Thursday, November 30, 2006

Staying the Course

When we called for Browns head coach, Romeo Crennel, to be axed, we noted that the most likely scenario, unfortunately, was that the Browns would favor theoretical stability and continuity over doing the right thing. That was on full display today as General Manager Phil Savage, channeling his best George W. Bush, downplayed any problems or turmoil in Berea and proclaimed that we’ll stay the course.

We’re certain that the Savage press conference won’t go over well with most fans. But rather than simply knee-jerk a reaction, let’s breakdown his major theme: stability.

Savage invoked several examples of stability or lack thereof to make his point. He said that Frank Beamer, the head coach at Virginia Tech, was nearly fired after his first two seasons. By being patient, Virginia Tech has supposedly gone on to become a top college program because it practiced patience when it wasn’t popular.

Savage invoked his former employer, the Baltimore Ravens. He noted that a year ago people were calling for Brian Billick’s oversized head. But the Ravens stuck with Billick and now look at ‘em, will ya?

Savage invoked the Pittsburgh Steelers and Bill Cowher, presumably for the purpose of demonstrating that good things can happen when you keep a good coach in place for a long period of time.

Although the examples are hardly comparable to what is fast becoming a Superfund waste site in Berea, we’ll except Savage’s premise if he accepts ours: you have to have the right person in place in the first instance.

When Beamer was hired by Virginia Tech, he had already had extensive head coaching experience and had been fairly successful in the process. We’ll give Savage the benefit of the doubt for having a better memory than us because we don’t recall any great hue and cry to replace Beamer early in his tenure. But assuming that such did exist, at least Virginia Tech had some track record to look back to for counseling such patience. The only track record Savage has with respect to Crennel is his work as an assistant. To this day Crennel has yet to prove he can make the transition from lifelong assistant to head coach and nothing in his background even speaks to that issue. Toss aside the Beamer comparison.

Regarding the world’s best offensive mind, just ask him, Brian Billick, at least he has a Super Bowl ring. Until they start playing the Super Bowl three or four times a year, there will be a finite number of coaches who have climbed that mountain. More to the point, what Savage forgets is that Billick was not hired by current Ravens owner Steve Biscotti in the first place. There’s always a tendency for the owner to want his own guy in place. The fact that Biscotti gave Billick the benefit of the doubt after last year’s Ravens meltdown while simultaneously putting Billick on a short leash. Crennel may have been a top assistant with a Super Bowl ring, but he didn’t win it as the man in charge so the situation is hardly comparable.

But the Billick comparison is useful if only to point out the differences. As we noted Biscotti put Billick on a short leash this year, meaning win or else. When Billick saw his offense struggling under offensive coordinator Jim Fassel, Billick moved quickly and canned his good friend. Crennel, under no similar urgency or threat, allowed the offense to founder under overmatched and underqualified offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon. It wasn’t until the players essentially threatened to personally buy Carthon a one-way ticket to the Arena League that Crennel took action. Thus, the better thought is to toss aside the Billick comparison. But if you must use it, then see it for how poorly Savage and the Browns fare in relation.

Let’s pause for a moment on the last example, Bill Cowher. To my knowledge, Cowher’s job has never been in jeopardy, even once. This despite the fact that until last season Cowher’s career was essentially a mirror of his former coach, Marty Schottenheimer. He knows how to make and keep a team competitive, he just couldn’t push it over the top. Only various meltdowns, including the career-threatening miss by former Colts and Cowboys kicker Mike Vanderjagt, allowed the Steelers to win their first Super Bowl in 26 years. But Cowher didn’t experience his first losing season until 7 full years into his 15-year career. While that losing season was followed by another, he at least had an impressive track record as a head coach on which to inform any decision regarding his future. Crennel, again, has no such track record so toss aside the Cowher example as well.

Usually the vote of confidence by the general manager or owner is the kiss of death. More often than not, a firing is often only days away. But in this case we think Savage is sincere, which is too bad. Savage went ahead in his press conference and cited the usual litany of reasons the Browns haven’t met expectations, such as injuries and the like. But every team suffers injuries so to our ears this sounded like so much more excuse making.

In our view, the measure of a person is not necessarily defined by the mistakes he makes but by how he responds to those mistakes. With Crennel, that’s all we really have to go on and that’s where he consistently falls short. He looked weak and impotent in dealing with Carthon’s repeated failures. He’s proven that he can’t control strong personalities like Kellen Winslow, Jr. and especially Braylon Edwards. No matter what he’s telling them “internally”, they still pop off, throw other coaches and players under the bus, and generally play the kind of undisciplined football that will keep sustained success elusive.

We understand that you can’t let transient emotions of the fans be the sole basis for making any team decisions. But neither can you ignore their feelings entirely. Savage and owner Randy Lerner are calculating that their own gut feelings, unjustified by any objective evidence, are correct. In doing so, hopefully they’ve taken into account that they stand on the precipice of alienating a dwindling base with their head-in-the-sand approach to management of their civic asset.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Pulling Punches

Having at least helped start the bonfire, we’re glad to note that others in the media are dumping, appropriately, on Browns head coach Romeo Crennel and receiver Braylon Edwards.

Just last evening, for example, Fox 8 sports director Tony Rizzo joined the chorus screaming in unison that Crennel must go. In this morning’s Plain Dealer, columnist Bud Shaw, while stopping short of calling for Crennel’s dismissal, at least sought to hold him responsible for what he called the “slow crawl of progress out of Berea.” Likewise, in the Beacon Journal, columnist Terry Pluto basically tells Edwards to just shut up.

We liked both columns, of course, mainly because we agreed with them. But in each case we can’t help but get the feeling that punches were pulled, which is why we liked Rizzo’s commentary so much. Both Shaw and Pluto were rightly critical of Crennel’s many and varied shortcomings. But why, then, stop short of making the final point: that Crennel is ill-suited to lead the team of the abyss that his management style has helped create?

And this isn’t just about, as Shaw suggests, publicly hanging Edwards out to dry just to placate the public. It is about the fact that Crennel can’t even demonstrate sufficient public leadership to make anyone believe that he’ll find a way to clamp down on Edwards, thereby giving both the fans and the team reasons to believe that Crennel really is in charge.

Normally, we’re firm believers in handling these kinds of matters behind closed doors. Generally, you don’t discipline an employee in front of his co-workers and you don’t criticize one of your players to the media. But these are hardly normal or general times. Edwards transgressions have been very public. The first was his open suggestion that his gratitude could be bought (or lost) depending on whether the head coach allowed him to attend the Ohio State/Michigan game in Columbus. When the Crennel laughed off the incident by telling the media that indeed Edwards had rethought the request, it was Crennel who ended up with egg on his face when Edwards was perched prominently on the Michigan sideline at The ‘Shoe. Crennel, of course, did nothing. Edwards had a decent game against Pittsburgh the next day but who’s to say that his getting run down on the 19-yard line wasn’t the result of being tired from the previous day.

The second and third transgressions occurred last week when, in the course of one media session, Edwards trashed safety Brian Russell and play caller Jeff Davidson. Crennel, as is his wont, again laughed off the incidents by suggesting that Edwards is just young and doesn’t know what he doesn’t know. But wasn’t it Crennel, again, who ended up with egg on his face when Edwards publicly embarrassed his teammates on Sunday?

The point, we think, is that Edwards very public disrespect and “me first” attitude deserves and equally public dressing down by the head coach. It is incumbent upon Crennel to discard his avuncular favorite uncle approach to dealing with problems, if just this one time, to show that if the ship is going down, and it is, he’s still the captain.

Instead, we get what we always get from Crennel: we’ll handle it internally. The first person that doesn’t believe that’s code for “hopefully this will blow over and I won’t get any more questions about it” please raise your hand.

At this point it’s beyond cliché that the fans deserve better. But phrases become clichés because they are so true it’s hardly necessary to continue to say the obvious. And that’s certainly the case here. The bottom line is that this franchise, since its return and except for one brief moment when they miraculously made the playoffs, has been embarrassment of epic proportions. The Browns, from top to bottom, continue to find new and insidious ways of alienating their fan base. It’s about time, someone, anyone, step forward, proclaim himself in charge and actually take responsibility for fixing this mess. Which reminds us of another cliché: if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Questions and More Questions

It's probably appropriate to give some credit to the Cleveland Browns and their webmaster for allowing their staff writer, Jeff Walcoff, to write somewhat objectively about yesterday's disastrous display against the mediocre Cincinnati Bengals.

But for whatever credit the Browns and Walcoff deserve, the story published raises many more questions than it answers. Head coach Romeo Crennel proclaims, defiantly, that his team won't quit with five games left. That's true, but only technically. One has to actually start something to quit and there was no point in yesterday's game where it looked like the team actually came to play. So we ask, what is their to quit?

On a related note, Crennel claims that his team is made up of competitors and that's their nature. As a description of professional athletes, Crennel's statement is accurate. But it's not as if the Browns players have any choice but to compete in the last five games. The tenure of a typical NFL player is so short and the recycling of players so prevalent, taking the field without at least the intention of demonstrating that you belong in the league is a cardinal sin. It's just not done. So we ask, the players are competitors, what does that prove?

Crennel felt the display was embarrassing and was the fault of many not few. Hard to disagree there, but to that we'd add "unprofessional." In fact, the lack of professionalism so permeated yesterday's performance that before anyone starts dishing out individual blame, one must look to the top first and foremost. The missed assignments on the offensive line and by the running backs was on full display. That's embarrassing. But the lack of effort, the lack of passion, and the fighting on the sidelines was unprofessional. Crennel says he'll deal with it "in house." So we ask, what will that accomplish?

The fact is, this team is a whirling set of questions without any easy or definitive answers. The Browns, as currently configured, lack talent, depth, character, passion and professionalism. This is not a situation that gets turned around in a hurry. And if none of this actually developed under Crennel's watch, he's allowed it to both grow and fester.

GM Phil Savage has tacitly and repeatedly acknowledged these shortcomings and has counseled patience. And to that we ask, what's our choice?

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Crennel Must Go

If there is one thing we can tell by now, it's when a coach is on the verge of getting canned. The results are clear on the field and in the locker room. Players fighting, airing grievances in public, playing without passion or inspiration. Those are the telltale signs of a coach who's lost control. The signs were there long before the University of Miami finally pulled the plug on head coach Larry Coker just as they were there long before Ohio State pulled the plug on John Cooper. And only a fool would try to deny the signs on this Cleveland Browns team.

It's hard to tell exactly when head coach Romeo Crennel lost the team. The smart money says it began with his steadfast support of deposed offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon, despite the putrid state of the offense. Others, we suspect, will argue that he never really had the team in the first place. To our eye, we tend to share that view.

As we've previously noted, Crennel's hiring went against the grain of what most teams look for these days. He's been a long-time assistant who had been interviewed and passed over many times before the Browns finally took a chance. Don't think the players didn't notice. And when Crennel got his chance, he acted less like a head coach and more like a coordinator when he turned his offense over to an untested and ultimately overmatched Carthon. In doing so, Crennel admittedly abdicated any role in the offense and instead paid more attention to the defense. It showed and the players noticed.

But what shows the most is the utter lack of leadership by Crennel. He didn't say much publicly when Kellen Winslow, Jr. put his Evel Knievel dreams ahead of the team and, in the process, blew out his knee in a motorcycle accident. He said little publicly when Trent Dilfer went toe-to-toe with Carthon, except to wave goodbye to a servicable starter/backup. And when it came to finally dumping Carthon, Crennel was worried more about protecting Carthon's thin skin then acting like a leader by proclaiming publicly that Carthon resigned when everyone knew the truth. Don't think the players didn't notice.

But the signs these days are coming ever more frequently and the poster child is the increasingly childlike Braylon Edwards. We previously noted how Edwards wanted to attend the Ohio State/Michigan game and suggested loudly how grateful he would be if Crennel afforded him that privilege on the day before the Pittsburgh game. Crennel suggested, publicly, that Edwards wouldn't be going but, lo and behold, Edwards was there, defying both his coach and the other players who privately told Edwards that his first loyalty was now with the folks signing his paychecks.

In the run-up to this week's match-up with Cincinnati, there was Edwards again throwing safety Brian Russell under the bus for a clean but physical hit on Chad Johnson in the last Cincinnati game. To add even more fuel to a fire already at full blaze, Edwards blasted new play caller Jeff Davidson for being too conservative in the red zone. Crennel, for all his leadership skills, was dismissive to these outbursts except to say that Edwards wouldn't be fined.

It will be interesting, then, to see how Crennel will respond to Edwards after today's debacle against Cincinnati, that is, if Crennel still has a job. On display for anyone to see was Edwards publicly embarrassing his beleaguered quarterback, Charlie Frye. Edwards clearly went after Frye on the sidelines following another interception. Apaprently Edwards was incensed that Frye was too busy running for his life to see Edwards running open. In his only effective play of the game, running back Rueben Droughns stepped into to stop Edwards visible abuse of Frye.

It's not a surprise, of course, that Crennel ignored the mini-drama unfolding on the sidelines. We've come to expect that from Crennel. But more telling, really, is the fact that Edwards feels so emboldened to act as he does in the first place. This is exactly what it looks like when the coach is no longer in control and the players feel free to challenge authority and service their own needs rather than to place any emphasis on the team or the game itself. It's what happened to Coker at Miami and Cooper at OSU. And it's what's unfolding in Cleveland right now.

If Crennel survives this season or even this week, we'll be amazed and disappointed. The Browns under his leadership, have clearly regressed. The last time we witnessed such an uninspired beat down like today's game against the mediocre Bengals was last year against Pittsburgh. But here the Browns sit, nearly a year later, still getting the stuffing beat out of them by a divisional rival.

When a coach gets fired, there will always be some players who will blame themselves. After all, the conventional wisdom goes, they are the ones not making the tackles or catching or throwing the balls. That's true at a basic level but at an even more basic level it's also true that these Browns don't respond to Crennel. We'd like stability and continuity just as much as anyone but another year of Crennel will just set this franchise back further.

If the Browns want to do something bold, now, they should fire Crennel and replace him with defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Grantham is the exact kind of young coach that teams are hiring these days. He's been the one coaching bright spot on an otherwise dismal staff assembled by Crennel. Though the defense has let the team down the last two weeks, the truth is that it still plays with emotion, which we attribute directly to Grantham.

But given how the Browns operate, they'll stand pat, valuing stability over results. In the process, they'll lose Grantham to Michigan State just like they lost Bill Cowher to Pittsburgh. And when Grantham finally does make it back to the NFL as a head coach, which he will, as fans we can sit back, again and say "I remember when he used to coach here" as we put the finishing touch on still another losing season.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

A Bad Win, A Good Loss

When it comes to the NBA, we think, as Tom Robbins' character Andy Dufresne told the court in "The Shawshank Redemption" that we've been quite clear on this point: most of what happens in the regular season is irrelevant. And in that vein we don't think there was much relevance in last night's Cleveland Cavaliers victory over the Memphis Grizzlies.

But what did catch our eye was Terry Pluto's column about the game in this morning's Akron Beacon Journal. Essentially Pluto complains because the Cavs lacked a certain amount of intensity once they got up by 21 points in the second quarter. As a result, they barely hung on for the victory. In other words, in Pluto's view, it was a bad loss.

The reason this intrigued us so much was that we inadvertently tuned to WTAM 1100 on Monday night and had a chance to listen to sports troll Mike Trivisonno, an opinionated, intellectually-limited bigot, interview Browns owner Randy Lerner and GM Phil Savage. The most interesting aspect of Trivisonno is the fact that he doesn't just not bite the hand that feeds him, he goes out of his way to lick the plate clean for them. Anytime he has a Browns, Indians, or Cavs "official" on his show for an interview, Trivisonno immediately becomes house apologist, finding all manner of good with nary a negative take on any aspect of their operations.

And the interview with Lerner and Savage were Trivisonno at his best or worst, depending on your perspective. (Here is a link to the podcasts.) As listeners we learned that the Browns loss to the Steelers was, in Trivisonno's words, a good loss. Lerner readily agreed, citing the alleged progress the team is making. Savage likewise agreed and then proceeded to tell us that he has gone back to review the first-year starter statistics of quarterbacks like Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning and a few others and compared them with Browns quarterback Charlie Frye. According to Savage (and we're not making this quote up), Frye is "virtually in the same ball park" as these others. "Not the best, but not the worst either."

So this is what we've been reduced to: With the Cavs we find much to fault about their win. With the Browns we find much to love about their loss. That, friends, is the essence of why it is so difficult to be a fan of Cleveland sports. The only thing worse than failure is success. More in love with pretty losses than ugly wins.

The last time we checked, the object of each of our professional sports teams was to win ball games. If you win and win consistently, good things tend to happen, like championships. When you lose and lose consistently, bad things ten to happen, like relocation.

We'd argue that we deserve better from a radio station like WTAM. But at this juncture the only ones that listen to it for reasons other than game broadcasts are shut-ins, family members of its employees, and a few saps who mistakenly hit the wrong button on the car radio. We'd argue that we deserve better from a columnist like Terry Pluto. But the one thing we know is that Pluto writes so often and changes his mind so frequently, the chance of anything he says anymore lingering is minimal.

What we would argue, though, is that the teams you get you deserve. We expect the teams, through paid shills like Trivisonno, to try to convince us that losses are good. But as fans, if we buy into that concept, then we don't deserve success. Which is convenient since its not likely to come anytime soon anyway.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Pilgrim's Progress

We've noted this phenomena before and will note it again: fans read too much into both every Browns win and every Browns loss. That's why we're not surprised at the level of anger being directed at Berea right now.

The easy analysis of yesterday's Browns/Steelers game is to say that, like the Baltimore game, the Browns found a way to snatch a loss from the jaws of victory. It's easy to say that because, for the most part, it's true. The harder analysis is to figure out what, exactly, yesterday's loss means in the grand picture.

To gain some perspective we were inspired by tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr., who told Steelers linebacker Joey Porter before the game that the 41-0 drubbing last Christmas Eve came with he and receiver Braylon Edwards out of the lineup. That made us go back and check the team's progress over these last two seasons.

Here's where the picture doesn't get pretty. At the same point last year, the Browns were the same 3-6 as they found themselves this season. But they went on to win three of their last seven to finish 6-10. Last year, their sixth loss was against Pittsburgh, a not too competitive 34-21 drubbing. But the Browns responded by playing one of their best games, a 22-0 shut out of Miami and responded to that 41-0 beat down by Pittsburgh with an impressive win against Baltimore.

The conventional take on last year's team was that they were young but competitive for the most part. They had other chances to win but couldn't quite finish, which is typical of a young team. That's what we were left with entering into this season.

And as we entered the season, we were buoyed by the fact that both Edwards and Winslow would return as would safety Sean Jones. Throw in a decent draft and some free agent acquisitions and 7 to 8 wins was not supposed to be out of the questions.

But what we're left with is, at best, a rehash of last year's season, a team still unable to finish games. The fact that 10 games into this season we have a team incapable of finishing off a reeling opponent is the most telling and obvious sign that this has been a lost season. While there have been several injuries, that is hardly an excuse in today's NFL. Everyone has injuries. The bottom line is that even with their playmakers in tact, the Browns have simply not progressed by the only stat that counts--winning.

We're glad that quarterback Charlie Frye has another season under his belt. We're even more glad that he's been able to answer the bell each week given the inept play of the offensive line. But this additional experience has been of questionable value. The Browns still aren't winning and the difficulty of their remaining schedule strongly suggests that their win total will be less than last year's.

We're sure that the Crennel apologists will be out in full force, just as we're sure that neither GM Phil Savage nor Owner Randy Lerner have any appetite to fire Crennel. But in terms of the ultimate assessment, we'll again turn to Joey Porter of the Steelers. When asked about all the jawing with Winslow yesterday, Porter summed it us thusly: different people, same result.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Divided Loyalties

We didn't see much of a need to comment on the Browns strange victory against Atlanta except to say that we hope it's that key victory that Head Coach Romeo Crennel has talked about all year. We like the way they played in the first half, hated the third quarter and admired the fact that, for once, someone other than quarterback Charlie Frye made a huge fourth quarter turnover.

We saw slightly more need to comment on last Friday's Cleveland Cavaliers victory over the Boston Celtics if only to say that they showed some incredible grit in coming from 18 down late to gut out the win. But that, ultimately, would violate our tacit understanding that most of what happens during the regular season is meaningless. But if you happen to find yourself looking for signature victories by Cleveland teams in 2006, forget about the Browns vs. Falcons game and look instead at the Cavs vs. Celtics. It provided still another exhibit in the growing bottom of evidence that LeBron James is in that very rare category of player, like Tiger Woods, who sees victory as the ultimate goal, no matter how small the stakes.

But what we saw most worthy of comment came today in the form of Browns receiver Braylon Edwards plea that he be able to attend the OSU/Michigan game on Saturday, the day before the Cleveland version of that game in the form of Browns/Steelers. According to the story in today's Plain Dealer, Edwards is quoted as saying: "It's a once in a lifetime opportunity for me. I've never been a selfish guy, and I would never do anything to have my teammates look at me in a negative way or have my coach think I wasn't worried about the Steelers game first and foremost. But if he does give me the opportunity, I'd definitely take it and be very appreciative."

This is essentially code for Edward saying, basically, that his team isn't going anywhere anyway so what's the big deal if he misses a day of preparation, even if it's for a game against the Browns' biggest rival.

What really caught our eye about this story is the contrast with Tony Grossi's main story detailing how seriously the Browns players take this rivalry, particularly given the 41-0 beat down they suffered last Christmas Eve. Apparently Braylon hasn't gotten the message.

There has been very, very little to cheer about since the Browns returned from their Art Modell-imposed hiatus. But irrespective of the records, the Cleveland fans still get hyped, overly hyped, for the games against the Steelers. That's because they understand the rivalry. The only reasons it lacks the intensity of the OSU/Michigan game are that there are two such games with the Steelers each year, the dates of the games vary, and the expanded playoff system in the NFL rarely makes any particular game the key to the season. But the hate that Browns fans have for Steeler fans and vice versa is every bit as intense. Most importantly, the fans of both teams expect the players to take it just as seriously.

And in this regard, that's where the Browns in all their various forms since their return have come up short, year after year. The Braylon Edwards comment just cement that fact, notwithstanding whatever else you might read to the contrary.

We like Edwards well enough, even though he's a Wolverine. But it's one thing to reminisce and wish you could attend the game and a whole other matter to actually ask and imply how disappointed you'll be with your coach if you're denied that opportunity. In short, Edwards' loyalty to his new fans and his new employer will be forever suspect. We surely doubt that Head Coach Romeo Crennel will give in to such childish demands. But if he does, to us that's tantamount to sending a message to the rest of the team and to the fans that this game is not all that important. It's the kind of thing that ultimately got John Cooper fired from Ohio State and will be just the kind of thing that ultimately will get Crennel fired as well.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Open Season

With the baseball free agent season set to open next week, the lack of noise thus far from the Cleveland Indians is deafening. At least it was until earlier today when the Indians traded prospects Kevin Kouzmanoff and Andrew Brown to San Diego for rookie second baseman Josh Barfield.

On the one hand, GM Mark Shapiro can now cross one item off his "to do" list. On the other hand, was this the deal to make?

We've chronicled many times our displeasure with the Indians with respect to free agents. They are underfinanced by cheapskate owners and adhere to a corporate strategy in which the level of success is almost exactly equal to their level of luck.

Last year, GM Mark Shapiro was unlucky. Saddled with an uncompetitive budge and a game plan built oddly around replacing closer Bob Wickman, the Indians mostly whiffed on their off-season acquisitions last year and as a result took a step, maybe two, backward. They went from a team with 93 wins in 2005 and poised for a playoff run to a team that has several major holes to fill before they can even return to competitiveness.

One of those holes most definitely is at second base. There was screaming all season when the Indians traded infielder Brandon Phillips to the Cincinnati Reds. And when Ronnie Belliard was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals, the Tribe was left with utility players like Joe Inglett to fill the void. But for those still bemoaning those losses and trying to put the Barfield trade in context, a recent posting in "The Baseball Analysts" should be of great interest.

In Rich Lederer's November 8 column he lists his most Overrated Offensive Players for this last season. Essentially, this is a list of players who are generally perceived to be decent offensively but who statistically don't really measure up. The criteria is simple. To make the list a player has to have a batting average that is greater than the league norm but an on base percentage and slugging average below the league norm.

Interesting, both Belliard and Phillips garner an honorable mention. Belliard had a decent .272 batting average but his on base percentage was only .322 and his slugging average only .403. Phillips had remarkably similar statistics: .276/.325/.427. And, while he didn't have enough plate appearances to qualify, Joe Inglett was essentially a mirror image: .283/.332/.383 Not to take this too far, but Inglett actually had the higher fielding percentage of the three (.984 to Belliard's .981 to Phillips' .977) Barfield is basically a mirror image as well. He hit .280 last year with .318 on base percentage and a .423 slugging average. His fielding percentage was .987.

The trade for Barfield relegates Inglett and Hector Luna to utility status, where both are probably better suited and does ostensibly fill the hole at second base. But the larger point is that the hole that existed wasn't necessarily created by the trading of Belliard or Phillips. It was created by the fact that Shapiro hasn't adequately addressed it in the last few years, satisified instead with the underachieving Belliard.

On the positive side, though, Barfield has a full year of major league experience to draw on and appears to have, in Shapiro speak, a "huge upside." But to get Barfield he also gave up a player in Kouzmanoff who also has a"huge upside." From that angle, it's an interesting trade made even more interesting since they are both infielders. Clearly the Padres think Kouzmanoff will hit for higher average and power in the years to come. His performance in the minors suggests as much. But this is the kind of trade that does keep the hot stove going and the kind of trade that rarely gets made these days. Players of similar age and abilities going to teams that obviously like slightly better the guy the other team had.

And while on the subject of free agents, we also noticed the story in today's USA Today in which they handicapped the derby for the high-priced free agent pitchers. (A similar article appears with respect to the top hitters as well) In the article, the various writers predict where the top free agents will land and what kind of contract they'll get.

In a surprise roughly on the scale of the either the news of John Daly's fourth divorce or Brittany Spears' split from serial breeder, Vanilla Ice wannabe Kevin Federline, no one predicted the Indians would make a pitch for any of the first tier free agents. Long gone are the days when owner Richard Jacobs would unveil his free agent Christmas presents to the fans in the form of Dennis Martinez or Orel Hersheiser or Eddie Murray. And, not coincidentally, long gone are the days when the Tribe would sell out the season before it opened.

In short, don't expect much this off-season. The Tribe, under the ownership of the Dolans, has gone from market setters to bottom feeders. And in that role we know what we'll get: some second or third level free agent with a career that features more down side than not.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


A question still lurking in the background for this year's Cleveland Browns is whether head coach Romeo Crennel will get to fulfill the final year of his contract. To the objective eye, the safe bet would be against that happening. But this is Cleveland and this is the Browns and if there is one constant it's their unpredictability.

We've chronicled, several times, Romeo's shortcomings, all of which were on full display in the Maurice Carthon debacle. So, as Jim Leyland might say, we won't re-chew our breakfast on that one. And while we see a better organized offense since Jeff Davidson took over the play calling, the overall product is still woeful and showing little evidence of progress. That would seem to spell doom.

But putting all of that insignificant on-the-field evidence screaming that the head coach is overmatched, we'll instead consider Crennel's press conference yesterday.

Crennel has been praised for his relative candor in such settings. And compared to automatons like New England's Bill Belichick, Crennel looks positively chatty most times. But his discussion about quarterback Charlie Frye smacked of a coach who knows he's on his way out and just doesn't care anymore.

Crennel, clearly not on the same playbook as his boss, GM Phil Savage, openly questioned whether Frye is the long-term answer at quarterback. Sure, Crennel talked about Frye's intangibles: "He's got good talent, good ability, good leadership ability, got some toughness. The guys rally around him. At that position you've got to have that," Crennel said. But Crennel also sounded just a bit exasperated that Frye, like the rest of the team, hasn't made much progress. Crennel said that Frye was under "pretty good duress" early on in the season, making it tough to make a valid evaluation but, "going forward, we'll see that he's a capable quarterback."

Reading between the lines, Crennel has given Frye the benefit of the doubt for the early mistakes because of the offensive line. But now, not so much. Crennel seemed to attribute Frye's continued problems to his desire to "make a play." Translated: Frye still hasn't made much progress in learning when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em.

The fact that Crennel was unwilling to give Frye a solid endorsement, while intellectually honest, suggests that Crennel and Savage are not in sync on Frye's future. The fact that Savage didn't initially bring in a credible back-up and has since made no overt gestures in that direction strongly suggests that Savage sees things much differently when it comes to Frye's future.

If you are handicapping Crennel's chances of returning, this is the key development that bears watching. Yesterday's press conference was an subtle throwdown by Crennel to Savage that quarterback is another hole that may need to be filled. If Savage disagrees with this assessment, it will become the foundation upon which Crennel's departure is built as we can easily see the scenario developing where Crennel overtly puts his job on the line by demanding a change. However that scenario plays out will surely determine the future of the Browns. Here's hoping that owner Randy Lerner once again sides with his general manager against an overmatched and underachieving counterpoint.

Monday, November 06, 2006


There are many conclusions you could probably draw from yesterday's Cleveland Browns/San Diego Chargers game, but the one we'll stick with is that the Browns better start looking for another quarterback, quickly.

It's not that we're necessarily down on Charlie Frye, although we are, it's just that he can't possibly survive this season in tact. Just looking at the official statistics, he's been sacked an astounding 29 times in 8 games. That translates to 58 times over the season, a figure he'll never reach because, again, he can't possibly survive this season in tact. And the 29 sacks doesn't even begin to measure how many times he's been knocked down and thrown about, which is probably double the sack total.

Frye is big and strong and seems to move around well. But he makes incredibly poor decisions each and every game, which is contributing to the abuse he's taking. We understand that the Browns have a poor offensive line. But this poor line is only part of the problem. While Frye has been sacked 29 times in 8 starts this year, he also was sacked another 21 times in 5 starts last year. Meanwhile, Reuben Droughns was on his way to rushing for 1200 yards last year, meaning it's not the worst line of all time. If anything, the Browns relative ability to run the ball last year should have resulted in less pressure on Frye, not more. Yet his sack total last year is nearly identical to what he's suffering from this year. And this year the running game has been much worse.

We've noted before that we understand why GM Phil Savage didn't sign a big-name back-up. Given the limited expectations of this year's team, there seemed to be little reason to saddle Frye with fans screaming for his back-up as Frye himself continued to founder. In theory, this makes sense. In reality, it's played out much worse then anyone could have expected.

To the extent that Frye is progressing, it's imperceptible to the naked eye. He continues to fumble and throw interceptions. He still can't seem to look beyond, at best, the second option on most pass plays. He has an unwarranted confidence in his own ability to make a play with his feet despite very limited success in that regard.

We're not burying poor, beaten Charlie yet. But at this point it's in the conversation. The Browns have significant holes to fill in the off season. It appears that quarterback will have to be added to this list, if only because the likelihood rises each week that a career-threatening injury to Frye is just around the corner. Ken Dorsey, make sure you can find your helmet.


We've had many ask us how the Browns could possibly give Joshua Cribbs a six-year contract. While we agree that he's shown some skills as a kick returner, his abilities as a receiver are rudimentary, at best, and were on full display yesterday. And while a six-year contract tends to show a very odd and lengthy commitment, even for the Browns, recognize that it is solely a function of how the salary cap works. We don't yet have the details on Cribbs' contract, but you can bet that there is a signing bonus involved. As such, the Browns can pro-rate the bonus over the life of the contract, thus reducing the salary cap impact. If/when Cribbs gets cut in a year or two, the bonus will then get accelerated. But until then, the contract, which is NOT guaranteed, nonetheless gives Cribbs the perception of security while allowing the Browns salary cap flexibility. That's it.


In all of this discussion about Frye, don't lose site of two points that were even more apparent yesterday. First, the Browns simply wore down during the game. The outcome was inevitable. San Diego, a good but not great team, was physically better and stronger. The point, though, is that the Browns have a long way to go to even get to the level of the Chargers. Which leads us to the second point. If the Browns aren't even near the level of the Chargers, how far behind must they be of the New England Patriots or the Indianapolis Colts? To paraphrase Robert Shaw's character Quint in the movie Jaws, you're gonna need a bigger yard stick to measure that one.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Stupid is as Stupid Does

There's this old joke about a young boy without a body. It seems that his mom would set his head on the window ledge each day to allow him to watch the world go by. The young boy constantly longed to be outside, running and playing with the other boys in the neighborhood. One day his fairy godmother appears and grants him one wish. Naturally he wishes that he had a body so that he could go outside and play football with the other boys. His wish is granted and as he runs out the door and begins to cross the street he's hit by an on-coming semi. As he lays dying, his fairy grandmother appears and says "you should have quit while you were a head."

We think of that often and particularly today as we read Plain Dealer columnist Bill Livingston's latest 20 inches of wasted column space. Ostensibly Livingston muses about whether Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel would be a good fit for the Browns. But what caught us at the outset was Livingston's second paragraph. Admitting that he openly wondered whether Tressel could make the jump from Youngstown State and the several national titles he won there to the pressure cooker of Ohio State, Livingston said "Too bad we didn't sign a pre-nup to limit our stupidity liability. "

From our viewpoint, had Livingston ended his column right there it would have been his best and most accurate piece ever. But alas, it's budget cutting time at the PD and the editors figured that if Livingston is going to earn his salary, he'd have to write more than two paragraphs. More's the pity, at least for Livingston, because he then sets about methodically proving, again, his own stupidity.

Livingston notes that few, if any, college coaches can successfully make the transition to the pros. That seems true enough, at least recently. But there have been plenty of successful coaches who started in the college ranks, including Vince Lombardi, Bill Parcells and John Madden, although not as head coaches. And the trend these days does seem to work more in reverse--the successful pro assistant going to the college ranks.

But where Livingston really loses us is in his criticism of Tressel as supposedly a poor judge of quarterback talent. Taken in order, in 2001 Steve Bellisari was a senior and Tressel, as the new coach, had little choice in the matter. In terms of choosing between Scott McMullen and Craig Krenzel, two John Cooper recruits, Tressel initially chose the more classic quarterback of the two. Ultimately, though, Tressel made the right choice and Krenzel made the most of his limited abilities and lead the Buckeyes to the national championship in 2002. In choosing Justin Zwick over Troy Smith, Livingston fails to mention two key points. First, they were both Tressel recruits so if you're going to ding him for not recognizing talent, acknowledge, at least, that he recognized enough in Smith to offer him a scholarship. Second, Zwick was, by far, the highest rated quarterback recruit nationally at the time. He's a big guy with a classic drop-back style.

But even more to the point, the Troy Smith of today is hardly the Troy Smith of a few years ago. In terms of pure quarterback skills, Smith was sorely lacking, even when he first took over in the Iowa game two years ago after Zwick was hurt. Smith was a run-first, pass second kind of guy. In short, he was selfish.

But to Smith's credit, and to Tressel's, Smith has developed into probably the best quarterback ever at Ohio State and the front-runner in this year's Heisman Trophy contest. Again, if you're going to ding Tressel over an initial decision, acknowledge the entire landscape and, more importantly, the fact that it was under Tressel's direction that both Krenzel and Smith developed into the players they became.

In context, Livingston's column seems more designed to try strip away what he sees as the veneer coating Tressel. But Livingston's efforts, as usual, are weak and unsupported. Tressel may not be perfect, or as perfect as Livingston, but to suggest that he's not all he's portrayed is as unfair as it is ridiculous.

We harbor no doubt that if Tressel had pro aspirations, he could easily make that transition and be successful. But as unabashed Buckeye fans, we can only hope he harbors no such goals.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Jump Ball

In perusing the various NBA previews in the local and national newspapers, we can't help agree with the common theme of them all--that last year's playoffs served as a key reference point to this upcoming season. Where we depart ways, though, is why. In our view, if last year's playoffs proved anything, it's that the NBA season is too long and mostly irrelevant.

To be sure, last year's Cavs/Washington Wizards (or is it Bullets, we're not sure) and Cavs/Detroit Pistons were compelling and entertaining. But all that did was demonstrate the indifference with which most NBA players seem to approach regular season games. The intensity of virtually any playoff game was unmatched in any regular season game between any NBA teams and we challenge anyone anywhere at any time to prove otherwise. In fact, what is most striking about the NBA is the starkly visible difference between regular season and playoff games. To be sure, the playoffs are different than the regular season in every sport. But the disparity in the NBA is so obvious that it actually cheapens the day-to-day product.

The even larger point, though, is that the season simply is too long. That's the message the players continue to send with their indifferent play until the playoffs roll around. The season is 82 games spread over nearly 6 months. the playoffs take another two months, meaning that the NBA season is longer, by a month, than the Major League Baseball season and three months longer than the NFL season. And what do you get for your first six months: a meritocracy system that eliminates only the truly putrid. For all practical purposes, the NBA playoffs are a massive, out of control round robin tournament from which only the lame and infirm are uninvited.

We can appreciate the talents of someone like LeBron James as well as anyone. And all things being equal, we're glad he's on a Cleveland team. He gives this city its first international sports superstar ever. But we tend to subscribe to the less is more theory and believe that shortening the season would only further highlight the true gifts of someone like James and make each game that much more meaningful.

The reason that fans are so crazed for NFL football, even bad NFL football like that purveyed by the Browns, is that there are only 16 games. That places outsized importance on each one. If you don't think so, take a visit to Pittsburgh right now and you'll find most of their fans sitting in their family rooms in a semi-catatonic state with a switchblade near their wrist because the Steelers are 2-5. Even with 9 games left, they know that there is very little margin for error left if their team, the reigning Super Bowl champs, are to return to the playoffs.

But if the Cavs start off 2-5, or even 10-20, there is still little doubt that they'll make the playoffs. And irrespective of what their record may be it has absolutely no relevance to how they may or may not perform in the playoffs.

So if you insist on dissecting the Plain Dealer's NBA preview supplement in today's paper for insight into how the Cavs will finish, don't look to the idle words of the self-annoited experts. We suggest you look solely at the schedule. You know that the Cavs will play on the road 41 times. That means that, at best, that will account for 20 wins because if there is one thing that is more true in the NBA than in any other sport, it's that the home court advantage is more pronounced. Next, look at how many times the Cavs play back-to-back games, particularly when the second game is on the road and even more particularly when they are both on the road. If there is anything even more true about the NBA than home court advantage, is that back-to-back games are greeted with about as much enthusiasm as a Thanksgiving trip to the in-laws. That should account for another 10 losses right there. In short, if the Cavs are as good as advertised, they'll win around 50-52 games. If they fall short of expectations, meaning they lose more games at home than anticipated, then they'll be in the 46-48 win range. Again, though, this is mostly meaningless because they'll make the playoffs either way.

If you're looking for real insight from the PD's NBA supplement, check out the schematic of the locker room. There you'll find that King James has the corner suite and no neighbor, the better to accommodate the media. You'll also learn about his 20" video monitor, his X-Box 360 game system and, most importantly, that his shoe company (Nike) not only supplies him with shoes, but shower slippers. Now that's insight we couldn't live without.