Browns too high, mighty to duke it out

Ken Rosenthal

January 20, 1999|By KEN ROSENTHAL

A child gets angry, he leaves and takes his ball home. The infant Cleveland Browns are so precious, it's beneath them to even fight for the ball.

They rolled Brian Billick to the Ravens. They ignited a rivalry that needed little spark. They achieved the near-impossible task of making the Modells look like statesmen, if only for one day.

"I have to put my emotions aside and think of Cleveland very, very clinically," said Ravens vice president David (son of Art) Modell. "You make bad decisions out of emotionalism, good decisions when you eliminate emotionalism."

Did the Browns make a bad decision?

That remains to be seen. Billick, the former Minnesota offensive coordinator, has never been a head coach. He could be the next Mike Shanahan, or the next Norv Turner.

Did the Browns make an emotional decision?

Billick deflected that question last night, praising Browns president Carmen Policy and director of football operations Dwight Clark. But consider what he told the Cleveland Plain-Dealer the day before.

"Baltimore has been very forceful about what's available to me here, and it's a very attractive option," Billick said. "I'm not sure the Browns fully appreciate that because of the emotional baggage that comes between the two clubs. I think they struggled with that, the fact that I would consider this job.

"Because of the emotional baggage that comes between the two teams -- and the Modells and [Cleveland owner] Al Lerner and that whole dynamic -- I don't know that they in their minds viewed that this was as viable a choice as theirs."

In other words, the nerve of Billick to consider the Ravens. The nerve of him to allow Modell to compete with Policy. The nerve of him to mix with commoners when the old San Francisco 49ers regime beckoned.

Know who the Browns are?

They're the Arizona Diamondbacks of the NFL.

Jerry Colangelo, Buck Showalter and Co. acted as if they invented baseball before their team even took the field. And now Policy and Clark are bringing 49ers arrogance to the expansion Browns.

Everyone in the NFL will want a piece of these guys. And the resentment could run even deeper in Baltimore, a town with an inferiority complex for its larger, northeastern neighbors, but certainly not for Cleveland.

"Our team, our name, our colors" -- that's what Cleveland Mayor Michael White demanded after the Browns moved to Baltimore in 1995.

The proper Charm City response?

Their team. Their coach. And their No. 1 draft pick, which the Browns should be willing to donate, seeing as how they already view themselves as superior to the lowly Ravens.

"I certainly have subjected myself to criticism based upon the decision I made, a decision some people might think was premature," Policy said at a news conference yesterday.

"Perhaps we should have waited out the process. Then again, it's all a matter of what we perceived to be the required ingredients in terms of what our head coach must be like, think like, feel like. It seems as though this young professional was going in a different direction."

Then again, Billick had no choice after the Browns threw a hissy fit and withdrew from the competition on Monday.

If Policy wanted Billick -- the candidate who left him "blown away" after a seven-hour interview last month -- then why didn't he fight for him?

Was the idea that repulsive?

Or was he afraid of an even bigger public-relations disaster that could have resulted from losing to Modell?

Policy dismissed the Ravens' threat, saying, "We're not going to let any organization influence what we do." He also dismissed the "emotional baggage" notion raised by Billick, calling it "categorically not true."

Give the Ravens credit -- they identified Billick as their top candidate among the available assistants, and risked the embarrassment of losing him to Cleveland when they could have taken the safer route and hired Chris Palmer.

If the Cleveland job is so terrific -- and most everyone in the NFL concedes that it is -- then Policy could have just waited for Billick and trumped the Ravens' six-year, $9 million offer.

He wasn't bothered that Palmer interviewed in Baltimore. But his response was quite different when it became clear Billick was the Ravens' top candidate. Now, the Browns likely will be left with Palmer, who, for all anyone knows, might be a better coach.

"Brian made it clear that he didn't view an expansion situation as being the advantage that we saw here," Policy said. "He made it clear that going with a mature team might provide him with a quicker and better opportunity to win. I'm not saying he's wrong. It's just a different point of view."

Your thoughts, Brian?

"There was no real hesitation on my part with regard to Cleveland simply because it was an expansion team," Billick said.

No, Billick's hesitation came Sunday night, when Clark spoke with him after the Vikings' loss in the NFC title game. He didn't return with Clark to Cleveland, as the Browns insisted. He followed through on his commitment to interview in Baltimore.

Art Modell questioned the propriety of any team meeting with Billick at such a trying moment, calling it "inopportune."

"I know what the devastation is after losing a game like that," Modell said. "It's the wrong thing to put yourself in the picture before he has a chance to recover."

Let Cleveland wail about Modell's sense of right and wrong.

The Browns are the issue now.

"The satisfaction honestly has nothing to do with Cleveland -- well, maybe a wee bit," David Modell said.

In any case, the rivalry begins next season.

That is, if the Browns condescend to show up.

Pub Date: 1/20/99

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