Pocket full of confidence Rookie in charge: Eric Zeier, the Browns' quarterback, is taking his lumps, but his faith in himself is unshaken.

November 19, 1995|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Eric Zeier had just been smashed twice by Pittsburgh linebacker Greg Lloyd. Another Steelers linebacker, Kevin Greene, had jarred Zeier's shoulder. His back was sore and his ego bruised.

Yet Zeier wasn't nervous or frazzled, but poised and calm during the post-game news conference after Monday night's 20-3 shelling of the Browns by the Steelers.

He may be 1-2 as a starter, and struggling, but Zeier's confidence has not been broken.

"So what? Turnovers are a part of the game, and they're going to happen. I'll get better because I think I'm a student of the game," Zeier said.

For those who are doubting him, Zeier says: "We're struggling. It should be frustrating and upsetting to everyone. But I love being the No. 1 quarterback, the one taking the snaps. I'm confident we're good enough to turn things around. It will get done."

It will be interesting to see how the Cleveland fans greet Zeier today when the Browns (4-6) meet Green Bay (6-4) at Cleveland Stadium. Before the Browns announced their move to Baltimore on Nov. 6, Zeier was the most popular quarterback in Cleveland since Bernie Kosar.

Fans identified with him. He was feisty and short, with a strong work ethic.

After an impressive preseason and stellar regular-season debut three games ago, he earned the title of "The Franchise."

Since then, the third-round pick from the University of Georgia has completed only 35 of 73 passes for 340 yards. Talk about slump. Monday night in the loss to the Steelers, Zeier completed seven passes for 67 yards. The Browns didn't have a first down in the second half. Zeier was sacked four times.

"I'll tell you one thing about that kid," Rick Zeier said about his son. "He'll always get up. I'll guarantee you that."

Eric Zeier, 23, has been battling since the day he was born. He was six weeks premature, and weighed only 5 pounds. The doctors said there was a 50 percent chance he wouldn't survive the first 24 hours.

Zeier did. And, boy, was he ornery. "He was always a little mean," said his mother, Sharon. "He wouldn't share. I think it was the isolation."

Rick Zeier is a retired Army major, and Eric grew up in 10 cities in different parts of the world. He was always athletic, participating in track, soccer, basketball, swimming and football.

Eric Zeier had few friends as a boy, and those relationships often ended once Zeier relocated. Maybe that's why he has few friends now. But he learned the work ethic from his father.

"When you see someone get up at 5 every morning, you figure there's only one way to accomplish something," Zeier said. "Then, whenever you go somewhere new, you have to prove yourself.

"That's the way it was for me in sports. I had to prove myself in football, prove myself in soccer. I've always remembered that it's a team game, though. You can be a leader, but you can never separate yourself from the team."

Teammates and coaches have always noticed Zeier's drive.

bTC He entered the University of Georgia in January 1991 in the middle of his senior year in high school as part of a joint enrollment program for outstanding students, and to get a jump on the other freshman quarterbacks by participating in spring practice.

He was starting by the sixth game that year. He once turned down an invitation to meet with former President Bush because he didn't want to miss practice.

Zeier finished with 11,153 yards passing at Georgia, third best in NCAA history. He was intercepted only 37 times in 1,402 attempts.

Not bad for a quarterback who, at 6 feet, was called "too short."

"I'm an Eric Zeier fan," said Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren. "If we had the opportunity, we would have drafted him. It's hard in this league for a rookie to be consistent every week. The NFL makes height too much of a factor. Look at some of the most successful QBs this season and last year. Look at Steve Young, Erik Kramer or Jeff Blake. The thing is vision, if you can see the field and the lanes."

Zeier threw for 310 yards and helped stage a comeback in the final three minutes in a 29-26 overtime victory against the Cincinnati Bengals four weeks ago. But remember, those were the Bengals, who have the league's worst pass defense.

His recent performances have not been as impressive. Zeier often short-arms passes and has trouble finding his No. 2 receiver. He has what is called "nervous or happy feet," where he doesn't plant and throw, or is too quick to leave the pocket.

The Browns' coaching staff has to take some blame: You can't have a 6-foot quarterback constantly using a three-step dropback.

Despite the problems, Cleveland coach Bill Belichick says he will stick with Zeier over veteran Vinny Testaverde.

"He has made some mistakes, like we all have," Belichick said. "But he has also made some tough decisions and some tough plays under extreme circumstances the past two weeks. He gave us more offensive production in one game at that position than we've seen here in 10 years.

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