. Last week, for example, he expertly parried reporters' attempts to draw him into making controversial statements about Testaverde. He did this by spouting bromides, as when he served up this triple-decker of clich�s, "I'm going to go out there and just play. We'll take them one game at a time, and hopefully we can get this thing turned around."
The Browns were visiting a team that appeared to have executed just such a U-turn. The Bengals had won only 14 games in the previous four seasons but had already won three times this year and were coming off a startling 27-9 whipping of Pittsburgh. In that win Cincinnati quarterback Jeff Blake had connected on touchdown bombs of 47 and 41 yards—one apiece to his sensational young wideouts, Carl Pickens and Darnay Scott. Blake, as of Sunday, led the NFL with eight pass completions of 40 yards or more and four of 50-plus.
The Browns beat the Bengals, in large part, by depriving Blake of the long ball. Cleveland's safeties lined up 25 yards deep and made sure Cincinnati's wideouts couldn't get behind them. That turned the Mad Bomber into a frustrated dink-baller. Blake's longest completion of the day, a 32-yarder to running back Eric Bieniemy, was really a 25-yard run tacked on to a seven-yard pass.
Zeier out-Blaked Blake, connecting on a pair of sweet rainbows to Rison. The first, a 46-yarder in the second quarter on which cornerback Leonard Wheeler was crisped, set up the third of Stover's five field goals. The second, which went for 59 yards in the third quarter as Rison split the safeties, was squandered three plays later when Zeier was picked off by Cincy linebacker Steve Tovar.
Redemption came two possessions later. With Cleveland trailing 16-12 and 7:49 left to play, Zeier marched the Browns 73 yards in five plays. On the sixth play of the drive, he took a five-step drop and felt immediate pressure from Bengal outside linebacker James Francis, who was bearing down from Zeier's right. With Francis's hand on his shoulder—"I was just getting ready to jerk him down," said the heartsick Francis afterward—Zeier fired 17 yards into the end zone, where a well-covered Rison leaped to make the catch between two defenders and gave Cleveland a 19-16 lead. "I dropped one in the end zone last week," Rison said afterward. "There was no way I was dropping that one."
Weary of being reminded of that error and of his modest number of receptions this season, earlier last week Rison felt compelled to remind reporters that on numerous occasions, Testaverde had failed to spot him when he was wide open. Coming off the field on Sunday, Rison had no such complaints about his new battery mate. "I'll tell you what," he said. "That kid can play!"
Zeier's efforts were almost for naught as the Browns' defense squandered a 10-point lead after Cleveland went ahead 26—16 with 2:51 to play. The Bengals got a 41-yard field goal, recovered the ensuing onside kick and sent the game into overtime after Pickens caught a one-yard alley-oop from backup quarterback David Klingler with 15 seconds left. Klingler had entered the game after Blake had his bell rung just before the two-minute warning. Blake returned for the extra period but should have taken the rest of the day off. He was intercepted on Cincinnati's second possession in overtime, and Zeier moved the Browns 34 yards to set up Stover's game-winning, 28-yard field goal.