For the second time in three seasons in the expansion era, the Browns were starting over as they headed into 2001.
Head coach Chris Palmer was fired after two years and a 5-27 record, being thwarted by the franchise getting a late start in getting organized, and by injuries to a number of key personnel in 2000.
His replacement was University of Miami (Fla.) head coach Butch Davis, a former defensive assistant coach with the Dallas Cowboys during their glory days of the early 1990s. Davis had had a lot of success with the Hurricanes as well, completely turning around a program that was in danger of being disbanded for the rogue behavior of both players and coaches.
Trying to erase the losing atmosphere that surrounded the Browns, Davis made sweeping changes in nearly every facet of the organization, the most significant of which was using the No. 1 overall pick of the 2001 NFL Draft to take defensive tackle Gerard Warren, whom the coach had tried to recruit when he was at Miami.. Davis was hoping that Warren, along with end Courtney Brown, the No. 1 overall draft choice in 2000, would help bolster a defense that had surrendered 417 points the previous season and 856 over a two-year period.
The changes made an immediate impact. The Browns allowed just three field goals in the season opener, and 16 points or less the next three games.
The result was that the Browns jumped out to a 3-1 record, their best start since they returned to the field in 1999.
The loss came in Davis' debut, as they fell 9-6 to the Seattle Seahawks on a 52-yard field goal into a stiff breeze with three seconds left.
The Browns were to have played at Pittsburgh the following week on Sunday Night Football to help the Steelers unveil Heinz Field, but that game, along with all of the other contests in the NFL that weekend, were postponed and tacked on to the end of the regular season in lieu of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York.
When the games resumed, the Browns got their first win under Davis with a 24-14 decision over the Detroit Lions. Rookie running back James Jackson, who had played for the coach at Miami, led the way with 124 yards as the Browns roared to a 24-7 third-quarter lead.
The Browns had not beaten Jacksonville in six games going back to the Jaguars' expansion season of 1995, but that changed when they went on the road to gain a convincing 23-14 triumph. The Browns led 13-0 at halftime and then were clinging to a 16-14 advantage when cornerback Daylon McCutcheon intercepted a pass and returned it 32 yards for the clinching touchdown with 35 seconds left.
The next game, against the San Diego Chargers, provided just as dramatic of an ending, as Tim Couch threw a 19-yard TD pass to wide receiver Kevin Johnson with 1:15 left to get a 20-16 win.
The red-hot Browns were thinking big at this point.
Things cooled a little over the next two weeks as they split a pair of games against AFC Central foes, losing 24-14 to the Cincinnati Bengals and then beating the defending Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens for the first time in five tries, by that same 24-14 score. The fans were ecstatic that the Ravens -- the former Browns -- had finally been felled.
Then two crushing overtime defeats followed, 27-21 to the Chicago Bears and 15-12 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The game at Soldier Field was one of the most amazing in Browns -- or, for that matter, NFL -- history, as Cleveland seemingly had sealed the victory, leading 21-7 with 30 seconds left in regulation, only to allow the Bears to score two TDs to tie it.
Against Pittsburgh, the Browns had a 9-0 first-quarter lead and were ahead 12-9 after three quarters. The Steelers didn't score a TD all day, but instead five field goals.
But the Browns proved to be a resilient bunch, coming back to win the next two games, 27-17 at Baltimore to gain a decisive season series sweep of the Ravens, and then 18-0 over the Bengals to post their first shutout of the expansion era and the first since 1994.
At 6-4, the Browns were clinging to the final AFC wild-card berth on tie-breakers.
The season is not 10 games, however. It's 16, and the Browns, with not quite enough depth, faded down the stretch, losing their next four games and five of their last six.
So from that standpoint, a final 7-9 record was a big disappointment. But in the big picture, considering what the Browns had done the previous two seasons, it was a success of no small proportions.
In addition, with fourth-round draft pick Anthony Henry leading the way with 10 interceptions, tying for first in the NFL and also tying a club record, the Browns set a team mark for picks with 33.
And outside linebacker Jamir Miller, after tying for first in the AFC with 13 sacks, became the first Brown of the expansion era to be selected for the Pro Bowl. It was also the first such honor for him.
After all this, the fans were feeling good about the Browns again, a marked improvement from the dismal atmosphere a year earlier. The 2002 season -- and an opportunity for the club to take even more steps -- couldn't come soon enough.
|9/30||W||23-14||at Jacksonsville Jaguars57,875|
|10/7||W||20-16||San Diego Chargers 73,018|
|10/14||L||14-24||at Cincinnati Bengals64,217|
|11/4||L||21-27 (OT)||at Chicago Bears66,944|
|11/11||L||12-15 (OT)||Pittsburgh Steelers73,218|
|11/18||W||27-17||at Baltimore Ravens 69,353|
|12/9||L||16-27||at New England Patroits 60,292|
|12/23||L||7-30||at Green Bay Packers59,824|
|12/30||W||41-38||at Tennessee Titans 68,798|
|1/6||L||7-28||at Pittsburgh Steelers59,189|
|Score By Periods|
|Total First Downs||238||295|
|3rd Down: Made/Att||68/210||88/235|
|3rd Down Pct.||32.4||37.4|
|4th Down: Made/Att||6/12||8/23|
|4th Down Pct.||50.0||34.8|
|Total Net Yards||4152||5297|
|Avg. Per Game||259.5||331.1|
|Avg. Per Play||4.4||4.9|
|Net Yards Rushing||1351||2208|
|Avg. Per Game||84.4||138.0|
|Net Yards Passing||2801||3089|
|Avg. Per Game||175.1||193.1|
|Net Punting Avg.||99/34.6||74/37.7|