First, the good stuff.
The Cleveland Browns at 7-2 are sitting atop the AFC Central and are tied with the Miami Dolphins and the San Diego Chargers for the best record in the conference. The consensus in the preseason was that the Browns would finish third in their division.
Sunday's 13-6 victory over the New England Patriots in windblown Cleveland Stadium was a clinic on how to shut down the NFL's leader in yards passing, Drew Bledsoe, and the AFC's top receiver, tight end Ben Coates.
Quietly, Bill Belichick has been performing one of the league's most solid coaching jobs, and his assemblage of castoffs and young talent has paid off in Cleveland—so far.
That's the good news, but hanging over the whole operation, like storm clouds over Lake Erie, is the history book. We're not talking about the old days, the glorious 1950s, when the Browns had a stranglehold on the NFL, or the Jim Brown era that followed. Cleveland's dark period began in 1980. That year quarterback Brian Sipe and the Kardiac Kids won the AFC Central title, but Mike Davis of the Oakland Raiders picked off a Sipe pass in the end zone in the divisional playoffs and the Browns were finished.
Then John Elway and the Denver Broncos shut the door on Cleveland's hopes for a Super Bowl trip three times, in 1986, '87 and '89, a trio of losses that established the Browns as the best team never to have played in the Big One. That fact will haunt Cleveland owner Art Modell forever. It has him, even in these happy times, joking, "We hosted a Billy Graham crusade, and I asked people, 'What does Art Modell have in common with Billy Graham?' The answer is, each of us has 80,000 people on their feet yelling, 'Jesus Christ!' "
And then there was the Bernie Kosar episode last year. A local kid and a darling of the fans for more than eight seasons, Kosar was cut after eight games in 1993. When his replacement at quarterback, Vinny Testaverde, went down with a separated-shoulder injury in Game 7, the faithful sat in front of their TV sets and watched in horror as the Browns, led by someone named Todd Philcox, turned the ball over seven times in a 22-5 loss to the Seahawks in Seattle. Worse, Cleveland fans punched the remote and saw Kosar leading the Dallas Cowboys to victory over the Phoenix Cardinals.
Those fans have not forgiven Belichick for cutting Kosar, though he has never hesitated to explain his decision, citing Kosar's diminished skills and lack of mobility. It was a hard coaching decision, and only time, plus some serious playoff activity by the Browns, can soften it.
"Look, I held out longer than anybody for keeping Bernie," Belichick says. "But after a while you could just see that it wouldn't work out. That's why we got Vinny before the season. It's why we got Mark Rypien this year. It's one position where you've got to be fortified, and I've seen a lot of contending teams go down the drain because they weren't."
The Washington Redskins cut Rypien last April. Mired in an offense that needed three completed passes to get a first down and playing behind a crippled line, Rypien went from Super Bowl MVP in 1992 to the bench within two years. The Browns saw something, though, and in May they signed him.
Rypien brought with him a refreshing, if understandable, humility. "There were all sorts of rumors about my arm being shot, about my skills being diminished," he says. "I knew that wasn't true, but you have to be a man and face the fact that, if that's the way people perceive you, maybe your days as a starter are over. I came here to be a backup quarterback. That's my role, and I accept it. It doesn't hurt my pride."
When Testaverde suffered a concussion against the Broncos the week before the game against New England, Rypien got his first start as a Brown. An immediate obstacle on Sunday was the weather—intermittent showers, 20-mph winds, with gusts up to 40. Given the conditions, Rypien's passing numbers were respectable: 14 of 28 for 164 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Bledsoe, who completed 20 of 43 passes for only 166 yards and no touchdowns, didn't handle the weather as well. He threw four interceptions.
The wind, according to Cleveland wideout Keenan McCardell, "made the ball do funny little tricks. One time you'd get a slow curve, another time a hard slider." Rypien's way of coping with the gusts was to keep the ball low. "Get it up high and it will sail on you," he said after the victory, "and that's when they pick it off."
It was a modest approach, a don't-screw-it-up strategy, which more or less typified the Browns' offense. Their defense has been sound, their special teams spectacular—they have scored three touchdowns and have not given up one. It figures. Belichick was a special teams coach for seven years with the Detroit Lions, the Broncos and the New York Giants, and his offensive coordinator, Steve Crosby, held the same job with the Miami Dolphins and the Patriots for five years. It's something they take very seriously.
Yet even as Cleveland was running up its impressive record, it did not build much of an offensive identity. The Browns would talk about establishing a running game, and then on second-and-six they would send the wideouts in. They would mention how they had to get the ball to their flashy little halfback, Eric Metcalf, 20 times a game, and then, when you looked at the stats after a game, you would see that Metcalf had seven or eight carries and a couple of receptions. Testaverde put up some decent numbers for a while, but as his receiving corps kept going down with injuries, so did his yardage.
The one constant in the attack was a 5'11", 225-pound wrecking ball of a fullback, Leroy Hoard. It seemed that every time Cleveland needed that one big drive, Hoard was the guy who broke the tackles and got the first downs. "He plays so hard, and he's so damn physical," Belichick says, "giving it that second and third effort, that it's hard for him to do it on every play. You have to monitor his carries."
"I played with him at Michigan," says Brown center Steve Everitt. "I've seen him just take over games. I'd like to see him get the ball 20 to 25 times."
And on Sunday, despite having come into the game with a badly bruised right biceps, that's exactly what Hoard did—21 carries for 123 yards, both career highs, and two catches for 12 yards, one of which, early in the fourth quarter, went for the Browns' only touchdown. "Tired? Yeah, I guess so," he said afterward. "But it's really no big deal. It's just good for me to show people that, given the opportunity, I'll do the job."
The weather conditions were just right for a brawl in the trenches, which was fine with Patriot coach Bill Parcells. He has wanted to get a running game going all year but has had little success. On Sunday the hammer finally started to fall, as 248-pound Marion Butts (25 carries, 86 yards) banged away behind 230-pound fullback Kevin Turner. The Brown defense, which had been on the field for an average of 72 snaps over the previous four games, came into this game heavy-legged, and the absence of tackle Michael Dean Perry, who injured his shoulder against Denver, cut into the defensive line rotation.
Cleveland clung to a 3-0 lead at the half, but its defense sealed the win in the last two quarters. The Browns mustered a goal line stand in the third period—the Pats had a first down at the five and wound up with a field goal—and then stopped New England on downs on the Pats' next possession. Rypien then immediately took Cleveland on an 80-yard drive that ended with Hoard's touchdown. Just over three minutes later, after Brown cornerback Tim Jacobs picked off a Bledsoe pass at the New England 38, Matt Stover kicked a 41-yard field goal for a 13-3 Cleveland lead.
"Typical Giants Stadium slugfest, right?" said outside linebacker Carl Banks, one of two imports from the Giant defense that Belichick coached under Parcells in the late 1980s. And the win over the Pats did bear the imprint of Parcells. Belichick learned one valuable lesson from his mentor: When you've got a hole to fill, you make your move right away, whether it's through the draft or free agency or the cut list, and you gear it to the people you'll be facing. That approach is the key to the Browns' success this year.
In June, Belichick brought in Banks, who had traveled from the Giants to the Redskins, where he fell out of favor. "I came with a lot of heavy baggage," Banks says. "Hopefully all that baggage is behind me now."
Says Belichick, "I knew I was going to be playing against more than half the quality tight ends in the league. So I figured I'd better get Carl Banks. He can still jack up a tight end as well as any linebacker in football. I didn't want to be sitting here facing the Steelers twice a year, with Barry Foster running behind [tight end] Eric Green, and not be able to stop them. It's like when [Parcells] stockpiled guards every season with the Giants. Hey, he had to lace Jerome Brown of the Eagles twice a year. Who's going to block him?"
The Parcells theory of building strength in the middle hasn't been neglected either. Belichick's first three first-round draft choices were all down the pipe: safety Eric Turner, who intercepted two passes on Sunday and is having an All-Pro year; fullback Tommy Vardell, who was sidelined for the year with a knee injury in Game 5 but who certainly supplied the blocking muscle that was needed; and Everitt, one of the league's fine young centers.
And to lead his defense, a year ago Belichick added middle linebacker Pepper Johnson, another Giant who moved into New York coach Dan Reeves's doghouse but who, says Belichick, "is having a better year than the one  that got him into the Pro Bowl."
Are the Browns ready to mount a Super Bowl challenge? Check back after the next two weeks—they play both the Philadelphia Eagles and the Kansas City Chiefs on the road. We could be looking at a Cinderella, or just another pipe dream.