I dropped out of the bidding for Brown at $3.25 million a year, and I am the better for it. Our defensive coordinator, former Carolina linebackers coach Kevin Steele, will use the 3-4, so I knew we had to have a talented set of linebackers. Our starting quartet will crush people, and they'll do it for a combined cap figure of $4.55 million in 1997. What a bargain!
You might not have heard of Mike Jones, which is one reason that I only had to pay him $1.4 million. But I'm betting he'll be our defensive MVP. Jones, a six-year veteran of the Oakland Raiders and a converted college running back, is only 6'1" and 230, but he plays outside linebacker like a kamikaze special-teamer. I brought in reliable Vinson Smith (Chicago Bears) to be the defensive signal-caller at strongside inside linebacker, and Micheal Barrow (Houston Oilers) will man the other inside spot. I'm counting on Barrow for at least 10 sacks, and even at a modest 236 pounds he will provide a physical presence (remember the hit he put on San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young last October in the Astrodome?). My other outside backer, Jim Schwantz, is always around the ball. The Cowboys wanted to keep him, but they're so tight against the cap that they couldn't afford another $750,000 salary.
Add our starting down linemen to the mix, and I believe the Kings' front seven is the best in the AFC. My two ends, Michael Bankston (Arizona Cardinals) and Robert Porcher (Detroit Lions), are good against the run, but they can also go get the quarterback. Everyone thought nosetackle Gilbert Brown would re-sign with the Green Bay Packers, but when Brett Favre broke the bank with a contract extension that included a $12 million signing bonus, the Pack suddenly found it couldn't fit Brown under its cap. I used more of Mr. Gates's money to get the services of Brown, who at 360-plus pounds is the biggest and niftiest run-stopper since the Fridge. The Dawg Pound will love this guy, but it won't be throwing dog bones at him. Maybe doughnuts.
Taking yet another page from the Panthers, who hired a wise owl in linebacker Sam Mills to inspire their defense, we outbid the Steelers for cornerback Rod Woodson. Having lost maybe a half step after knee surgery two years ago, Woodson is determined to prove he isn't washed up, and I'm confident he'll regain his standing as the cover corner every team longs for. In fact, he has to be good because the rest of my secondary is shaky. The X factor is seventh-round draft pick Dexter Coakley, a hard-hitting linebacker from Appalachian State who will play strong safety as a pro.
Now for the special teams. While at Perm State, my rookie kicker, Brett Conway, made a 52-yard field goal. My punter, Chris Mohr, killed an AFC-high 27 punts inside the 20 for the Buffalo Bills last season. We also have five of the top-10 special-teamers in the game: Schwantz, Steve Tasker (Bills), Darrick Brownlow (Washington Redskins), Bob Christian (Panthers) and Ed Sutter (Baltimore Ravens). We stole Scott O'Brien, the best young special teams coach in the business, from the Ravens. Hey, turnabout is fair play.
On offense I landed four guys who are key to making sure Manning doesn't have to carry too much of the load early on. He'll hand the ball off to the best free-agent back south of Jerome Bettis, former Cincinnati Bengals rusher Garrison Hearst, and he'll throw it to Tony Martin (San Diego Chargers), now a $3 million-a-year wideout. Martin pushes himself, as Jerry Rice does, through a grueling off-season training regimen, and we'll make sure our young players see that work ethic. Finally, Manning will have two top-notch bodyguards—left tackle Paul Gruber, late of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Steve Everitt (Ravens), the second-best center in the game, behind the Steelers' Dermontti Dawson. The offensive dark horse is tight end Chris Gedney (Bears), a complete package whose four NFL seasons have been shortened by freak injuries. His former coach, Dave Wannstedt, thinks Gedney might be the equal of Packers Pro Bowl player Mark Chmura—if he can stay on the field for 16 games.
To light the fuses of the greatest football fans in America (who, by the way, were so excited about having a team two years earlier than the NFL promised that they decided to drop the Browns nickname and rename the franchise after me), we signed a former Cleveland favorite, 32-year-old linebacker Pepper Johnson, who played last season for the Detroit Lions. And we traded a 1998 fourth-round draft choice to the Ravens for another local hero, Earnest Byner, 34, because I'm a sentimental sap. Byner, of course, lost the Fumble during the 1987 AFC Championship Game against the Denver Broncos, keeping the Browns from reaching what would have been their only Super Bowl. After we announced the Byner deal, Willingham told me, "We're going to give Earnest the ball on our first play of the season. The crowd'll go nuts."
Yeah, that opener will be something. While our new stadium is being built in downtown Cleveland, we'll play at Ohio Stadium in Columbus. The league called the other day to tell me the Kings will kick off the Monday-night season on Sept. 1 at the horseshoe, against Los Angeles. Kings versus Z's. Peyton Manning versus fellow rookie Pat Barnes of Cal.
I like my chances.
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