Fear and Loathing in the Orange Palace

Bernie's Insiders remains committed to providing Browns fans with a soapbox to air their views. That said, your webmaster's pleasure in seeing a new Gonzo commentary is generally mixed with abject fear about the ruckus that will shortly ensue. Doc will be confining political views to his forthcoming blog, but when you read this, you'll understand why we say...<br><br><I>Views expressed by fan commentators may not neccessarily reflect those of Bernie Kosar or the staff of Bernie's Insiders</I>

Much has been made in recent years of a Clinton administration term, regime change, which was coined along the way for Iraq by one of the White House apparatchiks.

Little, however, has been written about the regime change at 76 Lou Groza Blvd.

To better understand the Cleveland Browns, we need to sift through the Machiavellian machinations of that gilded palace in Berea.

The seeds of the latest coup were planted when the team was reconstituted in 1999. Chris Palmer was little more than stop-gap cannon fodder, a man who would absorb the punishment dished out by critics as the franchise was assembled in a slap-dash trailer park manner. Wiser minds within the organization understood the storm that was coming, and needed a patsy to take the eventual fall.

The affable tactician Palmer was the perfect strawman, lightning rod and litmus strip: If he could win with the motley team assembled, great, but if the wheels fell off the wagon, no one would miss the body.

He proved to be the Browns' Irvin McDowell, and 1999 was a 16-week Manassas.

It's unclear if anyone knew things would unfold as awfully as they did. Cleveland became the first expansion franchise to actually regress in every facet of the game by its second season.

After the disastrous 2000 effort, Palmer failed to understand the magnitude of his staggering failure. Painfully sensitive to any public criticism of itself, Carmen Policy's Tammany Hall administration quickly jettisoned Palmer. He'd served his purpose, and Cleveland could pursue a marquee coach and begin the real work.

The slick mandarin Policy, and his coterie of illuminati and Orwellian functionaries, were running Berea as a personal fiefdom. Palmer was only as useful as the Policy plan called for, then he was disposed of.

That's indicative of the entire franchise.

Any information that passes from the Berea doors — and it isn't much beyond statistics and transactions — is carefully spun. Any semblance of the crude but effective machine built by Paul Brown and handed down through the years is gone. Lies and spin.

Of course, Brown was the original NFL dictator. Lombardi and the rest were little more than henchmen compared to Brown. But that was a different time, and the press and public had different expectations from the team.

Nowadays, NFL teams are corporations, and play by the same soulless rules. Efficiency and profitability take precedence over victory and the human spirit.

Enter Butch Davis. Policy had met his match.

Davis may sound like an Okie hayseed, but he has more in common with the brilliant Southern generals of yesteryear than any bumpkin coach stereotype. He knows how to survive in a poisonous atmosphere, and he knows how to consolidate power.

In 2001, he showed flashes of brilliance and foreboding by getting a fractured team to churn out a 7-9 record. The team's split personality was grotesquely evident in 2002, which saw horrid performances bookended by brilliant play. The season culminated in playoff defeat at Pittsburgh that was reminiscent of Cleveland's painful postseason history — and planted the seeds for the disaster of 2003.

It was evident Davis botched the 2003 campaign. In the power vacuum following Al Lerner's death, Davis was able to swiftly consolidate his position with the mysterious heir, Randy Lerner, who is still a baffling character in this drama. Hence, Davis was relatively immune from punitive measures after the 5-11 season.

The quarterback situation was handled in an amateur fashion, and Davis came off looking indecisive and spiteful.

Still, Davis survived.

Once the pieces landed, it was evident to Policy what was going to unfold. So, instead of being eased out like a grandfatherly anachronism amidst All the Bright Young Men from Miami, Policy chose to retreat westward.

His smokescreen was that of becoming landed gentry in lush Napa Valley, winery and all. No one was fooled. Policy lusts for an ownership role in the forthcoming Los Angeles franchise, and to cement his chances, he provided the league a painless way to ease out tainted John Collins, the NFL executive best known for orchestrating the Super Bowl halftime fiasco.

By taking on useless baggage like Collins, Policy has a favor to cash in with Commissioner Paul Tagliabue come expansion time.

Davis is the obvious victor. Like a South Vietnamese general, he's emerged from the quiet bloodbath as the sole power remaining in Berea. He reports now directly to Tsar Lerner, not to Collins, who has no advice or guidance to offer Davis besides wardrobe suggestions.

Others have fallen on their swords as part of the Browns' palace intrigue, namely Dwight Clark. The roster of holdovers from 1999 is painfully thin. The building is filling with willing Davis lieutenants like Pete Garcia and Rob Chudzinski.

Some expected Davis to be reigned in after the 2003 campaign, his own Chancellorsville. Instead, he solidified his power base. His very public disdain of purported friend Ron Wolf, the former Green Bay personnel Jedi master, was the final straw. Davis ignored Wolf, and didn't seek his advice on free agency, the draft nor his own roster. Lerner failed to come down on Davis, and Policy recognized the signs. Lerner was sticking with Davis, who then brushed off all criticism for his expensive acquisition of Miami tight end Kellen Winslow on Draft Day '04.

Critics said David overpaid for the trade with Detroit by giving up a second-round pick to move up a single spot. Of course, Davis made the complicated trade with Indianapolis to get back into the second round and wisely steal Georgia safety Sean Jones. The rest of his picks were filler.

Of course, nearly all Davis' picks in three seasons have turned into starters or role players. A good example is Lee Suggs, who was drafted despite what many thought was being so injured in 2003 that he'd sit out the season.

Instead, Davis looks brilliant because Suggs ends up single-handedly ending new media darling Cincinnati's playoff hopes with a 186-yard performance in the season finale on the road.

Suggs' 78-yard scoring dash was Cleveland's season highlight, eclipsing the only other highpoint, the 44-6 dismantling of the hollow Cardinals six weeks before. There was little else to cheer about.

It's likely that Davis redeemed himself in Lerner's eyes by finally ending the quarterback controversy, a situation Davis clearly fumbled in 2003. Davis took the bold and risky move to sign San Francisco's Jeff Garcia, a quarterback with an injury history and Pro Bowl pedigree.

Tim Couch will be exiled to Green Bay as Brett Favre's heir apparent, or to the quarterback wasteland of Chicago. That's a bitter pill for Couch: He'll never match Favre's success, and he'll never get the chance to have success with the Bears.

As for Kelly Holcomb, his days could be numbered. Still healing an ailing passing arm from off-season shoulder surgery, there is talk Holcomb could be traded or released. That may hinge on whether Davis can acquire Detroit's Mike McMahon, the young scrambler backing up Joey Harrington.

The Lions would prefer a backup similar in style to Harrington, a stiff in the pocket. McMahon is similar to Garcia, so it would be in Cleveland's best interest  to have a second-stringer that doesn't force the line and receivers to adjust to a new style. The Lions also want rid of McMahon because he's just good enough to prompt calls for his services when Harrington stumbles.

In the meantime, what looms over Davis, and colors everything this team does, is the failure to land a franchise offensive tackle. Without that bedrock position, it's unlikely this team can establish a consistent winning team year after year. It's the chink in Davis' impressive armor.

The team may yet land a tackle after the June 1 cuts, or by trade, but few analysts see that happening. Instead, the team enters yet another season without a critical need filled. The journeyman Ross Verba, an out-of-place guard, will continue as a mediocre alternative at best.

Sink or swim, Boss Davis is going to lead this team for some time to come.

Former Ohio newspaper reporter and editor Bill Shea writes the Doc Gonzo column for Bernie's Insiders. A student of military history and a staunch neoconservative, he now lives in Michigan, safe from the revengeful ghost of Paul Brown. He can be reached at docgonzo19@aol.com.

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