BY GEOFF HOBSON
The past and present of the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns are woven together like the laces of an NFL football. But Sunday's regular-season opener for the stadium named after the man who founded both teams is turning more into a love fest instead of a grudge match.
Bengals quarterback Akili Smith and rookie receiver Peter Warrick, the 21st century cornerstones of the franchise Paul Brown began in the late 1960s, have a common bond with their gridiron ancestor. All three went to the Bengals after the Browns rejected them.
But Smith, Warrick and Mike Brown, the Bengals president and Paul Brown's son, aren't looking to extend their stories into a bulletin board brouhaha. Smith said today when the media asks him this week about the Couch rivalry, he'll respond, "Next question. I just want to go out there and play football."
It happened to Smith and Warrick in the last two NFL drafts, when the Browns flirted with taking them with the first pick before selecting quarterback Tim Couch over Smith in 1999 and defensive lineman Courtney Brown over Warrick this year. The decision enraged Smith because he felt Cleveland used him as leverage to get a better contract with Couch, and punctuated last season's last-second victory in Cleveland with the now famous chest thump at the Browns' sideline.
It happend to Paul Brown nearly 40 years ago. Mike Brown can still feel his father's pain as if it happened a few years ago, too. Despite winning 76 percent of his games in Cleveland's first 17 seasons, and even though the team was named after him, Paul Brown was fired by the Browns during that sad Christmas week of 1962.
"He never entirely got over it," Mike Brown said. "It seared him. It was something that everyone in our family experienced. There was a lot that was unfair and wrongly represented and the story was a difficult one."
And Mike Brown has no beef in Cleveland anymore. Art Modell, the man who fired his father, turned the original Browns into Ravens and now lives in Baltimore.
"It's different," Mike Brown said of the expansion Browns.
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"These guys revived the franchise and I think that's good what they did. I admire them for doing it. I don't have any issue with the ownership of the Browns. I think they're good managers and I think Al Lerner is a very fine owner. He's what you want as an NFL owner."
No exactly the Spice Bowl, is it?
The spiciest it's been lately is this past Draft Day, when the Browns bypassed Warrick because of the character issue and the fact he was a pass catcher and not a pass rusher.
Told what Smith did last season against the Browns after his two-yard touchdown pass to Carl Pickens on the last play from scrimmage beat Cleveland, 18-17, Warrick said, "When we play Cleveland, I'm going to give them something. I'm going to give them something. Believe that."
But today, Warrick, fresh off finishing his 30-day community service for the petty theft charge that cost him the Heisman Trophy and maybe the No. 1 pick, wanted no part of challenging the Browns.
"I just want to play football and keep all the talk straight," Warrick said. "Keep it straight talk. Talk about what Cincinnati can do. We're watching film on Cleveland every day. We're just trying to get better. The more you know your opponent, the better off you'll be."
Smith knows one foe pretty well, and it's not Couch. It's Browns safety Marquis Smith, Akili's cousin. Last year, Marquis Smith said he was going to rip off his cousin's head. On Monday, he told the Cleveland media he was going to call Akili this week and try to get into his head so he'd go back talking to his teammates.
After the Browns' secondary got lit up for 301 yards by Jaguars quarterback Mark Brunell last Sunday, Marquis Smith pictured his cousin watching the film: "Yeah, if I was a quarterback, I'd be licking my chops and I can't even throw."
But down in Cincinnati, Akili wasn't taking tbe bait. No, he hasn't heard from Marquis. Yet.
"I can't keep doing that," Akili Smith said of the rivalry. "It doesn't make any sense for me to do that every single year."
Asked if he feared lighting a fire under the Browns, Akili Smith said, "I'm not worried about firing them up. They should come in here fired up as it is, like it's Baltimore or Jacksonville, or Pittsburgh, because it's a division game."
Which is why, truth be told, the Cleveland Browns just may well be Mike Brown's second favorite NFL team.
"Everybody's got their own story, but this is a great game simply because Cleveland is our natural rival," Mike Brown said. "They are Ohio's two NFL teams. When the Reds play the Indians, they get big crowds for the same reason."
Big crowds. But apparently no grudges.