Doc Gonzo: Desperation in the Twilight

The good Doc turns his somewhat blurred gaze to the Cleveland Browns' situation at quarterback...

Trent Dilfer must be living his own personal hell these days, but on a very public stage.

He made a Faustian deal with Lucifer to continue his NFL career, and we're witness to the unfolding Greek tragedy.

"Sure, you can have another shot," the Devil said, "but it's in Cleveland."

In Cleveland. That's always the catch, isn't it? In Cleveland.

It's the land where failed expectations meet perpetual unrealistic optimism. The result is an endless cycle of bizarre, confusing frustrations. They keep losing, but we keep coming back for more, and don't know why. Not unlike the fabled swallows of Capistrano, or the darkly cute myth of lemmings tumbling over a cliff. All that ever changes is the names on the back of the jerseys.

Dilfer is the name on the No. 8 jersey. Over the past three weeks he's gone from imported local hero to driver of an offense that has all the grace of a sputtering Zamboni stuck in the middle of the ice, powerless while surrounded by impatient fans hurling scorn his way.

The reality is, Dilfer is playing no different than he has his entire career. Hot for awhile, then cold as Art Modell's soul. There was no reason to believe he was going to arrive in Cleveland and perform radically different for an endlessly rebuilding team.

Certainly, he's brought to Cleveland a solid "character" background, which is a pleasant change from the petulant, brooding Tim Couch, the overzealously hickish Kelly Holcomb and the effeminate narcissism of Jeff Garcia.

Character can get you in the door. Touchdown passes and victories get you into the hearts of the Dawg Pound. Those have been sorely lacking lately. Feel-good stories are meaningless in the NFL. They're just fodder for lazy sports writers and team flacks who churn out press releases no one reads. We're reminded that Dilfer has a Super Bowl ring, but winning a Super Bowl for Baltimore is like winning a gold medal for Germany at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Who brags about that?

All that matters now is the final score on Sunday. From all accounts, Dilfer's a great guy with a moving story, and he says all the right things. But he's played like a bozo the past two weeks, reminding everyone why he's having to resurrect a career that been an 11-year saga of disappointments.

Dilfer's playing with a terminal desperation in the twilight of a mediocre career, a fatal trend that will only hasten the final chapter that we've already read: his replacement with rookie Charlie Frye. Dilfer's to blame only for his own mistakes, and there's no shortage of those, but his gaffes are compounded by errors around him. On Sunday, the miscues gathered into a perfect storm of disaster that led to Cleveland losing to a very beatable Lions team.

So now, the outcry is for Frye. Coach Romeo Crennel waited until Wednesday to tell everyone that Dilfer will remain at quarterback at least another week. Crennel obviously realized starting a rookie at winless Houston only set the stage for a mental blow that could damage the young quarterback. No sense in that (See: Couch, Tim 1999). But he should have made the announcement after last Sunday's game. Had Dilfer been the sole reason they lost, then there's reason to wait. But it was evident to the 73,000 in attendance and those watching at home that it was a team loss. Mindless penalties, missed blocks, poor execution, etc. We know the story.

The biggest mistake being made is the collective brain-lock by fans about the 2005 Browns. This is not a team that can contend for anything. It's an experiment.

It's natural to want to win, and win now. When a Baltimore or Pittsburgh comes to town, we want the Browns to exterminate the brutes. But Cleveland may have been better off starting 0-4 and winning the last couple of games. That would have grounded everyone's expectations and served as a reminder that the 2005 season is a 17-week laboratory designed to formulate a winning team in the future. But not now. Winning now is a nice side benefit. Finding players who can perform and working the kinks out of the offense, defense and special teams is what this year is about.

Think of 2005 as a box of Legos. You sorta know what you want to eventually build, but you have to dig through all those Legos until you find the pieces that correctly fit together. Is Trent Dilfer one of those Legos? Probably not. And no one yet knows if Frye fits, either. But this week is not the time to find out. Forcing him in there could do worse long-term damage.

We know what Dilfer can do, both good and bad. Fans knew his history coming into the season, so there should be no surprises. He's going to have weeks in which we looks like Otto Graham. He's going to have weeks in which he plays like Mike Phipps. It's best to suffer through that Jekyll-Hyde kind of play until the team is sufficiently stable at other positions. By doing that, you're setting up Frye to step into a situation that won't break him.

If Frye is the young man who will eventually bring a Lombardi Trophy home to his native Northeast Ohio, then I'm terrified at the notion of L.J. Shelton protecting his blind side. Now is not Frye's time.

My guess is that Dilfer will perform better at Houston, and this quarterback issue will fade. Crennel seems to think that, too. He didn't degenerate into a Butch Davis-style meltdown of blaming the fans, the officials and Yoko Ono before spewing insane nonsense about "playing their guts out" after the last few defeats. That's comforting. He eventually made the correct decision about his quarterback.

Let's not forget weeks like this down the road. It's times like now that are going to make some late January Sunday night – a night in which Charlie Frye hoists a certain silver trophy into the sky – and the better. We're going to appreciate what it took to get there, because fans make the journey to that immortal place as much as the players do. And we'll have made the journey together, the right way, the moral way. Not the Baltimore way.


Former Ohio newspaper reporter and editor Bill Shea writes the Doc Gonzo column each week for BerniesInsiders. He'll be spending the weekend lobbying the president to nominate him to the U.S. Supreme Court. You can reach him at

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