FORT GRATIOT, Mich. -- Going into the 2003 season, the acknowledged strength of the Cleveland Browns was the wide receiver corps.
The defense, offensive line, special teams and quarterback situation were the question marks.
So what's the Browns braintrust's biggest move amid a three-game losing streak in a season spiraling out of control?
To release Kevin Johnson.
Now, I'll be the first to admit my eyesight has grown poor over the years, but I'm fairly certain that it wasn't Johnson missing tackles, missing blocks and giving up 40-plus points to Kansas City.
Unceremoniously dumping one of the team's best players in the middle of the season … has a familiar feel to it. Didn't we once know a highly touted young head coach that did something similar in Cleveland?
Yep, this is a Bill Belichick-style desperation move. There are critical problems with the Cleveland Browns, and the team's coach responds with what looks on paper to me an easy move to show he's doing something, anything to steady the ship.
It was a poor, poor decision. Very amateur. Kevin Johnson is not what's wrong with the Browns. Boneheaded moves like releasing the team's leading receiver after nine game is exactly what's plagued this team since Marty Schottenheimer walked out on Art Modell in December 1988.
Johnson's release is a sign the Browns still don't know what they're doing. Some team, any team would have given up at least a third-round choice for him. SIXTEEN teams put in waiver requests for him before the woeful Jaguars snatched him up. The Browns get nothing.
And more importantly, the fans get nothing.
Oh, sure, they get plenty of two-dimensional logic and shallow justification spewing forth from Berea. But we've had no shortage of that same gibberish and nonsense since 1999. Hell, since 1965. The coaches and executives continue to build, and hide behind, a transparent wall of amateur lies. A Maginot Line of deceit, if you will.
Davis continues to claim the team is sticking to his plan. Quite obviously, jettisoning all players from the Chris Palmer era is Step No. 1 in his plan.
History buffs remember France had a plan to stop the Germans in 1940. That plan didn't work very well. Neither is this one.
One must wonder if the move was not so much about a plan, or even a gut reaction to Johnson's alleged poor behavior and play, but a frantic ploy to establish some measure of control. It looks more and more like Davis has lost control he so desperately craves. One must wonder if this grandiose plan included drafting a dope-addled alcoholic running back …
Whatever the supposed plan is, it didn't work Sunday. The Chiefs dominated the Browns in every phase of the game. It was men against boys. Crippled boys at that. KC quarterback Trent Green was able to throw darts downfield unmolested. Cleveland's overpaid defensive line, which lost Alvin McKinley for the year, never came near Green after the first series. The offense sputtered and ran out of gas. A very average Chiefs defense contained it.
Andre Davis may very well blossom into a Pro Bowl-caliber wide receiver, but that's not the point. Davis and Policy and the shrill carping about some far-fetched "plan" is the point.
Just what is this plan? More and more, it reminds me of Nixon's secret plan to end the Vietnam War, i.e. no plan at all. Unless you count retreat, abandoning an ally and surrender (much like the Iraq plans touted by the nine Democratic presidential hopefuls, whom someone aptly called the worst starting nine since the '62 Mets).
Was part of the plan signing Johnson to a big contract, then dumping him? If so, that page comes directly from the Belichick-Kosar drama of 1993. It's baffling the Browns would ink Johnson to such a deal when it was clear that Davis didn't like him, and likely planned to shed him all along. Why not make the deal with Philly, which wanted him to team with Johnson's former college quarterback, Donovan McNabb, all along? The receiver-starved Eagles would have given up something good to get Johnson.
Must be part of the plan.
Other parts of the plan: Exercising Couch's huge contract option, then benching him en route to his eventual release. … drafting center Melvin Fowler, then having to draft a real center … drafting a linebacker, Chaun Thompson, in the second round, then realizing he's never going to sniff the starting lineup … signing then releasing Dwayne Rudd, Earl Holmes, Robert Griffith, all overpaid and underwhelming …drafting a drunken dope fiend running back …
I'm not sure I like this plan very much. It doesn't look any more competent than the muddling schemes put forth by Palmer and Dwight Clark. In fact, it's the same aimless ineptitude, albeit with an Oklahoma accent.
In fact, the Browns are showing far less ability and progress on the field and in the front office than the expansion Texans. Hell, the Bengals are clearly better than the Browns now.
The season is over with. There will be no playoff run. If Cleveland wins more than two games the rest of the season, paint me truly stunned. They'd be better off losing the rest of 2003's games and getting a high draft pick to waste, er, I mean spend on a tackle, guard or defensive lineman (since we know they're not going to pay a decent free-agent pick up … heck, if we did that, we might have an impressive machine of an offensive line like the Chiefs …).
What message does releasing Johnson send to the rest of the team? If you're not a Butchie fav, then don't buy a house in Cleveland. Keep the car warmed up.
Nice atmosphere. It's common knowledge around the league that Cleveland, despite the nice facilities and deep pockets, is a hamfisted organization. Wednesday's move was more proof. What free agent, apart from the marginal and desperate, would want to sign with the Browns? Is Cleveland the new Cincinnati?
Johnson is gone, replaced now by Andre Davis. Is he better? Too soon too tell, but he's most certainly one of Butch's boys, drafted by him in the second round in 2002. On the other side is Morgan, who has enough bungled plays to his credit for an entire lowlight film. Still, he remains on the roster. Again, a Davis guy.
However, after Wednesday's press conference with Carmen Policy, Morgan basically said Policy was a liar, so who knows how long he'll be in orange pants. You can trust that other teams will be watching the waiver wire to see what talented player is next set adrift by the Browns.
Team management says Johnson was a clubhouse cancer. The players say otherwise. Bottom line is, he was the team's most productive receiver, hands down, and in the end Cleveland got nothing for him. That's all that matters.
While the Johnson issue is commanding headlines, what's being done about a defense that let the Chiefs score at will? Nothing. What about an offensive line that can't block? Nothing. What about quarterbacks that aren't striking downfield? Nothing. What about play-calling that's tentative and doesn't cater to the team's limited strengths? Nothing.
Meanwhile, the traditionally inept Arizona Cardinals come to town Sunday. I'll be in the stands for the first time this season. And ya know, I'm not actually looking forward to it. Sure, I love coming home to Cleveland and drinking in the atmosphere of the stadium and fans, but this games reeks of another defeat.
In my mind, I can see Jeff Blake hitting Anquan Boldin for a back-breaking touchdown. I can see Freddie Jones, all alone in the corner of the end zone, grabbing a score, too. I can see Marcel Shipp running roughshod through the middle of the defense. I can see Davis proffering silly excuses after yet another defeat. I can see defensive players looking confused after yet another Cardinals score, pointing fingers. I can see three-and-out after three-and-out, with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians calling for 4-yard pass patterns on third-and-eight.
And down the road, the team is now where it was prior to the 1999 draft: In need of a franchise quarterback. Couch will be gone is a few months, and the fragile Kelly Holcomb is in his 30s. Who wants to see this team in the hands of Nate Hybl? His mother, and no one else. So now, the question arises, do the Browns even have the money to pick a top quarterback, or will drafting a new franchise passer require the team to jettison all its high-priced talent? We already know the answer, since the team has only about $1 million in cap space (almost exactly the same as the Lions). Whoever quarterbacks this team in the future will face the same situation Couch did, that is having limited talent around him.
Is there hope? Certainly. I could be dead wrong. But I doubt it. History, unfortunately, is on our side and Butch and Co. have done nothing to convince me otherwise.
Yet as fans, we'll charge into the breach every Sunday. I'll be there in the stands, hoping against hope, as we've done since 1964. This team is on the verge of collapse, but that's nothing new to us. We'll be there, whether it's part of the plan or not.
Former Ohio newspaper editor and reporter Bill Shea writes the Doc Gonzo column for Bernie's Insiders. He will be sitting in Section 525 yet again this Sunday, which is mercifully above the stink on the field. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.