Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

– Dylan Thomas, Welsh poet (1914-1953) "> Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

– Dylan Thomas, Welsh poet (1914-1953) ">

Down and Out In Cleveland, Ohio

<I>"Do not go gentle into that good night.<BR> Rage, rage against the dying of the light." <BR><BR></I> – Dylan Thomas, Welsh poet (1914-1953)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Your narrator has once again subjected himself to the inhumane abuse of a Cleveland Browns game at the lakefront. After emptying his wallet and fattening his odometer, the author comes away with those old familiar feelings – indignity, anger and resignation. Call them the Three Amigos of Cleveland football emotions, and they've come home to roost yet again with all the subtle grace of Drew Carey at a buffet. They'll have plenty of time to catch up on things as we spend an idle winter watching the Cavs toil in exciting humiliation and the Indians continue to dismantle themselves while snickering about "rebuilding" that we know is codespeak for cheapness.

 

"Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light."

 

- Dylan Thomas, Welsh poet (1914-1953)


 

CLEVELAND -- Smell that?

 

That putrid stench is the odor of Cleveland's playoff aspirations going up in smoke.

 

It's also the reek of my fury and rage at having shelled out $120 for a pair of 50-yard line seats to witness yet another mind-boggling implosion of ineptitude and catastrophic incompetence at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

 

Only a glutton for punishment would watch live the NFL version of the fall of Dien Bien Phu in its appalling glory.

 

A truly dreadful second-half performance by the Browns on Sunday revealed that this team is still several seasons away from being a serious post-season contender, and faces significant questions about Tim Couch's abilities - and future as Cleveland's quarterback.

 

Where does one even begin deconstructing the loss?

 

The players certainly had a significant hand in the collapse, but Sunday was a case of the sideline brain trust being outfoxed in the chess match of the X's and O's.

 

The bottom line is that inexcusable bungling by the coaching staff led directly to defeat. Whomever made the decision to leave second-year cornerback Anthony Henry - who's struggled all season - in man-to-man coverage with Marvin Harrison should be fired immediately. Compounding the blunder - besides the abysmal play of the defense in general and Henry's pathetic and appallingly clumsy job - was the inability of the coaching staff to make the proper adjustments to relieve or assist Henry.

 

How many times was Harrison or some other player wide open? Enough times for Peyton Manning to lead the Colts to four second-half touchdowns in slightly more than 10 minutes.

 

In the first half, veteran corner Corey Fuller relied on experience and technique to limit Harrison to three grabs for 54 yards. The Colts flipped the receiver to the opposite side to begin the third quarter, but the Browns didn't respond. Instead, they stuck with their theory of "bench" and "field" corners, a high school pass defense philosophy that keeps players on a specific side instead of in personnel match-ups.

 

Obviously, the strategy failed miserably, and likely cost the team its then-realistic shot at playing in January.

 

Meanwhile, Cleveland's offense stuttered and stalled for the most part in the second half. When the offense did manage a 2-yard William Green touchdown scamper to start the fourth quarter - good for a 23-14 lead - the coaching staff failed to capitalize on that success at the end of the game by exploiting Green's running ability inside the 5-yard line.

 

Instead, a string of failed pass plays from the 5-yard line fell incomplete and Indianapolis escaped grinning.

 

Cleveland got croaked by a team whose beatnik-loving owner is an admitted drug freak and whose quarterback spent the entire afternoon in some sort of manic audible frenzy.

 

Words almost fail me. Almost.

 

The loss was tragic. The Browns were on the verge of capturing the city's heart by playing a significant game in December, but a slipshod performance reminded everyone that this team is just another motley collection of second-tier punks who are more bark than bite. That's been the city's football curse since Jim Brown, Frank Ryan and Gary Collins brought home the team's last championship 38 years ago.

 

Today's Browns boast, strut, flex and mug for the camera, but in prime time they fold like cheap suits. The defense is gaining an ignominious reputation for allowing nobody back-ups like Indy's James Mungro and Carolina's Dee Brown to run over them roughshod.

 

Worse, defensive coordinator Foge Fazio in back-to-back games has orchestrated boneheaded decisions that left the defense vulnerable to quick dives up the middle – and paid the price. Mungro and the Jags' Fred Taylor both knifed through the defense almost untouched for long, back-breaking touchdown runs.

 

In football terms, Fazio's botched playcalling shows he's a senile old hack that should be weighted down with bricks and tossed into the Cuyahoga River. He's loved by players, but no guru would concoct such a hopeless scheme.

 

Besides, it's a stone fact that if all the employees love the boss, he's doing something wrong.

 

What's the best word to describe the play of the defense in the most important game of the season?

1. Humiliating.

2. Disgraceful.

3. Reprehensible.

4. Embarrassing.

5. Dishonorable.

6. All of the above.

 

Hmm, what might the answer be ... If you have trouble deciding, come back to the quiz next month when you're watching a dozen teams not from Cleveland in the playoffs. You can look back to Sunday's game as much as the season-opening helmet toss or the freak defeat at Pittsburgh to get yourself worked into a fuming lather.

 

While you're rabid, Tim Couch will be sunning himself - along with his piles of undeserved millions and a Bentley - somewhere far from the sound and fury of the disappointed and heartbroken city by the lake.

 

Can you feel the seething anger in each of these keystrokes?

 

It's not as if the Browns' general frailty is a sudden development. Sunday's defeat should have been the third consecutive for Cleveland. Last week's victory over Jacksonville was a fluke. Consecutive defeats, or near defeats, to the Panthers, Jaguars and Colts is a chilling reminder of 2001's late-season collapse.

 

What progress has been made in a year? Doesn't seem like much.

 

As for that game two weeks ago at Jacksonville, I scrapped that column as a pile of mawkish gibberish that need not pollute the Internet. I could barely muster the willpower to write anything after the Jags game because it was so clearly evident that Cleveland should have lost. The Hail Mary victory was nothing more than scraps tossed from the table of the Football Gods, who enjoy tantalizing Clevelanders with the occasional bright spot in an otherwise brutal existence.

 

Let's get back to the subject of Tim Couch, a somewhat more talented and younger version of the disastrous Mike Phipps.

 

Couch was drafted No. 1 overall in the 1999 draft and is paid to win games like Sunday's home match against Indianapolis. His first-half numbers were impressive, but his pair of touchdown passes were both underthrown wobblers that that receivers either had to come back or wait for, then make a play on their own.

 

Evidence continues to mount that Couch doesn't have the mental ability to take his performance to the next level. Even casual fans notice his alarming tendency to lock onto a receiver, often Kevin Johnson, then force the ball despite multiple defenders.

 

Couch seems confused and unable to handle defensive pressure when his primary receiver is blanketed. He'll stumble around the pocket - when the offensive line performs well enough to create one - until he forces a pass or is sacked. He shows almost no inclination to run the ball, a tendency that cost the Browns Sunday's game.

 

Trailing 28-23 with just seconds remaining in the fourth quarter while on the Colts' 5-yard line, Couch forced a fourth down pass to rookie Andre Davis that fell incomplete. During the play, the pocket and pressure had drifted behind Couch, who had a blocker and open space between him and the goal line.

 

Instead of doing the smart thing - rumbling ahead for the easy score - he tried to do too much, and ended up costing the Browns a realistic chance at their first postseason berth since 1994.

 

Couch didn't disgrace himself statistically Sunday, completing 21-of-35 passes for 287 yards with no interceptions.

 

Some of the blame lies with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians, who continues to perplex through his impatient play-calling. Cleveland's offense is predicated on a modicum of success on the ground, thereby permitting an effective play-action passing game.

 

When William Green or other running backs have found room, it's opened up passing lanes for Couch and the receivers.

 

On Sunday, Arians called Green's number just seven times in the second half. The rookie ground out 28 yards on those carries, including a 2-yard touchdown run to put Cleveland up 23-14 to start the fourth quarter.

 

Green finished with 69 yards rushing on 22 carries.

 

The high-impact cutback runs and fake end-around dives up the middle were absent Sunday. Arians kept calling long stretch runs around the corner despite the Colts loading up the corners with linebackers and safeties. When Green was finding little or no gain on those play calls, and on other calls, Couch was being dropped for significant losses on first down because of sacks or botched execution.

 

Then, it was all over.

 

Now, whatever slender hope remains for the postseason - a place the Browns most assuredly do not deserve - rests on the tender mercies of the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers.

 

Hell, after this much mistreatment and cruelty every Sunday, it's not worth my time or yours to divine what could happen over the next two weeks. There's simply no credible reason to believe Cleveland will win either game.

 

Another 7-9 finish is my prediction. I hope it's wrong, but I doubt it I am. It might even do the team good in the end if such a finish forces management and the coaching staff to make the proper changes.

 

 

NOTES


Here's some random thoughts and observations from the crevices of my diseased mind:

 

·         For those of you that play Madden Football 2003 on PlayStation2, look closely at Baltimore coach Brian Billick when he shakes hands after a game. He's a dead ringer for Bob Crane, the actor who played the title character in "Hogan's Heroes" and later was murdered before being exposed as a porn freak who liked to record all his perversions on camera. Kinda fitting since if there's any coach in the league with some dark kinky streak, it's Billick the Mighty.

·         For those of us that remember and love truly good 1970s music, Steely Dan is releasing a new studio album sometime in 2003. That follows 2000's "Two Against Nature" – only the band's second new album since 1980. For younger readers, Steely Dan is the duo that won the 2000 Grammy over Eminem.

·         Coming in January is a new book by Hunter S. Thompson, whose literary canon gives this column its name.

·         Vic Carucci last week called Cleveland's offensive line "large and powerful." Clearly, Vic has either been drinking or not watched much Browns football in 2002. The "large and powerful" Cleveland line was unable to keep the Colts' undersized defensive line off Couch, or create many holes for Green to run through.

·         It's the rage among sports writers this season to talk about "Cover 2" defenses. Every year there's a buzzword. In other years, it was the "wham" play and the "zone blitz."

 

Pro football is a complex game once you get inside the X's and O's. Philosophies abound and playbooks can make New York City telephone directories seem brief. I'm not convinced NFL scribes have even the slightest grasp of a Cover 2 defense. You hear it on almost every broadcast, and see it all over the sports sections. It's simply a defense with two safeties lined up fairly evenly in the secondary, and on the snap of the ball they drift apart toward the sidelines in a double zone. The cornerbacks and linebackers cover five zones "underneath" the two deep zones. Of course, that leaves the middle of the field wide open. The linebackers have to cover running backs out of the backfield and tight ends streaking between the safeties. In a Cover 2, the safeties rely on the cornerbacks to bump and press the wide receivers. That "flattens" the receiver's route, and allows the safeties good angles. Against the Colts, the Browns' corners backed off Harrison, yet stayed in the two-deep zone. That's bad. If you don't think so, check out Harrison's stats and the final score.

 

Doc Gonzo is a former Ohio newspaper reporter and editor who longs for the days of Brian Sipe and Bernie Kosar. You can reach him at docgonzo19@aol.com.


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