Stranger in a Strange Season

Paul Brown, the mad inventor … Yet another defeat At Fort Pitt … Brian Billick's crown of thorns … Tim Couch: The next Frank Ryan or the next Mike Phipps? … I love the Bengals … Lew and Phil get F's, but Jamel Jamel, he's our man!

EDITOR'S NOTE: Your faithful narrator broke down, shed his technological laziness and finally ran some virus checks on his computer, a supercharged Atari 800 with a lightning-fast  2,400 baud Hayes modem. To his horror, he discovered not one, but two Trojan Horses and six viruses of varying degrees of evilness. Clearly, Brian Billick had done this. Yet another desperate, grasping effort by Baltimore's main flying rat to sabotage anything sympathetic to Cleveland. He shall not prevail! Armed with several Red Stripe lagers and some Norton software, the Good Doctor has soldiered on to bring you this fine reporting. Brian Billick, prepare to meet your doom! We march on a road of bones …

FORT GRATIOT, Mich. – Paul Brown invented the Cleveland Browns. Not the team, but the spirit and mystique that surrounded the team in its glorious first 20 years.

He also invented the face mask. Who knew the rest of the damn helmet would cause his team so much trouble more than a half century later?

Four games, two losses, two helmets involved.

Helmet Incident No. 1, as we all know, was Dwayne Rudd's premature celebratory helmet fling that allowed the enigmatic Kansas City Chiefs to escape Cleveland with a victory.

Helmet Incident No. 2 was kick Phil Dawson's field goal attempt skipping off a Steelers' black headdress just enough to alter the trajectory of his overtime kick. The miss allowed the mediocre Steelers to regroup and march to an improbable victory.

It's difficult to gauge which helmet caused more heartache. My thinking is the Heinz Field Helmet. A chance to push the Steelers into a pit and begin shoveling dirt upon them was lost. A victory would have given Cleveland a clear shot at the AFC North title and a ticket to that place we've dared not even mention for fear of ridicule: the playoffs.

Instead, Pittsburgh in back in the hunt. So is the misanthropic gang of thugs and crooks known as the Baltimore Ravens, who are on their way to Cleveland for a Sunday night showdown you narrator will witness in person. If you listen closely, you can already hear the faint sound in the distance of approaching trumpets, which along with a path carpeted with rose petals will herald the arrival of the NFL's self-proclaimed genius and savior, Brian "Judas Goat" Billick.

The Crackimore Ratbirds have a shot at the top spot in the division if they win. A Cleveland loss and Pittsburgh victory would drop the Browns into third place.

All of a sudden, a golden opportunity lost at Heinz Field as the Browns perched on the edge of disaster.

Calm down.

A little bit of a Clevelander's soul dies each time the Browns succumb to the arrogant Pittsburgh Steelers, but there are positives that can be taken from the latest loss.

First, take the defeat in context. Two years ago, the losses felt far different. Cleveland was perhaps of the worst NFL team of the past 30 years in 2000. The team had collapsed and regressed to a sort of pre-expansion franchise, if that's even possible. Fans knew there was zero chance of victory before the kickoff.

Now, the sting of defeat is far more piercing. Why? Because the Cleveland Browns are a legitimate good team. Defeats such as the one Sunday at Heinz Field feel all the worse because we know they could have won. And they nearly did.

Bad mojo continues to plague this franchise. Dawson's attempt came agonizingly close to slipping over the crossbar. What the Football Gods giveth at Tennessee, they taketh away at Pittsburgh.

We can say without a hint of Three Rivers conceit that the Cleveland Browns should truly be 4-0. Clearly, the Browns were the better overall team Sunday, but their trademark strange karma prevented it. The loss to Kansas City still defies words. The undefeated start didn't happen, but 2-2 is still better than 1-2 or 0-3 or 0-4.

Just ask the Steelers, Ravens and Bengals.

And that's the other positive. The Browns are still in first place alone in the AFC North. Next is a very winnable game at home Sunday night against the faltering Ravens. Pittsburgh, meanwhile, has to visit a New Orleans team that's hell-bent on vengeance after losing to Detroit, of all teams.

Jim Haslett's troops will take a pound of flesh from the Monongahela Mighty Mites.

Baltimore shot its wad Monday night. Television and newspaper folks are wetting their pants over the unlikely victory, but few have taken the time to dissect the game. A closer inspection would reveal the truth: The game was given away early by a suspect Denver team. The ball bounced Baltimore's way all night. There simply is too little experience on that team to worry much. The Browns must take them seriously, but shouldn't be disturbed by the freakish turn of events that allowed to win.

And despite the hype of Ray "I didn't do it" Lewis, the Broncos still put up three late touchdowns.

October is a month for ghouls and pranks. It's also the month the Browns can take control of their destiny. The team missed its chance at Heinz Field, but the schedule makers were kind.

After Sunday's game against Baltimore, Cleveland visits Tampa Bay. The Browns have never lost to the Bucs, but let's be realists. They lose that one, but get the Texans and Jets before the home rematch with the Steelers. To have a hope at the division title, Cleveland absolutely must beat the lesser teams on its schedule, and the Raven, Texans and Jets are just that.

If the Browns can follow the plan, they'll be 5-3. After the Saints, the Steelers go to Cincinnati and should win. Then it's a Monday Night game against the Colts before a trip to Baltimore. Conceivably, the Steelers could be 5-2 when they come to Cleveland. I say they'll be 3-4 by then.

In fact, I would not at all be surprised to see Pittsburgh lose at Cincinnati. Oh, the joy.

GUS WATCH: Quick, which job is worse: Iraqi army draftee in front of the 1st Armored Division or Cincinnati Bengals quarterback? At least the Iraqis know the war will end quickly. The Cintucky faithful know the light at the end of the tunnel is a speeding freight train. There's no hope of things getting better because the problem is the owner. So unless he dies or is kidnapped by holdout SLA members, the long-term outlook in the Queen City is a plateful of steamed suckiness, with seconds on the way. As for Sunday, Akili Smith showed again why he should be helping Icky Woods wash cars somewhere. Jon Kitna gets the call again Sunday. If I'm judging the Bengals' starting quarterback rotation right, he'll be back under center when Cincinnati hosts Cleveland on Nov. 17. As if it mattered.

THOUGHTS OF THE WEEK: Brian Billick is an arrogant pimp. His boss is the devil. What more is there to say?

Here's my report card:

Butch "Light Horse" Davis gets props for his decision to challenge what looked like a Jerome Bettis touchdown. Turns out, it wasn't. The ensuing botched center exchange by Kordell Stewart made Davis look like a genius. The rest of the coaching seemed too conservative and uninspiring. There were flashes, like handoff on the punt return, but where was the razzle-dazzle? And the down-field tosses? The full blitz on Maddox's TD pass was questionable because it left Lew Sanders 1-on-1 with Plaxico Burris without safety help. In the context of the situation, it was a bad move that showed. The red zone play-calling left something to be desired. And why the obvious Hail Mary at the end of the half? Why not a shorter pass and a lateral? Seemed silly because the team was getting the ball back to start the second half. Perhaps I'm being too harsh. After all, they clock was managed well and there were no bone-headed gaffes like too many men on the field. The team was in a position to win.

I'm being charitable with this grade. A week off a career game, Tim Couch sinks back into the dumper far enough to relight the Kelly Holcomb controversy. All Couch had to do was turn in a solid performance and this game is won. Instead, he not once, but twice uncorks passes to the middle linebacker. One was picked, the other should have been. Couch missed a rare chance to establish himself in the history books and in fans' hearts at the quarterback that took the reigns of this team … and by that I mean more than just playing quarterback. Being the leader of the Cleveland Browns is more than passes or touchdowns. He gave us some of the intangibles two weeks ago, but a victory at Pittsburgh would have done wonders for his reputation. Bernie Kosar did so with an overtime touchdown pass at Three Rivers Stadium in 1986. Couch is the on-field leader of this team, but he doesn't embody its spirit like Kosar. I can't speak for all fans, but I don't get that feeling with Couch that I had with Bernie. When gangly old Kosar trotted out there, there was the sense he could strike at any time from anywhere on the field. He could take the team on his back and pull out victory through brains and sheer will. I wasn't fidgeting at the thought of the game in Bernie's hands. With Couch, the sense is, "When will the sack come? The 6-yard pass on 3rd-and-10?" We got a taste at Tennessee he could be a truly great quarterback, but his performance Sunday kept doubt alive. I only hold Couch accountable for one of his two interceptions, but his numbers were worse than those of Kordell Stewart. Couch hit 16-of-29 for 144 yards and two interceptions. Stewart was 15-of-25 for 143 yards and an interception. Denver/XFL/insurance industry cast-off Tommy Maddox came off the bench and played like Joey Montana by connecting on 11-of-13 passes for 122 yards, including a 10-yard score late in the fourth quarter to tie the game. Does Timmy need lessons from Tommy??? Couch is the amazing enigma, but as much as I like him (my home computer screen background is a pic of him in action) he must show consistency. Or just win games. Brian Sipe was inconsistent, but he had the Elway knack for winning games after sucking for 58 minutes. But Tim, if you're listening, throw the ball in Lake Erie if you're at the 12-yard line in a Wild Card game against Oakland, and the play calls for a pass to the tight end …

You can't blame this loss on Jamel White or William Green. Aided by a 54-yard scamper, White went over the century mark on the ground Sunday against 2001's top defense. With an able assist by the offensive line, White was more than enough threat for Couch to run the play-fakes to perfection. He didn't, but that's not J-White's of Willie's fault. They did everything asked of them and more. White made his case soundly he should start and be the featured back. Green is young, and there's no sense is trying to force his development. He should spell White and play short yardage and learn over 16 games. Grade would have been slightly higher, but White let a deep pass down the sideline slip through his hands.

Too many drops, but this kind of game was coming after carry the offense on its back for four weeks. The team has its best corps of wide outs since the days of Webster Slaughter, Reggie Langhorne and Brian Brennan. Quincy Morgan should have hauled in a scoring pass from Couch, but his hands flashed back to 2001. It's hard to judge this group this week because Couch was far too erratic and playing just plain stupid. Dennis Northcutt can't touch the ball without three things happening: He muffs it, scores with it or gets reviewed because of it. He's developing nicely. Finally. Too bad there's only one ball. Kevin Johnson was too quiet Sunday. Sack up, KJ. You got the cheddah to make those tough catches now. You're in real danger of being benched on my fantasy team in favor of Curtis Conway.

Lots of highs and lows Sunday. Clearly, this is the most physical and talented line in Cleveland since the 1994 group that allowed just 14 sacks. Every team knows it's going to give up sacks to the Steelers, but red zone sacks hurt especially bad. Ross Verba's hands-to-the-face penalty killed a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. If not for that, the Browns were in field goal range at the end of regulation. Couch was pressured all game, and when he wasn't being sacked, there was no room to set up. That made a bad day worse. He was off all day, but could have looked and performed better for just a second more to scan the field, or at least some room to move up in the pocket. Let's chalk this up to the line not having gelled yet. I see no reason they shouldn't continue to improve.

The wheels on the bus go round and round for 25 yards on 13 carries. Morale victories are for losers, but it's nice that Cleveland played a part in hastening Jerome Bettis' slide towards the bench. The interior of the line, Orpheus Roye and Gerard Warren, earned their pay Sunday by collapsing the blocking schemes and, along with Courtney Brown and Kenard Lang, kept that overweight bag of crap in check. Still, it's disheartening to see such an effort go to waste. On the bright side, two consecutive great games against running backs loved by the media and Madison Avenue (Bettis and Eddie George).

Rookie Andra Davis did his part to earn a victory by picking off Maddox on the first play of overtime. A wasted effort of course, but that's not his fault, and it was a sweet-looking INT. This group did its part in keeping Pittsburgh's offense in check. Earl Holmes should the Steelers he has plenty of gas left in the tank. Darren Hambrick looked like he's getting better each week. Rudd kept his hat on. Like the O-line, this unit needs time to gell. Once they do, look out.

Injuries or not, they lost the game. Well, their poor performance in the game's waning minutes led to defeat. Corey Fuller and Daylon McCutcheon came up lame on the game-trying drive, so Tommy "Elway" Maddox led an otherwise moribund Steelers offense 84 yards in less than two minutes for the score. Plaxico "Gat" Burris beat Lew Sanders like a rented mule for the touchdown. The Browns had a full blitz on, so there was no safety help.

I'd like to give the whole unit an F because Phil Dawson blew the game-winning field goal, but everyone else was pretty good. A blocked punt by Kevin Bentley and a blocked field goal by Alvin McKinney in the same game are always impressive. Special teams are no longer an area of concern. Now, about that offense and defense …

Doc Gonzo is a former Ohio newspaper reporter and editor who would not piss down the throat of Art Modell to save his life if Modell's heart was on fire. 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

The OBR Top Stories