A Time for Trumpets

Doc Gonzo overcomes post-XMas dinner bloat to discuss the Browns "bafflingly inconsistent" quarterback and the wonderous comeback against the Ratbirds. PLUS: Holiday gifts for everyone!

EDITOR'S NOTE: You narrator, bloated with drink and roasted bird, interrupts his well-deserved holiday slumber to bring you this trenchant missive, penned during one of Michigan's famed Lower Peninsula snowstorms. Despite the howling winds, drifting snow and added midsection girth, he rousts himself into a journalistic endeavor worthy of Old St. Nick himself. Especially that milk and cookies bit.


FORT GRATIOT, Mich. — Merry Christmas, Cleveland.

The city got an early holiday gift last Sunday in the form of the Browns' last-second 14-13 road victory over the hated Baltimore Ravens, keeping Cleveland in strong contention for an AFC Wild Card berth.

As usual, the gift was a struggle to bring home. And it was signed, sealed and delivered by Tim Couch, the quarterback whose love-hate relationship with the fans begs for therapy and Prozac all around.

Grumpy old coots like Bud Shaw and the Baltimore Sun will try to spoil our Christmas bonanza, but we'll just chalk that up to jealousy and winter malaise.

After all, we have one more present to unwrap. And thanks to a 92-yard drive led by Couch, we don't know yet what's inside that final gift box.

Will it be keys to a new BMW 3 Series?

Or will it be a lifetime membership in the David Modell Fan Club, complete with an autographed pinup shot of him wearing nothing but leopard print Speedos?

Eeh-gads, let's hope it's the Beemer.

In the meantime, let us celebrate.

For the first time since 1989, we have a late December game with tremendous implications. The 1994 Browns — the last
Cleveland team to make the postseason — had long since clinched a playoff spot, but it was the ‘89 team that kept us on the edge of our seats.

The 2002 Browns are cut from that same frustrating cloth. And this team makes the 1979-1980 Kardiac Kids teams look like the Sunday bingo crowd at a
Parma or Lorain senior center.

In October, when the team was floundering at 2-4, would anyone have believed the Browns would be playing for a wild card in the season finale?

The madcap antics of this Cleveland Browns team have given us something long lost in
Northeast Ohio.

No, not the One Ring.

I'm talking about a playoff game. Oh, not an official playoff contest, but a game with the same win-or-die outcome riding on it.

What will Sunday's match-up against
Atlanta bring? Nothing is a safe bet with these Browns, but if recent history is any indication, we're in store for 60 minutes of a heart-stopping, blood pressure-inflating, hair-pulling, brow-sweating, skin-crawling, pulse-racing, fist-slamming, cat-kicking, beer-swilling, pretzel-munching stressfest.

Atlanta quarterback Mike Vick — an athlete hyped into epic scope by flabby sports writers who rely on their wives to open tight sauce bottles — will be the player the "experts" say is the key to the game.

Not true.

It all comes down to Tim Couch.

Maligned, often for good reason, since coming back from a preseason elbow injury, Couch has in fact out-dueled many of the league's media darling quarterbacks: the Jets' Chad Pennington, the Saints' Aaron Brooks and
Tennessee's Steve McNair.

The Browns can overcome great games by star performers.

It's themselves they have trouble with.

If Couch plays as he did against
Indianapolis and during the first and last drives at Baltimore … and the defense keeps its collective head … then the Browns should send the Falcons home with a defeat.

And then
Cleveland must rely upon the goodwill of others.

Getting into all the playoff possibilities is too complicated for me. Others have far more skill at deciphering such arcane formulas and outcomes than my meager intellect.

Besides, it's more important to concentrate on beating
Atlanta. All is moot otherwise, and it comes down to a bafflingly inconsistent quarterback capable of playing like Mike Phipps on one play, Joe Montana the next.

Such Jekyll and Hyde performances may drive fans and commentators to madness, but it's the trademark reality of this team. And since this is the 17th week of the season, we can do nothing more than grin and bear it.

It's those Montana-like moments that keep hope alive.

This may seem like hyperbole, but it's not: Couch's execution of the game-winning drive Sunday was one of the greatest moments in team history. In the franchise's 53 seasons, how many times has the quarterback led a successful drive with so much riding on it?

In the face of an attacking defense, a clock hemorrhaging seconds, no timeouts and a crowd ugly by even
Baltimore's crack whore standards, Couch turned in a performance for the ages.

Clearly excited yet composed, the 25-year old executed a textbook and nearly flawless series of plays.
Baltimore played an attacking two-deep zone — not at all a prevent defense, as many of the dense sports writers reported — but Couch dissected the secondary like a surgeon. He ignored the pass rush and pressure with disdain.

I admit I said out loud as the drive began that it would end with an interception or sack.

Ye of little faith!

What unfolded was a gridiron masterpiece. Many other quarterbacks would have folded under such mental pressure. Could you have ignored a hard-charging Peter Bouleware and fired a football into the teeth of a defense as arrogant as that of the Ravens, the NFL's answer to the Crips and Bloods?

It takes someone special to win such a game under such circumstances.

Couch never blinked Sunday.

He's is making desperate victories his stock in trade. Couch's proven he can win the Hail Mary variety, but the long-drive types are a bit more valuable in the long-run. It looks like he can do those, too.

He may not yet have cemented himself into team lore next to Otto Graham, Frank Ryan and Bernie Kosar, but Couch took a step closer Sunday to immortality. A few more performances like that, and he's liable to be cheered at home. Heck, the team might even be mentioned in the same breath as the unspeakable — the playoffs.

In the back of my mind, a little voice is telling me Tim Couch has turned the corner. Like John Elway, he may be barely adequate for 58 minutes … erratic and mediocre for most of an afternoon … but when the late afternoon shadows fall long, give him 2 minutes and the ball, and magic will happen.

We all remember what it feels like to be on the other end of football sorcery.

Now, it may very well be
Cleveland's turn to dole out some pain.

It's happened before, but we were all much younger when we last glimpsed it.

It was on the green plastic grass of the Houston Astrodome in 1989 when Kevin Mack dragged every Oiler but Bum Phillips into the end zone for the winning score and the division title.

Even further back was the most special comeback in my lifetime, the 1986 playoff game against the New York Jets. Trailing 20-10 with about 4 minutes left, Bernie Kosar rallied the team to tie, then led them to the winning field goal in a second overtime.

Those were the days when the late Nev Chandler called Cleveland Municipal Stadium "
Pandemonium Palace."

It certainly was an apt moniker.

Here's hoping the new place can earn the old nickname.

Sunday would be as good a time as ever to earn it.


-- -- -- -- --

Here's my holiday wish list. It's often the staple of the desperate or unimaginative columnists.

Guilty as charged, but here it is nonetheless.

To Butch
Davis: A pacemaker.

To Tim Couch: One more week of ice in the veins and a hot hand.

Cleveland's defense: All the pages in Tampa Bay's play book under "Run Defense" and "Pass Rush."

To Browns fans: A heaping helping of patience. And some Maalox.

To Carmen Policy: A gentle nudge to sell your share of the team.

To Bernie Kosar: A gentle nudge to buy Policy's share. And to grant me that interview.

To William Green: Plenty of open space between the tackles. And a barf bag.

To Brian Billick: I was going to get him a leather pimp coat, but I saw him wearing one Sunday. What do you get the man too cool and too smart for everything? How ‘bout a January watching the NFL playoffs at home?

Quincy Morgan: More looks from Timmuh.

To Bruce Arians: More of whatever loosens up your tight-ass playcalling.

To the Lerners: Our continued thanks and condolences.

To Ravens' defensive back Chris McCallister: Some class.

To Ray Lewis: A less crafty defense attorney.

To Ravens fans: A finger. Wanna guess which one?

To Mike Brown: Since your team gives so much to the rest of us, I'm donating $1 to the defense fund against the city of
Cincinnati's likely lawsuit to make the team improve. Let's not mess with a good thing ?

To Corey Dillon: The wherewithal to finally call it quits until you're traded to an NFC team the Browns never play.

To Art "Gollum" Modell: Another year of our spite, vitriol, derision, contempt and scorn. Enjoy. Oh, and hopefully another heart attack. Can't let that spot in the low-rent section of hell get cold!

To Michael Vick: Some bad mojo to be cashed in Sunday.

To the Steelers: A scrapbook of photos of Mark Malone, Terry Hanratty and Todd Blackledge.

To the Indians: My thanks and a wave goodbye.

To the Cavs: The winning ticket in the "LeBron James Sweepstakes."

To Saddam: Uhh … you better keep the receipt.

To Trent Lott: An endless loop of "Mississippi Burning" until it takes hold.

To Marty Schottenheimer: Kudos for the impressive move to block Deion's bid to play for
Oakland. Sweet revenge.

To Emmitt Smith: A quiet, classy retirement.

Tampa Bay: Jeers for playing like an expansion team Sunday night.

To Bill Belichick: Whatever ill-will is left over in my black sack of coal and spiders.

To the Buckeyes: A little bit of that Woody Hayes magic.

And finally, to all Bernie's Insiders readers: Safe, happy holidays and another month of wild finishes all the way to
San Diego.

Ohio newspaper editor and reporter Bill Shea writes the Doc Gonzo column for Bernie's Insiders. He now spends his hermit-like days tending his miniature dachshunds deep within the misty forests along the storm-swept Lake Huron shores of Michigan's untamed Thumb. He can be reached at docgonzo19@aol.com.

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