Joe Brownlee: What Now?

A view on Butch Davis' future, from a long-time Browns fan and commentator

Good day, Browns fans!

If you are used to reading this space, you are used to a lot of player analysis, talk about performance on the field, questions about the behind the scenes decisions made by the coaching staff, stuff like that. After the debacle in the hated City To The East, I don't see much point in all of that. By now, you've read the columns I have. Some call for the head of Butch Davis on a platter. Some remind us that the team has made progress. Some try to dissect the game and determine why punts went just seven yards or why nobody knows what play to run or why players can't stay still until the snap.

Forget all of that this week.

I've met many of you that read this column over the years. Many of us have lived and died with the guys in the orange helmets since we can remember. In many cases, our fathers and even grandfathers before us did likewise. Many of us have shared the bleachers in Berea debating the finer points of Brian Kinchen's skills or who stretches the best. I fought side by side with many of you to keep the name, colors, and tradition of the Browns in Cleveland. We feel the pain of our beloved team, the one we fought for against long odds, being a fun house mirror reflection of the teams of Graham, Groza, Brown, Sipe, and Kosar.

So, I hope that I've earned the right to talk to you about where my head is right now.

I've got to say, I haven't come to many definite conclusions.

There's a running argument between me and myself.

Let me share it with you and see what you think.

Let me start by saying that after the Steelers game, I said I was done with Butch Davis.

I'm still not happy with him. It seems to me that for every good thing he has done for the Cleveland Browns, he's done two bad things. He's made plenty of mistakes in games, including all the ones you can rattle off from Sunday's game that I won't list here. He's made plenty of mistakes in getting the talent the team needs to win consistently. All that being said, I've been swayed by those who argue that firing Butch means starting over. Again.

I then ask myself, is that really what this means? And, if so, is it the best way to go for this team?

Who is out there that you want as coach?

Maybe by some miracle a good coach ends up on the streets at the end of the season, but who is there that will be in that situation who is better?

Maybe you could go after a "retread" coach like Jim Fassell.

The recent trend in the NFL has been that college coaches aren't always making the leap well. I'd argue that one of the biggest problems with Butch Davis has been his inability to adapt to the NFL, despite his experience as an NFL assistant. Still, I might be tempted to look at a Nick Saban or Kirk Ferentz, both guys with Browns ties. That is, if they will come.

Or, you could look at an assistant. For every Jack del Rio, there is a Gregg Williams. And let's not even think about what they are saying in Carolina right now as opposed to last February. No sure thing there, either. You could look at one of the retired coaching "legends" like Mike Ditka, but even Joe Gibbs is struggling in D.C.

With all that said, the remaining eight games, like it or not, are a referendum on Butch Davis and his staff. It is possible Butch will lose the players. But even after the team fell way out of the race last year, they played hard except for a quarter and a half against the Ravens.

If we can agree that is so, then how do you judge this referendum?

The first step to answering that question is to determine your expectations.

Some are saying the Browns are still in the playoff race. Mathematically, they are. But in a practical sense, that giant flushing sound you heard was the end of the season just before midnight Sunday night. The Browns had a lot of teams to climb over, and probably needed seven wins the rest of the way, and even at that, they had to be the right seven. That included an important division game against a team above them in the standings that is now a loss. So, let's look at where we are.

With eight games remaining, the Browns face four teams with winning records (Pittsburgh, New York Jets, New England, San Diego), all at home incidentally, and four teams that are .500 or below (Cincinnati, Buffalo, Miami, Houston), all on the road. The Browns have played some good teams tough. On the other hand, they have also lost some key starters and continue to be their own worst enemy, with no sign of improvement. Further, the Bengals will be looking for revenge, Buffalo is a tough place to play in December, and Houston may have motivation to win, if not for the playoffs, at least to finish .500 for the first time in the team's brief history.

I think the most reasonable scenario is that the team goes 1-3 against the winning teams, and 3-1 against the others. That puts the Browns at 7-9, which just happens to be what I predicted at the start of the season. It might be possible to pull an upset and finish 8-8, but I think any scenario that has the Browns winning six or more games just isn't realistic based on what we've seen to date.

The flip side is that winning three or less games the rest of the year isn't all that far-fetched, especially considering that the remainder of the schedule is front-loaded with more difficult games. If the Browns lose to Pittsburgh this week, as seems likely, they are 3-6. Yes, I know this week's game is just the kind the team has won under Butch Davis, but even a win here still leaves the team 4-5 with three of the next four games against over .500 teams.

But the Browns under Davis are just as likely to lay an egg against the Bengals or Dolphins. It is not unreasonable to imagine the Browns being 4-8, and at that point, to have to win out to even reach .500, who knows how the players react?

I personally think a reasonable goal is to split the remaining games and go 7-9.

Winning just six but doing so with heart may be enough, but Butch Davis will be an increasingly marked man in the media, as we saw this weekend, and not just the local press, but the national media. One of the things I thought was encouraging at the end of last season was when Davis admitted he had made some mistakes. So far this year, we hear all the pat stuff about players playing their innards out and such, but Davis rarely points a finger at himself. How will Davis react if the media in Cleveland, usually not a feisty bunch, becomes more hostile? What if every week he is facing questions about his own job security?

Well, the bottom line is, I'm back on the fence. If the team quits on Butch Davis, Randy Lerner's hand will be forced. If Davis does OK the rest of the way, what if Lerner insists on changes in the front office? Will Davis pull a Marty and bolt instead? We've all seen how Bill Belichick learned from his mistakes in Cleveland. Might Davis do the same? Is one more year worth the risk, perhaps with a "playoffs or else" mandate? Or can Davis put together a second half that doesn't include a 17th game, but inspires everyone with confidence about 2005?

All of these musings lead me to an interesting thought. A year ago, there was an immense quarterback debate.

Many of us thought that maybe, just maybe, Tim Couch could recover from the controversy and build on some workman-like performances at garbage time of the 2003 season to be an adequate "play not to lose" quarterback. It's now obvious that even with an offensive line that leaves much to be desired, Jeff Garcia is far and away better than Couch, and even the lowly Chicago Bears with Craig Krenzel don't want Couch as a backup. Might we say the same thing if a new coach were to come to town with some football savvy? Might we see that Davis was nothing more than a pretender and ask ourselves what we ever saw in him?

So, as you watch, watch the game and the X's and O's. But also watch the tone of the game, the mood of the players, the professionalism of the coaching staff. These are probably better indications as to the future than whether the right guard can block anyone. Then see if the employees of the Cleveland Browns are held as accountable as most of us are on our jobs.

Next Up: The Browns face Big Ben and the 7-1 Steelers.

The season is short. Bark hard!

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