There might have been few teams that needed a victory in the opening weekend of the regular season more than the Cleveland Browns and, the guess here is, zero head coaches in recent seasons who needed a win nearly as much as Butch Davis.
The plummet to 5-11 in 2003, a year after making the playoffs as a wild-card entry, only heightened the talk that Davis wasn't a Mensa candidate when it came to X's and O's, nor the straightest shooter when it came to dealing with people. Owner Randy Lerner, who inherited the club from his late father and then bought out Policy's stock holdings, stated publicly (and rather ominously, one might suggest, for Davis) that the Browns would never again post a 5-11 record. And if they did, he noted, he might consider a more viable investment.
But, wow, what one opening-game victory can do, huh, toward altering perceptions? And coming against the Baltimore Ravens -- sure, you know, the franchise that used to be the Cleveland Browns, before former owner Art Modell nearly spent the team into bankruptcy and was forced to relocate -- made the 20-3 pasting all the sweeter. Oh, yeah, lest anyone forget, Ravens coach Brian Billick snubbed the Browns when they wanted to hire him in 1999. He went to Baltimore instead; the Browns ended up hiring Chris Palmer, then fired him after two years.
Well, on Sunday, the coach who stiffed Cleveland in '99 fielded an offense that appeared to suffer from early-season rigor mortis. The Cleveland defense, which surrendered 500 rushing yards to Jamal Lewis in two losses last year, limited the Ravens' star tailback to only 57 yards on 20 carries Sunday afternoon. The Browns harassed the Ravens' quarterback-in-training, Kyle Boller, forcing three turnovers. It's just one week, but Boller's newest tutor, former New York Giants head coach Jim Fassel, should now understand the difficult task that's ahead of him.
As for what's ahead for the Browns, well, anything can happen in a diluted division. When we visited the Browns in training camp, we came away thinking they were clearly one of the worst teams we had witnessed all summer. On Sunday, though, they dispatched a detested rival and at least temporarily exorcised the Jamal Lewis demons, notching an important victory for the team, the city and the coach.
For years, particularly in the era of the salary cap, teams have tried to simply "plug in" at the guard position. You know the drill, right, since we've articulated it so many times in the past: You pay the offensive tackles big money and then "go cheap" at guard, trying to develop retreads, late-round draft choices, and any 325-pounder who can walk and chew gum at the same time into decent players. But a trend quietly started sneaking into the league during preseason play and, at least from watching three games from start to finish and the highlights of all the others, seems to have infiltrated the regular season now, too. A 100-watt light bulb seems to have gone on over the heads of some defensive coordinators, who are attacking the guard position more than ever. Defenses are blitzing inside now (Washington coordinator Gregg Williams brought strong safety Matt Bowen on a superbly timed foray late in Sunday's victory), coming right at the guards.
Tackles have honed their pass rushes (witness Ty Warren on the Colts' first possession Thursday night, when he beat Indianapolis right guard Tupe Peko and forced Peyton Manning into a "red zone" interception) and are attempting to split the gaps and get into the backfield. Teams such as the 49ers, with strong linebacker Julian Peterson, are looping pass rushers more to the inside in an attempt to get advantageous matchups against guards.
Said one veteran defensive coordinator: "For almost any team you play, (the guard spot) is the weak link. A lot of us (coordinators) are trying to exploit that now. The offenses still feel they can hide the guards, cover up some deficiencies, and there is something to that and always will be. But we're wising up, too, and cutting away some of the camouflage."
One guard who keeps getting better, though, is Alan Faneca of Pittsburgh. The guy is so good that, when left tackle Marvel Smith was out with a shoulder problem in 2003, Faneca moved outside to the primary pass protection spot. In Sunday's victory over Oakland, the Pittsburgh coaches called plays to Faneca's side at nearly every critical juncture of the game. On six first-down conversions, including three short touchdowns runs by Jerome Bettis, the plays unfailingly went behind Faneca-provided blocks. And while on the subject, how about Bettis, huh? Talk about a stat line: five carries, one measly yard, three touchdowns. The loony litany: Second-and-goal at the Oakland 1, no gain. Third-and-goal at the Oakland 1, a 1-yard touchdown run. Third-and-goal at the Oakland 1-yard line again, a 1-yard score. First-and-goal at the Oakland 1, a touchdown. First-and-10 at the Raiders' 24-yard line, a 2-yard loss.
Right mix in Philly
Three hundred miles across the Pennsylvania Turnpike from where Bettis scored three times, Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Terrell Owens also went for the hat trick, albeit with a tad more overall production. Owens had eight catches for 68 yards and helped to make the sometimes scattershot Donovan McNabb look like a real marksman. McNabb threw for 330 yards and four touchdown passes and had no interceptions. Almost as nifty as his three scoring tosses to Owens, the Eagles star seemed to throw the short ball, which is his longtime shortcoming, with more timing.
So maybe Owens, viewed by some teams as poisonous this spring, really is the antidote the Philadelphia offense needed. "He does make teams more honest," allowed mercurial tailback Brian Westbrook, who had 22 "touches" and totaled 161 yards in his new role as work(quarter-)horse in the backfield. "You look out and (defenses) are kind of preoccupied figuring out where he is. So it makes us all better."
Hardly an auspicious debut for two defensive guru/head coaches, Marvin Lewis of the Bengals and the Texans' Dom Capers, who are finding out the hard way that all the schemin' in the world sometimes can't compensate for a lack of personnel. For all the good things Lewis did in shepherding Cincinnati to an 8-8 record in 2003 and restoring a dose of legitimacy to the franchise, his defense couldn't stop the run. The Bengals ranked No. 25 versus the run last season, and they were shredded by such guys as Lee Suggs of the Browns. So on Sunday, committed to shutting down the run, the Bengals surrendered 219 rushing yards to the New York Jets, with 196 of the real estate courtesy of the seemingly ageless Curtis Martin.
Fact is, Cincinnati simply isn't very stout inside, with tackles who don't make many plays and a first-year starter at middle linebacker (Nate Webster) the Bengals coaches may have overrated. Back in the spring, during minicamps, some of the Cincy vets suggested to us that Webster, allegedly possessing the kind of quickness Lewis wanted at the position, would not hold up. It's early, and one game does not a season make, but those veterans might have been right.
The strong suit for the trademark Capers 3-4 defense, of course, has always been rushing the quarterback. But the Texans, who registered a paltry 19 sacks in 2003, second fewest in the NFL, got just one in their Sunday loss to the San Diego Chargers. No pressure on the quarterback, no turnovers, and Capers needs to generate both. In addition to failing to harass Drew Brees, the Texans surrendered 121 rushing yards to Chargers tailback LaDainian Tomlinson, too.
This is a key year for Capers, who is supposed to be getting a contract extension but is now causing some restlessness among the natives. The organization's strong public stance aside, no one really expects Houston to be a playoff contender, but most feel that, in Year 3, the expansion franchise and Capers need to demonstrate viable progress.
To repeat, we're hardly suggesting Capers and Lewis aren't doing solid jobs. But both men's reputations were built on their respective defensive acumen. They'd better hope that Sunday's performances weren't an indication that their teams' defensive lapses of 2003 are extending into 2004.
While on the subject of the Houston defense, a nod to San Diego offensive line assistant Hudson Houck, one of the NFL's best at his position, for having his unit well prepared on Sunday afternoon. Houck started two rookies, third-round pick Nick Hardwick at center and seventh-rounder Shane Olivea at the right tackle slot, and both played well. Olivea, by the way, was the lowest-drafted rookie to start in the 15 games played so far.
Daunte's on fire
In the ESPN.com predictions posted last week, we prognosticated that Minnesota wide receiver Randy Moss would be the NFL's offensive player of the year. One week into the season, we're wondering whether we're in the right church but perhaps in the wrong pew. The superb performance of Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper -- five touchdown passes in just 23 attempts -- may have signaled that the five-year veteran has elevated his game to a much higher level.
Minnesota players had suggested to us in the offseason that the strong-armed quarterback had matured a great deal. And on Sunday, from what some of the Minnesota players and coaches said, Culpepper was terrific in both the physical and mental side of the game. Teammates noted that Culpepper handled the huddle with calm and aplomb, audibled well, and got the team into formations and plays that worked well.
And speaking of maturity, Moss showed that he doesn't have to catch 8-10 balls to be really effective. His two touchdowns came on just four receptions. In fact, each of the Cowboys' top three wideouts had more catches and yards than Moss -- with Antonio Bryant, Keyshawn Johnson and Terry Glenn combining for 22 catches and 307 yards -- and it mattered little in the outcome.
Defensive end Hugh Douglas, signed by the Eagles after being released by the Jaguars, had a sack in Sunday's victory. He now needs just 2½ sacks in the remaining 15 games to match his total of 2003, for which Jacksonville paid $6.65 million. Philly is paying him only $850,000, although he can increase that through sack incentives. ... The Lions' victory at Chicago snapped a 24-game road losing streak. ... How tough is it for rookie wide receivers trying to break into the league? The seven first-round wideouts from the 2003 draft combined for just 19 catches and 213 yards this weekend, and none of them got into the end zone. Michael Clayton of Tampa Bay had the most catches (seven) and Arizona's Larry Fitzgerald the most yards (70). ... After contending through the offseason that he would not reduce the $7 million base salary due him in '04, Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon did precisely that, dropping his salary to $4.5 million. He can make up the $2.5 million difference in incentives that should be reachable if Gannon stays healthy and keeps the starting job. On the latter issue, Gannon was assured by the Oakland brass (read: Al Davis) that he needn't worry about being replaced by Kerry Collins anytime soon. Essentially, he was told he won't have to play with his head on a swivel, concerned that Collins is going to supplant him if he has a bad game. ... Bills safety Izell Reese had an interception Sunday. That normally would not be big news, except that it was the first interception by a Buffalo safety in 43 games, dating back to Oct. 18, 2001. ... All those Atlanta fans who were concerned that Michael Vick would do nothing but scramble around on Sunday: He ran just six times for 10 yards.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.