"We fight, get beat, rise, and fight again." – Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene (1781)
Outside, winter blows a cruel, bitter wind as if to accent the harsh depth of our despair. Sunlight has faded into shadow. Night draws near. We huddle in the freezing hours, despondent at our unenviable plight. The specter of yet another icy January spent recounting failure and regret looms.
Yet all is not lost.
The Browns' pathetic defeat at the hands of the beleaguered Carolina Panthers has set the stage for either a repeat of 2001's December disintegration or a miraculous resurgence and blitz into the playoffs.
For hope, let us turn to the pages of history. Onto such bleak landscapes great men often emerge.
In August 1780, American Gen. Horatio Gates – who staged a mighty victory over British and Canadian troops in the 1777
Gates fled the field so fast that his staff could barely keep up with him. He rode 200 miles before stopping.
His disgraceful performance earned him a trip into retirement, and brought to the stage Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, appointed by Congress to command American forces south of
Greene's task was one of the more unenviable in all military history.
Then Greene did the unthinkable. In the face of thousands of years of military thought, he divided his inferior force in the face of a numerically and logistically superior enemy. That burst of tactical brilliance may very well have saved America, for the British were forced to do the same. So, instead of a large, daunting force, Greene was instead faced by two manageable chunks. The British, slave to doctrine and the whims of its fastidious commander, the Lord Cornwallis, were encumbered by a long baggage train and heavy equipment.
The smaller British force, under the command of the cruel Lt. Col. Banastre Tarleton (who the antagonist in Mel Gibson's "The Patriot" was loosely based upon) went chasing after an American group under Brig. Gen. Dan Morgan. Tarleton's corps, made up of fast-moving light infantry and dragoons, was known for its speed, effectiveness and ruthless brutality.
On Jan. 16, 1781, Tarleton caught up with Morgan's troops at a place called Hannah's Cowpens. Morgan, knowing the unreliability of his militia, deployed those troops in a line astride the route he expected an attack from the British. The Carolina and Georgia militia were told to fire several volleys before retreating behind the main body of American troops – Maryland Continentals and Virginia militia, which Morgan considered reliable since it was made up of Continental veterans.
Morgan's plan was deceptively simple. The British were to see the American militia fire then leave the field. In reality, they were playing a game of reverse leap-frog: Each group falling back in good order behind the next. Thinking the militia was routed, Tarleton's troops would charge forward – into a blistering fire by the steady Continentals.
The American plan, despite some confusion, succeeded beyond expectation. Tarleton's corps was routed in less than an hour. The defeat sent shockwaves through the British forces, and improved American military and civilian morale considerably.
With Tarleton checked, Greene was able to execute a rapid withdrawal with Cornwallis in pursuit, a chase that became known as the Race to the Dan River. Greene reached the river and crossed it, taking all available boats with him. Cornwallis, who'd shed all his baggage to lighten his corps and make it faster, was forced to retreat. Greene then turned to pursue the British.
The two armies met at Guilford Courthouse, North Carolina, on March 15, 1781. Greene had superior numbers, but the bulk of his force was unsteady militia. A desperate, savage fight ensued with both sides attacking and falling back.
In a desperate bid to stave off defeat, Cornwallis ordered his artillery to fire into a melee of troops, killing men on both sides. The Americans wavered, and Greene, unwilling to sacrifice his vital Maryland and Delaware Continentals, ordered a withdrawal.
The British held the field and claimed victory, but 25 percent of Cornwallis' command was killed or wounded. The American corps remained intact and able to fight. Crippled, the British army, as a direct result of the costly battle, was eventually forced to retire on a tiny Virginia tobacco port called Yorktown.
There, Cornwallis was caught by an American and French army marching south from New York. After weeks of siege, Cornwallis was compelled to surrender on Oct. 19, 1781. The English prime minister, Lord North, was said to have received the news of the defeat, "as he would have taken (musket) ball to his breast."
Greene, meanwhile, fought several more actions and lost each time. However, his army was never routed and each loss actually forced the British to abandon more and more outposts in Georgia and the Carolinas.
Through minor defeats, Greene was able to liberate the entire American South.
There are lessons to be learned in that.
Cleveland's woes this season have mirrored the historic example. It's the best we can do to hope Butch Davis' team rises and fights again because on Sunday, they sure got the "We get beat" part down pat.
Let us begin our painful examination of the most recent defeat.
For the last two seasons, the Browns couldn't run, but they could pass. Against, the Saints, they did both. Hell, they marched into New Orleans like a Mongol horde, and when they left, quarterback Aaron Brooks and Co were left wide-eyed – and so was the league's pundits.
Then Carolina, riding an 8-game slide, slouched into Cleveland as the poster child on how not to run a franchise. With a 40-somthing-year old quarterback leading a team missing several starters lost to suspension and injury – and coming off a 41-0 loss to Atlanta – the Browns were sure to unleash a rampage of violent destruction.
But instead of being forced to hide our women and children from the carnage Cleveland was expected to wrought, they needed hidden out of embarrassment and humiliation.
Now they can run, but can't pass. How is this possible?
If the Browns are akin to Greene's Continentals, this must be the time they're lulling the bad guys into thinking they're done for. I sure hope so, because Sunday's performance sure seemed like the militia was wearing Carolina uniforms. Davis must feel the same frustration as Greene did when he saw battles nearly won lost when his militia would inexplicably turn tail.
Where do we even begin to explain this loss?
I would almost have been disappointed had the Browns not made Panthers' running back Dee Brown, a second-year player making his first start in place of the disgraced Lamont Smith, look like Barry Sanders. You just saw that one coming. Play after play, the Panthers ran the same draw and off-tackle. The Browns couldn't stop it. Not even on fourth down, when the entire world knew Brown would get the ball and run left.
On the other side of the ball, it was even worse.
Coach-turned-FOX talking head Jimmy Johnson at halftime said what he's insisted in the past, that Tim Couch is not a franchise quarterback. He said Couch is too inconsistent to be of real value for the Browns over the long term.
Couch did nothing to dispel that notion Sunday.
In the cold afterglow, here's what in my mind were the culprits Sunday:
1. Tim Couch. He was unable to overcome the Panthers' strong pass rush. His first interception wasn't his fault because he was hammered as the ball left his hand. Fine. The second one, an attempt to force the ball to a triple-covered Kevin Johnson, was inexcusable for a veteran quarterback. Boom, another scoring drive ended. The end of the game came down to whether another Couch interception was fumbled and picked up by Johnson for a touchdown. It wasn't, so Couch then immediately threw another to end the game. For years, I've defended Couch, but this loss was 90 percent his fault. It's too late in the franchise's maturity to trade him for, say, a chance to draft USC's Carson Palmer. So, as Couch goes, the Browns go. Perhaps drafting Palmer would light a fire under Couch's under-performing ass. The official team line was that Couch only needed weapons to blossom. He has a running game and four outstanding wide receivers. What's the excuse now for looking every bit like Mike Phipps?
2. Offensive line. If you're going to talk trash in the newspaper, back it up on Sunday. Tackle Ryan Tucker and his linemates mouthed off this week, then went out and played like a junior varsity squad on pass plays. The Panthers had their way, sacking and harassing Couch into an even worse day than he was already having. Run blocking was effective at times, but the running game disappeared inside the red zone.
3. The defense. Virtual rookie Dee Brown rushes for 122 yards. ‘Nuff said.
4. Bruce Arians. After an opening drive that lulled us into thinking the Browns were going to wallop the Carolina defense, which isn't that bad, we were left with a series of mind-numbing play-calls. Only a few times did Arians allow the team to dip into its bag of trick plays, or at least deceptive plays. The end-around to Dennis Northcutt and the flea-flicker to Quincy Morgan were clever, but overall the team was too predictable. Every drive seemed to be a first down incompletion followed by a 2-yard William Green run, then an incompletion or interception sparked by Carolina's fierce pass rush. Calling Green's number only nine times in the second half was just plain stupid. This offense can work, but perhaps it's time to fire Arians for someone that can call a proper game. Perhaps Bruce Arians is a brilliant visionary and his offense so sophisticated and revolutionary that my meager attempts to divine meaning from such an efficient machine is nothing more than egotistical frivolity. But I doubt it. They sucked and he called a bad game.
Make no mistake about it, this is one of the worst defeats in team history, and I'm talking about since the inception of the franchise by Micky McBride and friends in 1946. Critics will rightly point to this game as proof Cleveland is nothing more than a collection of semi-talented, boastful punks. Yeah, sometimes the punks win a streetfight. Others, they get stomped, and deservedly so.
What truly sucks is that Carolina isn't going to win another game. They lose phenomenal rookie defensive end Julius Peppers to a drug suspension next week. Without him, the Panthers will collapse. His presence on the field makes everyone else play better. Once he's gone, the Panthers come back to Earth.
Meanwhile, Cleveland is left with a single option: Win the rest of its games. Only with a 10-6 record and a sudden fade by the Steelers do the Browns have any sort of realistic shot at the post season. December is shaping up to be the month that the bogus teams will crumple and give way to the legitimate contenders – and it looks as if Cleveland is the first to fall.
Perhaps I'm wrong. That's certainly been the case many times in the past. Maybe this loss is the catalyst the team needs to cement its attitude for a playoff drive. But as someone whose devotion to this team can trace its heartbroken roots back to the infancy of the Kardiac Kids, I'm not betting the ranch on it.
The Browns have talent, but the attitude isn't killer. There's ego, certainly, but not the kind of bravado backed up by consistent play at the level to justify such ego. Great plays on second down are followed by giving up long third downs.
I'm not a coach or general manager, so I don't know what the fix is. For now, I'll give Butch Davis the benefit of the doubt that he can do whatever needs done to right the ship. Last year's late-season fold I'm sure is still fresh in his mind.
Looking big picture, perhaps it's best if this team doesn't make the playoffs. In fact, for the team, that might be the very worst thing that could happen. Call it blasphemous, but to finish 10-6 or 9-7 and sit home in January just might be the proper medicine to this ill-disciplined, immature bunch.
It would be a lesson that would carry over into next season. One would have thought that the devastating losses last season at Chicago and to Jacksonville and Pittsburgh would have been the tonic Cleveland needed to knife through this year's scheduled, but it wasn't.
Right now, they're kidding themselves they're good enough. Physically, they might be. Mentally, they ain't. The talent deficit that separates this team from the league's elite is in the head. A playoff berth now could do a lot of damage because they'd think they were good enough – players and coaches. Missing out because of losses like Sunday, and the helmet toss, might carve itself so deeply into the team psyche that the 2003 Browns actually become the dangerous pack of mad dogs that give no quarter that we expected.
For the moment, our only expectation should be more ineptitude. On Sunday, Cleveland was blundering and plodding and could not have beaten the Lions or Bengals. Instead of an insatiable appetite for blood, we're subjected to an obscene display of folly and catastrophe that got worse as the afternoon went on.
Especially the Lions. After all, the Bengals are playing better and better since it's garbage time for them.
In the Lions' case, the rest of the league's fans can only stare in wonderment at a level of duncitude so staggering as to be almost breathtaking in its scope. Coach Marty Mornhinweg wears a perpetual look of bamboozlement at every turn, a pathetic personification of Detroit's aimless ways. The Lions drift directionless in the NFL's sea lanes, and Marty's unending utter stupefaction at his team's talentless buffoonery is a symbol of a franchise stuck in reverse.
Don't expect Detroit's ownership to do anything about the mess. CEO Bill Ford Jr. is occupied making disturbing television commercials about his weird Mustang fetish, and the smoking wreckage of his grandfather's car company will distract him from real decisions. It's quite disconcerting every Sunday to have to watch the wild-eyed Ford gush over his bizarre obsessions.
Still, there's every reason to believe Detroit would have pummeled Cleveland on Sunday.
Now, a trip to Baltimore looms. The Ravens, thanks to several years of imperial overstretch that made the Ottoman Empire look well-managed and stable, were predicted to nose-dive into the league's gutter. But instead of turning into a rotten shell of its former, Super Bowl-winning self, the Ravens have shrugged off the salary cap woes and fielded a competitive football team … a team good enough to win at Cleveland and make Tim Couch cry.
If the Browns couldn't handle the Panthers and their disarray, how in the world will Cleveland beat Baltimore?
Odds are, it won't. And I'll be writing next week about the holidays losing a little bit of their joy and luster because Art Modell once again is Cleveland's Grinch.
But then, I'm being a pessimist. Let's try to regain our holiday spirit. After all, it was on the morning after Christmas 1776 that George Washington crossed the frozen Delaware River into New Jersey and caught the British-hired German garrison at Trenton unawares. Washington's bold, desperate gamble earned its place as one of history's most important battles.
Can the Browns find their own measure of frantic victory against all odds?
Doc Gonzo is a former Ohio newspaper reporter and editor who studied U.S. military history in lieu of a real education. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.