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Caution: Free agency has been a dangerous (and expensive) road for the Browns to travel

Mar 11, 2013 -- 6:00am

By Tony Grossi

 

The Morning Kickoff …

Let’s get ready to be let down: Free agency is always a time for hope for Browns fans. Inevitably it always leads to a cruel letdown.

If you look at the numbers, there is a one in a hundred chance that the Browns will sign a player this season that will earn a Pro Bowl berth wearing their uniform.

OK, that’s a slight exaggeration. By two percentage points.

Since free agency came into the NFL in 1993, the Browns have signed 98 free agents. Exactly one has made it to the Pro Bowl with the Browns. That was linebacker Jamir Miller. The under-radar signing in the Browns’ inaugural expansion season of 1999 earned a Pro Bowl spot under coach Butch Davis in 2001.

Otherwise, free agency has been a big yawn for the Browns. For every Miller, there have been dozens of non-descript role players such as Shantee Orr and Shaun Smith, washed-up “names” such as Rickey Dudley and Ted Washington, and a plethora of offensive linemen – 22 in all, the most populous position by far of Browns free-agent shopping.

So when listening to the hyperventilating about Browns salary cap room and rumors linking them to this free agent or that, don’t get hooked. There’s usually a worn-out rubber tire at the end of their free agent fishing line.

The three worst Browns free agent signings

1. Andre Rison, WR, 1995

Unquestionably the worst free agent signing in NFL history, this one came on the Bill Belichick-Mike Lombardi watch. It was driven by owner Art Modell, who was talking and acting irrationally as personal bankruptcy closed in on the desperate man. Still ranting about two dropped passes by Derrick Alexander at the onset of the playoff loss in Pittsburgh in January, Modell ordered his football men to acquire a top-flight receiver. They talked him out of trading a No. 1 pick for Dallas’ Alvin Harper, but they couldn’t stop him from falling for Rison. At league meetings in March, Modell held court with national reporters and proclaimed Rison the best Browns receiver since Paul Warfield. Trouble was, Modell didn’t have him under contract yet. Literally overnight, Rison’s signing bonus demand rose from $1 million to $5 million. Modell had no choice but to pay it or risk national ridicule, which he abhorred. To pay the cash bonus, Modell had to take out a loan under his wife’s name because his team and personal credit limit was tapped out. Rison became the metaphor for the historically ugly 1995 season – the last of the old Browns in Cleveland. He finished with 47 catches for 701 yards and three TDs. He berated reporters with profanity, flipped the booing home crowd the bird and defied coaches by honing his touchdown dance routinely at practices. Rison may be the worst person to ever wear a Browns uniform.

2. Donte Stallworth, 2008

Seen as the complement to Braylon Edwards and able to move aging Joe Jurevicius to slot receiver, he signed a $35 million deal for seven years. At his first Browns training camp, he gashed Edwards’ barefoot heel with his football cleat while the two frolicked between drills. In warmups prior to his first regular-season game, he complained of a hamstring injury and took himself out of the lineup. Despite having only 17 receptions his first year, the Browns agreed to pay a $4.5 million roster bonus in March, 2009. The very next day, Stallworth killed a pedestrian while driving drunk on a Miami Beach causeway. Stallworth averted a possible 15-year jail sentence and spent 24 days in jail. He reached a financial settlement with the victim’s family. He never played again for the Browns, but did play for the Ravens, Redskins and Patriots.

3. Jeff Garcia, QB, 2004

At the age of 34, Garcia left San Francisco and found gold in Cleveland in the form of a $25 million, four-year contract. After the Browns’ salary cap-specialist questioned the wisdom of the deal, then-coach Butch Davis had him fired. Garcia won three of 10 starts, but otherwise had three claims to fame: 1. In his first game, he spearheaded a win over Baltimore in the season opener, which, to this day is the Browns’ only win in a season opener since 1999; 2. In his second game, he produced a 0.0 passer rating in Dallas; 3. In his sixth game, he completed a 99-yard pass to Andre Davis, which forever will be the longest pass play in Browns history.

The three best Browns free agent signings

1. Eric Steinbach, 2007

His seven-year contract for $49.5 million, including $17 million in guarantees, made him the highest-paid guard in NFL history. Paired next to rookie left tackle Joe Thomas, Steinbach immediately paid dividends, helping to produce the most prolific Browns offense (coordinated by now-coach Rob Chudzinski) in 30 years. Steinbach answered the bell for 62 of 64 games over four years – narrowly missing Pro Bowl selections on two occasions – before a back injury wiped out his 2011 season, eventually causing his release and retirement after a tryout with the Dolphins. The Browns haven’t executed a screen pass correctly since he left.

2. Orpheus Roye, 2000

The original Browns double-dip, he left the Pittsburgh Steelers for a six-year contract in Cleveland. Not only did Roye play through that contract, he earned another three-year deal in 2006 – making him the rare free agent in Browns history to receive two multi-year deals from the club. Roye started 106 games in eight years for the Browns, playing five seasons as a 4-3 tackle and three as 3-4 end. After his contract was terminated in 2008, Roye re-signed with the Steelers, for whom he earned a Super Bowl ring, proving that nice guys don’t always finish last.

3. Ryan Tucker, 2002

Like Roye, Tucker earned another multi-year deal after an original four-year contract. He was a mainstay at right tackle for five seasons and started eight games at right guard on that prolific 2007 offensive team. His career ended when personal issues and injuries submarined him, and contributed to two league suspensions for using banned substances. He still lives in the area.

(tie) Jamir Miller, 1999

Tainted by a two strikes in the NFL substance abuse program, he signed a low one-year deal with the Browns. Midway through his first season, he was awarded a four-year extension for $18 million. When Butch Davis took over as coach in 2001, Miller was unleashed as a sack specialist and he turned in 13 sacks – fourth-most in Browns history. He was voted to the Pro Bowl. The following summer, he suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the first exhibition game. He never played again, befitting the Browns’ overall luck in free agency.

Tony Grossi covers the Browns for ESPN 850 WKNR, ESPN 1540 KNR2 and www.espncleveland.com.

He has covered the Browns with distinction since 1984 and is one of 46 voters for the National Football League Hall of Fame. Email your “Hey Tony” questions to tgrossi@espncleveland.com

Follow Tony on Twitter @tonygrossi

 

 

 

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