"What fresh hell is this?"
-- Dorothy Parker (1893-1967, American writer)
Something of an odd question has been troubling me these days. Once the sky has fallen, what's up there?
A curious question, indeed, but one that begs an answer since it would seem the vast cosmos now lies crumpled around the ankles of the Cleveland Browns. Since the devotees of the beleaguered franchise seem to be suffering from a collective case of the vapors, it's an especially important matter to solve.
I can only speculate that the inky blackness beyond the fallen heavens would be prime advertising space, and it would be but a short time before obnoxious MBNA billboards stretched across the horizon.
The obvious tonic to our communal angst would be a victory over the Washington Redskins on Sunday. And the main ingredient in the tonic would seem to be mastery of the fundamentals of the game.
Contrary to pundits and mealy-mouthed former Vikings quarterbacks who share a last name with a type of steak, football is a simple game. You block, tackle, run, throw and catch. Nothing more. But just how well you do those things is the difference between 3-0 and 1-2.
Take, for example, the center-quarterback exchange. There can be no more uncomplicated and vital component of football, since every offensive play starts with the snap. Failure to execute the exchange not once, but twice is a signal that fundamental problems afflict a team.
Worse yet, botching the snap at the 5-yard line while driving for a probable touchdown while trailing 10-0 is a sign you're in deep excrement.
In the NHL, you can't win if you can't skate.
In baseball, you can't win if you can't get the ball over the plate.
In the NBA, you can't win if you can't dribble.
Right now, the Cleveland Browns can't win because they can't do the basics. And my irritation level is commensurate with the buffoonishness of the defeat. The debacle in New York had me red-lining because the team couldn't execute the game's elementary functions that PeeWee teams manage to perform every Saturday morning. Ambulatory people who have most of their fingers and a set of opposable thumbs can get a snap off. Children, old people. Anyone. The two Jeffs? Apparently not.
Amid the bad noise of sweaty hands and too long arms, it's a safe bet that the Cleveland Browns will botch some elementary aspect of the game each Sunday. And the odds are the embarrassing gaffe will play a significant role in a defeat at the hands of marginal teams.
Because of such folly, the Browns continue to wallow in a pathetic quagmire of defeat among the dregs of the league. We get a steady litany of excuses that read like a script from the theater of the absurd instead of victories.
We're at the quarter-pole of the season, and the forecast for the remainder of the year is not bright. Thus far, I've been less sanguine than sardonic, but even that's morphing into an ugly resentment. Fans have invested the precious commodities of time, money and emotion into the team, and they have a right to a return on their investment, no?
A frighteningly simple solution: Quit friggin' losing.
The more I think about this, the angrier I become. Thank goodness I'm on my third Tarantula Blue Margarita. And a couple of Vicodins for my ailing knees. Or my kidney stones. Or maybe both. Doesn't matter.
These stimuli are helping me focus my fury, and in the crosshairs is Butch Davis. He and his lieutenants are responsible for having the Browns prepared every week. Twice in three weeks they failed by fielding a team unprepared to execute fundamental aspects of the game. A flurry of especially ill-timed penalties is further proof this team is undisciplined.
For years I've been a Fellow Traveler of the Dogma of Davis. Excommunicate me now because he strikes me more and more as an Okie rube fraud living on an increasingly hollow reputation. As the glories of his Miami Hurricanes recede into the past, evidence grows that Davis is not the man to lead the Cleveland Browns.
He's had four seasons to fashion a team in his philosophy. After a flash of imperfect brilliance in 2002, the team has steadily degenerated since.
Defeats like last Sunday are confirmation of dire institutional flaws within the franchise. The woeful inadequacies of the offensive line were on display, and it was appalling. The Giants, not exactly the pride of the NFC East these days, overwhelmed the Browns' punchless offense on nearly every down by sending blitzers up the middle. The plays were over before they began.
Cleveland's guards proved to be little more than sedentary piles of weak, dim-witted wretchedness. My eyes almost fell out of my head when I watch Michael Strahan waltz into the backfield untouched for a sack on Jeff Garcia.
Why hasn't this team had quality guards since the mid-1980s? And center Jeff Faine hasn't exactly lit the league on fire, although in his defense that could be because there is nothing but empty uniforms between him and the tackles.
The acquisition of guard Kelvin Garmon, who couldn't manage to keep his job in Dallas or San Diego (alarm bells anyone?) now looks like a foolhardy decision that will eventually get a quarterback or running back injured. Paul Zukauskas is simply overmatched at his level.
Until the Browns buck almost 20 years of goldbricking and spend time and money on the entire offensive line, there will be no Super Bowl for Cleveland. It's just wheel-spinning until then.
I don't subscribe to the weak excuse that this season's woes can be blamed on injuries. Nonsense. New England managed to win a Super Bowl with the second-most players on injured reserve. If a team is properly constructed, it has quality depth and is to withstand the loss of significant players.
Cleveland lost two starters on offense, including a tight end that had just five catches in two games, and an average-at-best right tackle. The defense lost the rest of those injured. Yet it was the offense that sputtered and stalled.
Forgive my endless angry blather. No one wants to hear nothing but baleful complaining. It grows tiresome, even for me. We can turn to the incisive observations again of the above quoted Mrs. Parker in this case.
"Misfortune, and recited misfortune especially, may be prolonged to the point where it ceases to excite pity and arouses only irritation."
With so many distraught fans perched to leap from the Terminal Tower, I thought it appropriate to offer up a favorite verse of mine appropriate for just such a time. It's from the same Mrs. Parker quoted atop this column, and is called Resume.
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
and drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
There. Feel better? I certainly do, although that may have something to do with yet more Tarantula Blue Margarita.
Those optimists who would forge ahead recklessly and without hesitation into the maelstrom of this grotesque season have my respect -- and sympathy. Being a Cleveland Browns fan is a thankless yet cherished task handed down through the generations. Sunday agony is a shared annual ritual, and those who never veer from the True Path are warriors who bear their emotional scars proudly.
I'm not going to delude myself into thinking this is anything but what it is: Back to back road defeats at the hands of marginal teams, both with aging quarterbacks long past their primes, in a season marked for mediocrity at best and the crushing melancholy of another 10-defeat season at worst.
On the positive side of the ledger, we can point out that no one died at the Meadowlands last Sunday.
Can the Browns beat the Redskins? Certainly. Have they given fans any tangible reason to believe they will do so? No. I see swagger and attitude on the roster, but not the physical and mental skills to back those attributes up.
Quality depth is what matters, and that's gone. Having bodies to fill out the roster isn't good enough. When the likes of a Chad Mustard are on your active roster and, worse yet, playing, you're not going to be successful.
There will be success one day, I am sure of it. But that day is not now, and we are all sorry for it.
Former Ohio newspaper reporter and editor Bill Shea writes the Doc Gonzo column for Bernies Insiders each Thursday. Except when he doesn't. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Feel free to e-mail him esoteric literary references to be worked in future columns written at 3 a.m.