Shea: The Caretaker
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
OBR Detroit Bureau
Posted Mar 26, 2010


Browns fans shouldn't expect transcendence, but the Jake Delhomme era may not be without its rewards...

 

There are transcendental moments in history that sear themselves into our collective memory. People remember where they were and what they were doing when Pearl Harbor was attacked … when President Kennedy and John Lennon were shot … when the space shuttle Challenger exploded … when the Twin Towers were toppled.

The memories are even more keen if the person was there, waving at the motorcade in Dealey Plaza or working in Lower Manhattan with the hijacked airliners stuck.

My brush with history? I was in the stands when journeyman backup quarterback/punter/extra point holder Tommy Tupa lunged through the line and into the end zone at Cincinnati’s old Riverfront Stadium, scoring the NFLs first-ever two-point conversion. It was Sept. 4, 1994. I was there with my college girlfriend and we had been tailgating before the game, cooking hot dogs on one of those little as-seen-on-TV grills fueled by balled-up wads of newspaper. The Browns were up 3-0 on a Matt Stover field goal when Vinny Testaverde threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to running back Leroy Hoard, and the historic conversion followed.

The Bengals extra-point block unit had a formation in which two players were stretched far to the kickers left side, leaving a gap in the line. The ball was snapped and Tupa had an open hole into the end zone. Boom - history made, and the Browns went on to win 28-20. I was there. That trumps your stories of surprise attacks, assassinations, terrorism and other disasters, right?

Now lets going down to the real business at hand: How many quarterbacks can dance on the head of a pin? Or start for the Cleveland Browns? These age-old philosophical questions plague us these days.

There’s been much head-scratching, teeth-gnashing and angst over the Cleveland Browns decision to ink 35-year-old quarterback Jake Delhomme to a 2-year contract, while jettisoning former starters Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn.

The knock on Delhomme is that he’s been an injury-prone turnover machine the past two seasons, which includes 30 interceptions and a wretched performance in a playoff loss to Arizona in January 2009. He quickly lost his job not long after starting last season with a six-turnover outing in a blowout at Philadelphia.

So its not knick-picking to question the wisdom of turning the team over to Delhomme, who was basically deemed so worthless to the Carolina Panthers that they released him with nearly $13 million still owed to him on a contract extended last year. He’s getting $7 million from the Browns for 2010, so Delhomme and his agent are savvy businessmen, if nothing else. Ol’ Jake will bank about $20 million over the next year.

New mustachioed team president/czar/guru/buffet aficionado Mike Holmgren has made noise about relying on Delhomme for his undisputed leadership skills. Which is fine, but someone still needs to throw the football, preferably to his own players and not from a prone position.

Delhomme has suffered a busted elbow, broken finger and undergone Tommy John surgery over the past three seasons. Of course, he also has three seasons of 10 or more victories under his belt, a 2005 Pro Bowl appearance and an 2003 NFC championship victory on his resume.

But you know all this. Its been rehashed by every reporter, columnist, blogger and person with an opinion and access to an Internet message board, and perhaps even skywriting and smoke signals.

Jake Delhomme has appeared in 97 NFL games in his career, and he’s won 50 of the 81 games he’s started. By contrast, the beloved and sacrosanct  Bernie Kosar, blessed be his name, won 53 of his 105 career starts in Cleveland.

The similarities don’t end there. Delhomme has throw for 19,892 yards and 123 touchdowns against 94 interceptions in his career. Kosar racked up 21,904 yards in nine years in Cleveland, and he threw 116 touchdowns and 81 interceptions while a Brown.

Unlike Kosar, the Canjun-tongued Delhomme got his team over the conference championship game hump and into a Super Bowl. That’s not a knock on Kosar, just a fact. Their careers are similar.

The biggest departure is that Kosar came out of the University of Miami as a golden boy, Heisman finalist and winner of a national championship who cleverly maneuvered himself within the system to ensure he got drafted by the Browns -- something no one in their right mind would want to do today, and couldn’t if they wanted to because the system was changed after Kosar gamed all the grown-ups.

Delhomme, on the other hand, was unheralded and spent five seasons in obscurity on the bench for the New Orleans Saints -- his boyhood team -- before the Panthers took a free agent chance on him, and fate intervened to hand him the starting job. He obviously thrived after the stars aligned for him, and spending so many years on clip-board duty kept him healthy. Or pushed off the injuries until the natural final years of his career.

All of this information in interesting, at least to me, but academic because the fact remains that Delhomme is 35 years old. No disputing his age, injuries and recent performance led to his firing and the subsequent lack of demand for his services on the open market.

The situation I’m reminded of is not the young Kosar coming to town, but the elderly Kosar losing his job to his friend and former college teammate, Vinny Testaverde, in the first of several bungled personnel situations by Bill Belichick.

Testaverde, who is actually several days older than Kosar, followed him as the starter at Miami and was a first-round pick by the woeful Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1987. He was anointed the savoir of the franchise and promptly sucked, tossing a mind-boggling 77 interceptions in 76 games with Tampa.

But when he became the full-time starter with Cleveland, the coaching staff understood his mental limitations and crafted a ball-control offense that limited his exposure to turnovers by reducing the decision-making process. It was a safe system on a team that relied on its excellent defense and special teams to win games -- putting the methodical offense in food position and keeping it out of bad ones.

If you don’t have a quarterback that can consistently put the team on his shoulders and win games through sheer physical talent, determination and smarts, then the above is the only way to win. It works. And I’d be willing to wager that this Browns staff plans to put Delhomme into just such a system.

That’s not a knock of Delhomme’s football smarts. He’s got a proven track record of being an effective, productive quarterback. And Testaverde went on to assemble an impressive and long career. He finished with more touchdowns (275) than interceptions (267) -- a statistical fact no one thought possible when he was a young quarterback.

In Cleveland, I expect Delhomme to operate a low-risk, ball-control offense that picks and choose when it unleashes the quick deep strike. I don’t think he’ll be running a vertical passing game. Picking up tight end Ben Watson signals such a strategy. Hes a young, decent pass-catcher and will operate underneath as a reliable option. The Browns running backs have shown they can catch passes, and newly acquired Peyton Hillis is an intriguing new weapon to pair with Jerome Harrison.

The Browns will rely on Delhomme’s decision making and accuracy on low-risk throws while the wide receivers continue to develop -- and they’ve showed potential to evolve into a good group. That’s a solid strategy, and it would be shocking if the coaching staff employed something else. Of course, the downside is that such an offense relies on the defense and special teams to, as in 1994, to keep it out of bad field position. Its not the sort of offense that, with regularity, will overcome deep point differences. That’s not to saying it can’t, just not every week.

On the bright side, the one-man army that is Josh Cribbs can single-handled win games, and put Delhomme’s crew regularly into situations in which they don’t have to navigate 70, 80 and 90 yards to score. In 1994, it was Eric Metcalf and Randy Baldwin doing what Cribbs alone does today.

A consistent, if not spectacular, Delhomme also means the Browns don’'t have to rely on gimmicks to score points, or move the ball. Cleveland did that last year, often with Cribbs. Now, the hope is that they can run the Wildcat and other trickery as legitimate options to keep a defense off balance rather than as a necessity because nothing else works.

I suppose the bottom line is expectations. This is the Cleveland Browns were talking about, and for a decade the teams drama and excitement has been limited to the off-season rather than on the field, save for the occasional bit of insanity -- Bottlegate, Butch Davis’ mental collapse, etc.

Fans were disappointed, I guess, that the team had to pay above market value for a free agent quarterback no one else wanted because he comes with legitimate question marks. But while some of those questions can have negative answers, they also can have positives -- proven positives because unlike the other quarterbacks that had been on the roster, Jake Delhomme has a track record of success.

In a new system and situation, without the expectation of winning -- seriously, this is Cleveland and no one expects anything greater than 8-8 in 2010 -- he may be in the right circumstances to keep the team in contention while keeping the seat warm for whatever quarterback the team drafts.

Really, given the situation, is there more we can ask for? It is what is it, and all we can do is wait and watch at this point. Me, I think well see a performance this season out of Delhomme that has ups, downs, but is mostly caretaker. That’s his job. Its not his job to drop back 500 times and sling the ball down the field. We don’t have a Steve Smith.

Instead, if he can be Vinny Testaverde, or even be Gary Danielson to our forthcoming rookie quarterback, then the stage is set for success in coming seasons. Hell, if his stars align again, a run at a Wild Card isn’t an insane thought. But lets see what happens -- this team still needs a defense, too.

Bill Shea is The OBRs Detroit Bureau chief. He’s written for the site, and its previous incarnations, since 2001. He’s a business reporter whose work has appeared in various newspapers and publications that include Advertising Age, Television Week, Automotive News and others. He can be reached at DocGonzo19@aol.com


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