By TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
BEREA, Ohio (AP) - True to his coaching background, Butch Davis got defensive Monday.
Criticized by frustrated Browns fans following a 17-3 loss at Tampa Bay on Sunday, Cleveland's head coach came up with an excuse or answer for nearly everything ailing his team.
He even had a retort for Warren Sapp.
The Buccaneers' trash-talking All-Pro defensive tackle lined up for one play against Browns defensive end Courtney Brown, but that was long enough for Sapp to call Brown "soft" during -- and after -- the game.
"I don't think so," said Davis, who used that response for several other questions, too.
The Browns (2-4), who entered the season thinking they could make the playoffs, dropped their third straight game with the worst performance in Davis' two years as coach.
It was almost as bad as any in the two seasons before Chris Palmer got fired.
Against one of the league's best defenses, the Browns had almost as many punts (9) as first downs (11). They couldn't run the ball, picking up just 60 yards in 18 tries.
And in the second half, Cleveland's defense couldn't stop the run as Browns' tacklers wilted under Mike Alstott's pounding and the warm Florida sunshine.
All signs of a team regressing, right?
"I don't think that," said Davis, an NFL defensive coordinator before joining the Browns. "One, we knew it was going to be a tough day. You go to Tampa, they're a damn good football team. There wasn't a guy who got on that plane that didn't think we had a chance to win."
However, the Browns' game plan was very conservative for a team that thought it could win.
Davis said he didn't want to get into a shootout with the Bucs, so instead of spreading the field by using three- and four-receiver sets, the Browns tried to run the ball -- with little success.
Davis said the idea was to "make the game manageable".
"We could go in there and throw it 50 times, and get sacked and get absolutely blown out," he said. "Logic says you're probably not going to win a scoring contest against them."
The Browns are in their fourth year since returning as an expansion team in 1999, but Davis said the club is still suffering through growing pains.
He seemed surprised to learn that some Cleveland fans are disgusted with the team's lack of progress. And Davis intimated the Browns may still be closer to being a first-year franchise than a playoff contender.
Like Palmer before him, Davis is preaching patience.
"I don't think there's anything really, really good built overnight," he said. "You look at every great franchise. With the teams that I've been associated with, it's a growing process and there are no quick fixes.
"You have to stay positive, stay the course. If you deviate and get off the plan and make radical changes, you start struggling for long periods of time."
Late in Sunday's game, Sapp lined up at tight end across from Brown on 2nd-and-goal at the 1. Alstott took a handoff and lost five yards on a pitch play running away from Brown, but that didn't stop Sapp from claiming he drove the former No. 1 overall draft pick "to the other side of the field."
"That's when I told him he was soft," Sapp said.
Davis was asked if he remembered the play or had heard Sapp's comments.
"Oh, you mean on the goal line when they ran away and they lost six yards? Yeah, I remember that play," Davis said. "Someone said he made some unkind comments about Courtney."
Brown has not recorded a sack in his five games this season, but Davis said he graded out well on Sunday.
"He made four or five tackles, he pressured the quarterback a couple times. He makes some plays at times that you get absolutely no credit whatsoever," Davis said. "Because they focused so much on him, it was probably our best day as a defensive line rushing the passer."
Davis also scoffed at the "soft" tag Sapp tried to pin on Brown.
"I think people sometimes think so because of his personality," Davis said. "He's a mild-mannered, Christian kid and just by nature, you might draw those conclusions, but he's not."
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)