Doc Gonzo: Remain Calm

Doc Gonzo looks that the Browns collapse last weekend, puts the blame where he feels it lies, and offers some thoughts about next year. From the deep, dark, and mystical realm that is Michigan's thumb comes wisdom to take into the off-season... <BR><BR><I>Opinions expressed may not reflect those of Bernie Kosar or</I>

"Renewed shall be blade that was broken,

The crownless shall again be king."

   – Gandalf to Frodo, Fellowship of the Ring



FORT GRATIOT, Mich. -- This one will hurt for awhile.


Shake it off. Don't get angry, although there is much to brood about.


After all, in the chill October air Cleveland stood at 2-4 and none of us expected the Browns to play anything but golf or PlayStation in January.


A topsy-turvy run at the playoffs saw the Browns manage a 7-3 stretch to end the season, good enough for an AFC Wild Card spot, but not good enough to get past the Steelers.


Now, with several days to digest the choke job at Pittsburgh, the maelstrom has subsided, but emotions are still running high.


It is in these times of anguish we cannot lose sight of the bigger picture.


There was no humiliation or shame Sunday. The godless Steelers prevailed against an overtaxed team no one expected to contend, much less win.


That's little solace in the wake of a defensive collapse that robbed the city of a playoff rematch with Oakland, the despoilers of the 1980 and 1982 seasons.


That's OK. We're tougher than that. Lesser fans of buffoonish teams will abandon their franchise in the face of such defeats, leaving the team to wallow in the bleak landscape of football oblivion that are Cincinnati and Baltimore.


We take it in stride because we've been there before. Heartbreak is an old friend in Cleveland.


We watch the Cleveland Browns because they are a microcosm of our city, and they entertain us. And who can say they were not entertained Sunday?


Sure, there's an empty feeling now. But that goes away. Next season is many long months away, and we must suffer watching fools and dunces cheer their goons and thugs to the Super Bowl.


We can do so knowing the team is in good hands, and that final hurdle is not far from being overcome.


For now, the best we can do is latch onto hope that Sunday's historic defeat is the catalyst for something greater.


It certainly was a showcase of all this is weak and wrong with the Browns. If Butch Davis and the front office needed additional proof of the team's shortcomings, they got it served up to them hot and spicy on national television Sunday.


Here it is in a nutshell: Fix the damn defense. They can't tackle. They're immature. They're too slow. They're uninspired. They lack the instinct to apply the boot to the throat when the other guy is down.


Sunday was proof. It was a catastrophe. The defense gave up 22 points in the fourth quarter.


That's inexcusable. It's a neon sign flashing "immature."


Dump some of these marginal players that talk more than play, or play stupid.


Let the bloodletting commence. Davis seems astute enough to fix the shortcomings.


An initial step towards a cure was taken this week when defensive coordinator Foge Fazio "retired" and defensive line coach Ray Hamilton was fired.


Fazio retired, yes, but his other option was getting fired.


There is some dispute over who ordered the ineffectual defensive scheme at the end of Sunday's playoff game. Some sources say it was Davis, and his meddling prompted Fazio, who wanted to blitz Tommy Maddox, to quit.


The other school of thought is that Davis forced Fazio out because it was the coordinator that wasn't aggressive enough, leading to blown leads against the Colts and Steelers.


Regardless, the coaches do bear responsibility for the product on field, but the players have to do the work.


In 2002, they did not more often than they did.


Here are some thoughts on the defense: 

  • Courtney Brown sucks and Gerard Warren is too fat.
  • Corey Fuller is a solid if unspectacular cornerback. His leadership and veteran technique make him a starter, but at some point he's going to turn into Hanford Dixon circa 1989. Getting a cover corner in the offseason should be a priority.
  • Backups Lewis Sanders and Anthony Henry have not lived up to their potential. They cannot be relied upon if there's no pressure from the front seven.
  • Mark Word, Tyrone Rogers and Orpheus Roye can make up the backbone of a great defensive line if Brown and Warren play like top draft picks, but they are barely average otherwise.
  • Earl Holmes is a good linebacker, but Darren Hambrick and Dwayne Rudd are not. Get rid of Hambrick and find a replacement for Rudd, making him a solid backup. Of course, that all hinges on Jamir Miller returning to his 2001 form.
  • The scheme must change. Losing Miller was partially to blame for some of the X's and O's problems in 2002, but a new coordinator must find the players and scheme that will preserve leads. There is no other option.
  • Davis and his defensive coaches must ingrain into the players a sense of composure and maturity. They showed it against the Falcons, but then it all went south.
  • The safeties cannot miss tackles. Earl Little seemed lost at times, Devin Bush played like crap because he was hurt and Robert Griffith seemed unworthy of the money spent on him as a free agent. Next season is make or break for all three. Odds are one will emerge as a star. Again, pressure up front will make them look better.

Now let's take the offense to task.


The passing game was brilliant. Even Cleveland's worst detractors admitted Kelly Holcomb was outstanding, and it wasn't a fluke.


Of course, the drums are now being pounded for a quarterback controversy. The only sensible cure is for Davis to announce that Couch and Holcomb will enter training camp as equals to battle for the job.


Whomever wins the job should enjoy an embarrassment of riches. If the front office can work some magic, the starter will have five capable wide receivers, a legitimate running back and a sure-handed third-down back.


The offseason's highest priorities should be finding a franchise left tackle, a starting guard, a true fullback and a blocking tight end. The current roster has players that fit some, but not all, criteria at each position.


If things play out ideally, the Browns get their hands on Bryant McKinnie, allowing Ross Verba to move to his natural position, guard. Boom, the line is solidified, or at least better than 2002.


That allows William Green room to run, which in turn makes the passing game even better. And if the offense can sustain long drives, an improved defense will be on the field less. And if the defense is better, the offense gets more and better chances to score.


See how the cycle works? This is the sorta thinking that gets us through the offseason.


Now, back to Sunday's debacle.


In the "What could have been" department, we can look to the follow instances and cringe:

  1. Anthony Henry drops a potential game-winning interception.
  2. Dennis Northcutt fails to hold onto a critical third-and-12 pass that would have earned a first down late.
  3. Butch Davis challenges an obvious touchdown, burning a timeout.
  4. The defense is caught off-guard on the game-winning score.
  5. The offensive line run blocks no one.
  6. Dwayne Rudd commits a stupid penalty as Tommy Maddox is being sacked at the 50.
  7. The defense commits two more stupid penalties on the same drive.
  8. Fazio rushes three linemen as the Steelers pick away unmolested.
  9. A touchdown pass falls just too far from an outstretched Jamel White in the end zone.


I'm sure there's more, but those moments stand out as the situations that could have changed the complexion of the game.


But they didn't, at least not for the good of Cleveland.


Perhaps the most disappointing was the offensive line's inability to block at all, much less open a hole. Time and again rookie William Green found himself corralled in the backfield. You can't blame the rookie if he's tackled upon getting the handoff. And how many times was a play called that had no blockers at all in front of Green while Steeler linebackers were hovering over the route?


Clearly, there are some plays that need cast out. There's also no excuse for the line to be blown off the ball like that. It looked as bad as the 1999 opener on Sunday.


The inability to block for Green cost the Browns this game. Cleveland couldn't run down the clock. The offensive line embarrassed itself. The only way this team can expect to win a playoff game is to upgrade the line in the offseason by spending large amounts of cash in the offseason.


Still, Cleveland found itself up 24-7 at one point Sunday while rushing for negative yards. Amazing.


But defense wins championships. Ask the Buckeyes.


The Browns have now dropped eight consecutive playoff games on the road dating back to 1969. I wasn't even alive when Cleveland won an away playoff game.


Take a moment to digest all that.


We have learned some good things, too.


Kelly Holcomb is a warrior. I predicted there was a possibility Holcomb and Maddox could get into a shootout, and that's exactly what happened. Holcomb turned in the finest performance by a Cleveland quarterback since Bernie Kosar outgunned Jim Kelly in the 1989 playoffs.


Do you hand over the reigns of the offense to Holcomb based on one great game? No, but you go into camp with Holcomb and Couch as equals. Let them win the job. If Holcomb earns the starting job, it may let Couch learn on the sideline. After all, Holcomb will turn 30 when training camp begins. Couch will turn 26.


Let us also take solace in this gem: The Steelers were exposed to a national audience as a false god. Everyone's preseason favorite to win the Super Bowl showed it could stop the run against a fourth-year expansion team playing in its first playoff game with a weak line and rookie back. It also showed it can't stop the pass from the same team led by a quarterback starting only his fourth career game.


Pittsburgh's high-water mark was Sunday. The Steelers' fall from grace is at hand


Cleveland is just now beginning to realize that it is a good team. An infusion of new blood this year will make them even better. Sunday was a glimpse of great things to come.


The Browns this year will leave the shadows and step defiantly into the light.


The road is long, and the journey will be perilous, but better days are ahead.



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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