Are Browns This Year's Super Bowl Surprise? - Cleveland 19 News Cleveland, OH

Are Browns This Year's Super Bowl Surprise?

By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer

CLEVELAND (AP) - There's already a script for the Cleveland Browns to follow this season. It goes like this: Young team on the rise, given little chance for big success, suffers some key injuries, then comes out of nowhere to win the Super Bowl.

Remember that one? It happened to the St. Louis Rams in 2000. And to the New England Patriots last season.

Is it the Browns' turn to shock the NFL?

"Everybody in the league wants to be this year's Patriots," said quarterback Tim Couch, whose sore right elbow could keep him out of the season opener against Kansas City. "We've got a lot of talent. We think we've got a shot."

Maybe. First, though, the Browns must stay healthy enough to make it to October.

After going 5-27 in two seasons, the Browns went 7-9 in their first year under coach Butch Davis and were still in the playoff hunt last December. This year, they have more talent and more confidence than they've had since returning as a gosh-awful expansion team in 1999.

"I know we're good," said offensive tackle Ryan Tucker, signed in the offseason after five years with the Rams. "Everybody here wants to win. The last few years guys got worn down."

Davis has made believers of the Browns, who started 4-2 last season but lost seven of their last 10 -- two in overtime, one on the infamous overturned call against Jacksonville that caused Browns fans to litter the field with plastic beer bottles.

Davis has given his players an attitude, too.

"We're going to the playoffs," linebacker Dwayne Rudd said. "No doubt. How deep we go is a whole other step."

Just as long as that first step this year doesn't result in a sprained ankle.

Cleveland ended 2001 with a league-high 16 players on injured reserve, just two fewer than the previous year. Turnover differential takes on a whole new meaning with the Browns. We're talking players, not fumbles and interceptions.

"We've had our share," said Couch, who tore some scar tissue in his elbow last week.

The Browns didn't even get through their first exhibition game without a big loss. All-Pro linebacker Jamir Miller, who led the club with 13 sacks a year ago, tore his Achilles' tendon and is out for the year.

Miller was the top playmaker on a defense that led the NFL in takeaways (42) and the AFC in interceptions (32).

But the Browns haven't spent any time dwelling on Miller's loss.

"We all feel for him," defensive tackle Gerard Warren said. "We wish he could be with us. But hey, the show must go on."

If they can stop the run, Cleveland's defense could be one of the league's best.

The Browns signed linebacker Earl Holmes, Pittsburgh's leading tackler the past three seasons, and hard-hitting safety Robert Griffith to help improve a defense that yielded 138 yards rushing per game in '01.

Free agent linebacker Darren Hambrick, who led Dallas in tackles in 2000, was signed to replace Miller.

"Somebody was looking out for us," Davis said. "By no stretch of the imagination should you lose a Pro Bowler like Jamir and be able to just find a guy hanging out at Wendy's waiting on a phone call."

Free agent end Kenard Lang was added to a solid defensive line featuring Warren and Courtney Brown, the No. 1 overall pick in 2000 who needs to stay healthy for the Browns to make a serious playoff push.

On offense, the Browns may finally have a durable running back in rookie William Green. Cleveland was last in the league with just 84.4 yards rushing per game, but free agent pickups Tucker and Barry Stokes should open some holes up front.

Third-down specialist Jamel White is a game-breaker, and Kevin Johnson, Quincy Morgan, rookie Andre Davis and Dennis Northcutt form a nice receiving corps.

For the first time, Couch didn't have to start over with a new offensive coordinator this summer. He loves Bruce Arians' system, which favors the short pass.

Couch was having his finest preseason before his elbow flared up. As long as it doesn't blow out, this could be his breakout year.

"I've got guys who can make plays," he said. "I have a lot more weapons around me."

Curiously, after Couch got hurt, Davis, who has been reluctant to talk about his quarterback's injury, spoke with his team about the importance to overcoming adversity.

He used two well-known cases to drive his point home.

"Somebody is going to get hurt," Davis said. "I asked Ryan Tucker, 'What was the compelling thought with the Rams the day Trent Green went down?' His comment was, 'The season is over.' Kurt Warner went on to win the Super Bowl.

"I didn't bring it up, but a lot of people in New England would have said, 'Drew Bledsoe is hurt. How are we ever going to win a game? We're going to play with Tom Brady?' And they win the Super Bowl.

"Every team gets challenged."

And as the Browns know, some more than others.

(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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