Doc Gonzo looks back at the Falcons and forward to Pittsburgh...">
Doc Gonzo looks back at the Falcons and forward to Pittsburgh...">

The Wild (Card) Bunch

Desperation and will got us this far. ", Doc Gonzo writes, "The team feeds off its fans, which was clearly evident in the frantic victory over Atlanta. It took what happened on the field and in the stands to clasp the elusive dream and make it a shocking reality."<BR><BR> Doc Gonzo looks back at the Falcons and forward to Pittsburgh...

"Stop! All forces stop! The Temple Mount is in our hands! Repeat, the Temple Mount is in our hands!" -- the famous words of Israeli Lt. Gen. Mordechai Gur upon his paratroopers liberating the Jewish holy site in Jerusalem during the June 1967 Six-Day War. The Jewish people had not controlled the site in nearly 2,000 years.


FORT GRATIOT, Mich. -- Would anyone have ever thought Kevin Johnson's bare ass would be such a welcome sight?

Johnson was partially depanted at the goal line Sunday after hauling in a 15-yard touchdown strike from backup quarterback Kelly Holcomb, a critical score that lifted the Cleveland Browns to a 17-16 lead over the visiting Atlanta Falcons.

It wasn't visible to most fans at the stadium, but for the hundreds of thousands watching around the world, his case of plumber pants was a vision of glory.


KJ's crack nekkid in the end zone perfectly symbolized the 2002 Cleveland Browns: Unsightly, but wonderful.


The playoffs.


Who woulda thunk it?


Not you or me, especially in October when this team stood at 2-4 and teetered on the edge of collapse.


A remarkable 7-3 finish that was a gut-churning passage along the edge of a straight razor has brought us to the rarified air of the NFL's postseason.


Most of us are still looking around wild-eyed, not knowing what to think of it all.


How did we end up here? Where do we go to next?


As fans, we're basically rookies in all this. The Browns last made the playoffs as a wild card in 1994, but that seems about 12 lifetimes ago, and feels vaguely unrelated, like a dirty family secret.


This is the birth of something new. Art Modell's Browns died that January day in Three Rivers Stadium. His team wasn't the Cleveland Browns of old. Every generation has its Browns team, and that one in the early 1990s was some weird vibe collection of flakes and weirdness that was more machine than human. It had little in common with the all-too-human Cleveland squads of Bernie Kosar or Brian Sipe.


Now, we find our team in the most unexpected of places. A playoff berth was a dream on the whisper of a gentle summer breeze … elusive and wonderful, and certainly beyond our hopes and desperate grasp.


Desperation and will got us this far. The team feeds off its fans, which was clearly evident in the frantic victory over Atlanta. It took what happened on the field and in the stands to clasp the elusive dream and make it a shocking reality.


And shock is the watchword of the NFL this week. The pundits that dismissed the Browns in August are left gaping at seeing the words "CLEVELAND BROWNS" on their playoff brackets.


"What? The Browns are in the playoffs? Cleveland has a team? Didn't they move to Baltimore? Where are the wonderful Dolphins and those fine Patriots?"


Few outside Cleveland paid much attention to the Browns as the season began. They were dismissed by the national "experts" as a non-entity still several years away from even thinking about the postseason.


Pete Prisco of CBS Sportsline went so far as to say the Browns weren't even the best NFL team in Ohio.


Uh, time to wake up, Pete. You're nightmare is here.


Prisco's sage wisdom told us that the Bengals were the better team, and Clevelanders should just be thankful to have a franchise at all.




Five months later, Cincinnati has fired another coach after a 2-14 season … a record of futility even for them.


And Prisco is still allowed to bombard us with his foolish gibberish. All over the CBS Sportsline Web site he bashes the Browns as second-rate.


Then he picks them to win.


Even a goat-headed geek like Prisco can feel the vibe.


My second hometown, Las Vegas, is in on the action, too. Oddsmakers favor the Steelers by 8.


There's going to be a lot of money made Sunday. They know it in the desert. They're taking the Browns and the points.


Some call this a team of destiny. That's true, but for a different reason. All teams have a destiny. In the case of the Bengals, it's their destiny each year to embarrass the city of Cincinnati.


For the Browns, it was their destiny in 2002 to survive an up-and-down season that waylaid fans with weak hearts and boggled the minds of geniuses like Pete Prisco.


Sunday won't be any different.


Several different scenarios could play out:


1.       Browns take the early lead with a great opening drive, and maybe sneak in a field goal or two before the half. After leading 10-0 at the half, they allow the Steelers to take a 14-10 lead late into the fourth quarter. Then Kelly Holcomb and William Green strap it on to lead Cleveland to the late winning touchdown, 17-10.

2.       It's a shootout. Holcomb and Tommy Maddox are both hot and light up the scoreboard like Bernie Kosar and Jim Kelly in that January 1990 playoff game at old Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Only this time, Earl Holmes makes the game-saving interception at the goal line instead of Clay Matthews.

3.       Cleveland offensive coordinator Bruce Arians is kidnapped and replaced by someone who draws up an aggressive game plan. Using William Green to set up play-action passing that goes downfield, the Browns strike early and often in a 35-17 rout.

4.       The 1995 wild card game is replayed with Jerome Bettis running for 185 yards and two scores en route to a 29-9 Pittsburgh victory.



No matter what happens Sunday at Pittsburgh, nothing changes what happened in 2002: The Cleveland Browns overcame monumental amounts of adversity and strange karma to finish with a winning record and a playoff berth just 32 games after the disastrous Chris Palmer regime was finally ousted.


Just two seasons ago, this team was 3-13 -- they were actually worse than their record -- and scored a sub-pathetic 161 points. Spergeon Wynn and Doug Pederson were under center "playing" quarterback.


It was unthinkable that the Browns would even sniff a winning record in the wake of such catastrophe.


Think again in the new NFL. Even the Bengals could rise from their shame to contend in a season or two.


Before we move on, let's settle another issue. It's trendy to compare the Browns of this year to those of 1980, the infamous Kardiac Kids, who won many games late before a disastrous playoff loss at home to Oakland.


It's time for that team of 22 years ago to relinquish the nickname. Yes, they won exciting games and were embraced by a downtrodden city, but they didn't win like these Browns. And the 2002 team should want no like comparisons now that the postseason is here.


Let us pray Butch Davis opts for the game-winning field goal instead of the interception-prone pass as the game winds down. There can't be a "Red Right 88" in the playbook still, right?


Now, on to quarterbacks …


Before the second quarter of the Atlanta game, Kelly Holcomb hadn't played since limping off the field with a broken leg himself after an interception ended his comeback bid against Baltimore on Oct. 6.


Since then, he's spent time healing, then running the second-team offense.


Now, all our hopes, prayers, wishes, incantations, chants, entreaties, threats, cajoles, pleadings and beggings focus on Holcomb. He'll be spending all his time trying to get into a rhythm with the receivers.


If he can, the Steelers are toast.


If he can't … well, it was a good season.


Which brings us to the Steelers.


For years, Pittsburgh has been a finely tuned machine, the league's thresher that mercilessly chewed up the opposition.


The names of its players didn't really matter. It was a bold system that coach Bill Cowher merely plugged new meat into each time a part wore out. Whatever he demanded, the front office provided … massive piles of human flesh and muscle sculpted into tackles and guards … cannonball running backs … glue-fingered wide receivers … thug-like defensive backs.


It all worked fine until about January. That's when the machine would begin to sputter and cough, especially around the time of the AFC title game.


The championship game is still a long way off, so it's certain Cleveland will be smited in the fiery iron forge of Mordor, right?


Still, experts and their beloved Steelers -- they are smitten with Cowher's jutting glass jaw -- have a queasy feeling they can't explain. Surely the Browns can't hope to go toe-to-toe with the AFC's juggernaut? But then they remember something about the Texans winning at Heinz field by 18 points … and a late collapse against Atlanta … and touchdowns being given up left and right … and Tommy Maddox tossing interceptions to one and all.


But all that is meaningless right now. The glare of the professional sporting press spotlight still shines brightly on Pittsburgh, and Cleveland only exists in the shadows.


Except for a few offbeat and truly oddball publications, like the Austin American-Statesman, the Browns are considered hopeless.


Hell, as of Friday morning, 73 percent of voters in an AOL fan poll picked the Steelers to stomp the Browns.


Cleveland, for the most part, is dismissed as an oddity that will quickly be shunted back to its proper place on the league's scrap heap of nobodies. There's no room at the inn for anyone but the media's darlings. In fact, the beautiful people in Miami, New England and St. Louis are probably petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the NFL's playoff system in hopes of having Cleveland sent home so John Madden can talk ad nauseum about their teams and their pretty boy players who fold like cheap suits when the hitting gets heavy.


But that feeling in the air won't go away.


We are at the turning of the tide.


This, Browns fans, is for what William Green was drafted.


This is why Butch Davis was hired.


This is why we watch


This is why we hope.


This is what it's all about.


Now, some parting thoughts …

  • The playoffs … it still hasn't sunk in at the Gonzo household … it was 7 a.m. the next day after the Falcons fell and the ESPN highlights were still playing … grins all around … since we're in Michigan, endless taunting of Lions fans commenced immediately.
  • Thank you, New York Jets. See you in hell. 
  • Critics said the Browns can't win with Couch. Now that they're in the playoffs, they say they can't win without him.
  • Will Elvis Grbac come out of retirement for a playoff run with his hometown Browns? One good shot on Holcomb, and the cupboard is pretty bare. I'll take a rusty Elvis over a greenhorn Booty.
  • Does anyone believe Wali Rainer would have made that 4th-and-inches tackle on Warrick Dunn to end the late threat? That Earl Holmes signing looks better by the minute.
  • The threat of a Dennis Northcutt is every bit as valuable as a Dennis Northcutt himself.
  • The last time a Browns running back totted the rock at least 64 yards, Jimmy Carter was president and Mad Sam Rutigliano was the coach. It was Mike Pruitt that year taking it the distance 77-yards against Oakland on Dec. 9, 1979, a 19-14 road loss.
  • The Browns are 1-1 in pure wild card games, and are 1-3 in the playoffs as a wild card team. The 1982 Browns earned a wild card in the strike-shortened season, and lost to the Raiders 27-10 in a first-round playoff game. All teams played in the first round that year.
  • Was everyone else besides me finally comfortable when the Falcons got up by two field goals? That's when I knew Cleveland had the deficit it needed to win. The Browns clearly think anything but a comeback victory is simply gauche. There's an air about this Browns team that has me feeling a lot better about playing at Pittsburgh in a wild card game than the 1994 team. Seven years ago, there was a sense of nervous anticipation, like we knew we might win, but the Steelers would probably roll over us. Now, all bets are off. The game will come down to a frantic drive, or defensive stand or some arcane rule will be enforced. Cleveland is used to that. Pittsburgh is the nervous city now.
  • You just know a Cleveland playoff berth is salt in the wounds in Cincinnati.
  • Speaking of the Bengals, the franchise will surpass all recognized milestones of dumbness if it does not hire Marvin Lewis to replace Dick LeBeau. Regardless of the debate about race in the NFL, Lewis deserves a head coaching job. On the other hand, he deserves a real head coaching job, not becoming pro football's equivalent to Henry VIII's wife. In fact, the Bengals don't deserve a good a coach as Lewis. Here's to hoping he takes the Jacksonville job, and Cincinnati ends up with John Cooper, who's already on the team payroll as a part-time scout.
  • Who will the Bengals take with the top pick in April's draft? You know Byron Leftwich and Carson Palmer are cringing, but look for the Tiny Tigers to trade the pick, then blunder into taking some player way too high.
  • I can't be alone in thinking Bill Parcells is just a fatter, grayer version of Brian Billick.
  • An aside to Aardvark: I played quarterback for many years, and hitting you hand on a helmet on a follow-thru is very painful -- especially if you already have screws in that hand from a previous thumb/helmet injury. And the outlet -- or "fire" safety valve -- pass early to William Green was the running back's fault. The back drifts out of the backfield or comes off a chip block, but he doesn't stand still behind the line of scrimmage. The play calls for that receiver -- usually the quarterback's last option -- to be moving towards the line of scrimmage. You want him getting a head of steam forward, and to catch the ball in stride. And to say Couch was "laying a lot of mustard" on his broken leg just to show fans he was really hurt is just crap. Ever broken a leg? You seem to lay a lot of suspicions on the table without any corroborative evidence and zero context of having played the position at any level. And as someone who knows Couch, I'll vouch for his character, despite your assassination of it.
  • The only shame Sunday was Al Lerner wasn't here to see his franchise make his $600 million investment pay off. Then again, someone was smiling on this team from above this season …

Former 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

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