The Owl: Trouble on the Horizon

There are times when we wish we could print only uplifting and fun stories on the front page. Perhaps unfortunately, we've committed ourselves to offering up the truth as we see it, which the Owl does this bright Thursday morning.

Normally holdouts come from successful teams, as with the Patriots where New England safety Rodney Harrison is complaining about his contract.

Here, we get a moody left tackle unhappy about making approximately $3.5 million in 2005.

Welcome to the world of general managers, Phil Savage. Or, to be more precise, meet Ross Verba.

Verba says only a handful of left tackles are better than he is. He rates Jonathan Ogden from the Ravens, Orlando Pace from the Rams and Walter Jones from the Seahawks ahead of him, but that's about it.

Now Verba is staying away from passing camp, says he'll boycott minicamp later this month and plans to sit out training camp and the regular season if he does not get a new contract.

This situation is much more ticklish for Savage than the one concerning Reuben Droughns, the running back acquired in a trade with the Broncos. Droughns has no reason to expect the Browns to rework the contract he signed in Denver. Verba, on the other hand, agreed to take less money in 2004 because he was injured in 2003. Former coach Butch Davis promised Verba would get a bump in pay for 2005 and beyond if Verba proved himself in 2004, which he did. But now Davis isn't around to honor that promise.

Davis should not be faulted for making the promise to Verba. Nor is Savage obligated to fulfill Davis' promise, which is why this is such a dicey problem.

Verba wants to more than double his deal, and that's going to make for some deep lines being drawn in the sand. He is looking for $40 million for six years. The Browns could do that by back-loading the contract and cutting him after two years, but he'd still require a signing bonus that would result in a pile of dead money.

Browns president John Collins should have seen this coming, and to an extent Savage should have as well. At the very end of last season Verba made it clear he wanted a new contract, but his implied threat seemed to lose significance when Collins and owner Randy Lerner went on a general manager search, which was followed by the coaching search, free agency, the draft and Kellen Winslow Jr.'s motorcycle accident.

Verba had the torn biceps that kept him out all of the 2003 season and he had back problems before that. He is a strange dude off the field and is trying to tone that down by moving out into the country. Whether he is leading a different lifestyle or is just out of earshot of his neighbors is hard to say. It really doesn't matter.

What matters is the Browns have never drafted a tackle or guard in the first five rounds of any draft in the last seven years, and that means they have to scramble to find an adequate replacement for Verba should each side dig in their heals in this contract dispute.

Starting free agency by signing guards Joe Andruzzi and Cosey Coleman seemed to indicate this administration finally got the picture - the line was the slum of the football team. But ignoring guard and tackle again is going to make for problems by mid-season. Mark The Owl's words.

Not only does the Verba situation have to be resolved, but the question of whether Ryan Tucker can return to his 2003 form when he never missed a snap has to be asked. What happens if Verba holds out and Tucker goes down with another injury? He was sidelined twice last year - once with a torn quadriceps muscle and once with a knee injury. He plays hard every down. His body could be older than its 29 years on this earth would indicate.

The Browns do not have adequate backups at either position. Oh, sure, someone might emerge. Maybe Jonathan Dunn, the seventh-round draft choice could surprise everyone and play right tackle, which would mean moving Tucker to the left side. Or maybe Sterling Harris or Enoch DeMar could take advantage of another training camp.

One way or another, the Browns will find a way if they don't have Ross Verba. The offensive line just won't be as good as it would be if he plays.

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