FORT GRATIOT, Mich. -- You want to know about Ohio, Colonel? I'll tell ya about the Buckeye State. We like our quarterbacks brittle, a little crazy and weighted down with brass balls. Especially in the fourth quarter with the game on the line.
And that's why we love the Bengals. The poor-cousin to the Browns, forever in their shadow, the Cincinnati Bengals are the tonic Cleveland needs right now. And they're bringing their pathetic act to town Sunday.
Send the schedule-maker a case of Cristal because apart from the Cardinals, there is no team more ideal against which to right the ship.
The San Francisco game was a must-win. Sunday is a game of a different sort. It's a litmus test. If Cleveland wins convincingly, things will look promising for the rest of the season.
If they lose, the anguish and humiliation might be too much to overcome.
But despite the presence of new coach Marvin Lewis, the Bengals are the same toxic mixture of staggering ineptitude they've been since 1991. All this gibberish about the 0-3 Bengals being a better team is bad noise. They're winless and still making mind-boggling bad decisions.
Cincinnati has always had talented players. Every team in the league has since its inception. But when the very core of your franchise is moldering and foul, then talent matters not. And the Bengals are rotting. Sure, the process may be reversed eventually by Lewis, and Mike Brown has to die at some point, but in the meantime this team is very beatable.
What about Browns-buster Corey Dillon? He ain't Jamal Lewis, who had a fluke day. Dillon may run for 120 yards, but what do statistics mean when you lose 28-13? Hell, I'm not even sure the Bengals will score.
Of course, the Browns on any given Sunday can lay an egg. None of us have forgotten that game last year against Carolina. And evil karma can strike in a flash, such as the Bears game in 2001.
That said, there's hope in my heart this team is coming together. I'm praying the Indy and 49ers games were the accurate reflection of this team's defense. Limiting those teams to a combined seven field goals is amazing.
Then there's the quarterback factor. Tim Couch is back in the saddle Sunday. Will four years of experience and a thick slice of humble pie from his benching mesh to give birth to a quarterback who will seize the chance to eviscerate the Bengals? There's certainly a school of thought out there that says Couch is going to have a monster game, something like 300-plus yards and a trio of scoring passes.
Let us hope so. Because if not, or Couch gets hurt, someone called Nate Hybl is next on the depth chart.
Exactly. Whoever thought we'd worry about not having Josh Booty?
And why isn't Davis making a Booty call (Sorry, had to say it)? Is Booty too miffed? Davis certainly had egg on his face after his lame-o explanation for Booty's release. Holcomb is only slightly more mobile than Christopher Reeve right now, so if Couch, himself an injury machine, goes down, there's trouble in Brownstown.
But let's not think about that. A 2-2 record would be a nice accomplishment for this team, a squad many of us thought incapable of stopping any opponent.
The crystal ball is still too clouded to make any predictions now. In 2002, Cleveland started the season 2-2, then quickly fell to 2-4 before regrouping for the playoff run. Getting back to .500 now is absolutely vital because next Sunday night is a trip to Pittsburgh. Odds of winning there are slim. But after that, a pair of home games against the fading/aging Raiders and hapless Chargers proceed a visit to The Devil and his Patriots.
The bye week follows the New England game. Realistically, the Browns would be doing well to be 4-4 at that point. Butch Davis and his staff worked wonders during the bye last season, and there's no reason to think they couldn't take a .500 team during the bye this year, tinker a bit and let the rookies catch their breath, then make another playoff run.
After the bye is a trip to Kansas City. It'll be a steady dose of the Priest there. Then it's home against the Cards.
In 1988, the Browns used a game at Phoenix to get back on track. Will history repeat itself? That was Bernie Kosar's first game back after the elbow injury suffered in the season opener at Arrowhead Stadium. He came out and tossed a trio of touchdowns in the victory.
The Cardinals are good for something, I guess.
THE COLONEL: The Col. Tavington quoted atop this column is a character in the 1998 Mel Gibson epic "The Patriot." An interesting film. While we sticklers for historical accuracy bristle at much of the film's loose grip on reality, the American Revolution itself personifies the struggle we Browns fan endure each Sunday: Courage in the face of overwhelming odds. We know there is no good reason our team should win, but it does. Good sometimes prevails in this bad world.
Tavington, incidentally, is very loosely based on a real British colonel named Banastre Tarleton, who raged about the Southern countryside during the Revolution, raising all sorts of ugly hell for King George III. "Bloody Ban" as he was known wasn't nearly as evil as the character in the film, but was still quite a bastard. If he were alive today, he'd be a special teams assassin for the Ravens. He had that sort of mercenary ruthlessness despised by civilized humans.
Much like the Ravens, Tarleton got his comeuppance. At the Battle of the
Cowpens in 1781, Brig. Gen. Dan Morgan suckered Tarleton's Legion – a group of
several hundred elite infantry and horseman – into a trap. Sort of like a draw
play. The British marched through two lines of American militia – who'd been
told to fire twice, then boogie for the rear. Then His Majesty's troops stumbled
into a hidden line of veteran Maryland and Delaware Continentals, who proceeded
to blast the Brits into a rout. Call it Yanks 42, Brits 0.
OK, back to football …
Ah, what a strange season it's been thus far.
Thankfully, I missed witnessing the Week No. 2 installment of this nightmare. Instead of thrashing about the living room in a frenzied rage whilst the Browns were manhandled by those crude thugs from Baltimore, I was clinging to the railing of the ferry Mishe-Makwa as angry Lake Michigan waves crashed over its vomit-strewn decks.
Upon reflection, the activities are not dissimilar.
Instead of being beaten senseless by another catastrophic defeat, I chose to spend that weekend on North Manitou Island, a 15,000-acre federal park just 11 miles off Michigan's northwest coast.
Hence, a weekend on an uninhabited island was the tonic to avoid football heartache. Of course, the girlfriend and I were loaded down with enough gear to mount a Hemingway-like expedition to the interior of Africa. Federal rules, pesky rangers and a lack of large game kept me from bringing the .303-cal. Lee-Enfield rifle, but otherwise we had enough crap strapped to us for several weeks of survival.
We were staying two nights.
Besides enjoying nature at its best, I was curious to see how long I could go before the longing in my blood would overcome common sense and force me to seek out a radio. How long could I maintain before the lust for a score would drive me to depraved acts?
Surprisingly, after decades of Buddhist-like training as a True Fan, I was able to keep the game -- and the impending sense of doom -- in the back of my mind. I could function and survive in the wilderness without resorting to taking a ranger hostage just to get at his short-wave.
Admittedly, while the overly slow Mishe-Makwa crept back to shore on that afternoon two Sundays ago, there were several moments in which I wondered what the penalty for piracy is on the Great Lakes. In the end, however, seizing the vessel and making flank speed for the beach wouldn't have been worth it for this game. Blech. I'll save risking prison for a conference championship game.
After three weeks of the 2003 NFL season, some things are starting to emerge:
MAURICE CLARETT: Born to be an Oakland Raider
THE PANTS: White is the absence of color. The Browns are noted for their unique color scheme: Brilliant orange helmets and brown jerseys. And white pants. Then came the blinding orange pants of the 1970s and early 1980s. Then they went away. Then they came back, for reasons unbeknownst to any sane person, for this year's annual season-opening defeat. The orange pants were a novelty, and any hope they would blind the Colts to distraction didn't come to pass. At Baltimore, they went back to the white pants. Same result. Obviously, it makes no difference. They can lose in any color pants, or even without pants at all. We're reached previously untapped depths of desperation when grasping at the color of their pants as some sort of talisman for victory.
HIGHLIGHTS: After playing the Baltimore, we can no longer complain the Browns are ignored in post game NFL highlights ...
WHO ARE THESE GUYS?: The Browns' defense holds the high-scoring Colts
to 9 points and no touchdowns. The preseason-maligned defense makes Edge James,
Peyton Manning and Marvin Harrison non-factors. The next week, they allow
Browns-buster Jamal Lewis to run for 295 yards, most of which came on five
carries. What do we make of this team that allows a running back 100-plus yards
in the first and fourth quarters? A closer look shows the game was still closer
until the closing moments. Despite all that yardage, Cleveland still had a
chance to win ... or did they? Baltimore's passing game was pathetic. Part of
that was its rawness, but the Browns did their part to keep the passing game
from getting into gear. After all, Cleveland is the team that unknown players
get known for performing against. Kyle Boller didn't look like Johnny Unitas out
there, if nothing else. Then Cleveland goes to San Francisco and limits the
49ers to four field goals. That's two of three games the Browns haven't allowed
a touchdown. Through three games, opponents have been unable to score through
the air against Cleveland. Baltimore didn't need to, but the Colts and 49ers
live by the aerial touchdown. Hmm. Does this defense suck or not?
BASIC TRAINING: Tackling. It's what football players do. Gerard Warren, are you listening?
MADDENING MADDEN: It's taken me awhile to get used to Madden 2004. I like the changes. And it's nice to see Brian Billick still looks like Bob Crane, the sex-fiend actor of "Hogan's Heroes" fame. In my first season, I managed a 12-4 record, won the AFC North because the Steelers lost their final game, and sent four players to the Pro Bowl. William Green amassed 1,200 yards on 1,200 carries. I started Holcomb. He plays well. My leading receiver is Andre Davis because he's awesome out of the slot (hint, hint Bruce …). Get a load of his: Ross Verba and Ryan Tucker both made the Pro Bowl in the game. Verba led the NFL in pancake blocks. Not close to reality, but I'll take it. Oh, and Couch played brilliantly off the bench. A good omen??? Holcomb is injury prone, just as in real life. Quincy Morgan finished the regular season with just 18 catches, but managed to keep his mouth shut. My team is facing Miami in the AFC title game. That'll be my warm-up before Sunday's real game.
FANTASY, OR NIGHTMARE?: To paraphrase Eric Cartman, my fantasy football team sucks ass. I accidentally drafted basically the same team as last year. It sucked, too. My QB is McNabb, who is awful. My bye-week QB is Holcomb, and he did OK this week, but I went with my heart and drafted William Green this year. Mistake thus far. I lost by 40 points last week. My girlfriend has Ricky Williams and Deuce McAllister. I suck.
MIKE SHANAHAN: The Denver coach believes lying about a player's injury during a game is OK because he's trying to win. Why not allow linebackers then to carry pistols and knives (after all, the Raiders and Ravens have been doing off the field for years)? Do the ends justify the means? Only if you're a classless act like Shanahan.
JAZZ HANDS, PEOPLE!: The Roy Scheider musical "All That Jazz" is now on DVD. I love that movie. And it doesn't make me gay. His character is the last straight man on Broadway, and dies a lecherous, chain-smoking drunk. I also own the soundtrack to the musical "Chess." Again, doesn't make me gay. I have a Linda Ronstadt CD. Still not gay. The Barry Manilow CD makes me a little gay, but that's cancelled out by owning J.J. Cale and Townes Van Zandt music.
ALL THAT JAZZ: Football is entertainment. The NFL exists for no other
reason than to entertain us each Sunday. It's the modern circus maximus. Yet
players, coaches and the league perpetually treat football as if it's something
more. The NFL produces nothing (outside of palpable anguish in Cleveland). The
players are entertainers. They are not accomplishing anything to advance the
well-being of mankind. That's why I tolerate jackasses like Jeremy Shockey.
Sometimes silly histrionics are interesting, as long as things are kept safe and
maintain a level of respect for the fans and the history of the game. We expect
weirdness and outlandishness from the vapid ranks of Hollywood's legions, so why
not the NFL? I certainly don't advocate lawlessness, excess boozing or any other
illegal stupidity of nefariousness. No one wants pro wrestling-style silliness.
But being colorful is OK, like the Artie Donovans and Joe Don Looney's of the
league. The NFL has honorable traditions, but at its core, it's a 60-minute
color film for our enjoyment. Hence, self-serving, small-minded jerks like Corey
Dillon, who only talks to the media (and by extension, the fans) when forced to
by his coach. Dillon just doesn't get it. If fans don't fill the seats on
Sundays (always a threat in Corey's backyard ...) then there is no reason for
the NFL to exist. Corey Dillon doesn't understand that, and there are many, many
players who take the game far too seriously. Dillon and his ilk just want to
play football. It's one thing for a surgeon to "just want to save lives." He or
she is providing a service sought and needed by mankind. Dillon or Jamal Lewis
carrying a leather ball on a grass field is enjoyable to watch, but nothing
more. If Corey Dillon wants to be the NFL's brooding James Dean, fine. Start to
act like an entertainer, not a self-important asshole.
PARTING HUMOR: A grade-school teacher with a wicked sense of humor taught me this joke when I was 10: How do you make a cat sound like a dog? Douse the cat in gasoline and toss a match at it. Woof!
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 his miniature dachshunds deep within the misty forests along the storm-swept Lake Huron shores of Michigan's untamed Thumb. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.