But where does Browns’ LB fit in on defense?
Buffalo was trying to shatter Cleveland’s season with an ice ball. The Bills were deep in Browns territory with a chance to send the Snow Bowl to overtime, but it was fourth down. Time was almost gone. There was one more chance. Buffalo bet on beating linebacker Chaun Thompson with a screen pass. “They ran the same play earlier,” Thompson said. “Melvin Fowler (Buffalo’s center) cut block me. They got a couple yards.” A couple? Running back Fred Jackson had gained 33 yards on two previous catches. As time slipped away, Jackson slid out of the backfield and caught another screen pass. Fowler plowed out of the center spot intent on cut blocking Thompson again, opening a short path to the end zone. “I re-read it,” Thompson said. He anticipated Fowler diving at his legs and hurdled over him, then dropped Jackson in the snow. “I gave Melvin a little hard time after the game,” Thompson said. Fowler and Thompson were Cleveland’s third- and second-round draft picks in 2002 and 2003, respectively. Fowler is like almost all of the Browns’ draft picks from the first five years since their return in 1999 -- somewhere else. Of the 47 draft picks from 1999-2003, only three still are on the team heading into the regular-season finale against the 49ers. The only one left from rounds 1, 2, 3 and 4 is Thompson. Soon his five-year contract will be up. “There’s a pretty good chance,” he said of landing a new Browns contract. “I don’t have a problem with coming back.” But what will be his job if he does? He can play any of the four linebacker spots, but Andra Davis, D’Qwell Jackson and Leon Williams are ahead of him at the two inside spots. He’s behind Kamerion Wimbley, Willie McGinest and Antwan Peek in the pecking order for the two outside spots. He became a key man against Buffalo because Peek was injured. Yet, at 27, perhaps halfway through his NFL career, his dream isn’t being a replacement. “I just want an opportunity to be able to go out and compete, to elevate my career,” Thompson said. “I’ve done OK so far, but I know I can do more.” Despite Sunday’s loss at Cincinnati, the Browns can finish with their best season since 1994, and their best by a long shot since Thompson arrived. He has played through seasons of 5-11, 4-12, 6-10 and 4-12. This year’s team is 9-6. “Turning it around helps a lot,” he said. “It helps the mental and the physical. It helps the inside ... the spirit. “Nobody likes to lose. If you like to lose, we sure don’t want you in this locker room.” Thompson has made plays at linebacker and on special teams that have helped, but he can hardly say this is his best season. He has been quite the iron man, playing in 79 consecutive Browns games, but his playing chart has been erratic. He started no games as a rookie, 13 in 2004, 15 in 2005, two in 2006 and none this year. “I think my best year was 2005,” he said -- he was in on 102 tackles, and the defense allowed less yards than it has in the two subsequent years when he has been a backup. “I made plays a lot. I know I still I can do it. “As a competitor, I still want to be on the field. You know what I’m saying?” Cleveland is a long way from home. He grew up in Mount Pleasant, Texas, an out-of-the way town of 14,000 northeast of Dallas. Football is king in Mount Pleasant, where the best-known natives are semi-famous football players, Barry Minter, a Browns linebacker in 2001, Maury Buford, punter for the 1985 Bears, and Thompson. Work keeps him away from many family members at Christmas, but he knows he is lucky to have his job. “It helps the rest of my family a whole lot,” he said. “My immediate family, my extended family. I make pretty good money doing my job. It’s an opportunity for my family. “They understand. We just have a delayed Christmas. We celebrate as a family in January.” He’d love to work lots of overtime, but the Browns won’t know until Sunday night if they’ve made the playoffs. He laughs a little when asked if his people in Texas would mind celebrating “delayed Christmas” in February. “Hey, I think they’d love a Super Bowl,” he said. That’s an extreme long shot this year. No team with a record worse than 11-5 has ever won one. If there’s a serious run next year, will Thompson be around to enjoy it? Reach Canton Repository sports writer Steve Doerschuk at (330) 580-8347 or firstname.lastname@example.org.