The Electric Kool-Aid Football Test

The Merry Prankster Is No More … Internet Killed the Newspaper Star … Blanton Palmer … Is Ramadan the Afghan Tet?

"Man goeth to his long home, and the mourners go about the streets." - Ecclesiastes, XII 5

WADHAMS, Mich. - The weekend began on an ominous note. The relentless march of time snuffed out another of the dwindling band of Great American Writers. Liver cancer claimed author and counterculture icon Ken Kesey on Saturday.

Kesey, 66, exploded onto the national scene with his 1962 novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" and his 1964 tour of the country in a psychedelically painted bus - Further - piloted by Beat Generation icon Neal Cassidy and filled with the Merry Pranksters.

Taps has been blown for a veritable hall of fame of American writers and counter-culture figures in the last few years: William S. Burroughs,

Allen Ginsburg, Timothy Leary, Gregory Corso and many others.

Now, all that remains of America's Great Novelists is Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and Joseph Heller.

All in all, a morbid start to a weekend of football viewing. Things would not improve Sunday.

First, there was news from the Plain Dealer's Tony Grossi that the venerable Browns News Illustrated was no more. When I moved away from Ohio as a youngster, Ray Yannucci's fan newspaper was the only gridiron heroin available to sate my lust for team news. Local newspapers in other states had but a few lines about the Browns, so I voraciously devoured BNI each week. It was a tangible link back to Northeast Ohio, and I'd mainline that sucker till my fingers were black with ink.

Now, it's gone. Just like the Browns' shot at the postseason in 2001. A 15-12 overtime loss at Cleveland Browns Stadium against the infidel Steelers just about sealed the team's fate. There will be no invitation to play in the league's postseason tournament.

Instead, Cleveland looks as if it will limp to a 7-9 record at best. Yes, that's likely good enough to get Butch Davis the Coach of the Year nod, but still leaves a lingering ill taste. After all, Sunday's game was very winnable. So were the losses against Chicago and Seattle. If fate had a gentle destiny in mind for the Browns, they could be 7-1.

Ah, what could have been. It boggles the mind and boils the blood.

The agitation is different this season, however. The pain stems not from a seemingly endless string of routs that began before the kickoff, but from the feeling Cleveland is oh-so-close to being very good. And how nice would that be? After two seasons of being dismissed as a non-entity, the Browns are a team for which opponents actually have to game-plan.

Quite a change for the two seasons of the faux-Blanton Collier regime known as Chris Palmer, a sad and pathetic era that culminated in 27 defeats in 32 games.

But reality has a way of crashing the party in a most rude fashion. Despite becoming the toasts of the AFC with a 4-2 record this season, Cleveland came crashing back to Earth with a pair of overtime defeats. The team faces a daunting task of snapping the losing streak at Baltimore, where the Ravens are in bad humor and bound to be up to their nefarious criminal tomfoolery.

I could be wrong about all this, however. The Browns could turn things around by staggering the Ravens with a defeat at PSINet Stadium. A road victory there would do wonders for morale and serve as a wake-up call to the rest of the league that Cleveland is still a contender for a postseason berth.

Such a rebound is not without precedent in team history. In 1985, a young team with a new coach and franchise quarterback began the season 4-2 before suffering a 4-game slide. The Browns then peeled off victories against Cincinnati and Buffalo at home and the Jets in New York to get back in the playoff hunt. Admittedly, a weak division helped Cleveland win the AFC Central with an 8-8 record, but it's nice to dream, right?

Just thinking about playing through January gives me chills - and not the kind brought on by frigid winds off Lake Huron outside my door.
The last time the Cleveland Browns were in the hunt for a playoff berth, no one had heard of Monica Lewinsky, Afghanistan was still the romantic Kipling-esque graveyard of the Red Army and the Internet was a mysterious gadget only for techno-nerds.

It was 1994, and Bill Belichick was running the show in Cleveland and Vinny Testaverde was under center. It was a year past the blundering and scandalous release of Bernie Kosar, and another year before Art Modell would stab the city in the back.

The 1994 playoff team was a paper tiger. It was proved at Pittsburgh that Belichick had done nothing more than successfully mask a collection of ageing veterans and untalented rookies with smoke and mirrors.

Butch Davis, on the other hand, seems to have a better grasp on things. Thankfully, he lacks Belichick's misogyny and Palmer's inability to grasp the fall of Saigon all around him. Let's hope Davis can get the troops to rally round the flag, and not leave us with the dreadful Cavaliers, a team

Balitmore is certainly welcome to steal.

Keep this in mind: Even if the Browns succumb Sunday to the Ravens, they'll still be having a better day than the Taliban.

MIDSEASON REPORT CARD

PART I: Offense

QUARTERBACKS: B
Tim Couch is showing flashes of brilliance on a consistent basis. We saw glimpses last year before his season was curtailed by a thumb injury. In 2001, he's made it clear he can make the throws needed to win - when he's given proper protection. Until the Browns prove they can protect him, teams will throw everyone but the water boy at him. As he gains experience and James Jackson improves, Couch will be able to make teams pay. In the meantime, it means inconsistency that's not all his fault. Backups Kelly Holcomb and Josh Booty haven't seen any action … yet. Let's hope if they do, it's mop-up action in a Browns' rout of someone.

RUNNING BACKS: C-
James Jackson is still learning. He's shown the ability to run at this level with excellent games against Detroit and Baltimore. He's still tentative at times and needs to improve his speed. That comes with time. Like Couch, he'll benefit with some hogs up front. Jamel White isn't used enough to warrant much of a critique. H-back Mike Sellers was a disappointment early, but part of it's play calling from Bruce Arians. Sellers has come on a bit more in recent weeks, but his price tag demands more than him leading Jackson into a pile. Ben Gay is strictly a kick-returner at this point, a job he botched against Cincinnati. He had a nice long return against Baltimore, but that was straight ahead because the Ravens' kick coverage unit stinks. Too raw.

WIDE RECEIVERS B
Kevin Johnson is the real deal. Last year was fluke for everyone. He's on pace for an 80+ reception season and already has five scores. He has a nice knack of getting open and his timing with Couch brings back memories of Bernie Kosar finding slow-footed Brian Brennan always open. Still drops too many and disappears sometimes. Rookie Quincy Morgan seemed to make strides last week after a shaky first few games, but then disappeared in the second half against Baltimore. He's big and fast and seems to be able to get open. He needs to work on crisper routes, remembering routes and blitz adjustments. Still raw, but loads of potential. Dennis Northcutt is too little used to critique all that much. Couch's progression reads seem to cycle to underneath running backs before a third wide receiver.

TIGHT ENDS C
O.J. Santiago is the man by default after the injury to Ricky Dudley. He's awful sometimes as a blocker and drops too many passes, but then he gets open for a great play. Troubling and frustrating, but there's no other options right now. Aaron Shea is relegated to blocking duty in two-tight end sets. Lots of potential. Is Mark Campbell still on the team?

OFFENSIVE LINE D
The only reason they don't get an F is Dave Wohlabaugh and Ross Verba. This unit has done more to lose games than any other. Stupid penalties, laziness and ineptitude on the line will haunt the offense. Verba is excellent at times, but won't seem great till there's more talent around him. Wohlabaugh is one of the best centers in the league. The rest of the gang needs to go, or become back-ups. The loss of Tre Johnson's pure straight-forward blocking power hurt. Look for Cleveland to maneuver on draft day to get a lineman high, perhaps even two in the first round. Until then, expect Couch to get crumpled and lost again for this season at some point. Isn't this how Kosar's career was curtailed? Carmen, are you listening?

KICKER C
Phil Dawson isn't asked to do much. He's iffy from long-range. His kick-offs could be longer. I think I heard on television that he's the only kicker without a touchback this season. He was clutch in a few games this season, but can't improve much if not used. It'd be nice if he got the chance to kick a lot more PATs …


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