Open and Shut

For a while, Jeff Garcia could finally speak his mind. Then the Browns showed up.

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By the time Garcia returned from injury, the coach who - brought him to Cleveland was gone. - Walter  Novak
By the time Garcia returned from injury, the coach who brought him to Cleveland was gone.
Jeff Garcia's knee is busted, and so are his spirits. But nothing's working less than his mouth.

He hides from reporters after practice, squirting away like he's being chased by Ray Lewis. He watches his team get buried from the sidelines, then tries to evade the blitz of beat writers. But he can't, so instead he looks irritated, sounds disinterested, and does all he can to find a Browns employee to escort him out of the room. He declines formal interview requests.

This from a guy who three months ago wouldn't shut up.

When Garcia arrived last spring as the Browns' new starting quarterback, his bags were packed with a freedom he hadn't possessed in years. He was loaded. He was proven. And more than anything, he was wanted.

During five years in San Francisco, the undersized redhead could never escape the tall, dark shadows of Joe Montana and Steve Young. But in Cleveland, he finally was running his own show. He bought a house on the West Side and emerged on the Warehouse District club circuit with his Playmate girlfriend. And for months, he was Cleveland's highest-paid chatterbox: He talked freely with the media about his coaches and teammates, about his beefs and his ideas. He breached player etiquette by publicly imploring rookie Kellen Winslow Jr. to end his contract holdout. He complained about his minimal preseason-playing time. And when the Browns couldn't move the ball, he said there was "no secret" to what plays the "predictable" offense would run, and he begged coaches to play to his strengths.

What was the worst that could happen? They'd compare him to Tim Couch?

"This is the most vocal Jeff has been," says his father, Bob Garcia. "I was surprised when he came out and talked about the offense. That's not Jeff."

For a while it was Jeff -- at least while there was hope for him and his team. Garcia led a season-opening win against Baltimore, lit up the Bengals for four touchdowns, and showed fire in a close loss to Philadelphia.

He drew criticism from the media for his candor, but it's tough to dispute that Garcia was right. Many observers agree that the Browns failed to use him properly, leaving him in the pocket instead of moving him laterally so he could use his legs and see his receivers downfield. "You must design to get him on the edge," former NFL quarterback and ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski says. "He throws well on the move." Until three linebackers were chasing him from the pocket, Garcia was rarely called upon to scramble -- a fact he freely pointed out in interviews.

But by late in the second Baltimore game, when Ravens safety Ed Reed picked off Garcia in the end zone and ran for what seemed like a month toward a clinching touchdown, the Browns had begun their tailspin. The next week against Pittsburgh, the offense played like it bet the under, and Garcia was benched for Kelly Holcomb. Garcia injured his shoulder in Week 11; by the time it healed two weeks later, Butch Davis was gone, Holcomb was injured, and Luke McCown -- Garcia's rookie understudy -- was the starter.

When Garcia returned for backup duty against the Bills and promptly had his knee shredded, you wondered if he would ever return.

He will. Just probably not in Cleveland.

"It just amazes me," Garcia's dad says of the Browns. "What did they see in Jeff that they wanted? He's a three-time Pro Bowler. Let's go get him. Why spend some money and bring in a guy that's not going to be a good fit. You're putting a square peg in a round hole."

Some say that Garcia was part of the problem, that he's too short and too weak of arm -- criticisms that dogged him even in his Pro Bowl seasons with the 49ers. "Obviously, if he was any good," former Browns consultant Ron Wolf told The Plain Dealer, "San Francisco would have kept him." (Wolf, of course, has reason to knock the quarterback: Garcia was the choice of Butch Davis, who all but deposited a foot in Wolf's backside last spring.)

In a column for The Miami Herald, Dan Le Batard even blamed Garcia for Davis's losing his job.

Many of the people who have seen Garcia on the practice field don't buy it. "We've seen him play, and we've seen him play well," says Browns tight end Steve Heiden.

"He's tougher than a doggone boot," says John Ralston, who coached Garcia at San Jose State.

"He'll still have a job next year," says San Jose Mercury News sports columnist Mark Purdy, who covered Garcia in San Francisco. But Purdy and others say that the job won't be in Cleveland, unless the team happens to hire a general manager or coach who is a fan of the 34-year-old. Football guru Bill Walsh, who signed Garcia in San Francisco, says that several teams are interested in Garcia, though he won't say which ones.

"He can play," Walsh says, "and play as well as anybody in the league."

Whoever ends up running the Browns could keep Garcia around, though it's more likely that he'll be cut, saving $2 million in salary-cap room and leaving behind only the painful memory of another failed experiment.

As for the next quarterback trial? It could be McCown or Holcomb, another rookie or a new free agent. The new quarterback probably won't be much like Garcia -- he'll be taller and stronger and younger. But Cleveland can only hope he does one thing as well as Garcia did, if only for a while: Tell it like it is.

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