A Herculean Task; A Man Unfit

The following was originally written on September 28th, 2008.

Taking over a team rife with problems and devoid of obvious solutions, Romeo Crennel faced the seemingly impossible job of turning the Browns into contenders. Three years of mixed results, highlighted by the team’s 10-6 finish in 2007, followed.

By the end of the Week 3 defeat against the Baltimore Ravens in 2008, suspicion about this man’s fate was more than simply that; it was now a question of “when” rather than “if”. Beaten by a rookie quarterback, outgunned by a usually listless offense, Crennel had somehow allowed his team to slip to 0-3. A once promising season with enormous expectations now essentially lost has made it evident that Crennel has warn out his brief welcome in Cleveland.

Romeo Crennel’s tenure in Cleveland has roughly mimicked that of George W. Bush’s reign as president. In 2000 Bush entered a White House beset by a number of lingering issues. Eight years of the Clinton administration had bettered the nation’s short term economic outlook for sure, yet the Arkansan essentially passed the buck on a number of critical issues. Embracing a doctrine of liberal internationalism, Clinton led America into absolute debacles in Haiti and Somalia in the name of human rights while simultaneously failing to intervene in a number of global issues that demanded his undivided attention. Saddam Hussein was left to massacre his own people in Iraq, al Qaeda continued its unfettered growth even after the bombing of the USS Cole, and Iranian and North Korean intransigence earned nary a scowl nor stern warning from the leader of the free world. Extensive efforts to facilitate peace in the Gaza strip were soon faced by the inevitable reality of diminishing returns, which the president never seemed to admit. Clinton’s mantra, inspired by the iconic political activist and former Clinton campaign chief James Carville, taught us that “It’s the economy, stupid!”. This, of course, was little consolation to millions of Iraqis still strangled by the rule of a tyrant or the millions of Americans forever suspicious of an executive branch now tarnished by the Lewinsky legacy.

The suddenly rudderless American political system turned to a man in George W. Bush who came from an impeccable pedigree: educated at Yale, the son of a war hero and one of the nation’s most successful one term presidents, brother to an enormously popular governor, and a former governor himself. Clinton either ignored or mismanaged most foreign policy issues, and the younger Bush had access to a network of foreign policy hawks whose expertise and ability was questioned by only by hyperliberals. Bush’s everyman persona, even if it was largely concocted by Karl Rove, connected with Americans on a level that the at times elitist Clinton simply could not.

Likewise, Crennel didn’t walk into the best of situations. For all of the financial firepower backing the “new” Browns organization, the team had still failed to employ a single, coherent doctrine regarding player management or gameplanning. The result was a mix of journeymen linemen failing to protect hastily signed ad hoc solutions at the skill positions on both sides of the ball. Number one overall pick Tim Couch saw his once promising career take the same path as his physical person: that is, they were both wrecked. Three time Pro Bowler Jeff Garcia seemed helpless at a position that he had previously mastered in San Francisco. Putridity permeated all but one aspect of both Chris Palmer and Butch Davis Browns teams; unfortunately, a slightly above average kicking game cannot alone propel teams to greatness.

In 2005 the ostensible Browns electorate voted Davis out of office, replacing him with a man who previously had served under Bill Belichick. Such ties to Public Enemy #2 (Art Modell has a stranglehold on the top spot) could have earned him instant hatred among Browns faithful. But there was a lot to like about the new portly coach, enough to soften the blow of a Belichick crony landing by the lake. Crennel’s calls to establish a defensive minded team with a smash mouth running game were welcomed with open arms by the predominately blue collar fanbase. So too was his no-nonsense demeanor; Crennel never seemed overly elated when he had no reason to be (a decidedly Davisian trait), nor did he allow the dreadful state of the Browns’ roster to make him slip into a state of helpless melancholy.

Crennel had the makings of a good NFL head coach, especially for the city of Cleveland. Yet all of the aforementioned traits were propped up by the coach’s quintet of Super Bowl rings. This jewlery garnered immediate respect and adulation from a city that had never seen anything similar. As storied a football history as the Browns had, the narrative had not included a Super Bowl victory, let alone five. The rings were Crennel’s mandate. They were what turned his predictions into prophecies, what turned his word into gospel truth. Crennel’s head coach position was thus an unquestioned bully pulpit from which he could influence both the Browns front office and the masses. Opportunity was certainly there for Crennel to create a new history for the beleaguered franchise.

Such opportunity was presented to President Bush as well, in the form of perhaps the worst tragedy to ever strike this great nation. The terrorist attacks of September 11th gave President Bush a window through which to project greatness. For presidents, war is power. The Founding Fathers may not have wanted it this way, but in times of war the presidency has been an office capable of usurping typically staunch legislative and judicial checks on its power. Lincoln used the attack on Fort Sumter to abolish slavery and establish a more resolute republic. FDR used the bombing of Pearl Harbor to vastly expand federal government and establish America as a global hegemon. Bush, by contrast, used 9/11 to launch a half hearted war in Afghanistan and a controversial war in Iraq; both lacked a clear purpose and were drastically undermanned and underfunded. Coupling with these foreign policy gaffes were a number of failed domestic initiatives, including a healthcare privatization plan that was universally regarded as a resounding flop. Whatever historians say about Bush 30 years from now, not even his own party (which is collectively irate over losing Congress) considers the current administration a success.

Crennel, like Bush, made innumerable missteps: he managed games like an inebriated Lou Holtz, refused to hold players accountable, and formulated game plans that were completely at odds with the skills of his personnel. The Charlie Frye Experiment served as the all encompasing motif of Crennel’s tenure; Charlie Frye was Crennel’s Iraq. Frye, the weak armed quarterback with a chronic case of happy feet, was asked to translate his success from Akron University into success at the NFL level, and to do so with a pourous offensive line and a dearth of playmakers. Romeo’s obsession with Frye was reminiscent of Bush’s with Iraq in that it seemed to be entirely personal and not at all rational. The Browns should have never drafted Frye in the first place, but once they did they should have focused on building an environment in which he could succeed. Bad strategy, even worse implementation. Sound familiar?

A team once awash in hope and expectations is now destined for another losing season. A country once so universally regarded as the global power now sees its leader status questioned. Summarily, two men are on their way towards unemployment, and are yet heading towards this destination on two divergent routes.

For Crennel, the inevitable has been resisted with ceaseless fury. Whatever can be done to make a loss look less lopsided has been done, even at the cost of potentially winning. The future has been sacrificed for the present, although neither look too bright. Romeo will scratch and claw at his destiny, as if it can be prevented. President Bush, meanwhile, has come to accept the fact that he cannot win the approval of the people. He has met his fate with stubborn pride, sticking to his conscience and refusing to sacrifice his morals for approval ratings, John McCain and the GOP be damned.

Both men are failures, vis a vis their occupational responsibilities, to be sure. To be certain, they took up two of the most difficult occupations one can. NFL head coaches and American presidents work torridly to finish more tasks than can be completed in the mere 24 hours allotted by the day. They are both the victims of a myriad of circumstances beyond their control; both mistakenly thought to actually possess the power to determine such events.

The difference is that, like the brave soldier who does not fear death, Bush was not afraid to fail.

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