"We've got to play very, very solid football against them, because they are well-balanced and they play very hard," Eagles coach Rich Kotite said. ''You can't give Bernie Kosar anything cheap, because he sees a lot of things. They've got some receivers who can make big plays. They've got an excellent running back (fullback Kevin Mack)."
Kotite is especially wary of one of the Browns' statistics: Cleveland has taken the ball away from opponents 17 times and scored on 10 of those turnovers.
"That's impressive," Kotite said. "They're playing real hard. They don't make mistakes, they're opportunistic, and they have a fine defense."
The Browns fired Carson in midseason last year and finished with a dismal 3-13 record. In the off-season, owner Art Modell hired Bill Belichick, the defensive coordinator of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants, to take over, and the 39-year-old rookie head coach already has improved on the Browns' 1990 record.
Cleveland started slowly this year, losing four of its first six games before defeating San Diego and Pittsburgh on two giddy weekends that stirred talk of playoffs in a traditionally football-crazy city. Then the Browns dropped a close one last weekend to archrival Cincinnati, a team they had defeated in September, and Browns fans, like Eagles fans, once again are thinking one game at a time.
Kosar, in his seventh year, is the Browns' biggest star. Ranked second only to Buffalo's Jim Kelly among AFC quarterbacks, the curly haired local favorite, who grew up just 60 miles from Cleveland, will set an NFL record today if neither of his first two passes is intercepted. His 293 throws without an interception puts him one shy of the record set by Green Bay great Bart Starr over parts of the 1964 and '65 seasons. He has not thrown an interception this season.
"It says he's very bright, he has good judgment and he's getting some protection," Kotite said.
Kosar's favorite target is Webster Slaughter, a six-year veteran from San Diego State. Slaughter chalked up his third straight 100-yard game last week against the Bengals and, with 37 catches, ranks 12th among AFC receivers. He is averaging 14.8 yards per catch.
The Browns also feature Mack, a powerful runner who scored all three of their touchdowns in the losing effort against the Bengals last Sunday. Mack is a steady, straight-ahead runner who is banging out an average of 3.4 yards per carry.
On defense, the Browns' standout is Michael Dean Perry, the more talented younger brother of Chicago's more famous William "The Refrigerator" Perry. Cleveland's Perry is about 60 pounds lighter and, compared with his brother, moves at light speed. He twice has been voted a starter in the Pro Bowl.
"Up front, they pose more problems than the Giants," Eagles guard Ron Solt said. "They have a four-man front, first of all, and that's tougher than the three-man, but they change each week. They scout each new opponent and make adjustments every week. What we'll see is a lot of variations in the front, with Perry doing a lot of stunting up the middle. Perry, obviously, is a very good player."
Youth is the only other notable characteristic of the Browns' rebuilding defense, and likely to see action today is Eric Turner, the No. 2 pick in this year's NFL draft, a quick and powerful free safety from UCLA. Turner returned to the lineup explosively last week, making tackles on his first two plays, after having been sidelined by a leg injury. He is listed as a backup to nine- year veteran Vince Newsome but is clearly a player the Browns plan to use more and more this season.
Kotite was planning few changes from the lineup that so soundly defeated the Giants on Monday night. Look for rookie James Joseph, who scored two touchdowns and gained 68 yards late in that game, to see a lot of playing time at running back, along with Keith Byars. Cleveland is ranked only 24th in the NFL at stopping the run.
Jim McMahon will go into the game still slightly hobbled by a knee injury but still among the leading NFC quarterbacks with a 64 percent completion rate. Rookie Rob Selby and first-year man John Hudson are expected to rotate frequently at guard with veterans Solt and Dennis McKnight - a tactic that has resulted in better pass protection for McMahon in the last two games.
Carson is not the only former Browns coach returning to Cleveland with the Eagles. Linebackers coach Jim Vechiarella coached there last season, as did quarterbacks coach Zeke Bratkowski. Running-backs coach Richard Wood coached there in 1974, and receivers coach Lew Carpenter played for the Browns in 1957 and 1958.
But Kotite has the strongest Cleveland connection. He worked as a receivers coach for the Browns from 1978 to 1982. He underwent surgery in the city 10 years ago for a benign brain tumor and returns every year for an examination.
"It seems like a million years ago for me," Kotite said. "I was there longer than any of the other guys. The one end of the stadium by the lake, where they have the 'Dog Pound' now - back in my day, they just called them the end-zone seats - is very, very loud. Cleveland Stadium is a replica of Yankee Stadium, and the stands are very far away from the field."
Earlier this week, there was snow in the forecast.
"That's good," Kotite said. "It's Eagle weather. Bring your long underwear."