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After his team's dismal performance in a 44-28

Published: December 13, 1999 12:00 AM

After his team's dismal performance in a 44-28 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals Sunday, Browns coach Chris Palmer claimed it is still realistic to expect the Browns to be a playoff contender within the next three years.

"We just have to keep building and getting better and identifying what we can improve on," said Palmer "What can Kevin Johnson improve on? What can Tim Couch improve on? The players who we think are going to be the future of this organization, we have to keep working and getting them better. I think our coaches are doing that."

According to Palmer, what could hurt the Browns is a lack of available talent in the free-agent market. In 1995, expansion teams Jacksonville and Carolina were able to fill key positions with free-agent signings. But in recent years, teams have made it a priority to sign their top players early, keeping them from going on the open market.

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"The free-agent market is not the way it was in 1995, and it will never be that way again because people have learned from it," said Palmer. "It is going to be a building process for us. Probably in the third or fourth year, you are going to start seeing the signs that you want."

Palmer said he is confident in the direction the Browns have taken in building their young team _ starting at the top with Couch.

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"The major decision that we made was the quarterback," said Palmer. "I don't think there is anybody who is going to say that the quarterback is not a player. As long as you've got him, you can build and put people around him."

The Browns players realize the stock the team has placed in Couch. Veteran defensive back Corey Fuller makes it a habit of talking to Couch after every game.

"After (Sunday's game) I asked Tim if he was all right, just like I did the week before," said Fuller. "He's got the whole franchise on his shoulders, and I'd hate to see him get hurt."

KENTUCKY CONNECTION ... Couch's favorite target at the University of Kentucky had a big impact in the Bengals' win.

Former Wildcats' receiver Craig Yeast, who is a rookie with the Bengals, returned a punt 81 yards in the first quarter to give Cincinnati a 10-0 lead.

"I hope he runs back everything he gets his hands on," Couch said of his college teammate. "Except against us."

DILLON WILL STAY IN CINCY ... Corey Dillon will be a free agent at the end of the 1999 season, but if you harbor dreams of the Browns going after the Bengals' talented running back in the offseason .... forget it.

Dillon is a restricted free agent, which means the Bengals can match any contract offer and keep him in Cincinnati.

"We are already working on a contract with Corey," said Bengals coach Bruce Coslet. "We've been working on it virtually most of the year. He'll be here. If someone signs him we'll match. I'm telling you that right now."

GOODBYE CINERGY FIELD ... The Bengals' victory over the Browns completed their final season at Cinergy Field (the old Riverfront Stadium). They finished with a 168-125 record in the stadium, including all regular season, postseason and preseason games. In the regular season, the Bengals were 128-100.

BATTLE OF OHIO ... By sweeping the Browns this season, Cincinnati narrowed Cleveland's all-time lead in the "Battle of Ohio" to 27-25.

The Bengals were 17-10 against the Browns at Cinergy Field.

Next season, they will move next door to the sparkling new 65,600-seat Paul Brown Stadium.

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