Passan: The Tipping Point

The Browns have it made, financially at least. Sold out stadiums, a season ticket waiting list, big bucks from TV networks... you name it. But after forty years of championship frustration, a three year hiatus, and expansion era ineptitude, the question needs to be asked: How much more can Browns fans take?

How much more can Browns fans take?

Watching this team play the game of football is akin to sticking needles full of slow-acting poison into the body.

Browns fans have died slow, agonizing deaths just about every Sunday this season. Frustration levels have reached higher highs and lower lows than any season in memory.

The 2004 Browns can't win for losing. But they sure can lose. A lot. They've just about made it an art form.

No matter what they do, how they play or who they play, they seemed destined to lose. Maybe it's a higher authority's way of saying changes must be made. Time for a change in direction.

For those of you who believe in jinxes, your argument was buttressed by Sunday's 58-48 loss in Cincinnati. For those of you who believe Murphy's Law is raging completely out control for the Browns, Sunday's stunner supports that argument.

Bottom line: You gotta be tough to be a Browns fan.

In the annals of Cleveland Browns football, this season ranks up there as arguably the most bizarre, frustrating and downright enigmatic.

This team can do no right. If the defense stands solid and limits a team to, say, 10 points, the offense reeks and scores seven.

If that offense scores 48, more points than the Browns have scored since dropping 51 on the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1989 season opener, the aforementioned solid defense takes the afternoon off and permits 51 of the Bengals' 58 points.

A classic case of role reversal.

Left-hand, right-hand. Neither knows what the other is doing. Getting these two units to dance the same dance in the same game is costing coach Butch Davis his job.

The only thing to expect is the unexpected. Left is right. Black is white. Up is down. Day is night. Winning is losing.

Sure, those 48 points on offense against the Bengals had to be a shocker. Watching in disbelief has become somewhat of a pastime for Browns fans this season. But 48 points? Kind of made you wonder where that came from. How could such an inept offense do this?

This was an offense with a makeshift line, a running back corps reduced to one by injury, a wide receiving corps that has been a season-long disappointment and a quarterback as inconsistent as the day is long.

The jaws of Browns fans all over the country must have scraped the floor as Kelly Holcomb did his best Dan Marino imitation against the Bengals. They shouldn't have. We've seen that act before.

Holcomb was shocked that his five-touchdown performance was an exercise in futility. He should have known that 400-plus passing yards and a loss fit him like hand in glove. It's happened to him three times.

But you've got to admit he sure looked terrific. One has to wonder why he escapes pass rushes better than Jeff Garcia when Garcia is clearly the better athlete.

That one's easy. Holcomb makes his reads quickly. He picks up his receivers much quicker than Garcia. He delivers the ball quicker. He sees the field better. He sees the field . . . period.

So why isn't he better suited to run this offense, an offense he has quickly adapted to after playing so many years under the Bruce Arians' system? Because Holcomb, the gunslinger, is prone to throwing interceptions. He makes mistakes.

And no, I'm not going for another quarterback controversy. Garcia remains this team's No. 1 quarterback. A bad throwing shoulder keeps him on the bench.

And Holcomb, in the final year of his contract, won't be back next season unless he is promised a starting job and there's no way the Browns are going to make a promise like that. They've got too many other areas to address.

Holcomb correctly figures there are big bucks waiting for him in the free-agent market. Throwing for 400-plus yards in three games definitely grabbed the attention of several teams around the National Football League.

Right now, the Browns are on the fast track to nowhere and will rely on Holcomb until Garcia returns. This Sunday, he'll face the New England Patriots, who loves to confuse opposing quarterbacks. If he hangs up 400 more against the Pats, then a quarterback controversy will take on a life of its own.

That's all Davis needs. It's bad enough that his players feel frustrated by the events of this unusual season. They believe they've played well enough to be better than 3-8 with a five-game losing streak in tow.

But on the frustration meter, the fans trump the players. It's the kind of frustration that lingers, festers and then burrows into the fabric of what a Browns fan is.

One has to fully understand the depth and passion of Browns fans to understand why a season like this is so difficult to endure.

Yes, other cities around the NFL have great and passionate fans. The Black Hole  in Oakland; the cheeseheads in Green Bay; the towel-waving crazies in Pittsburgh. So what makes Browns fans so different?

The fans of the aforementioned teams have traveled a road Browns fans only dream about traveling. They've dreamed since 1964.

Even St. Louis, Tampa Bay and New England have made that journey. Carolina, an NFL baby, reached the Super Bowl. Sure, the Panthers lost, but they were where the Browns and their fans yearn to be.

So is there a solution to all the Browns' problems? There better be.

That solution rests with the wisdom of Randy Lerner. After sacking Davis in early January, the Browns' owner must pick the right people to come in here and right a franchise that has wronged its fans.

He professes to care about the legacy of Cleveland Browns football. If he chooses wisely, everyone benefits. If he chooses unwisely, get ready for more of the same.

So choose wisely, Randy. Solicit advice if you must, but go with your good business-sense gut. The box-office future of your franchise depends on it.

Browns fans deserve better and will not take much more of this. The last thing you want is an apathetic fan base.


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