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Cleveland BROWNS
David Fleming
August 30, 1999
What does an expansion team do when it spends $48 million on a rookie quarterback? It invests heavily in blockers who can keep him in one piece
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August 30, 1999

Cleveland Browns

What does an expansion team do when it spends $48 million on a rookie quarterback? It invests heavily in blockers who can keep him in one piece

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BAD OMEN?

The Browns' first-round selection of Tim Couch marked only the fourth time since 1960 that an expansion team has selected a quarterback in the first round of its first draft. None of the other quarterbacks drafted under such circumstances lasted more than five years with the expansion team that drafted him.

Team

Quarterback

How fared

1995 Panthers

Kerry Collins

Started only 42 games for Panthers but led them to 1996 NFC Championship Game

1966 Dolphins

Rick Norton

Won only one game as a starting quarterback in his NFL career

1966 Falcons

Randy Johnson

8-30-1 record for Atlanta with a 50.3 passer rating; traded to Giants in 1971

More than an hour into the Browns' final full-scale practice before a preseason game against the Buccaneers earlier this month, Cleveland's running backs hadn't taken a handoff. While the offense ran an array of pass plays featuring rookie quarterback and No. 1 draft pick Tim Couch, some 50 yards away, in a corner of the practice field, running back Terry Kirby and fullback Marc Edwards moped around and took turns blocking a dummy.

If the Browns' ground game appears to be something of an afterthought in 1999, well, that's by design. When president Carmen Policy, director of football operations Dwight Clark and coach Chris Palmer devised their blueprint for building Cleveland's expansion team, they knew they would have to prioritize positions. Not impressed with the free-agent crop of running backs, they decided to wait at least a year before spending top dollar on a ballcarrier. "No organization can fill all its needs in one year," says Palmer, who served as the Jaguars' offensive coordinator the past two seasons. "It just takes time. Look at Jacksonville. It didn't get Fred Taylor until the fourth year."

So in their first off-season, the Browns invested in offensive linemen they believe can protect Couch and open holes wide enough for any back to run through. Cleveland anchored its line with three free agents: right tackle Orlando Brown (six years, $27 million), center Dave Wohlabaugh (seven years, $26.25 million) and 15-year veteran left tackle Lomas Brown (three years, $10.75 million). "We have some semblance of what we intend to do running the ball," says Palmer, "but we've got a long way to go." That said, success with the ground game won't be measured in 1,000-yard increments but by yards per carry and by how effective the Browns are in making opponents respect the run, thus giving Couch and fellow quarterback Ty Detmer time to throw.

"Any team that wants to win in this league has to run the ball," says Kirby, "but running is an attitude. Look at the guys we have up front. They're feisty. They like to fight. They can power people off the field. It's a runner's dream: I just take the ball, pick whichever huge hole I want to run through and go. None of our backs has to be the Man."

That's good news for Cleveland fans, because, frankly, none of the backs on the roster fits that description. Kirby and Edwards, both former 49ers, excel at pass catching, which is a big part of Palmer's plan. But Kirby has never been a dynamic, workhorse back who hits holes hard. In six seasons as a backup with the Dolphins and the Niners, he averaged 379 rushing yards a year. During camp his tendency to fumble didn't please Palmer. Kirby's understudy is former Patriot Sedrick Shaw, who has 48 carries in two years as a pro. Shaw was traded to the Browns in April for nothing more than "past considerations," even after New England had lost starter Robert Edwards to a career-threatening knee injury.

Another running-back candidate is Madre Hill, a rookie seventh-round draft pick from Arkansas who has had reconstructive surgery on both, knees. In the first half of the Browns' preseason opener, against the Cowboys, Kirby, Shaw and Hill combined for 15 rushing yards on 10 carries. Five days later against Tampa Bay the trio picked up 20 on eight. "Maybe we don't have a pure runner with a big name, but we'll be fine," says Edwards. "Great backs and a mediocre line make for a mediocre running game. But if you have a great line, you are always going to have a great running game."

Cleveland's management buys that. Wohlabaugh was one of the first free agents the team signed. With their first pick in the expansion draft, the Browns took the Lions' Jim Pyne, who will start at left guard. One of two third-year players picked up in the expansion draft—Orlando Bobo (Vikings) or 6'8", 330-pound Scott Rehberg (Patriots)—will start at right guard. Imagine the concussive combo Cleveland could line up on the right side with Rehberg and the 6'7", 350-pound Orlando Brown. Like the Browns, Brown, a.k.a. Zeus, is making a comeback in Cleveland. He was signed to a free-agent deal by the Browns in May 1993 after he broke an equipment manager's shoulder and nearly knocked a scout unconscious during a blocking drill.

"Right now we're doing a lot of passing," says Brown. "But it's gonna get cold up here in Cleveland. The wind, the cold, the snow, the ice—you have to run the ball in Cleveland. I want to pancake people. I want to run over people. I want to block a guy into the ground and make him hurt. You do that running the ball. Cleveland is a running-the-ball town."

One look at where the Browns spent their free-agent money in the off-season suggests as much.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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