By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
BEREA, Ohio (AP) - Butch Davis can finally take a bow. There's no denying that he turned around the Cleveland Browns in his first season as coach.
"He was the difference," running back Jamel White said.
After going 5-27 in two seasons under Chris Palmer, the Browns were rebuilt by Davis in their third year back in the league. He overhauled Cleveland's roster, changed his players' attitude and convinced the rest of the NFL to take the Browns seriously.
"We came a long, long way," quarterback Tim Couch said. "Last year, we weren't looked at as a good football team. We were looked at as a joke. We had no respect around the league. Now teams have to prepare for us."
They'd better in the future, too.
"We're going to come back confident, and we're going to come back to win," cornerback Daylon McCutcheon said.
Davis, who left Miami on the brink of winning a national championship, helped the Browns win respect and seven games. But after a surprising 6-4 start that included two wins over the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens, the Browns lost five of their last six games.
A season-long rash of injuries -- they led the league with 16 players on injured reserve -- and a lack of depth caught up with the Browns, whose hopes for a .500 season ended with a 28-7 loss in the snow at Pittsburgh on Sunday.
"We should have been in the playoffs this season," said wide receiver Kevin Johnson, who caught 84 passes for 1,097 yards and nine touchdowns. "We've got to learn how to finish strong. But we've definitely made some big strides this year."
From the moment he was hired last February, Davis told his players to forget about the nightmarish years under Palmer and to think of themselves as winners.
"He made guys believe," kicker Phil Dawson said. "He gave everyone confidence and they trusted him. It's all about confidence. Hopefully, we'll build on this in the future. It's great to be a part of something that's only going to get better."
There were many bright spots:
Davis knows he has something to build upon.
"It's a team that can win," Davis said. "It's a step in the right direction."
However, for all of Davis' accomplishments, there were some small steps backward.
The Browns finished last in the league in rushing offense and 29th overall in stopping the run. And despite leading the league by forcing 42 turnovers, Cleveland's defense ranked just 22nd overall.
The offensive line, with the exceptions of center Dave Wohlabaugh and tackle Ross Verba, was awful. It didn't open holes or protect Couch, who was sacked 51 times.
The defensive line never got a chance to gel as ends Keith McKenzie and Courtney Brown missed most of the season with injuries.
There was nothing special about Cleveland's special teams, either.
"I'm disappointed we didn't win more games. But the most frustrating thing was our health," said Davis, who promised the Browns would be "bigger, stronger and faster" next year.
And following two trouble-free seasons, there were off-the-field problems.
Fifth-round draft pick Jeremiah Pharms was released after his arrest on assault charges. H-back Mike Sellers and cornerback Lamar Chapman were also arrested for drugs hours before Warren was picked up on a gun-related charge.
During the winter, it will be impossible for the Browns not to think about at least a game or two.
Cleveland lost five games by less than 10 points, including two in overtime and one with three seconds left.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)