Will Browns fans cheer for Newsome again today?

Back from Baltimore, he returns for Hall

August 07, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

CANTON, Ohio -- In the crowning moment of a career as tight end extraordinaire, Ozzie Newsome will test the collective memory of Cleveland Browns fans today.

Will it be guilt by association? Or hail the former hero?

Those are the choices when Newsome takes his place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame here, just a deep post-pattern down I-77 from the city where he was embraced as a prolific pass catcher for 13 seasons.

Newsome's popularity in Cleveland took a major hit when he chose to join Browns owner Art Modell in Baltimore with the transplanted Ravens in 1996.

"I've been called a traitor, and I've gotten hate mail," said Newsome, who became vice president of player personnel with the relocation of the team. "But I knew what I had to do. It was the right decision for me."

Loyal to his Cleveland roots, Newsome, 43, will attempt to bridge that chasm when he is enshrined along with linebacker Lawrence Taylor, running back Eric Dickerson and guards Tom Mack and Billy Shaw.

How the Ohio crowd greets the return of its prodigal son figures to provide the day's only suspense. But at least one former teammate of Newsome's believes the Browns fans will take the high road.

"If there are boos, I truly will be surprised," said Hanford Dixon, a cornerback with the Browns in the 1980s and a close friend of Newsome's. "I'd be hurt, but I'd be truly surprised. I honestly believe he'll be received really well.

"People understand. If you get 10 people in a room and put them in that situation, all 10 would do what he did. He was offered a very prestigious job in the move."

Instead of the executive who left town, Cleveland fans may choose to remember the receiver who helped rewrite the job description on his position. Newsome's 662 career catches rank first among NFL tight ends. Under then-coach Sam Rutigliano, the 23rd pick in the 1978 draft quickly became the focal point of Cleveland's high-powered offense.

"He redefined the role of tight end," Rutigliano said. "Kellen Winslow went in [the Hall of Fame] first, but he was really an H-back. Ozzie was a true tight end. Our game plan always evolved around him."

Newsome became a knight in Rutigliano's chess match with defense. To combat the two-deep zone defense employed first by Baltimore Colts coach Don Shula, the Browns sent Newsome on routes up the middle of the field. That opened up outside routes for wide receivers Reggie Rucker and Dave Logan, and the dump-offs to running backs Greg and Mike Pruitt.

With quarterback Brian Sipe spraying the ball around the field, the Browns were on the cutting edge of offense in the '80s.

"What we did was what they now call the West Coast offense," said Rutigliano, who coached the Browns from 1978 to 1984. "But I didn't stay long enough for it to be called the East Coast offense. It really was the forerunner."

At 6 feet 2 and 232 pounds, Newsome used his size and speed to create mismatches in the secondary. A former split end in Alabama's wishbone offense in college, he helped turn tight end into a skill position in the NFL.

"I used to say he could catch a BB in the dark," Dixon said. "He had great, great hands. But what made them so great was the fact his eyes always followed the ball into his hands."

In time, Dixon grew to appreciate Newsome's cerebral approach to the game.

"You don't make the Hall of Fame without skills," he said. "But you have to give a lot of credit to his dedication, the way he prepared for the game.

"When I came into the league, I thought my raw talent would make me as good as anyone. But he told me: `If you want to take it to the next level, you have to be prepared. Preparation is the key, to know everything about your opponent.' "

Toward that end, Newsome would participate in quarterback meetings each week to review blitz schemes and defensive trends.

Newsome went to three Pro Bowls, caught at least one pass in 150 consecutive games, and set club records for catches (14) and yards (191) in one 1984 game against the New York Jets. But what he is proudest of is never missing a game -- outside of two replacement games during the 1987 strike. He played in 198 altogether.

"To me, it was that I was there every Sunday," he said.

His durability was heralded in a blue-collar city. Looking back, he says Cleveland was the place to be with its passionate fans and its rich past.

"My history says I played at the University of Alabama and for the Cleveland Browns," said Newsome, a native of Muscle Shoals, Ala. "That's synonymous with football. It doesn't get any better than that."

That he returns today as an old friend -- and later this season as a new foe -- leaves Newsome with mixed feelings and raw emotions. After a three-year hiatus, the Browns return to the NFL as an expansion team this season, in the AFC Central with the Ravens.

"It is emotional because anytime the fans cheered for the brown and orange, they cheered for me," Newsome said. "When they cheered me, they cheered the brown and orange. [But] now I'm part of an organization that's going to go back to turn the cheers to jeers."

How soon is the question.

Pub Date: 8/07/99

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.