Cleveland Browns 2004 Season Preview By Tony Moss, NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - The Cleveland Browns were supposed to be a team on the rise.
Following a playoff appearance in 2002, Butch Davis' team looked to have turned the corner and shed the "expansion team" label that had been conferred on the franchise since it returned to the NFL in 1999. In season number three under Davis, the Browns looked to be ready to take their rightful place among the AFC elite.
But the wine didn't ferment in 2003, and in its place lay only grapes of wrath for Cleveland's long-suffering fans. An offense that ranked 26th in the NFL and coughed up 33 turnovers never jelled under quarterbacks Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb. Baltimore Ravens running back Jamal Lewis set an NFL single- game rushing record with 295 yards against the beleaguered Browns' run defense, then came back and bolted for 205 more against the team weeks later. Bitter home defeats to supposed or actual also-rans like Cincinnati and San Diego stood in the way of any momentum the team could muster early-on, and a season of optimism gave way to one that was ultimately lost.
Davis and company will attempt to turn things around in '04, beginning with a new quarterback, Jeff Garcia, who will be firmly entrenched as the No. 1 signal-caller. A talented draft pick, Kellen Winslow, figures to be a menace from his tight end position while helping to keep an overworked defense off the field. Garcia and Winslow will be counted on to make a huge impact, and if they don't, Davis' job could be in serious jeopardy.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2004 edition of the Cleveland Browns, with a personnel evaluation as well as a schedule analysis and prognosis included therein:
2003 RECORD: 5-11 (4th, AFC North)
COACH (RECORD): Butch Davis (21-27 in three seasons in Cleveland, 21-27 overall)
OFFENSIVE STAR: Jeff Garcia, QB (2704 passing yards, 18 TD, 13 INT, 319 rushing yards in San Francisco)
DEFENSIVE STAR: Andra Davis, LB (136 tackles, 5 sacks)
QB: After two seasons of playing musical quarterbacks with Couch and Holcomb, the Browns visited the waiver wire and tabbed the 34-year old Garcia, a starter for five seasons with the 49ers, to be their man. The team released Couch and relegated Holcomb (1797 passing yards, 10 TD, 12 INT) to his former No. 2 position. The knock on Garcia has always been his average arm, but he still runs well and generally makes good decisions. Cleveland used a fourth- round pick on Louisiana Tech's Luke McCown, who is seen as the quarterback of the future for the organization. Unless he dazzles in the preseason, McCown will hold the clipboard.
RB: The most closely-watched battle during training camp is in the backfield, where Lee Suggs (289 yards, 2 TD) is attempting to hold off incumbent William Green (559 yards, 1 TD). Suggs is smaller, shiftier, and less experienced than Green, who is seen more as a downhill-type runner. Whoever gets the job will run behind former Saint Terrelle Smith, one of the finest blocking backs in the NFL.
WR/TE: Winslow, the tight end out of Miami on which the Browns used the No. 6 pick in this past year's draft, has started training camp with a long holdout but should be an immediate force within the offense when he reports. Steve Heiden (18 receptions) worked in Winslow's place as camp began. Andre' Davis (40 receptions, 5 TD) and Quincy Morgan (38 receptions, 3 TD) were slated as the starting receivers, but it seems unlikely that Dennis Northcutt (62 receptions, 2 TD), the Browns' most reliable offensive player of 2003, will stay off the field long. Frisman Jackson appears set as the No. 4 receiver.
OL: The right side of the Browns' line appears stable, with tackle Ryan Tucker returning after starting all 16 games a year ago, and free agent pickup Kelvin Garmon (Chargers) taking over at guard. Center Jeff Faine should also be a fixture, but the left side could be a mess. Enoch DeMar, Chad Beasley and Paul Zukauskas were locked in a battle for the left guard hole during the preseason, and oft-injured Ross Verba looked like the top choice at tackle. Tackle Kirk Chambers, a sixth-round draft choice out of Stanford, could see some early action within the rotation.
DL: Two former first-round draft choices, left end Courtney Brown (37 tackles, 6 sacks) and tackle Gerard Warren (32 tackles, 5.5 sacks), were supposed to solidify a top-notch line but have been disappointing thus far in their careers. Brown, who has already missed training camp reps with a bad knee, has been injury-prone. Warren's conditioning and desire have both been in question. Right end Kenard Lang (60 tackles, 8 sacks) and tackle Orpheus Roye (57 tackles) have both played well, further frustrating those who envision Cleveland's line being dominant with Brown and Warren playing at 100 percent. Two free agent pickups, Ebenezer Ekuban (26 tackles, 2.5 sacks with the Cowboys) and Jamal Reynolds (5 tackles with the Packers), will add depth at end.
LB: Apart from middle linebacker Andra Davis, a former fifth-round draft pick who blossomed into a team MVP in his second season in the league, this looks like a makeshift unit. Free agent acquisition Warrick Holdman (73 tackles with the Bears) looked to have the edge on incumbent Kevin Bentley (96 tackles) on the weak side, while former backup Chaun Thompson (11 tackles) was pencilled in on the strong side before fracturing his wrist in training camp. If Thompson cannot reclaim his job, Ben Taylor (81 tackles) will likely be back at his familiar starting spot. Veteran Barry Gardner (36 tackles) and special teams regular Sherrod Coates (8 tackles) will be among those adding depth.
DB: Left corner Daylon McCutcheon (46 tackles) and free safety Earl Little (60 tackles, 6 INT) head up a secondary which will look to improve on the mere 11 interceptions it registered in 2003. Opposite McCutcheon, Anthony Henry (54 tackles, 1 INT) appears to be developing into a fine corner, but strong safety Robert Griffith's (92 tackles, 2 INT) job could be in jeopardy. Special teams leader Chris Crocker (35 tackles) could supplant Griffith there.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Kicker Phil Dawson (18-21) will be back in the fold, though he will work with a new holder following the exit of Chris Gardocki to the rival Steelers. Untested second-year man Derrick Frost figures to handle punting and holding chores. Northcutt (8.2 avg.) is an electrifying punt returner, but the team wants to replace receiver Andre' Davis at kickoff returner. Wideout Andre King (19.1 avg.), who handled nine returns last year, is a candidate in that slot.
SCHEDULE: Playing well within the friendly confines of Cleveland Browns Stadium will be important, since top-notch teams like Baltimore (9/12), Philadelphia (10/24), and New England (12/5) will all be rolling through town. Only three road games come against teams that had winning records in '03, and two of those are against the lightly-regarded Cowboys (9/19) and Dolphins (11/26). The matchups against the rival Steelers (10/10 on the road, 11/14 at home) might not determine much in the way of playoff position, but figure to be fun as usual.
PROGNOSIS: Cleveland has been a near-consensus pick for last place in the AFC North, and it is not difficult to figure out why. The offensive line and linebacking corps' are shaky, the running back and secondary spots are unsettled, and quarterback duties have been entrusted to a 34-year old quarterback that was cast aside by an already woeful 49ers team. Winslow's prolonged holdout and a season-ending injury to second-round pick and safety Sean Jones in training camp puts a wrench in any type of youth movement, at least for the moment. Though the schedule appears favorable, it is hard to envision the Browns having the talent to win consistently, no matter who they're playing. A .500 record should be enough to keep Davis' job, but that's not likely.