Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Insanity Is Not a Strategy

If Terry Pluto isn’t the best sportswriter in town, he’s at least the hardest working. His columns appear in the Akron Beacon Journal with such annoying frequency that you kind of get the sense that he’s being paid by the word. Still, most of what he says is worth reading and he often brings a perspective that you simply can’t find elsewhere.

All that being said, it’s difficult to completely grasp the point of his column Tuesday morning regarding Cavs head coach Mike Brown. (See column here) On the surface he appears to be supporting Brown during these somewhat turbulent times facing the Cavs. But beneath the surface he seems to be posing a question that no one has yet specifically asked: do the Cavs need to fire Mike Brown?

To this point, and other than some minor rumblings on the local sports talk stations, there doesn’t seem to be any real consideration being given by anyone of replacing Brown as the coach. Yet there was Pluto setting up the straw man and then seemingly knocking it down with ease by pointing out the general ineffectiveness of interim coaches. In fact, the defense of Brown was so effortless that it made one wonder if Pluto’s real aim was to at least start the debate over whether Brown is the right coach for this team.

Maybe the question is being raised because owner Dan Gilbert still suffers somewhat from a reputation as an activist owner with little patience. That impression was forged soon after Gilbert took over when he immediately dumped a grumpy and intransigent Paul Silas as head coach. But since then Gilbert has remained mostly behind the scene, allowing General Manager Danny Ferry to guide the action. Brown is Ferry’s guy and there is scant evidence, at best, suggesting either that Ferry is unhappy with Brown or, more generally, that Brown at all is the main problem plaguing this team.

It’s understandable the attention the Cavs rather dour play has drawn lately. The Browns seem to be forever engaged in a game of chasing their own tail and pitchers and catchers don’t report to Winter Haven for another few weeks. But regime change seems a little drastic to even be discussing at this point, unless everybody is at least convinced of two key points: 1. there is another coach currently available that is objectively better than Brown; and, 2. that this team, as currently constructed, is underachieving.

It’s always difficult to tell, of course, whether there is a better coach available. The answer to that question usually is a qualified “yes” irrespective of who the current coach is. Likely there is any number of coaches, usually current assistants, just waiting to break through and odds are that one of them will be a great coach. Finding that person, of course, is the difficult part, but pretending that there usually isn’t someone better is simply naïve. The better and more pertinent issue is whether this hypothetically better coach can do more with what is currently on the roster than Brown. It’s here that doubts enter.

A strong consensus seems to be emerging that Ferry’s working assumption going into the season was flawed—that another year of growth coupled with a healthy Larry Hughes would magically elevate this team past the second round of the playoffs. In many ways, it’s the same assumption Indians GM Mark Shapiro made entering into the 2006 season and we all saw how that turned out. Shapiro has since spent the off-season filling holes and bringing in veterans to complement a young team with some talent. Now, of course, some corners are screaming that he’s not giving “the kids” the chance to develop, so it appears that Shapiro can’t win either way. The point though is that standing pat while other teams around you continue to adjust has a better chance of succeeding if your team was already of championship caliber. Whatever one thinks of the Cavs last season, it was clear that talent-wise they were not a championship team and neither were the Indians at the end of 2005.

The silence coming from Ferry’s office these days is deafening. It’s doubtful that he’s ducking the media. More likely, he’s spending every waking moment trying to figure out how to find a credible point guard without otherwise stripping away other key elements. Given the Cavs salary situation and its lack of draft picks, making a deal that can spark the team like Flip Murray did last year is a long shot.

If a deal is not in the offing, the only other option for the Cavs is for Brown to rethink his personnel. To this point he’s been reluctant, hoping against hope that a stronger defensive effort holds the key and that somehow Eric Snow’s skills will quit diminishing. And this is where Brown needs to be most careful. As a young coach he needs to learn that altering his philosophies is not a sign of weakness, rather it’s a sign of strength. If Ferry can’t make any meaningful maneuvers, Brown needs to adapt to his players rather than continuing to try to pound square pegs into round holes. This is a lesson that the best coaches in every sport eventually learned and is what Brown needs to learn quickly if he’s going to quell talk of his being replaced. Continuing to do the same things in the same way but hoping for a different result is not a strategy. It’s the definition of insanity.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Power Surge?

Well, at least it was a team effort.

This past Sunday, the Plain Dealer, as only they could do, published their list of “The Most Powerful People in Northeast Ohio Sports.” (see column here) It took the combined efforts of nearly all of the PD’s various beat reporters to compile the list that purports to name the 25 males who most impact area sports because of their prestige, wealth, ability or position. Of course, they claimed that it was the 25 most influential “people” but since no women made the list, no need to pretend that it’s inclusive

This is not to begrudge their effort to do something interesting during the bye week between the conference championships and the Super Bowl. The Plain Dealer usually demonstrates such little creativity that almost any effort these days is appreciated. But having taken on the effort one wonders what the heck they were thinking.

The fact that not one woman made the list in any capacity should itself have been a story. This week we’ll be bombarded with stories marking the historic meeting of two African-American head coaches in the Super Bowl and the Plain Dealer doesn’t think that the fact that not one woman is on their list warrants anything more than a story of the few women considered and ultimately rejected?

The Plain Dealer notes that Carol Heiss Jenkins, Olympian Diana Munz and even Gloria James were considered but just simply say none made the top 25. Forget the fact that Heiss Jenkins, for one, is a world famous coach who maintains her base in Lakewood, training world class figure skaters. Perhaps the achievements of these skaters, who live and train in Cleveland is viewed as less influential and powerful as, say, Laing Kennedy, Kent State’s athletic director, who finished 23rd on the list. But what of Gloria James? If her son is going to be viewed as the most powerful person in Cleveland sports and the “James Gang,” LeBron’s coterie of hangers on are viewed as the 17th most powerful, then it makes little sense to exclude the one person, his mom, from the list who continues to exercise the most influence over James, keeping him local and grounded.

But moving beyond the Plain Dealer’s gender myopia, it’s probably no surprise to most that James finished number one on the list. It seems like an easy and safe choice, but is it warranted? With all due respect to the Chosen One, it is ludicrous to think that the best player on the third favorite Cleveland sports team is the most powerful person in Northeast Ohio sports. James’ abilities and accomplishments are hardly in debate. He has a chance to be the best player ever to play for Cleveland in any sport. His love for his hometown of Akron and the fact that he gives back to the community in many, many ways is unquestioned. But the fact remains, the Cavaliers aren’t even close to being this town’s most popular or influential team.

A case could be made for James in the sense that the only reason the Cavs are at all popular now, in Cleveland and elsewhere, is the fact that James is on the team. In that way, he’s had a huge impact. But that impact still must be put into context. To most Cleveland fans, indeed to most sports fans, the NBA is the least interesting of all the major professional sports and James’ presence only moves the needle slightly. Its regular season drones on and, thanks to its playoff system, seems mostly irrelevant to most. Neither the NFL’s regular season nor baseball’s bloated 162-game schedule seems to suffer a similar fate. If James can somehow transcend all of this and raise the status of the Cavs in the minds of fans to be at least on par with the Indians, let alone the Browns, then he truly wouldl be the most powerful person in Cleveland sports. But until that unlikely day presents itself and inspite of his accomplishments to date and the promise to come, he’s not even close to being this town’s most influential or powerful sports figure.

That honor, unfortunately, goes to Randy Lerner, who clocked in at number two on the PD list. He seems like such an obvious choice that it’s hard to believe that even the Plain Dealer messed this up. Lerner is the reluctant but earnest owner who to this point has mostly failed at trying to return the Browns to some semblance of glory. For purposes of this list, however, it’s not so much whether he fails or succeeds that matters most, it’s the fact that he’s in the position to influence that equation the most. Whatever he does is watched more intently by more Clevelanders than the war in Iraq. Need proof? Look how much attention even the tiniest of moves the Browns make gets. Right now you have fans debating the relative merits of each and every assistant coach. It’s doubtful that these same fans could name any of the Cavs assistant coaches or the Indians assistants for that matter. The fact that Cleveland sports fans are nearly all consumed with how Lerner wields his power as the Browns owner is what makes him such an obvious choice at the top of any such Cleveland list.

Given that the Plain Dealer completely misunderstands the Cleveland sports market, it’s not a surprise that the rest of the list is a mess as well. Dan Gilbert is their number 3 choice You can take the same comments about James and paste them here. But it also seems like the PD put him on the list because one of Gilbert’s key goals, according to the PD, apparently is to keep number one happy. That being the case, one wonders why Gilbert wasn’t number two, Danny Ferry number three and Mike Brown number four? Instead, the PD placed the Dolans at number four and Phil Savage at number 5. Given the importance of the Browns to this town, Savage probably deserves to be right behind Lerner, then the Dolans at number three with their chief executive, Mark Shapiro, next. Then, and only then, should anyone talk about James, Gilbert or anyone else associated with James, including head coach Mike Brown.

The rest of the list is simply goofy and internally inconsistent. For example, despite his relative importance to the Cavs and James’ psyche, coach Mike Brown ranks 13th, behind attorney Fred Nance and Jim Brown. Nance is a fine person and an even finer attorney. But from a Cleveland sports perspective his biggest splash was that he helped preserve the Browns, but that was years ago. His continual presence as a key figure in Cleveland sports is, at best, unclear. If someone is going to make the list, his or her accomplishments should both be current and apparent. The PD notes that Nance was a finalist for the job of NFL Commissioner. But that job was destined to go to Roger Godell before even the first interview was held. In any case, that hardly seems a reason to rank Nance at all, let alone number 10. As for Jim Brown, the first person who can cogently explain his current impact on Cleveland sports, please raise your hand. Sure, Brown shows up for games and various other Browns-related events, but if the criteria is current power and influence Brown has none. The PD suggests that Brown is a trusted adviser to Lerner. Even so, no outward manifestation of that role has emerged.

The same sorts of flaws befall the rest of the list as well. But perusing the rest of it for flaws misses the larger point—the list is too long. The impact any of the remaining members of that list have on Cleveland sports is negligible at best, save for Eric Wedge. An interestingly side note is that Wedge is only number 15 on the list, one ahead of the commissioner of the Mid American Conference, which doesn’t even have a team in Cleveland. See the point?

Maybe it’s because it’s the Plain Dealer’s own list and humility and/or a massive conflict of interest prevents it, but wouldn’t you like to think that the editor of the sports section of the town’s only newspaper might be more influential than, say, WTAM’s Mike Trivisonno? Trivisonno's influence is solely a product of his own warped mind and, in any case, seems severely undercut by the simple fact that he spends little if any time anymore even talking about sports. Or perhaps one of the Plain Dealer’s sports columnists should have garnered a mention? After all, isn’t their job description to help shape public opinion about Cleveland sports? If none of these folks can make the list, that speaks to what we’ve said all along, relevance and the Plain Dealer is an oxymoron. While that’s hardly a surprise, it’s just hard to believe that the PD and its columnists have sunk below Lee Reed, Cleveland State’s athletic director, who finished last on the list in a tie with Joe Tait.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

The Missing

It’s a long season, irrespective of the sport, and sometimes a loss is just a loss. But every so often a certain loss has a way of staying with you like an undercooked Stadium hot dog. Wednesday night’s Cavs loss to Philadelphia seems to have fallen into that category.

In this regard, Terry Pluto’s column in the Akron Beacon Journal was right on the mark. Something was missing in the Cavaliers performance against the hapless Philadelphia 76ers. Remember, Philadelphia is a depleted and dispirited team with one of the worst records in the league. They were playing on the road in the second of back-to-back games. That should spell rout no matter how the players are shuffled. Yet the Cavs found a way to keep Philadelphia around long enough to allow them to eek out the win.

If the Cavs underachieve this season, which seems to be the one constant in Cleveland sports that you can bank on, fans likely need not look beyond last night’s game to figure out why. No matter what schemes, offensive or defensive, that head coach Mike Brown seems to employ, when the game is on the line the Cavs always look like just four guys in Cleveland uniforms standing around hoping LeBron James will do something great.

James, who had a season high 39 points Wednesday night, should have won the game in regulation but his final shot rattled out of the rim. In a way, though, it’s probably a good thing the shot didn’t go in. A last second victory likely would have masked what appear to be deepening problems with this team as it struggles to meet the accomplishments of last season.

There were, of course, the usual culprits in last night’s loss, poor defense and even worse offense. But those are the technicalities. The fact is that these players either cannot or will not respond to what Brown is asking of them. And that has to be of paramount concern to both GM Danny Ferry and owner Dan Gilbert.

The guess here is that Ferry is feverishly working to find this year’s Flip Murray, a player who can come in and provide some sort of spark. That even may work again but it’s starting to look like the issues are more systemic than that. But addressing these kinds of core issues is extremely difficult, particularly in the middle of the season. Moreover, it’s not as if the exact problem is as obvious as they are for, say, the Cleveland Browns. Likely it has as much to do with the mix of players on this team as it does with Brown and his coaching style.

In many ways, it is reminiscent of the problems plaguing the Cleveland Indians, particularly last year. Just as with the Cavs and their offensive woes, it was easy to point to the Indians and say the problem, of course, was the bullpen. And while neither point is particularly wrong, the strong feeling is that something more fundamental was missing but pinpointing the source is proving to be just as elusive as finding good beer at reasonable prices.

Fortunately for the Cavs, the NBA’s Eastern Conference is looking more and more like the weak sister to the Western Conference. Toronto leads the Atlantic Division despite playing less than .500 ball. Only two teams are above .500 in the Southeast Division while four teams in the Central are above that line, but all barely so. At this point in the season, none look to be even competitive with teams like Phoenix or Dallas.

But that’s what makes this all the more frustrating. The Cavs have a golden opportunity to assert themselves as an elite team but continue to play down to their level of competition instead. True, just before embarking on their west coast swing the Cavs were playing their best basketball of the season. But even then you got the sense that there is no way they could rip off a string of 12 or 15 straight victories like both Phoenix and Dallas have done this season.

But because the conference is so relatively weak, the Cavs do have the luxury of time to figure it out. With the joke of a system that passes for the post-season in the NBA, only the real drecks of the league, like the Cavs pre-LeBron, are likely to find themselves sitting at home when the regular season ends. But unless something dramatic happens and soon, Clevelanders are likely to once again find themselves watching a ticker tape parade being celebrated in some other city at season’s end. And the real kick is that even with their problems, the Cavs still are the best team Cleveland has to offer. Oy vey.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Coaching Merry-Go-Round

Maybe it was always this way, but it certainly seems like these days the amount of activity in the week between the NFL’s conference championship games and the Super Bowl has increased, particularly on the coaching front.

There always has been a certain amount of shuffling that goes on as teams complete their seasons and try to position themselves for the next, but this off-season has been more fascinating than most, probably because the Browns, once again, are such active players.

Browns GM Phil Savage decided to fall on his sword just a bit and retain head coach Romeo Crennel. Apparently Savage sees something in Crennel that most others don’t, but on the other hand that’s what Savage is paid to decide. But just as apparently Savage saw little value in a fair portion of Crennel’s staff and so now the Browns are busy trying to fill an ever increasing amount of openings.

The biggest hire, of course, was Rob Chudzinski as offensive coordinator (see our comments here). Now they have added Alfredo Roberts as the tight ends coach and are searching for at least two other significant positions, special teams and offensive line. Jerry Rosburg, the previous special teams coach, supposedly left abruptly to join Bobby Petrino in Atlanta. And Jeff Davidson, who was passed over for the vacant offensive coordinator position here, took that position in Carolina after Dan Henning was recently fired.

We detect some minor hand wringing from some over the loss of Davidson, which should abate quickly. Davidson was never officially given the title of offensive coordinator once Savage finally ordered Crennel to dump Maurice Carthon. This should have sent a message to Davidson well before the perfunctory interview he had with Savage and Crennel. Moreover, if anything malcontent receiver Braylon Edwards was worse once Carthon left. This didn’t reflect well on Davidson’s leadership. Finally, and most importantly, the offensive line, Davidson’s primary responsibility, is and remains a mess. Given all this, we wonder what Carolina sees in him but that’s another column for another day.

There have been other significant developments that are or should be of interest to Browns fans, particularly considering how incestuous the league has become in the coaching ranks. Bill Parcells retired, again. How his former job in Dallas gets filled may have a direct impact on how the Browns may be able to fill their inevitable opening in the head coaching slot next year.

Many fans believe that Crennel was retained solely to buy time until Bill Cowher can be hired free and clear of any obligations he still has to Pittsburgh. Of course many of these same folks also believe that Rich Karlis did indeed miss that field goal against the Browns and that most games are fixed but that’s beside the point. Cowher would be a great fit in Cleveland because he has a proven track record, which is exactly why the Browns would never hire him in the first place.

But suspending reality and taking the leap that the Browns are just this shrewd, Jerry Jones is just the kind of owner capable of throwing a turd into that punch bowl. Jones likes to make a splash, just as he did in hiring Parcells in the first place and bringing in the single biggest clubhouse cancer in the history of the league, receiver Terrell Owens. In other words, we don’t see Jones hiring someone like Lane Kiffin, the recently hired 31-year-old ex-USC offensive coordinator hired by the Raiders. Jones is significantly more flashy, which is where Cowher comes in. We can foresee a scenario in which Jones goes after Cowher now, even if he had to pay some sort of compensation to Pittsburgh. Even if Cowher insists on not coaching next season, which seems likely, Jones could still get him under contract in some sort of consultant role, again even if it costs him some compensation to Pittsburgh. But even if Jones doesn’t secure Cowher, he likely will take another top notch coaching talent off the market and hence him unavailable ultimately to the Browns.

Speaking of Kiffin, his hiring may have a greater impact on what ultimately happens in Berea than most think. It’s not clear if Kiffin was the only person left who would take the job working for the fossilized Al Davis or whether he was the winner of some reality-based show on the NFL Network called “Coach My Team.” We don’t know of course because most still can’t get the NFL Network on their local cable channel. But what is of interest is the fact that Kiffin is only 31, reinforcing the trend we’ve noted previously—that a sea change is taking place in the NFL and hires like Crennel are the exception and not the trend.

There will still be franchises looking to catch one more fire in one more bottle by hiring re-treads like Marty Schottenheimer or Dick Vermeil. There will also be franchises run by contrarians who feel that the aging assistant ignored by everyone else for twenty years is their best bet for getting to the Promised Land. But those kinds of hires are getting fewer and farther between.

Of all the head coaches hired this off-season Petrino with Atlanta and Cam Cameron with Miami are the oldest at 45 years of age. Kiffin, as noted, is 31, and Mike Tomlin with Pittsburgh is 34. Of even greater note is the fact that none had NFL head coaching experience or even exceptionally deep experience as a key assistant. As coaches like Sean Payton in New Orleans and Eric Mangini in New York proved experience alone is hardly the tipping point. Both of these trends are probably as good an indication as any that when Crennel gets dumped after next season, the Browns will go young, which is why it is wise to keep your eye on both Chudzinski and Todd Grantham, the most likely successors from the current staff. Of course, the fact that teams are having success with this new paradigm is also as good as any indication that Browns probably will do the opposite. They usually do.

Monday, January 22, 2007

At Least He Can Spell

In the Parthenon that is great quotes in Cleveland Browns history, most people will recall, “there’s a gleam, men” from Mary Schottenheimer and “mad dog in a meat market” from Schottenheimer, again, in describing Mike Junkin, an oft-injured linebacker from Duke who lasted exactly three years in the NFL. To those we can now add what hopefully won’t be just as ignominious: “not a single misspelling in his presentation. It was really organized.” That was Browns GM Phil Savage explaining some of the rationale behind the hiring of new offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinksi. Who knew that the ability to use spell check was so high on the list of requirements?

The hiring of Chudzinski has garnered a fair amount of negative publicity among Cleveland’s main stream media, mainly because of Chudzinksi’s inexperience. For example, both Bud Shaw and Tony Grossi at the Plain Dealer, in amazingly similar columns (here and here), noted that Chudzinksi’s hiring continues the “on-the-job training mentality in Berea.”

Grossi and Shaw may be technically right but to that we’d ask, what were the alternatives? If Shaw had his way, the Browns would have hired long-time assistant (and failed former head coach) Dan Henning for the job. Grossi didn’t say but we got the distinct impression that if he were in charge, Lindy Infante would no longer be retired. If the Browns had gone with another re-tread (like Crennel) that would have received its own share of criticism that the Browns aren’t nearly as innovative as, say, the Jets or the Saints or, God forbid, the Steelers, all of whom turned over their entire franchises to young, relatively inexperienced assistants.

Actually, the hiring of Chudzinski isn’t so much innovative as it is the continuation of a trend that Savage started with last year’s free agent signings: brining in folks who truly understand what the Cleveland Browns mean to this community. Chudzinksi was reared in Toledo (a highly partisan Browns town, despite its proximity to Detroit) and is a former Browns coach. Our guess is that in addition to his spelling skills, what sealed the deal for Savage was the fact that Chudzinski actually wanted to be here, as opposed to simply enhancing his resume by taking the almost certain promotion he would have gotten under the aforementioned Schottenheimer in San Diego.

What we like most about Chudzinski is his age. He strikes us as the kind of up and coming coach, a head coach in the making in fact, which the Browns have been reluctant to hire in the past. Almost no one gives head coach Romeo Crennel much of a chance in the long term. He may survive next year but his coaching days are numbered either way. We like the fact that Savage is trying to round out the staff with young coaches that have the energy, fire and drive to be head coaches in the NFL. If/when the Browns finally cut ties with Crennel it will be far less disruptive if the job goes to a talented assistant already on staff and not another lifelong assistant.

In this regard, Chudzinski fits nicely into the mode of Todd Grantham, the Browns defensive coordinator, a young, energetic coach with a strong personality who seems to be moving his charges in the right direction. The Browns defense last year was pitiful, but this was due mostly to injuries and talent deficit. At least they looked like they knew what they were supposed to be doing on most every play, even if they couldn’t fully execute the commands.

The only trepidation we have whatsoever with Chudzinski is the same trepidation we’d have with whoever would have been hired: the task is so daunting it could very well swallow even the most veteran of coaches. The consensus seems to be that the Browns have some talent on offense, mainly in the form of Kellen Winslow, Jr. and Braylon Edwards. But it’s so hard to judge because there is so little talent on this team in the first place even average players have the chance to stand out as the next great thing.

Winslow likely will be fine, particularly under Chudzinski who knows him well. As for Edwards, he’s a much bigger mystery. Whether fair or not, Chudzinski’s effectiveness next year will be measured, in part, on his ability to reach Edwards and turn a budding malcontent me-first Terrell Owens wannabe into a team-oriented top-tier receiver.

But in actuality, we need not wait until next season to gauge Chudzinski’s effectiveness. His ability to lay out his philosophy and identify the kinds of players necessary to execute it is absolutely critical to this off-season both in terms of the kinds of free agents that are pursued and the kinds of players that will be drafted. Chudzinski indicated that he believes in a run-first type of offense, which has always made sense in Cleveland. That may very well signal that Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson is at the top of their draft board. For anyone who watched the success that Reggie Bush had in New Orleans this past season, drafting someone like Peterson makes incredible sense. But past being prologue, a defensive tackle will likely be their first pick.

It’s understandable that some aren’t pleased with Chudzinski as the choice to run this moribund offense. But at this juncture and with a team so far from being competitive it often looks like it’s playing in a different league, taking a calculated gamble on a hard-charging assistant and not on a well-worn assistant was hardly the worse decision the Browns could have made.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Wasted Asset

You can tell the Cavaliers are on their annual winter west coast trip and the games are being played past the bedtime of at least one Plain Dealer columnist. It’s January 19, 2007, the Cleveland Browns played their last game three weeks ago and now, just now, Bill Livingston offers his take about Braylon Edwards and Phil Savage in this morning’s Plain Dealer.

Of course, you had to sort through about three paragraphs to figure out what the heck Bill was talking about since he started his column talking about Eric Snow. Usually Bill doesn’t start to veer wildly off course until five or six paragraphs into his thrice-weekly mess. As near as we can figure, Bill has come to the conclusion that the Browns and Savage just don’t “get it.” He surmises that Savage just doesn’t understand Cleveland fans. According to Bill, we don’t dislike Braylon Edwards because he’s a Michigan Wolverine, we dislike Edwards because he drops passes.

Actually, we do dislike Edwards because he is a Michigan Wolverine and because he’s a loud mouth, me-first prima donna whose mediocre production doesn’t match his overinflated opinion of himself. And because he drops passes. But thanks, Bill, for the observations. Day late meet dollar short.

In another story from this morning’s paper that we think is directly related to our overall point, Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton announced that he’ll be retiring on June 1, ending an 8-year stint at Cleveland’s only daily newspaper. When Clifton looks back on all he surveys, hopefully he’ll come to grips with the notion that at this point, the best people can say about the PD is that it used to have a good sports section.

But that was years and years ago. Pick up the Plain Dealer sports on any day and no day in particular and there is an undeniable sameness and blandness. The game stories, irrespective of the team, are largely uninteresting. The columnists, particularly Livingston, rarely venture very far out on a limb or say anything remotely controversial. The fact that now Livingston chose to write about Edwards and Savage at a time when he doesn’t have to run into either for several months just illustrates the point.

Perhaps this is the kind of malaise that creeps into an organization when it doesn’t perceive a need to be competitive. And at the Plain Dealer, they still act as if they have the market to themselves. That’s true, but only if one defines the market as narrowly as the PD does. What they fail to realize is that on any given day, there are probably a dozen better sources on the internet for Cleveland sports fans to gain a more interesting and deeper perspective into what’s happening than the Plain Dealer seems willing to offer.

Sure, the Plain Dealer has a modest internet presence. It consists of providing the same bland columns that one can find in print and an occasional podcast from Tony Grossi. Pretty ground breaking stuff. Given their modest objectives, it seems like the PD is still worried that this internet thing may be a fad as they hardly even begin to take advantage of the potential that the immediacy of the internet offers, which is good news to sites like this.

But we don’t think that daily newspapers are ever going to suddenly disappear like Chuck on “Happy Days.” Nor do we think it is ultimately a good thing that the Plain Dealer is a mediocre presence in this community. As we’ve said before and we’ll say again, part of the problem in this town is that the sports teams in this town have produced such crappy products for such a long period of time, the fans have come to embrace mediocrity as an acceptable state of affairs. We no longer push for excellence and thus get what we deserve.

And the Plain Dealer, as the only Cleveland daily newspaper, is a big part of the problem. It is so casual in approach to how it covers sports these days that it simply isn’t in the position to even identify excellence, let alone demand it from the various teams and their representatives and hold them accountable when they fall short.

Despite its continuously dwindling readership, the PD could still play a vital role in helping shape this community. But the institutional boredom that seemed to set in years ago shows no signs of abating. As a result, a needed asset and advocate for change is absent. But on the other hand, as long as they keep letting Livingston chew up newsprint three times a week, there will always be a reason to laugh. It’s just not for the reasons the PD probably intended.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

In a World...

Is this what Troy Smith eventually has to looked forward to?

An item that most probably missed in this morning’s paper (although it wasn’t in the sports pages so we understand why it was missed) said that Eddie George (yes, that Eddie George) is following a trail blazed first by another notable Heisman trophy winner, O.J. Simpson.

No, Eddie isn’t in trouble with the law, at least as far as we can tell. He’s just in trouble with good taste. According to a blurb buried in the entertainment section, Eddie has gone Hollywood, sort of. Perpetual Hollywood partygoer, fashion victim and serial drunk Tara Reid has been signed to star in and executive produce an “indie” romantic comedy called “Honestly.” But to Buckeye fans everywhere, the more notable mention was that Eddie has been signed to “co-star” in this project.

Before venturing into the nature of his new project, a quick recap of Eddie’s film career is in order. Yes, we said “career.” It seems that “Honestly” will be Eddie’s second feature film. A search of movie database website www.imdb.com revealed that Eddie played the character “Jones” in a low-budget straight-to-video martial arts film called “Into the Sun.” The movie and we use that term loosely, was made specifically for the Japanese film market and appeared under the name “Yakuza.” The tagline of this thriller is “Only One Man Can Stop the Yakuza.” Given that his specialty was offense and not defense, we doubt that George was that one man but anything’s possible. We haven’t seen the movie.

Notably, Eddie wasn’t the star of “Yakuza”. That honor went to the bloated Steven Segal, who also co-wrote it, and we use that term loosely as well. It was directed by some English bloke named “Mink” whose previous career was as a gopher at Disney Studios. It’s probably not giving much away to tell you that the plot of this R-rated thriller revolves around the assassination of Tokyo’s governor by Yakuza members and the one man who can stop their treachery: Steven Segal. Think Jack Bauer and 24 but with less plausibility and more continuity problems.

It’s not clear exactly what Eddie’s role was in this movie but we’re guessing that since Segal is, like, 173 years old, he’s surrounded by an entourage, one of which includes a scowling ex-football player who was probably drummed out of “the league” for being “too violent.” The guess, too, is that there are the gratuitous scenes where Eddie escapes from the Yakuza either with a head fake or a chop block or possibly an illegal use of hands. We couldn’t get the trailer to download from the IMDB web site, naturally, but we’re pretty sure it starts like this: “In a world…”

We’re not sure how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences missed honoring this film, but consider yourself warned if you happen across this at the local Blockbuster. It supposedly includes frequent profanity and gory violence (both givens) as well as swordplay and nudity, but hopefully not at the same time.

We’d say that Eddie’s latest project holds more promise but that likely would be damning with feint praise. In the first place, it’s doubtful that Tara Reid can stay sober long enough to actually finish the movie. And even if she can, since she’s also supposedly the executive producer, it too is likely to contain generous amounts of frequent profanity, gory violence and nude swordplay. So from that vantage point it doesn’t seem like much of a step forward.

But it is a romantic comedy and if you’re like us, when we think of romantic comedy our mind immediately goes to Tara Reid and Eddie George. According to the article, Reid plays a private eye (“doctor” was just too much of a stretch) who works as a temptress to test the fidelity of philandering husbands. Hilarity and mayhem ensue. Filming is scheduled to begin this summer in Los Angeles. Given what is inevitably a low-budget, our guess is that filming concludes two days letter and you’ll be able to rent the film a few weeks after that.

We don’t begrudge Eddie’s right to forge a career post-football. We just wonder if this is what his Mom had in mind when she made him promise that he’d get his degree. Still, there is hope for Eddie. He’s just 14 films and several bit parts on bad television shows before he equals the career of another, equally talented thespian/ex-football player, Brian Bosworth.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Thin Skinned

There may not be much fight in the Browns on the field, but there is no shortage of it in the front office if the recent dust-up between Plain Dealer associate editor and part-time editorial columnist Phillip Morris and Browns vice president of communications, Bill Bonsiewicz, is any indication.

A week ago, Morris wrote a column essentially questioning Randy Lerner’s commitment to Cleveland and the Browns given the sad state of affairs in Berea. This isn’t exactly a new thought, (see our article here) but it was somewhat refreshing to see that, finally, someone at the Plain Dealer was raising the question. Of course it may have been too much to ask that this question be raised on the sports pages of the PD but at least the issue found its way in print in Cleveland.

What Morris’ initial column lacked in insight it more than made up for in passion, something usually in short supply at the Plain Dealer. Morris spoke not as a sportwriter but more as a fan who is sick of losing and sees an unemotional owner in Lerner who is seemingly more interested in investing in European soccer than in the Browns. Morris didn’t exactly make a compelling case though by suggesting, for example, that Lerner demonstrate his commitment by spending more. Next time Morris may want to vet his thinking process a bit further with someone a bit more knowledgeable because the issue isn’t the lack of spending by the Browns, given the NFL’s salary cap, it’s the lack of ability to spend their dollars wisely. Still, the overarching question is fair.

Because Morris’ musings appeared on the editorial pages we figured it would be mostly ignored, given the rather low regard, generally, that the PD’s editorial pages are held by most folks. And it was, except by the Browns. Showing that an incredibly thin skin exists within the management and ownership ranks of the Browns, Bonsiewiecz, utilizing his official title, wrote a rather terse letter to the editor last Saturday. In it, he gripes that if Morris thinks Lerner is a lousy owner, he should just say so rather than dance around it. He also takes Morris to task for not understanding the rudimentary workings of the NFL and its salary cap and says that Lerner is committed to the Browns because look at how low he’s kept the ticket prices. Finally, in the kind of vague reference he criticized Morris for making in the first place, Bonsiewiecz concluded by asking, “Want a new owner? Be careful what you wish for.”

And Bonseiwiecz wonders why anyone would question Lerner’s loyalty? Maybe it’s because the only time Lerner talks publicly, it’s under very controlled circumstances, such as with the Browns flagship radio station where he won’t be forced to answer anything more difficult than what he had for breakfast. Maybe it’s because it’s insulting to suggest that the reason the Browns ticket prices are so low is because Lerner is a swell guy and not because even Lerner isn’t so naïve as to risk alienating the fan base for good by asking people to pay more for a product whose quality continues to deteriorate. And maybe, just maybe, it’s because Lerner employs publicists who can’t edit their own thoughts or letters and instead of easing the situation, which they’re paid to do, fuel the fire by writing letters in their official capacity that impliedly threaten that if fans and writers continue to hurt Lerner’s feelings he may run to England permanently and sell this franchise to David Modell.

If Bonsiewiecz thought that his rather childish response would put an end to it, he’s as clueless as Kimberly Ethridge, the now former publicist of Tyrell Owens who disputed reports of a T.O. suicide attempt by saying he had “25 million reasons why he should be alive.” That’s because Morris revisited this issue in this morning’s Plain Dealer if only to detail the bizarre response from Bonsiewiecz in Saturday’s paper as well as Morris’ even longer, more bizarre letter to Morris personally.

This would be a better fight if Morris was more up to the task. While he rightly notes that Bonsiewiecz introduced a question that had never been raised, he essentially revisits his original point in a typically clumsy manner, concluding that the problem with Lerner is that he just doesn’t get mad enough and that he should threaten to show the door to anyone satisfied with losing.

Well, that’s a plan, but hardly the best plan. We doubt that the problem with this management and this owner is that they are happy about losing, particularly in such spectacular fashion. The problem of course is much more complex but has its roots, clearly, in a constant lack of leadership.

In some ways, this reminds us of the debate currently raging over whether Marty Schottenheimer should be fired by San Diego. On one side of the debate are those who rightly point out that he didn’t personally commit the turnovers or fail to make the plays that caused his teams to consistently lose in the playoffs. On the other side are those who rightly point out that whatever the problem, he’s never been able to get the job done. The man does have a track record.

The same is true with Lerner. As Bonsiewiecz points out, it’s not as if Lerner can strap on the pads himself and play a few downs to solve the problem. But acting as if Lerner is not a significant part of the problem ignores the fact that the only constant since the Browns returned is that they’ve been owned by the Lerners. Ultimately the task falls now to Randy Lerner to figure out why the Browns continue to be a laughing stock and it is perfectly legitimate for anyone to question whether Lerner’s interest in English soccer has diverted much needed attention away from these important issues.

Frankly, the fact that Bonsiewiecz and Lerner are so sensitive to criticism that they would publish a veiled threat in such a cowardly fashion should be enough to scare even the most casual fan. It not only demonstrates that neither “gets it” when it comes to understanding the rights, privileges and obligations of owning a professional sports franchise like the Browns, it also demonstrates an amazing lack of sensitivity toward a fan based rubbed raw by an endless stream of pathetic performances.

If Bonsiewiecz thinks for a moment that most Browns fans wouldn’t trade Lerner for an owner who could actually win, then he sadly underestimates the real interests of the paying customers. Browns fans didn’t acquire their hatred for Modell until he moved the franchise. No one is necessarily looking to push Lerner away, but he doesn’t help his cause by spending a good deal of the season fiddling in England while the Browns were burning in Cleveland. If Bonsiewicz and/or Lerner really felt the need to respond to a column that few probably read in the first place, the least he could have done was show some empathy for the fans instead of trying to protect Lerner’s fragile ego. By doing so, he demonstrated what most already suspected, this thing isn’t going to get turned around anytime soon.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

That Figures

Maybe these various things are related. Maybe not. But as another playoff season unfolds in the NFL without the Browns, you have to find your fun somewhere.

For example, it may have been worth only a one sentence mention at the end of Tony Grossi’s weekly dribbles about the Browns in this Sunday’s Plain Dealer, but isn’t there just a bit more of a story to be told in the Denver Bronco’s firing of defensive line coach Andre Patterson earlier this week?

Remember all the kvetching Browns fans did when the Denver Broncos essentially either signed as free agents or traded for all of the Browns defensive linemen a few years back? It was done at the behest of Patterson, who had recently been fired by the Browns and hired by head coach Mike Shanahan. In short order, Denver had Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren (for a fourth round pick), Mike Myers, Ebenezer Ekuban, and Kenard Lang.

As was reported at the time and at various points thereafter, this was another Cleveland joke, another example of a Cleveland team being played for fools. The Broncos, certainly as big a white whale to the Browns as any other team, were going to put these players into their far superior system and out would pop several pro bowlers.

In fact, the Plain Dealer and others, including the Beacon Journal, helped stoke those flames. Mary Kay Cabot of the PD, for one, gushed in a January, 2006 story about the grand success Denver was enjoying with these ex-Browns during a very modest playoff run. Cabot noted that when Patterson got to Denver, he sold Shanahan on these Cleveland castoffs. This quote in particular stands out: “Patterson said folks always wanted Warren to dominate the game to justify his No. 3 overall pick. ‘It wasn't enough for him to be keeping guys off everybody else," said Patterson. "But no matter how much I jumped on the table and beat my chest to tell people how good he was, nobody believed me.’”

Well, Shanahan drank the kool-aid. But oh how things change when a team doesn’t make the playoffs. None of these ex-Browns lived up to Patterson’s rather optimistic assessment and this was one experiment that didn’t work any better in Denver than it did in Cleveland. When Patterson was told this past week to report to Shanahan’s office and bring his playbook, it was the case of having to pay the price for a monumental defensive collapse.

Surely, while Browns head coach Romeo Crennel and GM Phil Savage have had little to smile about this year, this story had to at least curl up one corner of their mouths. The biggest reason the Broncos didn’t make the playoffs was the woeful play of the defense. And when you look deeper you’ll find that some things never change as it was the defensive line that hurt the Broncos the most. Courtney Brown couldn’t stay healthy, Gerard Warren continued to underachieve and Myers and Ekuban continued to play the minor insignificant roles guys like that will always play. For Shanahan, it was a case of again being talked into something silly, only this mistake is likely to linger longer than the ill-fated decision he was talked into making when Denver drafted Maurice Clarett in the third round.

And if Denver’s failures in this regard provided some warmth to Browns fans during this 20th anniversary weekend of “The Drive,” watching the Baltimore Ravens lose on Saturday in the playoffs had to make them downright toasty. The flameout by the Ravens was particularly noteworthy if only because it was the result of the same problems that have plagued self-proclaimed offensive genius and megalomaniac Brian Billick for years. Lack of offense.

Whereas Broncos fans were probably a bit skeptical when all the ex-Browns were signed, no such caution was exercised in Baltimore when Ozzie Newsome rescued deposed Tennessee Titans quarterback Steve McNair from the scrap heap. McNair was the missing piece, the experienced quarterback, the winner who could put this team over the top, or so Ravens fans were told.

But the truth is the Ravens offense was mostly mediocre all year. They were 17th overall (8th in the AFC) in total offense, averaging 317 yards per game, only marginally better than 2005. Steve McNair had virtually an identical quarterback rating with the Titans last year as he had with the Ravens this year, a very pedestrian 82.5, although this was much better than Kyle Bollar’s 71.8 in 2005. In context, this was improvement for the Ravens, just not enough to make them a true contender. In fact, despite Billick’s credentials, the Ravens have struggled offensively since he arrived, despite the one Super Bowl victory.

This brings us, finally, to the odd site of New England vs. San Diego in a battle of ex-Browns head coaches. Of all the cruel things to happen to Browns fans, the emergence of Belichick as one of the best head coaches ever in the NFL has to rank at or near the top of the list. When Belichick cut quarterback Bernie Kosar without a viable alternative, it was the last indignity in an already shaky marriage. Of course, public enemy number 1, Art Modell, fired Belichick rather than carry him to Baltimore, giving Cleveland fans at least some reason to smirk. Billick may have won a Super Bowl, but Belichick has become an icon. If he had kept Belichick, perhaps Modell may have been able to hold onto his franchise.

As for Marty Schottenheimer, his successes or failures will never generate much emotion in Cleveland. No one who knows him was surprised that Schottenheimer took a highly-rated, rested team into the playoffs, only to lose, again. But at this point, most Browns fans look at Schottenheimer rather fondly for what he did accomplish, even if he could never quite get his team over the hump, either here or elsewhere. Still, given the way Clevelanders think, even had the Chargers won, Clevelanders still would have shrugged and said “that figures.”

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Talking the Talk

What if they gave a press conference and no one cared? You almost got the sense that that was the undercurrent in Wednesday’s unofficial State of the Browns press briefing by Browns General Manager Phil Savage yesterday.

It’s hard to tell if the collective yawn over what Savage had to say is more a reflection on Savage personally or is the result of a populace beaten down by awfulness over such an extended period of time that mediocrity has now become an acceptable goal. Because Savage’s personality just doesn’t seem to generate the kinds of hostile reactions reserved for, say Braylon Edwards, he probably deserves the benefit of the doubt that the fans are just worn thin by the double whammy of a particularly awful Browns season followed-up by a particularly disappointing ending to the Ohio State Buckeye’s season.

But much of what Savage had to say Wednesday provided a nice complement to a similar session Cleveland Indians owner Paul Dolan had with Les Levine recently. (Read Tony Lastoria’s excellent recap here)

In each, both came across as earnest and seemingly in touch with the issues at the forefront of most fan’s minds. But in each case, no real questions were answered and no compelling reasons were given for fans to not respond skeptically.

In the case of Dolan, he promised, once again, that the Indians are in a “win now” mode and that they won’t let the budget necessarily constrain them from doing what’s necessary to make that happen. Dolan didn’t attempt to explain how this year is any different then, say, the end of the 2005 season or what exactly put ownership in that mode. And since Dolan has yet to actually deliver on such promises, any skepticism that he’ll actually deliver is quite warranted.

Whether you think it’s been done correctly or not, the Indians did seem to address their biggest needs in the off-season, second base and the bullpen. But once again, the budget did seem to have a huge impact on how General Manager Mark Shapiro went about meeting those needs, particularly in the bullpen. It’s true that this off season was a particular challenge for teams like Cleveland because of the lack of fiscal restraint some teams exercised in pursuing their needs. But on the other hand, that’s always the case except for that one year when the owners, under the direction of Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, colluded in order to keep salaries down. In other words, it’s a convenient excuse, even if there is some truth to it.

This isn’t to suggest that the Dolans should simply give Shapiro a blank check. But it is meant to suggest that until the Dolans actually back up their words with concrete actions that don’t involve continuously restocking the team each off season by giving one-year contracts to former stars with injury problems, the fans aren’t likely to buy what he’s selling. Dolan has to realize that after the debacle of the 2005 off season that led to the disappointing 2006 season, the fans are going to continue to keep their distance and to treat his words cautiously.

This is the space where Savage now finds himself as well. It wasn’t long ago when Savage was the likeable new kind in town. In the power struggle between former Browns president John Collins and Savage, the fans’ choice was clear and Lerner listened. Collins, whose expertise was marketing, was shown the door (politely and with cash, the Randy Lerner way) and Savage, the guy who seemed to possess actual football knowledge was retained. But a team that lost two more games than the previous year being led by a genial but overmatched aging coordinator with gaping blind spots is enough to turn anyone’s loyalties.

Savage has to find a way to turn it around and his performance during the press conference wasn’t necessarily a good first step. While Savage speaks confidently and, seemingly, honestly, he needs to realize that he speaks so rarely in such forums that he simply hasn’t developed enough of a rapport with either the media or the fans for anyone to get a true read on whether or not he has the Browns going in the right direction.

When he says, for example, that “there’s no way I can look in the mirror and say this is all Romeo Crennel’s fault,” it suggests that he does hold Crennel responsible for some things but not necessarily everything. But where is that line drawn and why? That’s what’s important to most fans as they try to sort out for themselves whether a continued financial and emotional investment in this team is worth the trouble.

Savage hinted that team malcontent Edwards needs to mature, but on the other hand he was just as quick to underscore that Edwards really is a swell guy and teammate and that he and Kellen Winslow, Jr. are the future of the offense. Great, just what Edwards needed, more reason to fuel an already petulant attitude.

And, like Dolan, Savage says things that are hard to swallow. While he may not have strained the patience of the fans like Dolan did when he said the Indians were in a “win now” mode, he did venture fairly far out on the limb in his comments about Edwards and when he suggested that Crennel has full control over his staff. This begs the question as to who then, exactly, fired Carl Crennell II, Romeo’s nephew.

Cleveland fans may be paranoid but they are a resilient bunch. They’ve survived worse than either Dolan or Savage, far worse, and have remained relatively loyal. But both need to start delivering results, particularly Savage and the Browns, or else today’s skepticism will turn into tomorrow’s indifference, a far worse fate.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Burn the Tape...But Keep a Copy

Everyone had a theory and given how poorly the Ohio State Buckeyes played in Monday’s national championship game, save for the first 16 seconds, there was plenty of time during the game for such discussions.

But at half time is when the debates really started. First, the temporary residents of Section 242, most clad in Buckeye Scarlet and Grey, wondered whether the defense could stop the Florida Gators long enough to allow the Buckeyes to get back into the game. Most figured that was unlikely. Next, the questions came about the 52-day layoff since the Michigan game. A few “Troy Smith was distracted by all the Heisman stuff” made the rounds. Eventually, the discussions drifted into what was harder to take: a beat down or a last second loss. Naturally, the answers were just as varied and hardly conclusive.

What happened Monday was unanticipated by everyone, which is why the collective shock and the armchair philosophy. Even Florida fans after the game and at the airport were hard pressed to say what happened. To a person, they all admitted that they didn’t believe the Gators had this kind of firepower in them.

But the Buckeye fans seemed particularly distraught. The common theme was that somehow both head coach Jim Tressel and quarterback Troy Smith had let them down when they needed them most. Most seemed to forget though that this team has lost exactly three games in two years, including signature wins over Michigan (twice) and Notre Dame. That’s a lot of good that doesn’t get undone by a dispiriting loss to a Florida team that was clearly ready to play and anxious to prove their mettle.

In looking back and thinking about the game, this much seems clear: the Buckeyes were beaten at the point of attack on both sides of the ball. Forget about the motion and odd formations of Urban Meyer’s offense, Florida blocked better than we did. Florida’s offensive line not only proved to be more superior, but more importantly Florida’s receivers put on a clinic on how to downfield block, allowing rather short throws to turn into decent gains time and time again. Defensively, the Gators line had the Buckeyes line on its heels from the first series on. As a result, the Gators had more time to pass, more holes to run through, and better penetration and pressure and Troy Smith. In a game that many worried would come down to gimmicks, it would old fashioned football that won it for the Gators.

The bigger question of course is what to make of such a defeat. In one sense, it’s the kind of game where the first instinct is to burn the tape and write the whole thing off as an anomaly. In another, though, it’s important not to lose sight of the lessons to be learned. For the Buckeyes, they need to do both.

The team most people saw last night was not the team that steamrolled through their first 12 games. In fact, the Buckeyes play was so uncharacteristic in virtually every respect of a Tressel-era team, there is little justification for losing much sleep over its hidden meanings, at least until the Buckeyes start laying eggs on a weekly basis like the Lerner-era Browns.

That being said, however, don’t burn the tapes. Just as Patton learned much from Rommel during World War II, there were lessons to be learned from Meyer from last night’s game. Fortunately for Buckeye fans, Tressel, like New England’s Bill Belichick is as much a student of the game as a coach. It won’t be much of a surprise if, sometime next year, there isn’t just a little bit of the Florida Gators motion and blocking schemes showing up in the Buckeyes playbook. And it will be even less of a surprise to see a more innovative use by Tressel of the four and five wide receiver sets to combat the umbrella like defense that Florida used to neutralize the Buckeyes on Monday.

Despite the outcome, this is still one of the better teams in Buckeye history. They were one game away from being the best of all time. The status may be gone but their significant place in history is more than secure. And fret not for Troy Smith. He’s still a winner who is unlikely to be defined by this one bad game. His draft status may be impacted but as he’s shown throughout his young career, he’s at his best when underestimated. If he drops to the second round and is available and the Browns still don’t pick him, that’s all the more reason to burn your season tickets and campaign loudly and openly for a whole new regime.

Finally, resist the temptation to somehow conclude that Tressel has lost his mystique as a result of Monday’s loss. Assuming he remains at Ohio State, he’ll probably end up as the greatest coach in Buckeye history. Everyone wants championships, but to win one you have to get there and Tressel has done that twice, in a short period of time. His extensive track record is ample proof that he knows how to win. It is also a strong indicator that Monday night’s game is unlikely the last to feature the Buckeyes vying for the National Championship.

These next few days may look bleak to Buckeye fans, but when the distaste of this most humiliating defeat wears off, and it will, it’s still clear that of all the teams that Cleveland fans follow, this is the least likely to disappoint or the most likely to consistently win, depending on whether your glass is half full or half empty.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Just Because We're Paranoid...

It occurred to me somewhere over the Midwest as I wound my way to a stop over in Denver before heading to Phoenix and the Buckeyes game on Monday that both the blessing and the curse of being a sports fan in Cleveland is that there rarely is a reason to ever get too overconfident. Cleveland fans have had so many sure things snatched from their grasp over the years, they’re relatively convinced that nothing good will ever really happen.

The current paranoia over the possible defection of Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel to, of all teams, the Cleveland Browns, is but the latest and most fascinating example. Clevelanders are among the most rabid Ohio State fans nationwide, a passion that was surely re-stoked with the arrival of Tressel in Columbus. In fact, things are going so well with the Buckeyes these days, Clevelanders seem more miserable than ever. Listen to the sports talk programs—if you have the stomach. Read the local papers—if you’re a glutton for punishment. It seems hardly a day goes by when some lazy and uninspired media slug is reporting a tip from some unnamed informed insider whose brother’s uncle’s next door neighbor is a friend of Tressel’s dry cleaner who claims that he heard that the Browns are in secret negotiations with Tressel’s agents about the Browns job.

But what’s so ironic about this episode is that the rumor has him coming to Cleveland and that still makes the locals nuts The only possible outcome that most Clevelanders can foresee in that scenario is that the Buckeyes would sink into oblivion forever and ever while the Browns gain a new coach who couldn’t possibly succeed in this environment.

While it’s hard to believe that this story ever had any legs, it is a sort of bellwether for how Clevelanders view the world. Which is why, if asked, most Clevelanders would admit that in their heart of hearts the Buckeyes are a lock to lose on Monday night. It’s not that they don’t want them to win or don’t hope they’ll win. It’s just that, in the end, the typical Clevelander mentality is that we can’t possibly win it all, the 2002 National Championship game notwithstanding. In fact, if anything the 2002 game serves as even more reason for feeding the beast, for we were lucky once. Surely the sports gods wouldn’t let us be happy again. It’s only been four years after all.

Which is why, of course, we’re also starting to see so many stories suggesting either that the Buckeyes may be taking Florida too lightly, that the Florida Gators are much stronger than most of us believe and/or that karma is simply with the Gators. The better, you see, to assert our superiority by saying “we told you so” when the Buckeyes lose.

But to this point, what objective evidence is there for any of this?

It seems like the only reason so many think the Buckeyes may be taking the Gators too lightly is that Oklahoma lost to Boise State. Somehow this non sequiter makes perfect sense to a rather paranoid community. Ok, maybe Oklahoma did take Boise State a bit too lightly in a meaningless bowl game, but that’s hardly a parallel to the National Championship game. More to the point, you’d be hard pressed to find any game against any opponent during the Tressel years where the Buckeyes came out flat, the clearest sign of not taking a team seriously. What Tressel seems to do best is convince his players that any team on any day can beat any other unless you’re adequately prepared for it. If you need further proof, forget about the “coach speak” you naturally get from Tressel in discussing the Gators. Listen instead to the players. To a person they’ve spoken respectfully and, more importantly, knowledgeably about the Gators. They came name their players and they understand their strengths. They know who they’ve beaten and whose beaten them. Heck, they probably know their birthdays and their shoe sizes.

Listen, for example, to receiver Anthony Gonzalez. In discussing the Gators with the collected media yesterday “I feel like they say to themselves, ‘OK, we feel like we have better athletes than you, and we’re just going to prove it. We are just going to play man coverage, and we’re just going to be better than you.’ They have had tremendous success doing that against some pretty talented receiving corps.” Does this sound like someone who doesn’t understand what he’s getting into on Monday?

When faced with this does of reality, Clevelanders don’t take comfort and faith that the Buckeyes will be adequately prepared for all eventualities. They change focus. They point, for example, to the distractions that Buckeye quarterback Troy Smith probably has endured as a result of winning the Heisman trophy, which itself is a subset of the larger paranoia since it assumes that Smith couldn’t possibly win the Heisman and remain focused on the task at hand. They point to the fact that Ohio State hasn’t ever won a bowl game against a SEC opponent, as if what happened in the 1978 Sugar Bowl or the 2002 Outback Bowl, for that matter, makes a difference. And if that isn’t proof enough that the Buckeyes will fail, then they start drawing the parallels between the Buckeyes 2002 team and this year’s Gators team. The conspiracy theorists and naval gazers see the stars aligning for the Gators now much as they did for the Buckeyes then. Urban Meyer is in his second year, just like Tressel. The Gators have struggled and barely prevailed in several games this year, just like the Buckeyes did in 2002. The Gators are a heavy underdog against a seemingly unstoppable opponent, just like the Buckeyes were. If you look hard enough, there are probably a dozen other eerie parallels as well.

None of this means a thing, of course. The truth and the victory lie in which team better handles the long layoff. What should be apparent to most fans that have bothered to watch the various BCS bowls is that literally every team has looked sluggish, particularly on offense, for parts of their games. And for the Buckeyes, the layoff has been a full two weeks longer than for the Gators. Finding that offensive groove that the Buckeyes had at the end of the season when they scored 40 or more points in four of their last five games may be difficult from the opening bell, but it’s hard to believe that the malaise could linger too long. Tressel is simply too good of a coach and motivator to let that happen.

Still, it’s doubtful that most Clevelanders will take comfort in any of this. It just doesn’t fit with how they view life. Anticipating the worst is what they do best. And in that vein, it hardly matters what the outcome really is. If the Buckeyes lose, we’ll that figures, doesn’t it? And if they win? Well, that joy will last only about as long as it takes for most Clevelanders to figure out that it might not ever happen again.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Blow Up the BCS

Watching yesterday’s thrilling finish to the Boise State-Oklahoma game led to one undeniable conclusion: the BCS should be disbanded. Boise State’s victory didn’t so much make the case for a playoff system as much as it made the case that the BCS Championship Series is a worthless veneer that has served only to minimize the impact of any bowl game not labeled “The National Championship.”

It’s pretty clear at this point that we are years away, at the earliest, of ever having a true playoff system at the Division I level. If you saw the article in last Sunday’s New York Times (see the article here) it’s clear that the major college presidents simply have no interest in disaffiliating with the bowl game structure that has served them well and paid them handsomely for so many years. That being the case, continuing to try to pound the square hole that is the BCS into the round hole that is the traditional bowl games ends up creating a situation that ends up satisfying no one.

The only thing the BCS really has done is to make virtually every bowl game meaningless except the final game. In the process, fan interest in the bridesmaid games has dwindled and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if the Fox suffers a ratings nightmare for all but the Ohio State-Florida game next week in Glendale.

Which takes us back to the Boise State-Oklahoma game. Going in, it held some intrigue in that Boise State crashed the BCS party like a little Peter Brady wearing a fake moustache and tagging along on his brother Greg’s date. Some of us wanted to see if Boise State could pull off the con, if it was really who it was portrayed to be. Whether Oklahoma took Boise State too lightly (which seemed pretty apparent, particularly at the outset) or whether Boise State was better than advertised, or both, this game was as exciting as the Ohio State-Miami national championship game in 2002. The problem is, how many actually watched or cared? Not many, not many.

Even the Michigan-USC Rose Bowl suffered by being an also-ran bowl, despite the fact that it featured a traditional Big 10-Pac-10 match-up. There were some commentators who tried to build some extra-game excitement by suggesting that if Michigan handled USC and Florida beats Ohio State then maybe, just maybe, Michigan might be crowned national champs by the Associated Press. But that was just so much puffing. No one actually bought into it, particularly since, with the advent of the BCS, no one cares much who the Associated Press votes as its number one team. The BCS, through extreme marketing, has done a marvelous job of insinuating itself in the national psyche as the purveyor of the only true national champion. Besides, by contract, the coaches are obligated to vote the winner of the BCS National Championship game as the national champion.

The major bowl games date back to the days long before television had any say in sporting events. At that time, teams rarely ventured outside of their region to play opponents. The bowl games served as a way of bringing together the best teams from different regions of the country in one final celebration of college football. While a national champion was still being crowned each year that was hardly the focus of the bowl games.

But, as with everything, if something is worth doing it is also worth finding out who does it best. That’s our nature. We want to know if this player is better than that player, if this team is better than that team. But, as with everything, eventually our wants became our needs and it was no longer good enough to debate among several worthy teams in college football which was the best that year. We needed a system. But this need has clashed head on with the college presidents strong desire to keep the bowl games. As a result, we’ve jerry-rigged a system that not only doesn’t definitively accomplish what it sought out to do, but is chock full of all sorts of unintended results.

It’s clear, for example, that until a few years ago, a team like Boise State would never have gotten into a BCS game. Even now, the chances of more than one Boise State-type team clawing its way into a BCS game are virtually nil. It’s also clear that whichever team gets anointed as the pre-season number one has a berth assured in next year’s BCS championship game if only they can run the table during the 2007 season. This year, Ohio State had that privilege and obligation. Even if it wins next Monday, it looks like the media geniuses will place that yoke around USC’s necks given their performance against a highly overrated Michigan team in the Rose Bowl. It’s just the way the BCS works.

But the current system’s biggest sin is that it has robbed fans of compelling match-ups that possibly carried some additional significance and has replaced it with a system in which only one game really matters. And, as a result, the fans have responded with abject indifference to anything but the championship game.

To say that a playoff system would solve all of this is convenient because it’s true. But to also say that we aren’t likely to see a playoff system in this or any other lifetime is just as convenient because it’s just as true. Given this fact, it seems rather ridiculous to continue to pretend that a definitive way to pick the national champion exists. Instead, we should go back to where we were before the BCS mess was foisted upon us and return the bowl games to the glory they once served. It may not settle any arguments about which team is better in any given year, but at least it would give us a reason to want to watch the other bowl games.

Monday, January 01, 2007

A Fitting Conclusion

In a season where new lows were reached with nearly every single defeat, it’s really hard to say that a final loss by the Browns in a meaningless game on the last day of the season was any more humiliating than any number of indignities suffered along the way. Still, the sight of an embattled Houston quarterback David Carr taking a knee on the final two plays of the game inside Cleveland’s 5-yard line to seal a victory for a franchise in nearly as much trouble has to rank as a low point that will be hard to replicate.

The popular thought was that yesterday’s loss symbolized the entire season. Dropped passes, poor blocking, turnovers, missed tackles, uninspired play and the like. Even head coach Romeo Crennel embraced that thought, saying “it was a microcosm of the season.” But that’s too general of a summary. If you really want to capture the futility that was the Cleveland Browns in 2006 (and, thanks to great scheduling, every single game was confined to 2006) look no further than the last Browns series of the game.

To set the stage, remember that the Browns were down 14-3 when they faced a fourth and 5 at the Houston 19 with a little over 7 minutes left. Showing the kind of decision making he’s made famous throughout the year, Crennel wisely decides to kick a field goal, apparently thinking that a Browns team that couldn’t stop anyone all year would suddenly find its sea legs, hold the Texans to a 3-out, score a touchdown and get the two-point conversion to send the game into overtime. (Why, exactly, anyone would have wanted to extend the season that much further begs a different set of questions.)

After the Phil Dawson field goal, Houston takes over with 7 minutes left and proceeds to hold on to the ball for just over 5 minutes before finally relinquishing it with 1:50 left following a punt to the Cleveland 6 yard line.

What followed nearly perfectly captured the Browns season. From literally the first day of practice when LeCharles Bentley went down with a season-ending injury, the Browns were playing on a very extended field with little chance of being successful. So it was no surprise that the game came down to whether an injured (but courageous) Charlie Frye could take the team 94 yards.

To say the Browns failed doesn’t quite do that series justice. A first down pass to tight end Kellen Winslow was memorable only for the fact that it allowed Winslow to tie the team record for receptions in a season. But on second down, the Browns gave the modest 8-yard gain back when Frye was flagged for intentional grounding after the offensive line was unable to contain Houston’s ferocious 3-man rush. A pass to team malcontent Braylon Edwards was incomplete as was Frye’s final throw, a wobbly, under thrown ball at Edwards feet on fourth down. That set up Carr’s victory pose at the Cleveland two and a merciful end to one of the worst seasons in Browns history. The only thing that would have made that final series even more perfect would have been a Frye interception. I guess you can’t have everything.

Still, there were some significant items of notes in the game. As mentioned, Winslow tied the Browns season reception record by catching 11 passes. True, every one was of the underneath variety because of Frye’s injury-weakened arm, but he still had to make the catches. In fact, while Winslow has been fairly criticized much of the season for his overactive mouth and his outsized ego, credit goes where credit’s due. Winslow answered the bell for all 16 games on a severely sore knee. The injury may have been self-inflicted, but he worked hard to get back to the field and turned in a record-setting performance. His blocking may not be all that at this point, but you have to think that will come.

And speaking of Frye, it’s amazing he is still standing at the end of this season. He clearly scored in the leadership department by playing yesterday, even if his arm gave the Browns virtually no chance of completing anything more than a 10-yard pass. In fact, his line on the day was one of the strangest you’re likely to ever see. He completed a remarkable 25 passes (out of 34 attempts) but for only 187 yards. We’re going to have to go back to the record books to figure out when a quarterback completed that many passes for so few yards.

But perhaps the most positive developments came after the game. The Browns for once didn’t squander draft status by winning their last game of the season. In fact, the Browns secured the third slot in the draft over Tampa Bay which was as good as could be expected given the fact that the Raiders and the Lions still play in the league. Contrast this, in fact, with the luck of the wretched Lions. By beating Dallas they lose the Brady Quinn stakes to Oakland and are relegated to drafting still another receiver.

You also had to like the developments in Cincinnati. The Bengals, chock full of more miscreants than a state prison, lost again. In doing so, they find themselves, like the Steelers and the Browns, on the outside looking in while others play for the big money. In fact, having both Pittsburgh and Cincinnati miss the playoffs this year at least puts a partial bounce back in the step. And what of the Denver Browns Broncos? They, too, missed the playoffs. Maybe having all those ex-Browns on the roster wasn’t such a good thing after all. Like the smell in Jerry Seinfeld’s car, sometimes it’s just best to abandon all hope of rehabilitation and start anew.

All in all, it really wasn’t such a bad day.