On football

No temporary insanity here

By Ron Borges
December 6, 2004

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CLEVELAND -- As he stood on the sideline waiting for the opening kickoff yesterday, Terry Robiskie was excited, but also realistic. The interim coach of the Cleveland Browns knew the score even before the first score had been rung up on his team by the New England Patriots.

"Interim" coach is about as tenuous a position as there is in professional sports and Robiskie knows it. By comparison, it makes the job of the 53d man on an NFL roster look like a guaranteed gold watch position. Yet the oddest of odd jobs in the NFL is one Robiskie has a unique perspective on.

Four years ago he wore the same tenuous title in Washington for three weeks when he took over Norv Turner's team at owner Dan Snyder's request. It was then what it is today -- the thankless task of trying to clean up someone else's mess.

Robiskie has four weeks left now to try and do the same with Butch Davis's Browns. In that brief period he also will try to convince Randy Lerner, the Browns owner, to remove the interim from his resume rather than removing him from the payroll, but this is not the same situation for Robiskie as it was four years ago. The job is just as difficult but back then Robiskie believed he could do enough to become the Redskins coach because that's what he'd been told. Yesterday, he was still a man with hope, even after his team had been beaten, 42-15, but he was not a man of self-delusion.

"Last time I really thought if we won a couple games I'd get a chance," Robiskie said last night, long after the stands and the locker room had cleared and he was left with what an interim coach is usually left with -- not a very pretty situation. "I realize now there was never a chance but that's what they told me then so that's what I believed.

"This time I'm not worrying about that. I'm coaching the team. If we win some games, we'll see what happens. If we don't, we'll see what happens. All I can do is coach the best I can. The future'll take care of itself, either way."

That's how a strong man thinks after 27 years in the NFL, five as a player and the past 22 as an assistant with the Raiders, Redskins, and Browns. Twice he has been an offensive coordinator. Twice he's been an interim head coach when all he'd really like is once to be his own boss without interim as part of the title, even though he learned a long time ago every coach in the NFL is interim whether anyone mentions it or not.

Yesterday Robiskie entered his first game as boss of the Browns knowing the kind of task his tattered team faced. He'd said during the week that "he picked quite a time to leave," referrring to Davis's decision to bail on his team just as the 10-1 Patriots were coming to town. He laughed when he said it but he knew it was no joke.

Even under the best of circumstances this would have been a struggle but this was far from the best of circumstances. The talent-challenged Browns had 14 players on injured reserve and were forced to start a rookie quarterback, Luke McCown, who had thrown one ball in his NFL career. This is not the way any coach, interim or not, wants to go off to face arguably the stingiest defense in the league. Predictably, it was a disaster and it didn't take long for that reality to hit home.

"Obviously it's a tough way to start," Robiskie said after the loss dropped NFL interim coaches to 10-16 in their debuts and 49-108 overall since 1985 (which is as far back as anyone should care to go with this). "It was a tough day to be a coach.

"Standing on the sidelines I was like everybody else. I was excited. It was fun walking out of the locker room. It was fun standing on the sidelines knowing you're in charge of the football team. You're excited. You're fired up. Ready to go. Then they take the opening kickoff back for a touchdown and it hurts. That's disheartening. It doesn't matter what coach you are."

You're 14 seconds into a game against the defending world champions and it's 7-0 and you've got the nothing. It was absolutely the worst thing that could have happened. Then it got worse.

"Going into the game we had a pretty good idea New England was a good football team," Robiskie said with the dry wit he's had ever since his rookie year with the Raiders in 1977. "Playing a team that good you've got to be sharp. The slightest little miscue and they'll take advantage of it. Playing a team like New England, everything has to go right."

Predictably, everything went wrong. There were five penalties and a turnover in the first half. There was only 39 rushing yards. There was a 21-0 deficit. There were the kind of things a lot better team than one in need of an interim head coach could not have overcome against an opponent like the Patriots.

"To turn it over and give them 6 points and then come right back and turn it over again, you're asking for it," Robiskie said.

Yet while the game was a total defeat, the day was not. By the end the Browns were so far out of it that the majority of the fans had left for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame or the Science Center down the street or for home to watch a steel-gray sky turn black. Anywhere but watching Robiskie's inherited team take a pounding.

But an odd thing happened as the game progressed. The players didn't quit. They didn't play well and they didn't play crisply, but most of them didn't quit. They were still chasing the Patriots at the end as hard as they chased Bethel Johnson when he broke that opening kickoff and ran it back 93 yards for a touchdown that an old hand like Robiskie could guess was probably fatal.

If you are the interim head coach on a day like yesterday that is what you have to hope for. You have to hope they heard you during the week when you took players aside and explained how they had five games to prove they were professionals. Took them into your office in some cases and told them it was time they did more than they had for Davis, a coach many of them came to despise for the way he upbraided them like they were children. Talk to them like men about acting like men.

That wasn't enough to produce a win over one of the best teams in football, but on this day it was the best Robiskie could hope for.

"I really don't think myself or anyone else will be judged by this game," Robiskie said quietly. "We'll see what we do in the last month. But there was one thing I was proud of. I told them during the week I didn't want anyone looking at the clock. I wanted everybody to just keep playing.

"We lost by a lot. We got manhandled, frankly. But I'll take home that very last punt of New England's. Our two defensive backs refused to stop blocking until their gunner was down on the ground. That's what I'll take home with me. We were still fighting at the end."

Terry Robiskie will do the same thing for as long as he's running the Browns. He'll fight until his term ends, however interim it may be.

He refused yesterday to publicly blame a lack of talent for the woes of the Browns, who fell to 3-9. He said it's hard to look in the mirror and blame the talent if you're a coach. He said, "The Cleveland Browns got guys who can play football." He left out the fact that most of those guys are injured, like quarterback Jeff Garcia, who might have made a difference in the first half when the Patriots were making nearly as many mistakes as the Browns.

He did acknowledge they'd lost a lot of starters but soon enough was talking about the fight at the end he saw in the players he had left. "I believe in the guys in the locker room," he said.

If the guys in that locker room believe as much in him as he does in them, and if they work as hard in the next month as he will, they may all have a chance to increase the length of their time in Cleveland and the coach will have earned it the hard way.

Earned it with 22 years as an assistant and two tours of duty as a temp in the head coach's office. Will he get what he's earned? Probably not but Robiskie wasn't worrying about that last night. He was worrying about the Bills.

"You seen them?" he asked a longtime friend as they stood together in a corridor outside the Browns' locker room. The discussion was not about yesterday but about what an interim head coach has to concern himself with.

Terry Robiskie was thinking about the future. The immediate future and nothing more.

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