Proud of past, eye on future

Browns: Head coach Chris Palmer is in the unique situation of helping to build a team from scratch that also has a storied history.

August 09, 1999|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

BEREA, Ohio -- Staring out into open space where the wall of his still-unfinished office soon would be, Chris Palmer sat and answered telephone calls last winter. From well-wishers and job-seekers. From reporters and inquiring minds. From anyone who dialed the right number.

"If [the call] got in, they got to talk to me," said Palmer. "A couple said, `Is that you, Chris?' "

Yes, it was. The new head coach of the reborn Cleveland Browns was answering his own phone amid the clutter of putting a team together from scratch. This was Expansion 101, a do-it-yourself course that definitely was not for novices.

"We had no secretary, we had no players, we had no coaches," Palmer said, recalling the days immediately after his Jan. 21 hiring. "We had no notebooks. It wasn't like an existing team, where you can say, `These notebooks are good.'

"We had people who were working together for the first time in every phase of our organization. That was different. That was really a true expansion deal. But we had a history, which made it unique from any other expansion team in the history of sports."

That was seven months and four minicamps ago. The only NFL expansion team with a history will make the quantum leap into the present tonight when it plays the Dallas Cowboys in the Hall of Fame Game at Canton, Ohio. But what kind of team has Palmer pieced together in his whirlwind ride?

Young, salary-cap-friendly and committed to the future.

The new Browns look nothing like the old Browns who left for Baltimore after the 1995 season to become the Ravens and send Cleveland into a three-year football hibernation.

There are almost no glamour guys beyond Tim Couch, the hot-shot quarterback taken with the first pick in the draft, unless you count former Minnesota Vikings cornerback Corey Fuller, former Arizona Cardinals outside linebacker Jamir Miller or middle linebacker Chris Spielman, a Canton-born, Ohio-bred, hometown favorite.

There are no bloated contracts to eat, thanks to team president Carmen Policy, a master at massaging the salary cap during his days with the San Francisco 49ers. Of the 14 unrestricted free agents signed by the Browns since February, three have contracts longer than three years. Five of the 14 have one-year contracts.

There is no resentment of the coach, either. Bill Belichick's term as Browns coach ended badly, so flawed were his communication skills. Palmer, a religious man who doesn't curse -- even in practice -- is riding the euphoric wave that sweeps the Browns toward their Sept. 12 home opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Palmer was well-received by the Browns family from the beginning. When he was introduced as the coach last January, a group of 14 former players lined up in the front row.

"Fourteen guys who had played on championship teams coming out to meet some guy they don't even know," Palmer said, marveling at the thought.

As director of football operations, former 49ers executive Dwight Clark is on an administrative level equal to Palmer. Together, they mapped out a blueprint that targeted certain priorities.

They went after offensive and defensive linemen in free agency (seven of the 14). They went after defensive backs in the expansion draft (10 of 29). And they went after their quarterback of the future in the college draft with Couch.

"I don't care what level you're on, I think quarterback is the most important position on the team, whether it's high school, college or pro," Palmer said. "If your quarterbacks play well, you have a chance to win.

"The next area we tried to build on was the offensive and defensive line. In our division [AFC Central], we have people who can run the ball down your throat, so our defensive line, with [Jerry] Ball and [John] Jurkovic, will discourage them from running. Our offensive line is strong enough we'll be able to control the ball from a running standpoint."

The offensive line is already set at four positions. Center Dave Wohlabaugh and tackles Orlando Brown (a former Raven) and Lomas Brown were free-agent acquisitions. Left guard Jim Pyne was the first pick in the expansion draft.

While Couch smoothes out his rough edges, the quarterback job will belong to Ty Detmer, acquired in trade and one of nine former 49ers on the Cleveland roster. Detmer agreed to waive his no-trade clause in part because Policy and Clark were known commodities.

"That's one of my reasons for coming here," Detmer said. "I felt they'd do everything they could to put the best quality team on the field, and I still feel that's going to happen. You can't do it all in one year, obviously, but I know in two, three years, they're going to do everything they can to have a championship here."

The Browns have some glaring holes. Palmer hopes former New England Patriot Sedrick Shaw can be his first- and second-down running back, which would free Terry Kirby for a third-down role.

Wide receiver is an even bigger problem. Leslie Shepherd, signed from the Washington Redskins, is the only proven receiver. The next best wide-out has been second-round draft pick Kevin Johnson, who was given a starting job early in training camp.

Palmer, the offensive coordinator in Jacksonville the past two years, said he wonders "whether we'll have enough firepower to go down the field like we did in Jacksonville with [wide receiver] Jimmy Smith."

Not surprisingly, the Browns' offense has fallen behind the defense early in camp. Many of the offensive lapses are symptomatic of an expansion team.

"Certain situations come up that we haven't covered, and all of a sudden we get a little brain freeze or miscommunication," said Detmer. "From that aspect, yes, we're an expansion team. But other things happen and we look like a team that's been together three or four years."

Pub Date: 8/09/99

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