Doc Gonzo: Signs of Life

The patient is registering a pulse, but don't unplug the machines just yet...

Call me an old softy, but there are plenty of things that make my eyes water.

Since I live on the border with Ontario, I'll spend a day or night in Canada a few times a year. When we get back on the highway approaching the bridge home, I tear a little up when I see the big green sign that reads "BRIDGE TO USA."

There's nothing like that feeling of coming home to the best place in the world.

Another sign that gets me is the brown highway exit sign on Interstate 71 near downtown that reads "CLEVELAND BROWNS STADIUM."

Seeing that reminds me that I'm almost home to my birthplace and that spot on the lakefront where so many indelible memories were made on Sundays long ago. I tear up slightly and get that thumping feeling in my chest when I see that sign because I know what lies ahead, and remember what's transpired over many decades. It hits me more, I imagine, than most folks because I've been away for so long. Émigré Clevelanders are forced to bear the burden of their native city's flaws and reputation alone, so there's a heightened appreciation of returning, briefly, home, even if it's for just a few hours at the stadium.

Being an American, a Clevelander and a Browns fan puts us in a rare fraternity that knows its share of abuse, ridicule and scorn.

I got to see the stadium sign this weekend thanks to a pair of 50-yard line tickets for the Bengals game.

Watching the team in person and watching them on television is not the same thing. They are distinct experiences, and what you see can look and feel completely different.

For example, the second-quarter turnovers didn't seem that bad in person. Not sure how it felt watching at home, but the mood in the stadium wasn't panic. The Bengals, even though they scored, seemed out-manned from before the opening kickoff. The Browns were in control, and all the four turnovers did was stop several more scores.

Take away the miscues, and Cincinnati likely never crosses the 50-yard line. They are not a good football team.

And the Browns?

Don't unplug the patient just yet because there are signs of life. Not surprisingly, however, I'm going to take a wait-and-see approach following this victory. I am still convinced Butch Davis needs to be let go following the season. But as I said last week, a monumental turnaround will change that view.

Beating Cincinnati was a good start. But those four turnovers, if repeated this week, will likely lead to four touchdowns by the Eagles.

Beating Cincinnati 34-17 is what a good team should do to a bad one.

But Philadelphia, obviously, is not Cincinnati. And the schedule only gets worse from here.

Upcoming are games at Baltimore, home tilts against the Steelers and Jets, a visit to Cincinnati and then home against New England (also known as "the Devil's homecoming").

Continuing to field a team that can't effectively pass block in obvious situations, turns the ball over too much and gets little pressure on the quarterback will spell doom for this season. Unless the Browns correct those problems, there is no reason to think they can win more than one of those upcoming games.

There are still too many fundamental problems with this franchise, issues that should have been resolved before the coach's fourth season. It's too far into his tenure to be dealing with things like bobbled snaps.

Jeff Garcia has fumbled what, four snaps in six games? That cannot happen in the NFL.

The offensive line still cannot consistently keep defenders out of passing lanes and off Garcia.

The defensive line is a non-factor on too many passing downs.

Still, I will acknowledge that the team appears to be making efforts to ameliorate some of the problems. Having Garcia roll out more reduces the offensive line load. That's a positive.

The acquisition of receiver Antonio Bryant in exchange for Dropsy Morgan was an outstanding move, the sort we had hoped to see from the Davis administration for four seasons.

If Bryant can keep his attitude and head straight, I foresee him becoming Garcia's favorite target and a legitimate passing threat approaching the level of Manning-to-Harrison or NcNabb-to-Owens. We'll see.

What Bryant can do is get off the line of scrimmage faster than Morgan. He sheds defenders well and can weave through traffic to make acrobatic catches.

And unlike Q, he hangs onto them.

Having a top-notch wideout that can quickly get into his pattern is vital in this offense because a good chunk of the passing game is predicated on the three-step quick pass. Quick-passing means the linemen don't have to maintain blocks very long, and that keeps Garcia on his feet instead of under a linebacker.

Bryant also gives defenders something to think about. Morgan didn't strike fear into anyone. Bryant combined with an emerging Andre Davis does. Toss in the shifty Dennis Northcutt and a solid running game, and you have the makings of a pretty good offense -- the one we expected this summer.

Still, one new player doesn't change the basics. Until they prove they can block consistently without resorting to trickery, and can hang onto the ball, the jury remains out.

Yet hope springs eternal in BrownsTown.

The final four games are against the sagging Bills, Chargers, Dolphins and Texans. If Cleveland can split the middle of its tough schedule, then it should be able to go at least 3-1 against this sad-sack group and carve out a 9-7 record, right?

Would that be good enough for the playoffs? I don't think so. And I'm not convinced they can even finish 9-7. Consistently playing fundamentally sound football wins games. The Browns are not doing that, even against Cincinnati. Most other teams in the league will capitalize on such mistakes, and bury Cleveland.

But there's no denying the signs of life. We enter now the stretch of the season that will be the measuring stick of this franchise. If the team builds upon what it did against Baltimore, Washington and Cincinnati, all is not lost.

If we see repeats of that second quarter from Sunday, the stadium will be a ghost town. The élan of the Dawg Pound won't survive an implosion of ugly defeats.

Butch Davis is about to show the world if he's the man for the job. The clock is ticking.

All I want is to see another sign that makes me tear up with joy: the scoreboard.

Is winning too much to ask?


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 Look for him at Cleveland Browns Stadium on Nov. 14 when the man-child Steelers visit.

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