Arms Race 2002: 1988 Redux?

There's this ugly, gurgling sensation in the pit of my stomach. No, it's not cheap beer and pastrami making a last stand. It's worse than that. There's a gnawing, creeping sense of worry and fear. Events are on the precipice of disaster and are far out of anyone's control.

"All history resolves itself very easily into the biography of a few stout and earnest persons." – Ralph Waldo Emerson, American transcendentalist philosopher, poet (1803-1882)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Beset by worry, your correspondent has been repeatedly viewing his videocassette highlight film of Cleveland's lost 1988 campaign, called "Strange Season." The Doktor isn't board certified, but that old familiar feeling is rising. An old quarterback himself, Doc has been icing his own arm and shoulder as a bit of "mojo" precaution in the days leading up to the season opener.

CLEVELAND – There's this ugly, gurgling sensation in the pit of my stomach.

No, it's not cheap beer and pastrami making a last stand. It's worse than that. There's a gnawing, creeping sense of worry and fear. Events are on the precipice of disaster and are far out of anyone's control.

The fickle Lords of Karma have sent subtle hints that 2002 could bear strong shades of 1988 on the southern shore of Lake Erie. And that's not a good thing.

The latest sign was Tim Couch's mysterious forearm "bruise" about which the team has been so utterly closed-mouthed. Fear reigns in Berea, but that's nothing new. Lies and disinformation spew from the team's multimillion-dollar headquarters complex faster than the Pentagon.

Couch may very well have a minor injury that in no way affects the coming season. Let's pray that is the case. His only other injuries in four seasons were the freak thumb incident from a 2000 practice and an ankle sprain in Week 15 of the 1999 season (which was bound to happen since he'd been sacked something like 1,400 times). He's a tough kid. Remember those fights he used to pick?

Over the past 32 games, Cleveland has witnessed a barrage of season-ending injuries that defy explanation. Every team has a season where it loses a disproportionate number of players, but back-to-back years with well more than a dozen players lost is too freakish to chalk up to chance. It's the evil hex that's plagued this team and city since the final gun of the 1964 NFL Championship game.

As we sit on the verge of the most promising season since 1994, the injury worries continue to mount. Every game results in the various nicks and cuts and sprains you'd expected from a sport that involves very large, angry men colliding at tremendous speeds. That's why preseason games should be limited to two.

That aside, I can't shake the worry we're about to see a repeat of the infamous "Year of the Quarterback Injury" – better known as 1988 in Cleveland.

A Browns team favored by many to not only reach the Super Bowl, but win it was crippled by a series of freakish injuries to its key players – especially quarterbacks. At one point, the team was forced to call in retired Miami quarterback Don Strock off a golf course.

Despite the rash of injuries, the team made the playoffs, but it was clear in a wild card loss to the visiting Oilers that missing franchise quarterback Bernie Kosar – who had been lost for the second time just a few weeks earlier – was the difference.

Kosar, when healthy that season, was at the top of his career. He was coming off a 1987 season where he led the AFC in quarterback rating (95.4) while connecting for 22 touchdown passes versus a miserly nine interceptions. Those numbers look even better when you consider that three games were lost to the player strike, in which the insipid Jeff Christiansen and ageing Gary Danielson were under center.

All eyes were on Kosar the next season. He was expected to lead the team back to the AFC title game, where Denver wasn't expected to be a threat. Instead, Kosar took a shot to the elbow from a blitzing Chief in the second quarter at Kansas City in the season opener. The Browns won 6-3, but he was done for the next seven weeks.

In the meantime, the Browns turned to Kosar's mentor, Danielson. He was lost with a broken ankle in the very next game, a 23-3 loss to the Jets in the home opener. Then it was Mike Pagel's turn. He went 2-2 until going down against the Eagles in Week Seven. Strock came in and Cleveland sent Philadelphia packing 19-3, but that was mostly due to the dominating Browns defense.

Kosar returned the next week at Phoenix, and obliterated the Cardinals' defense with three touchdown passes, including a bomb to a diving Reggie Langhorne and a tackle-eligible strike to Ricky Bolden. Awesome. But on a Monday night at Miami, another injury ended his season. Pagel was able to get the team into the playoffs with a 28-23 come-from-behind victory in the season finale at old Municipal Stadium, but he and Strock failed to repeat the deed the next week against the same team.

It didn't help the team also lost, at varying times, Webster Slaughter, Kevin Mack and Hanford Dixon. All pros all.

What happens if Couch goes down for a few weeks? Kelly Holcomb will be all the difference. He's been in the league since 1996, but never got the chance to develop as a starting quarterback. His most significant playing time has come in the preseason, and he's gotten a lot of work with Cleveland's first-team because the Browns have played Couch sparingly.

Holcomb, 29, has looked very good, for whatever the preseason is worth. He's intriguing. Could there be a quality starting quarterback in him? We don't want to find out, but if Couch gets clobbered, I've a better feeling about Holcomb being a solid player than most backups in Cleveland history.

I can recall watching Holcomb's first start, a 1997 game against the Bengals at Indianapolis. Holcomb was filling in for the injured Jim Harbaugh. He was clearly being thrown to the wolves – he hit 19 of 32 passes with a trio of interceptions and a score, a six-yarder to fantasy football hero Marvin Harrison. Clearly, he showed a spark.

My gut instinct says Holcomb could develop into an effective NFL starting quarterback if given the reigns. All he needs is time. He's matured and played the role of understudy well. His only playing time last season came after the game at Green Bay was beyond salvage, yet he moved the team effectively against a good defense that knew he was going to throw.

In the context of history, it's obviously unclear if he's a better backup than Mike Pagel, who had several years of experience starting for, ironically, the Colts. He's certainly a huge improvement over Spergeon Wynn, Doug Pederson and Kevin Thompson.

Thankfully, it seems Cleveland's offense doesn't call for great mental strain by the quarterback. It's a fairly safe system, unlike Chris Palmer's scheme, which had Couch looking downfield and making decisions on an ill-equipped expansion team.

Under offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, the Browns run an offense that gives the quarterback a lot of high-percentage short throws, which keeps the ball out of danger for the most part. The deeper throws are set up by play-action passes that feed off a (hopefully) effective rushing attack led by William Green.

Holcomb and Couch have both been very effective in the system this preseason, if their current passing efficiency ratings are any true measure. Both have looked good. Couch, however, is the undisputed leader of the team and takes the game to another level. The team cannot afford to lose him for an extended period.

For now, all eyes are on the Kentucky Kid's right arm.

Let us pray 1988 stays where it belongs: in the history books.

Doc Gonzo is a former Ohio newspaper reporter and editor. He now lives in Michigan's Thumb, safe from fools, knaves and Ratbirds. He can be reached at

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