Despite layers of Thinsulate, Goretex and plain, old-fashioned fat, I still was freezing.
Winter had arrived in Michigan. Outside our hunting blind, the wind and snow blustered across a forest landscape fading from view in the dwindling afternoon light. I squinted through the binoculars in a futile effort to spy any movement. It was useless. My hands were shaking too hard and the branches swaying in the snow storm could have masked the approach of an army, much less the elusive deer we sought.
Not that I could have killed one, mind you. Much like the Browns entering a game, I was utterly unprepared. Absent from my gear were:
1. A hunting permit.
2. A gun.
Obviously, any shred of common sense was missing, as well, but the lack of those items wasn't an obstacle. I was determined to hunt, and my friend had 80 acres of deer-infested private land in Michigan's rural Thumb region. As usual, I'd waited too long to get the proper safety paperwork, so I couldn't get a license. And the land was a shotgun-only zone, and I don't own a shotgun. Yet. My Christmas list now is topped by a request for a Remington 870 Wingmaster.
Romeo Crennel must have an interesting holiday wish-list heading the final month of the season. It might very well include a shotgun, too. But I imagine his list, in no particular order, goes like this:
1. An offense.
2. A defense.
3. Special teams.
Did I miss anything? Nope. That about covers it. Sure, Cleveland has some element of all three of those things, but they don't have enough. That was illustrated vividly by the Minnesota Vikings and Pittsburgh Steelers recently. The Vikings, fresh off a debauched maritime adventure to rival the best efforts of de Sade, Caligula and Aleister Crowley, overcame their perverse nature and made beating the Browns look like a task they wanted out of the way so they could get back on board the Kinky Kruise. Pittsburgh fielded its B team and still skunked Cleveland, a disturbing phenomenon that's been happening way too often since 1970.
In between those defeats was a glimpse at what we hope to see more often, a workmanlike victory over an ailing Miami team in disarray. Yet that game seems more the exception right now than the rule, through it certainly is indicative of what Cleveland can do it if eliminates all mistakes and plays to the very extreme of its limited talent.
Clearly, there are talented players on the roster. Reuben Droughns, for one. I'm not sure I've seen a Cleveland running back as aggressive and powerful in my lifetime. Kevin Mack and Ernest Byner are fading from memory, but since them no one has come close to being the fireplug that is Droughns. The Steelers clearly were surprised by him, and they did not enjoy trying to bring him down.
The Vikings didn't get the dose of Droughns required for Cleveland to stay in the game. I suspect that stemmed from the interior offensive line being unable to handle Minnesota's massive defensive tackles, who are simply gargantuan masses that take up vast amounts of space. That revealed two things: 1. The Browns need to get a couple of those guys themselves, somewhere and somehow. 2. The interior line remains a priority. A healthy Andruzzi and Coleman might not have done much better against those freaks, but the importance of quality, healthy guards was shown to all last Sunday. Mike Puccillo, filling in for Andruzzi, looks like a quality backup, which is nice – and rare for this team.
Back to Droughns: If the coaching staff has any sense, he is the player around which the offense will be built. He's a player they must ink to a long-term deal. That is a bigger priority than even finding a quarterback. If Droughns is not signed, the 2006 season already is a failure. William Green and Lee Suggs can't hold this guy's jock. What Droughns does it make every player on offense better, and that's important because Cleveland still lacks the across-the-board talent – and depth of talent – to consistently compete in the NFL. It's coming, but Droughns is what the military calls a "force multiplier." If the other talent you have on offense could be rated as, say, a 10, Droughns ratchets that up to a 12 or 15. His mere presence makes other play better. For example, on his game-opening 75-yard touchdown run against Miami, we saw him sprung into the end zone by wide receivers and tight ends still blocking 60 yards down field. I'm not sure that would have happened with Green.
The Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslows of the world will serve to complement Droughns. They are playmakers, but no one gets to the Super Bowl on the strength of just a wide receiver or tight end. They will make the Browns multi-dimensional, and that's the key to winning.
Consistent play from the quarterback also is key. Without that consistency, it's like hunting without a shotgun. You're not going to get much done. Trent Dilfer runs hot and cold. His value is his experience and his ability to mentor Charlie Frye – and to take the heat while the team rebuilds. Basically, Dilfer is leading a scout team offense each Sunday, one that Cleveland's management is (hopefully) studying closely. Dilfer is close to breaking down into a pile of bruised and broken pieces. He took a woeful beating Sunday. His decline and fall, hopefully, heralds a successful Charlie Frye era.
I have little to say bad of Dilfer. He had his outburst about getting pulled, but I understood where he was coming from, and he didn't take it out on the rookie. A fiery competitor should react like that. You want "fire in the belly" from your quarterback. It was no secret Dilfer was a journeyman when he came to Cleveland, and he's played well enough to be considered a game manager. He's not really lost them any games, but he did beat the Bears – no small feat if you've noticed what Chicago's done since.
Dilfer was brought here to take a beating and get the kid ready while the team improves. He's done that.
After 11 games, several things have emerged:
1. Dilfer is performing as expected. He should continue to start and relinquish the job full time near the end of the season.
2. The off-season acquisition of Joe Andruzzi and Cosey Coleman was wise. But as I predicted, they're hurt. More depth is needed. Puccillo looks line one to hang onto, but the recipe calls for another NFL-caliber backup guard.
3. L.J. Shelton is a liability at times in pass blocking. An off-season priority should be an NFL-quality left tackle. How long have we been bemoaning that? Still, I credit Phil Savage with finding Shelton as a stopgap. He's a better run blocker than Ross "Jobless" Verba, and Cleveland's focus on the run makes that an important consideration.
4. Dennis Northcutt is a slot receiver whose value is mostly on special teams. It's time for Edwards to start. He split defenders against Pittsburgh and would have had a long touchdown had Dilfer not missed him. Northcutt shouldn't even make the trip to Heinz Field, where his drops have proved deadly to Cleveland's hopes. He sort of made up for it with a garbage-time touchdown against Minnesota. But that game was a reminder that Cleveland receivers sometimes have trouble getting early separation, and that is deadly when there is a fierce pass-rush on the quarterback. Dilfer was under siege because the Vikings were bringing pressure, and the receivers weren't quickly breaking open – or even running the correct routes. That can be fixed. Edwards will be a Pro Bowler – soon.
5. Special teams coverage needs work. Lots of it. It runs hot and cold. Just being average every game is better.
6. This is a far better team that the wretched production we saw last year. They are competitive, and that credit goes to Savage and Crennel.
One of the criticisms I often made of Butch Davis' teams was that they were not disciplined physically and mentally. Against Pittsburgh, that still was obvious. The Steelers outsmarted the Browns at every turn, and when it came time to run out the clock, Cleveland couldn't stop it. The Vikings simply manhandled the Browns' offense.
Where I do think they've improved is moral discipline. That's a rarely discussed element in pro football. A morally disciplined team has that competitive edge that will get you past an equally talented team like Baltimore. Crennel and Savage insist upon hiring only quality individuals to play for the Browns, and that serves to eliminate needless distractions on and off the field (See Vikings, Minnesota).
We knew this was going to be a season filled with losses. What some of us were unsure of was the context of those defeats. Would they be embarrassing blowouts? Or narrow games that force the other team to work for it?
I think we've seen the answer. Cleveland has made everyone work to beat them. And that is eerily reminiscent of the pre-Super Bowl run Patriots, something that has been pointed out more and more. By making little adjustments and improvements, the team is setting itself up for the future. As I've written before, this is a 16-game laboratory. The results of the 2005 experiment will go a long way towards just how much Cleveland will contend in 2006.
My suspicion is that next year will be another rebuilding campaign, but one that features some upset victories and earns the team some national attention. There are still many pieces to be replaced, but some of the major ones are in place.
Browns fans are an impatient lot. It kills me to think of another season of waiting, but it's something we're going to have to accept. This coaching staff and management team doesn't appear interested in the quick-fix, one-shot deal. They are building this franchise as it should have been done in 1999: For the long haul.
We're going to go into next season with a lot of if's. The spotlight will be on Frye, who by then will have assumed the starter's role. It's going to be a year of growth for him. But his growth should be a positive experience because he's going to have legitimate talent around him, the exact oppositive of Tim Couch's situation six years ago. Frye will have decent blockers, a star running back, quality wide receivers and a potential super star at tight end.
What he's really going to need is the one thing I don't think he's going to get: Patience. He'll need the coaches to remain calm, and I suspect they will based on how Crennel has dealt with Dilfer. He'll also need the fans to take a breather. That will be the hard part. We love the team and want it to win, but I can foresee those calls today of "Char-lie" turning to "Dil-fer" at some point. And the youngster doesn't need that.
If it helps, think back 20 years ago when Bernie Kosar came to Cleveland. When he finally got in a game, he fumbled his first snap. But the eventual result was a great career. Fans were patient with Kosar. I pray we extend the same thing to Frye.
Former Ohio newspaper reporter and editor Bill Shea writes the Doc Gonzo column each week for BerniesInsiders.com. Until next week, when he's expected to die after trying out for a new indoor football team while suffering from severe pneumonia. He is not a smart man, but you can read his new blog at www.livejournal.com/user/docgonzo19 but be warned it's filled with politics and dirty words, too. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Unless he's dead.