Good day, Browns fans!
This is a dark day in Berea, Ohio. Even the detractors of Kevin Johnson have to admit that releasing him in midseason as has happened is probably not a good thing for the team. Moves like this are risky and potentially damaging on many levels. I've calmed down from the shock and anger of the immediate aftermath, but let's take a look at what this move means.
On The Field
Kevin Johnson has been the leading receiver for the Browns every year in the new era. Johnson early on was the only offensive weapon the Browns had, and though the opposing teams knew it, he still found ways to make plays. Even with playing sparingly in his final game as a Brown, KJ leads the team with 41 receptions. His 11 catches against the 49ers were instrumental in coming back from a 12-0 deficit in the fourth quarter. While not the fastest of the receivers, KJ had sure hands. He usually catches balls that are not perfectly thrown and has a knack for using the sideline, dragging his foot, or doing whatever it takes to make a play. He is not a great blocker and has proven to be a liability on special teams. When pressed into duty returning punts, Johnson did little to impress.
KJ's exit leaves the Browns with a starting trio of Quincy Morgan, who has been inconsistent at best, Andre Davis, who seems to have a lot of upside, and their most reliable target, Dennis Northcutt. Northcutt is a spark plug player who makes things happen. Beyond them, the Browns have the pedestrian Andre King, who has admittedly made plays in his limited opportunities, Frisman Jackson, a converted quarterback who has speed, and CJ Jones, the one I like best of this group. It should be noted that the Browns have already released Jones once and have also tried unsuccessfully to convert him to cornerback. Jackson and Jones have potential, but they are both unproven in real game situations. Jackson had limited chances a year ago and did very little. King is what he is; there is no real upside there.
I guess I am old school. Measurables and such are all well and good, but I look at whether a player makes plays on the field. Brian Brennan was never anyone's idea of a prototypical wide receiver, but he made a lot of catches for the Browns. It aggravates me to see a player languish on the bench who has made plays while someone with a pedigree plays ahead of them and does not produce. I've noted in this space before the example of Bill Belichick's handling of Keenan McCardell as a classic case of this approach. I'll be the first to admit that KJ has had some poor games recently, such as the San Diego game. That has to be his worst performance of his career. However, other Browns players have consistently made similar mistakes and are still in the good graces of the team. For Johnson, this was an aberration. It is hard for me to accept playing Steve Heiden in the slot and leaving KJ on the bench other than as a move to put him in his place. This could not be about football, it had to be about attitude.
There had been some troubling signs. Johnson's one catch on Sunday was for three yards on third-and-four. While this has been a consistent pattern for the Browns, I wondered at the time if this was a case where Johnson's route called for a three yard pattern and he doggedly ran it by the book just to make a point. On his Cleveland radio show Monday afternoon, Mike Trivisonno suggested that KJ be "the bigger man" and go to Butch Davis and talk this thing out. Johnson responded with something about not becoming a distraction. He was already a distraction. I hate to speculate, but this seemed to be a battle of egos, and it is obvious before it ever happened who would win such a battle.
Off The Field
On November 7, 1993, head coach Bill Belichick shocked everyone by releasing quarterback Bernie Kosar, one of the most popular players in the history of the franchise. The Browns were 5-3 and in first place at the time and lacked a suitable replacement. The Browns went on to lose six of their final eight games. Kosar, of course, signed with the Dallas Cowboys, was in uniform the next Sunday, played the week after that, and was a key component in helping Dallas overcome injuries to Troy Aikman and win the Super Bowl.
While this emotionally may feel similar since KJ was probably the most popular player on the team, this analogy does not hold up well from a football point of view. As much as I respect and admire Bernie Kosar, after 1993, he never was an impact player again other than in more or less a coaching capacity, and the Browns went 11-5 and won a playoff game the following year behind Vinny Testaverde. The impact in the community, though, in my opinion, was a key contributor to the climate that alienated the fans and created the rift between Art Modell and the city that led to The Move. I see the two events as being inextricably linked. In this way, there is a similarity. The Browns have bemoaned their poor record at home and mildly adversarial relationship with the fans. To the casual fan, their favorite player is now gone, one who has consistently produced. Imagine the reaction this Sunday if one of the receivers drops a pass. The Browns, and especially Butch Davis, will face a hostile environment in their next two home games. In fact, Davis showed how little he knows of the history of this team by using the word "diminishing" in his statement regarding the release.
Probably a more apt analogy to this move is the release of Cris Carter by the Philadelphia Eagles. Head coach Buddy Ryan made a statement that is still quoted today as his rationale: "All he does is catch touchdowns". As we all know, Carter went on to a Hall of Fame-caliber career with the Minnesota Vikings. I have a feeling that Johnson will land somewhere and prove that Butch Davis was wrong about him.
The Season Ahead
The Browns take on the Arizona Cardinals this week at home. The Browns have struggled the most this year against one-dimensional running teams like Baltimourge and San Diego. Even before releasing KJ, I felt Arizona had a good chance to win. The upheaval this has undoubtedly caused in the locker room doesn't help matters, and if the offense struggles, the fans will quickly turn on the team, or more accurately, its head coach. Should the Browns lose and fall to 3-7, cries for the ouster of Davis will become commonplace, even in the national media. The Browns need to open up the offense, something they tried to do against the Chiefs, and score points. A win is a must. Following that, the Browns will need to win at home against the Steelers. Otherwise, the rest of the year will get ugly.
Butch Davis has taken risks. His move with the linebackers is looking pretty good right now. Sticking with some of his underachieving draft picks like Morgan and Gerard Warren hasn't paid off so far. This move may be the last straw. If the receivers don't step up and/or Johnson goes on to big success elsewhere, Davis will be under more and more pressure. The recent sale of stock by Carmen Policy leaves Davis on shakier ground than he was in the past. This had better work if he intends to stay for the long haul.
I can't shake the feeling that this is a 5-11 team. In fact, given the ripples this may cause in the locker room, if the Browns lose to Arizona, I would not be shocked to see them totally collapse and lose out the rest of the year. On the other hand, if the Browns can win the next two games, they could salvage a respectable 7-9 finish, and maybe even 8-8 if a few things break right. I see this week's game as a barometer by which to measure the remainder of the season. As this game goes, so may the season go.
This is where things look bleak. While the defense needs some help, especially at safety and outside linebacker, it has played above the expectations of most observers. The offense, on the other hand, has been bad beyond what most anyone might have guessed.
At quarterback, it is now a virtual lock that Tim Couch will not return. Kelly Holcomb is not the long-term answer at quarterback. It looks like the Browns will be starting over here, especially if Bruce Arians is not retained. Holcomb seems like a system player, and may not be able to adapt to a new offense. Nate Hybl? Don't go there.
At running back, the future is cloudy. William Green may or may not get himself straightened out. He may be facing a longer suspension either now or in the future, not to mention the fact that the NFLPA says Davis did not have the authority to bench Green. James Jackson looks like a solid backup. Jamel White, after being signed to an extension, has been the forgotten man on the offense and has not played at the level of prior years. RJ Bowers can't stay healthy. Lee Suggs is a total unknown. There is turmoil here at best.
At receiver, Johnson is gone. Northcutt is a free agent and refused to speak to the press after Sunday's loss. Carmen Policy said earlier this year the Browns will not give Northcutt "Kevin Johnson money". Might that have changed? Northcutt is clearly the most productive remaining receiver. Morgan has lived up to his pre-draft billing – great speed but bad hands. His future is uncertain. Andre Davis has lots of potential but has been hurt this year and has not played at the same level as early last year. I'd like to think Davis is a #1 receiver, but it isn't obvious yet if he can live up to that billing. If Northcutt walks, the Browns could be in some trouble here. Also, didn't the Browns just give Northcutt some extra ammo for the bargaining table with the release of KJ?
The tight end position is weak. Mark Campbell was an average but productive player who was let go. He recently signed an extension with Buffalo. Meanwhile, the Browns have Aaron Shea, aka Mr. Injury, the underwhelming Steve Heiden, and the disappointing Darnell Sanders. This position is in need of help.
As you look at this offense, you have to question whether the Browns will be in a rebuilding mode almost across the board in 2004.
Making this move at this time makes a statement that it is hard to miss, but it also is a huge gamble. Depending on the reaction of the players and the fans, this move could hurt whatever chance the team has to salvage a decent finish.
I have no crystal ball. But I do think that this move will expose more cracks in the façade of the 2003 Browns, and that the team will get worse before it gets better. I hope I am wrong.
The season is short. Bark hard.