It's that time of year again.
Another 16 Sundays of excuse-making, chip-throwing, expletive-muttering and maybe a few huzzahs.
And that's just me trying to get the grass cut before 1 p.m.
Once the savage wasteland of weeds, dirt and sickly brownish foliage that passes for my lawn is shorn, I'll trundle inside for three hours of gridiron abuse and humiliation.
In other words, Cleveland Browns football.
Forgive me if I'm not cheering from the rafters about Season Six back from the abyss.
This team stinks, and the organization is rotten. A 26-54 record is proof of a franchise adrift in the NFL's sea lanes.
Forget all this talk of hurricanes in Florida. The real storm was Hurricane Butch blowing across the North Coast.
This off-season was a gruesome spectacle of questionable player moves, a bloodbath in the front office and the usual silence or lies spewing out of Berea. Can we trust anything they say? Should we believe winning is the team's primary objective?
All we want is a winning football team. Instead, what we get is a ham-fisted opera that would comic if we weren't so devoted to this inept franchise.
We're 72 hours from kickoff and I'm already getting into the booze and pills. Never a good sign.
We were gods once, mighty lords that thundered across pro football's landscape like the devil's own blitzkrieg. Other teams knew a visit to Cleveland was a guaranteed bad trip — pain and defeat for the players and embarrassment for fans. At the height of its glory, Cleveland was the NFL's Rome. The Browns were the fearsome legion that cut a bloody swath through whatever came in its path.
Those days are little more than a faded memory of football antiquity now. The barbarians sacked Cleveland long ago.
Today, we suffer these fools and fiends who wear the colors, but pay no homage to what came before them. We cling to the knowledge that greatness was, and could be again, in Cleveland. It's all we have.
Are we King Lear?
On any day of the week, the Browns could be the best team in pro football. That day is never Sunday, however, and that's the only one that counts.
As the first game draws near, the sad drama continues to unfold. A Monday afternoon Associated Press story darkly hinted that Lee Suggs may not play in Sunday's opener against Baltimore.
Suggs, who sat out Saturday's preseason finale against the Chicago Bears with a neck "stinger," had little to say in the locker room following practice. "It feels good," Suggs whispered.
Why was Suggs whispering? The next part of the story explained.
Suggs only nodded to a few more questions before being whisked away by a team spokesman, who hovered near the second-year back's locker during the brief interview session.
Of course! More cheap, oppressive Soviet-style censorship nonsense from the Butch Davis administration. Or should we call it the Berea Politburo? The players are obviously living under a dense cloud of fear, even in their own locker-room. How can they be expected to play quality football when there are commissars and spies in every corner?
This organization has stunk of lies, deceit and disinformation since its return from exile in 1999. A gruesome palace coup orchestrated by Davis and his henchmen that left no one standing has turned a shady organization into an outright dictatorship that deals in false truths and treats the fans as cattle and sheep good only for their cash.
Anymore, if the team says Suggs has a neck stinger, I fully expect to see him in a full-body cast and a coma. Hell, he's probably dead. In BrownsSpeak, Louis XVI suffered a "neck stinger" after his date with the guillotine.
Dealing with this organization is like trying to get a straight answer out of a Chinese philosopher working for the Sopranos.
Where does fault lay?
The owner, Lerner the Younger, remains a mystery. His biography on the team Web site is a scant 186 words. By contract, Butch Davis gets 1,482 words.
Randolph Lerner is barely into his forties. This will be his second full season of ownership since his father's death in 2002. Under his tenure, we've seen Davis win a power struggle with team President Carmen Policy, who was replaced with empty suit John Collins.
The Berea Politburo is an efficient machine that makes Paul Brown's martinet management look downright oafish. It snuffed two longtime public sources of criticism when it lured the Akron Beacon Journal's Pat McManamon to become the editor and writer for its Web site, and Steve King of the Elyria and Medina newspapers to be McManamon's sidekick.
If the team isn't exactly a purring vehicle, it is brutal.
Still, Brown won seven world titles as coach. That's exactly seven more that the current team.
And the current team is the living embodiment of focus-group management, trying to be all things to all people, on the surface. What it really is, is a money-making enterprise for Lerner and the rest of the staff. An actual commitment to winning would result in some occasional winning, no?
This is from team Collins' bio on the Web site: "As such, it is our responsibility to build value through strengthening the emotional and social connection between fans and the Browns."
I'm almost fell out of my chair when I read that nonsense. Then I read the next line.
"We intend to build a strong business environment that complements and supports a winning football operation by developing comprehensive and lasting relationships in the community and with our corporate partners."
Sort through the feel-good, rah-rah chamber of commerce gibberish and what they're saying is, "We're here to make some money."
That I can respect. But don't insult us with the verbal mush about winning. We're adult enough to know that winning is secondary to profit. That lesson was etched into our collective conscious by the previous slumlord owner.
In the end, however, aren't we as much to blame as the dingbats that run this team?
Ticket prices are a tax on the stupid: We keep buying, they keep sucking. No reason to get better if the sheep continue to pass through the turnstile for the slaughter. Bread and circuses, indeed.
Does the actual team give us reason for hope this fall?
By my addled estimation, not much.
The Browns were fifth-most penalized team in the preseason, with 44 flags in four games for a loss of 385 yards. Only Washington and Kansas City (45 each), always-penalized Oakland (46) and the bumbling Bears (a whopping 58) were worse.
Cleveland averaged 315 yards per game in the preseason, meaning it was penalized the equivalent of more than an entire game.
It's also the sign of an unprepared and ill-disciplined team.
In 2003, when the Browns stumbled to a 5-11 record, the franchise had just 21 penalties in its four preseason games.
It doesn't matter if you can block, tackle, catch or run if you can't even get the play started.
Jeff Garcia is an improvement over Tim Couch at quarterback. Couch was loved and loathed in Cleveland, but at the end of the day, he couldn't win the third-string job in Green Bay. Hell, his own understudy from the nightmarish 2000 season, Doug Pederson, was able to fend off Couch on the Packers' roster.
Garcia is aging and is considered by some to be brittle. We'll see. The offensive line can't pass block. He may spend much of 2004 on the run.
Running, on the other hand, may be the one bright spot on the field. After years of an empty cupboard at running back, it would seem Cleveland is blessed with talented backs in Lee Suggs, William Green and Terrelle Smith.
It's about time.
If they can carry the load, it might buy the passing game time to gel. Again, it's all a big maybe, and this team has been living on maybe's and hope for too long. It'd be nice to seem them go out and just kick the tar out of another team.
The addition of tight end Kellen Winslow II is a positive. Dunno if he's enough to get them over the hump and into the postseason. Ozzie Newsome wasn't enough to get them a Super Bowl.
Unless you count his work as Baltimore's general manager.
Who will K2 help win the big one 20 years from now as a front-office type?
As for the defense, I don't even know where to begin. There were no notable free-agent acquisitions in the off-season to bolster a unit that saw two running backs (Jamal Lewis and LaDainian Tomlinson) scorch them for something like 700 yards rushing.
Davis seems to understand that defense begins with pass rushers and run stoppers on the line. They'll be throwing a variety of combinations of players at opponents in hoping of getting pressure on quarterbacks and disrupting running backs that feast on them.
They better generate something because the linebackers and secondary seemed incapable of tackling.
Bad news isn't limited to the football field in Brownstown.
Recent Census Bureau and Rockefeller Institute reports show Cleveland has the nation's worst big-city poverty rate and is one of the most difficult cities to live in.
Duh. Where's the study that says it's cold in Cleveland in January? Or that the Indians were crappy for a lifetime?
Despite the renaissance of the late 1980s and 1990s, anyone familiar with Cleveland knows the town has massive problems. Tell us something we don't know … like how to fix them without burdening people or creating a massive dysfunctional bureaucracy.
Cleveland already has a massive dysfunctional bureaucracy.
It's called the Browns.
THE I CHING SAYS: Here, based on my lazy, hap hazardous efforts to study of NFL teams, are my (hefty) gut-instinct thoughts and predictions for the 2004 season. These are in random, disjointed order. In other words, how they occurred to me. I didn't include every team simply because 1) I don't know much about some of them and 2) I can. In fact, I limited it to the rest of the AFC North.
BALTIMORE: I hate this team, town, the state of Maryland, flesh-eating birds, the color purple and crabs. The apocalypse would be worth it just to wipe out this city and its useless, mentally deficient citizens. Sodom and Gomorrah are Avon Lake and Bay Village compared to this seething nest of perverts, criminals, thugs, drug addicts, radicals, corruption, vice and sin. The football team is little more than a collection of egos, starting with its glib, effete toad of a head coach, and centered around a pair of former or soon-to-be convicts, Ray Lewis and Jamal "8 Ball" Lewis. There's a special place in the low-rent section of hell reserved for these grotesque, disgraceful creatures. There will be no peace and justice until this team is disbanded and wiped from the record books, its players jailed, its stadium razed, the land salted and the people sold into bondage in some distant galaxy. To complete its absolution, Baltimore must burn the corpse of Art Modell on a pyre of garbage along its dump of a waterfront. Baltimore wins nine games.
CINCINNATI: Porkopolis still is honeymooning Coach Marvin Lewis. The matrimony will have to weather the storm of his decision to start untested second-year quarterback Carson Palmer over veteran Jon Kitna, who actually had a good year in 2003. Palmer has zero regular season game experience, so expect some rough outings. Especially since talented running back Corey Dillon, a traditional Browns killer, got his longtime wish of an exit visa. Rudi Johnson isn't Dillon. The real drama will be how long owner Mike Brown can fight the urge to meddle in the quarterback situation. I give him until about 27 seconds into the season opener. My guess is a 7-9 year at best.
PITTSBURGH: My prediction of this team's slide must come true eventually. The offensive line is suspect and the defense has given no reason to believe it will be able to stop the pass. Bill Cowher will attempt to mask the deficiencies by blitzing a lot and running the back as far as Jerome Bettis and Duce Staley's tired legs will carry them. Tommy Maddox is on the downside of his freakish career, and Ben Rothlislongname is a few seasons away from stardom.
And the Browns? This is the first season I've had no distinct feeling about its final record. Last year's 5-11 mark didn't surprise me. In 2004, a repeat of that record wouldn't shock me. Nor would Cleveland winning the division and slashing through the playoffs on the back of a devastating rushing attack and a defense that proved all the critics -- especially me -- wrong.
And I pray I am very, very wrong.
Former Ohio newspaper editor and reporter Bill Shea writes the Doc Gonzo column for Bernies Insiders every Thursday. Except when he doesn't. He can be reached at email@example.com.