EDITOR'S NOTE: In the spirit of self-esteem building through speaking publicly about highly personal and probably embarrassing events and problems within our private lives, or whatever quack/crank psycho-gibberish was foisted on us by Clinton Era academic loons, here's an awkward and upsetting personal anecdote from your narrator, who needs a hug. He reveals his shame at being outfoxed in a fantasy football auction by his girlfriend. Note that the situation in question occurred prior to Week 1.
The "she" is my girlfriend, the "got" is a fantasy football auction. As football fans, you know who Warner and Green are. If not, stop reading and go study. Now.
The league is made up of staffers and pals from the newspaper in Flint, Mich. As a boyfriend of their premier business reporter, I was invited to join the fun.
After weeks of careful preparation, with reams of intricate notes and analysis, I was prepared. The auction method was new to the few veteran fantasy players in the group, and fantasy football was completely new to the girlfriend, who devotes her football expertise to her alma mater, the insipid Michigan State Spartans.
She can name off some second-string MSU defensive back from six years ago, but up until the auction, knew very little about pro football. Mercifully, she's not much of a Lions fan (Aside: Neither, it seems, is Marty Mornhinweg).
Of course, all that's changed. She undertook a crash course in the NFL, thumbing through various preseason mags and Web sites.
Now, she's dangerous.
She knew enough on auction day to drive up prices to screw other team owners, and bide her time on super stars. Because the auction was done by drawing player names at random from a pile, it took clever financial planning (we had a $50 salary cap and bidding was in 10-cent increments) and patience to assemble a good team.
As a Spartan homer, she was determined to get Pittsburgh's Plaxico "Let's Have A Gun Toting Party" Burress. But she also got Eric Moulds, Jeremy Shockey and Mike Alstott. And Eddie George, Troy Brown and Aaron Brooks.
By the middle of the auction, she still had $45 left, and could outbid anyone for whichever player she desired – which included Warner for $18.50. And then Green for something like $6.
I've created a monster.
Instead of the many typical girlfriends who can be convinced to bet on a St. Louis Browns-Washington Senators game without question, she's wickedly clever and determined to beat the mortal crap out of my team.
She spent the Thursday night of the NFL's Week 1 berating Giants' offensive coordinator Sean Payton for not calling enough passes to Shockey in the red zone, and raging at quarterback Kerry Collins for overthrowing the rookie.
My dear Melissa is quickly gaining confidence in her team.
I, on the other hand, must remain quiet with my fear her team. Nor can I boast too loudly if I manage to best her, because otherwise I'll be reduced to doing my own laundry.
Not a pretty thought. Colors in warm, right?
During the auction, I saved a wad to get San Francisco's Jeff Garcia, but so did about four other people. He went for $19, the most expensive player of the day. Too rich for my blood.
Instead, I hung around the edges and got Donovan McNabb for $15. Too much, yes, but I had the cash and didn't need any other position but kicker.
I admit, I'm a complete Cleveland homer. I took Couch ($2.40), Kevin Johnson ($3.90), William Green ($2) and the defense ($1). Oh, and for the week my kicker, Jeff Wilkins of the Rams, has his bye, I bought Phil Dawson (10 cents).
Chris Sanders came up at one point. I hesitated to see if anyone was going to bid on him, but that annoying conscience took over and I informed the auctioneer that Sanders was on football's scrap heap.
Johnson did OK for me last season, thanks to his nine scores. The defense worked miracles, including one 40-point fantasy performance that overcame an opponent stocked with Rams stars.
Various publications insist Mr. Couch is poised to have his breakout season in 2002. Of course, all that was written before his mysterious arm injury. We'll see Sunday if there's any merit to their optimism.
BUNGHOLIOS: My original plan for this story was to write about Cincinnati coach Dick LeBeau's bizarre comments after the loss to Cleveland, but I thought better of it. That game is over, and the Bengals are clearly and quickly spiraling out of control. It's best to save my time for when the bottom truly does fall out in the Queen City. No sense blowing our wad now when there will certainly be more buffoonery down the road.
However, I can't keep from commenting on Wonder Dunce Gus Frerotte's gem from an Associated Press story in which he comments about the possibility of losing his job after three interceptions and five sacks: "I could have no feet and no hands and I'll still be out there.''
He has a point. His hands and feet seemed to get him in nothing but trouble Sunday.
(Dis)Gus(ting) Frerotte was sore at the press after the game, and said we all want him to lose his starting job. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Few quarterbacks in the league provide as much Theater of the Absurd than Gusticle. Remember when he hurt his neck while head-butting a wall? Classic. His left-handed toss to Kenard Lang on Sunday was another pearl to be treasured. A truly Gustonian gaffe.
And who wants to watch Jon Kitna or Akili Smith lose games? Heck, they lose the old-fashioned way: ineptitude and interceptions. At least with Gustacular, it's a comedy.
REMEMBER THE TITANICS: This Sunday's game is the first true test of the season. We all know the Browns should be going into the game with a comfortable 2-0 division lead, but one Helmetgate later, things are far different. At 1-1 with a tenuous AFC North lead, this is an absolute must-win game. Cleveland has the chance to put some distance between itself and Cincinnati and Baltimore while Pittsburgh is idle.
With a win at Tennessee, Cleveland can go into Heinz Field at 2-1, and a loss wouldn't drop them from the top of the standings.
There is reason for optimism Sunday. Whether they play or not, Titans backfield mates Steve McNair and Eddie George are both ailing. The Browns know that. McNair took a beating from the Browns last year, so that thought will be in the back of his mind. He certainly watched game film of Cleveland pounding Frerotte.
Ohio State loyalty aside, the Browns must grind Eddie George and his sore feet into pulp. He's hurt Cleveland before – badly. The key to winning Sunday will be which team is more physical. The Browns have a chance to establish themselves as a serious postseason contender by dismantling and clobbering an ailing Titans squad.
Sunday could very well be the game that turns this franchise around. A convincing victory will shake the league up. More importantly, the following game is at Pittsburgh, and that game could decide the division. With a week off to mull their 0-2 start, including a nationally television embarrassment, the Steelers will be chomping at the bit. Browns win the next two, they're 3-1 versus Pittsburgh's 0-3.
As other writers have reported, the Bengals last season stumbled onto the formula for beating the Steelers – throw every down in a hurry-up offense because Pittsburgh's base defense doesn't have the talent to stop it. The Patriots and Raiders used that scheme to dismantle the Arn City Fools.
Of course, that means the Stillers will practice for two weeks to stop that plan – if the Browns were thinking of following New England and Oakland's lead. Cleveland could cross them up and try to run the ball and employ trick or oddball plays.
Or maybe they think Pittsburgh thinks that's what they'll do, so instead they'll pass.
Or maybe …
ARGH! It's too much to think about now. The possibilities are endless, and Butch Davis and Bruce Arians are paid the Phat Phranklins to figure that stuff out, not me. Plus, we should stay focused on Tennessee. Win that, combined with more Cintucky and Crackimore defeats, then the world looks a whole lot brighter on Monday morning.
Here's my report card:
It was amusing, and a little bit comforting, to see Butch Davis get medieval on Mark Word after the latter tore his helmet off before reaching the safety of the sidelines. Davis was apoplectic. Overall, the game plan was simple. It would have been nice to see some trickery on offense, perhaps a reverse. Remember that victory at Denver on a Monday night in 1990, the one where Eric Metcalf took the handoff into the line, then turned and tossed the ball back to Bernie, who then hit Webster Slaughter for a long score? If that awful team could pull off the flea-flicker, so can this team. Entertain us, Bruce! Didn't you see Gladiator? The mob is Cleveland! We demand the circus maximus.
The numbers weren't as impressive for Kelly Holcomb, but he got the job done. When most back-ups start, the desire is for them to play well enough for you not to lose. With Holcomb, he's shown he can win a game. His star looked even brighter Sunday because his opposite number on the Bengals looked dreadful. Holcomb made some nice tosses under pressure, which didn't seem to faze him. If we're lucky, teams will see it's useless to blitz the Browns all the time – even with an offensive line made up of small children and Spanish-American War veterans taken from the stands.
RUNNING BACKS: C-
Oh, my God, this team can run screen passes. Now we're grown up, just like all the other teams. The grade is this high solely because of Jamel White's work in relief of rookie William Green, who ran more like Boyce Green. To his credit, this Green ran three plays with authority, showing the strength, speed and mental ability that could net him a grand on the ground. But the rest of the time, he was hesitant and running tippy-toed, despite Davis' comments otherwise. Still, this color-coded backfield isn't going to make anyone forget the ultimate hue: Brown. As in Jim.
WIDE RECEIVERS: B
Like Holcomb, the numbers were not as glitzy as the week before, but the squad gets high marks for being effective. Everyone seems to have sure hands, and knows where the down markers are located. Rookie Andre Davis made Cleveland look smart with his second scoring catch in as many weeks. Quincy Morgan did the same, although he didn't find the end zone. Morgan continues to impress with his improved hands and field smarts. Is this the same clown as last year? It would be nice to see the charity of passes open the game up more for Kevin Johnson and his fat contract. He's no slouch, and the game plan and situation may have dictated things, but he needs to catch more than the 5 passes for 50 yards than he did Sunday. It'll be interesting to see how Holcomb's work spreading the ball plays out when Couch returns at Tennessee.
OFFENSIVE LINE: B
Can we get a healthy body in here? This group certainly is keeping team doctor John Bergfeld busy. Only one sack allowed to the Bengals, but can that performance be repeated against the Titans? Center Dave Wohlabaugh still has a broken hand, and tackles Roger Chanoine and Ryan Tucker are ailing. The patchwork line last Sunday helped White, but seemed to do little for Green. Line coach Larry Zierlein got the most out of a slap-dash, patchwork line last week. He must reach deep into his bag a miracles again this week.
DEFENSIVE LINE: B
Yes, Corey Dillon got 108 yards on 21 carries, but they were the 108 most unimportant yards of this series. They came when it didn't matter on drives, and the linemen turned it up on Frerotte when it mattered most. Word, despite the near-gaffe with the helmet, recorded three sacks while starting for the oft-injured Courtney Brown. Kenard Lang has heady enough to grab Frerotte's idiotic left-handed toss and rumbled 72 yards to set up the 8-yard Holcomb-to-Johnson score just before halftime. A huge improvement game over Week 1. The line could catch a break this week if Eddie George remains hobbled.
OK, they can't stop Dillon. Never have, never will. But they did prevent the long cut-back runs that previously set up scores for the Bengals. Dillon is rarely stopped by any one man, and the Browns seemed to do well supporting each other, and slowing him down until help arrived. They got sacks from Brant Boyer and Darren Hambrick. Boyer also made an athletic interception. This unit looks like it needs more time to mesh. The flashes give hope. Earl Holmes had 10 tackles, so there's reason to be optimistic that's a sign of things to come. It'd better be.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: C
They played better in run support last Sunday. No more watching the back of a running back as he sauntered into the end zone for yet a third fourth-quarter touchdown. This time, the secondary played smarter and tougher on the run. Dillon's 108 yards didn't mean a lick, and that says a lot in the NFL. As for pass defense, it's hard to grade them. Then line pressured Free-rot into bad throws, and his receivers seemed afraid of the ball or lazy. The Browns won't have that luxury at Tennessee. The secondary must do both its jobs well. Robert Griffith is clearly the leader of the defensive backfield, if for nothing else than his aggressive play. I like.
SPECIAL TEAMS: B
Hey, the pseudo-football players known as the kickers managed to keep their mouths shut against Cincinnati. Mr. Automatic extended his field goal kicking streak to 21 made, and needs three more to snap Matt Stover's team record. Chris Gardocki, when quiet, is still one of the league's premier punters. Dennis Northcutt is having a fine season returning punts, and either he or Andre Davis will bust one soon. Kick and punt coverage seems solid enough not to worry about. Famous last words? Let's hope not …
Doc Gonzo is a former Ohio newspaper reporter and editor that lived for several years in Cincinnati and hated every single, stinking second of it. He now lives in Michigan's remote, mysterious and exotic Thumb, where he is safe from fools, knaves and Ratbirds. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.