- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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One more sobering thought about the Bengals: The Chargers and the Jets undressed Cincinnati's pass defense last year, and unless a superstar surfaces in Browner's spot or rookie Cornerback Ray Horton cracks the lineup, that pass defense might have a tough time again.
There are few nicer people in the NFL than Sam Rutigliano. "Playing for Sam will add four years to my career," Right Guard Joe DeLamielleure said when he went to the Browns from Buffalo in 1980. "If you can't play for Sam you can't play for anybody," says Calvin Hill, now a part-time consultant with the team. Sam's Inner Circle drug program—players helping each other from within—is the most enlightened approach in the NFL, and if decency and compassion could be translated into won-lost, the Browns would be in the Super Bowl every year. Unfortunately, a harder set of standards is applied, and the facts are these: In five years Rutigliano's record is 37-36. The Cardiac Kids of 1980 seemed on their way, then the bottom fell out and the Browns had two losing seasons, although their 4-5 record in '82 got them into the playoff tournament. Even tougher to stomach, from an ownership standpoint, was the drop in attendance. It was off 16% at home last year, down from 75,216 per game to 62,823. Blame the strike. But this year, season tickets are down another 2,000. It might be presumptuous to say that Rutigliano's job is on the line now. Firing the coach would not be a good p.r. move for owner Art Modell, particularly after he got all that good ink for his help with Rutigliano's drug program, but he's been shelling out big bucks for contracts—Tom Cousineau and Chip Banks last year, for instance—and he might be itching to start getting his money's worth.
There are two keys to the Browns' chances for success. The first, as usual, is the defensive line. They've tried it with draft choices, with free agents and with a trade for an old pro, but they're still searching for the right combination. Now they've settled on what they feel is the answer—this season's third-round draft choice, Reggie Camp, and last year's No. 2, Keith Baldwin, flanking the man they claim was a steal, Bob Golic, who was claimed off waivers from New England a year ago. The Browns already have a big league linebacking corps. Banks, their 1982 No. 1 draft pick, was fine as the designated sacker last year. Clay Matthews on the right side was one of the league's best until he broke his ankle in '82. Dick Ambrose is sturdy inside, and Cousineau says he feels "more relaxed" this year. Hey, with a $500,000 salary, who wouldn't? Cornerback Lawrence Johnson's slow return from off-season knee surgery doesn't help the secondary, but heavy thunder from the front seven could cover that.
The second key is quarterback. Brian Sipe never got teamed up with Quarterback Coach Paul Hackett and lost his job to Paul McDonald last year. But Sipe is still a player and a great competitor, and he could have a rebirth under the new offensive coordinator, Larrye Weaver, who brings the one-back, spread-the-field offense from San Diego, his last post. He says that Tight End Ozzie Newsome, who caught more passes over a five-year span than any receiver in the Browns' history, is perfect for a Kellen Winslow-style slotback role.
Bum Phillips had back-to-back 11-5 seasons, and he got fired. Eddie Biles went 7-9 and 1-8 and dodged the bullet, but his three-year contract was not extended. "I think the owner realizes what the problems are here and what it's going to take to correct them," says Biles, who knows that one corrective measure next, oh, December, might be to fire the coach.
Problem No. 1: a fading offensive line and a dispirited Earl Campbell. Solution: three big linemen—Bruce Matthews, No. 1 draft in '83; Harvey Salem, No. 2; Mike Munchak, No. 1 last year.
Problem No. 2: snow in the secondary. Two members of last year's deep four were busted for drugs. (A third was convicted of drunk driving.) Solution: five defensive backs in the draft, from universities of high repute—Michigan, Oregon, Oklahoma State, Oklahoma and Missouri—where student-athletes stroll to their classrooms with books under their arms and do those nifty promos for The NCAA Today.
The big plus this year is that the Oilers' gusher of high draft picks (10 in the first five rounds) might just get the ship floating again. If those young offensive linemen pan out, no one will be happier than 34-year-old Quarterback Archie Manning, who certainly deserves better than what the NFL has given him.