Fear and Loathing in the Valley of Death

Doc Gonzo makes his debut on BTNG, and tells us that we are perched, again, over the abyss.

"Half a league, half a league,
Half a league onward,
All in the valley of Death
Rode the six hundred."
— from "Charge of the Light Brigade" by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Once again, we're perched at the edge of the abyss.

Before we leap into the void, let us take a moment for reflection. Nearly forty years ago, a Midwestern poet living in a bohemian New York grotto moved a generation with his song about times a-changing.

Bob Dylan certainly didn't have the Cleveland Browns in mind in those days. The Browns were in the twilight years of their glory when Dylan hit the charts in 1964 with "Times They Are A-Changing."

Nineteen-sixty four was the last time a world football champion was crowned on the south shore of Lake Erie. There have been playoff runs and some heart-breaking near misses since then. Drives, fumbles and interceptions have intermingled with magical moments like Clay Mathews' goal line pickoff of Jim Kelly to secure a playoff victory after the 1989 season, Bernie Kosar's 37-yard strike to Webster Slaughter against the Jets in the double overtime 1987 playoff victory and Tim Couch's Hail Mary miracle touchdown pass to Kevin Johnson with two seconds left at New Orleans for the reborn Browns' first victory.

Those moments, good and otherwise, have left indelible marks on our collective memories.

Times, however, have a-changed.

Even the most optimistic among us has grown gun shy in the wake of a 5-27 nightmare. Cleveland Municipal Stadium, once among the most dreaded places to visit, has given way to Cleveland Browns Stadium, a charnel house of carnage for the home team.

When the clock strikes 1 p.m. on crisp fall Sundays, the excitement is tempered with the nagging thought: Are we in for another embarrassing collapse and rout? Will we be subjected to more postgame jibes from dope fiends like Warren Sapp?

The 2001 Cleveland Browns are an enigma. A youthful team battered by two seasons of defeat at a Bengalonian pace has been injected with a liberal dose of Butch Davis. Is that enough? We're about to find out.

Let's look at some of the questions:

Will the defense be a force to be reckoned with each Sunday? Or is the unit nothing more than a paper tiger, proving to be only a hollow shell in the defeatist spirit of the Maginot Line?

Again, only time will tell. However, there are reasons for guarded optimism.

Personnel additions, new coaches and some retooling of the Xs and Os could pay dividends almost immediately. The average NFL fan has no idea of the differences between Romeo Crennel's read-and-react system of 2000 and Foge Fazio's gap-shooting scheme for this season. Arcane football jargon like "cover two" and other coach-speak is immaterial to the bleacherites. They want thunderous hits, crippling sacks, momentum-shifting turnovers and emotional goal-line stands.

Look close, and there were signs of life in 2000. The defense recorded 46 sacks. That's impressive when you recall that opponents didn't need to throw very often because Cleveland's run defense was … well, it wasn't. The team nabbed seven turnovers at Tennessee, even if they were wasted by yet another display of offensive ineptitude.

With the likes of a Mark Smith and Gerard Warren clogging the running lanes inside, it seems (again, on paper) that the Browns defense won't repeat its sieve-like performance of 2000.

Call it the domino theory of defense. If a team controls the line of scrimmage, the linebackers are free to stuff runs and cover passes. In turn, pressure on the quarterback is a godsend to the secondary. Cornerbacks and safeties who are average at best — much like in Cleveland — are elevated in fans' eyes because they are not relied upon as much. When a free safety can roam, he can do what he loves: Intercept unwary quarterbacks.

Cleveland's last two playoff teams illustrate that point vividly. In 1989 and 1994, the team had strong lines. That translated into Felix Wright ('89) and Eric Turner ('94) snaring nine balls each in the defensive backfield.

The offense is a far larger mystery. Its hopes are pinned to a pair of aching offensive lineman: Ross Verba and Tre Johnson. If they return to the lineup healthy, mesh as seamless unit and play as advertised, then Cleveland may field an average offense.

Average these days is enough to get you to the Super Bowl. Playoff dreams aside, an offense that records some middle-of-the-pack performances might be enough — combined with a good defense and solid special teams — to win six to eight games. Any more is gravy.

Offensive coordinator Bruce Arians has brought a version of the Colts' attack to Cleveland. The scheme is predicated upon tight ends that can block and catch, a talented H-back to do the same and wide receivers who will run quick slants and short out patterns. Tim Couch will take three- and five-step drops, make quick progression reads and fire the ball.

The lynchpin in this offense — the North Coast Offense — is the versatility of H-back Mike Sellers. A behemoth blocker with reliable hands and deceptive speed will give Arians a chance to mask the obvious: Cleveland doesn't have an Edgerrin James in the backfield. Until a workhorse running back, or a combination of such, emerges, Arians will have to rely upon a roster of untested talent. Sellers gives him the chance to tinker with the playbook.

What's the bottom line? Fans, I suspect, will settle for just being in contention to win every game AFTER the opening kickoff.

If one thing is certain, the 2001 season will be a journey into the unknown, rife with the stomach-churning twists and drama that only the Cleveland Browns and NFL Sundays can provide.

Now, into the breach once more.

"Boldly they rode and well,
Into the jaws of Death,
Into the mouth of Hell
Rode the six hundred."

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