Doc Gonzo: Ghosts of Seasons Past

The good doctor ruminates on things ruminatable as the Browns prepare for the Falcons...

Remember Heath Shuler?

Yeah, me neither. But the name rang a bell.

A quick Wiki search reminds us Shuler is the University of Tennessee quarterback that the Washington Redskins drafted No. 3 overall in 1994, with sky-high expectations.

Unmet expectations.

ESPN ranks him as the 17th worst bust in professional sports history. Shuler and his 4-15 record were dumped by the Redskins after 1996, and attempts to resurrect his career in New Orleans and Oakland failed because a foot injury kept him off the field, and eventually forced him to retire. His career quarterback rating: 54.3 (or 20.8 points worse than Tim Couch's career rating of 75.1)

But that's not the last we'd hear of Mr. Shuler.

He's back in Washington, but in a far different gig. On Tuesday, he emerged from both obscurity and the misty Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina to win a seat in the U.S. Congress from that state's 11th District. Shuler, who found the success in real estate that eluded him in the NFL, parlayed his conservative Democratic credentials into a rout of eight-term Republican Charles Taylor, a microcosm of what we saw across the country on election day.

(I had to check and make sure the Charles Taylor that Shuler beat wasn't the former Liberian dictator under indictment by the United Nations for war crimes. It wasn't.)

Shuler clawing his way from the ash heap of history back to some level of relevancy runs counter to F. Scott Fitzgerald's famous quote, "There are no second acts in American lives."

Clearly, there are. Fitzgerald's my favorite author, but he was a gin-soaked drunk with enough insecurities to fuel an entire junior high school of angst-ridded teenagers.

The Cleveland Browns are my favorite football team, and they're squandering their second act to such a degree that Heath Shuler's football career doesn't look so bad. And the Browns don't have the pressure of early success, or Fitzgeraldian boozing, to blame.

Every time we think there's progress, regression pounces like Ray Lewis on a felony. We can chalk the loss up at San Diego to an injury-riddled defense playing inspirational, and effective, football for as long as it could. But for as well as the defense played, the offense was mush. The play-calling lapsed at times into the stupefying realm of Mo Carthon, and the execution was sometimes grounds for execution. The final score was San Diego 32, Phil Dawson's right leg, 25.

Simply put, it was another loss. No one really expected the Browns to win at San Diego, and they didn't. At the end of the day, it was the 82nd Cleveland loss since 1999.

Eighty-two losses will sap the vigor out of any franchise. And its fans.

I have no answers, other than the obvious: We need better players, and we need healthy players. That's the Occam's Razor philosophy, the notion that the least complicated explanation is the proper one. In the case of the Browns, we can toss Occam's entire shaving kit at it: Just find more guys who can play. Free agents and draft picks, doesn't matter.

Coaching can mask lack of talent for so long (See: Browns, Cleveland; 1989). At some point, you need elite personnel. The alternative is an entire roster filled with good, not superstar, players and good backups, otherwise known as the New England system.

Cleveland operates a model that's proven ineffectual and, frankly, dumb. And we didn't even get an elite-level stud until this season, in the form of Kellen Winslow II. That's one man on a roster of 52. The remaining handful of good players aren't enough to lift this franchise out of mediocrity. In five years, I don't want to read about Congressman Charlie Frye, the failed quarterback who resurrected his life by crawling into the gutter called Congress.

I'm done blaming anyone. Sure, individual game losses have their culprits, but the general listlessness and pathologies of losing that plague this ailing franchise are the fault of many. It no longer matters who.

Our options now are to stop being fans, or stick with them until they get their act together.

As for me, I've nothing better to do on this cold, rainy November afternoon, so I'll be watching. Unfortunately, it sometimes feels like gawking at an accident on the side of the highway. But, deep down, there's this smoldering ember of loyalty and hope that hasn't quite been extinguished, this faint notion that maybe today is the day we emerge from the oppressive gloom and become again the team we once knew ... the team of which we dream ... the team at the core of the legends and myths of yesteryear, the team that struck fear into the hearts of all those in its path.

Is today the day the Cleveland Browns return?


Former Ohio newspaper editor and reporter Bill Shea has written the Doc Gonzo column each week for The Orange and Brown Report for six years. He now writes for a business magazine in Detroit and was recently named vice president of communications for the Port Huron Pirates of the Continental Indoor Football League. E-mail him at

The OBR Top Stories