Surely there would be hugging. Perhaps there would even be a sprinkling of happy tears. Having led his team to victory in his first NFL start, Eric Zeier was striding toward his father and what seemed certain to be an emotional rendezvous.
As Eric, the Cleveland Browns' 23-year-old rookie quarterback, emerged from the belly of Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium on Sunday, his father Rick, a retired Army major, removed the stogie from his mouth and patted him on the shoulder. "Way to go, Dawg-man," he said. For all the enthusiasm that went into the greeting, it was as if Eric had just picked up a spare at the local bowling alley.
"Thanks, Dad," said young Zeier, which rhymes with fire, which is what he lit under the Browns on Sunday. Eleven months after his final game for the Georgia Bulldogs (hence the old man's nickname for him) and six months after Cleveland drafted him in the third round, despite concerns that at six feet he might be too short to play quarterback in the NFL, Zeier showed remarkable patience and poise in leading the Browns to a 29-26 overtime win over the Cincinnati Bengals. These old divisional rivals had taken 3-4 records into the Battle of Ohio, and Cleveland, thanks also to five Matt Stover field goals, left in a tie for first place with the Pittsburgh Steelers in that repository of mediocrity, the AFC Central.
By guiding his teammates to their first victory in four games, Zeier vindicated Brown coach Bill Belichick, who touched off a controversy in Cleveland six days earlier by benching incumbent quarterback Vinny Testaverde. Zeier also did what Testaverde had been unable to do in seven starts this season: get a monster game out of Pro Bowl wide receiver Andre (Bad Moon) Rison, who hauled in seven passes for 173 yards and a touchdown. Coming into the game, Bad Moon was having a bad season, having caught a meager 17 passes. It was an easy number to remember, since the Browns had signed Rison in the off-season to a five-year, $17 million contract.
Testaverde will be hard-pressed to get his job back, judging by the praise the Cleveland coaches heaped on Zeier after the game. "He responded like a 10-year veteran," said Belichick.
Zeier's numbers—he completed 26 of 46 passes for 310 yards, threw one touchdown and was intercepted once—become all the more impressive when one realizes that the Browns were down to two of their regular wide receivers, having lost Michael Jackson and Derrick Alexander to injuries. Zeier picked up blitzes and dumped the ball off expertly. He consistently hit his second, third and fourth receivers against the weak Cincinnati secondary. And to the surprise of the Bengals, whose scouting reports had pegged him as a sluggish scrambler, Zeier repeatedly hurt them by pulling the ball down and running eight times for 44 yards.
"I liked them scrambles, Dawg-man," said the Major, handing Eric a stack of mail from home. "But who were you trying to go to on that interception?" One gets the impression that Rick parcels out praise in modest doses. Once Eric was out of earshot, however, he said proudly, "The kid's always had some magic dust up his sleeve. There's something about him that inspires the guys around him."
One man's magic dust is another man's spark, which was the buzzword around the Browns last week. Belichick spoke repeatedly of the need for an offensive spark in announcing Zeier's promotion. "I'm not blaming Vinny for our problems," said Belichick. "We just needed something to get us going, and I didn't want to make 14 changes."
Because Testaverde had been one of the few Browns playing well, Belichick's announcement seemed to indicate a mild panic on his part. Testaverde's demotion also achieved the near impossible: his transformation in the minds of doubting Cleveland fans from a scapegoat to a sympathetic figure.
Testaverde did not go gently into the realm of clipboard caddies. "Bill says he wants to add some spark? Well, if you catch a touchdown pass, that's a spark," said a testy Testaverde while dressing for practice last Thursday. His point? On at least three occasions this season, he has had passes dropped in the end zone.