SAN DIEGO — In your average locker room before your average National Football League game, most team leaders feel it is their inherent duty to gallantly issue a call to battle:
Not Cleveland cornerback Hanford Dixon. He calls roll.
"Bob (Mad Dog) Golic, you here?"
"Carl (Big Daddy Dog) Hairston, where you at?"
"Frank (Mighty Dog) Minnifield, you around?"
After two seasons of doing this, Hanford Dixon has one little confession.
He already knows everybody is there.
"I just like to hear all of our different little barks," he said.
You have read about them, you have watched them on national television, and now you can hear them, live, at 1 p.m. Sunday at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium against the Chargers.
Eleven men who would be house pets. A defense that calls itself "The Dogs." The only one in history.
If we're lucky.
When the Brown defense--currently best in the AFC--needs a good play, the Dogs bark. When they make a good play, they bark.
When they want to take away momentum, they bark. When they want to excuse themselves from the room . . . c'mon, get serious.
"We do it to pick our defense up," said Dixon, a Pro Bowl starter last season. "Don't all great defenses have good names like ours?"
No, but you certainly have to possess a great defense to get away with it. The key to acting like a dog is not playing like one.
The Browns do have a rather fetching defense. Last season, it led them to within minutes of the Super Bowl. It allowed only 90 points in the Browns' final six games, a run that ended in a 23-20 overtime loss to Denver in the AFC championship game.
In the NFL this season, only Chicago has been better.
The Browns are second in yards allowed (1,404; 234 per game) and points surrendered (80; 13.3 per game), trailing only the Bears in those categories. Quarterbacks who faced them had an average rating of 37.0 for that particular game. No team in the league has held opposing quarterbacks to within 20 rating points of that.
It centers on the corners, Dixon and Minnifield, who are regarded by Charger Coach Al Saunders as the two best pass-busters in football.
According to Cleveland Coach Marty Schottenheimer, through the first 13 games of 1986, Dixon allowed "only 9 or 10 passes caught. . . . You can't get much better than that."
Minnifield, a three-year veteran who made last year's Pro Bowl as an alternate, once intercepted two passes against Houston, both in overtime, both in Cleveland territory, to help the Browns eventually win, 13-10.
These are guys who could be heroes as, say, the Crustacean Defense.
"It seems like when teams play well, little things come out that you identify them with," Saunders said. "The Denver Orange Crush, the Washington Hogs. And that's fine. As long as you're playing well."
Except Dixon started it before they were playing well, during the 1986 training camp, when the team was coming off a two-season mark of 13-19. He noticed, as the rest of the football world had been noticing, that the suspect Cleveland defensive line was becoming tired and bored and beat.
"I wanted to get them fired up, but I couldn't think of a way," said Dixon, a six-year veteran from Southern Mississippi. "Then I starting thinking about dogs chasing cats, and how they should chase the quarterback like that. I wanted them to think of themselves as dogs.
"The problem was, I didn't know how to tell them."
Hence the following exchange on the Browns' practice field one training camp afternoon in 1986, as committed to Dixon's memory for reasons of historical perspective:
Dixon: "Arf, arf."
Minnifield: "Excuse me?"
Dixon: "Arf, arf."
Minnifield: "What the hell are you doing?"
Dixon: "I'm barking."
Minnifield: "Oh really. What for?"
Dixon: "Just do it, OK?"
Minnifield: "Ruff, ruff?"
Dixon: "Yeah, that's it."
Soon the rest of the team caught on. Then, during the Browns' playoff run--they won eight of their last nine games--the city of Cleveland caught on.
Fans brought dog biscuits to the games. Once there, not quite knowing what to do with them, they threw them on the field. Soon, the hottest concession stand item at Cleveland Stadium was manufactured by Wag Time.
Then they realized that you could best hear the players barking from one end zone section. The ones sitting there called it "the Dog Pound," and began arriving at games in dog masks and dog ears and dog noses.
Recently a couple of guys even brought in a doghouse, but security guards happened upon a beer keg inside, and that was the end of that.
"It has gotten really crazy," said Dixon, who recently pleaded with the fans to stop throwing bones at opposing players' faces. "I don't want anybody to get hurt, but sometimes you just don't know what people will do."
Or players. "My players bark?" asked the very proper Saunders the other day. "I'd prefer it if they just bite."