When the expansion Browns began being formed late in 1998, there was a definite San Francisco 49ers flavor.
Team president Carmen Policy and director of football operations Dwight Clark headline the former 49ers who became part of the new Browns.
Policy and Clark were no longer with the organization at the time, but the most important player brought in during the months leading into the 2004 season had made his mark in San Francisco as well.
That would be Jeff Garcia, who was signed as an unrestricted free agent in March to help solve the Browns' biggest problem then -- their muddled quarterback situation.
Tim Couch, taken as the No. 1 overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft to quarterback the expansion team and become the face of the franchise, had been released following the 2003 season. He had shared the starting job in 2003 with Kelly Holcomb, who remained with the club.
While both Couch and Holcomb had had a number of big moments with the Browns over the years, head coach Butch Davis was looking for someone with a proven track record of consistent excellence in the league. He decided on Garcia, a three-time Pro Bowler during his five seasons with the 49ers and a quarterback who had thrown more than twice as many touchdowns (113) as interceptions (56).
In 2003, Couch and Holcomb had combined to throw 17 TD passes with 18 interceptions for a 75.2 quarterback rating. Garcia had 18 scores and 13 picks with an 80.1 rating that year, and his career rating was 88.3.
Before going to the 49ers, Garcia had been a star for most of his five seasons in the Canadian Football League with the Calgary Stampeders.
So in essence, the Browns were getting a 34-year passer with 10 years of pro experience under his belt. And for most of his time in San Francisco and Calgary, he had been part of winning teams.
All of those things he was bringing to the Browns were important, for the club was coming off a 5-11 finish in 2003 and had had just one winning season in their five years of existence in this new era.
And Garcia was going to have a big -- and talented -- target in the passing game. The Browns traded with the Detroit Lions to move up one spot at the top of the first round -- from seventh to sixth -- to draft tight end Kellen Winslow, who came from Miami (Fla.), where Butch Davis had coached before taking over as head coach of the Browns in 2001.
The hope was that Garcia throwing to Winslow would jump-start an offense that had averaged just 15.9 points per game in 2003. And if you removed two games, when the Browns tallied 44 and 33 points, then that average dropped to only 11.1.
Things worked out just as planned in the season opener, when the Browns defeated the visiting Baltimore Ravens 20-3. The Ravens had thumped the Browns twice in 2003, 33-13 and then 35-0 in the next-to-last game on that same Cleveland Browns Stadium field.
As advertised, Garcia was efficient, completing 15-of-24 passes for 180 yards, a TD and no interceptions, good for a lofty 99.3 rating. After the teams had battled to a 3-3 halftime tie, Garcia took over, passing for one TD and running for another.
Winslow tied with running back William Green for the team lead in receptions in the game with four, and Green, who had sat out the last half of 2003 while being suspended for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy, also rushed for a game-high 65 yards.
And defensively, the Browns played well, limiting the Ravens to 254 yards. Baltimore running back Jamal Lewis, who in 2003 against Cleveland had set NFL records for rushing yards in a game (295) and rushing yards in two games against the same team in one season (500), was held to 57 yards on 20 carries.
Then things began to unravel. The Browns lost two straight games on the road against NFC East foes, 19-12 to the Dallas Cowboys and 27-10 to the New York Giants. In the waning seconds against Dallas, Winslow broke his leg while trying to recover an onside kick and was lost for the season.
The Browns, though, fought back to capture two of their next three games, defeating the Washington Redskins 17-13 and Cincinnati Bengals 34-17 at home, with a 34-23 road loss at Pittsburgh sandwiched in between them.
So at 3-3, the Browns were hanging in there, but they were about to embark upon the most difficult part of their schedule, with home games against the Philadelphia Eagles and Steelers, and a contest at Baltimore. The Eagles had been to the last three NFC Championship Games, the Ravens were the defending AFC Central champions and Pittsburgh was coming off a rare poor season.
What ensued for the Browns, especially in those first two games, was nightmarish.
After the Browns had rallied to tie the Eagles at 31-31 on Garcia's four-yard TD scamper with 30 seconds left, they lost 34-31 in overtime on a 50-yard field goal.
The following week, the Browns led the Ravens 13-12 early in the fourth quarter and then trailed 20-13 as they drove deep into Baltimore territory for the tying TD in the final minute. But Garcia's pass into the end zone was deflected and intercepted by safety Ed Reed, who returned it 105 yards for a score in Baltimore's 27-13 triumph.
The Browns had gone from a tie score to a two-TD defeat in the blink of an eye.
Those two excruciating losses broke the Browns' backs. They had nothing left for the Steelers, who cruised to a 24-3 fourth-quarter lead on their way to a 24-10 victory.
The Browns were now 3-6 and reeling badly.
The following week, they lost not only another game -- 10-7 to the New York Jets after generating just 216 yards of total offense -- but also their quarterback. Garcia suffered a knee injury.
Then came the most bizarre situation of the season -- and one of the most bizarre in Browns history.
Holcomb, who replaced Garcia, was oh, so impressive in getting his first start of the season at Cincinnati, throwing for 413 yards and five TDs, including three to Steve Heiden, who had filled Winslow's spot at tight end. His quarterback rating was an off-the-charts 128.5. And on top of that, he directed the Browns to six touchdowns and two field goals as they rallied from a 27-13 halftime deficit.
But it still wasn't enough.
The Bengals won 58-48, securing the triumph with -- of all things, a defensive play -- as they returned an interception for a touchdown with 1:43 left. That tied for the most points ever scored against the Browns in a regular-season game, and the 106 combined points represents one of the highest-scoring games in NFL history.
Davis, who had built his coaching resume on defense, had seen enough, resigning late Monday night, about 30 hours after the end of the game. Terry Robiskie, in his first year as offensive coordinator after spending the previous three seasons as receivers coach, became the interim head coach.
Robiskie and the Browns had a short turnaround to become accustomed to the coaching change and get ready to host the defending Super Bowl champion New England Patriots. To make matter even worse, they would be without Holcomb, who had suffered s rib injury. Rookie Luke McCown would replace him and become the team's third different starting quarterback in three weeks.
The Patriots returned the opening kickoff for a TD and bolted to a 21-7 second-quarter lead en route to a 42-15 victory.
The next three weeks were no better, as the Browns lost one-sided decisions to the Buffalo Bills (37-7) and San Diego Chargers (21-0) and fell 10-7 to a bad Miami Dolphins team on a 51-yard field goal with seven seconds left. The last loss obscured the fact Lee Suggs had set a team record for rushes in a game with 38 while gaining 143 yards.
Holcomb returned for the finale at Houston and, with the help of five field goals by Phil Dawson and 131 more rushing yards by Suggs, directed the Browns to a 22-14 victory.
Thus, not only did the Browns fail to make a quantum leap from their struggles of 2003, as they had hoped, but they actually did worse, finishing 4-12.
And with a head-coaching search ahead in the offseason, the Browns would once again be starting over, for the third time in seven years.
|9/12||W 20-3||Baltimore Ravens||72,938|
|9/19||L 12-19||at Dallas Cowboys||73,358|
|9/26||L 10-27||at New York Giants||68,804|
|10/3||W 17-13||Washington Redskins||62,864|
|10/10||L 23-34||at Pittsburgh Steelers||73,688|
|10/17||W 34-17||Cincinnati Bengals||65,625|
|10/24||L 31-34||Philadelphia Eagles||73,248|
|11/7||L 13-27||at Baltimore Ravens||78,502|
|11/14||L 10-24||Pittsburgh Steelers||73,718|
|11/21||L 7-10||New York Jets||64,060|
|11/28||L 48-58||at Cincinnati Bengals||68,295|
|12/5||L 15-42||New England Patriots||72,718|
|12/12||L 7-37||at Buffalo Bills||46,267|
|12/19||L 0-21||San Diego Chargers||73,098|
|12/26||L 7-10||at Miami Dolphins||69,348|
|1/2||W 22-14||at Houston Texans||73,528|
|Score By Periods|
|Total First Downs||245||307|
|3rd Down: Made/Att||59/203||78/216|
|3rd Down Pct.||29.1||36.1|
|4th Down: Made/Att||7/16||7/16|
|4th Down Pct.||43.8||43.8|
|Total Net Yards||4481||5215|
|Avg. Per Game||280.1||325.9|
|Avg. Per Play||4.9||5.1|
|Net Yards Rushing||1657||2314|
|Avg. Per Game||103.6||144.6|
|Net Yards Passing||2824||2901|
|Avg. Per Game||176.5||181.3|
|Net Punting Avg.||85/35.4||85/33.9|
|Bryant, Antonio LG||0||4||0||0||0||0||1||0||0||24|
|Bryant, Antonio TM||0||4||0||0||0||0||0||0||0||24|
|Jackson, James TM||12||81||6.8||38||0|
|Bryant, Antonio LG||58||812||14||55t||4|
|Bryant, Antonio TM||42||546||13||55t||4|
|Jackson, James TM||2||39||19.5||23||0|
A slow start was followed by a strong finish
14 former Ohio State players to make trip to Indianapolis
Production unexpectedly high despite injuries, turnover
Injury bug bit this group big time in 2015