It's over. Stick a fork in ‘em because they're done.
The season is officially a wash when you are inferior to the Cincinnati Bengals.
After digesting Sunday's game, there are faint pangs within me that wonder if Butch Davis is right for this team.
And, of course, by extension, if Papa Doc Policy and his cronies are right, either.
Clearly, there are problems in Brownstown. Of course, firing Davis isn't the answer yet. There may very well be other factors in Cleveland's rapid decline.
Or maybe the decline isn't as rapid as we think. One school of thought says the playoff run last year was an anomaly. The Browns staged a remarkable run at the postseason on the back of miracle victories and a little help from the Jets.
Would it have been better if the Browns didn't make the playoffs last year?
Perhaps our expectations were heightened falsely.
Perhaps this team just sucks.
Either way, fans want victories, want them now, and grow tired or excuses and botched games.
The time for excuses is past. So is any flimsy pretext for this utterly baffling inability to win at Cleveland Browns Stadium.
Losing to Cincinnati is deplorable. Losing to the Bengals at home is intolerable.
Chris Palmer was fired because he truly thought his staggeringly inept and shoddily constructed Year 2000 team was on the right track. Butch Davis is a Fellow Traveler. After Jamal Lewis runs past, over, around and under the Browns' defense, Davis has the audacity to say some of his defensive lineman played well. Is that audacity or blind stupidity?
Palmer lost grasp of reality and developed a bunker mentality impervious to the ugliness around him. His war was lost, and he had no idea.
Is Davis treading the same path?
Certainly, this Browns team is a far cry from Palmer's motley collection of castoffs and misfits. But the stark fact remains that Davis has lost 11 of 18 games at home.
Even crappy teams win at home occasionally. Cleveland cannot count on repeating last year's feat of going 6-2 on the road. It won't happen.
For example, we all know in our hearts that Bill Cowher's Steelers will use this Sunday's night game to wallop the Browns on national television. Nothing in me gives me the slightest reason to believe the Browns have a chance in hell. Oh, they may score late in the fourth quarter, when the game's out of reach, but it'll be too little, too late.
Even in decline, Pittsburgh is superior to Cleveland. It's not easy for me to say or type, but I sense from the Steelers an attitude of superiority that the Browns, at least in my lifetime, have never had.
Pittsburgh knows it can win. Cleveland thinks it can win.
And that makes all the difference.
Davis has been unable to instill that killer instinct or tough attitude. Sure, the Browns play well at times. I'll be the first to say this offense reminds me at times of the Old Days. Unlike 1999-2001, Cleveland can move the ball.
But where's the magic? The final-minute miracle victories are great, but how much of it is smoke-and-mirrors, and how long before we all realize that a mark of a truly good franchise is not having to stage exciting two-minute rallies because the game was won long before?
On Sunday, we saw the Browns unable to complete one of their trademark rallies. Is it a sign of things to come?
This team, which does have very talented players, seems to have made no progress at all from 2002.
Case in point: Cleveland still cannot run the ball. There is no doubt in my mind William Green is a true NFL running back capable of 1,000-yard seasons. But why aren't we seeing that?
Certainly, the offensive line's injuries and the subsequent shuffling and benchings have made things difficult. A rookie center is calling the signals and the line needs time to gel, but I don't believe a significant difference will be evident two months from know. They will still miss assignments and get blown off the ball. They're not maulers. We have an offense line that features four guys that would make fine backups.
Unfortunately, they're starters in Cleveland.
Jeff Faine, when he matures as a player, may go down in the history books as the next Frank "Gunner" Gatski. He seems to have all the makings of greatness, and show flashes on Sunday. But until the team shows the commitment to surround him with equally talented players, his skills will go to waste.
As for Green, he'll do what he can. And he'll pay the price. No back since Barry Sanders has been able to do it all on his own, and we cannot expect more from Green. If he's only rushing for 50 yards a game, that's not because he's not capable of more. It's because there are few holes, and offensive coordinator Bruce Arians seems to have little grasp of play-calling. Or at least effective play-calling.
As for the wide receivers, we all know they're talented. Fast, shifty. But sometimes, not very smart. Quincy Morgan, is, well, Quincy Morgan. He dazzles us by turning a simple receiver screen Sunday into a 71-yard score. He later stages a clinic is silliness, fumbling, holding and failing to catch a critical third-and-long pass that admittedly was behind him, but in his hands.
The weakness we're not seeing on television from the receiving corps is its apparent inability to find the seams against a zone defense. The Bengals discovered that no team can cover Cleveland's wideouts man-for-man and not get burned.
So, Cincinnati settled into the tradition two-deep zone, known commonly as the Cover-2.
Sportswriters every year all grasp onto some football concept and write about it as if it's some mysterious, mythical creation. Remember the hype over the zone blitz? Same thing with Cover-2.
Anyone familiar with the game knows the Cover-2 is a base defense. High school teams play it. All it means is that the cornerbacks play man coverage until they release the receivers to the safeties, who each drift back into zones. The linebackers play zones underneath. That tends to leave a gap in the middle of the field – something exploited by teams with a good pass-catching tight end or receiver unafraid to go over the middle.
There is nothing new about the Cover-2. It's derived from the Giants' old "umbrella" defense of the 1950s. In the 1970s, the Steelers made the Cover-2 in the 3-4 defense the "it" thing. It crippled offenses until teams found ways around it. Then everyone went back to man-to-man, often played out of the Cover-3 scheme.
Quarterbacks like Tim Couch and Kelly Holcomb have seen it for years. As I've said before, it makes little difference which of them is under center. Quarterback is not the Achilles' heel with this team.
And the problem is not that the quarterbacks are being confounded by some new defensive wrinkle. The problem is that the receivers have yet to show the consistent ability to get between the zones. That's how you beat the Cover-2, or any zone defense. The receiver gets open between the cornerback and safety.
What we don't see on television is what the quarterback is seeing. Holcomb, a finesse passer who seems to he able to anticipate where to spot the ball before the receiver breaks, should be the better of the two quarterbacks to beat the Cover-2. Couch is more of a passer who hits the receiver during the route, while the receiver is looking for the ball.
Either way, they should be able to beat the Cover-2 with this group of receivers. Without the benefit of game film, my guess is that these young receivers, who are used to man coverage, are still learning the finer techniques of getting between the zones. Once they do, look out.
The question is, when they do, will it be too late to save the season?
As a card-carrying pessimist hardened by decades of tragic defeat, my instinct is to say the season is over.
But the world, and those three blessed hours each Sunday, is driven by forces we can never hope to understand. Despite my black thoughts, there remains a glimmer of hope that the glory of what once was one day will be restored.
Former Ohio newspaper editor and reporter Bill Shea writes the Doc Gonzo column for Bernie's Insiders. He now lives along Lake Huron in Michigan, where the Detroit Lions aptly play football just blocks from a crack house. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.