Wednesday, August 20, 2014

He's Not Number One

Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine on Wednesday confirmed what was obvious to the entire nation on Monday night.  Johnny Manziel should not and will not be opening the season as a starting NFL quarterback, even for a team as woeful and as quarterback-challenged as the Browns.
Manziel was never going to open the 2014 season as the Cleveland Browns’ starting quarterback anyway.  Never, ever, ever was it going to happen.  Manziel should probably publicly thank Pettine for saving him from another embarrassing chapter of the tragicomedy that is slowing developing in Berea with Manziel as chief protagonist.
To say the least, Manziel needs seasoning.  To say the most, he needs to grow up.
Pettine will never admit that Manziel flipping the bird at the Washington bench on Monday night in the second half of a preseason game for goodness sakes tipped the scales.  And it probably didn’t, but only because it wasn’t as if the scales were otherwise in balance.  What Manziel’s act did do was highlight exactly the problem with him at the moment.  He lacks both the maturity and the mental makeup to take on the role of starter.
It’s actually pretty comical when you think about how Manziel responded to the taunting from an opposing bench in a meaningless game.  Lacking any wit or sense of subtlety he gave the typical 14 year-old R-rated non-verbal version of “oh yea?”   Clever stuff, Johnny.  I’d have more respect for him if he had made a joke about their mothers.
More to the point, though, is it demonstrated exactly how easily it is to get inside the head of Manziel.  That shouldn’t be such a surprise.  It’s clear there’s ample room if only, but not only, because Manziel didn’t exactly spend the filling it with anything remotely work related.
This little comeuppance for Manziel, as inevitable as it was expected, puts him at a crossroads now, perhaps the first time he’s actually faced one in his life.  What he does next, which path he chooses, could very well determine if he becomes just another wasted first round pick by the Browns or the one true player around whom this beleaguered team can finally rally.
The one thing working in Manziel’s favor on this score is that he does seem to understand how vast his shortcomings clearly are at the moment. In his interview with Jon Gruden broadcast on ESPN Manziel candidly pointed out how little grooming he really had at Texas A&M for the pro game.  His college team didn’t huddle.  He never took a snap behind the center.  The playbook consisted of plays whose proper execution relied mostly of Manziel running around long enough to either find someone, anyone who might be open or taking off himself.  That amazing lack of precision to the college game just doesn’t translate to the uber-scripted world of the NFL and Manziel knows it or at least he does now.

In his comments earlier Wednesday, Manziel was similarly candid, saying he didn't do enough well on the field to earn the nod.  Indeed he admitted he probably wasn't ready to be a starter.
What makes all this so curious then is why Manziel used his offseason so frivolously.  He seemingly knew how big of a learning curve he had to overcome and instead of spending as much time as possible to make that leap he spent most of his time dicking around various nightclubs around the country.  It’s the kind of approach that someone who feels overwhelmed by what he faces tends to take.  Gravitate toward what you’re comfortable with while avoiding what you aren’t.  And if anything about Manziel is crystal clear he’s comfortable at a party.

He also made that point in his remarks Wednesday and in typical fashion he zagged when he should have zigged.  He was definitive, if not a bit defiant, in defending his offseason conduct, claiming it made no difference in the outcome and didn't impact him at all.  Indeed he said he wouldn't change a thing and vowed to essentially spend next offseason doing the same thing.
It's difficult at times to harmonize the candid, contrite Manziel with the defiant borderline idiotic version.  He knows what to say except when he doesn't.  Immaturity, perhaps, but it's more than that.  It's the reason actually scouts were so mixed about him in the first place.

But let's get back to facts.  It’s not that Manziel didn’t put in work during the offseason.  It’s that he didn’t put in nearly enough, irrespective of what he says now.  No one expected Manziel to display veteran poise at this point.  But neither should fans have expected Manziel to look as lost as a guy off the street on Monday night.  There’s a reason Pettine used the middle of August to name Hoyer as the starter.  There was no effective other choice and given how far Hoyer still needs to come the time to stop taking away reps from his was now.
Nothing about the way Manziel has performed thus far suggests he’s even close to being a credible NFL quarterback anytime soon.    That’s not to say it couldn’t happen but short of an injury it won’t or at least shouldn’t happen soon.  The one thing Manziel doesn’t need now (not to mention Hoyer) is any sense from Pettine that the move to Hoyer is less than permanent.  If past is prologue, though, more time will be spent soothing Manziel’s rather fragile ego than giving the tough love he actually needs.
Look, the red flags are everywhere with this guy and rather than treating him like a savior he needs to be put in his place.  Pettine, general manager Ray Farmer, even embattled owner Jimmy Haslam, did an awful job this offseason reigning him in almost going to great pains to sanction the behavior as appropriately aged-based.  The behind the scenes story is that none of them were pleased with his antics and yet they waited until Manziel arrived for training camp, partied out and ill prepared, to tell him that.
Similarly, there is the issue of Manziel’s missing of a team meeting last week, reminiscent of his missing an early meeting at the Manning quarterback camp last summer and, of course, the middle finger incident.  In short, nothing about Manziel screams leader including his statement Wednesday that his partying ways would continue.
I’m sure Pettine would say that these matters have been handled internally but there’s nothing publicly to suggest that Manziel has gotten the message.  Besides, there’s nothing wrong with a coach taking a calculated approach to calling out a player publicly, particularly a player who is supposed to be leading by example instead of acting like one of the bad asses in the back of the bus throwing spit balls when the coach isn’t looking.  It worked well for Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick to publicly challenge a few players from time to time.
Manziel needs to see this moment for what it is and get on the right path, publicly and privately.  Outwardly he doesn't.  He needs to come out and candidly admit he didn’t work hard enough and just as candidly re-dedicate himself to living up to the trust and faith that has been placed in him.  He didn't.  

A bit of advice for the rookie.  The fans, particularly in Cleveland, are a forgiving bunch unless you’re a dick.  It’s why they still stick with Bernie Kosar through all his problems and still can’t stand Braylon Edwards.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Missed Opportunity

If you’re looking to professional sports to provide justice for the wrongs you think need to be righted, find a different hobby.  Professional sports doesn’t exist to bring you anything more meaningful than the highs and lows that accompany victory and defeat.  That said, it still provides an enormous capacity to fail you when you need it most.
The latest but certainly not the last case in point was NFL commissioner Roger Goodell’s rather lightweight two game suspension handed down to Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice for domestic violence against his fiancĂ©e, now wife, Janay Palmer.
Rice and Palmer were in an Atlantic City casino for fun and games when a domestic dispute turned horribly violent.  According to reports, both Rice and Palmer struck each other.  But you don’t need to speculate who came out of that fight unscathed, at least physically.  The video tape is crystal clear.  Rice was forcibly dragging a limp Palmer by her hair out of an elevator following whatever took place behind those metal doors. 
Physical violence against women is nothing new among NFL players.  The San Diego Union-Tribune maintains a database of all NFL players arrested since 2000.  You could review it if you have the time but suffice it to say that nearly every team in the league has had a player charged with domestic violence since 2000.  And that’s just the recent history.  Cleveland Browns’ fans with a memory can recall the number of run ins Jim Brown had with domestic violence during and after his career (with all charges either eventually dropped or resulting in his acquittal).  What set the Rice situation apart in the public conscious was the videotape.  It’s one thing to read about a player dragging an obviously injured woman around but a whole other matter to actually see the horror on continuous loop.
The incident gave Goodell and the NFL a chance to do two things.  First, he could take the most public stand possible against the NFL’s unfortunate history with domestic violence.  Second, he could send a message to all of the other players that violence against women in any form is now a zero tolerance offense that will threaten your livelihood.  And in some fashion Goodell did both by even bothering to punish Rice at all.  But what Goodell also did was place the penalty on a spectrum that’s hard to fathom—less than smoking marijuana, slightly more than wearing non-league approved cleats.  When Goodell had the power to do all he could he opted instead to do the least he could and keep a straight face.
There are plenty that would argue that Rice should have been suspended for a year.  There are plenty of others that would argue that a player smoking marijuana merits a 4-game suspension so at the very least, the very least, a player channeling his inner caveman dragging around his property by the arm ought to suffer the same consequence.

I’m not sure exactly what the right penalty should have been.  What I am sure about is that this penalty doesn’t feel right.  A two-game penalty tells you that the NFL sees other offenses as far more serious than those involving its players hitting women.  Just ask the New Orleans Saints players accused of participating in a bounty system against other players in the league.  But more to the point, it also offers absolutely no deterrent to the next offender.  A season long suspension clearly would.  A half year suspension just might.  And in the end, isn’t that at least part of the purpose of issuing a penalty?  Shouldn’t the impact it will have on deterring similar conduct be taken into account?

Let’s go back to the aforementioned New Orleans Saints bountygate as a proxy.  It wasn’t domestic violence but had similar attributes in that involved NFL players and coaches sanctioning or participating in specific conduct meant to injure another.  Goodell leveled significant penalties, suspending head coach Sean Payton for a year, indefinitely suspending another coach and issuing minimum 6 game penalties to others.  Goodell also suspended one player, Jonathan Vilma, for a year.  Three other players were suspended for a range of between 3 and 8 games.  In every case players and coaches suffered more significant penalties than Goodell issued against Rice.  (It’s worth noting that the sanctions against the players were overturned by Paul Tagliabue, who was hired as an arbitrator.  Tagliabue found that they engaged in the conduct but placed the blame on the coaches for incentivizing them to do so.)
My guess is that Goodell sees the distinction between the bountygate situation and Rice’s as a matter of one threatening the integrity of the game and the other a singularly personal matter.  But can that dichotomy alone explain the massive difference in Goodell’s thinking, especially when once a penalty is issued the outcome of a game, in this case a future game, is potentially altered?

If Goodell really is parsing these situations that closely then he is losing sight of the reason he’s taken such a strong stand on personal conduct issues in the past.  Maybe Goodell felt chastened when Tagliabue overturned the penalties on the bountygate players, but that’s hardly a reasonable excuse.
Nothing gets done in a vacuum and I suspect Goodell levied a penalty that he knew Rice would not appeal without looking like an even bigger idiot.  I’m sure, too, that Goodell had to balance the inevitable outcry from the union had he levied a penalty with real sting.  Goodell, as commissioner, is as much a politician as an executive.

But not every incident calls for a political solution.  Sometimes a line has to get drawn and let the consequences flow from that.  The players’ union is like the NRA.  There is no penalties on its members that they’d ever agree to on the record.  Besides, their interests are not at all aligned with Goodell’s.  He has to protect the integrity of the game and all that it stands for.  The union, particularly this union under the misguided leadership of DeMaurice Smith, cares not a whit about the good of the game, only the good of the dues paying members.  Given that, Goodell’s thought process should have been first and only to do the right thing.  Instead he looked to do what was expedient, what would make his life easier.
It would be interesting to understand Goodell’s actual thinking but he’s taken the coward’s approach and gone radio silence, allowing the furor to dissipate.  It hasn’t yet.  At some point, maybe at a press conference during Hall of Fame week or some other low key moment down the road he’ll elaborate, but I doubt it will be much.  He’ll say that the league took a stance by bothering to punish Rice at all and then dangle out there that reasonable people can debate the severity of the punishment.  All true, technically.   Practically, it’s a load of crap.

There’s just no sugarcoating the magnitude of Goodell’s misstep here.  His supplicants in the media, like Peter King, will dribble out tidbits to suggest that Goodell tried to do the right thing by, for example, talking to the victim, getting her input, making sure her voice mattered.  But in even making that gesture, Goodell conducted that meeting with Rice sitting right next to her, the dominator and the dominated.  What exactly did Goodell think Palmer was going to say in that meeting?
The culture of this country in these matters still tilts wildly in favor of the perpetrator.  Rice was applauded when he walked onto the Ravens practice field the other day as if he’s some kind of hero to be honored for what exactly, not killing Palmer?  Notably, in his press conference on Thursday, Rice was appropriately contrite and apologetic.  It would have been more noble to have chastised the idiot Ravens fans that gave him the applause in the first place.

Victims of domestic violence, like victims of sexual assault and victims of sexual harrassment, on the other hand, face questions about their character and motivations, fair questions in the context of due process but certainly not the only or even the main questions to ask.  And they’re also often put in the awkward position of feeling responsible for the ultimate punishment levied.  That’s a lot to bear.
Had Palmer, for example, been allowed to speak freely and confidentially, neither of which occurred here, she might have had a different story to tell.  We’ll never know but it isn’t a stretch to suggest that Goodell, a lawyer by trade, knew exactly what he was doing by interviewing Palmer with Rice present.  As it is, though, because Goodell and King and others dribbled out the information about her role in Goodell’s deliberations, a harsher penalty on Rice would inevitably brought a harsher scrutiny on her from all those Ravens fans who can’t stomach the thought of being without Rice for an extended period of time.

There is a war on women in this country and it shows no signs of abating.  Goodell just contributed to the fray when he had a real chance, using this country’s most popular sport and his position in it as the ultimate bully pulpit, to emphatically declare that there is absolutely no place for domestic violence.  Goodell had an obligation to think globally and instead deliberately thought small and in doing so called into question his ongoing ability to lead the sport.
The fight for women’s rights will go on as it always done, by fits and starts.  The inroads women have made in the last 25 years or so are impressive but for all the gains made it just takes an incident like this and the shocking outcome to remind us all that until we take care of everyone on the same footing we don’t really take care of our own.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Home Is Where The Heart Is

This one feels different, much different.

When Lebron James first joined the Cleveland Cavaliers, he effectively had no choice. The worst team with the number one pick in the NBA draft gets who it wants and James was the biggest no-brainier pick in the history of the league.

When he left it was a crotch kick, a punch to an unexpected gut of a city that always seems to get an unexpected punch. That same desperate, lost, hurt that was felt when Art Modell pulled the Browns out of Cleveland was its logical antecedent. To literally lose your sporting blood put the city in a football wilderness that took, you guessed it, nearly four years to remedy.

When James bolted the first chance he had he left the team in ruins. That may have been exactly why he left. But he took Cleveland’s heart with him and it spent, yep, four years figuring how it could all begin again.

The reason this feels so different is that this times James had a choice. He could go anywhere he wanted and he decided to come back here. You'd have to go back to Bernie Kosar’s manipulation of the NFL’s supplemental draft in order to land in Cleveland to recall an even remotely similar sense of not just pride but of affirmation for the reason that most of us with a choice nonetheless remain.

No longer is there any concern about his basketball future. He’ll finish his career, hopefully another 10 years from now, as a Cav. All the cringing fans used to do when James would wear a Yankees hat is gone forever.  He can follow any baseball or football team he wants. There will be no need to read anything into those kinds of gestures. James chose here not there and it has the absolute feeling of finality, both a prodigal son and favorite son returning, satisfied with his time away and relishing his future on his home turf.

I read James’ decision letter, twice.   It was a master stroke, the likes of which are rare in professional sports. Sure it went through the editing process and sure some of it, maybe most of it, was calculated to put a different spin on what James is really about. Yet it felt genuine. It was fully realized and actualized. It contained no false promises. It just laid it out in rather simple terms and in the process seemingly made fools of all of those who, from a very great distance, thought they understood what he really was all about.

Without saying it directly, James nonetheless laid out the case for why he's not the mercenary many of us, me included, thought he was. It certainly helps that the Cavs have some excellent assets to work with, certainly more than the Heat at the moment. But the pull to come home, to raise his sons in a place with less glitz and more sensibilities, seems to have predominated.

His letter in many ways read like the words of Bruce Springsteen in “Long Walk Home” and it's easy think about what James is telling his own kids at the moment and what other dads in Akron and Cleveland are telling theirs:

My father said, “Son, we’re luck in in this town. It's a beautiful place to be born.
It just wraps itself around you, no one crowds you no one goes it alone.”

That is exactly the way this town has always treated James. He lives just a few minutes from me and he's easy to spot when he's in town. Sometimes alone at the movie theater. Sometimes riding his bike on the local streets. Sometimes playing softball at the local high school. No one crowds him but he knows the people around here have his back.

The other striking aspect of this almost surreal moment in Cleveland sports history is how much James has grown as a person in the last four years. He wrote that his four years in Miami felt like college. He went in a know-it-all and came out a humbler man comfortable with not having all the answers. It's exactly the point of going off to college, or the army, or wherever it is that one goes when they have to leave home in order to grow up.

James is absolutely correct when he wrote that there was nothing to be gained in holding a grudge against Dan Gilbert or the fans who cursed his very existence. Indeed he offered up exactly the right perspective without specifically giving Gilbert a pass for the screed Gilbert wrote when James left. James saw himself in the shoes of those he spurned and understood both their anger and their angst.

I also get though why Gilbert didn't publicly renounce his screed in the last several days. It would have looked shallow and opportunistic. Better to have handled it as he did, per James, face to face and man to man.

For all the criticism leveled at Gilbert, and I've leveled plenty at him myself, you have to give him his due. He overcame his own impetuousness and sprinkled with a little luck when it comes to the ping pong balls has put together enough of a franchise now to at least give fans hope that the team isn't just James and 11 other guys. More importantly though he gained his own perspective about the NBA that was learned the hard way, a perspective that when coupled with James’ maturity, will really serve this franchise well as it pursues it's stated goal of bringing  this town a championship.

There is enough cynicism in sports and life that it's virtually certain that some, maybe many, will try to find the holes in James’ story, the real motives behind the move. But not on this day. There is no way to spoil a win, nor should there be, for fans who haven't seen enough of it.

I suspect many feel like Gus Sinski at the mound talking to Billy Chapel as he was throwing a perfect game in “For Love of the Game.” Collectively we would be saying “we don't stink right now because of you. We’re the best team in [basketball] because of you, right now, right this minute because of you. We’re not gonna screw it up, we’re gonna be awesome for you. “

Let's hope he remains awesome for us. He’s off to a perfect start.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Decision II, The Sequel

If LeBron James is close to making a decision about his basketball future you wouldn’t know it, at least from him.  The speculation and scenarios being drawn are all on the if/come and mostly exist in that odd space where wishful thinking repeated often enough magically turns into fact.
James will make whatever decision he needs to make soon enough.  The basis on which that decision will get made has not changed.  He will play basketball for the team that gives him the absolute best path to continue to win championships.  It really is as simple as that and as complicated, for the team that gives him that mythical best chance is a matter of opinion, not fact.
If there is anything amusing at the moment or perhaps delicious is watching/listening/reading the angst of the Miami Heat fan as they ponder life without James, first, then Dwyane Wade, second, then Chris Bosh a distant third.  It’s as if Heat fan continues to harbor the belief that this so called Big 3, in and of itself, presents the best opportunity for more NBA rings.  That belief was delivered a hard blow of reality in this year’s NBA Finals, but why let the facts get in the way.
Dan Le Betard, writing in Monday’s Miami Herald, had a column that mostly rings true until it doesn’t.  His overarching message is that Heat fans need to relax because rumor isn’t fact and unless and until James speaks, there is nothing to see.  That’s fine as far as it goes.  Unfortunately it goes further as Le Betard then essentially runs down the same rat holes to offer the counter theory that James isn’t going anywhere because, I guess, wishful thinking. 
He says James likes Miami, is a team player, yadda yadda yadda.   This is supposed to give a suddenly anxious Miami fan looking for any good news comfort?  Maybe.  But offering it up is to simply provide counterpoint to the other theories out there and why, for example, James will end up back in Cleveland, nothing more.
Nature abhors a vacuum and so do sports fan.  In the absence of real news, they’ll make it up.  The whole Twitter explosion on Sunday about Dan Gilbert’s plane is just another version of “so and so has his house on the market” or “so and so was in town looking for houses.”
So let’s return to, as that great American statesman and linguist Don Rumsfeld would say, to the known knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns.
James is a mercenary, plain and simple.  He may love Miami.  He may love Akron.  But in truth if this were the mid 1930s and Munich, Germany had a team in the NBA owned by a guy with a funny moustache, James would sign with Mr. Hitler’s group if it presented him with the absolute best path to championships.  Plenty of NBA players took the blood money from serial racist Donald Sterling for years.  James isn’t motivated as much by money because he earns so much off the court.  He’s motivated solely by winning and if that’s with the Munich Stormtroopers James would be the last person to express regret.
James is loyal to this friends and teammates.   That was true in Cleveland and is true in Miami.  It was also be true should he land in still another city.  Remember, kids change schools all the time.  New friends get made.  When you have f-you money, your friends tend to find you anyway.  James didn’t stay in Cleveland out of loyalty to friends and he won’t do it in Miami either unless that loyalty presents him with the absolute best path to championships.
Those are the known knowns.  The known unknowns consist mostly of what James believes provides him the best path to championships.  This will remain unknown until, again to channel Rummy, it’s known and not before.  All of the great and not so great NBA writers with well-placed sources and high minded opinions can speculate all they want about Cleveland’s core of young players and their view of where that puts the team in the league pecking order.  The only analysis that means anything is the one James is currently pondering as he vacations while others simultaneously start and extinguish fires.
The unknown unknowns are the trickiest for it’s theoretically possible that James will alter his thinking and leave his talents in Miami or take them elsewhere based on something other than the absolute best path to championships.  And this is where these kinds of columns tend to fall apart. 
As writers, as speculators, as fans, we crave information.   The less available it is the more we crave it.  In the absence of information we’ll just fill in the blanks ourselves based on nothing more than wishful thinking as to how we want it to turn out or think it ought to turn out.
Truthfully, here anyway, there are no unknown unknowns.  When all is said and done and James has made his decision he’ll say what he’s always said: “I want to win championships and this is the place that gives me the best chance for that.”  If that exact quote or something close enough for government work isn’t said at the time of Decision II, The Sequel, I’ll eat my hat.
There isn’t any real romance to sports.  Things don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to.  The only thing you get is what you actually deserve and even then that’s up for grabs.  You don’t get a hole in one on the golf course just because it’s your birthday and you don’t land the best basketball player on the planet just because you think you got screwed by him 4 years ago.
It would mean a great deal to this town to once again have a viable winter diversion.  When James left he took a piece of everyone with him.  He may have matured in these last 4 years but never confuse maturity with sentimentality.  He won’t come to Cleveland just because he thinks he owes it to this town.  He’ll come if at all because, let’s say it together, it gives him the absolute best path to championships.  We can talk about the potential of Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and whoever else is on the roster when the dust clears. 
The only opinion that has ever mattered in this equation is James’ and if the roster falls short relative to what he sees elsewhere then Cavs fans can again lament their misfortune.  And so that we don’t confuse the issue, the misfortune is not that James didn’t choose Cleveland.  It’s that the Cavs and all their front office changes over the last four years didn’t accomplish nearly enough to make his decision easy for him.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Lingering Items--Branding Edition

The Cleveland Browns’ Johnny Football is the new Johnny Paycheck, having just signed a 4-year $8 million contract with just over $4 million of it guaranteed.  That means we’re about 4 months away from someone, Manziel’s agent for example, looking to redo it on the heels of a couple of completed passes, one of which was for a touchdown.
But on the plus side we’re probably mere weeks, maybe days, away from Johnny Paycheck doing something completely stupid and over the top with his bonus money.  Think Steve Martin’s Navin Johnson character in The Jerk after he became famous, just gaudier.
The last time I visited the status of Cleveland’s premier party boy, Manziel, he was an unsigned gallivant building brand awareness as this generation’s Joe Namath, but with an Instagram account.  In the intervening weeks about the only thing that’s changed, other than a relatively modest rookie contract based on his relatively modest draft status is that his head coach, Mike Pettine, named Brian Hoyer the starting quarterback heading into training camp.

Ok, another thing changed.  Slowly, methodically, the players are aligning behind Hoyer to the exclusion of Manziel, lineman Paul Krueger being one, former Browns’ quarterback Brady Quinn being another. Neither were particularly negative but the first shots across the bow by players who have been there.
Krueger criticized by his constant positive references to Brian Hoyer.  It was telling.  Quinn was more direct, rightly noting that others in the locker room tend to look to the quarterback and how he conducts his business and right now most of Johnny Paycheck’s business is of the drinking, partying and carrying on variety.

Manziel will try the patience of his fellow players, the coaching staff and the fans on a daily basis.  He already is.  Every time a player or Pettine has to respond to a media inquiry about Johnny Paycheck is a minute that Pettine could have spent on almost anything else.  This is a franchise, a coaching staff, a roster that can’t afford any wasted minutes and Manziel has used up any reasonable allocation already.
The arc of these sorts of things is always the same.  An immature kid with too much money pushes the limits of his new found status.  At first it seems reckless but in a fun, vicarious sort of way.  Think Manziel on a floating fake swan, for example.  Over time it goes from amusing to bemusing to vexing as losses mount and interceptions, fumbles and injuries mount.

Eventually there’s a Come-to-Jesus moment where the bad boy, sans eye wink, tries to earnestly convince the fans that he’s reformed his hard partying ways before they got truly out of hand.  Finally there’s the real Come-to-Jesus moment where the career is in jeopardy and rapid maturity is no longer an interesting concept. 

There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that Manziel will follow this rather predictable arc.  He’s well into phase 1 with as he constantly reminds those who ask that he’s young, single and what’s the harm?  There is none until there is some and there will be some.
The only real question is how long it takes to get through this arc with Manziel.  He may think he’s working hard when he’s not otherwise playing hard but the truth has a way of revealing itself either way.  You can’t wing a NFL career.  You either take it seriously or it spits you out prematurely.

Training camp doesn’t open for another 5 weeks.  That means 5 more weeks of Manziel in borderline embarrassing situations and 5 more weeks of wondering whether this guy is hell bent on partying himself out of the league before he ever sees an actual field.
Manziel’s a young guy and should have his fun.  But he’s not a college guy anymore.  He’s taken his talents to the professional level and eventually needs to act that way.  He seems to have modeled himself after the New England Patriot’s Rob Gronkowski.  That hasn’t been working out too well for Gronk these days as he suffers through injuries one season after another. 

It’s a legitimate question and hope that Johnny Paycheck can stay on the field more than Gronkowski.  But the more immediate question is when he’ll see that field in the first place.  Each moment spent prostrate in an inflatable swan is another minute he’s losing ground to Hoyer.
With the NBA draft just over a week away, it remains fascinating, in a dysfunctional Cleveland Browns sort of way, that the Cavs still don’t have a head coach.  For the moment they seem to be following the rubric of the Browns, meaning they are interviewing anyone with a pulse in order to hire someone who wasn’t on anyone’s radar.  Or else they’ll hire a retread.  Dan Gilbert, the Cavs’ owner, has more than sufficiently demonstrated a mercurial almost random streak when it comes to presiding over his investment.

At this point there seems to be no use in hiring a coach before the draft.  Depending on who general manager David Griffin drafts, the potential pool of coaching candidates could greatly increase or shrink precipitously.
There are probably two absolute head shaking aspects to what’s happening to the Cavs.  First, Griffin seemed to be at best a reluctant choice by Gilbert to remain as general manager once Chris Grant was fired.  From that tenuous platform Griffin has parlayed himself into temporarily the most powerful man in the franchise.  With no coach from which to gain input on the draft, the Cavs’ future literally rests on his shoulders.  That’s fine as far as it goes, it’s just that you’d like to think the future would have been entrusted to someone in whom Gilbert had unconditional faith.

Second, if the current model for sustained NBA success is the San Antonio Spurs, the Cavs’ approach couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to it.  The turnover in the front office and coaching staff is the most obvious example but truthfully everything else does flow from that, just as it has with the Browns.

The NBA remains the most difficult sport in which to turn a franchise around.  You need a nucleus as both the Spurs and the Heat demonstrated.  But the difference really is the other 8 or 9 players that fill out the roster.  The Heat lost to the Spurs definitively because most of the roster after the big 3 has simply been cobbled together based mostly on salary and luxury cap considerations.  The Spurs have always been the most methodical team in the league, making sure that every spot had a defined role with a player specifically chosen for that role.
The Cavs right now have a shaky nucleus at best and an almost embarrassing array of players who fit together as precisely as the pieces of 10 separate jigsaw puzzles would if you put them all in one box and shook it.

Never has a franchise been given such gifts by the NBA gods these last several years and while it would be difficult to say that those gifts have been squandered completely it isn’t difficult to say that they’ve been misused.  A team with a more stable ownership and front office would have had a more methodical approach to ensuring that all these gifts were complementary.  Of course if the Cavs had that kind of franchise then they wouldn’t be in this position in the first place.

There’s an interesting legal battle brewing at the most mundane of places in the federal government—the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.  In a move that seems to have caught, certainly, the Washington Redskins and, likely as certainly, NFL headquarters off guard, the Patent Office invalidated the Redskins’ various trademarks as having been improvidently granted in the first place because they perpetuate racism.

That decision will be held in abeyance while the Redskins appeal, but make no mistake that the death knell on the most racist name in sports continues to sound ever louder.
It is honestly difficult to construct a compelling argument to support Dan Snyder’s dogged insistence on keeping the Redskins’ name.  He’s left with arguing tradition and sounds just as silly as those who argue for abolishing gay marriage. 

Times change as do one’s sensibilities.  The Redskins’ name has always been offensive.  What’s changed is the populace’s sensitivities to it and that’s not a bad thing.  Separate water fountains for whites and blacks were once commonplace and accepted aided by a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1896.  Times did change then as did sensibilities and this ultimately was reflected a little more than a half century later when the Supreme Court outlawed it in its seminal Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
The point is that tradition is a flimsy argument because the only real tradition the Redskins name is perpetuating is overt racism.  If/when the Patent and Trademark Office’s ruling is upheld in court, the Redskins will have no choice.  The issue becomes economic and there’s nothing that will change a buffoon like Snyder’s mine more quickly than the lost money from not being able to commercially exploit the name Redskins or, stated differently, watching others do that with no legal recourse.

The more difficult question that’s now getting attention has to do with the Cleveland Indians.  There’s nothing blatantly racist about the name or what that name symbolizes.  A challenge to the Patent and Trademark Office probably wouldn’t be successful if the intent was to rid the team of the trademark “Indians.”
The real issue is the trademark Chief Wahoo, a clownish almost disturbing caricature of an Indian.  The toothy grin, the bright red skin.  Like the name Redskins, the real truth is that American Indians always saw Chief Wahoo as a racist symbol, just as African-Americans saw the Little Black Sambo character as racist.  The only thing that’s changed is that people are starting to better understand what they mean.

To a certain extent the Indians have been de-emphasizing the Chief Wahoo symbol for the last several years and I’m certain that the Patent and Trademark Office’s ruling in the Redskins matter will accelerate this thinking.  If it didn’t, it should.  If the Indians end up in the Patent and Trademark Office with a similar challenge to a patently offensive symbol they’ll get a similar result.
It would be nice to think that the Indians owners would show some leadership and courage on the issue and declare immediately that the Chief Wahoo symbol is now in the past and won’t be used again to market the team.  We all should now call on them to do it.

I don’t think it will happen.  But I do believe the Dolans are more sympathetic to the issue than Dan Snyder is to his issue.  That means fans will see continue to see less and less of Chief Wahoo until the point where he’s disappeared altogether, not officially necessarily but effectively.  Once the team voluntarily takes any economic clout out of the symbol, its use becomes irrelevant.  The only real issue with this approach is that by not definitively eliminating it now, they leave open the possibility of future owners of the team taking a different approach.
Let’s avoid the circus.  Just do the right thing now and move on.  Chief Wahoo, it’s time to report to the front office and bring your playbook.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Johnny Vegas

Johnny Manziel has been a member of the Cleveland Browns, an unsigned member at that, for about 5 minutes.  And yet in that brief period of time he’s managed to illustrate exactly why he was the most complicated, most confounding player to enter the NFL draft in years, maybe ever.
So much of Manziel is wrapped up in myth making, most of which is self-induced.  He’s not the first athlete focused on his brand, he’s just the latest.  But what will continue to make Manziel the source of much agita for Cleveland fans is simply that he’s at best a difficult fit with the region’s sensibilities.  That doesn’t mean he can’t be successful here.  It just means it will be a trying experience.
Cleveland specifically and the Midwest generally have a culture and a view.  It’s often labeled with the term “blue collar” but that term has lost so much of its meaning and resonance.  Still, Clevelanders will tolerate a significant amount of bullshit in the pursuit of a winner but they will not tolerate being mocked for their values.  Hard work and sincerity are as highly valued as results, maybe more so.  Clevelanders to their credit and detriment will suffer earnest losers more easily than arrogant winners.  Whether he wins or loses Manziel, unchanged, will struggle with a fan base that would rather just love him than hate to love him.
You can and many have written unending paragraphs dissecting Manziel’s antics including his recent weekend trip to Las Vegas and his arrogant response to those who question his work ethic.  It is true, certainly, that there is a time for work and a time for play.  That’s as understood as well in Cleveland as anywhere else.  But there is an order to it and right now, Clevelanders are rightfully asking, as did virtually every NFL personnel type in every draft room, whether Manziel understands that proper order.
I don’t think Manziel won over any new fans by acting outraged at the questions being asked about his commitment to his craft.  Lacking perhaps the personal warmth to respond sincerely he did what most immature young adults do these days, he took to Instagram.  He tweeted pictures of his Cleveland Browns iPad and playbook to establish what exactly, that he looked them over on the plane?  That he studied a few plays between Moscow Mules?
Manziel sees himself as unique but that’s part of his naivetĂ©.  There is nothing new under the sun, just a repackaging of all that’s come before him.  It was just a few years ago when Dallas quarterback Tony Romo was jetting off to Mexico with Jessica Simpson during the Cowboys’ playoff bye week.  The timing of the trip was rightly questioned and his critics’ ire fueled when the Cowboys flamed out in the playoffs.  Romo said virtually the same things Manziel is saying now.  He’s young.  He’s entitled to relax.  He can study in Mexico, with Simpson draped on his arm, just as easily as he could in his home in Dallas.  All true, theoretically.  Again, though, time and place.  Sometimes you have to just read the room.
What it came down to with Romo is what it comes down to with Manziel, as it does with any other player.  Is he willing to really put in the work necessary to be an elite in the NFL.  The fact that this was the most significant question about Manziel before the draft, one would think he would have tried to answer it more forcefully than he has thus far. Indeed he seems hell bent on demonstrating what’s true in the movies only, that Seth Rogan comedies can coexist with Darron Aronofsky dramas.
Romo more or less learned from his mistake and thereafter has courted a lower profile.  No coincidentally his work ethic stopped being questioned.  But Romo isn’t even the best example for Manziel to follow.  That would be Tom Brady.
Peter King, in this week’s Monday Morning Quarterback, interviewed Brady.  When the 2014 season opens, Brady will be 37 years old.  To a great extent he has nothing more to prove as a quarterback.  He’s already a prominent player in the conversation of greatest NFL quarterback of all time.  He also is married to someone who is a prominent player in the conversation of the world’s most beautiful women.  He attends his fair share of celebrity events in service of his wife.
What Brady knows and what Manziel still has time to learn is balance.  Brady spends most of his offseason working to improve as a quarterback and ensuring that he’ll be able to withstand the rigors of a NFL season. 
The money quote from Brady:  I’m not here to be king of the weight room. I do things to make me a better quarterback, whatever they are. Does it work? You be the one to judge. Watch me play. Then draw your own conclusions.”
That’s the point, isn’t it?  Manziel is young and gifted but with a huge learning curve ahead of him.  Will he be willing to do the things to make himself a better quarterback? The results will speak for themselves with others able to draw their own conclusions.
The other thing that struck about Brady’s interview was the passion that burns within, even at this age, to keep working.  Brady said that it’s his love for the game that motivates him to get up at 5 a.m. on a random Thursday in May to work out.  But it’s more.  He also said that he still works on his throwing mechanics with his coach because he was the 199th pick in the draft for a reason and thus he has to be sure he is as efficient as possible with his mechanics.
Jack Nickaus, in his Golf My Way book and in countless interviews over the years, talked about his routine entering each golf season.  He said he starts at the beginning by working on his grip, his stance and his alignment.  Even with all the success he had on the golf course he knew that little inefficiencies creep into your game from time to time and if unchecked compound.
Ben Hogan, who fought a persistent hook, would spend hours upon hours hitting golf balls trying to perfect his swing and his ball flight.  He had a saying, “the secret is in the dirt.”  In other words, the only way to get better is to work at getting better.
Truthfully, we don’t know much about Johnny Football’s work ethic but there are some bright red flags at the moment.  Manziel is constantly defending his commitment to football because most of what the average person now knows about him is from outlets such as TMZ instead of Sports Illustrated.  His moves off the field, the pictures he takes, the way he’s portrayed are very calculated.  He’s good time Johnny and he wants you to know there’s nothing wrong with it.  Until he plays and produces or fails, that’s all we’ll really know.
This will all work itself out eventually.  Browns fans would like to think the team drafted the next Brady or the next Peyton Manning but that’s neither Manziel’s wont nor his temperament at the moment.  A big part of it is simply that Manziel doesn’t yet know what he doesn’t know.  He’s never been through a NFL season.  Indeed he’s never been just another player in a league full of established stars.  The NFL comes easy to no one but Manziel will hardly be the first or last player to think otherwise.
The secret is in the dirt and the classroom and wherever else the likes of Brady, Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and the league’s other elite quarterbacks find it.  Manziel will either find it in the same way or he won’t and the truth will eventually be revealed.  He can’t scramble his way to competence but he can scramble his way to irrelevance.  And if that’s the road he ends up traveling because brand cultivation and management become his priorities, then what he’ll find is that all that was for naught.  If there’s anything that TMZ or the bikini clad princesses of Vegas care less about than a has been quarterback is a never was quarterback.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of it All, Again--Dan Gilbert Edition

Dan Gilbert is clever, you have to give him that.  Early in his career as the owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers he came across as the prototypical meddling owner who had made money in one line of business and figured that genius translated into the world of sports.  To fans, Gilbert was a huge red flag, a combination of Dan Snyder and Jerry Jones. 

At some point Gilbert became sensitive or at least aware of the impression that was developing. He toned down the act, seemingly turning his attention away from the Cavs and more toward becoming the Moe Green of the Midwest.  Turns out, that perception was the deceiving one. 

Behind the more stealth look that Gilbert crafted beats the heart of an owner whose goals are simply amorphous platitudes about winning and excellence that cannot be achieved because he lacks the temperament to reach them. 

In his 9 years as owner of the Cavs, Gilbert has had 3 general managers and four head coaches.  Let that roll around the inside of your head for a moment.  Three general managers and four head coaches in 9 years. 

That’s almost the exact trajectory of the Cleveland Browns, easily the worst run sports franchise in the last 20 years.  Gilbert’s lay low approach of the last few years belies an impetuousness and an incompetency that rivals that of Randy Lerner.  The reason it gets less attention is that the Cavs are and always will be third in the hearts and minds of Cleveland sports fans.  Most simply don’t care. 

When you’re running a private business with no outside shareholders, the public results are harder to discern.  For all anyone knows or cares, Gilbert chews through vice presidents at Quicken Loans at the same rate he chews through executives and coaches at the Cavs.  That doesn’t matter.  What does is that the Cavs’ business is in the public eye and at the nearly 10-year mark of Gilbert’s ownership, the picture isn’t pretty.   

Gilbert has shown no greater competence than the Gund brothers before him. The Cavs under Gilbert have been transcendent only when they had a transcendent player that fell into his lap.  When the planets realigned, the franchise became decidedly non-transcendent, again.  Gilbert isn’t just the figurehead on which to level the blame.  He’s the perpetrator and instigator of a highly dysfunctional and withering franchise that is still years away, at best, from being any sort of contender and then only if something dramatic happens at the top. 

Undoubtedly Gilbert would like the team to be a success.  It would certainly help bring in more people to his downtown casino during the winter months if the Cavs were contenders and Quicken Loans arena was sold out 41 times during the cold Cleveland winter.  But the Cavs aren’t successful under Gilbert, except around the fringes.  Gilbert, the only one in the franchise with actual power to wield, is the only consistent piece remaining in place these last nearly 10 years.  It’s easy to see where the buck stops and the blame lies.   

The NBA is, without question, the hardest league in which to construct a champion.  That may seem counterintuitive given the relatively small rosters when compared to baseball and football, but the numbers don’t lie.  When a team is down it stays down for years.  A shallow pool of new, NBA-ready talent each year and a salary cap riddled with exceptions are the primary reasons. 

As a result, the league at any given time has essentially 3 groups of teams.  The top group is the very small handful of teams with enough talent to actually threaten for a championship.  Teams in this group feature at least one super duper star and enough almost super duper stars to give them the depth to survive the grind that is the NBA playoffs.  The Miami Heat and the San Antonio Spurs are two obvious examples.

The middle group is the larger group of playoff teams looking to get into the top group.  The group has its own hierarchy.  There are the teams that just squeak into the playoffs, usually with losing records, which is the equivalent of NBA purgatory because it’s very difficult for those teams to improve without outside help.  The draft is a non-event for them so they improve, if at all, somewhat organically but mostly by prying free agents away from other teams. Then there are the teams on the higher end of this group that seem on the precipice of getting into the top group.  Think Oklahoma City, maybe Indiana.  Some make it, some regress.  Much depends on organic growth or the pick up of a missing piece here or there.   Either way it’s still a slog. 

The bottom group are, naturally, the bottom feeders.  When a team enters this group it is a minimum of 10 years before it can even get to the upper level of the middle group, let alone membership in the top group.  You can look at virtually every former playoff team in recent history that thereafter entered this group.  It is 10 years before they get back into the playoffs. 

The Cavs, for a brief period, were a top group team because they had the league’s best player.  But for a variety of reasons, some having to do with LeBron James’ psychological profile and some having to do with Gilbert’s, the Cavs couldn’t hold on to James.  In retrospect, they weren’t really even in the conversation.  Once James left the Cavs dropped to a bottom feeding team and there they remain.  While James is pushing the Heat to a third straight NBA title, the Cavs can’t even seem to work their way up to membership in the middle group.  Gilbert’s meddling is the primary reason. 

It’s actually quite fascinating that Gilbert can’t seem to learn from the bad examples in front of him all the evils that visit a franchise when it constantly reboots.  The Browns’ are a mere few miles away and dominate the local papers and talk radio stations.  Gilbert must be in some serious denial about his own track record to think he’s not that kind of owner even as he goes about his business every day proving that he is. 

Here’s the dangerous game in all of this.  You can make a case, perhaps even a compelling case, for each of the moves that Gilbert has made in his 9 years.  It might have been a mistake, as Gilbert said last year, to fire Mike Brown the first time, but it also was an obvious mistake to hire him the second time.  The two concepts can coexist.  But that is seeing the trees and ignoring the forest.  Gilbert’s track record, irrespective of how compiled, is that of a meddling owner who can’t be satisfied. Why would a gifted free agent, let alone James, ever want to get involved in this mess?  The same goes for a gifted coach. 

So much of what’s been happening is that Gilbert can’t land on a general manager he trusts long enough to let a direction, any direction, of the club take hold.  It is exactly why the Browns are the mess they are.  Gilbert, like Jimmy Haslam now and Lerner before that, falls in and out of love quickly with his management hires, but not quickly enough to avoid the damage done.  Gilbert wants to win but deep pockets and force of will aren’t enough.  It takes temperament and discipline and at least in this business venture Gilbert falls short. 

Anyone who watched the jumble that was the Cavs last season completely understands why the season ended as it did.  That jumble was the most visible manifestation of all the dysfunction, impatience and impetuousness of the ownership and management team.  A new, permanent general manager and a coach of his own choosing could help on the margins.  But real, permanent change for the better isn’t going to be achieved until everyone in this franchise can stop looking over their shoulders in fear at what Gilbert might do next.