EDITOR'S NOTE: Dragooned by corporate drones to work the City Desk on Saturday night, your correspondent could only keep track of Cleveland's game at Minnesota through Internet updates. Upon learning of Jamir Miller's injury, he immediately began to concoct the following screed in hopes of warding off the mass panic surely to be enflamed by the ink-stained wretches of the media.
FORT GRATIOT, Mich. – Get your hand away from that panic button, mister.
Just because the Cleveland Browns have lost Pro Bowl linebacker Jamir Miller for the year does not make the 2002 season a wash.
Far from it, in fact.
Despite the doom and gloom bestowed upon us by our beloved local press corps, there is reason to believe Miller's loss could prove to be a blessing in disguise. Once the shock and frustration wears off, the scribes, players and fans will come to appreciate the set of circumstances in which the Browns find themselves.
First, on the field, Miller was not Lawrence Taylor, or even Chip Banks. His 2001 sack total (13) was the result of being a one-dimensional linebacker impressed into a pure pass-rushing role because the team was without its premier defensive end, Courtney Brown, for much of the season.
Second, if the Browns' supposedly great defense can't overcome this, then it was all smoke and mirrors. A great defense is more than one man. Miller was very good at rushing the passer, but he was not the heart of the team. That role needs to belong to Courtney Brown and Gerard Warren. Those two are the fellows that need to league the AFC in sacks, not the strong side linebacker.
Remember, 13 sacks and 31 quarterback pressures is fine, but Cleveland's opponents had 552 pass attempts against the Browns. Miller's combined 44 plays on the quarterback account for eight percent of all pass plays.
Also, Miller was average at best when forced into pass coverage. If Brown and Warren and others pick up the slack pressuring the passer, then the strongside linebacker needs to be a run-stuffer and coverage linebacker – skills plentiful on the bench.
Third, Miller's a leader in the locker room and on the sidelines … and still is. He's not dead. He can still provide guidance. But it will be up to the multimillionaires and veterans like Corey Fuller and Robert Griffith to do it on the field. Miller can still coach and cajole.
Cleveland has lost great linebackers in the past and still continued. Trading Chip Banks in 1987 to San Diego did not bring down the sky even though all it brought the Browns was Mike Junkin and Gregg Rakoczy.
Now, let's get the hyperbole from the newspapers out of the way.
The Plain Dealer's diminutive Mary Kay Cabot called Miller the Browns' "best defensive player" and his loss "a tremendous blow."
The tan, suave hand of her co-worker, Tony Grossi, calls Miller "the Browns' … spiritual leader on defense."
All very true. The King is dead. God save the King. Now let's move on.
Coach Butch Davis, defensive coordinator Foge Fazio and linebackers coach Keith Butler will find the best man to replace Miller. There's little point in bemoaning the loss, or tossing in the towel on the season. Towel tossing is for the inbreds in Pittsburgh, where there is a rising sense of panic for good reason.
In the meantime, we can digest Sunday's signing of ex-Carolina and Cowboys strongside linebacker Darren Hambrick, Dallas's 5th round selection in 1998. The 26-year old South Carolina product is two seasons removed from leading the Cowboys with 154 tackles, but he was released in the middle of last season because of management's dissatisfaction with him. He missed a pair of voluntary minicamps and seemed to struggle. The Panthers immediately signed the 6-2, 235-pound Hambrick, and he recorded a season-high nine solo tackles in a 22-25 loss to the 49ers on Nov. 18. New Panthers coach John Fox and defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio decided not to resign Hambrick, who visited Berea in March.
If Hambrick can fill the void, great. There's another reason, however, not to leap into the Cuyahoga River. Even through it was little more than a scrimmage, Tim Couch and Jamel White showed enough against Minnesota's first-team defense to let us believe the offense will make significant strides in 2002.
A better offense will do wonders for a defense. It doesn't matter if David "The Cheap Creep" Modell plays linebacker if the offense keeps him off the field.
More reason not to whine: Perspective. Linebackers are in and out of the line-up as situational players. There will be 10 or more linebackers on the roster. Losing Couch would be a panic button situation. Unless it's a blowout, Couch is in on every offensive snap. He's the one player the Browns can ill-afford to lose. Every team will lose someone vital, and what separates the good from the bad teams is how they respond to the loss.
For example, there was much caterwauling when the Rams lost quarterback Trent Green in 1999, and he was replaced by the unheard of Kurt Warner. Turns out, that wasn't such a bad deal for St. Louis.
Now is the chance for Cleveland's other veterans and its trio of draft-pick linebackers to step up and fill the void. Is there a new LT out there? Davis didn't draft three linebackers without reason. No one will know until they play, and now they have their chance. And if any coaching staff in the league can sift through the grit and find the nugget, it's this one.
When not mulling how to best resolve the linebacker problem, the Browns' coaching staff has another decision to make, and it sounds like picking a Sunday blazer for St. Patrick's Day: White or Green?
For the first time since the days of Kevin Mack and Ernest Byner (the original Byner, not the Belichick version), Cleveland seems to have an embarrassment of riches in the backfield. White, thanks to his showing Saturday at Minnesota and last season at Green Bay, is the early choice to tote the ball.
William Green, obviously, isn't being paid to be a spot player for long. His college credentials don't mean squat now, but they did buy him a ticket to the dance. Having White start gives Green the luxury James Jackson didn't have last season: Being able to learn from a veteran who's had at least a modicum of success in the NFL. Yes, White's resume is short, but his effort against the Packers in 2001 was a rare and special thing. White's performance against Minnesota gives us real hope he is not a one-trick pony, conjuring up images of Washington's one-hit Super Bowl wonder, Timmy Smith.
Something else White brings to the table is strength and speed. While small at 5-foot-9, 208 pounds, he still far outweighs previous Browns scatbacks like Eric Metcalf, who found little success inside the line of scrimmage. It appears that if Cleveland's retooled line can give White a brief crevice, he's got the burst and vision to slip through.
And that, folks, is the difference between 7-9 and 11-5.
So if you want to give up on the Browns now, please feel free to send me your season tickets.
NOTES: Congrats to the News-Herald's Jeff Schudel for recalling that Cleveland defensive back Mark Harper also tore his Achilles' tendon at the Metrodome in 1990. Impressive. … This entire column was written after watching Geoffrey Rush's Quills and Robert Duvall's Tender Mercies until 7 a.m. Strange entertainment bedfellows. Does it show?. … To those of you who sent notes in regards to my sister's recent passing, thank you. I know you come here for football, not morose prattle on my part, but it was the tonic I needed to keep bringing you the esoteric ramblings from my safaris into the dense, jungle-like inner reaches of my disturbed mind.
Doc Gonzo is a former Ohio newspaper reporter and editor who never played strongside linebacker. 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.