In just a matter of hours, the 2006 Cleveland Browns will be joining Saddam Hussein in wherever it is such nightmares go after their not-soon-enough demise.
And it can't be quick enough.
You don't need me to tell you 2006 had been an absolute, unequivocal catastrophe. The performance on the field has left no room for confusion. This team is bad. Very bad. One of the worst teams in franchise history.
Is that surprising? No. Is there any question as to why this team is so awful? Not really.
The reasons, and you can pick your favorite poison but all apply to some degree, are legion:
~ Inferior talent.
~ Poor discipline.
~ Poor coaching.
~ Bad luck.
~ The usual variety of Cleveland curses, hexes, afflictions, banes, bewitchments, bedevilments and vexations.
None of this, as you likely recognize by now, is new. You can choose to believe simple bad luck or some sinister necromancy is at work here, but the bottom line remains the Cleveland Browns remain mired in something less than mediocrity.
Cleveland is the K-Fed of the NFL. We're a joke. Other teams use us as a doormat, and an entire generation of football fans have no idea that his team was ever any good. The "dog pound" at Cleveland Browns Stadium isn't the "Dawg Pound" of 1986-1995. These days, it's some plastic, corporate, sterile product of focus groups and marketing professionals. And that matches the fake team on the field.
My team is long dead and gone. What's in its place is a cheap, low-rent imposter wearing uniforms it does not deserve. These are not the Cleveland Browns. They died in December 1995 at the hands of a greedy huckster in a murder plot approved by the NFL. And our Faustian deal to get a team back has resulted in this absurd Greek tragedy unworthy of the glory that proceeded it on the southern shore of Lake Erie.
What to do? Give up? I can't, and most of you can't either. So we adapt and hope and erect monuments in our minds to those wonderful Sundays of yesteryear. And this team before us, wearing our team's colors and using its name, but failing to live up to its legacy, sloppily marches on and continues to drag us deeper and deeper into the mire to the point Pittsburgh dismisses us as an easy victory and considers that Maryland team its true adversary.
After digesting all that, it's not easy to find much to cheer about. I question my DirecTV purchase, wondering if it's worth spending hundreds of dollars to basically watch a loved one get raped every Sunday. But I guess enough of that collective misanthropic Cleveland spirit remains inside me that I cling to this team, even a false one, in hopes that one day my investment of emotion, time and money will pay off.
This team can redeem itself and build its own legacy. Despite the gory spectacle on the field each Sunday, there have been a tiny collection of bright spots amid the madness of 2006.
Here are the positives I see:
# SEAN JONES: Of all the players on the roster, Jones excites me the most. He made tremendous strides in 2006 with almost zero help around him. Nearly every play he's around the ball. He can take down ball carriers. He can blitz the quarterback. He can strip and intercept the ball. His awareness, knowledge and technique at the professional level are growing manifestly. His career, interrupted by a season-ending injury in his rookie preseason, reminds me of the Steelers' Troy Polamalu, who was dreadful his rookie season, then quickly grew into a game-changer. Jones has that very same potential. He appears to have finally grasped the pro game and adjusted to its speed. With some consistent talent around him, he elevates himself to among the league's elite safeties.
# LEIGH BODDEN: A quick, hard worker who's earned the respect of a lot of receivers in the league. The injuries are worries – we already pay Gary Baxter tens of millions to not play. But when Bodden is on the field, he's as good as any corner in the league. Add a pass rush in front of him, and he, too, becomes one of the league's elite. He's not a theatrical player, so he'll never get the airtime, but I'll take his play over Sportscenter nonsense.
# KAMERION WIMBLEY: Carving out 10 sacks through 15 games on this team deserves some type of Congressional award. He's shown promise as a pass rusher. If the Gods are smiling on us, he develops his run-stopping skills, too. He may never become a Lawrence Taylor on the field, but if he evolves into at least a consistent threat, that's a vast improvement for this franchise.
# KELLEN WINSLOW: This year, despite some boneheaded actions, he proved he's elite. He's another victim of a dearth of ability around him. If he gets a consistent quarterback throwing to him, along with a ground game to take attention from him, he'll be the NFL's best tight end. And I think he showed enough this year that he no longer needs the "II" after his name. He's as physically gifted as his father, if not better. He needs to prove it over time, but he can't do it alone. And the maturity stuff will come with time. I'll accept some 15-yard fouls if his overall play outweighs any negatives. Thirty-one other teams would love to have this guy, keep in mind.
# DEREK ANDERSON: Yes, he of the four-interception performance against Tampa Bay. I've included him because I've seen enough that I'm truly intrigued. His ability to beat the blitz is something Cleveland has not had at quarterback since a gangly young kid named Kosar was doing it ugly style two decades ago. Anderson has a cannon arm that's also quick – meaning he has a strong arm that can immediately deliver the ball. More interesting is that he finds the correct receiver to get the ball to, something that Kansas City and Baltimore discovered to their chagrin. What Anderson needs to work on is his overall accuracy and touch. That comes with time, and let's not forget the sum total of his game experience in the NFL is three-and-a-half starts. And that's three-and-a-half starts on one of the most dreadful, injured teams in franchise history. By all rights, he should have looked far, far worse than he has. That quick release and strong arm, if developed, could turn him into something we've never seen in this town.
# JASON WRIGHT: He showed some quick moves that proved a nice balance to Reuben Droughns' more hardcore technique. This is a player who needs to see more touches to show if there's something more there, of if he's simply a body on the roster. My gut instinct is the more experience he gets, he's going to develop into something unexpected. Wouldn't that be nice in Cleveland? For once?
These guys did a workmanlike job this year, under awful circumstances: Joe Jurevicius, Andra Davis and Dave Zastudil. They earned their paychecks and can provide powerful support to the core of a rebuilding team.
Now, for the rogues, malcontents and busts.
OFFENSIVE LINE: The slide began on the first day of training camp with LeCharles Bentley's knee injury, then played out as a some pathetic and bizarre comedy as a parade of centers either got hurt or went crazy. And only in Cleveland does the team lose its best remaining lineman to a mental disorder. The remainder are a collection of has-beens and never-will-be's. Until this unit at least is elevated to the level of "undistinguished" this franchise will continue to drift aimlessly in the NFL's sea lanes.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Ted Washington isn't worth the money. He's good for about two plays a game. No other lineman did enough even to get noticed. The pass rush simply was nonexistent. Run defense was there a couple times, but quickly evaporated. If this unit had done anything at all this year, the play of the linebackers and secondary would have looked decent.
BRAYLON EDWARDS: I'm not ready to proclaim him a bust, but he's flirting with Detroit Lion wide receiver mediocrity. The inopportune drops that plagued him at Michigan have followed him to the NFL. Jerry Rice suffered through an early reputation as drop-prone, then shed it to become a legend. Edwards still has time to blossom into something special, but this far he's been more hype and hope than reliable.
And some one tell me why we drafted Travis Wilson. Why? Are we saving him for something, or is he so magnificently unready to play the pro game that former quarterback Josh Cribbs is the third wide receiver?
That thought leads me to Phil Savage, perhaps the biggest question mark on this team.
He has shown he recognizes the weaknesses of this team, and tried to address them the past two off-seasons with free agents. This year's free-agent batch looked especially exciting, but proved to be a titanic flop. Washington and Willie McGinest basically had nothing left in their respective gas tanks. Bentley was a great signing, but bad luck cancels out that move. Getting Hank Fraley seems like the best move they could have made to find a stop-gap.
What we're not seeing are the home runs that Savage was credited while working for The Illegitimate Entity™ under Ozzie Newsome. That franchise seems to nail draft picks that instantly develop into dominating Pro Bowlers. It's too soon to turn Savage loose, but the time is drawing near to see some return on investment, no?
And that brings us to Romeo Crennel and the eternal question asked to the tune of the famous Clash song: Should he stay or should he go.
Thus far, I'm unimpressed with Crennel. His unwillingness to fire Mo Carthon, his poor record at challenges and his inability to put out the Braylon Edwards attitude fire is disturbing. Crennel was hampered by a ridiculous number of injuries this season, but at the end of the day a coach is judged by wins and losses. And this was the first Browns team to lose all of its divisional games, and it clearly regressed from 2005.
If he's fired, it should come as no surprise. If he's given another year, that's no shocker, either.
Crennel leaves me the impression he's a non-entity. There's not much control, and there's not much personality to this team. Even the Borg-like Bill Belichick has a feel to his teams. The great coaches field teams that leave you with an impression.
Crennel's Browns get hurt and lose, a lot. Not that sort of impression, please.
I'm not really sure if dumped Crennel would help or hurt. That decision has to be made by Savage and Randy Lerner. At this point in the team's development, acquisition of talent outweighs coaching, in my mind at least. Until this team fields players on par with the rest of the division, it doesn't matter who the coach is. They will lose.
The losing must end. No profound statement that, but the hour is growing late for this team. There's serious risk of forever losing the magical love these fans have with this team. The empty seats we see by midway though the season could be there at the start. The current twenty-something generation of fans does not have the deep connection to this team, a connection that's only built by winning.
Hope springs eternal, but patience are limited. The franchise is at a crossroads, and the wrong move sends it spiraling further into a tailspin not unlike the Bengals of Buccaneers of the past. The correct move sets us on a path that leads the fans to a place where the new team can no longer be differentiated from the Cleveland Browns that we fell in love with all those years ago.
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 email@example.com.