Browns take Plunkett-like shot at Testaverde turnaround

April 01, 1993|By Steve Love | Steve Love,Knight-Ridder News Service

BEREA, Ohio -- The Heisman Trophy winner's glorious entrance, if not his once-glorious promise, are history now.

The Last Chance Kid, quarterback Vinny Testaverde, comes to the Cleveland Browns not on a white charger but on the eve of April Fool's Day.

In Tampa Bay, they're saying the joke is on the Browns.

Some joke.

Testaverde could make as much as $2.45 million next season if Bernie Kosar ends up in plaster of Paris again and he will make an estimated $1.7 million regardless.

After that, who knows?

There's an option year.

In Tampa Bay, Testaverde had run out of options. The Bucs had seen enough.

Six years ago they had brought Testaverde north from the University of Miami, the No. 1 choice in the NFL draft, a Florida hero for the Florida franchise desperately in need of one.

He not only had his bronze Heisman, but he also looked good enough to be bronzed and sent to the Hall of Fame in Canton.

He had the size (6 feet 5, 215 pounds). He had the arm. He even had the toughness required to survive behind a Bucs offensive line that might make the Browns' look appealing to him.

Testaverde still looks the part, whether in pads or an Armani suit.

The problem is, as he becomes Bernie Kosar's understudy once again, Testaverde brings with him a history of more grievous lapses in judgment than great moments.

He throws more interceptions (112) than touchdown passes (77). Always. One year (1988), the numbers were 35 and 13.

This contradicts his performance at Miami (47 TDs, 24 interceptions), where he erased the records of Buffalo's Jim Kelly and Kosar, Pro Bowlers both.

It has caused, in Testaverde's own words, the team that knows him best to be willing to "settle" for him if it can't sign Pittsburgh's Neil O'Donnell, while a team that knows him less well makes him feel warm and wanted.

When the Browns look at Testaverde, they see Jim Plunkett, not Baker, Huarte, Spurrier, Beban or Sullivan, professionally failed Heisman quarterbacks one and all. So does Joe Theismann.

Theismann should be something of an expert on the subject of Plunkett, to whom he finished second for the 1970 Heisman -- as in Theismann -- balloting.

Like Plunkett, Theismann turned out to be a late bloomer. He ran off to Canada and then sat behind Billy Kilmer and Sonny Jurgensen in Washington before he became a starter and twice took his team to the promised land that Testaverde mentioned more than once.

"In retrospect, although Vinny doesn't like to look back on it," said Theismann, an admitted friend and admirer, "when you're the No. 1 draft pick you're going to a really bad football team that needs more than just you to make [it] good."

It happened to Plunkett in New England. It happened to Testaverde in Tampa Bay.

"Classic example," said Theismann.

No one except Al Davis thought Plunkett could win in the NFL. Yet he won two Super Bowls for the Raiders, beating Theismann in the second of the two.

In Cleveland, which Testaverde describes as "a new beginning" rather than a last chance, the heat will be turned down and he will have a chance to learn from Kosar how to be an NFL quarterback, instead of an athlete who gets by on his wondrous natural abilities.

Theismann and Plunkett came of age when they might have been considered aged. Now, Testaverde, 29, is figuratively where they once were.

"Vinny really is at a critical time," Theismann said. "You can't make excuses for him anymore. But the only thing I'd say to Cleveland is, let the guy throw an interception, make a mistake, before you bury him. Then we'll all grab a shovel."

We can, in fact, beat that Heisman into a nice bronze spade.

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