Trade talk at rest, Johnson at his best

Browns reportedly tried to deal top wide receiver

Pro Football

October 20, 2001|By Brian Windhorst | Brian Windhorst,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BEREA, Ohio - Kevin Johnson had to feel as abandoned as a dot-com stock.

The Browns' top receiver, who - along with quarterback Tim Couch - was tabbed the "franchise" just two years ago, was being disrespected by coaches and national publications just a few weeks ago.

When Butch Davis took over as Browns head coach before the start of this season, one of his first orders of business was revamping the team's offensive depth chart. The targets were the offensive line, which has been gutted since the start of training camp, and the receivers.

Even though the Browns, who play host to the Ravens tomorrow, had a full complement of able young receivers, Davis drafted two more, including Quincy Morgan from Kansas State in the second round. And then he brought in another crop of receivers for training camp.

The ones Davis liked - like current starter Morgan and second-year players Dennis Northcutt and JaJuan Dawson - he kept. The ones he didn't, he cut. The ones he apparently thought weren't a good fit for the Browns but had some value - like third-year man Darrin Chiaverini - he traded.

Less than a month ago, Johnson looked to be in the latter category. Everyone from local newspapers to Sports Illustrated reported Johnson was on the trading block. This wasn't good news for Browns fans, who found little to cheer for besides Johnson and Couch, as the team went 5-27 in its first two seasons.

The Chiefs, Saints and Eagles were among those who expressed interest, but not too much. Kansas City coach Dick Vermeil was quoted as saying Johnson wasn't worth a third-round pick, which is what the Browns reportedly wanted.

"Those things all hurt him. I know they did, even if he didn't say it," Couch said. "Kevin and I were two of the first players in this franchise. We felt like it was our team, in a way."

All of it, now, is simply rhetoric. Johnson, perhaps responding to the reports, has re-emerged as the team's top target. After five games, he leads the team with 25 catches and 348 yards.

He's already got three touchdowns, including a leaping catch in the closing minutes against San Diego that was the game-winner in the 20-16 win two weeks ago. That got the team off to a 3-1 start, already matching last year's win total.

Last week, in a loss at Cincinnati, he had a career day, catching eight passes for 153 yards and another touchdown. Needless to say, he's no longer being shopped for any draft pick.

"I'm just going to go out and continue to play my game," Johnson said. "I'll just go out and try to make the plays. It's good to feel like the No. 1 receiver again."

In his rookie season in 1999, Johnson caught 66 passes for 986 yards and eight touchdowns as he and Couch developed a good rapport on and off the field. His catch of Couch's Hail Mary pass against New Orleans gave the Browns their first victory.

Last year, Couch broke a thumb six weeks into the season and missed the rest of the year. Back-up Ty Detmer was already out with a torn Achilles tendon. That left perennial backup Doug Pederson and rookie Spergon Wynn as the quarterbacks.

Expectedly, Johnson's numbers suffered. He did catch 57 passes, but his yardage plunged to 669 and he had no touchdowns. Then this summer, even with Couch back, Davis looked ready to give up on him.

Davis certainly seems to have reversed his course. After a closed-door talk with Johnson to discuss the trade rumors several weeks ago, Davis seems to have become a Johnson fan.

"He may have the best hands of anyone I've been around," Davis said. "Tim and Kevin have a unique ability to connect."

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