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Published: Tuesday, 1/16/2001

Palmer's system doomed from start

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Considering there has been no dramatic display of public outrage over the firing of Cleveland Browns coach Chris Palmer last week, it appears team president Carmen Policy was correct in his assessment that players and fans alike had lost faith in Palmer's program.

But would any coach's system have withstood a fair chance given the setbacks Palmer faced in just two seasons with an expansion franchise?

Team owner Al Lerner seemed to recognize that late in the season when he said it would be a blow to the franchise to undergo dramatic changes and that it would be “a travesty” if Palmer would not be on hand to reap the benefits of laying a foundation.

When that quote was tossed back at Policy during a press conference following Palmer's dismissal, he didn't shrink from it.

“It is a travesty,” Policy admitted. “Al Lerner and I both feel that way because a good guy, a guy we have a lot of affection and respect for, wasn't able to accomplish a goal.”

But what was a realistic goal?

Policy admits he tried to be a voice of reason when a debut preseason win over Dallas in 1999 led to grandiose and, frankly, absurd expectations for a first-year team with a rookie quarterback, a mostly rookie receiving corps and a questionable running game.

“I think I was more realistic than most, so I wasn't shocked,” Policy said of the Browns' 2-14 record in `99. “Still, I think we all expected a little bit more than we got. But if we were to excuse the growing pains of rookie players, then we had to excuse the growing pains of a rookie head coach.”

Injuries forced Palmer's second season to be even more of a pain, literally and figuratively, but Policy clearly was not willing to accept any more excuses.

As Palmer lost one after another of his offensive starters, including his Nos. 1 and 2 quarterbacks, his top running back, a promising receiver and one of his best linemen, the coach retreated into a shell that has served some other coaches well.

Namely, button it up on offense, bore people to death and hope your defense can keep games competitive.

Check the Super Bowl pairing if you don't think it can work.

It worked, to a degree, for Palmer, too. The Browns stretched a few games into the fourth quarter before the defense wore down and the offense proved, time and again, it just wasn't talented enough to handle even the basics.

Palmer wasn't without fault. His preseason camps were lengthy and physical and, once the regular season started, he worked his players too hard during the week. Games are won on Sundays, not Wednesdays, and the Browns were noticeably a tired team come the fourth quarters of many games.

The NFL schedule offered no respite either. In both of Palmer's seasons the Browns were assigned the final weekend of the schedule as their bye week. Counting exhibition games, the Browns played 21 straight weeks in 1999 and 19 straight weeks this past season.

There was no chance to give the team a couple days off, no chance to heal nagging injuries, no chance for a team with its season spinning out of control to catch its breath.

It's valid to question whether any coach could overcome those obstacles.

So why was Palmer fired?

He did lose the team. The Cleveland locker room was not a happy place, and there was constant grumbling. Any support Palmer received from his players, before and after his firing, was tepid at best.

But the Palmer-Policy marriage was probably doomed from the start. In fact, some have always questioned how Palmer got the job in the first place.

Policy and his top lieutenant, football operations chief Dwight Clark, are products of the San Francisco-Bill Walsh school of vertical offensive football, the so-called west coast offense that has such disciples as Mike Shanahan, George Seifert, Mike Holmgren, Steve Mariucci and Mike Martz, among others.

Palmer is a Bill Parcells protege - power football with a possession passing game supported by strong defense - with a little Tom Coughlin mixed in.

“Chris had a great deal of experience on the offensive side of the ball, especially in having worked with quarterbacks,” Policy said. “And there was no secret our first pick in our first draft would be a quarterback (Tim Couch). Plus, he seemed to have the demeanor and attitude, sort of the neighborhood professor, that would be right for a young team.”

Policy's real problem wasn't that the Browns went 3-13, it's that they were offensively boring in the process. Only late in the season, when Palmer surely sensed that a Policy-issued vote of confidence might turn into the kiss of death, did the coach reach into a bag of tricks in an attempt to produce yards and points.

“My expectation of the next coach, primarily, is that we're going to be exciting,” Policy said. “The rest will take care of itself.”

Maybe. Maybe not.

In some ways, a healthy Browns team doesn't seem that far removed from a .500 season. In other regards, it looks light years away from the NFL playoffs.

Regardless of how the new coach assesses it, he can be sure of one thing. He's on a short leash with a club president for whom patience does not seem a strong virtue.



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