Monday, December 31, 2007

Lingering Items...Season-ending Edition

Sunday’s game against the San Francisco was hardly high art or compelling drama. In the end it all it proved was that the Browns have a much stronger foothold in the future than do the 49ers. But that game really wasn’t what had the fans gnashing their teeth anyway. That was reserved for the Tennessee Titans/Indianapolis Colts game that took place later that night.

Though the game meant everything to the Titans and nothing to the Colts, the Titans still struggled against the Colts reserves, just as they had struggled against the Jets starters the week before, making everyone wonder exactly how the Titans actually won 10 games this season.

But win 10 games they did and they were a better set of wins, at least as far as NFL wild card tiebreakers are concerned. That left the Browns and their fans to ponder again what went wrong the week before against Cincinnati and what might have been had the Browns made the playoffs. The loss the Bengals a week ago was a key, certainly, but if you replay the season, you can likely find a point that could have turned each game differently. Although the Browns ultimately needed one more victory to get into the playoffs, there also were plenty of chances for them to have finished 9-7 or even 8-8. In the end, they probably are where they deserve to be, watching from the sidelines and, hopefully, learning a thing or two about what it takes to be a top-tier team in the NFL.

But because this is a season-ending installment of Lingering Items, here’s a whole array of “what ifs?” on a game by game basis, for the fans to consider as they settle in for what again will be a long winter’s nap.

What if…

…Romeo Crennel didn’t need to flip a coin to make a key coaching decision before the first pre-season game against Kansas City? Charlie Frye supposedly was the starter entering the pre-season but a lackluster camp, though Derek Anderson was no better, apparently gave Crennel second thoughts. When Crennel publicly admitted he would pick his opening game quarterback by flipping a coin, he demonstrated how ill-suited he is to this head-coaching gig by essentially telling both Anderson and Frye, not to mention the rest of the team and all of its fans, that neither was a true starter and that even if either was, Crennel was ill-suited to make that judgment. It wouldn’t be his only coaching mistake of the season.

…Crennel hadn’t made the wrong decision about a starter heading into the season and had gone with Anderson in the first game against Pittsburgh? Maybe it doesn’t make a difference, given that Anderson, too, lost to Pittsburgh later in the year, but on the other hand given how Anderson played throughout the season, it could have made a big difference. Remember the five sacks against Frye but only one against Anderson? In the end, this turned out to be an example of Crennel’s shortcomings actually aiding the team. Savage saw the wreckage, traded Frye practically before the Browns had even showered after the game and Anderson was firmly established as the starter, which proved to be the confidence booster he needed. It also allowed the Browns to bring back Ken Dorsey whose value as a mentor to both Anderson and Brady Quinn and his experience with Rob Chudzinski’s offense already has paid unexpected dividends.

…the Cincinnati Bengals had not played an emotional game against the Baltimore Ravens on Monday night during the first week, a game the Bengals won in overtime? At the time, it seemed to be the reason for the Bengals massive letdown against the Browns the following week, a game that launched Anderson’s career and a game the Browns won in shootout fashion, 51-45. As it turned out, of course, neither Baltmore nor Cincinnati were very good and the tension of that first week was really just too bad teams evenly matched.

…the Browns defense doesn’t allow the Raiders to convert a 3rd and 23 with just over 10 minutes left in the game the Browns ultimately lost 26-24? As a result of what would be one of numerous defensive breakdowns throughout the season, the Raiders were able to kick a field goal that was the margin of difference in that difficult loss. But all that could have been rendered irrelevant if the Browns special teams had not allowed the woeful Oakland Raiders to block Phil Dawson’s 40-yard field goal attempt with three seconds left that would have won the game.

…Baltimore Ravens duel geniuses Brian Billick and Ozzie Newsome had found a way by this point to establish a NFL-caliber offense? If they had, then they might have found a way to score more than 13 points against the league’s worst defense. But since they didn't, the Browns won an important divisional game 27-13 that, as much as anything else, sent the Ravens on their season long tailspin. I know the Ravens have a Super Bowl victory in 2000 and won 13 games last season, but in nine years under Newsome and Billick, the only time the Ravens had an offense that ranked even in the top half of the league was 2001, when it ranked 14th. Most of the time, it ranked in the bottom third. That isn’t just bad luck, it’s an institutional failure. Now that the Ravens defense is mostly showing its age and can no longer hide the offensive problems, the result is what you’d expect: 5-11. Billick deserved to be fired, although having him in Baltimore was kind of like having Lloyd Carr in Michigan. Newsome shouldn’t be far behind in the unemployment line.

…Anderson doesn’t throw an interception on 3rd and 1 from the New England Patriots one-yard line in the first quarter of that 34-17 loss? Sure, it’s still unlikely that the Browns could have beaten the Patriots, no one else did, but it also set up a disturbing pattern of Anderson repeatedly throwing into double coverage for the bad interception. It also established another pattern that hurt the Browns later in the season, especially against the Bengals—being deep in the opponent’s “red zone” and not coming away with any points.

…Miami hadn’t foolishly drafted Ted Ginn, Jr. with its first pick and instead drafted Brady Quinn instead? The ill-advised pick of Ginn, when the Dolphins had so many other holes to fill, including quarterback, helped set the tone for two franchises in 2007: the Dolphins and the Browns. The Dolphins draft day blunder puzzled everyone, including their own players, and it showed on the field, particularly in the Browns 41-31 victory. Right now the Dolphis two quarterbacks are 37-year old Trent Green, 28 year-old Cleo Lemon and 26 year-old third-round draft pick John Beck, who couldn’t even beat out Lemon. Don’t think that Bill Parcells didn’t notice. His first official act was to fire general manager Randy Mueller and the rest of the Dolphins personnel department. The Browns coup in getting both Joe Thomas and Brady Quinn gave the fans a good start to a surprising season.

…Leigh Bodden doesn’t intercept Marc Bulger with 45 seconds left to seal a mistake-filled 27-20 victory over the winless St. Louis Rams? Bodden had a knack all season for getting burned early and yet finding a way late to make a big play. But this road victory was a mistake-filled mess with the Browns committing 14 penalties for 102 yards. Although the Browns overcame the mistakes this time, they weren’t a fluke. This lack of preparation, concentration and execution would haunt the Browns later in games they could have won and didn’t.

…the Browns offense hadn’t suddenly gone comatose in the second half of their 31-28 loss in Pittsburgh? The Browns led 21-9 at the half but didn’t get a first down in the second half until their last drive of the game. Of course, it didn’t help when the defense allowed Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger to scramble 30 yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. The successful two-point conversion thereafter was more salt in the wound as well. Josh Cribbs helped nullify that touchdown by immediately returning the ensuing kick 100 yards, but then the Browns defense nullified that run by giving up another touchdown on Pittsburgh’s next possession. With 10 seconds remaining, Dawson had the chance to get the game into overtime but his 52-yard field goal fell just short. It was a bitter loss to a hated rival that kept the Browns from winning the division and, ultimately, out of the playoffs.

…both end zone officials had actually blown the call on Phil Dawson’s 51-yard field goal that tied the game against Baltimore as time expired? One official did blow it but fortunately was talked out of his mistake by the other. The Ravens, celebrating on their way to the locker room, were forced to come back out on the field for overtime and seemed offended by the notion. It showed as the Browns won the toss, drove down to the Baltimore 16 and the won it on Dawson’s 33-yard field goal. Beating the Ravens never gets old. Neither does listening to Billick complain about how his team got screwed by a correct call.

…safety Brandon McDonald doesn’t hold Texans WR Andre Johnson to just 37 yards on 3 catches in the Browns 27-17 victory over the Houston Texans? In another classic personnel misjudgment by this coaching staff, McDonald only found his way into the game because of an injury to Eric Wright, whose rookie season was as uneven as the performance of the defense as a whole. McDonald also made a key interception in the fourth quarter that set up a Jamal Lewis touchdown run that seemingly put the game out of reach. But in a theme that also would be revisited later on, the Browns defense allowed quarterback Matt Schaub to march his team down the field in the fourth quarter of a game that seemingly was out of reach. It took the recovery of an onside kick after Schaub’s six-yard touchdown pass before fans felt comfortable that the victory had been secured.

…backup defensive lineman Simon Fraser doesn’t head butt one of the Arizona Cardinals in the scrum following the Cardinals kickoff late in the fourth quarter, resulting in a 15-yard penalty that forced the Browns to start their final drive from their own 18-yard line? This 27-21 loss was so mistake-filled, it’s actually hard to pick a defining moment, but Fraser’s head butt at least was the coup de grĂ¢ce. This game also was filled with controversy over Kellen Winslow’s catch in the end zone as time expired. Most Cleveland fans felt that it should have been ruled a touchdown because it appeared as though he was shoved out of bounds before he had a chance to get both feet in. Perhaps, but it was a game the Browns hardly deserved to win anyway. Anderson threw a key interception in the first quarter that resulted in a touchdown for the Cardinals and fumbled on the next possession that resulted in a Cardinals field goal. There also were a litany of false starts and personal fouls that again showed a lack of preparation, concentration and execution. This time, it cost the Browns the game.

…Jets head coach Eric Mangini had kicked the ball deep with 1:48 left and his team down by two instead of trying another onside kick in the Browns 24-18 win? The curious decision, with the Browns clinging to a 17-15 lead, gave the Browns good field position and set up the Jamal Lewis 31-yard touchdown run that ultimately was the difference. Of course, had Lewis been tackled after gaining the first down and prior to the end zone, the Browns could have run out the clock since the Jets were out of time outs. But the Lewis touchdown gave the Jets another chance. Things got that much tighter when Mike Nugent hit a 35-yard field goal with 37 seconds left. But Mangini saved his most curious decision for last by having Nugent kick it deep. The Browns Leon Williams saved Mangini from his own stupidity by going offsides on the kick. With a second chance, Mangini tried for another onside kick but it was fielded by receiver Joe Jurevicius and the Browns ran out the clock. What’s ultimately important to note is that the Browns had a bad team playing out the string beaten in the driving rain and still let them back in the game late. Call it foreshadowing.

…Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator Steve Fairchild had called for a pass in the end zone on 4th and five from the Browns 10-yard line with 15 seconds remaining instead of trying to get the first down with a screen play in a game the Browns won 8-0? The way the Browns defense suddenly collapsed against a Bills team that couldn’t move the ball at any other point in the snow, there was every reason to think that such a pass would have been successful. The Bills still would have needed a two-point conversion to tie the game, but the fact that they got this close at all gave fans more of a chill than the weather that day. The game featured a gutsy call by Crennel late in the first half to allow Dawson to attempt a 49-yard field goal that, if missed, would have given the Bills decent field position and a chance to take the lead. But Dawson rewarded Crennel’s faith by nailing the kick. The victory seemed like it would propel the Browns to the playoffs. It didn’t.

…cornerback Daven Holly recovers the fumble on the Bengals opening kickoff that would have given the Browns at the Cincinnati 27-yard line in that 19-14 loss? Given how the Browns squandered two other “red zone” opportunities, first with a fumbled snap on a field goal try and next on an Anderson interception in the Bengals end zone, it wasn’t a sure thing that the Browns would score. But it would have been a big lift early in a game that meant something only to the Browns. As it was, the Browns essentially had a collective team meltdown, with Anderson leading the way with four interceptions, even as a lousy Bengals team seemed destined to give the Browns the game. It was the most critical example of the malady that continues to define a Crennel-coached team: lack of preparation, concentration and execution. This loss caused the Browns, in Seinfeld terms, to lose hand and ultimately put them in a position of hoping that the Tennessee Titans would find a way to lose one of their final two games. They didn’t and the Browns, for only the second time in the franchise’s history, find themselves out of the playoffs despite a 10-win season.

…Brady Quinn had played the entire second half of the San Francisco game? The obvious answer is that both Crennel and Savage would have at least a decent opportunity to observe Quinn under game conditions even if it otherwise meant nothing in a game that itself meant nothing. But Crennel in an abundance of caution to the apparently fragile psyche of Anderson, caution which Crennel hardly showed in the preseason by the way, allowed Quinn to enter the game only while Anderson’s pinky finger was being x-rayed. What’s actually more troubling about Crennel’s thought process is that Anderson admitted later that his finger was still hurting when he went back in. Oh, well, it mattered not at all. The 49ers were barely competitive in a game that both teams clearly wanted to end quickly.

And, finally…

…the Indianapolis Colts hadn’t treated the last game of the season like the fourth game of the preseason? If that had been the case, Peyton Manning would have played the whole game and Jim Sorgi would have stayed cemented to the bench, which is what he deserves. Put it this way, the Colts are finished if Manning ever gets hurt. Still, it’s hard to fault Colts head coach Tony Dungy from resting his starters. It wasn’t his obligation to make sure that the Browns got into the playoffs. But if there is any justice, Peyton Manning will admit in the post-game press conference after his team’s loss in the playoffs that they were all just a bit out of sync after having two weeks off.

It’s been a great season. Thanks for reading and for all the great feedback.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Finding Meaning in the Meaningless

As much as Browns players should be used to playing in meaningless games in December, so too should Browns fans be used to watching meaningless games in December. It’s been that way for years with this franchise. But this version of a meaningless game was far different than most. Neither a pre-season tune-up nor a get-out-of-Dodge end-of-the year sleepwalk, the game was mostly an opportunity to recalibrate after last week’s disaster with the underlying goal to be ready for a playoff birth that may never come.

Bowing in respect to the ambiguities presented, the Browns played neither overtly good nor preposterously bad in beating an awful San Francisco 49ers team being led by their fourth quarterback, 20-7. It was all the effort they really needed on this day and all they really would have needed a week ago against Cincinnati, but that’s a lament for another time, beginning around 11:30 p.m. on Sunday when Tennessee beat Indianapolis in the Sunday night game.

The win, of course, did nothing to change the playoff calculus. A loss would only have altered it marginally. But psychologically, the victory was important even if the playoffs must wait another year.

The victory gave the Browns their seventh home win this season, their most ever, and re-established Cleveland Browns Stadium as a true home field advantage. It also represented their best record since 1995 when they went 11-5 under then genius-in-training, Bill Belichick. On the down side, if the Browns do not make the playoffs, the win represents only the second time in franchise history that this team won at least 10 games and didn’t make the playoffs. The last time that happened was in 1963, when a 10-4 Browns team finished second in the NFL’s Eastern Conference to the New York Giants. The Giants lost to the Chicago Bears that year in the NFL championship game.

With no weather issues for the first time in the last three weeks, the Browns offense still looked stuck somewhere between second and third gear, particularly in the second half. Running back Jamal Lewis wasn’t to blame. He continued his late season surge, running hard and gaining 128 yards on 26 carries. It gave Lewis over 1300 rushing yards for the season. But quarterback Derek Anderson, until his injury and even after his return, was more of a culprit, running more cold than hot, a 45-yard touchdown pass to Braylon Edwards notwithstanding. Anderson was victimized by the same things that have tended to hamper him every time he is “bad” Derek—poor decision making. He also seemed a bit gun shy.

That much was evident early anyway, just as it was against the Cincinnati Bengals a week ago. After the Browns defense held the 49ers to three and out on their first possession, Josh Cribbs took the punt back to the 49ers 33 yard line. Moving the ball with some effect, Anderson then threw to a well-covered Kellen Winslow and San Francisco cornerback Walt Harris stepped in for the easy interception.

Anderson temporarily rediscovered his groove two possessions later, however, hitting a wide open Braylon Edwards who was streaking back a defenseless Nate Clements for a 45-yard touchdown, which was notable mostly for the penalty called on Edwards afterward for unsportsmanlike conduct. Edwards took offense when Clements tried to tackle him while in the end zone by turning and taunting the beaten Clements. But that penalty notwithstanding, the catch was important as it pushed Edwards past Webster Slaughter for the most receiving yards in a season. On the day, Edwards had three receptions for 67 yards, giving him 1289 yards on the season, well past Slaughter’s 1236 yards in 1989. Winslow wasn’t too far behind, either. His 62 receiving yards on Sunday gave him over 1100 for the season.

The Edwards touchdown pushed the score to 14-0. The Browns first touchdown came on a Cribbs 76-yard punt return. That, coupled with his 53-yard return after San Francisco’s first possession gave him 129 return yards and the game was barely 11 minutes old. For the game, he had 192 yards and that doesn’t include the 94-yard kickoff return that was called back. It was affirmation that Cribbs’ Pro Bowl selection was well-deserved.

But other than the touchdown pass to Edwards, Anderson was throwing conservatively against a depleted 49ers defense, opting more for screens and quick outs than anything much downfield. That’s what five interceptions in less than two games will do for a player’s psyche. The injury, though, which wasn’t serious, provided the perfect cover for head coach Romeo Crennel to do what many fans were clamoring for anyway—put in Brady Quinn.

But before that could occur there was the little matter of the defense. Even a struggling team struggles less against the Browns, particularly if they have any sort of running attack. Though 49ers running back Frank Gore has been somewhat of a disappointment to fantasy football league owners around the country, he still entered the Browns game with over 1000 yards rushing. That was more than enough to keep the Browns front seven on their heels and the defensive backs skittish, at least in the first half, and it showed mightily as Weinke took the 49ers down the field and closed the gap to 14-7 with a seven-yard touchdown pass to Darrell Jackson. The drive was helped by Gore’s running and a questionable roughing the passer call on linebacker Kamerion Wimbley.

But after that bit of interference was cleared, in came Quinn with just over three minutes left in the half. Let the record show that Quinn’s first completion came with 1:59 left in the half, a 15-yard toss to tight end Steve Heiden. Let the record also show that at 1:19 and again at 1:07, Quinn should have had the first touchdown pass of his career. But Edwards dropped the first pass, which is never unexpected, and Winslow dropped the second, which was quite unexpected.

Still, there were at least two positives. First, Quinn looked comfortable playing. It helps, of course, to have a good offensive line, but frankly Quinn looked the same as he did in the preseason, calm and in charge. If nothing else, it’s pretty clear that he’s been doing more in the last 17 weeks than just making Subway commercials. Second, by moving the team into the red zone, Quinn gave Phil Dawson his first chance in two weeks to kick a field goal. By converting the 23-yard chance, which pushed the score to 17-7, coupled with the two extra points earlier in the half, Dawson also entered the record books, pushing past Lou Groza for the most points by a Browns kicker in a single season. In all, Dawson ended the regular season with 120 points, five more than Groza’s 115 in 1964. It also tied Dawson for second in season scoring with Leroy Kelly, who had 120 points in 1968. Jim Brown holds the record with 126 points in 1965.

The game, hardly in doubt even at halftime, had only one remaining mystery: whether Crennel would stay with Quinn in the second half or tempt fate further by putting Anderson back in. Mystery solved. Crennel went right back to Anderson, his starter, and it didn’t even take a coin flip. The truth is, though, that it hardly mattered. Ken Dorsey could have moved this offense against that team. Heck, Jimmy Dorsey would have been at least even money to throw a touchdown pass against the 49ers, assuming of course he had receivers who wouldn’t drop it in the end zone.

Anderson took the team on a 12-play, 69-yard drive that didn’t result in any points (do you see a pattern here?) and that probably shouldn’t have been anyway. Cribbs had taken the second-half kickoff 94 yards for what should have been his second return touchdown of the day. It was called back, however, on a holding call against Lennie Friedman that seemed more imagined than real. Anderson moved the team capably enough, but when running back Jason Wright dropped a touchdown pass in the end zone (do you see another pattern here?), the call went out to Dawson. But Clements, playing in front of family and friends, blocked the 25-yard attempt.

It hardly mattered. Weinke and the 49ers were unable to move the ball then or for the rest of the game. For the next quarter and a half, the game was mostly a death march toward the final gun, punctuated only occasionally by something semi-interesting, like a couple of Willie McGinest sacks (the Browns had five in all), a couple of good Jamal Lewis runs and a 49-yard field goal by Dawson that pushed the score to 20-7 with just over 10 minutes left in the game. It was the only points scored in the second half. By the end, it looked every bit like the fourth preseason game in both form and substance, particularly when the Browns backfield featured Jerome Harrison and Charles Ali late in the game.

Nonetheless, it did make more than a few fans loudly wonder, then, why Crennel was keeping Quinn nailed to the bench. But nailed did he remain to the bench. The only thing it really cost the Browns was the chance to get a better feel for Quinn under actual game conditions, which one can only assume mattered more to General Manager Phil Savage than it obviously did to Crennel.

Unquestionably, a 10-6 record is a successful season by any measure, particularly when the NFL seems designed to yield mostly 9-7 and 7-9 records. But more than just that visceral success, it validated the direction Savage has set for this team. First he overhauled the offensive line by first signing free agent guard Eric Steinbach and then resisting the call to draft a skill player with the first pick and instead opting for left tackle Joe Thomas. That move alone resulted in an astounding 35 less sacks than the previous season. He then brought in a hungry Jamal Lewis, threw his faith in the quarterback he stole from the Ravens rather than the quarterback he drafted in the third round, and rounded it off by taking control of the coaching staff by handpicking Rob Chudzinski as offensive coordinator. Crennel is getting the attention nationally for the Browns success by people who aren’t paying attention, but the person most deserving of post-season accolades is Savage, for executive of the year. And no matter that the season officially ended Sunday evening, the real meaning to be wrung from this season is that for the first time in a long time, Cleveland has a real football team.

Friday, December 28, 2007

High Stakes Stare Down

The camera may never blink, but the same doesn’t go for the NFL. In a showdown between the NFL, its fans, Congress and the cable industry, it was the great and powerful NFL that melted faster than a stick of butter in a microwave oven. And because it did, the New England Patriots vs. New York Giants game this Saturday night will be blasted on seemingly every network except SoapNet.

The backdrop behind this interesting little behind-the-scenes stare down stems first from the NFL’s decision to create its own cable network, dubbed, cleverly, “The NFL Network.” In creating its own niche channel, the NFL was determined not to make what it perceived to be the mistakes of the NBA’s own network, NBA TV. What the NFL sees in regard to NBA TV is that in most markets it is relegated to a sports tier in which customers pay extra for a handful of sports-related programming or, in the case of Time Warner for example, to the digital tier, meaning customers at least have to subscribe to digital cable.

But a major difference between the two networks is in approach. NBA TV was created in partnership with AOL Time Warner back in 2002 as part of a larger deal when the NBA renewed its various network agreements. Although NBA TV does broadcast the a few games each week, it was never meant to take the place of the NBA’s pay-per-view package that is available on most cable and both satellite systems nor was it ever meant to supplant the games on TNT, ESPN or ABC or even local TV for that matter.

The NFL’s ambitions for its own network seem far greater. On the surface, it, too, seems to exist to supplement network coverage. But that is more a product of the fact that its agreements with CBS, NBC, Fox and ESPN still have another five years to go. The longer term view seems to be one of opening up an additional revenue stream as a hedge, perhaps, against a reduction in the fees that the over-the-air networks might be willing to pay in the future. When it comes to technology, five years is a lifetime and with the seemingly inevitable convergence of the internet and television, among other things, the landscape for sports and any other television broadcasting for that matter is likely to be radically different when those existing contracts expire.

Thus, if the NFL can grab an extra dollar or so a month from every cable subscriber, which is its current ambition, that’s a tidy little stash even when the costs of running its own network are deducted. To this point, though, the NFL has mostly failed in its broadcasting quest. Time Warner only wants to give it the same treatment it gives NBA TV. Comcast, which does have a deal with the NFL Network, has actually moved it to a sports tier and is now in litigation over that decision, though it’s been beating the NFL at every turn in court.

The NFL has been counting almost solely on its brand awareness as the selling point for its channel because from a programming standpoint it rivals the NASA channel for pure tediousness, even after giving due respect to the relative handful of people in this country who absolutely must have a NFL fix on a daily basis.

Here, for example, is the programming for December 28, 2007: 6 a.m.: NFL Total Access, the NFL’s version of the Golf Channel’s Golf Central, which in turn is the Golf Channel’s version of ESPN’s SportsCenter. If you missed it at 6 a.m., don’t worry, it replays at 7 and 8 a.m. as well. At 9 a.m. is a documentary on the 1972 Dolphins. At 10 a.m. is a truncated replay of the Patriots/Cowboys game from October, followed by a truncated version of the Patriots/Colts game from November. At 1 p.m. is something called “Classic Games”, which is full replay of the Patriots/Eagles game from November. At 4 p.m. is “Point After” which takes the viewers on a scintillating review of the daily press conferences held by NFL coaches. About the only thing worse than attending a Bill Belichick press conference has to be watching a replay of it.

Then at 6 p.m. you get some sort of college football bowl game preview show, followed by “Put Up Your Dukes”, which is described as a look at the day’s hot topics and headlines in the NFL. This shouldn’t be confused with “NFL Total Access,” which follows, even though it too provides a look at the day’s hot topics and headlines. You then have the Texas Bowl, a top flight match-up between TCU and Houston, followed by repeats of NFL Total Access and Classic Games. Unquestionably that’s 24 hours of restaurant-quality programming.

The only real change in the programming on a day-to-day basis is late in the football season when the NFL Network shows games on Thursday and Saturday evenings. In reality, it’s the access to these games that supposedly is the selling point. But even then the lineup is hardly compelling, unless the outcome of your fantasy football league depends on what happened in the Broncos/Texans or the Bengals/49ers game.

Well, that is it wasn’t considered too compelling until what appeared to be a late-season throw away game between the Patriots and the Giants found its way on the NFL Network this year. When it first appeared on the schedule no one figured that this game would have potentially historic implications. But it does now and this would seem to have been the NFL’s best bargaining chip in its ongoing battle with the cable systems. And it would have been had the NFL not blinked in the stare down.

When it looked like the Patriots might actually go undefeated and the game against the Giants would be the final regular season obstacle, the NFL was indeed licking its chops. In mid-December, NFL Network spokesman Seth Palansky told the USA Today that there was “zero chance” that the network would allow the game to be broadcast on any other channel. In fact, he said there was as much chance of that changing as there was “raindrops going back into the clouds.” (Note: by contract, when a game is broadcast exclusively on cable, such as on ESPN or the NFL Network, the game also must be offered to the local stations, for a fee, in each participating team’s market.)

Well, apparently Palansky doesn’t actually speak for the NFL or else there are a whole lot of raindrops heading back into the clouds. The NFL tried to leverage the game in its negotiations with Time Warner by offering to give them the game for “free” on a basic cable tier in exchange for agreeing to let a neutral arbitrator resolve their long-standing dispute. Time Warner immediately rejected for the same reason anyone running his or her own business would similarly reject letting an arbitrator make its business decisions.

Rather than sit and wait for the masses to descend on the local Time Warner offices or at least for some misguided fan to start the inevitable online petition, the NFL instead folded its tent and decided instead to give away the game anyway to CBS and NBC. No word on whether the NFL is making Palansky himself put each and every raindrop back into each and every cloud.

In announcing this development, you had to like the pluck of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, who insisted that the league was doing this because it was in the best interests of its fans. If that were true, then wouldn’t it follow that pulling games from the over-the-air broadcast partners in the first place and putting them exclusively on the NFL Network wasn’t in the best interests of the fans? Probably, though Goodell would never admit as much. In fact, as if to throw a bone to Palansky and his foolish bravado, Goodell said that the league’s commitment to the NFL Network was stronger than ever.

That may be true, but if it is, then Goodell has a funny way of showing that, too. By voluntarily giving up the one trump card he lucked into in the form of the Patriots/Giants game that might have actually pushed Time Warner and Comcast into some sort of customer backlash, Goodell essentially admitted that he’s in a battle he can’t win.

If the NFL Network, or its wannabe little brother, the Big Ten Network, ever want to get a deal with the major cable companies on the favorable terms they crave, simply put they have to withhold the product from the fans and let nature take its course. And by withholding product, that doesn’t mean withholding some meaningless Bengals/49ers game, in the case of the NFL, or Ohio State vs. Akron in the case of the Big Ten Network. For the strategy to work they have to be willing to pull the pin out of the grenade by withholding a potentially historic game like the Patriots/Giants or, say, the Super Bowl. For the Big Ten, they have to have the guts to withhold Ohio State vs. Michigan. Anything less and people just shrug.

But this isn’t going to happen anytime soon, if ever. Goodell can play his “best interests of the fans” card all he wants. The truth is that Goodell made the decision because it was in the best interests of the league. The last thing it needs is more outside oversight and the NFL already was getting more than just a few inquiries from Congress about its broadcast plans, and that was well before the Patriots/Giants game took on such meaning.

Just over a year ago, when the NFL first started broadcasting a handful of games on its own network, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, indicated that his committee was “intrigued” by the league’s plans, particularly whether they violated the Sports Broadcasting Act. By intrigued, he meant concerned.

The rumblings got a bit louder after Palansky’s statement earlier this month, mainly because while local stations in Boston and New York were going to get the Patriots/Giants game, stations outside that immediate market where many fans of both teams live could not. Those additional rumblings proved to be too much for Goodell and the NFL. For as he and his partners surely understand, the only thing that could kill their broadcasting dreams more definitively than the lack of a deal with either Time Warner or Comcast is Congress in general and a re-working of the anti-trust laws in particular.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Lingering Items...Bengals Edition

With another game, another challenge always in front of them, professional athletes can’t afford to let the setbacks linger. At least if they want to continue to be professional athletes. Fans, on the other hand, have no such constraints. That’s why, even if the Browns do back into the playoffs after this weekend’s games, the loss to the Cincinnati Bengals will still linger…and linger…and linger. It’s what happens when a team can’t quite meet the expectations that come with transforming from a mere surprise to an actual contender.

Easily the Browns 19-14 loss to the Bengals was the most disappointing since the Browns returned in 1999. But on the list that is disappointing Cleveland sports teams losses, at best it only makes the lower half of the first page, which says more about the history of Cleveland sports than anything else.

The reason this loss even makes the list at all is a matter of context. The Browns were the feel-good story of the year, even with the Indians in the American League Championship Series and the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. Having been pasted in their opener, the Browns were re-invented under a virtual rookie quarterback in Derek Anderson and a first-time offensive coordinator in Rob Chudzinski. Entering the penultimate game of the regular season they were 9-5 and seemingly on a roll. They controlled their own playoff fate and were coming off an important win, a shutout no less, the week before against the Buffalo Bills. With the weather worsening, the run game under Jamal Lewis was looking as solid as ever and even the defense seemed to be improving, if not statistically, then at least in results.

The Bengals were the Browns’ mirror opposites and not simply because their record was 5-9. The Bengals, collectively were a mess, playing for nothing much in particular and for a head coach who already had publicly declared that his team needed a whole heap of new players next season just to get competitive. The once-feared offense, with a glamour quarterback and a trio of seemingly talented receivers, was struggling to score touchdowns. In a related development no doubt, the running game was struggling even before its number one back went down to injuries. The defense never seemed to have recovered after these same Browns had dropped 51 points on them in the season’s second week.

But almost from the opening kickoff through the final tick of the clock, the Bengals looked to be a team headed for the playoffs and the Browns a team headed for a quick exit after the regular season’s final weeks.

The Browns had a chance to seize the momentum from the outset when the Bengals Glenn Holt fumbled the opening kickoff seemingly into the arms of Devon Holley. But in what would turn out to be just one of about 243 examples of lackluster intensity (if there even can be such a thing) Holley let Holt grab the ball back during the scrum that followed. If Holley had finished the play, the Browns would have been first and 10 at the Bengals 25 and poised for a quick score from which the Bengals may never have recovered.

That play certainly didn’t determine the course of the game any more than punter Dave Zastudil’s failure to secure a perfect snap on the Browns field goal attempt on their first drive, but yet in a way they both actually did. Small moments in a much larger game to be sure, but also revealing of a team clearly playing with their hearts in their throats.

The Bengals, on the other hand, were playing exactly how quarterback Carson Palmer said they’d play earlier in the week—loosely. But that really isn’t the best description, actually. At least early on they played with an intensity of a team that seemed to be on their way to the playoffs instead of into the ether in another week. Running back Kenny Watson was running as hard as any back has run against the Browns this season. Halfway through the second quarter, Watson already had 82 yards on only 13 carries The Bengals literally were pushing the Browns around the field, particularly the Browns defense, all game. The Browns didn’t necessarily back down, at least not completely, but neither did they rise up either. But the saving grace was the fact that the Bengals were 5-9 and it was easy to see why—an abject inability to finish drives. It’s what kept the game closer than it otherwise should have been throughout.

When a player or two has a bad game, there’s not a whole lot anyone can do. That kind of thing will always happen. But when a team collectively can’t get out of first gear, it usually stems from a lack of preparation for the task at hand. And when that happens, the failure isn’t individual, it’s institutional. The question is, why? In this case, the answer is always the same.

It’s fair to assume that head coach Romeo Crennel emphasized to his young team all week exactly what was at stake in the Cincinnati game. But whatever words he chose certainly didn’t resonate. The Browns looked like every Ohio State team did against Michigan under John Cooper.

That’s why any Crennel-for-Coach-of-the-Year talk has always seemed so misplaced. The collapse on Sunday was unexpected but in retrospect is hardly surprising. In his two plus seasons as head coach the book on Crennel is pretty well written. When he’s at his best, it’s evident because nothing overtly ridiculous seems to be happening on the field. When he’s at his worst, as he was against Cincinnati, the team looks every bit as disorganized as the teams he coached during his previous two seasons. Too many times under Crennel the team seems overwhelmed by its circumstances. It’s a common theme in nearly every loss and is evident by the sheer number of mental mistakes that get made. This time, it may very well have cost the Browns the playoffs.

The collapse of Derek Anderson, on the other hand, is a far smaller concern. This was Anderson’s first really big test and it’s of no great moment that this very inexperienced quarterback failed, at least until he fails again under similar circumstances.

Yet it is interesting how many fans seem to be losing confidence in Anderson so quickly, despite all that he has accomplished to this point. Many of the emails I received questioned why Crennel stayed with Anderson despite his struggles instead of bringing in Brady Quinn.

It hardly seems necessary to point out the obvious, but it would be hard to imagine a worse spot to bring Quinn in for his first taste of regular season NFL football. It may be a fair criticism of Crennel that he never did find any spot duty for Quinn during the regular season, but not having found any previously, putting in Quinn during the second half of a must-win game on the road against a division rival already brimming with confidence seems like an odd place to start.

The argument for using Quinn last Sunday was basically that things couldn’t get any worse. Anyone who really believes that hasn’t watched enough NFL football to know that things can always get worse. But even if that were the case, then a better argument could have been made for putting in Ken Dorsey, who at least has played regular season football.

Of all the mistakes Crennel has made this season, failing to use Quinn last Sunday wasn’t one of them.

As ridiculous as the suggestions were about using Quinn last Sunday, they were hardly the most ridiculous of the week. That honor goes to those who were urging the Browns to rest their starters this week against San Francisco, under the theory that it doesn’t matter whether the team wins or loses this week.

Through the quirk of the schedules, it is true that the Browns can win this week and not make the playoffs and can lose and still make the playoffs. That’s simply the result of the fact that the Browns are playing a non-conference game, the outcome of which makes no difference in the wild-card tiebreakers that will be relevant to the Browns’ fate. But that’s hardly a reason to celebrate, let alone a reason to give the starters a break they don’t deserve. More importantly, Crennel already has “issues” when it comes to motivating his team. Sending them a message that they are free to equate this Sunday’s game against the San Francisco 49ers with the fourth preseason game isn’t going to help with that problem, either.

What this team needs most right now is more work, not less. Anderson may not throw any interceptions from the bench, but neither does the bench give him the experience he needs to better deal with adversity. As for the defense, if the starters rested, how would anyone know anyway?

Question to ponder: Why should Tony Dungy care if the Browns make the playoffs? Here’s a clue: he shouldn’t. His obligation is to his team and his quest for another Super Bowl. As Dungy could rightly point out but hasn’t: it wasn’t his team that lost to both Oakland and Cincinnati.

One more, since it’s still technically the holiday season: Which was the last team to make the playoffs with the worst ranked defense? The 1964 Browns, according to CBS Sports during last Sunday’s telecast. But that’s a very deceiving statistic. First, it was only a 14-team league. Second, that’s only true so far as yards yielded. The defense gave up the fifth fewest points, over 100 less than the New York Giants. That’s a far more meaningful statistic, particularly in such a small league. But hey, it made a nice little tidbit for the announcers to drop into the broadcast, even if it wasn’t well researched or considered.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Melting Down

The NFL season can be painfully long and deceptively short, so too can a game, particularly if you’re a struggling team or a team trying to get back into the playoffs for only the second time in the last nine seasons. For the Browns, Sunday’s game against AFC North rival Cincinnati Bengals was much too long and now the season may be a game or two too short, as the Browns collapsed under the pressure of expectations, losing to the 5-9 Bengals 19-14.

The loss, coupled with the Tennessee Titans 10-6 win over the NY Jets forces the Browns into a must-win situation next week at home against the San Francisco 49ers. But even that may not be enough. The Browns loss now gives the Titans the upper hand in the hunt for the last playoff spot in the AFC. For the Browns to get in, the Titans still have to lose next week against an Indianapolis team that is likely to be resting. If you’re into trends, right now you’re probably terrified at the thought of what this Browns team might do in another pressure game against an inferior opponent. But that’s for next week.

For now, though, it’s enough to ponder the devastation that Sunday’s loss may very well have on the entire Browns season. It certainly wasn’t a beat down in the same way as the loss the Browns suffered in the first week of the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Indeed, the Bengals simply aren’t good enough to put a licking on anyone. But given what was at stake, this loss was in many ways much more painful.

Based solely on the composure the Browns showed last week in the snow against the Buffalo Bills, the abject dysfunction this week that cost the Browns this game was particularly unexpected and stung particularly hard.

That dysfunction was pretty well entrenched by halftime, despite a late charge that could have but didn’t result in the win. The Browns were a team playing tight; like a team playing under the kind of pressure for which it just wasn’t quite ready. Put the blame wherever you might, but inasmuch as it looked like a collective meltdown, head coach Romeo Crennel and his entire staff looked like a good place to start.

On offense quarterback Derek Anderson was wildly out of sorts. Statistics notwithstanding, his passes were flying everywhere at every moment. Balls were overthrown, underthrown, and thrown into the arms of Bengals defenders, four times in all. On the day he was 29-48 for 250 yards, two touchdowns and those four interceptions.

There were penalties galore, including drive-stunting holding calls in two crucial situations in the first half. There was a botched hold on the field goal. There were difficult catches that just weren’t made, time and again. In total, the day featured the kind of mistakes that bad teams make and playoff teams don’t; the kind that first multiply and then crush. And while the mistakes certainly did crush the Browns, for sheer torture there was nothing worse than the parade of horrors in the last 1:44 of the first half, just when it appeared as though the Browns might actually escape the half down only 3-0. Instead, it was shortly 19-0 and the game was effectively out of reach.

After the Browns’ defense, which had spent the half engaging in its own misadventures trying to contain a Bengals running game that was mostly inept all season and missing its top running back, stopped the Bengals with a three and out deep in their own territory, Anderson made possibly his worst pass of the season, for the moment anyway, on the very next play, directly in the arms of cornerback Nedu Nkudwe, who returned it 44 yards to the Browns 5-yard line, breaking through tackles as if the defense was on the field. Of course, the predictable happened on the next play as Palmer found receiver T. J. Houshmandzadeh in the end zone, extending the lead to 13-0.

But that was just the appetizer. For the main dish, after Cribbs took the ensuing kickoff to the Browns 35-yard line, only to have a D’Qwell Jackson personal foul nullify the run, Anderson then threw his latest worse pass of the season, trying to force it into Braylon Edwards long when Kellen Winslow was open underneath. Leon Hall intercepted and three plays later Watson pushed his way into the end zone from the two yard line. About the only thing that went right was the Browns holding the Bengals out of the end zone on the two point conversion attempt to keep the score at 19-0, although that was a bit of an adventure as well as linebacker Willie McGinest seemingly tried to call time out with none left when he realized that there were only 10 men on the field. Fortunately, the Browns were rescued from their own negligence by a time clock official who had not reset the 25-second clock.

The closest the Browns came to scoring in that first half was in the first quarter following a Bengals punt that took the Browns to their own 10-yard line. A couple of nice runs by Jamal Lewis and Jason Wright, a good catch and run by tight end Kellen Winslow, Jr. and the Browns were deep into Bengals territory. But the drive fizzled forcing a Phil Dawson 39-yard field goal attempt.

But in just one of a series of mistakes by the entire team that typified the day, punter Dave Zastudil mishandled a perfect snap. As a result, he never got the hold down and was forced to eat it, killing the drive. The field goal was hardly a gimme in the first place. Dawson was lined up near the right hash mark kicking back into a strong left to right breeze that was literally moving the goal posts from side to side.

The botched attempt didn’t end up costing them nearly as much as the botched fourth and one shortly thereafter following Leigh Bodden’s interception that he returned to the Bengals 28-yard line. By not getting that first down, indeed by not scoring, the Browns ended the first quarter with two possessions deep in Bengals territory and absolutely nothing except frustration to show for it. It wasn’t perfect and it sure wasn’t sublime.

The second half was like high school prom night. Lots of tease, very little payoff. Statistically the Browns dominated but still found themselves biting through their lower lips in frustration when the game ended, contemplating what could have been. And it wasn’t as if the Bengals weren’t trying to help. They spent the second half playing mostly not to lose and mostly doing just the opposite.

For example, they basically went three and out in every drive but their last. Moreover, at two different points, with the game seemingly firmly in their hands, they floundered. The first time was with 7:35 left in the fourth quarter, just after Anderson’s fourth interception of the day and the Bengals holding a seemingly safe 19-7 lead. But Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis suddenly got inventive. Oops. Palmer looked deep to Houshmandzadeh who slipped. Bodden stepped in front for his second interception of the day. Three plays later, Anderson found receiver Braylon Edwards for his second touchdown and franchise leading 15th touchdown catch of the year. Suddenly a game that was out of reach was now within reach at 19-14 and nearly six minutes to play.

The next time came on the next series with 5:57 left. The Browns, forced to dance with the one they brought, stood mostly by while the Bengals and Watson literally ran it down the throats of the Browns front seven, which is more a technical description. If you’re looking for something a bit more descriptive, it would be the Browns front sieve.

Play after play, it was Watson up the middle, with an unexpected and highly successful double reverse that Chad Johnson took for 16 yards. But on Watson’s eighth carry of the drive, he fumbled into the arms of Jackson at the Browns 22 yard line with 1:48 to play and two time outs.

But if you expected miracles, then you probably weren’t watching very closely the whole day. The drive, which, again, is more a technical description, featured lots of completed passes but for very little gain. For good measure, it also featured some horrific clock management caused mostly by Anderson’s fascination with crossing patterns that probably cost the Browns at least 30 of the 108 seconds they had to work with.

With six seconds remaining, Anderson was forced out of the pocket from the Bengals 35-yard line. He made out of bounds with one second left. The final gasp was a pass that fell well short of Edwards. With that, the Browns were left to wander into their locker room, leaving the team bus idling in the parking lot while they watched the Tennessee/New York Jets game in the locker room, hoping that the Titans would likewise crumble under the pressure and hand the Browns their playoff berth.

It would be a mistake, however, to let what occurred late obscure the fact that in the second half the Browns had two drives that started in Bengals’ territory and had nothing to show for it. In fact, those drives resulted in more turnovers—one—than points and as much as anything else told the story of the game

Even when the Browns did show some life, for example after Anderson’s first touchdown pass to Edwards that gave Edwards the franchise single-season touchdown record, they couldn’t sustain the momentum. On their next series Anderson’s arm was hit as he was throwing in the direction of Tim Carter on fourth and nine killing still another promising drive.

To the extent there were any real positives on this otherwise miserable day, it was Edwards’ two touchdowns and his franchise record. He caught eight passes overall but for only 52 yards. Lewis, too, was a bright spot, carrying the ball 15 times for 92 yards and getting 42 more yards on five catches. Winslow played well with seven catches for 73 yards, but as most losses ultimately are an inside job, all of these individual performances were well obliterated by all the mistakes that bookended them.

Now the Browns head into the last game of the season with no chance to win the division and no longer controlling their fate. If Crennel really is a candidate for the coach of the year, then the true test of whether he deserves such accolades will be if he can find a way to ensure that his team is more ready to play next week than it was this week. But given how this was the same test he faced this week, it’s hard to like Crennel’s or the Browns’ chances.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Welcome to the Dark Side, Wolverines

There is a Chinese proverb that says in desperation, a dog will leap over a wall. Over the many decades of its existence, the University of Michigan has attempted to build a certain wall of elitism around its school, effectively telling everyone in the world that it is a different and better place, academically and otherwise, than say the Ohio States of the world.

Well, that wall not only just got jumped it got torn down and all it took was Michigan selling its soul with the hiring of a coach who couldn’t close the deal in a game he needed to win in order to gain a berth in the National Championship game on the line. Rich Rodriguez meet Lloyd Carr.

It’s hard to know, of course, how the Michigan’s hiring of the former West Virginia Moutaineers coach ultimately will play out, though its fun to speculate, given Rodriguez’s continued inability to actually win really big games. What isn’t so hard to know, of course, is that Michigan fans better get used to two things: their school is no longer an above-it-all institution of higher learning and their football program is now being led by a coach with one eye always firmly trained on the next opportunity of a lifetime.

Former Louisville and Atlanta Falcons coach Bobby Petrino has been getting a tremendous amount of abuse from conveniently high-minded types like former players and ESPN talking heads for supposedly running out on a hapless Atlanta Falcons team and franchise but Rodriguez’s similar move in West Virginia has been met with mostly a shrug. Hard to figure, particularly as the facts continue to trickle out about Rodriguez.

Make no mistake about it, Rodriguez is running out on his team in much the same way Petrino ran out on Atlanta. Keep in mind first that the ink on the contract Rodriguez had signed just this past August with West Virginia is barely dry. Second, West Virginia’s season isn’t over. They have a little matter of a Fiesta Bowl game on January 2nd against Oklahoma before the season is over. Arguably, that game is far more meaningful to West Virginia and its program than the three remaining games that were on the Atlanta Falcons schedule when Petrino abruptly quit.

Maybe Petrino should have stuck around the hopelessness that is Atlanta these days, but no one has yet come up with a plausible reason why Rodriguez shouldn’t be similarly criticized or chastised. If Michigan truly wanted Rodriguez, which is somewhat questionable since he was, after all, their third choice, why couldn’t they wait until after the Fiesta Bowl?

Actually, there is an answer to that question. It’s tied up in the engine that really drives the college football machine these days: recruiting. Rodriguez met with Michigan representatives last Friday in Toledo. By Saturday morning, according to published reports, Rodriguez had made his decision. How do we know that? Well, it appears that one of the first persons told about the decision was not his team, maybe not even his wife. It was Pittsburgh Jeanette high school player, Terrelle Pryor, who just happens to be one of the most highly sought recruits in the nation.

According to a story in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Rodriguez called Pryor Saturday morning, just hours actually after the Toledo meeting, to tell Pryor he was headed to Michigan. Pryor’s immediate reaction was to take West Virginia off his list of schools under consideration and to add Michigan to it instead.

Pryor is so highly sought, including by Ohio State, because he runs the spread offense, which just happens to be Rodriguez’s specialty and is the current rage in offensive schemes. In fact, while Ohio State is one of Pryor’s top choices, along with Oregon, Penn State and Florida, Pryor has openly mused that Ohio State’s offensive philosophy may not be the right fit for him.

But now that Rodriguez has taken his act to Michigan, Pryor now has three Big Ten schools on his list. Given how quickly Rodriguez called Pryor with the news, it is fair to ask (though no one seemingly has) what role the potential to land Pryor in Michigan played in Michigan’s decision to offer Rodriguez the job. In fact, if Pryor does end up at Michigan, those questions shouldn’t just be asked on the internet, the NCAA should actually investigate.

It’s doubtful that anyone officially associated with Michigan would actually admit that the chance to lure Pryor to the Wolverines in order to resurrect a program in sore need of resurrection played any role whatsoever. But if anyone officially associated with Michigan denies that Pryor’s name ever came up, then the last piece of Michigan’s so-called mystique—credibility—will have been forever compromised. Welcome, Wolverines, to the dark side.

Another aspect about Rodriguez’s hiring, which not only reflects poorly on Michigan but also tells you a great deal about Rodriguez’s ethics, is the little matter of the pesky $4 million buyout in that flimsy contract he signed last August. According to a story in the Charleston Daily Mail, it sure seems like Rodriguez is trying to avoid paying the penalty he voluntarily accepted without so much as a gun to his head just eight months ago if he ever quit and went to another school.

No one actually expected Rodriguez to pay the penalty personally. These things are usually handled by a combination of the school and its boosters that lured him away. But $4 million is actually one of the bigger penalty clauses that you’ll see in a contract and neither the University of Michigan nor its boosters seem all that keen on paying an extra $4 million just to buy their third choice.

Attempting to escape the obligation, Rodriguez has done a couple of things, on the advice undoubtedly of his attorneys. First, he’s actually intimated that he’s not leaving because of the great opportunity that Michigan supposedly presents but more so because West Virginia wasn’t meeting its contractual commitments to him regarding the completion of an academic center and an upgrade to the locker room. In this battle, he’s enlisted some alums to spread the word while remaining oh so distant from it personally. Coward.

Apparently, the Mountaineers academic center was completed, just a little later than planned. The locker room upgrade is supposedly on schedule. If this all seems more than a little trivial, just remember the two great adages of most major college coaches these days: Greed know no bounds and no amount of money is too small to quibble over when it’s mine. Remember, too, that all this is really just an attempt to insert leverage into a discussion on how to reduce the $4 million to, perhaps a more manageable number. In that regard, it’s also instructive to remember that this is the same tactic that Michigan and John Beilein used just last year when Beilein, too, bolted the Mountaineers for the sunny shores of Ann Arbor and sought to reduce his $2.5 million buyout penalty. It worked. He paid only $1.5 million. Cheapskate.

Second, the effective date of Rodriguez’s resignation letter is January 3rd. The point here is to try and encourage West Virginia to actually fire Rodriguez before that date, which, too, would avoid Rodriguez having to pay the penalty.

If all this seems just a little underhanded or a little sordid, remember that Michigan could make this all go away by simply paying the penalty in the first place. Of course, they didn’t do that in the case of Beilein when the stakes were less, so why would anyone expect anything different here? You may rightly surmise that this is the least that this supposedly stand-up institution could do, but you’d be wrong. Doing the right thing always has its price and, in this case, we now know that at Michigan, it’s less than $4 million.

Eventually, you do reap what you sow and all this will someday come back to revisit Rodriguez and Michigan, and probably at the least opportune time. In the short-term, though, Michigan and its fans can go off and celebrate this hiring and all that it will supposedly bring to the program. But as they’re drinking themselves giddy, no amount of alcohol can hide the fact that as of now, the only differences between themselves and Arkansas are geography and conference affiliation. And when their heads eventually clear, maybe then they’ll awake to the reality of the permanent damage they’ve done to the school and its reputation.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Lingering Items--Bills Edition

One of the great things about playing a football game in adverse conditions is that it tends to expose whatever flaws your team may have. Indeed, in some ways, adverse conditions can be the best way for a general manager to judge the relative strengths and weaknesses of his team.

Thus, equally as important as the Browns victory Sunday was against the Bills was the fact that it highlighted where both teams need work if they have hopes of becoming among the elite in the NFL. But since this isn’t a site dedicated to the Bills, we’ll let that team and its fans figure out its shortcomings, but here’s a hint: defensive line. Here’s another hint: offensive line.

As for the Browns, Sunday’s game revealed the same litany of strengths and holes that, frankly, have been present all season. On the plus side, as good of a season that quarterback Derek Anderson has had, his passing success owes a debt of gratitude to the continued threat of a strong running attack, led by Jamal Lewis. Dumping Reuben Droughns, who is now mostly an afterthought with the New York Giants, has turned out to be a brilliant move.

Droughns certainly isn’t a bad running back, but he simply never seemed to possess the combination of speed, strength and toughness that made opposing teams respect the Browns running attack week in and week out. I suppose, too, that it’s a fair point that Droughns ran behind an inferior offensive line while in Cleveland. But there’s no question that neither Denver, which did have a good offensive line and from whom the Browns acquired Droughns, nor general manager Phil Savage felt that Droughns had that “it” factor, even if running behind the kind of line Lewis now has.

But Lewis is a much different story. Even before coming to the Browns, he had compiled enough credentials to qualify him as an elite back. But the way he was seemingly cast aside by a Baltimore Ravens team desperate for offense fed the common perception that Lewis was an “old” 28 years of age whose better days had passed. In fact, the whispers were that Lewis had basically turned into a back like Larry Brown, the former Washington Redskin from the early 1970s who was a Pro Bowler three of his first four seasons. At that time, Brown seemed well on his way to a Hall of Fame career, but just as suddenly fell off the map as the result of all the hits he had taken during those early seasons. He had been prematurely beaten up and rendered ineffective.

What the Bills game proved in particular and the season has proven in general is that Lewis is far from being done as a running back and is, indeed, with the season he’s put together this year is unquestionably a legitimate Hall of Famer when his playing days do end. The conditions on Sunday begged for exactly the style of running that Lewis has perfected. The fact that he delivered so impressively leaves no doubt that teams cannot simply key on one aspect of Rob Chudzinski’s offense. In other words, the Browns already clearly have a playoff-quality offense.

The defense, though, is a much bigger story. The fact that Marshawn Lynch had 82 yards rushing wasn’t much of a surprise for two reasons. First, the Bills mostly ran until the last drive. Second, it’s not as if the Browns defensive line has been able to really stop anybody all year anyway. On the year, they are giving up over 128 yards rushing per game. Saying, again, that the defensive line needs to get fixed is as obvious as noting that there are some parental issues that need to be addressed in the Spears family.

But a disturbing trend of the last few weeks most certainly was how the defense, collectively, seemed to nearly fall apart with the game on the line against beaten teams with inferior offenses. Both were remarkably similar. Two teams that hadn’t been able to do much over the course of 55 minutes suddenly turned into the New England Patriots in the last 5. Passes suddenly got completed, running lanes opened and the defense seemed helpless, missing tackles and blowing coverage.

It’s too easy to simply conclude that a lack of talent is responsible and time to focus at least some attention on defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. The schemes he’s calling late in the game, which feature three down linemen rushing and maximum protection back in order to stop big plays, aren’t working. By getting absolutely no pressure on the quarterbacks, even the likes of Kellen Clemens can eventually find someone breaking open. And when you get to the playoffs, the quarterbacks won’t be stiffs.

But if this trend continues, the only real hope that the Browns have of advancing in the playoffs is if they are clicking on offense and doing just enough on defense to keep the game from getting out of control. Unfortunately, of the potential teams they might meet in the playoffs, all have defenses that are in the top half of the conference, which makes that a difficult task. Further complicating it is the fact that the converse is true as well; of the potential teams they might meet in the playoffs, all have offenses that are in the top half of the conference. In other words, this is the time of year when the biggest flaws get revealed. The Browns lack of balance between offense and defense is the threat to whatever comes next.


In case anyone was looking for additional reasons why at least one if not more of the Browns offensive linemen should have been in the Pro Bowl, consider how little Anderson has been sacked. He’s started 14 games and played half of another and has been sacked only 12 times. That ties him with Drew Brees for the least sacked starter, just ahead of Brett Favre.

Plenty of credit for this goes to Anderson because of his quick release. The ability to make a decision quickly is the key to avoiding sacks. Quarterbacks looking to always make the perfect throw tend to find themselves picking themselves up off the turf more often than not. For proof, look no further than Charlie Frye. In one half of one game, he was sacked five times, with the same offensive line that has basically kept Anderson’s uniform clean all season.

But as much and probably more credit for the lack of sacks goes to the offensive line. If not for Frye’s five sacks in the first game of the season, they would be tied with New Orleans. Yet, no offensive lineman from the Browns made the Pro Bowl while Alan Faneca will start at guard and Jonathan Ogden will start at tackle. Clearly, those are reputation picks because the performance this year is clearly lacking. Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been sacked an astounding 43 times, second most only to Jon Kitna in Detroit, while Ravens quarterbacks have been sacked 35 times. It’s always difficult, of course, to really know how well an offensive lineman is performing. But this certainly looks like a good place to start looking.


While were measuring the effectiveness of the Browns offensive line, take note of the story in Wednesday’s USA Today where Sean Leahy writes that 60 different players have started at quarterback in NFL games this year, the most in the 32-team era. The Browns contributed to that statistic when they sent Frye off to Seattle to carry a clipboard, but that’s misleading.

Most of the changes that have come across the league relate to injuries, naturally. The rest relate to ineffectiveness. Ultimately, though, it all traces back to the offensive line. When your quarterback isn’t constantly being harassed, he’s less likely to get injured. And if he’s not getting harassed, he has a decent chance to be effective. It’s really a pretty simple, tried and true concept, which has taken the Browns only about two decades to learn.


Proving that players can learn from other players, the kneel down by the Eagles Brian Westbrook at the one yard line late in the fourth quarter Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys demonstrates clearly that sometimes scoring isn’t always the right play. Indeed, it almost cost the Browns against the Jets.

As I noted last week in the Jets edition, the chaos near the end of that game was due, oddly, by Jamal Lewis’ terrific 31-yard touchdown run. Had he not scored but rather been tackled after gaining the first down, the Browns could have run out the clock since the Jets were out of time outs.

The exact same scenario developed in Dallas. Westbrook, like Lewis, broke through and was headed for a touchdown. But instead of scoring, he dropped to the ground at the one, allowing the Eagles to run out the clock because the Cowboys likewise had no time outs.

It was a heady play by Westbrook, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean that Lewis made a bonehead play either. Given how the defenses were playing in both those games, a touchdown at that point, with just over a minute left, should have closed out the game anyway. The fact that the Browns defense fell apart, while predictable in theory, didn’t seem possible in context. Live and learn.

Proving that coaches don’t learn from other coaches, in that same game Eagles coach Andy Reid called a time out to determine whether or not he wanted to challenge a play. He did and lost. Two time outs blown. Fortunately, it didn’t cost his team like it did Browns head coach Romeo Crennel. Live and don’t learn, I suppose.

Questions to ponder: Why is Rich Rodriguez, who ran out on his team, his alma mater, with a BCS bowl game to play, not being raked over the coals in the same way as Bobby Petrino?
The New York Yankees on Tuesday fired traveling secretary David Szen. Does that mean that George Costanza will finally get the promotion he’s so richly deserved?

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Let it Snow

If it wasn’t quite destiny, it was inevitability. When Browns kicker Phil Dawson nailed an improbable 49-yard field goal just before the end of the first half, in that one brief moment in the entire half when the wind and the snow stilled, there wasn’t a person watching who didn’t know right then and there that the Browns were heading to the playoffs. And when they get there, which they will, the 8-0 victory Sunday against the Buffalo Bills couldn’t have served as a more fitting entry pass. The Bills, on the other hand, will be left to ponder “what if?” when the playoffs start as they sunk to 7-7 on the season and in need of more miracles than Tiny Tim.

It would be hard to overstate the impact Dawson’s kick had on the rest of the game. The fact that the Browns even tried it was a questionable call. The score was only 5-0 at that point and a miss would have given the Bills good field position with 1:25 and all three time outs. The smart money was on a pooch punt which clearly would have sent the Browns into halftime with the lead anyway.

But give head coach Romeo Crennel credit. By taking that chance, given the stakes, he was just as clearly sending a message to the beleaguered defense that he had confidence that they could make a stop if necessary. When the kick cleared the upright byjustthismuch, hitting Dawson’s new best friend—the center support bar—in the process it provided a lethal one-two punch of emotion that effectively lifted the Browns above the elements, above the competition and, most likely, on into the playoffs. We’ll know more next week as Tennessee prevailed late against Kansas City to deny the Browns from clinching with two games remaining.

The 8-0 score at that point had to seem like at least a two-touchdown lead to the Bills. And, as it was, it mostly was. Of course, the Browns and their fans had to endure the now common late charge by a team on the ropes. The only real bullet the Browns had to dodge in the second half came on the Bills very last drive. In 1:51, the Bills were able to move the ball better than they had all day and better than even they had a right to expect.

The key to the drive was Bills quarterback Trent Edwards’ 20-yard pass on fourth and 10 that took the ball to the Cleveland 15. Edwards was forced to spike the ball on first down to stop the clock, leaving three plays, 20 yards and a two-point conversion between his team and overtime and the possibility of salvaging their dwindling playoffs hopes.

But on fourth down and five from the Cleveland 10, the Bills elected to try for the first down instead of the touchdown. Edwards tossed a swing pass to Freddie Jackson that linebacker Chaun Thompson and safety Sean Jones snuffed out immediately, holding Jackson to no gain. The Browns took over with three seconds left. Anderson took a knee and the Browns found themselves sitting at 9-5 and tied for first in the AFC North with Pittsburgh, which lost at home to Jacksonville, 29-22. And though it had no playoff implications whatsoever, the Dolphins winning their first game of the season at the expense of the Baltimore Ravens was just as satisfying.

In retrospect, Crennel’s gutsy call in the first half was mostly informed by the fact that the Browns were able to move the ball effectively enough throughout that half, the score notwithstanding. Give offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski credit on that one. The elements were irrelevant to him. The Browns stuck to a balanced attack, running 16 times and passing 18 times in that first half, keeping the Bills off-balance throughout. With the poor conditions refusing to let up, a heavy dose of the ground game in the second half was expected.

It helped, of course, that running back Jamal Lewis ran like a Browns running back has to run late in the season. He carried the ball 15 times for 80 yards in that first half, pushing him over the 1,000 yard mark for the sixth time in his career. This running gave Anderson enough time to find Braylon Edwards and Joe Jurevicius just often enough to keep drives alive long enough to keep the ball out of the Bills’ hands.

While the near collapse at the end created enough anxiety to make one forget about the blizzard swirling about, it wasn’t enough to take the shine off all that had taken place to that point. In particular, the drive the Browns and Lewis put together with 6:04 left in the game and the ball sitting on their own three-yard line evoked memories of the actual good ‘ol days, pick your era.

On first down, Lewis ran for 13 yards. On the next play, he gained another nine. On the play after that, he got another first down with a five-yard run. Not finished, he ran for three more yards on the next play. Then, for good measure, Jason Wright ran for 10 yards and another first down. Eventually, though, the Browns found themselves stalled with the ball sitting on the Buffalo 48-yard line, one-half yard short of the first down and two minutes remaining.

For a moment, it looked like Crennel was in full gambling mode, sending Anderson and the offense back on the field. A first down and the game would be over as the Bills were out of time outs. But it was a ruse, Anderson trying his level best to draw the Bills offside. He could not and was forced to call time out. Out trotted Zastudil, who hit a line drive that returner Jim Leonard fielded and brought back to the Bills 30-yard line for that last final drive.

There would be no faulting Crennel for punting at that point. In fact, attempting to gain the first down, even as well as the Browns ran all day, would have been reckless, particularly given how poorly the Bills offense had played all day. But sometimes the right call can cost you as much as the wrong call. Fortunately, it wasn’t this time.

It was pretty clear early on that this wouldn’t be a day for padding the stats, at least from Anderson’s perspective. The wind was blowing at near gale force throughout the game. Balls sailed high. Others fluttered. Most were off target. Anderson was 7-18 for 109 yards in the first half and completed only two passes in the second half, finishing with 137 yards and no touchdowns. But more important than all of that was the lack of interceptions, even though two of Anderson’s first three passes could easily have been picked off. Several others were close. In fact, for as miserable as it was, neither team turned it over, which actually is pretty incredible.

But it was a day for Lewis to pad his stats. He carried 33 times for 163 hard-fought yards. As important as each yard was, even more so was the attitude he displayed in the process. Time and again, he punished the Bills defenders with his runs and never even came close to losing the ball. It was exactly what general manager Phil Savaged envisioned when he signed Lewis in the off season.

It was also a day for the defense to pad their league worse stats. Going into the game, opposing teams were averaging over 27 points a game and 390 yards. But on this day, the defense, aided greatly by an inept Buffalo offense, pitched a shut out and yielded only 232 net yards. For perspective, going into that final drive, Edwards was only 9-21 for 64 yards. On the final drive he was 4-12 for 60 yards. Those four completions in the final drive accounted for more than 25% of the offensive output for the day.

It may not be enough to pull the Browns defense out of the cellar, statistically, but at 9-5 and poised to get into the playoffs, they clearly have bragging rights over the Bills and the Detroit Lions, the two teams the Browns defense have been alternating with all season for that bottom spot on the statistics page.

With two games remaining, the Browns take their act on the road to Cincinnati, which lost to San Francisco on Saturday night. That loss, along with Baltimore’s loss to Miami, greatly raised the odds that the AFC North will have two new head coaches next year. The Browns then come home for what will hopefully be an early New Year’s Eve party against San Francisco.

The Steelers have a fairly easy road as well, although they have a quick turnaround this week with a game Thursday night at St. Louis. It’s on the NFL Network, which always raises the question: if a game is played on a network that no one gets, did it really take place? They finish at home against the Ravens in what should be Brian Billick’s last game. Tennessee, which can’t afford a loss, plays the Jets and finishes up against Indianapolis, with Peyton Manning likely watching from the sidelines.

All of this, though, can be rendered irrelevant if the Browns can just finish what they started. And for good measure, let’s hope for a weather repeat of this week. Everyone, in unison: Let is snow, let it snow, let it snow.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Starting from Scratch

It would have been a surprise if the fans really did give a damn.

The relative lack of activity in the chat rooms, the various stories on fan reaction on television and in the newspapers all speaks to a huge wave of fan indifference about Senator George Mitchell’s report on the steroids era in baseball. The voice of one fan in particular, I think, well summed up what really is the issue. He didn’t care because he already figured most baseball players were cheating anyway.

And isn’t that, in the end, the most damning indictment of all? If fans truly think that the entire sport is tainted, what’s the point?

When the dust settles on all of it, it is rather doubtful, actually, that most fans will still hold the view that nearly every player was on the juice. But what no one can escape is the fact that the caretakers of major league baseball—the owners, the club executives, the players, their union, the agents, the national and local media—did such a lousy job with the privilege they were given, that it threatened the very foundation of the sport itself.

In my view, there really is only one answer: take a bulldozer to the sport and start from scratch. Kick out everyone and anyone who in any way is associated with the steroids era. Ban them from baseball permanently, like Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose. And when I say everyone and anyone, I mean just that: the owners who still sit idly by while the likes of George Steinbrenner and his ilk whose insane quest to buy a championship year after year created such an economic upheaval that it encouraged players to cheat in order to grab a bigger pay day; every club executive, from the general managers to the towel attendants, who put their heads in the sand while the players they pampered, purchased, traded for or signed seemed to get bigger as if they were inflated by an air hose; every manager or coach who stayed cloistered in his office in order to avoid seeing the ugly realities taking place in his club house; any player who took the stuff and any player who looked the other way while his teammate was getting an injection; union leaders like Donald Fehr, Gene Orza and the rest of their minions who intentionally blocked a meaningful drug testing program until Congress threatened action; the reporters who were in those locker rooms every day, saw what was happening, heard the whispers and refused to do their jobs because they feared their access to the players would dry up.

You see, the Mitchell report is far more than just the names of the 70 or 80 ball players whose arrogance clashed with their stupidity when they not only associated with but actually befriended the various drug dealers and suppliers whose only job was to give them an unfair edge. The report is about all of us who actually find, or used to anyway, meaning in the sport itself now having that stripped away from them. Not only is it a virtual certainty that whatever results you may have seen on the field over the last 10-15 years are suspect, but there’s little comfort that anyone associated with baseball has the guts or the wherewithal to ensure we don’t have another 10-15 years of similar uncertainty, Commissioner Bud Selig’s predictable hand-wringing notwithstanding. That’s why you have to start from scratch.

Consider the fall out of just the last few days. In this corner you had the Roger Clemens camp, but not necessarily Clemens himself, issuing denial after denial, expressing outrage after outrage, and questioning the fairness of the process. But his attorney, Rusty Hardin, without any sense of irony, claimed his client had been denied a fair shake while hiding from the fact that Clemens was given every opportunity to participate in the investigation and refused, just like every other player, preferring instead to shout from the cheap seats after the fact. It’s the coward’s way out because it avoids actually having to tell the truth at the moment of truth. You can bet the mortgage that Clemens won’t pursue legal action even while claiming he was slandered because that, too, would force him to testify under oath about the allegations, putting him squarely in the sites of a perjury charge if he lied.

In another corner sat the pathetic talking heads of ESPN seemingly spending more time attacking the credibility of the accusers than in focusing on the overall message. In other words, it was just more of the same. When it is nut-cutting time, they’ll jump on the side of the players in order to ensure they can still do their jobs on a daily basis.

What they can’t hide from, though, is the fact that this story didn’t break on a single day. It was an era, for goodness sakes. It was literally years in the making. I don’t care how lousy of a reporter Peter Gammons might be. You mean to tell me, credibly, that in all the locker rooms he’s been in for all these years he never saw anything, ever? He didn’t see enough to make him want to follow a reporter’s instinct that maybe, just maybe, there is a story to tell? And that’s not to single out Gammons at all. Paul Hoynes, Sheldon Ocker and Terry Pluto, to name just three locals, have been covering major league baseball literally for decades and have been in those same locker rooms. Where were they when it mattered most? And that’s not to single out Hoynes of Pluto either. Every town with a major league team has their own versions of Hoynes, Ocker and Pluto. They were silent as well.

In still another corner sits the club owners and executives, exemplified by the likes of Houston’s Drayton McLane who said on Friday that he still plans on letting Clemens fulfill his personal services contract with the club, barring “real evidence” linking Clemens to steroids. In just that one statement, McLane couldn’t have sent a more powerful message as to what he thinks about Mitchell’s report.

But for the conveniently forgetful McLane, he should check out pages 167-175 of the Mitchell report. Clemens is mentioned some 82 times. The accusations couldn’t be more specific: Clemens’ personal trainer, someone to whom he is still inextricably linked, says he personally injected Clemens with steroids on several different occasions. That’s real evidence, enough so that the burden does shift to Clemens to prove otherwise since this is not, after all, a criminal proceeding. But Clemens refused to cooperate. End of story. Selig thanks you very much, Mr. McLane. Your fruit basket should arrive on Monday.

The rest of the corners in this story, and there are plenty more, are equally sordid. The truth is that it’s far easier to attack the source than to confront the reality of what they have had to say. So in that sense, the reactions of those directly involved are understandable. But that doesn’t make them right. Jose Canseco may be a terrible human being for any reason you want to think. But to this point he’s still viewed as an outsider, a disgruntled ex-ball player even as virtually every one of his accusations bears fruit. He’s batting a thousand and he still hasn’t been sued.

But given the reaction to Canseco over these last several years, why then should we reasonably think that the reactions to the accusations made by Kirk Radomski or Brian McNamee would be any different? The default thinking, which makes so little sense it could have been written by Lewis Carroll, is that that they are making all this stuff up because they were facing more severe criminal penalties if they didn’t tell the truth. Huh? The last thing a guy facing hard time wants is to face even more hard time for not telling the truth. But why let a little logic get in the way?

A corollary to all of this is that Radomski and McNamee were just telling Mitchell and federal prosecutors what they wanted to hear. Left unexplained is why anyone would actually want to hear that the greatest players in the history of the sport were cheaters? What’s the incentive in that?

Whether the Mitchell report will ultimately have some long-term positive impact won’t be known for years, but don’t hold your breath in the interim. Too many people with a vested interest in this are so deep in denial that they can’t even see the blood on their own hands. But for all the denial they’ll continue to muster, there legacy will always be that they helped ruin the very game they professed to love. Starting over, from scratch, is the least they can do now.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Lingering Items--Jets Edition

It’s been somewhat hard deciding which was more surprising during last Sunday’s Browns game against the New York Jets: the coaching decisions of Jets head coach Eric Mangini or the near collapse by the Browns in a game that they had been dominating throughout.

But since Mangini’s decisions were a byproduct of the near collapse, you’d have to rank the collapse first. After a few days reflection, it’s still hard to figure exactly what happened during that last five minutes. I just know that it’s stayed with me like Stadium hot dog.

It all started so innocently. The fourth quarter began with the Browns still moving on a drive that started with nearly three minutes left in the third quarter. The drive featured several decent runs from Jamal Lewis and even Jerome Harrison. But then quarterback Derek Anderson missed a short pass to Josh Cribbs, tight end Kellen Winslow was then flagged for offensive pass interference on a completion to receiver Braylon Edwards and Anderson then missed Winslow and the Browns settled for a 49-yard field goal from Phil Dawson. The score was now 17-6. More importantly, with a cold rain falling, the Jets couldn’t have looked less interested in the outcome or more interested in the warmth of their locker room.

Indeed, when Jets quarterback Kellen Clemens was intercepted by Brandon McDonald in the next series, even Jets fans had had enough. The Meadowlands was emptying as if a fire alarm had just gone off. The game was effectively over. All that stood between each team and a dry towel was six minutes and 30 seconds of meaningless football.

The Browns could have and should have accommodated the prevailing sentiments of players on both sides by eating up some clock, quickly. After all, to that point the game seemed to moving at near record pace anyway. But then, for no apparent reason, the tide turned.

Anderson handed off to Lewis who lost a yard. Huh? Hadn’t the Jets just packed it in? Then Anderson misfired on two short passes, neither one of which would have garnered a first down based solely on the length of the pass. Suddenly, it was 4th and 11 and the Browns were forced to punt. The Browns had used a grand total of 49 seconds. Still, it didn’t feel like there had been any real momentum shift.

Looks and feelings, though, can be deceiving. Clemens and the Jets proceeded to put together their most impressive drive of the day, taking over from their own 31-yard line, calling the plays from the line of scrimmage, and moving down with an effectiveness that had eluded them all day. The Browns defense dutifully complied, as they have so many other times to so many other teams, putting up little opposition, particularly when Clemens completed the drive via a quarterback sneak from the 1-yard line. A game that wasn’t nearly as close as the score was now suddenly as close as the score, 17-12.

If the Browns hadn’t yet sensed that the Jets were turning serious when they tried for the two-point conversion, they certainly knew it a few moments later when the Jets successfully executed an onside kick. A few plays later, when Mike Nugent kicked a field goal bringing the score to 17-15, the sucking sound you heard was that made when the collective backsides on the Browns side of the field puckered at once.

We know what happened next, and in a funny way, it caused at least as many problems as it solved. The Jets tried another onside kick but were unsuccessful. The Browns took over with a renewed sense of actually trying to ice the game. The problem is, Jamal Lewis picked right then to have his most impressive run of the year. Instead of allowing his team to methodically move down the field, Lewis went and broke through an opening in the Jets line and galloped 31 yards for a touchdown. On the one hand, it put the Browns back up by nine. On the other hand, it happened so quickly that the Jets still had plenty of time.

It was then and only then that Mangini got, shall we say, creative with his decision-making process, probably costing his team a legitimate shot at pulling out a win they clearly didn’t deserve.

The fact that the Browns were seemingly throwing up all over themselves at exactly the wrong time is a problem, of course, particularly entering these final crucial games. But there is a larger lesson to be learned from all of this and it, too, has an impact on those final crucial games.

The conventional wisdom is that once a team is out of playoff contention, it has nothing to play for and hence is an easy mark. But that conventional wisdom is generally espoused by pop psychologist wannabes who don’t have an appreciation for the psyche of the professional athlete.

If there is one trait common to virtually every pro athlete, irrespective of the sport, it’s that they are insecure. It’s a trait, by the way, that the coaches instill in them and nourish every day, letting them know that there’s always another player waiting in the wings to take their jobs and at a cheaper rate usually. Thus, even when the team goals are out of reach players generally don’t quit. They are playing for jobs for the next year and they know it. It’s why, for example, the Jets found a way to stop Jamal Lewis for a loss on that drive late in the fourth quarter and the game seemingly out of reach. See, there was something to play for and they knew it. And suddenly, what the heck, why not try to win the game in the process?

This is something, hopefully, the Browns remember when they take on Cincinnati and San Francisco during the last two weeks in the season. It’s something, hopefully, the fans will remember too. Even when it seems like a team has nothing at stake, that doesn’t mean the individual players don’t. Their pride, feed by the insecurity monster, will manifest itself in a desire to continue to make plays, for if they don’t they may find themselves out of a job when training camp rolls around next season. Pro football may be a tough sport, but it pays well.
If Sunday’s game seemed to mostly lack for excitement, there’s a good reason. The bulk of the game and the point scores were confined to late in the first half and late in the second half. The Browns and Jets scored 10 points in the last six minutes of the first half. They scored 20 more in the last five minutes of the second half. That translates to 50 minutes of chess and 10 minutes of rollerball.

The other reason the game seemed to lack for excitement, and in a good way, was the relative absence of the kinds of mistakes that have plagued this team in many, many games this season. The Browns were well below their season average of seven penalties per game, committing only four penalties for 29 yards.

Their first penalty didn’t come until 5:23 left in the first half. Anderson was flagged for delay of game which was caused by the play coming in late. The remaining three all came in the fourth quarter: Winslow’s pass interference call, an illegal motion penalty on Cribbs during a Dave Zastudil punt and then a penalty you’ll not likely see again in this lifetime, Leon Williams offsides as the Browns were receiving the Jets kick. Making it even more bizarre is that the Jets weren’t even attempting an onside kick. But that penalty nullified a penalty by the Jets for kicking it out of bounds and gave them another chance at an onside kick, which, fortunately, was unsuccessful.

But there were no holding calls, no false starts and no personal fouls. At least for one game, the Browns did get this problem corrected, just as head coach Romeo Crennel had promised the week before.

Based on the reaction of some of the Atlanta Falcon players to the abrupt resignation by head coach Bobby Petrino, you would have thought that he was a convicted felon with a drug problem. Wait, that’s Michael Vick, one of their own. It’s funny how the Falcon players were all over Petrino for supposedly quitting on them while, at the same, time essentially defending a true criminal, like Vick, just the night before by wearing “Free Michael Vick” t-shirts and otherwise paying homage to him on the day he was sentenced to 23 months in prison. I’ve yet to hear even one player speak out publicly on the devastation Vick has brought to that team when he quit on them. But a first year coach who walks away from a team and a group of players with such misguided principles is a pariah? Hard to fathom.

***Here’s a question to ponder: What was more fun, the Steelers being drilled by the Patriots or the Ravens being drilled by the Colts? Ok, that’s too easy, it’s a tie.