Flag on the Play

Akron-Beacon Journal sports columnist Terry Pluto conjures the ghosts of the Browns expansion team for a new book which argues that the NFL knowingly shortchanged us all in the name of new stadiums and a $530 million payday.

Give them a team and they'll be happy. That's the sort of thinking veteran Akron-Beacon Journal sports columnist Terry Pluto says the National Football League used when trying to heal the wounds Art Modell inflicted upon the city of Cleveland.

They gave us an expansion franchise, with our name and colors, and we were satisfied. But after the fight-to-the-death-for-our-team buzz faded, the hangover took hold. In "False Start: How the New Browns Were Set Up to Fail" (Gray and Co., $19.95), Pluto points out the obstacles that have hobbled the new Browns ever since billionaire Al Lerner coughed up the $530 million ransom the NFL demanded for the franchise (which incidentally, as Pluto points out, was slashed from the truly unthinkable $1 billion the league initially bandied when trying to price the team).

And while many of these hurdles have been debated at length, Pluto tells the tale from the mouths of former coach Chris Palmer, former team president Carmen Policy and even current coach Butch Davis. The result is an intriguing, if not at times unbelievable, explanation of how and why the Browns have struggled since the team's 1999 reincarnation.

As the 2004 Browns season kicked off, we talked to Pluto about his decision to call out the NFL, how he got Browns insiders such as Palmer and Policy on the record and his prognosis for the new orange and brown.

How did you get people such as Carmen Policy and Chris Palmer to cooperate for this book?

They trusted me. I really try not to write every single rumor or every crazy thing I hear. The Carmen Policy interviews were all done on tape. It was funny, they were all done in the spring and he made it clear it was for the book that's coming out in the fall and was not to be used in the paper before that. Of course, there were already rumors that he was leaving and that fueled them. Palmer and I had a pretty good relationship when he was here and I still have no idea if he's a good coach or a bad coach, but the poor guy spent his whole life to get this opportunity and he had zero chance.

A cornerstone of your book is the fact that the Browns had the third-shortest start-up time in NFL history. Why did they wait so long to select an owner?

The only thing that made any sense whatsoever from talking to some NFL executives was so they could keep this plum out there — kind of like this girl waiting to be asked to the prom. ... We were able to figure out that it looks like at least five different teams got new stadium deals or new stadiums simply from the fact that the Browns were open and there was a threat an owner would move his team — say, the Cincinnati Bengals, for example — up here. The NFL knew this and left it open and used it that way.

Why do you believe the NFL would compromise the integrity of the Browns franchise?

Here is where I get very cynical. Generally, my reputation as a sportswriter is I'm not a big cynic or a hack man. I think the feeling was no matter what type of team you put out there, Cleveland is going to support it because that's what they do. They thought, We don't have to sweat this. They could use this franchise to get other stadiums built and take care of some other "league issues" as they call them.

Many times, you excerpt letters written by Browns fans. Why did you use this device?

Without me saying a word about what this franchise means to the fans, I wanted to let the fans say what this franchise means to them. ... It even more underlines the blatant disregard of these fans by the NFL.

What's your prognosis for the Browns from here forward?

Somebody is going to put together a heck of a franchise here and whether it's Butch or the guy after Butch, I don't know. ... It's not like the curse of Rocky Colavito. In fact, what really bothered me is there was a chance for these guys really to be something and they were given a tremendous competitive disadvantage that wasn't fair at all. And the fans, in many ways, should be even more outraged about it than they are.

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