Analysis: Guard Problems Started in 2002

As the Browns season spirals to 3-7, there are a lot of fingers being pointed at Butch Davis in the press. Frank Derry actually believes that the team's biggest problem, offensive guard play, had its roots in decisions that were made back in 2002. Here's the type of analysis that you can't get anywhere else...<BR><BR>

To Butch Davis's credit, he has not publicly used the injuries that sidelined No. 1 draft pick Kellen Winslow, Jr. and second-round choice Sean Jones as an excuse for the team's record that fell to 3-7 with Sunday's 10-7 loss to the New York Jets.

(Something tells me that when he and owner Randy Lerner meet behind closed doors, it might be a different story, which is understandable in that the much-maligned Browns head coach is fighting to keep his job.)

Unfortunately, Davis did ridiculously use the injury bug to try and explain why he has had such a tough time finding quality offensive guards. He wasn't referring to the season-ending injury to Kalvin Garmon, the giant 350 pound guard signed as a free agent this past off-season.

Rather, Davis pointed to all of the injured linemen who were on the roster when he arrived on Jan. 30, 2001.    

Say what!

"The day that I got here, I think there were 10 or 11 offensive linemen, and seven of them were on crutches," Davis said. "It was hard to assess anyone because they could not practice."

Injuries in 2001 are still affecting the team nearly four seasons later?

Yeah, Butch, and if Ernie Davis hadn't suffered from a career-ending illness, and Jim Brown hadn't retired prematurely following the 1965 season; and if Don Rogers hadn't overdosed; and if Bernie Kosar's talent hadn't ….

Well, I think you get the picture.

Bad things happen to teams in the NFL.

Good teams find a way to overcome those problems. Good personnel directors can quickly identify talent, or lack thereof, and make changes. Rarely does it happen overnight, but it certainly shouldn't take four years!

Did Davis think he would find out more about the players he inherited by working them out in practice than he did by watching them on film in actual game situations?

Upon his arrival, I think Davis could have asked even a nonchalant Browns fan what the team's No. 1 problem was, and the answer would have been a resounding "offensive line!"

It was obvious to the naked eye that quarterback Tim Couch had little time to throw. The offensive line had allowed 60 sacks in 1999 and 40 more times in 2000.  In addition, the running backs had no holes to run through as they averaged just 3.7 yards per carry in 1999 and 3.2 in 2000.

But rather than trying to build an offensive line through high draft picks and free agents, Davis instead opted to go for a defensive tackle (Gerard Warren) with his first pick in 2001, followed by yet another wide receiver (Quincy Morgan) in round two. (Remember, the Browns had used their second-round pick both in 1999 and 2000 to take wide receivers, Kevin Johnson and Dennis Northcutt.)    

In fact, Davis was so unconcerned about the offensive line that he didn't even draft a lineman until the seventh round when he selected Paul Zukauskas.

Following his first year as head coach, Davis apparently identified the offensive line problems as being left tackle Roman Oben and center Dave Wohlabaugh. He allowed Oben to leave as a free agent. All Oben did was go on to start at left tackle for the Buccaneers team that won Super Bowl XXXVII.

Davis, meanwhile, began making plans for replacing Wohlabaugh by using his third-round draft pick in 2002 to select Melvin Fowler. Davis apparently did not think Wohlabaugh was physical enough to play center for his team, thus the selection of Fowler,

"He (Fowler) was drafted as a center," Davis said. "We thought he may potentially be the heir apparent to Dave Wohlabaugh."

But Fowler was by no means ready physically to replace Wohlabaugh, thus Wohlabaugh kept his job throughout the 2002 season.

But come the end of the '02 season, Wohlabaugh, who was an anchor on the offensive line as the team made the playoffs for the first and only time since its return in 1999, was allowed to leave as a free agent.

Wohlabaugh then signed with the powerful St. Louis Rams and started every game at center for 2003 NFC West Champions. Unfortunately, he is now out of football with a hip injury.

With Fowler nowhere near being ready to replace Wohlabaugh in in 2002, the Browns had to turn to the draft to find a replacement.

Thus, the team used its first round draft choice in 2003 to grab highly-touted Jeff Faine out of Notre Dame to play center. That automatically relegated Fowler either to being the backup center or to another offensive line position, namely guard. He has repeatedly proven the latter is not his strength. "Guard just doesn't appear to be the position that he's best suited for," Davis said, insisting "He (Fowler) has played very well when he's played at center."

But in reality, if he had played "very well" at center, then there would have been no reason to draft Faine.

The bottom line is Davis made very bad decisions in allowing Oben and Wohlabaugh to leave as free agents, thus being forced to find replacements for them while ignoring the problem area on the offensive line, the left and right guard spots.

Had Oben been retained, Ross Verba, currently at left tackle, could be playing left guard, the position for which he is much better suited. And if Wohlabaugh had been retained or if Fowler had panned out, then the first round draft choice in 2003 could have been used to select a quality right guard.     

Instead, the Browns probably have less talent at the guard position than any team in the NFL. Quarterback Jeff Garcia has been critical of the guards this season. Verba joined in the bashing this past week.

Granted, with projected starters Garmon and Chad Beasley both sidelined with injuries, the Browns have been forced to dip into their backup talent at their weakest position on the roster.

Rather than Davis blame the injuries which existed when he arrived in 2001, he should be pointing a finger at himself for the terrible personnel decisions he made in allowing Oben and Wohlabaugh to leave as free agents, and for picking Fowler in the third round in 2002.

"You can only fix so many things throughout the course of time," Davis said.

Complicating matters is when you try to fix things that aren't broken. Then the true problem areas get neglected, something Davis and his staff have done way too long.


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