EDITOR'S NOTE: Still on the mend from pneumonia, the Doc was able to pull himself away from Fox's coverage of the frighteningly captivating Middle East conflagration long enough to record a few thoughts. He has since returned to his forest bunker, mumbling something about "… that damn Arafat" and "… Rainer's doomed now!"
WADHAMS, Mich. – It's over.
Weeks and months of speculation have come to pass. The analysis, projections, prognostications, guesswork, arguments, teeth-gnashing and film work are through.
Mel Kiper has gone back into his hole.
That's right, the draft is finally finished.
And with its first-round pick, Cleveland selected … Deanna Jackson.
The 6-foot-2 forward from the University of Alabama-Birmingham that was leading the nation in scoring with 26.2 points per game and 12.2 rebounds per game before breaking a foot in December. Once healed, she's expected to be a force in the paint as a big league shot-blocker for the WNBA's Rockers.
What draft did you think I was talking about?
Oh, that little affair over the weekend at Madison Square Garden in New York? Well, we can chat about that draft, too.
Since we were together last, mighty changes have swept through Brownstown. Free agency and the draft have all but established the basic model for the 2002 Browns. Barring an unlikely free agency move after June 1 (center Dave Wohlabaugh's possible release), what's on the roster now is what we'll see take the field Sept. 8 against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Prior to the draft, the major upgrades came on defense, where the Browns signed linebacker Earl Holmes to replace the now-traded Wali Rainer in the middle. With a healthy and retooled defensive line in front of Holmes, and recently signed free safety/skull crusher Robert Griffith behind him, the middle of Cleveland' defense appears solidified. That's a first in many, many years … perhaps not since Crush-and-Rush.
Ah, but we're getting ahead of ourselves. Excited conjecture about the defense is a subject for another day. In the meantime, we have some Fine Young Men to talk about.
Here's my breakdown on the freshly minted batch of Cleveland Browns drafted in the first three rounds:
WILLIAM GREEN (RB, Boston College, 6-0, 221): The organization snookered the "experts" by taking Green over Michigan State's T.J. Duckett. As a Michigan resident, I was partial to Duckett because I saw him play, and I consider the Big 10 a tougher conference than the Big East overall. Green probably was the better pure runner of the two. Bill Livingston of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and other media-types have hinted and huffed that taking Green may have been a mistake because of the junior's sketchy past. Bah! Humbug! The rumor is that Green's two suspensions stemmed from something to do with pot. Imagine that, a college junior smoking weed. Mercy, what's the world coming to? In my family, a pot arrest is cause for relief. There are far worse crimes to commit that smoking a plant that's grown naturally in this country long before puritanical Europeans tumbled ashore, lost. Hell, testing positive for the drug won't get you even a slap on the wrist from the NBA. All this pot talk is coming from a pack of scruffy journalists madly typing away between booze stints. Green can run, and Butch Davis will keep him in line. More than likely, his teammates will keep his act solid. The colitis thing concerns me, but let's see what happens. Pot and potty aside, he ran for more than 1,500 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Those numbers in Cleveland will have the Browns sunning themselves in SoCal come January. This ain't Charles White. I feel sorry for Duckett in that he's going to a team already loaded with running backs (Atlanta).
ANDRE DAVIS (WR, Virginia Tech, 6-1, 194): Don't believe all the gibberish about Davis playing second wideout to Kevin Johnson. This kid was drafted to return punts. Anything else is gravy. He's the new Gerald "Ice Cube" McNeil. His biggest knock is his pass catching ability, but I've seen no criticism of his punt returns – an area of major concern in recent years. Cleveland's rag-tag offense needs every scrap of ground it can get, so improved returns are critical for things to improve. It's a sign that the coaching staff is committed to improving the details rather than seeking a single game-breaker/magic bullet solution. That's encouraging. In the bigger picture, Dennis Northcutt and Jujuan Dawson are failures, so Davis joins a receiving corps led by Johnson and solidified by Quincey Morgan and Andre King, who seemed to come on strong when given a chance to play at the end of the 2001 season. Davis will be the fifth receiver, with King and free agent pickup Chris Sanders alternating between the third and fourth spots. This pick will likely be the last receiver taken by the Browns in Round 2 for some time to come.
MELVIN FOWLER (C/G, Maryland, 6-4, 300): In keeping with drafting only players from the Eastern Seaboard (apart from a single Northwestern Wildcat), the Browns ignored critics who called this All American "undersized." Fowler is at the center (not a pun, I swear) of speculation that current – and pricey – center Dave Wohlabaugh could be released after June 1. Instead, I see Fowler spending a year at guard while learning the ropes from the veteran center. That way, the team maintains depth and versatility on the line. This kid, who's smart to go along with his brutality on the field, is a starter. By waiting until the third round to draft an offensive lineman, it shows the Browns are comfortable with the stable of hogs on the roster. As it stands, I see Ross Verba and Barry Stokes at left guard and tackle (not sure which will be which), Wohlabaugh at center, Fowler and Tre Johnson rotating at right guard and Ryan Tucker and seventh-round pick Joaquin Gonzalez at right tackle. Shaun O'Hara, he of the TD catch against the Lions, returns to back-up at center and guard, as does Brad Bedell. Tackle Roger Chanoine, who started several games in 2001, re-signed to add depth. Looks nice on paper, and is very likely far better than any line combination that's taken the field since 1999 in Cleveland. Add in a William Green, and you have the makings of a decent running game.
Now, as for the rest of this year's selections, I know very little. Gonzalez may have been a steal in the seventh round. Butch Davis may be the only coach in the league that can turn him into an All-Pro. The rest of the draftees look like nice additions to special teams, which were dreadful at times in 2001 on return coverage.
Is Chris Sanders the second coming of Leslie Shepherd or Andre Rison? On the surface, it doesn't seem so because his salary will be small and his recent performance has been uninspired and ineffective. However, the end result will likely be the same. In an ideal world, Sanders would become a reliable third receiver – think Brian Brennan – and a locker room veteran that the younger receivers could look to for guidance. Kevin Johnson, on the other hand, will be a fourth-year vet, so is there a chance that friction could develop? Johnson is clearly the franchise receiver, so what role does Sanders fill? Was the signing nothing more than a chance to get a pair of reliable, older hands on the cheap?
The Tre Johnson deal is better than it looks. Yes, the big slab of beef has knees made of thinly blown glass, but he's mean and can drive block anyone in the league. The one thing he brings is depth. Johnson's ideal role is off the bench as the line's sixth man, spelling rookie Marvin Fowler. Not many teams have the luxury of such a backup, and it would lessen the odds of Johnson's knees taking a pounding every down.
OK, the schedule. I was pumped when this came out. Hell-O, playoffs.
Let's take this year's slate of games chronologically until I get bored with it.
The Browns can't afford to start the season as they did in 2001, with a sloppy loss to the Seahawks in Cleveland. The team must come out and dominate Kansas City, which would send a message to the rest of the league that the strong start in the first half of last season wasn't a fluke.
On paper, the Chiefs might be a tougher opponent to open with than the 2001 Seahawks. Kansas City has the elements of a strong running game with Priest Holmes and Tony Richardson. Quarterback Trent Green, who failed to live up to the hype last season, has a strong target in tight end Tony Gonzalez. The key to beating the Chiefs is isolating the tight end, bottling up the running game and making Green throw deep. He showed a nasty interception habit in 2001, and the Browns would dearly love to match their league-leading and team-record 33 picks of a year ago.
Cleveland must be merciless. Obliterating the Chiefs will set the tone for the season. If they can accomplish that, they get a gift: Cincinnati visits in Week No. 2. The Browns will certainly look to stop Corey Dillon because the Bengal passing game is no threat to beat anyone.
Cincinnati's first-round draft pick, tackle Levi Jones, will still be holding out. The draft day headline in the Cincinnati Enquirer should have read: "Bengals' Daft Draft Craft Tumbles Aft … Again."
So, on paper again, there is a significant chance Cleveland could begin the 2002 season 2-0. A strong start is critical because the following three weeks will show the nation if the Browns are a legitimate Super Bowl contender. In Week No. 3, Cleveland visits Tennessee, a team that will be itching to avenge its stunning late-season home loss to the Browns last winter. Then follows a trip to Pittsburgh, where a Week No. 4 match-up at Heinz Field could play havoc with one team's chances of winning the AFC North. This game is a chance to take the lead and put some distance between the team and the pretenders.
Finally, in Week No. 5 comes the Sunday night game against the visiting Ravens. The nation has been waiting to see the Old Browns vs. the New Browns, and this is it. Baltimore will be two years removed from its undeserved Super Bowl victory, and it will know just how bad its mismanaged salary cap situation is by the fifth week. This game is Cleveland's showcase, a chance to show the football world that the Browns are back and gunning for San Diego come January.
An afternoon game at Tampa Bay follows, and at this point, it seems very winnable. The Bucs are a disaster. If Cleveland is coming off a victory over Baltimore, this game will be a good measuring stick of the team's progress. Will they be ripe for a letdown? Or will Butch Davis' team be a sleek football machine that grinds up yet another hapless opponent without a thought?
After Tampa Bay, the Browns return home to face the expansion Houston Texans. Certainly a winnable game, right? How long did it take the Browns to beat the latest expansion teams, Jacksonville and Carolina? Those teams are 8-1 versus the Browns. Two of the Jags' four victories in their inaugural 1995 season came against the Browns. That said, the 2002 Browns are not likely to repeat the woes of the 1995 franchise. I suspect Butch Davis will have his troops primed for a slaughter. His likely strategy will be to break the Texans' spirit early and often. The stunning loss to the Bears last season will linger in Davis' mind for the rest of his life, and fans can expect his teams to hound opponents to the death as a rule.
It's important the Browns roll over the Texans because a trip to the New York Jets follows. The Browns haven't won at New York since a 25-22 victory in September 1979. Cleveland is 4-6 versus New York since then. This latest Jets team is a mystery. If quarterback Vinny Testaverde, who's coming off foot surgery at age 38, is supplanted by Marshall product Chad Pennington, the Browns should be favored. But the Jets are always dangerous at home, and the running game built behind Curtis Martin makes them a threat. The Jets lost both starting cornerbacks, Aaron Glenn and Marcus Coleman, to the Texans in the expansion draft. They didn't draft any replacements, so throw, Timmy, throw.
The Browns return from the East Coast to face Pittsburgh at home. Obviously, this Week No. 9 game could decide the division. By now, it will be clear if either team is a playoff contender. Pittsburgh, by all odds, should be on the decline. If they haven't by Week 9, this could be the chance for the Browns to take command of the division – and their fate.
Then comes the bye week. After that, the Browns have the chance to blow through a weak schedule. Two road games follow the bye, at Cincinnati and New Orleans. The crappy expansion Browns won at both places, so there's no reason Butch's Browns can't go in and clean house. Neither team is a threat to contend for anything, which make them dangerous for complacent opponents.
A home game against the sagging Carolina Panthers is next. This is the region's punishment for starting the Civil War. The Panthers are terrible, and the addition of defensive end Julius Peppers won't improve things much. If the contraction reaper ever visits pro football, this is his first stop.
Next up is a game at Jacksonville. All the Brunnellian Bible beating won't save this team from its years of salary cap and player acquisition mismanagement. Again, another place the Browns proved they could win. Let's hope Tre Johnson doesn't fly into any piles here again.
A home game against the Colts could be a playoff preview, a la 1987. Man, I'd almost forgot about that game, the 38-21 whoopin' that Bernie and Co. laid on Eric Dickerson and Jack Trudeau that year. Ah, nostalgia. Time for some new playoff memories.
The Browns final road game of the season is at Baltimore, which by this point should be a steaming pile of wreckage with no hope for the future. Brian Billick's hopes for an "Osbournes"-style MTV show will long since have vanished. Thank God. I'll take the foul-mouthed unintelligible Ozzy over the arrogant Billick any day.
The season closes out with a visit from the Falcons. The story line will revolve around the top draft picks: Green vs. Duckett. And it's likely that Atlanta will be on the "should have known better" end of that tale. With any luck, this game will be a tune-up for the playoffs. Couch and the starters will play long enough to get the game in hand, then head for the HotSeats to dream of SoCal and big rings.
A PARTING THOUGHT ABOUT THE DEVIL … ART MODELL
The man who broke Cleveland's heart nearly lost his last week. Arthur B. Modell, one-time swinging New York playboy and advertising man-turned-Browns owner suffered yet another heart attack.
For many fans, time has somewhat old wounds and softened the memory of those dark days of 1995, when our worst nightmares turned into a gut-wrenching reality.
For others, like myself, there will never be forgiveness. I can't bring myself to justify what he did. The Baltimore Ravens are a constant reminder of Modell's crime, and no amount of health problems will or images of a doddering old man will lessen my feelings. Age and disease aren't justification for deeds gone by. Just because seven years have passed doesn't mean what he did is any less wrong.
I didn't know about Modell's latest heart attack until last Tuesday night, when I took a moment away from the hectic City Desk to scroll the sports wire. I wasn't sent into spasms of joy or laughter, but I felt no pity or remorse.
For me, he dug his own grave. I will not weep when it's filled.
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 email@example.com.