Even Butch Davis knew that the final decision to waive Kevin Johnson would have to come from a higher authority. After all, canning a cornerstone player selected in the Cleveland Browns first draft would be controversial and would impact the entire organization.
So the coach, who enjoys almost sovereign power over the football operation, took it to team president Carmen Policy, and, surprisingly or not, found a willing accomplice.
A week ago, you might recall, Davis announced Johnson, the team s top receiver for 41/2 seasons since the day the Browns returned to the NFL, was being dropped from the starting lineup.
Johnson s reaction was to stand in the center of a gaggle of reporters and spout his statistics. Policy was one of many who read the resulting stories the next day.
“It sent a bad vibe to me,” Policy said yesterday. “I think I counted 30 times in the article where Kevin said I, me, my, and once where he used the word we. It was all about his stats, what he did, and how he did it.”
So it seems Johnson was demoted because Davis and his assistant coaches didn t like the way he was playing. And that KJ was cut because Policy didn t like the way he reacted.
But nothing is ever as simple as it appears.
Truth is, Davis dangled Johnson as trade bait shortly after he took over as head coach in 2001. Davis never thought Johnson had the size or speed to be a team s No. 1 receiver. Johnson responded by catching 84 passes worth 1,097 yards and nine touchdowns - just ask him - and the Browns responded with a four-year contract extension that included a $3.5 million signing bonus.
“There was marked improvement,” Policy said. “His position coach [Terry Robiskie] was of the opinion Kevin was turning the corner. We felt by displaying that we were willing to commit to him for the present and future that it would be an incentive for him to advance even further. We wanted it to produce a positive effect on the 2002 season because we felt we had an opportunity to participate in the playoffs.”
So Johnson, surrounded by a more balanced offense, caught 67 passes for 703 yards in 02 and the Browns made the playoffs, where KJ produced a four-catch, 140-yard outing in a game the Cleveland defense spit up against the Steelers.
Now the Browns are 3-6 and we are told Johnson, a sure-handed receiver who reached the midway point of the season on pace to surpass last year s numbers, is a feeble blocker and an imprecise route runner who drops too many passes and is a cancer in the clubhouse.
“It appeared that he lost any incentive to compete and participate if he couldn t be the starter,” Policy said. “If he had developed the approach that we have seven more games and I m going to do everything I can to help the team win and not be a distraction, then there s no question in my mind that he d still be on the team.”
And the Browns learned all this in one week s time while a player was dealing with the rejection of a surprising demotion?
Davis has a very short leash for players he didn t draft, to say nothing of the fact that he is very much feeling the heat of a season suddenly on the brink. Although Policy insisted it wasn t the case, one might be inclined to see Johnson being made the scapegoat for an offense that has been anything but fine-tuned and efficient.
Policy is the ultimate spin-master. If his lips are moving, you can almost bank that he is engaged in a form of damage control designed to absolve Carmen Policy, and occasionally his underlings, of any and all things gone wrong.
For example, he said yesterday that “I still think we are a better team than we were in 2002. Our record may not reflect it and that may not sound rational. But ultimately we are better positioned to advance as a team than we were in 02. This move was all about trying to enhance our chances of winning. It was about saying, Look, we re not scrapping the season. We re doing everything we can to put this team in the best position possible to win this year. ”
Policy and Davis may actually believe that. You Browns fans out there may believe what you like.
Kevin Johnson may have had too great a sense of his own importance and may have been too quick to spit out his own statistics.
But at least he had some. And they were pretty good.
Time will tell if the Browns, as Policy suggested, are a better team without him. Right now though, the move makes little sense and threatens to plunge a struggling and apparently splintered team into further disarray.
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