BEREA, Ohio - With six games remaining in the regular season, starting with this Sunday's visit by the Tennessee Titans, the Cleveland Browns have already posted one more win than they did during the last two seasons combined.
While six wins might have been beyond some people's expectations, the Browns gave the impression yesterday that Sunday's 18-0 win over Cincinnati was just another day at the office. They project the attitude that six wins is merely a start, with no end yet in sight.
“Our team has grown up enough over the course of the season to be able to approach wins in a workmanlike fashion,” coach Butch Davis said. “Earlier in the year I think we got more excited after wins because there had been so much losing going on.
“Now, the guys are doing a great job staying focused and keeping their eyes on the big picture. We're not where we want to be yet.”
And where might that be?
“Being 6-4 is a good feeling and it's a lot better than we have been,” said quarterback Tim Couch, referring to Cleveland's combined 5-27 record during its first two seasons after returning to the NFL as an expansion team. “We are putting ourselves in position to make a playoff run. We had set that as a team goal, to get into the playoffs, during training camp.
“We've come a long way, but just being better wasn't the goal. We know we have Tennessee coming in next week and we have a big opportunity for a win that would move us closer to where we want to be.”
An aggressive defense is the most obvious reason the Browns are among 14 NFL teams with six or more wins. Only four teams - Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Chicago and St. Louis - have surrendered fewer than the 150 points allowed by Cleveland's defense.
“This is a bunch of guys that people were trying to replace at the beginning of the year,” said cornerback Corey Fuller. “But guys have been making plays all year.”
The difference, said cornerback Daylon McCutcheon, has been the “great scheme” installed by first-year defensive coordinator Foge Fazio.
“There are a lot of great schemes out there that are only as good as the guys playing them,” Fazio said. “ So I give the credit to the players for buying into what we've been teaching since the day Butch got the job. All through the spring and summer they've done a great job of preparing to accomplish the things they are now.”
The Browns, among the NFL's worst teams the past two seasons in turnover margin, are near the top in 2001, thanks to a league-leading 25 interceptions. Five of them came Sunday against the Bengals as Cleveland posted its first shutout since 1994.
“We push each other in the secondary,” McCutcheon said. “It's kind of like a competition between the defense backs. One guy gets one, then the others want to get one to keep up.”
For the record, rookie Anthony Henry, a fourth-round draft pick from South Florida who plays mostly in nickel and dime packages, leads the team with seven interceptions. McCutcheon has four and strong safety Earl Little three.
Cleveland's offense still falters, struggling to establish a ground game, much like the past two years. But Couch says there has been a significant change.
“At times we do sputter offensively for whatever reasons, but the difference is that we're capable of coming up with a big drive when we have to,” he said. “The way our defense is playing, it gives us a lot of confidence on offense that we can go out and be aggressive at times and take chances.”
Couch and receiver Kevin Johnson have emerged as the most formidable of Cleveland's offensive weapons.
Nearly one-third of Couch's 159 completions and exactly half of his 12 touchdown passes have been hauled in by Johnson.
“I've become Couch's security blanket,” Johnson said. “We've been here together for so long that we anticipate each other and things just click.”
The Browns hope to win their third straight when Tennessee visits on Sunday.
“Yeah, 6-4 is good,” Little said. “But 7-4 would be better. And you have to keep winning if you want to be there at the end.”