Back in the old days, the Browns would have taken all the veterans who had played such key roles in getting the team to the 2002 AFC playoffs, and tried to squeeze another year or two out of them.
But the old days had long disappeared by that point. With the constraints of the salary cap, keeping older players and their big contracts for any length of time is nearly impossible.
So in the offseason, Browns head coach Butch Davis lopped off veterans left and right, claiming the team was way over the cap limit. Included in that were all three starting linebackers, Earl Holmes, Dwayne Rudd and Darren Hambrick, along with cornerback Corey Fuller and center Dave Wohlabaugh.
All were good players, and most were leaders of the team.
It took away a lot of the excitement that had been generated after the 2002 club had gone 9-7, earned a wild-card berth and then nearly beat the Steelers in Pittsburgh in a wild-card round game, leading 24-7 in the third quarter and 33-21 with three minutes left only to lose 36-33.
Still, the fans hoped that maybe enough of the star players had been retained and that those, with the young guys mixed in, especially at linebacker where three second-year players in Andra Davis, Ben Taylor and Kevin Bentley would start, would be able to carry the team.
And for a while, it looked as if that indeed might happen.
It was a rough start, though, as the Browns lost the opener 9-6 to the Indianapolis Colts, making the second time in Davis' three seasons that they had fallen by that score in the first game, and then got roughed up at Baltimore in a 33-13 defeat. Ravens running back Jamal Lewis, who would sign with the Browns four years later, rumbled for an NFL-record 295 yards.
So in the first week, the Browns offense had struggled, and then the following week, it was the defense having issues.
This was not the start the Browns were looking for, especially offensively with the way the unit had finished 2002. Kelly Holcomb passed for 429 yards against Pittsburgh in the playoffs and that influenced Davis to let him battle Couch in training camp in an open competition for the starting quarterback job. Holcomb won out, but in the first two games of 2003, neither he nor the offense looked anything like it had down the stretch the previous year.
Overall, things didn't get any better in Week 3, the offense stagnating at 13 points for the second straight game. But that was enough to win at San Francisco 13-12 as Holcomb threw two fourth-quarter touchdown passes to wide receiver Andre' Davis, including an 11-yarder for the game-winner with 29 seconds left, to erase a 12-0 deficit.
It was discovered after the game, however, that Holcomb had suffered a broken ankle on a quarterback sneak, meaning Couch would return to the lineup.
After he had thrown two TD passes, including a 71-yarder to Quincy Morgan, in the first 20½ minutes the following week against the Cincinnati Bengals, Couch and the offense went silent in a 21-14 defeat.
Then, just as quickly, things turned around -- completely around -- for Couch, but only briefly. He had the best game of his pro career on Sunday Night Football in Pittsburgh, completing 20-of-25 passes for two TDs, and then running for another score, as the Browns cruised to a 33-13 win. It was their most lopsided victory over the Steelers since 1989.
William Green, the team's top pick in the NFL Draft the year before and the man who had performed so well during the playoff run, chipped in with 115 yards rushing.
Green rolled for 145 yards the next week, but otherwise, the offense struggled. All that seemed relative, though, since the opponent was the defensive AFC champion Oakland Raiders. Thus, the Browns were more than happy to get a 13-7 victory, upping their modest winning streak to two and evening their record at 3-3.
And in having surrendered a combined total of just 20 points in those triumphs, the defense was showing signs of coming around. That was uplifting as well.
Plus, with the winless (0-5) San Diego Chargers, guided by former Browns head coach Marty Schottenheimer, coming to the town the following Sunday, Davis' team was licking its chops with anticipation that it could really get going and begin making a push for the playoffs.
But nothing went right for the Browns that day. They couldn't play defense, as they allowed LaDainian Tomlinson to rush for 200 yards, and Couch and the offense struggled again. As the team was falling behind 23-6 late in the third quarter, Couch, who had passed for but 102 yards while being intercepted twice, was lifted for Holcomb. The unsettled, revolving-door situation at quarterback was something that, because of injuries and ineffective play, would plague the team for the rest of the season.
As he always seemed to do when he came on in relief, Holcomb played well against the Chargers, throwing a pair of scoring passes three minutes apart at the start of the fourth quarter to close the gap to three points, but it wasn't enough as the Browns fell 26-20.
The Browns never seemed to totally recover from that disappointing loss. They dropped their next two games and seven of eight as their season fell apart.
The lone bright spot came when they routed the Arizona Cardinals 44-6 as Holcomb passed for 392 yards and three TDs. That was the most points the Browns had scored since 1989, and the 38-point spread represented their biggest margin of victory since that season as well.
But there were also three one-sided losses, to the Kansas City Chiefs (41-20), the Seattle Seahawks (34-7) and the Baltimore Ravens (35-0).
En route to all of this happening, wide receiver Kevin Johnson, one of the top pass catchers in team history, was released, and Green missed the last eight games of the season after being suspended for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy. Those were devastating blows to an already iffy offense.
The Browns won their finale, 22-14 at Cincinnati, to spoil the Bengals' playoff chances and finish 5-11 as Lee Suggs rushed for 166 yards and two TDs, including a 78-yarder.
But all that was of little consolation to the Browns. Their short-lived success of the previous year seemed as if it had happened in another lifetime, and they headed into the offseason fully realizing that if they wanted to right themselves, they had to first figure out their muddled quarterback situation.
|9/7||L 6-9||Indianapolis Colts||73,358|
|9/14||L 13-33||at Baltimore Ravens||69,473|
|9/21||W 13-12||at San Fransisco 49ers||67,412|
|9/28||L 14-24||Cincinnati Bengals||73,428|
|10/5||W 33-13||at Pittsburgh Steelers||64,595|
|10/12||W 13-7||Oakland Raiders||73,318|
|10/19||L 20-26||San Diego Chargers||73,238|
|10/26||L 3-9||at New England Patriots||68,436|
|11/9||L 20-41||at Kansas City Chiefs||78,560|
|11/16||W 44-6||Arizona Cardinals||72,908|
|11/23||L 6-13||Pittsburgh Steelers||73,658|
|11/30||L 7-34||at Seattle Seahawks||64,680|
|12/8||L 20-26||St. Louis Rams||73,108|
|12/14||L 20-23 (OT)||at Denver Broncos||75,358|
|12/21||L 0-35||Baltimore Ravens||72,548|
|12/28||W 22-14||at Cincinnati Bengals||65,362|
|Score By Periods|
|Total First Downs||276||283|
|3rd Down: Made/Att||74/202||87/222|
|3rd Down Pct.||36.6||39.2|
|4th Down: Made/Att||6/18||8/13|
|4th Down Pct.||33.3||61.5|
|Total Net Yards||4504||4959|
|Avg. Per Game||281.5||309.9|
|Avg. Per Play||4.7||5.0|
|Net Yards Rushing||1670||2113|
|Avg. Per Game||104.4||132.1|
|Net Yards Passing||2834||2846|
|Avg. Per Game||177.1||177.9|
|Net Punting Avg.||73/34.7||76/35.3|