SI Vault
Peter King
December 27, 1999
Better Late... Doug Flutie, ahead of his time in '89, finally fits an NFL mold
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December 27, 1999

The Nfl

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As for the future, the 37-year-old Flutie knows that if he doesn't play better down the stretch, he'll face a training-camp battle next summer from high-priced backup Rob Johnson. Flutie could see himself finishing his career in the CFL. "If I could ever play with my brother Darren [a receiver for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats], I'd love to," he says. "It's not very practical because of the money, but I'd love to do it. Who knows?"

Woes of an Expansion Team
Browns Have Holes Aplenty

It was true at the beginning of the expansion Browns' inaugural season, and it remains true as the end of it approaches: You don't win games in the NFL without playmakers at the key positions.

There are eight vital positions on an NFL team: quarterback, running back, left tackle and two wideouts on offense; all-around end, pass-rushing specialist and shutdown cornerback on defense. With all of owner Al Loner's millions Cleveland filled only two of those spots this season—and in both cases the players were rookies: quarterback Tim Couch and wide receiver Kevin Johnson.

The Browns thought they had filled the left tackle hole when they signed free agent Lomas Brown, but he'll be 37 in March and is too rickety to be counted on. They thought they had picked up good cover corners in free agents Corey Fuller and Ryan McNeil, but opponents have completed a league-high 63% of their throws against Cleveland. What's more, the pass rush is anemic (only 25 sacks in 15 games), and the team ranks last in the NFL in rushing (67.3 yards a game).

"On Dec. 27th a new season will start in our organization, a season of great expectations," Browns president Carmen Policy said on Sunday before a 24-14 loss to the Jaguars dropped his team to 2-13. "We will begin to judge ourselves not just on progress made, which was the yardstick of our first year, but also by wins and losses."

Look for Cleveland to concentrate on three players in free agency (assuming they haven't already re-signed with their current team or been slapped with a franchise-player designation): Cardinals defensive end Simeon Rice, who might be difficult for Arizona to squeeze under its salary cap; Jaguars running back James Stewart, who has run for 889 yards this season while subbing for an injured Fred Taylor; and Patriots wideout Shawn Jefferson, a favorite of coach Chris Palmer's when he was an assistant in New England.

Cleveland's draft strategy will hinge on what the team accomplishes in free agency. Even if they land Rice, the Browns—who will probably have the first or second pick—would be wise to heed the advice on a banner that hung behind the north end zone at Sunday's game: COURTNEY BROWN OR TRADE DOWN. Brown, of Penn State, is one of the best all-around defensive ends to come out of college football in the '90s, and a Rice-Brown pairing would make the defense respectable and help cover the deficiencies in the secondary.

One player who gives Cleveland hope is Couch. "He's shown more mobility than we thought," Palmer says, "and his toughness far surpasses anything we'd expected. His vision of the field and mastery of the game are excellent." His 56% completion rate is good, considering that he has been sacked 56 times, the last of which resulted in a sprained left ankle on Sunday. He's not as savvy and polished as the Colts' Peyton Manning is, but Couch has shown that he has the tools to be one of the NFL's best quarterbacks.

But these are still desperate days in Cleveland. When Policy and club vice president Dwight Clark boarded Lerner's private jet after a disheartening loss in San Diego on Dec. 5, they were looking for a shoulder to cry on. "You have to understand," Lerner told them. "This is the first year. What did you expect? The time to judge this year is not this year. It's the end of next year."

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