FEAR AND LOATHING: COUCH'S ELEVEN

Browns 41, Arrogant Rubes 38 … See Timmy Pass. Pass, Timmy, Pass! … The Road To San Diego And Super Bowl XXXVII … Cleveland's Grail Quest: The Complete Game.

WADHAMS, Mich. – "Early symptoms include a weak and rapid pulse and heartbeat. The eyes are widely dilated, the mouth and other mucous membranes are dry and animals may appear blind. Later, slow breathing may be observed as well as lowered temperature, convulsions or coma."

Symptoms of yet another Sunday in front of the television, watching the gut-wrenching Cleveland Browns? Perhaps, but the narrative above is actually the medical description of the affects of eating jimson weed, a foul and cruel plant long known to dope fiends for its sometimes fatally hallucinogenic properties.

"After eating the plants, sheep have been observed to have abnormal leg movements, disturbed vision, intense thirst and to bite at imaginary objects in the air."

Eerily similar to myself on Sunday afternoons.

Ah, but we're getting away from ourselves. Despite a vow to myself to keep this story from wandering off on bizarre tangents, I find myself again straying from the subject at hand, the Cleveland Browns.

The spiteful jimson weed, however, is perhaps an appropriate symbol for the Tennessee Titans, a franchise that has always irritated me.

Coach Jeff Fisher and quarterback Steve McNair have always seemed a bit arrogant when it comes to playing the Browns. Not in a juvenile Baltimore way, but in a dismissive, disdainful manner. Watching the Titans on the sidelines the last few years during Browns game, they seemed to think of Cleveland as an annoyance, like they didn't take the game seriously. Of course, the Browns gave them no reason to be any other way in recent years, but it still aggravated me.

Some of that flippant Titan attitude emerged again in the third quarter Sunday. Eddie George, McNair and Fisher were all smiles when Cleveland fell behind by a pair of scores. To them, Cleveland's back was broken and it was time to relax.

Then Tim Couch took over. He silenced a goodly portion of his critics by engineering a 17-point explosion and a 41-38 victory on the road. His numbers were impressive: 20-for-27 passing for 337 yards and a trio of touchdown strikes.

With the improbable victory, another hurdle was overcome is the reconstruction of the Cleveland Browns. All that remains between the ugly recent past and true legitimacy as a contender for the AFC title is Sunday's game at Pittsburgh.

Mr. Couch has been the subject of much posterior smooching this week from the local newspapers, radio shows and television airheads. Most of the accolades are deserved, but let's reserve final judgement on Couch-as-savior until the Pittsburgh game.

Don't get me wrong. I'm on the bandwagon. Butch Davis is right: Couch will lead the Browns to the Super Bowl. But Sunday will be a true measurement of his progress thus far.

If Couch performs well at Heinz field against a Steelers team that looks to be the class of the AFC (boy, that's painful to write), then general expectations for 2002 will a helluva lot brighter than this past season.

Remember, we're about to undergo the first major realignment since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Cleveland will be in the AFC North Division with Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

In my mind, that bodes well. In fact, I will predict right now that the Cleveland Browns, barring another season of catastrophic injuries, will win the division and advance to the Super Bowl.

To do so, Cleveland needs to play with regularity what I call Complete Games, something we've seen precious little of in three seasons. Glimpses, yes. But that won't win a division.

What is the Complete Game? Here's my expectation based on the past 15 weeks:

  1. The pass offense puts on a clinic like it did against Tennessee.
  2. The running attack musters yardage as it did at Green Bay.
  3. The defense plays like it did against Detroit, Baltimore and the second Cincinnati game.
  4. Special teams coverage units perform as they did against Tennessee – and Phil Dawson isn't needed at the end.
  5. Chris Gardocki has a typical day.
  6. The coaching staff doesn't get weird or gun shy.

If the Browns can consistently perform on a single Sunday as they did in those games, Browns Nation will be cheering its precious beloved well into January 2003.

Of course, Cleveland gets a little assistance from the league next season. Realignment should coincide with the natural slide of the division's two top teams.

Let's take a look at the AFC North for next year.

CINCINNATI: Team turmoil. Jon Kitna is dreadful at quarterback, and his receivers hate him. Corey Dillon is grumbling again. No matter whom the Bengals sign to play defense, they immediately lose 25 IQ points upon arriving in the Queen City. Morale is shot and the ownership is cheap, so there is almost no hope for this team. Dick LeBeau will be fired and replaced by Kenny Anderson. And finally, ladies and gentlemen … Neil Rackers. Prediction: 5-11.

BALTIMORE: Another team that failed miserably in its quest to upgrade at quarterback. Weeping Elvis isn't the answer. The running game should improve if Jamal Lewis can return from a knee injury. If so, the Ravens offense could improve. But I doubt it. The Myth of the Baltimore Defense becomes more of a reality as age sets in and more teams figure out the schemes. Prediction: 8-8.

PITTSBURGH: This team won't recover from its upcoming playoff collapse. Kordell is still, well, Kordell. Pathetic quarterbacks can have decent seasons. Journalists have been slobbering over Stewart because he's not playing poorly. Not great, but not poorly. Just what I'd want written about my passer. The Bus is showing his age and is rapidly becoming more injury prone. Expect him to slow even more next fall. The Steeler defense is outstanding every couple of years, then turns to mush the following season. This team is a paper tiger and Bill Cowher gets fired. Mike Mularkey replaces him. PREDICTION: 6-10.

CLEVEVLAND: If the team can stay healthy, pick up a couple of offensive linemen and defensive ends and a few other pieces, then all is well. Couch is clearly the best quarterback in the division, and 2002 should be his breakout season. Kevin Johnson should take his game to a Pro Bowl level if another receiver emerges to take the pressure off. The running game should elevate itself to workmanlike averageness with the addition of better guards. Defensively, the Browns will only get better with Keith McKenzie and Courtney Brown back at end. Their pressure on the quarterback will continue the interception flurry in the secondary. The team will find itself with depth at corner for the first time in forever: Daylon McCutcheon, Corey Fuller, Anthony Henry and Lewis Sanders. Safety is a concern. Jamir Miller is one of the best linebackers in the AFC. Special teams coverage needs improved, but healthy players should help that. Kicking and punting is solid. Prediction: 12-4 and a Super Bowl victory over San Francisco.

NOTES: My momentary doubts about Tim Couch's ability to lead the Cleveland Browns cost me dearly. In my Yahoo! fantasy football league, I benched Couch in favor of Brett Favre. Our league was in the first round of the playoffs, and the decision was disastrous. Favre had a pathetic afternoon. Meanwhile, Couch was busy putting together a career afternoon against Tennessee. Oops. My bad. … The last time Cleveland put up at least was 41 points was a 42-14 rout of the Las Angeles Ram on the day after Christmas in 1993. … Did it not suck of Mike Brown proportions that Ohio State stages that incredible comeback in the Outback Bowl against South Carolina, then the coaching staff calls a boneheaded deep pass? The Ohio State Bengals? I don't even blame the much-maligned Steve Bellisari for that botched final series. Fire some assistant coach, now. … Congrats to Jamir Miller for being the first Brown to earn a trip to the Pro Bowl since the 1994 season. He's the first outside linebacker from Cleveland to be voted in since Clay Matthews after the 1989 season.

Doc Gonzo is a former Ohio newspaper reporter and editor. He now lives in a remote part of Michigan's Thumb, safe from knaves, fools and Ratbirds. He can be reached at docgonzo19@aol.com.


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