Browns Fans Still Asking ‘What If’ Over 2003 Draft

By Ryan Isley (Originally posted on 12/4/2009)

Browns fans continually ask themselves two words: ‘What if?’

What if Marty Schottenheimer never went into the prevent defense to allow John Elway to orchestrate ‘The Drive’?

What if Earnest Byner would not have fumbled?

What if the city would have built Art Modell a new stadium?

One such ‘what if’ will be on display this Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium when the Browns host the San Diego Chargers.

That instance is ‘what if’ the Browns had selected running back LaDainian Tomlinson of Texas Christian University with the third pick in the 2001 NFL draft?

Instead of picking Tomlinson, Butch Davis and company took defensive tackle Gerard Warren from Florida and took their running back, James Jackson of Miami (whom Davis coached in college), in the third round.

The Browns were the worst offensive team in the league in 2000, averaging only 10.1 points per game.

The running game was non-existent as the leading rusher, Travis Prentiss, rushed for just 512 yards for the season.  Combined, the Browns running backs ran for 915 yards on the season, which was less than 23 individual players in the league.

With all signs pointing towards taking the game-changing running back that the franchise desperately needed, the Browns did what they always do and flipped the script by taking Warren.

Warren lasted four seasons in Cleveland, accumulating 116 tackles and 16.5 sacks in 60 games.  Before the 2005 draft, the Browns traded Warren to Oakland for a fourth round draft pick.

Jackson would run for just 1,082 yards in four seasons for the Browns.

Enter Tomlinson.

He had just come off a senior season in which he led the NCAA in rushing with 2,158 yards while scoring 22 touchdowns.  He won the Doak Walker Award which is awarded to the nation’s best running back and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting behind Chris Weinke of Florida State, Josh Heupel of Oklahoma and Drew Brees of Purdue.

While some experts expected the Browns to take a player on the offensive side of the ball, Tomlinson was not sure if that was when his name would be called.

“I didn’t know. I had no idea.” said Tomlinson, thinking back to that April day.

The San Diego Chargers took Tomlinson with the fifth pick (following the Browns, the Cincinnati Bengals also passed on Tomlinson, taking Missouri defensive end Justin Smith with the fourth pick) and he immediately made an impact.

Tomlinson rushed for 1,236 yards on 339 carries in 2001 as a rookie, including a 102-yard, one-touchdown performance against the Browns.

The Browns running backs in 2001, meanwhile, rushed for 1,169 yards on 372 carries, led by Jackson who gained 554 yards on 195 carries.

That trend continued in 2002 and 2003 as Tomlinson compiled back-to-back 1,600+ yard seasons while the Browns running backs ran for 1,411 and 1,496 yards respectively.

In 2003, 200 of Tomlinson’s yards came in a game at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

In 2006, Tomlinson outrushed the Browns running backs by 792 yards as he ran for 1,815.  His 28 rushing touchdowns (three against the Browns) were four times as many as the seven combined rushing touchdowns for the Browns offense that season.  The only players to score on the ground for the Browns were running back Rueben Droughns with four touchdowns and quarterback Charlie Frye, who added three rushing scores.

Against the Browns, Tomlinson has rushed for 585 yards and seven touchdowns in four career games.

The games against Cleveland were more of a credit to his team than they were a statement of revenge.

“They were just really good games,” Tomlinson said.  “We were doing a great job of moving people off the ball, creating a lot of lanes for me. I was able to get an open field and make people miss.”

All total in his career, Tomlinson has rushed for 12,257 yards on 2,805 carries.  In that same time, Browns running backs combined have run for 11,871 yards on 3,143 carries.

But just for a minute ask ‘What if’.

What if the Browns had taken Tomlinson? How would his career, and the Browns fortunes, have changed?

Tomlinson is not really sure.

“I don’t know,” Tomlinson said. “I wouldn’t of had as many playoff appearances as I have now, looking at the last 9 years. I don’t know if I would’ve had the same type of success.”

The thing we will never know is how the Browns history would have been changed that day had Butch Davis selected Tomlinson.

The one thing we are all sure of is that Browns fans on Sunday will be looking at No. 21 on the other team and asking themselves those two famous words: ‘What if’.

Follow me on Twitter: @isley23

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