The fact Browns wide receiver Donte Stallworth has been suspended for the 2009 season by NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is a big deal – and always will be – because it stems from an offseason incident in Miami in which he ran over a man with his car, killing him, early one morning after drinking and partying all night.
Life is precious and a family has lost a husband and father, so that's a tragedy of grand proportions, obviously.
But from a football perspective solely as it pertains to the Browns on the field, the suspension and his absence will have the ripple effect of tossing a tiny pebble into Lake Erie. That is, the Browns will move on without missing a single beat.
Signed on March 1, 2008, Stallworth, really through no fault of the Browns, quickly became one of the biggest free-agent busts in team history. He was brought in to be the No. 2 receiver behind Braylon Edwards, which would allow Joe Jurevicius to move down to No. 3, which he wanted to do. More importantly, though, his veteran presence – he had caught 279 passes for 4,213 yards (an average of 15.1 yards per reception) and 31 touchdowns in his six previous NFL seasons -- was going to take some of the pressure off Edwards to make plays while at the same time drawing some of the double-teams away from him.
But none of that happened. Not even close.
Stallworth played in but 11 games with just seven starts and caught the grand total of 17 passes for 170 yards (10.0) and one measly touchdown. That placed him seventh on the team in catches.
But it was the way it all transpired that really hurt the Browns and left a bad taste in some people's mouths. The club very much needed him for its nationally-televised regular-season opener against the Dallas Cowboys, which, some experts said, was a Super Bowl preview. Edwards had missed most of training camp and the preseason with a foot laceration incurred when he was stepped on while running post-practice sprints in his sock feet. The culprit in cleats? None other than Stallworth.
But that was an accident. Don't blame Stallworth for that.
However, Edwards was extremely rusty as he returned to face the Cowboys, so he was far from being at the top of his game. Jurevicius was missing with what turned out to be a season-ending situation stemming from staph infections after having offseason knee surgery.
So with the Browns counting on Stallworth to come through for them against the Cowboys, he begged out of the game with a quadriceps injury after head coach Romeo Crennel had turned in his list of inactives for the contest. The Browns were thus stuck with a player who couldn't play, shrinking their roster of available players to 44.
That forced Syndric Steptoe, who had spent all of his rookie season of 2007 on the practice squad, into a starting role alongside Edwards. Steptoe caught one pass, one less than Edwards, in the game, and the two combined for just 26 receiving yards.
So aside from tight end Kellen Winslow, who had a game-high five catches for 47 yards, the Browns' top weapons in the passing attack were either missing or not running on all cylinders. It's not a surprise, then, that quarterback Derek Anderson was just 11-of-24 passing for 114 yards and one touchdown, or that the Browns got manhandled 28-10.
Stallworth remained out for the next three games as well, helping the Browns to start the year in a huge hole at 1-3. He returned for the Monday night game against the New York Giants, but with just two catches for 19 yards, he was not much of a contributing factor in the big 35-14 win over the defending Super Bowl champions.
That victory stopped the Browns' bleeding only momentarily. Their once-hopeful season was already spiraling out of control. They won just two of their next 11 to finish 4-12, helping to cause general manager Phil Savage, the man who had signed him, and Crennel to both be fired.
Eric Mangini was hired as head coach and used his second-round choices in the 2009 NFL Draft to take a pair of wide receivers in Brian Robiskie of Chagrin Falls (Ohio) High School and Ohio State, and Mohamed Massaquoi. Plus the coach brought in two accomplished veterans in David Patten and Mike Furrey. In addition, there's versatile veteran Joshua Cribbs and little-known virtual rookie Lance Leggett, who made the most impressive play of last Sunday's intrasquad scrimmage with a 51-yard touchdown catch from Brady Quinn, and is going to be hard to push off the roster.
So while this group right now is not going to make Browns fans forget the days of Dante Lavelli, Mac Speedie and Dub Jones, Paul Warfield and Gary Collins, Reggie Rucker and Dave Logan, and Webster Slaughter, Reggie Langhorne and Brian Brennan, it's basically a young group of wide receivers with some real ability and Mangini is more than willing to be patient with them and let them develop as he rebuilds the club.
With all that having been said, then, even if Stallworth were going to be with the Browns this year, would he really be an integral part of the team?
And with Mangini being a non-nonsense coach and a strict disciplinarian who doesn't tolerate mistakes on or off the field, it's hard to believe Stallworth will ever play another down for the Browns even after the suspension is lifted at some point.
So from a football playing perspective only for the Browns, it's a loss that isn't.