Set the Twilight Reeling

Odds Are, It's Vegas, Baby … A Wild, Wandering Essay Of No Particular Importance Or Meaning And Only Vaguely Pertaining To Pro Football … Coming To Grips With Crippling Hacking Disease … Butch Davis: Sooner State Messiah … Strange Ramblings On An Icy Morning Near America's Northern Frontier.<BR><I>WARNING: Graphic language</I>

"That which we call sin in others is experiment for us." – Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), American essayist

EDITOR'S NOTE: The following was written at 4 a.m. during a snowstorm while the author suffered from the lingering effects of infamous Michigan pneumonia, "several" mojito cocktails and a couple of green pills he thinks probably contained Nyquil.

LAS VEGAS – Like a character from a Lou Reed song, or an Elmore Leonard novel, I take my pleasures in the seedier side of life. I'm especially at home in casinos. The smoke … the free-flowing booze … the pulsing sexuality … endless gambling … it's the dark side of the American Dream, and it's thriving. Casinos are a tableaux of life, it's cycles of birth and death and all that happens in between. Joy. Fear. Hope. Anger. Angst. Lust. Greed. Despair.

All the senses are called into play. To survive, one must master one's emotions and maintain command of one's focus while operating in a false reality designed to blitzkrieg the mind. The sweaty, desperate pumping baseline riff of libertine vulgar excess, when taken in large doses, is known to drive men mad. The average American psyche isn't capable of sustained operation in Las Vegas. It's simply too much. The entire human experience is compressed into a few square miles, and the results are terrifying. The masses come to look, but sure as hell not touch, and then flee back to Anytown, USA, with bawdy tales that draw snickers on church euchre night.

Unlike junkie-author-sex fiend William Burroughs or Tom Wolfe's New Journalists, I'm not always a participant in the scene. Occasionally. But often, the drama and humor are there for my viewing enjoyment, to overload my cerebral cortex with sights, sounds, smells and feelings that could come together nowhere else on Earth. The toxic onslaught, when taken in large doses, drives tourists into shock. Suburbanite minds, softened by Rotary Club meetings in Cheboygan or PTA nights in Duluth, are short-circuited by the mean, crude reality that is Las Vegas, the Vegas they're exposed to when they peel back the layers of bullshit painted on by the "family friendly" neon lights and hokey themes.

It's a vicious, unrelenting town. Sure, bring the wife for the weekend, see a show, play a little blackjack. Heck, you might even come with the boys for a business trip, taking in a "nudie" show at the Trop or the Riv. Maybe you'll even visit Fremont Street, the "old Vegas" downtown that's north of the Strip. You can plunk greasy tokens into ancient slots at depressing Binion's, between blue-haired grandmothers and coked-up junkies.

A real thrill, something to tell the girls about back at the bank. But not reality. Oh, sure, the characters that populate the place are real enough, and there's no shortage of freaks and degenerates. But that's not the harsh, soul-killing grind I'm talking about. Money. The Green Goddess. That's the only reality that exists in Las Vegas. Everything else is just the ebb and flow that springs forth from a city that exists for no other reason at all.

If you don't have money, stay away. Yes, the flights are inexpensive, the rooms cheap and the booze plentiful. But if you're not prepared to deal in large sums of cash, then think about vacationing elsewhere. Or if you do come, stick to places like the Excalibur and the Paris, where they cater to the dilettante and tourist crowds. Daily life in Las Vegas is reserved for those with souls made of iron and hearts of diamond. It's Hell in its Sunday best. No glamour, and not much fun day in and out.

Vegas is, after all, a hardcore town, full of serious gamblers with a penchant for violence and nasty outbursts every time a Quincy Morgan fails to make a fourth-down catch.

Vegas is the last, desperate refuge of the vulgarian. I'm a Vegas regular. I'm inoculated against the city's filthy tapestry of the truly pathetic, obscene and bizarre. Nothing shocks me. I don't habituate shadowy circles, don't deal with seedy underworld types. But I do move among them, watch them, study their habits. And once you get past the harsh peculiarities, there is much to learn. Bookies, in particular, are an intriguing breed because they can tell you more about your team than any hometown newspaper beat writer. I listen to them, at least the ones that have made it in this town. They know what they're talking about. You can't survive here otherwise.

The last numbers I saw on the Browns to win the next Super Bowl were 40-1, set by Las Vegas Sports Consultants. The line opened at 50-1, but the bookmakers must like the initial free agency moves made by the team. Outside of the Texans' going from 200-1 to a 150-1 longshot, the Browns' 10-point move has been the largest positive change. A couple of teams, include the Vikings and Saints, have seen their odds of winning it all next January take a turn for the worse. Strangely, Miami's acquisition of Ricky Williams only caused a 3-point shift, from a 15-1 to 12-1 spread. Clearly, the bookies don't think Weird Ricky is the final answer to Miami's postseason frustrations.

In my mind, 40-1 is a pretty good bet. Pete Rozelle's fantasy of league parity was hammered into reality by Paul Tagliabue, and that meat grinder from Boston last season showed the world that glitzy talent means nothing on Sunday unless you have the will to savagely annihilate anything in front of you. The Browns showed the capability several times to do just that, and various factors make the learning/talent curve these days pretty short. So, in the NFL's New World Order, a 40-1 bet on Cleveland winning the Super Bowl doesn't seem like such a longshot.

Dammit! This madding cough has returned with a vengeance. I grew ill just days after my latest trip to Southern Nevada, where I spent time in Bally's cozy sports book. Now I'm wracked with a tubercular cough sprung straight from a Dickens novel. All that's missing is a dwindling coal fire.

Ah, but your narrator is wandering. My health isn't your care. Football is. And I've forsaken your desires with my wild ramblings about Las Vegas. Bear with me, gentle reader.

Let's cut to the chase, get down to brass tacks. All crap aside, this team has needs. Any street corner bookie in Vegas or Parma can tell you that. Here's my expert breakdown by positional need:

OFFENSIVE LINE: All sorts of bad noise has been made by the various beat writers, scribes and fanboys about the pressing requirement to upgrade the line. Folks, things ain't that bad. I've a fine sense of the cat/mouse-smoke/mirrors games the Browns like to play. They're not drafting any linemen early. No moves to get the big beef. The team has a couple of potential studs in Shaun O'Hara and Brad Bedell. My gut says Butch sees O'Hara as the eventual replacement and long-term answer at center. For now, he'll be groomed at guard to get playing time since Dave Wohlabough is still serviceable. Also, the team can't afford a complete overhaul, and center isn't a critical need. Bedell showed some talent, and management likely believes he will continue to develop. After all, they saw reason enough to draft the kid. Verba and Tucker will bookend at tackle. Overall it's an upgrade over 2001. Maybe not massive, but enough that if a running back is brought onboard, the ground game could at least become average. And average is light-years better. Expect another signing after June 1.

RUNNING BACK: Unless Crafty Carmen, Baffling Butch and Devious Dwight have some nefarious plan in the works they plan to hatch on draft day, the team will select Michigan State's T.J. Duckett. Forget all the crap you've heard about Boston College's Green. It's junk. Duckett is a beast, and Cleveland is all too familiar with getting clobbered by the other beasts that inhabit the division, namely Jerome Bettis, Corey Dillon and Eddie George. My guess is that the brass lusts after a workhorse that will pound teams up the middle – as Duckett did to the Big Ten – while keeping the pressure off The Franchise, quarterback Tim Couch. It's a combination that can't fail – on paper. I've seen Duckett play many times. He's worth it.

WIDE RECEIVER: Kevin Johnson is it. No worries there. If the team can get someone like Detroit castoff Johnnie Morton, the passing game should become a little more than one-dimensional.

I'm bored with that. Let's move on. Wait a sec, lemme grab a drink first.

OK, I'm back. Continue.

In the end, this all becomes a game. It's like an old expression some wise sage once told me: "If we had ham, we could have ham and eggs if we had eggs."

Get it? The formula is simple and proven, but it's been a long, long time since it's worked in Cleveland. A decent offensive line and running back take the pressure off the quarterback. In turn, a serviceable second wide receiver allows the marquee receiver to blossom even more. Once the offense can move the ball like all the other teams do in the league, the pressure's off an already pretty good defense, allowing it to get even better. It's a domino theory. Once A works, B should follow, then C, then D. Then you win the Super Bowl, and Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Denver all burn to the ground (well, maybe not the burning part, but one can hope, right?).

It's done every season in the NFL. It can happen in Cleveland. Odds are, it has to.

But like life, sometimes things don't work out. Even if all the physical pieces are in place, and there's no reason the machine shouldn't run smoothly, things fall apart. The human element is most critical. Some teams have it, most don't. NFL franchises are built in depth, and individual failure is expected and planned for on the playing field. Otherwise, playbooks would be much smaller. Generations of coaches and executives have studied the gestation and evolution of the game, so the secrets to success, though varied and not inflexible, are familiar. It's when the human element within the actual structure of the organization, the framework that operates the franchise, is weak that failure becomes unavoidable. Take Cincinnati for example. Founder and coach Paul Brown, and later Sam Wyche, were people that built a team from scratch into a two-time Super Bowl participant. But when Brown died, and the weak-seed son, Mike Brown, became the organization's soul, the collapse was precipitous and sickening.

Often, the critical human element is the head coach. Depending on how the team is structured, he is single being that controls the intricate network. Sometimes he's just one cog in the wheel, and there is no single being. In that case, the chances of the human element turning malignant are multiplied. NFL history is littered with examples of men who fit the role of the coach being the team, carving out success by leading – or bullying – the talent. Lombardi. Halas. Brown.

Why do some Ohio football coaches disintegrate before our eyes? Paul Brown's puritan ways earned him a ticket to exile when the swinging ‘60s were ushered into Cleveland by legendary New York swinging bachelor Arthur B. Modell. Sam Rutigliano was a lovable doofus who lost touch with reality. Woody Hayes went violently insane. John Cooper dug deeper into his bunker.

Others didn't come to a disgraceful end. Blanton Collier knew when to hang it up. Marty Schottenheimer stood firm in the face of Modell's edict to fire his own brother. The answer is in the mettle of the man, and we often don't get the real glimpse of that until the end.

In Cleveland, Oklahoman Butch Davis is the key figure. Certainly, there are other dominant and important personalities that have deep and far-reaching impact on the team's success, but Davis exudes the air of a man in charge. He controls the fate and destiny of the team, and everything else within the organization exists to support that notion. Owners and executives seem to realize and accept the reality that Butch Davis is a Super Bowl coach, a Hall of Fame coach, and know it's their role to pave the way. The money men know their place, and have signed on for the ride they know will take them to that Sunday in January.

Davis showed flashes of that potential in 2001. That team had no right to be 7-9 and still in playoff contention in December. Hell, they were written off in the summer as a bad joke with no hope that shouldn't even bother to play the games. Instead, the supposed NFL experts KNEW that Tampa Bay, Philadelphia, St. Louis, Tennessee and Pittsburgh would thrash everything in their way en route to the postseason.

It all turned out to be crap, as usual. The experts were wrong, as usual, too.

The Steelers were a pack of mean and stupid German shepherds, bloodthirsty and calculating. They tore the balls off anyone foolish enough to challenge them, especially on their own turf.

But it was all smoke and mirrors. Pittsburgh's nasty act eventually ran into a gang of emotionless, calculating wolves from Boston, who gnashed and snarled and turned the Iron City pretenders into hamburger.

More importantly, the Patriots exposed the Steelers as the false gods of the AFC. At crunch time, Bill Cowher's teams fold like South American democracies. Jerome Bettis is a washed-up has-been. Kordell Stewart yet again proved unable to live up even to mediocre hype. It's all a shame manufactured by marketing execs. Cowher's bulldog jaw is made of glass.

Pittsburgh was nothing more than smoke and mirrors, a house of cards that came crashing down in the face of a true challenge. And remember, this team had to rally to a 7-7 tie at halftime in the 2001 finale against a Browns team held together by medical tape, pride and Butch Davis' immense will.

St. Louis and Philadelphia both blew out like old tires in the playoffs, Tampa Bay's ownership went insane and Tennessee fell back into its proper place on the ash heap. And the experts have no explanation for it. False seers, all.

I'm in the mood to predict. Let's take an early look at the Browns' 2002 slate of opponents.

Cincinnati Bengals: Pathetic. Quarterbacks would rather quit the game entirely than come play here. And the cast of passers refusing Bungletown employment isn't exactly grand: Elvis Grbac, Trent Dilfer and Drew Bledsoe. Expect very little improvement from this team, and watch Corey Dillon's career drift away.

Pittsburgh Steelers: See above.

Houston Texans: On paper, they've made some nice moves. On paper, Ishtar probably seemed like a good script. The Chris Palmer curse will cripple this team, which won't win more than three games. Unfortunately, this is exactly the kind of team to which the Browns fall prey.

Indianapolis Colts: All depends on the defense. If it improves, the Colts are again Super Bowl contenders. Was Peyton Manning's flurry of interceptions a fluke? Or a sign of things to come? There has to be an air of urgency for the offense, which is talented, but ain't getting any younger. Like Dillon in Cincinnati, the prime years are passing.

Kansas City Chiefs: Who cares? Trent Green is a disaster at quarterback. This is a 6-10 team if Priest Holmes can match last season's surprising output.

Atlanta Falcons: Despite new owner Arthur Blank's gun slinging checkbook, the Falcons are still a pile of crap. Signing Warrick Dunn looks good, but he's undersized and playing on turf, which hasn't been kind to Atlanta running backs. Michael Vick has done nothing more than make commercials.

Carolina Panthers: This franchise is a steaming pile of worthlessness. The Browns should punish this team mercilessly. Who's the quarterback? I can't even tell you. Hell, I don't even know off the top of my head who the coach is. Why does this team exist?

Baltimore Ravens: Poster child for salary cap woes. Swung for the fences again in 2001 without planning for the future, and blew it. It will be enjoyable to watch this team decay before our eyes. No more HBO specials for losers.

Jacksonville Jaguars: All Tom Coughlin's push-ups and all Mark Brunnell's Bible-thumping won't save this team. The salary cap will keep it from contention for years to come. Good riddance. Before long, owner Wayne Weaver will be asking fans to toss bottles on the field, so he can collect them for cash refunds.

Tennessee Titans: We saw the beginning of the end last season. Age and injuries will limit this team from the postseason. The talent is beginning to fade.

New York Jets: How old is Vinny? 422? This team will win its division, or go 4-12. I have no feel for it.

New Orleans Saints: They're done. The Ricky Williams trade may pay off down the road, but for now, the talent isn't there. This team reeks of internal problems and a mad desire to rid itself of Ditka's legacy.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The only team determined to make the Bengals look well-managed. The limited talent is aging or gone. Now, there's no draft picks to replace anyone. Brilliant.

Ah, I can see the sun rising now across the icy waters of Lake Huron. The chilly morning wind is whistling through the tall pines. The faint strains of Miles Davis have long since faded from the stereo. It's dawn in my part of the forest, and I need to finish this drink and sleep. It's time to rest. The season is still very far off.

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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