After two games—a 17-16 win over Detroit and last week's last minute 26-23 defeat of the Los Angeles Rams—Rutigliano was even more certain of his assessment. "Tom's got a lot to learn about our system, but he makes our whole defense into an impact defense. He can come in and BOOM! turn the games around. He's going to create a whole lot of things for us."
"On paper we might have the best linebacker group in the NFL," says Modell of his starting four, which now consists of Cousineau and eight-year veteran Dick Ambrose inside and Banks and five-year veteran Clay Matthews on the outside. "Of course," Modell continues, "in the NFL you don't play on paper."
Nor do you in the CFL, where last season Cousineau played for the talent-laden and dismal Montreal Alouettes. Though the Als boasted a number of highly paid expatriate U.S. stars—in addition to Cousineau, whose three-year contract was reportedly worth $850,000, there were Vince Ferragamo, James Scott, Billy (White Shoes) Johnson and David Overstreet—they won only three of 16 games. The main problem was the chaotic influence on the team of madcap owner Nelson Skalbania, but contributing to it was the fact that Cousineau played in only four games because he dislocated his left elbow early in the year (the Als were 12-3-1 and 8-8 in his first two seasons in Montreal).
Only money could have brought Cousineau to Canada in the first place. In 1979 the Buffalo Bills chose him as the first player in the first round of the NFL draft. Having grown up in the Cleveland area and played at Ohio State, Cousineau was eager to play in the NFL, but his agent, Jimmy Walsh, encouraged him to take a fatter contract offered by the Alouettes.
At first Cousineau took heat in the CFL because of his paychecks. One teammate, who wore Cousineau's college number, 36, kiddingly offered to sell it to him for $10,000. "Tom had only been in uniform a week or so when he started for us in our third game of the season," recalls Joe Scannella, then the Montreal coach and now an assistant with Cleveland. "The next week at Hamilton, on a coverage, Tom hit a retaining wall very hard. He stunned himself, and while he was down, all the people cheered. That's how he entered the CFL."
But soon the two-time Ohio State All-America whom Woody Hayes once called "the best conditioned athlete I ever coached," began to play up to his salary. Cousineau is a fearless tackier who thrilled and baffled Hayes by attacking runners with a smile on his face. He has the lateral moves and ball-hawking instincts of a defensive back, yet is as strong as a nose-guard from years of pumping iron. Starting at first on the outside and then moving to middle linebacker, Cousineau was named the Alouettes' rookie of the year and then was picked as the outstanding defensive player in the 1979 Grey Cup. In 1980 he was voted the best defensive player in the CFL's Eastern Division.
"I think I adjusted pretty well to the Canadian game," says Cousineau. "The biggest difference is that the game there is much faster than here. The field is wider and there are only three downs, so you don't have ball control offenses. The emphasis is on the big play. For linebackers it's very hard to see tendencies. You have to expect the unexpected and just react."
Cousineau showed how well he reacts in two controlled scrimmages against the Detroit Lions earlier this month. In a 7-on-7 drill he had two interceptions; in the full-team scrimmage he had another interception and a deflection that led to a pick-off by Cornerback Ron Bolton. "Cousineau's pass defense instincts are superb," raved Detroit Quarterback Gary Danielson later. "Those years in Canada have benefited him more than people realize."
When Scannella joined the Browns' staff last February he told Modell bluntly, "Cousineau is the best linebacker in Canada." But getting Cousineau to sign with the Browns wasn't going to be an easy matter. In accordance with the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, Cousineau would be able to enter the NFL in 1982 as a free agent, subject only to a right of first refusal by the team that had originally drafted him, the Buffalo Bills. This meant that whatever team signed Cousineau wouldn't have to pay any compensation. The Bills, however, had made it clear they wouldn't let Cousineau get away twice. "If Tom Cousineau plays in the NFL, he will play in Buffalo," said Bills Coach Chuck Knox on numerous occasions. "We're going to sign Tom Cousineau," declared owner Ralph Wilson. "We will match any offer."
Then the Houston Oilers came up with a reported five-year, $3.5 million offer for Cousineau. Buffalo, and the rest of the NFL, gagged. Word had it Houston was talking oil wells up front. Even Modell, who would end up acquiring that very contract, called the numbers "astonishing." But the Browns were determined, and after the Bills matched Houston's offer, Cleveland gave Buffalo three future draft choices, one a first, for Cousineau. Though thrilled to have Cousineau aboard, Modell is defensive about the actual bidding process. "No thinking NFL man can fault me for what happened," he says. "My middle name's not Steinbrenner. I believe in the NFL. It was Houston that set the value; I want to make that clear." For his part Rutigliano isn't worried that Cousineau's huge salary will be a problem for the Browns' players "because Tom doesn't wear it on his lapel." Says Guard Joe DeLamielleure, "We're professionals and we all realize that Tom was in the right place at the right time."