Monday, February 26, 2007

In Defense of LeBron

With all this kvetching about LeBron James, one would think that he’s averaging more turnovers than points these days. You can pretty much take your pick from the various sports web sites, chat boards or sports talk shows and you undoubtedly will stumble upon someone with an opinion on what’s supposedly wrong with LeBron, as if the premise itself is even valid.

There are two answers, take your pick. Here’s the first: nothing. Here’s the second: it’s that he’s LeBron, a victim of his own unparalleled success.

Perhaps the most pertinent antecedent to the questions about LeBron James was the questions about another amazing superstar, Tiger Woods in 2004. As most might recall, Tiger Woods was in a horrific slump, at least to those who thought Woods should win every week. He had fired his swing coach Butch Harmon, got engaged to a Swedish nanny and suddenly he was 0-10 in the major championships as he entered the 2005 season. Just as with LeBron and perhaps even more so, virtually every sports commentator with a microphone or a keyboard had a theory about what was wrong with Woods, even if the those commentators knew little about professional golf. This despite the fact that Woods had finished second in the World Golf Rankings in 2004 and was fourth on the money list with a mere $5.3 million in earnings.

Nevertheless, they branded Woods a fool for tinkering with one of the sweetest swings ever. They questioned his sanity when he fired Harmon and hired Hank Haney, even if they couldn’t tell Butch Harmon from Tommy Harmon or Hank Haney from Mr. Haney. They openly speculated that his off-course activities were interfering with his ability to prepare. And don’t even get anyone started about the Swedish nanny and what that was probably doing to his stamina. Tiger, for his part, said little other than he was working on “some things,” which only seemed to frustrate the peanut gallery even more.

Of course, the air went out of that story when Woods went on to win the Masters and the British Open in 2005 and then won the British again the next year as well as the PGA Championship. Suddenly he was a genius again and no one, positively no one, was talking about his swing coach or his marriage. In the end, Woods was never the problem. It was the self-proclaimed golfing experts and the casual golf fans whose outsized and unreal expectations had placed Woods on a pedestal that no one could ever reach.

That’s pretty much the territory LeBron finds himself in these days. There is no disputing, for example, that his numbers are down virtually across the board. But it’s not as if the current numbers are lousy. He’s still one of the five best players in the league by virtually any measure you can think of. He’s still number one on the CBS Sportsline power rankings. But for his detractors, this is hardly good enough.

One of the most scathing criticisms recently came from ESPN columnist Bill Simmons who gave LeBron a thumb down after the All Star game and said, suspiciously without attribution other than to some unknown “connected” NBA types:

To LeBron James, who coasted through the Skills Challenge on All-Star Saturday and played the All-Star Game with the uplifting, charismatic intensity of a female porn star trying to break one of those "most male partners in one afternoon" records. Could we end up putting him in the "Too Much, Too Soon" Pantheon some day? Will he become the basketball version of Eddie Murphy, Britney Spears, Michael Jackson and every other celeb who became famous too quickly and eventually burned out?
Before he becomes a global icon, maybe LeBron should work a little harder on his game.

Here's what I know. I had four conversations with connected NBA people over the weekend that centered around the same themes: LeBron isn't playing nearly as hard as he did last season; it looks like his only goal right now is to get his coach fired; he's regressing as a basketball player (especially his passing skills and his shot selection); he made a huge mistake firing his agent and turning his career over to his buddies back home (all of whom are in over their heads); he was a much bigger problem during the Olympics than anyone realized; he doesn't seem to be enjoying himself anymore; he has an overrated sense of his own worth and his own impact in the sports world (as witnessed by the ESPN interview last week when he answered the "What are your goals?" question with two words: "Global icon"); he's been protected by magazine fluff pieces and buddy-buddy TV interviews for far too long; he doesn't have the same relentless drive to keep dominating everyone like Wade and Kobe have; and basically, we're much closer to LeBron re-enacting the career arc of Martina Hingis, Eric Lindros and Junior Griffey than anyone realizes. This will evolve into THE dominant NBA story of the next two months. You watch.

If you take out the direct references to LeBron and the NBA, it sounds exactly like every criticism of Woods in 2004, right down to a controversial firing of one of his entourage and the off-court activities. Perhaps the most outrageous prediction Simmons makes is to say that, with barely three years in the league, LeBron is on his way to becoming more hype than substance.

What Simmons and the rest of the LeBron detractors forget, conveniently, is that no one outside of Tiger Woods ever entered his or her own sport with more hype and expectations (although Michelle Wie is starting to approach that territory), including the aforementioned Hingis, Lindors and Griffey, Jr. Yet, both Woods and LeBron have easily outpaced that hype by simply performing at levels of sustained greatness from virtually the first day they stepped on their respective fields of play. But these days, apparently, even that isn’t good enough.

This bashing of LeBron is fascinating stuff and speaks more to outlandish expectations than rationale discourse. At this point, Lebron’s a veteran, but he’s still a very young veteran, barely 22 years of age. Dwayne Wade, by comparison is 24. That may not seem like much, but look back on your own life. If you weren’t much more mature at 24 than 22 then it’s time to grow up, Peter Pan. And while many talk about Wade’s continued ascension, keep that in context as well. Simply put, put Shaquille O’Neal on the Cavs and you could probably substitute Wade’s name in Simmons’ column.

For another comparison, look at Carmelo Anthony, about seven months older than LeBron. Anthony is still incredibly immature for his age and while a huge offensive talent and an elite player in the league, Anthony played in his first All Star game just this year and it took a David Stern holding his nose and looking the other way to accomplish that. And it wasn’t because Anthony didn’t have the numbers. It was because his relative lack of maturity and discipline resulted in a meltdown and an ensuing 15-game suspension. This isn’t to bash Anthony at the expense of LeBron. It’s merely to present the complete picture. In the end, ask yourself, would you trade LeBron even up for Carmelo? Didn’t think so.

If you still aren’t satisfied with these answers, consider another: his teammates and/or his coach. There are times, many times, when his teammates have the same outsized expectations of his talent. As a result, they spend too much time simply standing around on the offensive end waiting for LeBron to do something. That tends to keep the ball in LeBron’s hands even when he’d rather pass to someone heading toward the basket. With the shot clock inevitably winding down, LeBron then settles for still another jumper while his teammates stand idly by.

But whether you place this on LeBron’s teammates or his coach is your prerogative. They’re both probably to blame in equal measure. The least culpable is LeBron himself. Since he was in high school, LeBron has been the kind of player who takes his craft very seriously. He revels in getting others involved. He knows he’ll get his points so he often looks to pass first and shoot second. But either head coach Mike Brown and/or LeBron’s teammates just can’t seem to fathom how to utilize that kind of talent to its fullest and instead ask LeBron to do everything but sell slurpees at halftime. Talk about being in a can’t win situation.

The Cavs may be the most consistently inconsistent team in the league, but it is ridiculous to lay that on LeBron’s already overburdened back and shoulders. The truth is, the Cavs need better players and without them, even exceeding his own lofty accomplishments to date is not going to suddenly make the Cavs an odds-on favorite to with the NBA championship.

Friday, February 23, 2007

With The Third Pick...

It was nice to see at least a little something go right for the Cleveland Browns. At the Scouting Combine in Indianapolis on Friday morning, Cleveland won the coin flip over Tampa Bay that assured them the third pick in this year’s college draft. Of course, they should have had the third pick without the coin flip since Cleveland had lost to Tampa Bay during the regular season, but nothing’s ever as it seems in the NFL. Hence the coin flip.

But whether Cleveland actually won anything in that coin flip remains to be seen once draft day comes and goes. It may be, for example, that with differing needs Cleveland and Tampa Bay weren’t going after the same players anyway, at least in the first round. But more importantly, it will come down, as it always does, to how good Cleveland’s scouting really is. That’s the scary part.

But the truth is having the third or fourth selection hasn’t seemed to make much of a difference, except in the amount of guaranteed money the “winning” team will have to pay to sign the player. Looking at salary and bonus figures of the third and fourth round draft picks over the last several years, the third pick can expect a minimum of $1 million more in guaranteed money, even if the overall salaries are similar. Remember, in the NFL contracts are rarely if ever guaranteed. Thus, ignore the reported value of the contract and focus instead on the contract’s length and the amount of guaranteed money as the length determines over how many years the bonus will hit the salary cap. Because most first round contracts run five or six years, even a $1.5 million dollar difference in guaranteed money, prorated over those five or six years, is relatively meaningless from a cap standpoint.

But because a team has either the third or fourth pick, it is absolutely critical that it not make a mistake. Reviewing all third and fourth round draft picks since 1990, there have been many great players selected. There also been some noteworthy busts. Here is the breakdown since 1990:

Year Third Pick Fourth Pick

2006 Vince Young D’Brickashaw Ferguson
2005 Braylon Edwards Cedric Benson
2004 Larry Fitzgerald Phillip Rivers
2003 Andre Johnson DeWayne Robertson
2002 Joey Harrington Mike Williams
2001 Gerard Warren Justin Smith
2000 Chris Samuels Peter Warrick
1999 Akili Smith Edgerrin James
1998 Andre Wadsworth Charles Woodson
1997 Shawn Spring s Peter Boulware
1996 Simeon Rice Jonathan Ogden
1995 Steve McNair Michael Westbrook
1994 Heath Schuler Willie McGinest
1993 Garrison Hearst Marvin Jones
1992 Sean Gilbert Desmond Howard
1991 Bruce Pickens Mike Croel
1990 Cortez Kennedy Keith McCants

Perusing the list, a number of things stand out. Last years picks, Vince Young and D’Brickashaw Ferguson, were both great picks that should serve their teams well for several years. Although it’s too soon to judge, neither looks like a bust. Barring injuries, right now both appear to be worthy of their draft status. In 2005, Cleveland selected Bryalon Edwards third and the Bears took Cedric Benson fourth. Edwards is an immature malcontent whose production, while solid, doesn’t approach his outsized ego. But in fairness to Edwards, he missed a decent chunk of his first season with injury and thus it is somewhat unfair at this point to judge whether he’ll live up to his draft status. The same goes for Benson. He’s been solid, similar to Edwards, but isn’t the Bears’ featured running back yet. Whether he will be able to unseat Thomas Jones is unknown, of course, but right now he’s proven to be a fairly integral part of the Bears offense. Still, the later rounds are full of running backs that could likely perform similarly and thus whether he’ll justify such a high pick is, at best, uncertain.

In 2004, Arizona took Larry Fitzgerald and the Giants took then traded, Phillip Rivers. In both cases, there is little question that the two look to live up to their status. But 2002 is a much different story. Both Detroit, with Joey Harrington, and Buffalo, with tackle Mike Williams, whiffed badly. Williams is out of the league and Harrington is a back-up in Miami, although he played well in spots this last season. Still, it is hardly an accident that Detroit and Buffalo still are struggling. When you miss big, it comes back to haunt you. That’s certainly the case with Cleveland and Gerard Warren, whom the Browns selected third in 2001. On the other hand, Cincinnati selected Justin Smith with the fourth pick that year and he remains an important part of that team and one of the few Bengals that hasn’t been arrested. In fact, the Bengals just designated Smith as their franchise player.

Although there are a number of third and fourth pick busts, perhaps none is bigger than Akili Smith with the Bengals in 2003. But in the end it turned out fine for the Bengals as they ultimately ended up with Carson Palmer, a superstar quarterback. The Browns had no such luck, unfortunately. That year they took Tim Couch number one that year and while he flamed out like Smith, the Browns haven’t found their Carson Palmer, not even close. Among the other notable busts with the third pick have been Andre Wadsworth, a defensive end selected third by Arizona in 1998 and Heath Schuler, a quarterback selected by Washington in 1994.

Perhaps most interestingly, there actually have been a few less draft busts with the fourth pick than the third and, conversely, there have been a few more great players drafted fourth than third since 1990. Among the more notable fourth round picks have been Ferguson (2006); Rivers (2004); Edgerrin James (1999); Charles Woodson (1998); Peter Boulware (1997); Jonathan Ogden (1996) and Willie McGinest (1994). The most notable of the third round picks are Young, Fitzgerald and Steve McNair, although there are several other decent third round picks as well.

The mock drafts conducted thus far have the Browns selecting anyone from JaMarcus Russell to Joe Thomas to Brady Quinn to Calvin Johnson to Adrian Peterson, any of which would be decent choices for different reasons. But the reality is that until the Browns and the other teams sign a few free agents starting next week, it will be hard to peg their draft plans.

But whatever those plans, at this point, the 2007 draft class looks to be strong enough to better the chances that the Browns won’t make a colossal mistake. Still, it’s the Browns and given their recent history, anything can and likely will happen.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Down San Diego Way

The news that Browns center LeCharles Bentley is likely out for 2007 was hardly unexpected. After all, a Cleveland sports franchise careening down the track like a runaway train, well, it’s expected. But once in awhile it is fun to watch someone else’s carnival from a distant and what’s recently taken place in San Diego is surely worth a smile or two on another dismal Cleveland day.

To recap, San Diego finished 14-2 in the regular season. As someone noted recently, Browns fans didn’t even know a team was allowed to win that many games in a season. But then San Diego ran into Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots in the playoffs. It was probably the best game of the entire NFL season with the Patriots barely surviving the encounter. But that victory came at a high price the following week as the Patriots simply wore down in the second half against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.

The loss also extracted a heavy price on the Chargers. As the Chargers players prepared to play in the AFC divisional playoff game, Chargers fans were doing their part by acting like they were in Cleveland, focusing not on the task at hand but the potentially dreadful outcome that a Schottenheimer-coached team was likely to deliver. The eventual loss was the fitting confirmation to them and to GM A.J. Smith and team president/owner’s son, Dean Spanos, of the fear that comes with hiring Schottenheimer: great in the regular season, lousy in the playoffs.

But this is where the fun really began. It’s not exactly an embarrassment to lose to a Bill Belichick-coached team. It’s happened to many, many teams in recent years as Belichick, to the endless frustration of Browns fans, has molded himself into one of the greatest head coaches in NFL history. But rather than opt for perspective, Smith and Spanos acted instead like they had just been shut out by the Browns in preseason and decided they had to address the “Marty factor.”

It was no secret, of course, that Smith and Schottenheimer simply didn’t get along and rarely spoke, so the loss wasn’t likely to warm that relationship much. Clearly even without the playoff loss, this was a rock headed for the windshield. But rather than find a way to fix the underlying problem for the good of the team, particularly in light of a tough loss, the two most prominent members of the front office let the dysfunction fester and Spanos, apparently the team president in the same way that Mike Brown was the head of FEMA, sat nearby, fiddling. Without any intervention whatsoever, it’s likely Schottenheimer would have simply left of his own accord. It’s what he does. He creates his own self-fulfilling prophecies that usually start and end with him insisting on some member of his family getting a job with the team. But Spanos at least paused to consider the public relations disaster that comes with letting go the coach who helped restore the team to glory and apparently initially prevailed upon Smith to keep Schottenheimer. But it wasn’t as if Smith put aside his differences. Instead, he reached a compromise with Spanos by deciding to offer Schottenheimer a low-ball one-year extension instead of a long-term deal.

Schottenheimer, clearly not at his first dance, declined the token gesture. Of course, since Spanos was going to can him anyway, the only thing Schottenheimer ensured by standing on some misguided principal was one less year of salary free and clear of the obligation to work for it. Given Schottenheimer’s reaction to their offer, this was probably the time for Spanos to actually pull the plug, but that would have only made sense.

Instead, like Brittany Spears on another weekend bender, Spanos made a joke of himself and the situation by fiddling some more while the core of Schottenheimer’s staff, with Schottenheimer’s tacit permission, fled an increasingly deteriorating situation. First it was offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to Miami as head coach. Then Rod Chudzinski, who was the candidate to replace Cameron, jumped to Cleveland as its offensive coordinator. Two more assistants jumped ship and finally it was defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, who got the head coaching job in Dallas.

With every horse clearly gone from the barn, Spanos finally stepped in to shut the door tightly. Schottenheimer was finally axed, as if he had a chance to survive beyond the 2007-08 season anyway, and San Diego scrambled quickly to find a new head coach before the NFL’s Scouting Combine.

Having decided that they were better off without a coach who could at least win in the regular season if not the playoffs, Spanos and Smith decided to turn the paradigm on its head by opting to hire, in Norv Turner, the anti-Marty: a coach who can’t win in the regular season either.

From a Cleveland perspective, it’s nice to see another franchise in the middle of a meltdown if only to tell us that we are not alone. Cleveland often self-inflicts its wounds by consistently hiring head coaches without NFL experience, preferably lifelong assistants who have been passed over for every job since Paul Brown left the league. Though that path has never proven to be successful, they preserve anyway thinking they can outsmart history. San Diego is essentially doing the same thing by hiring a coach who has failed twice before. Such retreads rarely work. But at least when Dallas hired Bill Parcells or Kansas City hired Dick Vermeil, the two had actually been successful elsewhere. Heck, even Schottenheimer, who was on his fourth team when hired by the Chargers initially, he had a lifetime winning percentage of .621. But Turner is hardly Parcells or Vermeil or even Schottenheimer. In form and substance, he’s Marion Campbell redux. That didn’t work out too well for the Falcons and it isn’t likely to work out too well for the Chargers, either, which is good news for the rest of the NFL as they make their plans for next season.

Yes, Deano, you’re doing a heckuva job.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Ignore the Scrap Heap

Erik Cassano’s column about the Indians’ approach to compiling a bullpen, particularly under John Hart and Mark Shapiro, could just have easily been written about the Cleveland Browns and their approach to building an offensive line. The comparison couldn’t be more apt.

The bullpen was the Indians biggest problem last season, although infield defense gave it a run for its money. Shapiro went into his usual bag of tricks to try and rectify the situation, meaning he found at-risk players with some measure of past success to plug the gap. As Erik points out, it’s a rather questionable philosophy given the bullpen’s importance to the team’s overall success.

In much the same way, though, the Browns have gone about following a similar strategy for an equally critical component of their own success. Like the bullpen, the success of an offensive line is in inverse proportion to how often it’s noticed. The Browns offensive line was noteworthy last year only because of the penalties it caused, the blocks it missed and the sacks it surrendered.

With the 2007 free agency period set to begin on March 2nd and the college draft set for April 28-29, there is a fair amount of speculation over whether the Browns would consider drafting Wisconsin tackle Joe Thomas. Don’t bet on it. GM Phil Savage seems squarely from the Ernie Accorsi mode (or Mark Shapiro for comparison’s sake) intent on building an offensive line from the scrap heap that is late round picks and undrafted free agents. As that hasn’t worked, the Browns have been reduced to the always iffy free agent market.

What is puzzling is why Savage continues down such a well worn path of failure. If you examine all of the Browns drafts since 1980 to last year, the Browns rarely have attempted to legitimately address their chronic needs on the offensive line. They’ve never once used a first, second or third round pick on a left tackle (or a right tackle for that matter) and what low round picks they’ve spent in those 20 drafts (excluding the hiatus years) on the offensive line all have been centers.

What is also telling is that when they have spent draft picks on linemen, they’ve rarely made a good choice. Either such players are more mercurial in nature than most or the Browns are lousy at scouting. Gee, wonder which it is? In most years, the Browns seem to draft one or two linemen, generally in the later rounds. The few starters they’ve obtained have generally been with late round picks, which is what Savage probably looks at, among others, when crafting his line strategy. But on the other hand, if you’re only drafting linemen in the later rounds and your line has been perpetually lousy, eventually someone has to play. Thus Savage ought to simply ignore this rather dubious fact when drawing conclusions.

When it comes to the Browns, defining success is always a moving target. In considering the offensive line and for purposes of illustration, we can define success as a player who has lasted more than two seasons in the NFL. Here then is the list of linemen drafted by the Browns since 1980 that meets this rather generous criteria:

-1982: Mike Baab (5th round)- played 11 seasons
-1983: Bill Contz (5th round)- played 6 seasons
-1983: Paul Farren (12th round)- played 9 seasons
-1987: Gregg Rakoczy (2nd round)- played 6 seasons
-1987: Frank Winters (10th round)-played 16 seasons (only 2 in Cleveland!)
-1991: Ed King (2nd round)-played 6 seasons
-1993: Steve Everitt (1st round)-played 7 seasons
-1993: Herman Arvie (5th round)-played 4 seasons
-2001: Paul Zukauskas (7th round)-played 4 seasons
-2002: Melvin Fowler (3rd round)- still active, with Buffalo
-2002: Joaquin Gonzalez (7th round)-played 4 seasons
-2003: Jeff Faine (1st round)-still active

In perusing this list, easily the most successful lineman drafted by the Browns was Frank Winters. Unfortunately but typical for Cleveland, his success was realized in Green Bay after spending only two years in Cleveland. Second is Mike Baab, who anchored the Browns line in the early and mid-1980s followed closely by Paul Farren. After that, the list is hardly impressive. On the other hand, the list of draft failures is nearly twice as long.

Perhaps because the cupboard was so bare when he got here (and remains so today), Savage has continued the trend of his predecessors, foregoing any effort to use early round picks on linemen. Under Savage the Browns have drafted 3 linemen: Andrew Hoffman (2005, 6th round, now on practice squad); Jonathan Dunn (2005, 7th round, no longer in football); and, Isaac Sowells (2006, 4th round, still on roster).

But sooner or later, this area of critical needs has to be addressed in a more legitimate manner. When you look at all the lineman currently on the Browns roster, a few key facts hit you squarely in the nose. First, except for the aforementioned Sowells, who played sparingly, and Huffman, who is on the practice squad, none were drafted and developed by Cleveland, which is not a surprise given the stats noted above. Second, there are no first round picks on the roster, only two second round picks (LeCharles Bentley, with New Orleans; Cosey Coleman, with Tampa Bay)and two 4th round picks (Nat Dorsey with Miami and Ryan Tucker with St. Louis). The rest were either 6th or 7th round picks or signed as undrafted free agents. While many great lines have been built with players of all backgrounds and stripes, the lack of pedigree by the Browns line probably makes its lack of success inevitable.

Unfortunately, two years in Savage’s reign and the cupboard is still so bare that it is difficult to concentrate on any one area. Here’s a suggestion: concentrate on one area anyway and make that the offensive line. Trying to fill every hole usually results in filling none of them adequately. The offensive line, the foundation for a team’s overall offensive success, has been ignored far too long. All the skill players in the world can’t overcome a line that can’t block or protect the quarterback. If Joe Thomas isn’t the right guy, then find the right guy. This team needs to be rebuilt and it’s time that Savage resists historical trends and actually starts building from the bottom up.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Deja Vu Again

Demonstrating that they refuse to be one-upped by the Browns, the Cleveland Indians announced today that free agent signee Keith Foulke was retiring, even before the first pitch of spring training was thrown. All that’s needed now to make this mini-drama a complete re-rerun of the Browns pre-season is for Joe Borowski to blow out his arm on his first pitch and for Foulke to claim in Bob Hallen fashion that the reason he retired was due to a previously undisclosed mystery ailment.

While this all smacks of déjà vu all over again, only with Foulke playing the Bob Hallen role, remember that the “retirement” of Hallen was or should have been much more unexpected. Hallen didn’t appear to be injured, just unable to cope with the pressure of starting. Foulke, on the other hand, has been plagued by numerous injuries for the last few years and reportedly was now experiencing elbow pain. Whether and when he was going to retire or go on the disabled list were the only real questions. In fact, the same can be said for pretty much everyone Shapiro signed in the off season. It’s the kind of thing that’s going to happen when an underfinanced team forces your general manager to craft a strategy that rests on signing free agents with injury histories.

Mark Shapiro, the Indians general manager, has been getting good play nationally for the off-season he put together, mainly because he theoretically addressed the major holes on this team, particularly the infield and the bullpen. The Indians in many ways do appear to be stronger. But the way the bullpen was addressed was a perfect set up for what took place with Foulke. It’s just that the collapse happened much quicker than anticipated.

Frankly, it’s getting both tiring and boring writing and re-writing the same thing about the Indians. But unless and until ownership decides to fund this team properly, what happened in 2006 is just as likely to happen in any given year as what happened in 2005. And the way 2007 has now started can’t be the kind of encouragement Shapiro or Indians fans generally needed to help them rid the goblins of the disaster that was last season.

The argument has been made, with some validity, that given what was out there and coupled with the insane run-up in salaries during the off-season by teams more desperate than the Indians, Shapiro didn’t really have much of a choice in how he went about cobbling together this year’s bullpen. But the run up in salaries was just one factor that forced Shapiro to scour the injured list for his free agent signees. Bad decisions are at least as much a part of it as anything else. The decision to go hard after Trevor Hoffman at the expense of Bob Howry and the give away of Bob Wickman to the Atlanta Braves both figure prominently into the mix.

It’s probably not much of a stretch to suggest that Shapiro knew this was coming given the otherwise odd signing of Cliff Politte this week. But in the grand scheme, Politte was the perfect Shapiro signing. He has a decent track record and recent should surgery. With Foulke going down, Shapiro might want to consider adding Nolan Ryan as insurance. He’s barely older than Roberto Hernandez and he just got out of the hospital a few weeks ago.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Of Questionable Strategy

As the Cleveland Cavaliers approach the All Star break, they are on pace to win 48 games, two less than last year. Presumably, if the chat boards and sports talk shows are any gauge, this would be a major disappointment. But the real question is whether this disappointment is based on unreasonable self-inflicted high expectations or objectively indicates a step back.

The mission statement for this year’s statement was essentially ripped from the George W. Bush playbook: Stay the Course. The thought process was that another year of seasoning, coupled with the additions of the two young draft choices, naturally would lead to an even better result this year, particularly if Larry Hughes remained healthy.

But this always seemed like a tenuous theory, the kind of luck and hope strategy usually reserved for our friends in Berea. Instead, given the lack of moves made by the Cavs in the offseason, the belief here was that whether or not the Cavs significantly improved on their 50-win season of a year ago highly depended on the schedule. Back before the first game of the season, the following was noted:

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

At the moment, this prediction is looking pretty solid. The Cavs right now are winning 74% of their home games, compared with 75% all of last year, essentially a wash. The slight difference right now is on the road. With last night's loss to Utah, Cleveland is winning 40% of its road games to this point and last year they won 46%. Thus, the Cavs need to go 9-7 on the road the rest of the season to equal last year’s road win total and overall win percentage, assuming they continue to win at the same clip at home.

But in the grand scheme, the Cavs are likely to end this season in similar shape as last season and with a similar playoff seeding. The only real difference comes elsewhere in the conference. Toronto currently leads the Atlantic Division which was won last year by New Jersey. Similarly, Washington now leads the Southeast Division where last year they finished behind Miami. And Chicago currently has a better record than Miami, meaning Chicago would have the 5th seed and Cleveland would retain the 4th seed.

Given the make-up of the entire Eastern Conference, the real impediment at the moment to Cleveland making the NBA finals, even with its current line up, still remains Detroit. And that is the rub. When Danny Ferry chose to stay the course, he offered a strategy that failed to present any logical reason, beyond the power of hope, as to why that would be enough to overcome the Pistons. To this point in the season, the Cavs look no closer to solving the Pistons than they did last year. If anything, they seem to be further away.

It makes nice conversation on a snowy February day to further dissect what’s supposedly wrong with the Cavaliers. But objectively, nothing so much is wrong as most fans simply drank the Kool-Aid once again, wanting to believe that things would automatically get better. But when one views the season in terms of what has actually been accomplished to this point in relation to last year, it’s very clear that the only thing really wrong was another failed strategy by another Cleveland general manager.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Marty's Parting

It’s hard to know if San Diego Chargers owner Dean Spanos is a mad genius or just mad. Either way, the Chargers find themselves without a head coach or any viable internal candidates and, in a small way, the Cleveland Browns are partially to blame.

By now, most know the story. Chargers head coach Marty Schottenheimer, who held similar positions with Cleveland, Kansas City and Washington, is once again unemployed despite going 14-2 this past season and despite having won 200 games in his long coaching career. Apparently Schottenheimer and Chargers GM A.J. Smith had the kind of dysfunctional front office/management relationship that made the John Collins/Phil Savage relationship seem positively giddy by comparison. According to ESPN’s John Clayton (see article here), the relationship began to deteriorate in 2003, that deterioration accelerated in 2004 and by last season Smith and Schottenheimer weren’t even speaking.

For Browns fans, the most interesting aspect of the firing is what accelerated it. First, some background. The poor relationship between Schottenheimer and Smith was well known, of course, to Spanos, but after a surprising regular season that resulted in the Chargers owning the best record at 14-2, followed by the usual Schottenheimer melt-down in the playoffs, Spanos opted initially to retain Schottenheimer. After all, you can’t fire a coach who just went 14-2, can you? But negotiations between Schottenheimer and Spanos broke down on the length of a new contract and Schottenheimer decided to stick with a one-year contract.

This created a more or less untenable situation for most of Schottenheimer’s assistants. First, Schottenheimer lost offensive coordinator Cam Cameron, who went to Miami as head coach. Then, last week, defensive coordinator Wade Phillips was named head coach in Dallas. Those kinds of losses were not unexpected. What was unexpected, however, was the fleeing of the other assistants, who sensed an increasingly insecure environment given Schottenheimer’s tenuous status. Apparently, though, one of the last straws for Spanos was the Browns hiring of Rod Chudzinski as offensive coordinator. Apparently, according to ESPN's Clayton, Smith had actually denied permission to Chudzinski to even interview with Cleveland. Schottenheimer, however, countermanded that decision and let Chudzinski interview. Quickly thereafter, the Browns pounced and put Chudzinski under a three-year contract. A similar scenario played out two additional times with other assistants, leaving the San Diego staff nearly vacant. That makes the decision to can Schottenheimer all the more strange.

In retrospect, though, it seems like Spanos was aching to fire Schottenheimer all along and just waiting for the right moment, which came as soon as the Cowboys filled their vacancy. It’s one thing to fire one of the more successful regular season coaches in NFL history, it’s a whole other thing to let that coach go and immediately land elsewhere. And make no mistake about it, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would have jumped at the chance to hire Schottenheimer instead of Phillips had the opportunity presented itself. Now Schottenheimer faces the likely prospect of sitting out next season while Phillips, his former defensive coordinator, gets the opportunity to advance an already decent Cowboys team.

For Schottenheimer, this was just another ignominous end to another coaching job. Most will recall that he left Cleveland in late 1988 after another personality conflict that erupted when Art Modell insisted that Schottenheimer hire an offensive coordinator. Schottenheimer had taken over play calling duties that season when Lindy Infante left the previous season to take the head coaching job in Green Bay. In Kansas City, he resigned after going 8-8 and failing to get to the playoffs. Dan Snyder fired Schottenheimer after one inglorious season in Washington.

The most curious aspect of Schottenheimer’s career, however, is how underappreciated he seems to be as compared to someone like Bill Cowher. The two have nearly identical regular season winning percentages. Schottenheimer lifetime is 200-126-1 for a .613 winning percentage and Cowher is 149-90-1 for a .623 winning percentage. But the difference in how the two are perceived likely comes down to two factors. First, of course, is the playoff record. Whereas Cowher is 12-9 with one Super Bowl title, Schottenheimer is 5-13 with no titles. The second factor is how those records were compiled. Cowher spent his entire coaching career (to this point) with Pittsburgh, while Schottenheimer just completed his fourth different coaching stint. In other words, Schottenheimer is perceived as a retread even though he has one of the more impressive coaching resumes you’re likely to see.

Unless another job suddenly opens up, for example if Andy Reid’s one-month leave in Philadelphia becomes permanent while he addresses family issues, Schottenheimer will find himself in someone’s broadcast booth next year. Following the 2008 season, there will certainly be more openings, including a possible opening in Cleveland. Whether Schottenheimer gets one of those jobs or even wants one of those jobs is unknown. And while many Browns fans still squirm at thoughts of the Drive and the Fumble, at this point in their existence the Browns could do much worse than bringing back Schottenheimer. With Marty, at least you know what you get—a conservative coach who believes in running the ball. We’d also get something that’s been missing since the Browns returned, a coach with a winning record and attitude.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Emerging Irrelevance

As February rolls into its deepest darkest and coldest corners, there’s been much talk about which 65 teams might make it to the NCAA’s so-called “big dance” come March. Here we are, weeks away from the tournament and speculative brackets and seedings are being created.

This isn’t a story, ladies and gentlemen; it’s what most call the dead zone. Pro football is through for the year, its ridiculous Pro Bowl notwithstanding, and pitchers and catchers have yet to report to spring training. The only game in town right now is the Cavs but this is about the time of year when the sameness and blandness of the NBA really kicks in. Most players are anxiously awaiting the All Start break and actual, intense basketball that will determine playoff seeding is still several weeks away. It’s getting so bad, poor Bill Livingston at the Plain Dealer has essentially written the same column three of his last four times out.

But all this talk of the potential seedings for the NCAA basketball tournament serves as a nice reminder of the college football season just ended and all the controversy it generated because of the absence of a playoff system. The real question, though, is whether the presence of the NCAA tournament and it’s fairly inclusive field of 65 has made the regular season mostly irrelevant for all but the teams playing in minor conferences.

The season Ohio State is enjoying provides a nice backdrop for the discussion. The other night they played that team from up North and hardly anyone seemed to care. While it is true that the Ohio State/Michigan rivalry is more football based, it’s still Ohio State vs. Michigan, still a chance to further cement the recent dominance of the Buckeyes over the Wolverines. But the Buckeyes lineup this season all but assured that they’d be in the NCAA tournament before the first jump ball of the season, making the only mystery to be played out where they’d be seeded and which bracket they’d be in. This is hardly compelling stuff to the average fan.

For teams like Ohio State and the rest of the Big Ten, the NCAA tournament has made the regular season nearly irrelevant. Making matters worse is the presence of the post-season, pre-NCAA conference tournament. The only real value in being the regular season conference winner is that it typically carries a first round bye in the conference tournament and gives athletic directors a reason to order another banner to hang in the rafters of the arena. But these days, the Big Ten conference champ in basketball carries all the prestige of being the 98th person to walk in space. Of arguably even lesser relevance is the actual winner of the conference tournament. In fact, the conventional wisdom now seems to be that losing early in the conference tournament is not a negative because your team gets a few more days rest before the NCAAs.

This isn’t a call to abandon the NCAA basketball tournament, although eliminating the blatant money grab that is the conference tournament would be a good idea. It’s to demonstrate the stark contrast between college basketball and football and the approach to the post-season. There is little doubt that if the NCAA wasn’t so tied into the current bowl system, Division I would likely have a playoff system similar to what they have in their smaller divisions. But the presence of the bowl games coupled with the lack of political will or courage by the college presidents to bring about a worthy playoff system and not some jerry-rigged mess that is the BCS or any of the other similar proposals still kicking around all but assures the preservation of the current system.

But is that all bad? As this column is being written, Ohio State and Purdue are locked up in a game that is closer than it out to be. But in the grand scheme, whether or not the Buckeyes prevail or Purdue pulls the upset means little. But how critical, on the other hand, was the Buckeyes football game against a lesser opponent like Illinois last November? The nail-biting outcome made all the difference in whether or not the Buckeyes would even play for the national championship.

In other words, the lack of a playoff system brought a level of intrigue to the football season that might not have otherwise existed. Had a playoff system been in place, it’s still likely that the Buckeyes would have been part of it, even if they had lost to Illinois instead of squeaking by. Similar scenarios played out all over the country. Had Florida, for example, not prevailed in the SEC conference championship, Ohio State likely would have faced Michigan in the National Championship game. In fact, if Ohio State had not beaten LLLLLoyd Carr and Michigan in the season finale, the Wolverines would have been the fodder for Urban Meyer’s Gators. And don’t forget the USC meltdown against its archrival UCLA or the last-second loss by the Louisville Cardinals to surprising Rutgers. The list goes on and on.

But however the football season would have played out or did play out, it kept the interest level high for virtually every regular season football game, which is the way it ought to be. It’s an element that has been missing now for several years in college basketball and with the emphasis on the NCAA tournament only increasing each season, it promises to get worse.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

One Man's Whine...

Somewhere Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow, Jr. must be scratching their heads.

At various points during the last Browns season each popped off to the media about the pathetic state that was the offense. Each railed against the plodding and ill-conceived offensive schemes that seemed to make insufficient use of the few skilled players on the roster, namely Edwards and Winslow. In the process, each made the kind of headlines they neither could have liked. They were being excoriated by fans and media alike for being selfish and aloof, Cleveland’s answer to Terrell Owens, times two, even if their comments rang true.

But on a different day and by a different player, similar comments are seen as leadership. It all depends on the speaker. Earlier this week, as he did earlier this season, LeBron James took his complaints about the pathetic state of the Cavs offense directly to the media and his comments hardly caused a ripple, let alone controversy.

Most will recall a few weeks ago when the Cavs entered their most recent funk, somewhere on the West Coast. Head coach Mike Brown’s view was that the main problem was a lack of defensive intensity. When asked about Brown’s analysis, James countered that the problems lay more with the offense. This public contradiction of the head coach garnered no headlines. None. Just a few short weeks later, with the Cavs funk deepening, the scrutiny on Brown has increased. And rather than diffuse the issue, here comes James once again throwing a little more gas on the fire by publicly taking on his head coach, if not by name then by description.

James told the media that the Cavs need to break out of Brown’s boring and predictable half-court offense and get into their offensive schemes more quickly. He wants to run more in order to create more fast break opportunities. James even had the statistics to back up his point, telling the media, in case no one noticed, that in multiple games this year, the Cavs have had no fast break points. According to James, “we’ve got to find a way to get easy buckets. I don’t get easy buckets like I did in the past. Pushing up the tempo can help.” Indeed, the Cavs rarely push the tempo. Brown seems more comfortable with an offense that pokes and prods that too often results in James taking an ill-advised jumper with two defenders on him as the shot clock winds down to zero.

What is astounding in all of this, though, is not so much the accuracy of James’ insights as the fact that his comments have largely gone unnoticed or unchallenged. In many respects, what James is saying is every bit as inflammatory as the comments Edwards and Winslow made about the Browns, if not more so. His words, carefully chosen, were aimed directly at Brown in the same way as Edwards and Winslow directed their comments at Crennel. Brown, like Crennel, is a defensive coach first and foremost who seems to treat offense like an afterthought. Eventually the stilted nature of this approach starts to frustrate those who are paid to play offense and eventually that frustration will boil over as it did with Edwards and Winslow with the Browns and as it is doing now with James and the Cavs.

But where Crennel sloughed off both Edwards and Winslow by suggesting that they are merely young players with much to learn, Brown was more deferential. He not only didn’t downplay the comments he embraced them, albeit reluctantly, by saying that he is open to tweaking his offense as suggested, so long as it doesn’t result in running just to run. Whether Brown actually does tweak the offense is iffy, given his nature. But even as the words of James must have stung, Brown seemed to take them seriously.

This is not to call out James for being selfish or for attempting to undermine the team, far from it. It’s to point out that the similar comments made under similar circumstances can have vastly different consequences. The difference, of course, is credibility.

At the time their comments were made, neither Edwards nor Winslow had yet accomplished much of anything in their professional careers. They still haven’t. As a result, their motives are considered questionable. All James has done on the other hand is live up to the unprecedented hype he faced coming out of high school by becoming one of the best players on the planet. No one questions that he’s team-oriented. Even those who have watched James only casually over the years can tell you that the one attribute that stands out most is his willingness to get his teammates involved in the game. He is a pass first, shoot second player with a desire to win that is unquestioned. His skills and attributes are universally recognized as evidenced by the fact that he was the leading vote getter this year for the NBA All-Star game. His motives are beyond question.

In many ways, James is like his Nike compatriot Tiger Woods. More often than not, like Woods, his interviews are bland. He rarely if ever ventures very far out on a limb settling for clichéd platitudes over thoughtful analysis. But, like Woods, when James does have something more to say, it carries additional gravitas. Not only are people not offended, they’re thankful because he’s saying what needs to be said.

If Edwards and Winslow are indeed scratching their heads over what appears to be inconsistent treatment by fans of media of them versus James, they should remember that the difference between being viewed as a whiner or a leader often boils down to not simply talking the talk, but being able to walk it as well. With Edwards and Winslow, the jury is still out on that question. With James, that verdict was delivered long ago.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Hard Lessons

Almost the second after the Indianapolis Colts were putting the finishing touches on their victory over the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI, oddsmakers employed by the various sports books in Las Vegas were installing San Diego as the prohibitive favorite for next year’s Super Bowl. This probably shows a bit too much optimism in Marty Schottenheimer given his track record, but on the other hand a flipped coin can’t keep coming up tails, can it?

More interesting than the favorite, though, is where the beloved Cleveland Browns figure in next year’s pecking order among gamblers. Without even knowing which free agents might be signed and then injured or which players might be chosen in the draft and then left unsigned until the third week of training camp, the sports books have made Cleveland and the other dregs of the league 100-1 shots to win the Super Bowl. Frankly, that seems too optimistic.

If you think that is an overly negative view, then sit back and replay Sunday’s Super Bowl in your head. As you consider the players for each team, try and determine which members of the current Browns roster could start for either Chicago or Indianapolis. It matters little which player or players you want to argue about for the truth is that there may be one or two, perhaps three, that could possibly crack the starting lineups of either of this year’s Super Bowl participants. And that should tell you everything you need to know about how far the Browns are from being a legitimate competitor in the NFL.

Assuming Browns owner Randy Lerner wasn’t in England with his soccer team and watched at least some of this year’s Super Bowl, he can’t be happy with this stark reality. After all the advantages, after all the early round draft picks, after all of the organization and reorganization of the front office and coaching staff, the Cleveland Browns sit as far away from the Super Bowl as at any time in the history of this franchise, and that includes the years when no football was even being played on the lakefront.

Given Lerner’s management approach to date, the pressure of this reality lands squarely on the shoulders of General Manager Phil Savage. Perhaps that’s why Savage decided to keep Romeo Crennel. That could be just another battle for another day. When he looks at his roster and sees just how far away the Browns really are, acquiring talent is jobs one through 45.

The tendency of Cleveland sports fans is to swing wildly from emotion to emotion. Given the results of this last season, most Browns fans right now are somewhere between anger and outrage, with a healthy number probably drifting toward abject indifference. Eventually, though, as the free agency period begins to hit its stride and draft choices are made, wide-eyed optimism will return. Browns fans will engage in one of their favorite past times that goes like this: “with another year under his belt, Kellen Winslow should emerge as the best tight end in the AFC. If Chud can harness Braylon Edwards and his attitude, our receiving corps should be one of the strongest in the league. If free agent X or draft choices Y and Z can just come through and with Charlie Frye and Derek Anderson locked in a real battle at QB, we have a real chance to turn this around.”

It’s great to dream. But it also raises expectations to unrealistic levels and makes the fall even harder to absorb. The point has been made repeatedly, but it is critical that it be revisited often. Of the three Cleveland sports franchises, the Browns are easily in the worst shape. Part of it is due to the fact that football requires more personnel overall and places the most emphasis on that personnel playing together in a much more coordinated fashion. But part of it also is due to the whole litany of poor management that has befallen this franchise since it has returned.

There is speculation that Lerner is considering selling the Browns. But new ownership hardly solves the problem unless it is accompanied by a sea change in attitude. Sunday’s Super Bowl may not have been the most exciting or compelling contest ever but hopefully it proved to be instructive to Browns fans and management alike. The Browns simply are not in the conversation in terms of making an impact in the NFL and don’t look to be any time soon. So before anyone even considers wasting a single dollar betting on the Browns Super Bowl odds for next year, remember how you feel right now and know that your money is better invested in betting the over and under on the number of times Lindsey Lohan will land in rehab in the next two years.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Cleveland Three

Reading Eric Cassano’s column about the field bosses running each of Cleveland’s professional sports teams (see his excellent column here ) served as still another wake-up calls as to how quickly things can change.

Late in the summer of 2005, the Indians were emerging as the one team no one wanted to meet in the playoffs. Kudos were being given to Eric Wedge for managing the team through a slow start and but for a collapse during the last week of the season, there’s a decent chance that someone other than the White Sox would have been World Series champs. Wedge was completing his second year as manager and expectations for the 2006 season were high. Wedge was subject only to the typical second guessing of any manager but no one was seriously identifying him as the key impediment to the team’s chances of returning to the playoffs.

It was also late in the summer of 2005 that Romeo Crennel was getting ready to embark on his first season as head coach of the Browns. While there were probably some that were a little skeptical of Crennel given his age, his hiring was generally greeted very favorably. Crennel had what seemed to be an impeccable resume and pedigree and the requisite connection to Cleveland. His lack of head coaching experience was noted but was not seen as any significant detriment particularly given the breadth of his experience in the league. The popular notion was that this team needed a teacher, a figure of authority and Crennel seemed to fit that description well.

It was also the summer of 2005 when Mike Brown was named head coach of the Cavs. Dan Gilbert had taken over as owner during the middle of that season and fired Paul Silas a short time later. Brendan Malone was named the interim coach. Once the season ended, Gilbert hired Mike Brown as head coach and, soon thereafter, Danny Ferry as general manager. Brown, like Crennel, had a good coaching pedigree. His lack of head coaching experience was likewise noted but, again, was not seen as a significant determinant. He was a young up and coming force leading a team of young and up and coming players.

Yet here we are, barely into 2007, and nothing seems to have worked out as planned. The most stable coaching regime we have is Wedge with the Indians. And to most fans, it’s a very shaky stability. What started as typical second guessing has now turned into essays about Wedge’s perceived shortcomings. But on the other hand his job doesn’t seem particularly insecure. Fans understand intuitively that General Manager Mark Shapiro is the team’s auteur and Wedge is the dutiful implementer. They also understand that more than any other general manager/head coach relationship in town, Wedge and Shapiro are the most tethered. Wedge goes down when Shapiro goes down. Crennel, of course, is hanging by the barest of threads and Brown apparently finds himself somewhere in the middle.

The very tenuous nature of the Cleveland coaching situation begs the question, how did we get this way? Why is it that other franchises in other sports seem to take flyers on coaches with little or no established track record and succeed wildly? Why can newcomers like Sean Payton or Eric Mangini succeed in the NFL where seasoned veterans like Crennel fail? Why can Lawrence Frank, a virtual unknown, step into the head coaching slot with the New Jersey Nets and be successful while Mike Brown struggles to find his voice with a more talented Cavs team?

The problem is that we treat those questions as rhetorical rather than actually take on the harder task of finding the correct answers. We watch, for example, as Browns General Manager Phil Savage avoids the real problem by instead tweaking the edges, tossing some assistants to the side and brining in new ones that look disturbingly like the old ones. Savage seems to act as if he’s showing great leadership and character by not abandoning an overmatched and underwhelming coach but instead getting him additional help. In the end, though, Savage is achieving the opposite result. The disarray that is apparent to everyone but Savage and owner Randy Lerner has cast a pall over this franchise that is getting increasingly harder to lift. It’s to the point that no matter what happens in free agency or with the upcoming draft most fans will go into the 2007 season with a sense of dread, just as firm in the belief that no matter the players Crennel lacks the ability to put the pieces of the puzzle in the right spots.

And that same dread is now creeping in with Brown and Wedge. It may be that the two of them are suffering somewhat because of the problems with the Browns and Crennel. It’s also likely that Brown and Wedge are suffering in part by unrealistic fan expectations for the teams they coach. But it’s also true that objectively speaking, both Wedge and Brown haven’t yet provided the same kind of spark to their teams that others, similarly situated, have brought to their teams.

Keeping this impending dread from turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy is indeed the biggest challenge the owner of all three franchises face. To this point, the jury is still out on whether any of the three understand that or, if they do, whether they have the ability to stare it down and come out on the winning side. But in the meantime, it is good to remind ourselves from time to time that the nature of sports is always cyclical. What’s not going as planned this year could turn on a dime the next. To be sure, Cleveland fans have had more than there share of downward spikes, but nothing lasts forever, either. We’ve seen too many teams in too many sports have seen their fortunes turn quickly both bad and good. It’s why they play the games in the first place and why, more importantly, we watch and care about the results.