"War nerves? Who said war nerves?" – Col. Wild Bill Kelso, 1941">

"War nerves? Who said war nerves?" – Col. Wild Bill Kelso, 1941">

A Season in Hell, Part 55

Doc is back, and providing us with our third round of prognostication before the season begins. "I'm ready for the season", Doc declares. "Let's get strange".<BR><BR><BR> "War nerves? Who said war nerves?" – Col. Wild Bill Kelso, 1941

FORT GRATIOT, Mich. -- I'm not wearing any pants.

Say what you must, but I cannot imagine a better way to ring in the new NFL season than sans culottes.

Power has long since been restored here in the wild of Michigan, yet I insist upon typing this gibberish by candlelight. There's something to be said for gothic journalism.

There's even more to be said about sports writing without bottoms. Yes, it's a bit odd, but the 2003 season promises to take us through the looking glass, so why not get a jump start on the weirdness?

Are you ready for some football? What feckless drunk said that? The real question is, are you ready for another 17 weeks of the theater of the bizarre? More than four months of gut-wrenching maelstrom lies ahead.

And lemming-like, we trudge ahead, once more into the breach.

So why not begin this absurd journey wearing only jockey shorts? Pour yourself a shot, or five, of Vitamin V (I'm an Absolut man, myself) and gird yourself for the abuse. I know I'm ready. I've spent the last few hours preparing just to pen this madness.

In the background, the little-appreciated classic 1941 is on the DVD player. For a comfortable balance of sound, the Dandy Warhol's Thirteen Tales From Urban Bohemia is blaring from the CD box to my left.

Two large green candles -- leftovers from my college days of unpaid electric bills -- provide all the mood lighting I need tonight. A burnt kielbasa cools to my right. A copy of an old Paris Review underneath a stale can of Coke. What else is in this mess? Several Browns- and football-related books … a plastic bottle of morphine pills … a map of Iraq with troop movements drawn on it, along with a mysterious bloodstain … a .45-cal Ruger pistol … a battery-operated Caddyshack dancing gopher … my press credentials to the 1995 Balkan war peace talks … several unpaid bills … several CDs of pirated music …

Yes, I'd say I'm ready for the season. Let's get strange.

Outside, Michigan is getting its first taste of fall. The mercury flirts with 40-degree nights. Crisp waves from Lake Huron snap against the rocky shoreline. Mighty freighters glide past, running lights aglow.

Meanwhile, I've joined the Rhodesian government-in-exile. What that really means in the grand scheme of things, I'm not sure. Perhaps they'll need me. Zimbabwe's in awfully bad shape these days. I have a stack of greasy South Vietnamese piasters ready for bribing susceptible Zimbabwean officials prior to our invasion, but no one's called me yet.

Of course, all this is immaterial. In two weeks, I will be on remote North Manitou Island. Everything is already packed: my military ALICE pack is stuffed with clothes, food, weapons, books, booze.

The 15,000-acre federal island park is in Lake Michigan. No electricity. No phones. No Internet. No radio. No television.

And, perhaps most importantly, no Browns.

When Cleveland that week visits that bleeding chancre on the inner thigh of the NFL (hint: it rhymes with Baltimore), I'll still be aboard the tiny ferry that hauls visitors to and from the island.

By Week 2, I figure I'll need a break from the folly.

After all, we orange-clad True Believers and Fellow Travelers devoutly worship at the altar of the One True Religion: Cleveland Browns football. But even zealots who preach the Dogma of Davis skip the occasional Sunday service.

Blasphemy? Perhaps. But after 30 years of hideous abuse at the hands of this team, I have the right to avert my eyes from the carnage for one game.

And quite honestly, I'm bored to tears with the Kelly Holcomb saga. We've been beaten senseless with an unnerving barrage of mind-numbing swill for months over the quarterback debate. Holcomb has the job. Great.

Of course, what really matters is that queasy feeling down in our gut. You know that one, the one that says the Browns are going to suck this year. Sure, they may score 30 points a game, but they're going to give up 40.

Maybe not. But I know I'm not alone. Many of us have The Fear. We're in the grips of it. We try to be optimistic, but in our black hearts we know the playoffs are about as likely as Al Franken and Bill O'Reilly sharing a deep kiss on Fox News.

There's no panic yet, but it's just below the surface. After a 2-4 start last season, the Browns regrouped and got a healthy dose of luck/fortune/miracles/karma/Zen. Down the stretch, they went 7-3 ended the 9-7 season with a 6-2 road record and a Wild Card berth that flamed out at Heinz Field.

Naturally, we should expect a string of playoff runs like we got from 1985-89, right?

Not this time. This smacks more of the 1980 and 1994 syndromes. An isolated and unsuccessful playoff season was followed by a catastrophic year the next.

Of course, we don't want to think that, but it gnaws at us. The off season roster purge comes on the heels of several drafts that were little more than farces. There is talent on the roster, but little depth.

The defense is suspect. And the team can't afford another slow start this season to allow the defense to gel and mature. Yet Butch Davis keeps hinting about taking a step back before moving forward.

That's a great philosophy unless you're one of the poor dunces that lives and dies on the fortunes of this team. Davis has been wise to allude to doom this season. That way, he can say after a 6-10 campaign that he warned everyone. Even the normally loose-lipped Carmen Policy has been able to control his yearly urge to spew wild pronouncements about the playoffs.

Cleveland isn't alone is its woes. The NFL's traditional caste system has given way to a mad running of the bulls each year now to fill the vacuum left by a defending champion that's succumb to salary cap housecleaning. These criminally insane bloodlettings are breathtaking to behold at the time (What!? All their linebackers???), but the off season humiliation no longer leaders to decades of institutional and on-field ineptitude (unless you're in Cincinnati).

Anymore, the path between the outhouse and penthouse is just a couple steps.

But let's put our worries aside for the moment. There's nothing we can do but sit back and prepare to absorb the blows.

Let's get to some bold predictions. After all, I'm a man partial to outlandish wagers.

After rolling the bones and consulting the Ouija board, the I Ching says …

  1. If Cleveland's defense comes together and the offense plays as billed, the Browns will win the division with a 10-6 record. They'll win some games at home, but fewer on the road. What helps is a crappy AFC North. Baltimore is going to crumble. Cincinnati is still Cincinnati and Pittsburgh is due for a general decline.
  2. The Miami Dolphins may have made the best off season moves, but they will still fail to make the Super Bowl.
  3. The Bills will win the AFC East in a neck-and-neck with New England. The Pats get one final stretch run.
  4. Colts: Offense is aging. Defense still sucks.
  5. Vermont's Howard Dean is the new George McGovern, and will do as well at the polls.
  6. This will be the Rams last Super Bowl.
  7. Donovan McNabb gets his ring. He'd better, since I spent $12.80 on him in my fantasy auction.
  8. Randy Moss and Jeremy Shockey will say something absurd by Week 6.
  9. The world will realize Shockey, Tony Gonzalez and all other tight ends are overrated. No tight end ever got a team to the Super Bowl. Ozzie Newsome did, but only as a general manager.
  10. Michael Vick may be the most overrated player in NFL history. Get those stars out of your eyes. His most notable stat is going to be trips to the injured reserve list.
  11. Oakland is oooooold. The wheels finally come off the wagon, and the collapse will be magnificent.
  12. The Saints are still lazy. Count ‘em out.
  13. Priest Holmes was uninteresting in Baltimore. He returns to the ranks of the mortal in KC.
  14. Seattle was a fluke in 2002.
  15. Washington will make the playoffs.
  16. In Dallas, the Tune will continue to feast on the spotlight. The lovefest with Jerry Jones lasts as long as the second blowout. Get reading for some JJ meddling!
  17. The Bears signed Kordell Stewart and gave him the offense. ‘Nuff said.
  18. The bottom of the heap: Arizona, Houston and Detroit. The Cards may not win a game. Except for the one at Cleveland for which I have tickets …
  19. The Snake Factor: If Jake Plummer merely needed a change of scenery to blossom, then Denver could make a deep playoff run. If he's still a Cardinal at heart, Denver wins five.
  20. The professionals love the Titans as a dark horse AFC Super Bowl contender. I don't. Injuries and bad luck return to Nashville.

In other news …

The Buckeyes are comfortably embroiled in a Grade A scandal.

The grasping NCAA, a grotesque and atavistic organization utterly incapable of recognizing neither irony nor reality, is prepared to deal harshly with OSU running back Maurice Clarett's misdeeds.

Of course, the whorehouse NCAA is only angry because it won't be able to milk Clarett's image next year on the cover of video games and the like while the youngster gets nothing in return.

Unfortunately, the entire drama is a festering bag of poison that threatens to harm OSU's chances at repeating.

It's still too soon to predict how the Clarett mess will unfold, but we can be certain of two truisms in Buckeyeland: Michigan fears Jim Tressel and never leave a checkbook near Art Schlicter.

Former Ohio newspaper editor and reporter Bill Shea writes the Doc Gonzo column for Bernie's Insiders. He now spends his hermit-like days tending miniature dachshunds deep within the misty forests along the storm-swept Lake Huron shores of Michigan's untamed Thumb. He can be reached at docgonzo19@aol.com.

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