Just four days before the start of the 2006 NFL regular season, the Cleveland Browns proudly proclaimed that they had finally solidified their center position by trading a conditional seventh-round pick in 2008 to Philly for former Eagles starter Hank Fraley, a guy who bears the intimidating nickname "Honey Buns". By my count, after a most bizarre string of transactions, evaluations, injuries, trades, cuts, contracts, retirements, mix-ups, crackdowns and Cuyahoga voodoo jinxes worthy of a Spinal Tap drummer, Fraley is now the ninth player to be penciled in as the Browns starting center since last season. (By contrast, over one 348-game span the Steelers started just two different centers: Mike Webster and Dermontti Dawson.)
Confused? Well, don't feel bad, so is head coach Romeo Crennel, who described Fraley's challenge to learn the team's new terminology like this: "[In Philly] it's tomatoes, it's tomatoes, okay, but now it's not tomatoes, here it's potatoes." A statement that only served to confuse and hunger fans.
So here now, as a public service, I will clarify this whole Browns Psycho Center Saga for you in one simple sentence:
Like everything else that's gone wrong with the (new) Browns, I like to conveniently blame this whole stinking mess on former coach Butch Davis, who in 2003 drafted the 6-foot-3, 290-pound Jeff Faine out of Notre Dame in the first round in order to upgrade the spot from some guy named Dave Wohlabaugh (whose last name sounds like a sport you might invent in your freshman dorm, but who, you might remember, took over after wildman/painter Steve Everitt left for Philly where, according to the team's equipment manager, John Hatfield, he was one of the last players in the league with enough brains to actually wear a cup) but of course, this plan got, um, Butchered when Faine, who had signed a seven-year deal, wasn't actually big enough -- they like their centers big in Cleveland -- Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas goes 7-3 and One Cleveland Center tops out at 450 feet -- to handle massive earthmover nose tackle types in the AFC North like the Steelers' 325-pound Casey Hampton or the grind of an entire NFL season and therefore Faine ended each of his first three years in the league on injured reserve with a sprained right ankle (2003), a sprained left ankle (2004) and a torn right biceps (2005), leaving Melvin Fowler as the starting center and forcing the Browns, now under Crennel and the normally astute GM Phil Savage, to dump Faine on New Orleans on draft day for an exchange of second-round picks because on March 12 the Browns had already signed New Orleans center LeCharles Bentley (a physical road-grader type, a two-time Pro Bowl blocker and the class of the 2006 free agents) to a whopping six-year, $36 million deal with a $12.5 million bonus that inspired the Cleveland-born Bentley, who attended St. Ignatius High School, to say that he could "die happy now, this has been my dream," by which he meant playing for the legendary franchise on the shores of Lake Erie that has produced Hall of Famers like Jim Brown, Otto Graham and center Frank Gatski (who looks a little like the Flintstones' Kazoo in his archives photo, yeah, like I should talk), although in reality, Bentley's dream went all Hyundai on him on July 27 less than an hour into his first practice when he shredded his patella tendon and was lost for the season, sending Savage into apoplectic shock (not to mention folks like my dad, a born and raised Browns freak who, I swear, tried to freeze-dry me in Cleveland Municipal Stadium, that lovably decrepit steel igloo of ignominy where, until I was 15, I thought Don Cockroft was the name of a venereal disease and not a kicker); I mean, how else to explain the Cleveland GM's oddly irrational signing of Alonzo Ephraim two days later even though 1) he was out of work and sitting on his couch in Alabama at the time; 2) he had never started an NFL game at center; 3) he had been up all night with his newborn son Alonzo II and 4) oh yeah, he's currently in the NFL substance abuse program and, to the Browns' great surprise, he would be suspended for the first four games of the season (although under this screwy system Alonzo was still allowed to start the Browns' first preseason game, good thing because if not the team was going to petition the NFL to allow QB Charlie Frye to just take an imaginary sandlot shotgun snap) which forced Savage to hold something just short of a Dick Vermeil "Invincible"-like open audition (by the way, I made the "making of" featurette on the DVD, check it out: I'm the guy warming up next to, and dwarfing, Dirk Diggler during the movie's football training camp in Philly), where Savage found and signed, or tried to sign, former Bucs backup Todd Washington, who thought about it for a few hours and then decided that Berea, Ohio, in August is lovely, but just not for him and re-retired -- or is it un-re-retired? -- which, at the time, didn't bother the Browns since they had veteran O-lineman Bob Hallen, 31, ready to step in for Bentley along with rookie free agent Rob Smith from Tennessee, although just to be safe after Washington bolted Savage inked doughy Mike Mabry of Jon Bon Jovi's Arena League team the Philly (I Got No) Soul -- a move that, believe it or not, actually backfired on the Browns when Hallen, another local kid who had never complained or been treated for back problems, went AWOL from camp on Aug. 7, only to retire via personal letter on Friday, because of, his agent says, stenosis, a narrowing of the spinal column that forced him to return his entire $200,000 signing bonus (maybe in nickels and dimes), a surprise to Cleveland which prompted Savage to trade another future draft pick to the Pats for the banged up but decent lineman/center and one-time Barcelona Dragon Ross Tucker while the GM promised to scour rosters across this great land looking for surplus linemen oozing with the kind of rare skill set the Browns have come to expect from their centers (in other words, a beer gut and a pulse): players like Miami center Steve McKinney (and not, by the way, former Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino who in his recent weight loss ads shows just how slim you can get when you cut pride out of your daily diet) who, sadly, underwent season-ending back surgery shortly after Savage inquired about him, thus infecting him with the Browns Super Psycho Center Saga Voodoo Curse which next claimed Smith, who suffered a nasty high-ankle sprain which left the Browns, with Ephraim's imminent suspension, no choice but on Aug. 24 to -- I'M NOT MAKING THIS UP, PEOPLE, THERE ARE, LIKE, LAWS AND STUFF -- infuse the position with almost a whole entire 10 days of rock-solid stability, professionalism and serenity by cutting Mabry and acquiring Bears backup center and former second-round pick Lennie Friedman for yet another conditional 2007 pick (they apparently grow on trees in Northeast Ohio this time of year and are very tasty toasted on a cookie sheet with just a pinch of butter and salt), prompting Friedman, who will likely take Ephraim's place on the roster, to speculate that "any time a team trades for you it shows they really want you" -- well that, or it's the Browns, a team so desperate for warm bodies at center after seeing Frye get knocked around in the pocket like he was at an Anthrax concert, that team scouts have staked out the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame waiting for Meatloaf or Vince Neil to show up when, instead, Tucker got sent packing and Smith got sent to the practice squad and on Sept. 3 the Eagles front office, still steamed about the Browns sending Faine to the Saints in the spring, finally agreed to deal Fraley, a Super Bowl starter and a confidante of Donovan McNabb who sat out last season with a torn rotator cuff, causing Crennel to warn people at a recent press conference that "his body looks a little bit like mine, so he's not the prettiest guy out there but he has played in the NFL as a starter," meaning in the next four days Fraley only has to learn some plays and, more important, somehow avoid getting injured, retired, struck by lightning or abducted by aliens and he should be ready for the season opener on Sunday when the Browns face the New Orleans Saints and their new wonderful, steadfast, affordable and healthy center yeah, you guessed it Jeff Faine.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book, "Noah's Rainbow: a Father's Emotional Journey from the Death of his Son to the Birth of his Daughter" (Baywood 2006) was hailed by grief educators as a "deeply touching, insightful, fresh and credible voice on the complex journey of grieving and healing." His next book, based on the controversial 1925 NFL Pottsville Maroons (ESPN Books 2007) has been optioned as a movie by Sentinel Entertainment. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com