Following their second win of the season over Baltimore, the Cleveland Browns were one of the surprise teams of the season. But history will probably remember Butch Davis' first season as the Browns' head coach as a year of controversy.
It all began in Jacksonville on Sept. 30, when the Browns stomped on the Jaguars' midfield logo in a college-like pregame stunt. Shortly after, rookie defensive tackle Gerard Warren blind-sided Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell on the Jaguars' first offensive play of the game, after Brunell had been intercepted. Warren was fined $35,000 by the league.
Of course, don't forget about cornerback Corey Fuller's obscenity-laced verbal assault on Jaguars coach Tom Coughlin as the two teams left the field that day.
A week later, the San Diego Chargers accused the Browns of dirty play, then in a loss to Pittsburgh on Nov. 11 the Browns claimed the Steelers were the dirty ones.
Then came the arrests and suspensions of three Browns players, one of whom is Warren, who was arrested in Pittsburgh for having a loaded handgun in his car. Warren was arrested after having attended a party that was hosted by Steelers wide receiver Plaxico Burress.
Most recently, the Tennessee Titans said they drew motivation for their 31-15 pasting of the Browns from another Browns pregame stunt. The Titans said the Browns taunted them in pregame warmups.
This season may not produce a playoff berth for the upstart Browns (6-6), 48-0 losers in Jacksonville last December, but it is a season that has certainly increased the Browns' energy for the game. Davis gets the credit for that.
"You've still got to believe," Fuller said of the Browns' playoff hopes. "You can't take one game right here and hit the panic button. We still have a chance to do what we're trying to accomplish."
Any hope of that must include a win over the visiting Jaguars (4-8) this Sunday. Certainly, that will be the Jaguars' motivation. The Jaguars would sure like to be the team that signaled the beginning of the end for the Browns, as the Browns did to the Jaguars on Sept. 30, when the Jaguars began the day 2-0. It's been all downhill since then.
Make no mistake about it, the Browns are ripe to be upset. Their offense has fallen to 30th in the league (28th rushing and 28th passing), and their defense (17th overall, 21st against the run and 14th against the pass) has been exposed to be something less than previously billed.
"We hope to get better but we have to give Tim (Couch) some help. He can't do it by himself. He's our leader and we go as he goes. If we don't give him help, he can't do the things he does well. We just have to keep working hard and hope we have a coming-out party," wide receiver Kevin Johnson said.
Couch was a hot quarterback at midseason, but he has since fallen off sharply. His 72.7 passer rating is 14th in the AFC, and he's dead last in the AFC with a 57.8 third-down passer rating.
"My biggest concern is not necessarily that we can't make the plays, because we've proven we can. You've seen evidence of the fact we can throw, we can catch, we can make big plays. We can at times run the ball. It's not overpowering but at times it's effective. It's the inconsistency. The most disappointing and most frustrating aspect is that we go through lulls in games," Davis said.
The Jaguars would like to catch the Browns in one of those lulls this Sunday. It would certainly ease the sting of a loss that began the Jaguars' fall.