CLEVELAND – Years ago, I read George Plimpton's classic amateur insider's look at pro football, Paper Lion.
For those not familiar with the book, the venerable Plimpton, founder of the Paris Review and one of America's literary leading lights, vividly recounts his brief stint as a quarterback in training camp with the 1963 Detroit Lions.
The book, a wonderful peek at the colorful world in the locker room and on the field, was a bestseller later made into an Alan Alda movie.
On Sunday, it was for real. Only it wasn't a gangly intellectual New York writer looking confused under center. It was a gangly Texan outdoors enthusiast who quarterbacks for a living.
While the differences between Ty Detmer and Plimpton are strikingly obvious, the similarities are eerie.
Plimpton was 36 while with the Lions. Ty Detmer turns 34 on Oct. 30.
Plimpton stood 6-foot-1 and 192 lbs in 1963. Detmer is 6-0 and 194 lbs.
Both were horrific in their Detroit Lions debuts.
Harvard grad Plimpton's first and only action, a public intrasquad scrimmage in old Pontiac Stadium, was made up of a single possession in which he managed to lose 20 yards on three disastrous – and comedic – plays.
Brigham Young product Detmer notched a team-record seven interceptions in a 24-14 loss at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Sunday. His performance, at first, was pathetic, then degenerated into absurd. He actually had another pickoff taken away by a penalty, and yet another that was in the hands and dropped by the defense.
Give Detmer a little credit: He did toss a touchdown pass. In the end, however, the Lions were sent limping back to Detroit and the national media was left scratching its head.
"The Browns won? How? Don't they suck? They've always sucked. Must be a fluke. Seven picks?"
Cleveland is never good. It's always the other team having an off day. Every game in Cleveland is predicted to be a reenactment of Dien Bien Phu, with the Browns playing the part of the hapless French. While the team has stumbling ingloriously for two seasons, the constant doom and gloom is irritating. Perhaps a good throttling of the Jaguars on Sunday will give pro football's thinkers something to ponder.
Actual thinkers in any press box these days are a rare commodity, however. A quick scan of the annual football magazines and newspapers compared to the early results this season drives the point home. The preseason predictions for Cleveland read like stock market forecasts after the 1929 crash: Bad, with more bad on the way.
Of course, most pro football prognosticators have the intellectual capacity of a mildly retarded chimp. In lemming-like fashion, they all beat the gong for the Ravens this season. Chicago and Cincinnati illustrated to the masses that the thugs from Baltimore are nothing more than a cheap imitation of a good team. Art Modell's gang of hired goons will quickly fade into obscurity, and the experts will be led by the nose by another team.
What's lost on these "experts" is that the game has changed forever. Teams that stumble one year are in the Super Bowl the next, then back on the slag heap. Dynasties are a thing of the past, like the single-wing offense. Relics of a bygone age. A team like Cleveland could catch a few breaks like it did Sunday, then find itself in postseason contention.
The fall from grace is just as abrupt. And when the experts are left without their precious Ravens, Raiders, Dolphins, Titans, Rams and Vikings, they will be forced to actually take a closer look at other teams. To the rest of us, that's known as work. No more fawning over quarterbacks who can run 35 yards in three seconds, but can't recognize a simple two-deep zone.
Speaking of vacuous thought, this little tidbit comes courtesy of the wise folks at Yahoo! Fantasy Football: "Couch is clearly not a top-tier quarterback, and we're losing any hope that he will become one. Until he has a few more weapons around him and plays more consistently, he's a dicey start."
The sheer absurdity within that statement is staggering. Couch has less than two seasons worth of starts under his belt – on an expansion team – and, as the illuminati at Yahoo point out, no weapons of note around him. Clearly, whoever penned that nugget of trenchant analysis is far too young to remember Dan Marino, Joe Montana and John Elway in their early days. Those guys were terrible at first. Hell, Elway was benched for Steve DeBerg. How humiliating is that?
Because Couch hasn't turned out numbers like Daunte Culpepper and Donovan McNabb the last two seasons, he must be a flop. Sports writers, feckless bunch that they are, want instant success. There is no patience left in the media. Montana toiled behind Scott Bull and DeBerg in the late ‘70s. If he was a rookie today, he'd be in the CFL by next year.
However, this is not the time for rebuttal. I'm not an apologist for Mr. Couch. He can fight his own battles. My brethren in the press box – also known as the otherwise unemployable – are just doing what they are paid to do: write, not think.
I'll stick with the Old Masters, writers like Plimpton, Paul Zimmerman and Peter Gent.
NEXT WEEK: The Browns face their stiffest test yet this season, the Jaguars. Jacksonville may be the worst city this side of Calcutta. I lived in Jacksonville for the worst year of my life. It stinks year round. And the heat … it makes your hair sweat. Crime. Snakes. Insects. The place has no redeeming value. Hell, it almost makes Pittsburgh look hospitable. Almost.
The Jags are 2-0 coming off a 13-6 victory over Tennessee. In the process, Jacksonville lost running back Fred Taylor for several weeks to a groin pull. That news bodes well for Cleveland. Some unknown named Stacey Mack replaces Taylor in the lineup. The pressure will be on the aging and rickety Mark Brunell's left arm. With the Browns secondary beginning to remind folks of the glory days of Minnifield and Dixon, yet another opportunity to prove the odds makers wrong is before us.
NOTES: Everyone who attended Sunday's game received a little paper flag on a stick. Nationally, there is a flag shortage. Now, I wonder if there is a corndog stick shortage in Cleveland. … During the emotional pregame ceremonies, the Browns kept the inflatable helmet tunnel up, preventing those of us in that corner of the stadium from seeing most of the event. … This may be blasphemy, but I couldn't stand Lee Greenwood's "Proud To Be An American" during the Gulf War, and I have even less patience with it today. Naturally, it was blaring at the Stadium on Sunday. To me, the song's right up there with "Ballad of the Green Berets" by the late Sgt. Barry Sadler: "Silver wings … upon their chests …" Dreadful. Give me something with a bit of forward-thinking spirit, like George M. Cohen's World War I ditty "Over There."