PORT HURON, Mich. -- The greatest quarterback not only in Cleveland Browns history, but in the annals of pro football, died last week.
How did the only team he ever played for honor him?
By losing by five touchdowns to a motley collection of criminal barbarians playing for a stolen franchise.
Merry Christmas, Otto Graham.
Thanks for the memories, since the latest images from your once-proud team are nothing more than hollow, ghostly visions of faded glory.
The thought of an Otto Graham is a refreshing diversion from the loathsome, self-centered brats under center anymore.
Graham played 10 seasons in Cleveland, and every year took the Browns -- and by extension, the city and fans -- to a championship game. He won seven of them. No quarterback can come close to matching that success rate.
If winning championships is the primary benchmark of an athlete's value, then Graham stands alone.
Other Browns were along for the ride, but they played other positions. The quarterback is different. He touched the ball on every play. It begins with him. And with Graham, it was magic … a time never again to be repeated in Cleveland.
Critics say Graham was nothing more than another mindless part in Paul Brown's interminable machine.
Brown may have sent in the play, but it was up to Graham and his teammates to execute it. And Lord, oh, Lord, did they execute. They executed plays, executed game plans and executed the opposition.
They talk of dynasties in the NFL. The Cowboys, Steelers and Packers.
There has been only one true dynasty in pro football, and that was the Cleveland Browns of 1946-1955.
Graham's record as a starter?
Whoa. When folks argue about the best all-time, that statistic alone ends any argument.
But all that winning was a long time ago. The Browns, led by Jim Brown, clawed out one more championship, in 1964, after Graham retired. Cleveland fell from glory and slipped into shadow just as the league was blossoming into an American institution beamed to billions around the world.
The Browns labored to build a history of greatness that is now the stuff of legend – but only legend today. The ranks of those who remember seeing Cleveland on their NFL schedule and feeling fear grow thin. No longer are the wind-swept southern shores of Lake Erie a foreboding place for other teams to visit.
A shadow takes the field every Sunday in Cleveland. The Browns of today are linked in name only to those snowy championships of yesteryear. Sons and grandsons … even great-grandsons now … hear tales of days when the Browns ruled pro football's world like mighty kings.
To a child or young adult today, those tales are just that — tired old histories, almost unreal. They're filed away mentally next to grandpa's war stories. Did they even happen? Maybe, but that's someone else's memory and of little interest anymore.
That's a shame. Graham's passing touched those who recall his passes floating out of the backfield and into the hands of a loping Mac Speedie or "Glue Fingers" Dante Lavelli. Of his diving for a touchdown … of winning so often it was Otto-matic.
To several other generations, his death is a "Hmm, that's interesting" moment and nothing more.
Where, they say today, are our glories? What memories do we have but of losing and dishonest owners that steal teams in broad daylight?
Heartache, sorrow and frustration are the memories of today. And that leads to disinterest.
Cleveland's Arthur is being laid to rest upon the mysterious island of Avalon, and his kingdom is fading from memory. Otto Graham was king in football's Camelot, but that's lost to us now.
In it's place is … well, not much. We're alone in the wild now, and it's dark, cold and frightening.
There's no need to cast blame. It's no secret that the New Browns were not built of the same stuff as the teams of old. Greedy men with no foresight or heart have led us down the path of ruin.
On Sundays, when we watch our team disintegrate yet again, we are reminded of those who deceived us.
Yet, like all suffering peoples, we do not abandon hope. Pro football is a cyclical thing. Perhaps the glory of Graham's days will never repeat, but the franchise again can field a team that will dominate and contend for a decade or more.
It reminds me again of Tolkein's lines:
"From the ashes a fire shall be woken
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken
The crown-less again shall be king."
There's little evidence of that now, just fleeting glimpses of what could be. It's notable that Butch Davis is shouldering the blame for this wretched season and has quit inflicting his faux positive outlook on everyone.
Another bright spot is the effort given by the remnants of the team. Few starters remain from the preseason, and those who are left are akin to the hollow-eyed survivors of Dunkirk. Still, they took St. Louis and Denver to the mat in games all experts predicted them to lose handily.
Against Baltimore, however, you could see the Browns collapse and deflate like an old tire. They hung on for 2-1/2 quarters, but the ravens proved too much. They gave up.
By now, everyone realizes Cleveland will draft high, and expectations are that a franchise offensive lineman will be taken. With a few wise and bold free-agent signings, what's looks to be a 4-12 season could quickly become a 12-4 year in 2004.
It can get worse, of course, but not by much.
This next season is make-or-break for everyone involved in the team. Word is that the Lerner's plan to sell the team. Who knows what sort of owner could take over, so the pressure is on for Davis and his staff to right the ship. Tim Couch hopefully will be back and perform like he should have years ago.
Who will he throw to? The crystal ball is too cloudy to tell. Six months ago, the wide receivers were the Browns' strength. Now, not any more. Kevin Johnson was rudely let go, Dennis Northcutt will leave in free agency, Quincy Morgan can't catch a cold and Andre Davis is young.
Is it time to draft a wide out in the second round again?
A position Cleveland doesn't have much worry about is running back — finally.
Even if William Green doesn't clean up his act, the team looks set. Drafting Lee Suggs looks brilliant now. Jamal White, if he's not dealt before the draft, is still a quality No. 2 back. And James Jackson continued to impress in relief, until getting hurt.
So, the bottom line for success is simple: Build an offensive line that has depth, solidify the receiving corps by re-signing Northcutt, make Suggs or Jackson the starting running back and give Couch back his job.
On defense, stop the run. That formula has never changed in Cleveland. Andra Davis is a rock around which to build a defense. If Courtney Browns returns from his injury at the level he was playing when he got hurt, the line will be strong. Signing another linebacker and a safety that can tackle will go far to solve problems.
Sounds simple, right?
On paper, yes. Whether the organization can pull it off without a mind-numbing series of posturing excuses is another.
If nothing else, the Cleveland Browns from now on will have a guardian angel looking down on them from above … an angel wearing No. 14.
Former Ohio newspaper reporter and editor Bill Shea now lives in snowy Michigan and writes the Doc Gonzo column for Bernies Insiders. He can be seen next fall at the stadium in his new, authentic NFL jersey that bears his pen name. Look for him and feel free to bellow insults at him. He can be reached at email@example.com.