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Browns go back to the drawing board

The Cleveland Browns are starting over-again.

The Browns returned to the NFL in 1999, but after going 2-14 and 3-13 in their first two seasons under coach Chris Palmer, team president and CEO Carmen Policy decided the franchise needed a new direction.

Palmer was fired, and the Browns lured Butch Davis from the University of Miami to jump-start the franchise.

Davis made a good first impression on the players.

"We're talking the difference between day and night, sunny and cloudy," Policy says. "The players have really bought into the new system, the new teaching style, and the approach to where we're going and how we're going to get there."

Policy is so optimistic that he's talking about the possibility of an 8-8 season. At an offseason luncheon, he said he'd be shocked if the team's performance is similar to last year's and added, "I would not be so shocked if we did better than 8-8 and went 9-7, or God willing, even better than that."

Policy may be a year ahead of himself because the Browns still appear to be suffering expansion growing pains. While they don't figure to collapse the way they did in their last four games last season, which they lost by a combined 151-31, they could find that .500 is still a lofty goal.

Quarterback Tim Couch is back after being sidelined for nine games by a broken thumb, but the Browns need more offensive weapons around him. Cleveland had the fewest offensive yards in the league last season and needs more than a healthy Couch. The Browns ranked next-to-last in the league in both passing yards and rushing yards.

The first priority is to find a running back they can build around. The Browns lack a franchise running back and may go with a committee approach in which Errict Rhett, Travis Prentice, rookie James Jackson, and Jamel White all share time.

Prentice led the team in rushing with only 512 yards and Rhett had just 258 before he was injured.

The team also could use a big-play receiver. Kevin Johnson led the club with 57 catches, and Dennis Northcutt was second with 39. Couch and his receivers should be more efficient now that Davis has installed a short passing game, but the Browns suffered a setback when Northcutt broke his right collarbone in a freak accident. He may miss all of training camp.

There are more injury questions on the right side of the offensive line because tackle Ross Verba underwent back surgery in the offseason and free agent Tre Johnson still is recovering from reconstructive knee surgery.

The Browns' defense, which ranked twenty-sixth last season, should be much improved. They drafted defensive tackle Gerard Warren with their first choice this April after taking defensive end Courtney Brown with their first pick in 2000.

Brown and Warren should anchor the right side of the Cleveland line for the next decade. They'll make mistakes while they learn, but they'll only get better with experience. Keith McKenzie and Orpheus Roye are solid on the left side of the line and the Browns improved their depth with the signing of free-agent tackle Mark Smith.

They also upgraded their linebacking corps by signing free agent Dwayne Rudd. He'll team with Jamir Miller to give the team a pair of solid outside linebackers to flank Wali Rainer in the middle.

The team is still vulnerable in the secondary, though. Corey Fuller and Daylon McCutcheon are adequate at the cornerback spots, but the Browns are vulnerable at the safety positions.

The Browns should be improved and more competitive this season, but they're still going through a rebuilding process.

Fast Facts

2000 Record: 3-13

Coach: Butch Davis 0-0 (1st season)

2000 NFL Rankings

Offense: 31 (30 rush, 30 pass)

Defense: 26 (29 rush, 12 pass)

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