Monday, August 29, 2016

What Sky? What Falling?

If Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson doesn’t think that the sky is falling in after Friday night’s preseason debacle against the Tampa Bay Bucaneers it’s only because he knows the sky fell in long before he got here.  Indeed, if you’re a big picture person you could say the sky collapsed the very first game of the Browns 2.0 reboot, a 43-0 loss to Pittsburgh, and the ensuing 17 years have been about trying to find a way to prop it back up.

Don’t look for Jackson and the latest excavation crew he’s leading to add many support beams this season.  Either the Browns are the least talented team I’ve ever seen or the least prepared.  It doesn’t matter, really, just as it doesn’t matter if it’s really a combination of both.  This is a team that went 3-13 in 1999, went 3-13 last season, and will struggle to get to that record this season.  This version of the Browns, as woeful as any in franchise history, will not be favored in any game this season, of course.  But perusing their schedule I can’t find a game where they’re likely to be less than a 7-point underdog.  I’m sure that’s happened in the NFL at some other point, probably this same franchise in 1999.

What’s most intriguing though is that despite this franchise consistently offering its fans zero reasons to remain invested in their fortunes, interest is far higher in the Browns right now that the Indians who enter the last month of the season with a 4 ½ game lead in their division.  Not that local sports talk radio is any sort of accurate barometer, but Browns fans and questions seem to run at least 2-1 vs. Indians fans and questions.  Attendance on the other hand is a more accurate barometer and the Browns outdrew the Indians and it had nothing to do with the larger capacity at FirstEnergy Stadium.
But this isn’t a screed about misplaced fan priorities.  It’s not even a screed of any sort.  It’s just the resignation that once again the fans with all their misplaced priorities are going to be misused, abused and told that despite what their eyes can see this is a team with a future.

At some point this might actually be a team with a future.  But that future can’t ever arrive if the team doesn’t ever draft one.  This preseason has been about purging the team of the previous regime’s awful draft choices, creating openings for this regime’s shaky draft choices.  And while it is well too early to judge whether Corey Coleman or any of the 13 others drafted will be able to meaningfully contribute not just this season but ever, the trend is clear making the chances slim.

But because almost every draft pick from a previous regime has been sent packing, along with most of their free agent signings, this is a team that lacks not just depth but any semblance of depth.  After Joe Haden and Joe Thomas and Josh Gordon if or when he actually can suit up in a regular season game, you’d be hard pressed to find a player on this team who would start on any other team in the league.  What that says about how this team’s been run is plenty, but the larger point for now is that the overwhelming majority of this team’s starters would be back ups elsewhere.  Backing up the Browns’ starters, then, are players that might not even be in the league.

Without any depth anywhere, the team is doomed before it takes the field.  Injuries will take their toll, as they do on every team.  The next person up for the Browns is most likely a person who’d be scrounging for work in the Arena League.

Jackson is a good coach and thus far his attitude is appropriate.  He knows exactly what a shit storm he walked into and seems realistic enough to lower the expectations of not just the fans but the players remaining.  In some sense this entire season will play out like an extended preseason schedule.  Players will rotate in and out.  Combinations will be tried.  Some things will work, most won’t.  But when the season’s done if there has been measurable growth, if more than a handful of this year’s draft choices remain and are contributing, then from Jackson’s standpoint he’ll likely label the season a success even if there aren’t any wins to celebrate.

The problem from the fans’ standpoint, at least those willing to buy tickets, is that they’re being asked to invest full price to witness the continuing sins of bad ownership and lousy front offices.  From their perspective they, too, may see some measurable growth but what will remain abundantly clear is that even at that trajectory the Browns remain several years away from being truly competitive, and that’s assuming that this regime, top to bottom, bucks history and stays intact for more than a season or two.  Who wants to take that bet at even odds?

Jackson said after Friday’s game that he wasn’t overwhelmed by the task in front of him even after witnessing his untalented and ill prepared team fail in every possible way.  Who knows whether he’s even being truthful with himself.  What we do know is that the enormity of the task has swallowed up every owner, general manager and head coach who’s come before him in the last 16 years.  What will really be worth watching then is Jackson’s body language as the season wears on and especially after the inevitable beat down at the hands of the Steelers in game 16.  If Jackson can keep that spring in his step, then he will be a coach worth watching, at least until the front office fails him in next year’s draft.

So what we’re all really left with once again is a team that will not just be hard to watch, but almost impossible, particularly in the second half of most early games and both halves of the latter part of the season.  We’re also left once again scraping for any hope or even glimmer of hope, a long TD pass from Robert Griffin III to Corey Coleman, a breakout season for Terrelle Pryor, another Joe Thomas Pro Bowl, so that at some point all this time, money and passion will be rewarded.  That’s not the best way to start off the Monday leading into the last preseason game, but it’s really all Browns fans have, again.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Free Agent Follies--Browns Town Edition

   So ESPN’s Adam Schefter is mocking the Cleveland Browns because they lost four players almost as soon as the bell rung to start the free agent season?  

Welcome to the party, Adam.  Just know you’re a late arrival and all the good slams have long since been taken.

That the Browns lost 4 players to free agency doesn’t much qualify as news let alone as an indictment of the worst franchise in football and likely in all of professional sports.  The Browns already have so many indictments hanging over their heads that adding one to the mix doesn’t even move the needle, not even a little, not even at all.

For this to even be a concern someone, including Schefter, would have to tell me why losing any four players on this team could possibly be impactful to the Browns.  With these players the team has kept its yearly win average at around 4, an average that’s been as rock solid as anything can be when it comes to sports.  Are fans worried this team will actually take a step back?  I’ve got news for Schefter and the others who agree with him.  There are no steps back to take.  The Browns are at the very bottom, whether judged by culture or results.  There’s no place to which to sink and the loss of any 4 players isn’t going to change that one iota.

I guess the best argument one could must is that these four—Alex Mack, Mitchell Swartz, Travis Benjamin, Tashaun Gipson—are in some sense building blocks, players good enough to help the team take a meaningful step forward when surrounded by similar blocks.  A couple have been to the Pro Bowl, a couple are still relatively young.  All true, but so what?

Losing them does create new holes at a time when the latest regime is busy trying to plug the gaping ones that already existed nearly everywhere else on the team.  Nothing new in that, and besides, what’s a few more holes anyway?  Even with the latest escapees this team wasn’t going to be significantly, and perhaps not even modestly, better next year anyway.

Let’s try just once not to get overly involved in that grand Cleveland tradition of overvaluing the players on our perennially losing team.  At the price they played for last year the team was still awful.  It’s hard to imagine how giving them even more money will suddenly make the team better.

No one, including the teams these four signed with, are building teams around any of these free agents.  They’re nice haves, not have to haves.  Eating up cap space by overpaying your own free agents when there are probably cheaper alternatives with similar production is a better way to build a team in the long run anyway.  It’s just that in Cleveland fans have been so beaten down by institutional incompetence that they knee jerk their way to thinking that this team can’t sustain the loss of Mitchell Schwartz. Or Tashaun Gipson. Or Travis Benjamin. Or Alex Mack. 
Meanwhile had this happened in, say, New England, no one would be questioning Bill Belicheck’s wisdom.  And for what it’s worth, it’s pretty telling that none of these four signed with New England, to use but one example.

I’m still waiting for the argument that the Browns need to overpay average talent in order to prove themselves to their fans.  This organization needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up and if every player who donned a Browns uniform had been cut, I wouldn’t argue against that either.  At some point this team will get the total scrub down it really deserves and that doesn’t happen by holding on to the few flickers of talent it had, particularly at inflated prices.

It’s not that these aren’t nice players, but the league is filled with nice players.  Among the list of stupid things this franchise has done in the last 5 years alone, this doesn’t even make the top 20.
What’s of more interest is that the new regime absolutely added to the team and its culture through the subtraction of Johnny Manziel from this franchise.  Plenty of words have been written about this train wreck and I’ve written many of those myself commencing with the decision to draft him.  But never has a player in the history so deserved the fate that’s befallen him.

I have some empathy for Manziel because he’s an addict.  His ability to think often isn’t rational.  He got help last year and ultimately it wasn’t successful.  That’s not unusual.  Many addicts need multiple stints in rehab.  At this point though Manziel is his own worst enemy as he remains in complete denial about his problems, even as he spins further and further out of control.

To blame the Browns for not dumping Manziel as soon as the new league season started is odd.  At least they dumped him.  Professional sports, like most businesses, operates on the greater fool theory.  No matter how dumb a deal you’ve done there’s often a greater fool out there willing to bail you out of your problems.  When it came to Manziel, the Browns had to at least see if there was a greater fool willing to part with a draft choice, even one loaded with conditions.  That wasn’t to be.  Now they await to see if there’s a greater fool wiling to at least claim Manziel off waivers in order to get some cap relief on all the money they owe him.  That isn’t likely to be, either and Manziel will be left to scramble for a foolish team to take a chance on a player to this point who’s been poison.  That will happen.  Teams are always looking to catch lightning in a bottle, even if it’s a bottle of champagne being wielded by Manziel as he floats through a nightclub lagoon on a plastic swan.

Ultimately, real, sustainable improvement for the Browns is years away and that’s assuming the latest group of geniuses running the franchise can actually live up to that description.  That improvement is not going to come by over emphasizing the marginal value of newly expensive players, none of whom would be nearly as productive as they are right now by the time this team is really ready to compete.  And likewise it won’t happen by holding on to sociopaths like Manziel.  The Browns were neither good nor bad this past week.  In Cleveland that actually counts as improvement. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Why Worry?!

The Cleveland Browns have their fan worried, again.  Maybe the right word isn’t “again” but “still.”  And for once it’s not about the head coach or even the quarterback they still don’t have.  It’s about analytics.

Despite about every possible reason why they couldn’t do it, the Browns did go ahead and hire a credible head coach in Hue Jackson.  But the rejiggering of the front office in a way that doesn’t otherwise exist in the NFL is an understandable cause for concern.  Of the three people most responsible for setting next year’s roster, two of them have absolutely no experience at any level, CYO, middle school, high school, college, semi-pro, pro, flag, evaluating talent.  The other is 28 years old.  In a fit of inspiration, an algorithm will be the chief evaluator.  It can’t be worse.

I’m a proponent of analytics.  You should be, too.  It’s transformed baseball in a way that in large measure has dulled the impact of simply having the fattest wallet.  And while analytics will certainly improve decision making, the human element can’t be eliminated entirely, particularly in making player evaluations.

At the professional level, many talent decisions make themselves.  Anybody, including the person who sees one NBA game every decade can draft LeBron James first.  Where the far more difficult decisions came is in filling out roster behind him. The talent difference between players is often razor thin with the stats giving no clear winner.

The other thing, of course, is that analytic-driven decisions often seem to defy logic or at least conventional wisdom, which also makes people worry.  Look at what just happened with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The firing of head coach David Blatt was driven in large part by analytics.  What worried Griffin was the statistic he quoted, that since 2000-01 season there have been 50 teams that have finished with a winning percentage of at least .700 but only 8 of those teams have won championships.  He feared the Cavs were once again on the same path, based on what he was seeing in the team’s advanced stats and what he was observing in the locker room.  As Griffin said, it seemed to be the least engaged winning team he’d ever been around.

That may very well be true and that’s the human element to all this.  As good as the Cavs are and have been, the losses to both San Antonio and particularly to the Golden State Warriors, while just two of the 82 regular season games the team will play, told you two things.  The first was that the Cavs still aren’t completely meshing.  The second, quite related and even more telling was that the Spurs and the Warriors have an “it” factor the Cavs do not.  There is something inherent in all great teams that just doesn’t lie.  Even when the sum of all parts is great, the great teams are still more than the sum of all those parts.  You saw it with the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes and you see it now with the Warriors.  Call it chemistry or black magic.  What matters most in team sports is still the team concept and to Griffin’s eyes and stat sheet at least, the Cavs didn’t have it and weren’t getting it under Blatt.

The Cavs are all-in on analytics.  Now, too, are the Browns.  The difference of course is that the Cavs have the greatest player on the planet.  The Browns don’t have someone in the top 100 of the best players in the planet, maybe the top 200.  They need more than a good algorithm.  To paraphrase Roy Scheider’s Martin Brody, they’re gonna need a bigger computer.

And if analytics in the hands of really smart people with no football experience wasn’t enough to spook Browns fans, then owner Jimmy Haslam’s most recent comments about estranged quarterback Johnny Manziel should make them petrified because it defies all logic and analytics.

Manziel has mostly been AWOL from the Browns since before the last game of the season.  His bizarre trip to Las Vegas as his earnest but overmatched teammates played out the string, his brief visit to the facility afterward and then his party tour in Texas has been well documented.  So, too, has the fact that Manziel hasn’t reached out to his new head coach nor has the new head coach reached out to Manziel.

Yet at this week’s Senior Bowl Haslam talked as though the relationship with Manziel has simply hit a rough patch in the same way a marriage hits a rough patch, as if divorce is possible but reconciliation more likely.   Well, that rough patch just got rougher.  Manziel is again under investigation for domestic violence and irrespective of what the official police report ultimately concludes I suspect the NFL is going to take this one more seriously than the last time he got into a public argument with a girlfriend.

Mostly I attribute the talk to Haslam’s ill-conceived attempt to build value in a player where there is none as a prelude to some sort of trade.  But on the off chance that Haslam is serious that kind of thinking would qualify him as the biggest lunkhead to occupy an owner’s box since Ted Stepien.  Manziel is a person with a smattering of NFL skills who lacks both the maturity and the temperament to ever be anything more than a guy who used to be somebody in college.  And that’s giving him the benefit of the doubt.  More likely he’s an addict deep within the grips of drugs and booze for whom his first stint in rehab had no lasting impact. You don’t continue to have the kind of incidents that surround Manziel without drugs and/or alcohol being at the center
It doesn’t matter, at least to most fans.  The Browns aren’t running a social services agency.  The team has invested significant money and resources in Manziel and all it’s received in return is the attendant league-wide embarrassment that comes with having made such an awful choice in drafting him in the first place.  There is no set of circumstances, not one, where Manziel returning to the Browns for another disastrous season makes a lick of sense to anyone.  Stated differently, if Haslam is serious and ends up hanging on to Manziel it will be at the expense of undoing whatever good will Haslam’s cultivated this offseason.

That’s what has me most worried about the Browns’ new structure.  It’s not that there’s anything theoretically wrong with it.  It’s that the person making the key judgments in putting it together, Haslam, is the same guy who has botched every other decision he’s made up to this point regarding the fans.

Cleveland fans will always worry.  It’s a comfortable space.  They’ve known no real prosperity and when fleeting victories come they are just often preludes to bigger letdowns.  This franchise is finally trying something different for which there is no downside.  Having escaped the vicious cycle of their previous insanity, however, doesn’t put them on the right road.  It just puts them on a different road.  Where it leads is anyone’s guess but at least they’ll have a bunch of algorithms to explain why they got lost this time.

Monday, January 04, 2016

The Stopped Clock

Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is the ultimate stopped clock.  He’s right twice a day or at least for one day, which happened to be this past Sunday.
Haslam was right about firing head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer.  He also was right about organizational structure.  It doesn’t matter if you have the right people all moving in the same direction.  Whether he’s right about much else remains, as usual, the dark cloud hanging over his franchise.

But like a broken clock, Haslam has gotten little else right in his two plus seasons as an owner.  He’s trusted the wrong people, made the wrong assessments.  He expresses supreme confidence in everyone he hires and abandons them quickly when people question his own competence.  He stands in the fire with his charges but only until it starts to get a little hot.  In short and of his own making, Haslam’s franchise is a mess, the biggest mess really in North American professional sports. 

But let’s suspend for the moment the need to pile on all his shortcomings and take a slightly longer view.  In that sense, there is a slight glimmer anyway that perhaps Haslam may ultimately be building a redemption story.  I said slight glimmer.  Don’t turn the pitchforks at me.

Focusing on the things he got right on Sunday night Pettine and Farmer were disasters of the first order.  Pettine was an odd hiring in the first place.  No one in the league thought he was ready to be a head coach, which is why he was not on anyone’s radar screen when Haslam suddenly promoted him from Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator to Cleveland Browns head coach.  Pettine wasn’t even a compromise hire.  He was a last resort hire.  All he did then over the course of two seasons is look stoic and act inexperienced. Haslam got in kind exactly what he hired.

Pettine’s teams may not have ever completely quit on him but neither did they go out of their way to make him look good, either.  Their record isn’t just a reflection on the dearth of talent.  It’s also a reflection on the lack of basic fundamentals and discipline a professional team needs to be competitive.  The Browns couldn’t steal few wins because they were often undone by the kinds of mistakes that plague players and teams without a sense of purpose.  Pettine never instilled any sense of purpose.  I’m not sure he had one himself.

Farmer was just an egocentric jerk with neither the pedigree nor the resume to justify his outsized sense of entitlement.  It wasn’t just that every decision he made turned out poorly.  It was far more that his process for making decisions was so flawed that the results were inevitable.  His arrogance masked a laziness that ultimately will have a far more damaging impact on the franchise then Pettine’s two years could ever have.  Farmer made poor draft decisions because he wouldn’t put the hard work into really determining the kind of players he was drafting.  It would be easy to go chapter and verse on Farmer but suffice it to say that the fact that the Browns’ secondary had virtually no starters and backups available on Sunday and yet Justin Gilbert could not get on the field.  Yes, Gilbert is that bad and the person that picked him is worse.

So again, cutting loose the two people that lost 18 of their last 21 games, the two people that couldn’t mount a running a game or a defense, seems like any easy decision.  Indeed it’s the kind of decisions that makes itself but give Haslam credit at least for not missing the layup.

What concerns fans right now is what else Haslam had to say at the press conference.  Haslam restructured his front office once again, putting the football operations under Sashi Brown but having the new head coach, whoever that may be, report directly to the owner.

It’s a bit of an odd structure, to be sure, but Haslam’s not wrong when he said that structure matters less than people.  Org structures are the kinds of things insecure people cling to in times of stress.  It’s a way to assert authority when respect hasn’t been otherwise rightfully earned.  The Browns’ prior structure is exactly what Farmer asserted as a way of pushing his own agenda instead of finding a way to work more closely with Pettine.

In some ways, the structure Haslam has now established is similar to what many baseball teams are going toward.  In Toronto, for example, Mark Shapiro was hired to run the baseball operations where he’ll have final say over the roster.  It was the reason that Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos left the team after Shapiro was hired.  As general manager pre-Shapiro, Anthepoulos wasn’t just acquiring talent, he had final say over the roster.  Post-Shapiro, Anthepolous had to yield final say on the roster.  In other words, he kept his title but otherwise have suffered a demotion.  He quit instead.

For the Browns, Sashi Brown will serve in the Shapiro role, at least when it comes to forming the roster.  The difference is that the head coach will not report to Brown.  He’ll report directly to Haslam, which is what Bill Belichick has in New England.  Haslam wants to model successful organizations, certainly, but having the new head coach report to him is a concession, really, to what would have otherwise been an entirely intolerable situation for any head coaching candidate of any substance, reporting to someone with literally no experience running the football operations of any team at any level.  With the head coach reporting to Haslam, that coach will have a bigger say in the organization, maybe a bigger say than most rookie coaches deserve, and a direct pipeline to the owner should he need to mediate the inevitable disputes that will arise.

That’s why hiring a head coach first is of no real consequence this time around.  He won’t report to the general manager anyway so it is not the same situation as when Randy Lerner let Eric Mangini hire his own boss.  If the general manager is in charge of talent acquisition and not the entire football operations, it actually makes a modicum of sense to have the head coach assist in his hiring.  It has to be a good fit, philosophically and culturally.

In short, others may have a problem with this structure, I don’t.  Where I do have a problem is trusting its execution to Haslam.  Brown may very well be an undiscovered talent, but why is it that the Browns are the ones that have to always do the experimenting?  Maybe that’s the outcome of a bankrupt franchise, but it needn’t be. No matter how bad things are in Cleveland, there's still only 32 NFL jobs and far more applicants than openings. This is a franchise deeply in trouble and it’s probably the exact wrong time to be taking a flyer on someone without a track record of any kind.  And what is it about Haslam that gives anyone any confidence that his assessment of Brown is correct?  Haslam hasn’t made an assessment on the football side of his business that was even in the same zip code as correct.  But Haslam did, once again, express his supreme confidence in Brown, just like he did in Farmer.  So there is that.

You also have to be just as nervous that Haslam has put himself front and center of the search committee for the new head coach.  The structure he created leaves him no other choice.  At some point you'd like to think Haslam has enough self awareness to question his own ability to get this decision right.  But self awareness is in short supply in Berea.  It's how things end up this way. Too bad the Browns aren’t a publicly traded stock.  The smart money would be shorting it all day long.

The Browns imploding and rebooting every two years used to be as predictable as the swallows returning to Capistrano every February.  But then a funny thing happened.  Some of the locals there, in their quest to improve the experience, created an inhospitable environment for the swallows and they stopped returning.  Now they're scrambling to get them back in much the same way as Haslam will have to scramble to reclaim the fans he's lost every time he's tried to improve the experience.  He's on the verge of improving it out of existence.

Every NFL owner has a built in constituency willing to suffer any level of abuse but it would be folly for Haslam to conclude that his actions and those of his predecessors haven’t done significant and in some cases irreversible damage.  Since the Browns left, an entire generation of fans have been lost, not having known anything close to resembling a competent, let alone a winning franchise.  The previous generations have been completely alienated.  Haslam can talk about working hard to get things right but all the fans keep getting are the toxic fumes of another tire fire being set by a franchise with a seemingly unending supply  of waste materials and no shortage of fuel or matches.  What doesn’t kill you may make you stronger but it doesn’t make you more engaged.  Haslam’s short tenure has continued the most disturbing trend of all.  In droves, what fans that remain have replaced their passion with their indifference, whether its about the results on the field or the latest travails of Johnny Disaster.  And that’s the worst indictment of all.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Bottomless Pit

I’ve been writing about the Cleveland Browns on this little blog and elsewhere for 9 years, 9 miserable friggin’ years.  To understand the misery, the pride swallowing siege that it’s been, when I started the Browns had already been back from NFL-mandated purgatory for 7 years.  In those first 7 seasons of Browns 2.0, the team had one winning record and one playoff appearance.  Both came under the weird tenure of Butch Davis.  In retrospect, those were the good time.
During those first 7 years, there were only two head coaches for the Browns and two owner.  In context, that’s not too shabby, the key word being context.
Since then, the Browns have been in a free fall without end.  Alcoholics and drug addicts hit rock bottom.  The Browns never do.  There is no bottom, rock or otherwise.  When you think the franchise can’t get worse, it does, spectacularly so in fact.  The Browns haven’t been content being the worst franchise in pro football.  They’ve taken it to the next level, which is the worst franchise in North American sports.  Only a lack of knowledge on the intricacies of the various European soccer leagues and southern hemisphere winter baseball prevents me from saying it’s the worst franchise in the entire world.  I do suspect that’s true, however and if it’s not they are in the top 3.
In the last 9 years the Browns have had 6 head coaches, 10 offensive coordinators, 11 different quarterbacks (but far more that have actually started a game) and a third owner. The team has had a losing record, a deeply losing record, in all but one year.  In a 16 game season, the Browns typically win about 25% of their games, which translates to about 4 or 5 a year.  They won 10 games once.  As befits everything else about this team, naturally a 10-win season it wasn’t good enough to make the playoffs even though in almost any other season it would probably get them a bye.  When it comes to the Browns, nothing is ever good enough or even close to good enough or even in the same stratosphere of good enough.
My point here is to not recount a history you already understand.  It’s to let you know that I know what you know and to let you know that when I say that despite how bad the last 9 years have been, this season is truly the worst in every measurable and emotional way, it’s not hyperbole, just fact.
I can’t tell if Jimmy Haslam is the worst owner ever, the dumbest owner ever or just the most na├»ve owner ever.  But he is something and at this point the label doesn’t matter.  He’s overseeing such a spectacularly inept enterprise that he bares just as much responsibility for the mess as the two fools who came before him, Al and Randy Lerner, separately or together, it doesn’t matter.
We live in an era of instant gratification, maybe we always have.  As fans we see incompetence and we demand that heads roll because we want the satisfaction of knowing that somebody who has so violated our trust, our patience and our loyalty hasn’t just been taken out to the woodshed and spanked, hard.  We want to know that those responsible are forever extricated from our lives, never to be seen or heard from again, except on the sidelines of our worst enemies, like Michigan.  It’s the only way we get closure, the only way we get a measure of accomplishment from a leisure pursuit that has been tortuous to us.
In that vein, it’s rather remarkable that Haslam continues to hold on to anyone in his front office, even with but a few weeks remaining.  Head coach Mike Pettine is earnest in approach but overwhelmed by the task in front of him. Every week in every way imaginable he puts it all on display.  The team never seems to have any sort of game plan on either offense or defense.  Pettine never offers an adjustment to the circumstances in front of him.  His teams are undisciplined and lack focus.  He can’t even manage the clock or figure out when to call a time out.  He’s not instilled any sense of culture or ownership within the players he controls.  They play a lifeless brand of scattered football, emotionless and generic.  In every way possible or imaginable, the team reflects the stoic incompetence of the man in charge each Sunday.
Now some argue that Pettine can only do so much with what Ray Farmer, the general manager gives him.  True enough.  It’s hard to have a game plan on either side of the ball when you know before the first scheme crosses your mind you don’t have the players that could execute it with any sort of precision, let alone competence, let alone consistency  Pettine is hamstrung in ways that are hard to fathom, no doubt.
Yet the truly gifted coaches still find a way to make occasional chicken salad out of the chicken shit they’ve been handed and maybe that’s the best you can say about last Sunday’s victory over a team and franchise in just as bad shape, the San Francisco 49ers.  But ask yourself this:  can you name one instance where Pettine demonstrated in any measurable way an ability to overcome his circumstances?  You can’t because there isn’t one.  Here’s another way to think about it.  If the Browns were to play New England this weekend and the NFL required that Pettine and Bill Belichick switch jobs that week, by the game on Sunday the Belichick-coached Browns would be favored over the Pettine-coached Patriots, mainly because Pettine would find a way to take the ball out of Tom Brady’s hands.
Pettine doesn’t need to be Belichick to be successful.  But he needs to be better than he is.  Two years, in this context, is enough time to conclude that for whatever value stability has its pursuit in this case would just be another fool’s errand.  If Pettine remains it just delays the ability to try once again to stem the depth of its constant fall.
Now the other side of that coin is that Pettine is the devil you know.  His abilities clearly match those of the talentless boobs that surround him.  And if he leaves, do you really trust Haslam with the next selection?  That is the crux of the matter, isn’t it?  Whatever else you think of Haslam he’s more than proven to be an incredibly inept decision maker.
As for Farmer, he’s actually more incompetent than Pettine and the comparison isn’t hardly even fair.  If Pettine is measured only in the context of the idiots that surround him in Berea then of course he should keep his job.  But that is hardly the measure stick.  Simply because Farmer is the worst general manager in the history of general managers isn’t the way to judge Pettine.  It’s the way to judge Farmer.  Fire Farmer now.  The team showed that it could live without him for 4 games.  Hell, one of their three wins came when Farmer was on suspension and another win came the week he returned, meaning he didn’t have time to muck up anything.  Since he’s really been back the team has won only once. It’s not a coincidence.
I’ve already detailed chapter and verse in the past as to what makes Farmer so bad at his job.  He’s blown every first round pick he’s been given.  He’s signed no meaningful free agents but did squander valuable cash and cap space on Dwayne Bowe, the worst free agent acquisition since Andre Rison.  Actually that’s unfair to Rison.  In his one year in Cleveland Rison played in all 16 games and had 47 receptions. His production didn’t match what the team paid and they acquired him when they had no money to pay him.  But he did produce, relatively speaking. Bowe is so bad on a team with but one legitimate receiver and still can’t crack the game day roster, let alone the starting roster.  There’s been almost zero production.  If you really think about it, Bowe is the poster child for the entire franchise.  Lots of money invested, nothing to show for it.
But the book on Farmer is so much more.  He’s arrogant to a fault.  The willful disregard for the rules on texting is one thing.  More damning though is his almost obstinate refusal to attend pro days last year for many of the top prospects. Farmer treated it as an activity beneath his pay grade, I guess.  As a result Farmer lost the opportunity, on purpose, to offer to his employer the main skill he’s being paid to exercise—his informed and considered opinion.
Almost everyone else in the world outside of Farmer and Jerry Jones, apparently, saw the hot mess that was Johnny Manziel.  The guy just didn’t send up red flags from time to time.  He waved around fistfuls at almost every hour of every day.  And yet Farmer ignored every warning sign anyway.  The same is true for Justin Gilbert.  How Farmer could not have known that Gilbert lacked even the most basic of work ethics is beyond me, but then again he missed the same thing on Bowe so there is that.  Cameron Erving and Danny Shelton, this year’s Manziel and Gilbert, are very average talents at best.  Erving has been benched on a team that’s won only three games, one in which he didn’t even play.  Indeed against Seattle, Erving saw the field only out of necessity.  The Browns could have played with one less linemen and left Erving on the bench and the result would have been no different.  As for Shelton, he’s run over so often by opposing centers and guards you’d think he was auditioning for the Wile E. Coyote role in the live action version of The Road Runner cartoon series.
In other words, it’s not just that Farmer is bad at drafting.  He’s lazy and arrogant and a significant contributor to the awful culture deeply imbedded within the walls of Berea.  He’s neither a winner nor understands what it even means to be a winner or to build a winning culture.  There’s nothing about Farmer’s performance, not one hint that suggest he could possibly be part of the long term answer in turning the franchise around.  Cutting that cord now would be the best possible message to the franchise.  Keeping him one minute longer only exacerbates Haslam’s tenuous control over the franchise.
The ultimate problem with this franchise, and this falls back to where this all started, is the owner.  No one publicly understands what Haslam stands for and I’ve heard no one inside Berea who could articulate Haslam’s specific vision either, outside of amorphous concepts of building a winner and valuing stability.  Well, Haslam’s done neither in his short tenure and yet there’s no reason to suggest that valuing stability at this juncture will lead to building a winner. 
None of that means that Haslam needs to sell the team.  Maybe he can rebuild the trust he never fully got anyway.  To do that though he needs to get the hell out of the way.  He needs to find a respected franchise guru, someone who knows how to build a structure and a culture.  That isn’t going to come easy.
The intriguing aspect of the ridiculous rumor about Urban Meyer coming to the Browns was the type of package that was supposedly on the table.  It included not just a huge salary but a piece of the ownership pie.  Meyer isn’t coming to Cleveland under any circumstances.  But the kind of package he would garner is exactly what it would take to get someone as credible as Meyer to come to town.
Randy Lerner thought he had that in Mike Holmgren.  The thought made sense except Holmgren was simply the wrong guy.  His football knowledge was top notch but his commitment to the team was middling, at best.  He never fully relocated to Cleveland, spending most of his time either in Seattle or Arizona, neither of which were conducive to building a team in Cleveland.  Holmgren also lacked the brutal honestly of an architect like Belichick, which is why Holmgren kept Eric Mangini a year longer than he deserved and then filled the breach with the son of a friend in Pat Shurmur.
I don’t know who is out there to take on this kind of reclamation project and I’m not sure Haslam has the wherewithal to come up with the right package to get him anyway.  I guess what I’m saying is that it easily could be at least another 9 years of abject frustration and if I’m still writing about them then, have me committed.  Better yet, just drop me a card at whatever institution I’m a resident as I would have likely voluntarily committed myself well before then.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Meanwhile, Somewhere In Berea...

It’s Sunday of the Cleveland Browns merciful bye week.  The team, the players, the coaches, the owner and the fans welcome the break like Nordstom’s welcomes a bored housewife with a clutch full of credit cards.  But there’s still activity inside Berea. There’s always activity in side Berea. Let’s take a look:

Int. Head coach Mike Pettine’s office.  A desk, almost completely uncluttered except for an opened iPad, is centered in the room.  There are no pictures of his kids or wife.  The only picture in the entire office sits on an unused credenza.  It’s an autographed picture from Denis O’Leary who played the head coach of the Browns in the movie “Draft Day.”  It’s enscribed:  “Here’s hoping Brian Hoyer is your Brian Drew.”  The desk chair is pushed in as if it hadn’t been sat in for days, maybe weeks, maybe ever.   The walls have no permanent reminders or mementos of its current resident.  There are however boxes filled with various personal items from other stops Pettine has made along the way.  One box has a Buffalo Bills wool ski cap hanging half way out.  As the camera pans out, we see Pettine standing stoically looking out the lone window of his office onto the empty practice fields in the distance.  He is wearing sunglasses and a mid-weight jacket with the word “Browns” over the left breast.  His hands are in the jackets pockets.  He’s also wearing a headset though it doesn’t appear to be connected to anything.  The plug end trails behind him.  Pettine doesn’t move for what seems to be several minutes.

Ray Farmer, general manager, enters.  He’s wearing a tight, overly tight actually, Browns sweatshirt as if the point is to accentuate the biceps he cultivated during a mostly pedestrian career as an itinerant professional football player.  He’s sweating profusely and carrying a water bottle.  He’s wearing slacks, belying the impression that he just came back from a workout.  He’s a man in a hurry but painfully unsure of where he’s supposed to be next.

Farmer:  Hey, Pett, what’s up?  Got a minute?

Pettine:  The usual Ray.  Just working hard.  Trying to get some of our mistakes cleaned up. Penalties. Execution.  That kind of thing.  Just need to get it all cleaned up.  Working hard to get a W.  I’m pressed for time.  What do you need?

Farmer:  Not for nothing, Pett, but honestly it just looks like you’re staring out the window.  It doesn’t look like you’ve touched anything on your desk in weeks.  Do you even know how to turn on that iPad?  It has the playbook and game films right on it.  You just touch the Browns app and it’s all there.

Pettine:  I’m the head coach, Ray.  My job isn’t to be an electronics wiz.  It’s to be stoic and that’s what I am, stoic.  No panic.  Just keep working hard, getting things cleaned up.

Farmer:  Ok. Right.  Whatever.  Anyway, that’s not why I stopped by.  I want to run an idea by you.

Pettine:  Just a second. (Pettine continues staring out the window for several minutes.  He doesn’t appear to move a muscle.  Farmer, continuing to sweat as if he were wearing a parka on a 100 degree day, takes swig after swig from his water bottle as he watches Pettine.)

Pettine:  Did you say something, Ray?

Farmer:  Uh, yea.  I want to run an idea by you.  I’m thinking of making a few trades, thought I’d run them by you, not for sign-off of course.  I’m the decider here.  I have control over the roster.  But getting your opinion on something makes it look like we work together all the time.  You know, just like the Justin Gilbert pick.

Pettine:  Hasn’t the trade deadline passed? 

Farmer:  There’s a deadline? Damn.  Is that written anywhere?  You got some kind of memo on that?

(Pettine continues staring out the window.  Farmer continues drinking water, occasionally wiping his bald head with a handkerchief he pulls from his back pocket.  As Farmer ponders his response owner Jimmy Haslam walks in.  He’s wearing an expensive brown suit, white shirt with orange and brown tie.  He’s drinking coffee from a Pilot Flying J mug.)

Haslam:  Guys, glad you’re both in here.  I wanted to talk with you both.

Farmer:  What’s up, boss?  I can still call you boss, right?

Haslam:  Ray, I said no changes during the bye week.  No changes means no changes.  (Farmer looks visibly relieved though sweat continues to pour down him as if he were standing in a Miami rainshower in mid July.  Pettine remains stoic as he continues to stare, apparently aimlessly, out the window onto the practice fields.)  Look, I think we need to talk.  The media is all over us.  The fans are all over us.  We haven’t won a game in months.  In every conceivable way we’re regressing just from last year and let’s face it, last year wasn’t exactly my definition of success.

Farmer:  That’s an interesting point, boss.  How do you define success?  See, the reason I ask is that everyone has different definitions of success.  For me, growing up as I did, poor neighborhood, drug dealers on the corner, that kind of thing, I probably define success differently than you, coming from the nice background you came from and all.  I’m a pretty big deal in my neighborhood.  I have a nice house, nice car.  In my neighborhood, the guys I grew up with, they’d say I’m successful. But I’m open to the idea that I may be defining it differently than you, see, that’s my point.  How are we defining success here?

Haslam:  Well, let’s see, Ray.  This is professional football.  We exist in a league made up of other teams just like us.  We play 16 games against other teams in this league.  You either win those games or you lose them.  And then you tally up the wins and the losses and you compare that to those other teams.  The teams with more wins go the playoffs where they play each other to eventually figure out the championship.  Those teams are what we define as successful, Ray.  We need to be one of those teams with more wins than losses.  One of those teams that goes to the playoffs and maybe the championship.

Farmer:  I see where you’re going with that, boss.  That makes sense to me.  Glad we’re on the same page now.  So if that’s it then I’ve got to be heading back to my office. It’s bye week.  It gives me a chance to tweak my fantasy football rosters.  I’m in 4 leagues and frankly I’m not doing very well in any of them at the moment.

Haslam:  Not so fast, Ray.  The three of us need to talk, collectively, about how we fix this, what we’re going to do differently in order to be successful in this league.

Farmer:  That’s fine by me, boss. I got some time before lunch.   Whatever you want to do.  But remember, you’re the one that no changes, so now I’m a little confused because it sounds like you’re looking for changes.

Haslam:  When I said “no changes” I meant I wasn’t going to fire you or Pett.  Not now anyway.  That’s what I meant by no changes.  (Farmer again looks visibly relieved as he wipes even more sweat from his balding head.  Pettine continues to look off into the distance, unfazed by anything he’s just heard.  It’s not even clear he’s heard anything at all.)  (Seeing the relived Farmer) I said right now.  But unless we figure out how to get better players here, through the draft, through free agency, and unless we figure out how to better coach those players, I won’t be able to resist.  I’ll make changes faster than I change the bonus programs at Pilot Flying J.  We’re failing as a franchise. Right now the only guy on the team anyone cares about is the left tackle and you wanted to trade him.

Farmer:  Well, I understand your thinking on that, boss, about Joe Thomas I mean.  But hear me out. I was reading on some stats web site how left tackles aren’t as valuable as they once were so I figured maybe some of the other GMs in the league hadn’t read that web site yet and maybe were still thinking, you know old fashioned like, that you need a good left tackle to protect your quarterback in what’s become a predominately pass league and I could trick them into giving us a couple or three number 1 picks for Thomas.  According to our media guide Joe Thomas makes the Pro Bowl, like a lot.  So if I could get 3 number 1 picks for him, that would really set us up for the future.

Haslam:  (Exasperated and shaking his head).  This is going to be harder than I thought.  Ray, we’ve blown the last 4 number one picks.  What’s your plan for drafting better players?  I mean just look at this damn roster. Danny Shelton, Cameron Erving, Justin Gilbert, Johnny Manziel.  You want to go back further?  How about Barkevious Mingo?  How about Trent Richardson?  That’s six straight picks and every one has been a dud, one way or the other.

Farmer:  You can’t pin Richardson on me.

Haslam:  Ray, I’m just talking about trends here.  We have no foundation on this team and we aren’t going to get one if we can’t even get players in the first round who get on the field. Gilbert hasn’t played meaningful snaps since he was a senior at Alabama.  Manziel is a party boy who already is back drinking again.  Shelton and Erving at least start, but it’s not like those units are better for it.  In fact, they’re worse.

Farmer: I’m not sure I’m getting your point here, boss.  You know the culture I’m trying to get instilled here, the one where only the best players play each week?  If those guys you mentioned can’t get on the field or their duty is limited then they aren’t the best players.  The guys beating them out are better.  See how that works?  It’s logic.  It’s the way it should be and I’m proud of instilling that culture.

(Pettine doesn’t flinch)

Haslam:  But aren’t those four or five players, drafted number one as they were, supposed to beat out the other players on the team?  Isn’t that why we draft them number one? Aren’t they supposed to be no-brainer selections, guys who will be starting for years?

Farmer:  I mean, if you want to look at it like that, I guess you could.  But it doesn’t always work out that way. I just think the best players should play each week, doesn’t matter if they were number one picks or undrafted guys we signed.  Everyone develops at a different rate.  Sometimes an undrafted free agent adapts more quickly than a number one pick.  That kind of thing’s just going to happen. 

Haslam:  It doesn’t happen that way in New England.  It doesn’t happen that way in Pittsburgh.  The only place that seems to happen every year is Cleveland.  Ray, you do understand your job, right?

Farmer: Of course, boss.  And thanks for sticking with me like this.  I don’t know what kind of culture they got going on in New England or Pittsburgh.  They do seem to win, though, so maybe their best guys are winning the battles during the week.  Just like we’re trying to do.  I’ll keep drafting guys and Pett will play the guys he thinks are best.  It’s a long process.  Progress, slow and steady. We’re on our way.  I really believe that.

Haslam: Ray, are you insane?  You do know that we’re regressing, don’t you?  And we weren’t very good to begin with.  I want to hear your specific plan on how you’re going to start utilizing the number one draft picks we keep earning to actually find players that can get on the field.

Farmer:  I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. The best players are getting on the field.  That’s the culture I’ve instilled with Pett.

Haslam:  The hell with the culture.  We need better players, lots more of them. Jesus Christ, Ray, you signed Dwayne Bowe to a multi-million dollar contract and he can’t get on the field. Do we really want to walk down that road we want to get this fixed?

Farmer:  I think it’s on the coaches to coach up Justin and Dwayne.  That’s on them, not that I’m trying to blame anyone. I think Pett’s doing a helluva job with the players he’s got.  But like I was saying, it’s not on me that Gilbert can’t get on the field.  He’s obviously not one of the best guys.  That’s the way these things go.

(Pettine pulls back the right ear phone as he begins to listen.  Still stoic, he offers up some quick observations)

Pettine:  Justin needs to trust his technique better.  He had some sloppy habits he developed in college and we’re trying to break him of them.  He’s been good in the meeting room, though.  He’s trying.  We just got to get him consistent. (Pettine then puts the right ear phone back into place and resumes staring out the window, as stoic as ever.)

Haslam:  Something’s missing.  We aren’t doing a good job of evaluating players and we aren’t doing a good job of coaching up the guys we have.  (Pettine raises his left eyebrow as his right one lowers, as if he’s skeptical of what he just heard.  Nonetheless he continues to look out the window, stoically.)  We need to look at all that and we will and by “we” I mean my wife and me and maybe Alec, not sure yet on that.  But right now I’m trying to figure out how we’re making decisions around here.  Every other team, even the Oakland Raiders for Christ’s sake, seem to be getting better.  Maybe we should have drafted David Carr.  We need to look at the process because I’m not even sure we have one at this point and if we do it’s more broken than my reputation with the trucking community.  We’re defying the odds. (Haslam takes a swig from his coffee cup and purses his lips suggesting that there’s something other than coffee inside)

Farmer:   That can be a good thing, defying the odds.  It shows that we’re outside the box.  Now it’s just a matter of getting outside the box on the right thing.  That’s another piece of the culture I’m trying to instill, you know what I mean?

Haslam:  What about you, Pett?  Pett?  Pett? (Pettine continues looking out the window.  Haslam taps him on the shoulder to get his attention). Pett?

Pettine:  What’s up, Jimmy?

Haslam:  Haven’t you been listening at all?  I’m here to talk about how we get better week.  Are you even listening?

Pettine:  I think we all know that Rome wasn’t built in a day, that nothing good comes easy, and it’s a marathon, you know, not a sprint.

Haslam:  How come we can’t get Gilbert on the field?  Why did we start an injured Josh McCown instead of evaluating Manziel when it was clear the season was already lost?  How come Shelton never seems to make a tackle?  Why does all the pressure seem to come through Erving’s gap?  And why do we have almost as many penalty yards this season as rushing yards?

Pettine: (still looking out the window, intently): We’re just trying to win games here, playing the guys we think give us the best chance to win each week.   As I said, Justin needs to just trust his technique.  Johnny’s working hard.  He’s good in the quarterback room.  Much more alert than last season.  Shelt’s coming along but the transition from college is tough, like Justin’s.  Erving is working hard, we work with him every day.

Haslam:  Not my question.  How are we going to get better as a team, as a franchise?  How are we going to be successful and so that I’m clear on this point, a team that actually wins more than it loses, let’s start there.

Pettine:  We’re just going to keep working at it, cleaning things up.  Those penalties are frustrating and we just got to get that cleaned up.

Haslam:  So are you saying we have the right players here?

Pettine:  Jimmy, that’s not my job to say.  Ray’s got final say over the 40 man roster.  I was just happy to get this job.  It’s not my place to push boundaries here.  I’m just happy to have the job.

Haslam:  (Clearly talking to himself at this point) This isn’t getting me anywhere.  Maybe I just need to get this management group restructured again, maybe rejigger the uniforms again.  I’m thinking brown helmets, maybe a logo. I wonder if Alec’s in his office.  (Haslam exits, head bowed.  Tears in his eyes, his face expressing the kind of frustration and realization that comes with having squandered a multi-million dollar investment.)

Farmer:  (to Pettine, who remains staring out the window, earphones over both ears.) Well, that was weird.  Nice guy, that Jimmy, but doesn’t seem to know much about football, that’s for sure.  Don’t you agree, Pett?  (Pettine says nothing, the expression on his face as determined and blank as ever.)
Fade out.  Again.

Friday, October 30, 2015