Sunday, September 30, 2007

A Signature Win

If it wasn’t the signature win that Browns GM Phil Savage dreamed of, it was awfully close. Turning the tables on what to this point had been abject futility against their fellow competitors in the AFC North, the Browns soundly defeated a flat Baltimore Ravens team on Sunday 27-13 and winning their second divisional game in just three weeks.

Now the question is, when will the Browns lay waste to the other albatross hanging around their necks—the inability to win two consecutive games. We’ll all have to wait another week for that, but for once Browns fans get to enjoy a resounding win against a legitimate upper tier team. Savor the moment.

With a dearth of wins on which to draw from experience, it’s hard to actually know what a signature win feels like. But if this is one, and it sure feels like it, to most the signature play came with just under six minutes left in the first quarter in the form of quarterback Derek Anderson’s 78-yard touchdown pass to Braylon Edwards.

Seizing a moment in uncharacteristic fashion, the Browns went deep immediately after Leigh Bodden’s interception of Ravens quarterback Steve McNair. Edwards, doing nothing fancy except running straight ahead and hard, somehow convinced Ravens cornerback Chris McAlister that he was heading inside instead. McAlister bit and Anderson found the streaking Edwards all alone, laying the pass in perfectly and allowing Edwards to more or less waltz into the end zone to give the Browns what became a 14-0 lead.

And while the Edwards touchdown will be shown repeatedly, as it should be, the real signature play came with 3:34 left in the fourth quarter, the Browns clinging to their 14-point lead and McNair trying to drive the Ravens to within a touchdown.

As McNair dropped back to pass, linebacker Kamerion Wimbley blew past the Ravens right tackle for what should have been the first sack of the game. McNair threw the ball away as he was heading for the turf and was flagged for intentional grounding, essentially giving Wimbley the benefit of the sack with an extra 10 yards tacked on to boot. It gave the Ravens a second and 20 which they immediately made a second and 25 by false starting, essentially ending any hope of getting back into the game.

What made this victory particularly satisfying were two things. First, it was nice, for once, to see someone other than the Browns be ill-prepared for a game. Ravens head coach and self-anointed offensive genius Brian Billick’s Ravens were out of sync all day. They were the team committing boneheaded penalties, blowing assignments, missing field goals, calling time outs because they were confused by defensive schemes and otherwise misfiring when they could least afford it. If the Ravens were looking to take a play out of Cleveland’s playbook, they picked the wrong one.

Second, it was nice to see Billick and Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis get a little comeuppance. After Jamal Lewis’ one-yard touchdown run with 4:57 left in the second quarter, watching Billick try to convince the officials that he threw the red challenge flag timely when he knew he clearly hadn’t and then giving up without much of a fuss was a small but revealing moment of his character. If Billick were on the golf course, he’d be that guy claiming he made a bogey on a hole and then reluctantly agreeing it was a double the minute you asked him to recount the strokes with you starting with the drive. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick may be a snake, but if Billick doesn’t share the same cage with him at the zoo, he’s in the same section nonetheless.

As for Ray Lewis, maybe it’s time for some to start questioning just how much he has left in the tank. He was a non-factor. Statistically, he was credited with four tackles and two assists but frankly it’s hard to recall any of them. It may not be time to close the book on Lewis completely, but his act as the screaming loudmouth cheerleader wannabe that makes him one of the more disliked players in the league anyway is starting to look more like parody than inspirational.

For the Browns, the game featured the usual cadre of contributors—Anderson, Edwards, tight end Kellen Winslow II and kick returner Josh Cribbs. Though the Browns have been plagued by rabid inconsistency through four games, especially defensively, all of the aforementioned generally have acquitted themselves well each week.

Statistically Anderson wasn’t brilliant, merely effective. He was 10-18 for 204 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. It’s all Anderson really needed to do. In fact, it’s the kind of line that Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger turns in each week and he’s now considered one of the elite quarterbacks in the league. The same ultimately may not hold true for Anderson, but the point is that it’s more myth than reality that NFL quarterbacks need to throw for 300 yards each week to be considered great. More times than not, and today being a prime example of the more times, a quarterback who piles up gaudy statistics does so because his team is behind. Steve McNair’s line: 34-53, 307 yards, 1 touchdown, 1 interception.

The difference today between Anderson and McNair was not in the throwing, but in the leading. Anderson was able to make the big plays and McNair was not. Indeed, while there were some nice runs by Willis McGahee, by and large Baltimore simply couldn’t find the one big play against a defense that’s done nothing but give up big plays all season.

As for Edwards and Winslow, if they keep playing like this someone’s going to notice. Edwards had three receptions for 97 yards and one touchdown while Winslow had four receptions for 96 yards. More importantly, Winslow was able to answer the bell despite a partially separated shoulder, proving again that he possesses one of the highest pain thresholds in the league. Cribbs did nothing to hurt his run toward a Pro Bowl berth on special teams, consistently putting the Browns in good field position with his kickoff returns.

One statistic that should not go unnoticed, indeed someone ought to skywrite it across the lakefront, is that the Ravens didn’t get to Anderson. Not once. In fact, Anderson has only been sacked twice in 3+ games. An improved offensive line helps, of course, but the lack of pressure he’s getting is as much attributable to Anderson’s quick release as anything else. Still a work in progress, you can nonetheless see his progress each week. With Charlie Frye it was always hard to tell. Anderson still throws into coverage way too often, his interception to Baltimore safety Ed Reed being the perfect example. He still has a tendency, too, to wildly overthrow receivers. But his decision-making is getting measurably better each week, his nifty shuffle pass to Edwards that ultimately led to the Browns’ first touchdown being the perfect example.

Many are likely to start playing the “what if” game, as in “what if the Browns had beaten Oakland last week?” Well, with the win Sunday that would have given the Browns a 3-1 record and more than a few mentions as the season’s surprise team thus far. It probably would have caused CBS to broadcast more games in high definition. But a win last week would have masked the problems with the defense and may have let the players and coaches falsely believe that changes didn’t need to be made.

Indeed, in many ways last week’s loss set up this weekend’s win. For example, it forced the hand of head coach Romeo Crennel to come to the belated conclusion that simply being as bloated as a luxury liner does not mean that Ted Washington Monument can stop the run. His replacement at nose tackle, Ethan Kelley, wasn’t great but on the other hand he didn’t need to do much to look significantly better than Washington. And the adjustments defensive coordinator Todd Grantham made to overcome the significant shortcomings of defensive back Eric Wright may not have been made until after quarterback Steve McNair singed him for a few more touchdowns.

Where the win against the Bengals was a thrill ride barely survived, this win can rightly give the entire team a healthy dose of confidence, something they’ll need in abundance next week in New England. And whether the Browns win next week or merely lay another egg probably won’t matter much. This was a win, a signature win, which no one can take away.

Friday, September 28, 2007

A Parallel Universe

It may have just been a coincidence that just about the time the Browns were clinching the American League Central pennant last Sunday, the Browns were kicking off against Oakland. But if you believe there are no such things as coincidence, then it’s rather easy to find the parallels.

When the Browns exited the NFL after the 1995 season, there was anguish, sure, but the shiny new car in the garage was the Indians. The 1994 baseball season seemed like a cruel joke on Cleveland fans when a strike cut short any chance for the fans to celebrate the best Indians team since 1959. As that strike slowly lingered, albeit just a little, into the 1995 season, fans were itchy. But once the season finally started, the Indians played so well for so long fans were literally left with their mouths agape as the Tribe won an amazing 100 of 144 games.

Though the 1994 team set the table, it was really the 1995 team that cooked the meal, a feast that lasted during the entire Browns hiatus. It didn’t make fans forget about the Browns, of course. Far from it. But it at least cushioned the blow a bit for a town that first, last and every day in between has been and will remain a Browns town.

Those Indians teams of the last 1990s were the teams of John Hart and his up and coming protégé, Mark Shapiro. In retrospect, what is most memorable about those teams was their consistency. The Indians then weren’t a one and done organization. They were built and rebuilt over seven years and remained a contender.

But as with any other sport or business, players get old, bad decisions get made, economics change. Eventually Shapiro had to make the unpopular but necessary decision to blow it all up and essentially start from scratch. In the process he found himself hamstrung by an ever-tightening budget imposed on him by owners that weren’t as well capitalized as the Jacobs brothers. It forced Shapiro to make chancy trades and risky free agent signings. Some worked, some didn’t. But in retrospect, what is most memorable is that at no time were the Indians uncompetitive with the rest of the league. They never sunk to the depths of the Kansas City Royals, the Pittsburgh Pirates or any of the several other dregs of either the American or National leagues.

When the Indians finally did hoist their AL Central banner last Sunday it served as a nice reminder that they are well down the road on this journey. If starting from scratch and winning the pennant were a car trip, it would be the equivalent of the ride from Cleveland to Miami, Florida. Last Sunday, the Indians arrived at the Florida border. Whether they make it all the way is unknown, of course, just as is how long they might stay this time. But they got their, again.

This only proves the point though that such a journey can be undertaken and can be successful and not everything has to go right in the interim, either. At its core, that’s why fans in this Browns town are so frustrated with what they see out of their team. Most expected that the journey might take a bit longer because they first had to actually build the car that would make the trip. But given all the advantages that the NFL has over Major League Baseball, such as a salary cap, surely we all expected to be out of West Virginia by now.

Unfortunately, this team is still somewhere on I-77, just south of Zanesville, meaning that despite the constant fiddling the Browns are still mostly remain a breather on most teams’ schedules. It would be easy to recount all the mistakes that have been made, the blown draft choices, the bad signings, since 1999. But at some point what’s done is done and those reference points need to be cast aside or they just morph into convenient excuses. It’s a lesson GM Phil Savage first and foremost needs to learn if he is ever going to get this car pointed in the right direction and make this ball club competitive.

The constant harping and insinuations by Savage and head coach Romeo Crennel about the past and all its wrong-headedness is simply not helping. It’s actually counterproductive because it continues to foster the culture he swears he’s trying to change. If he truly wants to be helpful, and we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on that one, Savage should stop trying to re-invent the wheel and instead look a few miles down the road to the Indians and Shapiro for a few lessons.

If he did, he’d learn first that one of the keys to re-energizing a moribund franchise is not to entrust the day-to-day caretaking of the team to a career assistant with barely a pulse. Charlie Manuel, the quintessential old-school baseball guy, may have been a decent choice for a veteran team, but Shapiro ultimately knew and Manuel sensed, though didn’t agree, that Manuel wasn’t the right choice for a rebuilding project stocked with rookies. The same held true for Joel Skinner.

But in Eric Wedge, Shapiro found a nice mixture of youth, passion and an eye for detail and just enough inexperience to realize there was still much he had to learn himself. Manuel had long been set in his ways. It was a difficult but necessary decision that ultimately helped set in motion much of what was to follow. Except for 2006, the Indians under Wedge improved every year. And given what transpired this season, 2006 looks to be a blip and not a trend.

It’s hard to fathom then exactly why Savage can’t see the parallels with his ballclub and act accordingly. As he goes about retooling his team and trying to get it competitive by bringing in young, promising talent, he nonetheless entrusts it to someone completely ill-suited to assist him in the task. Crennel is the quintessential old-school football guy. He may even have been a good choice for a veteran team looking for that final push. But for this team at this time he was a bad hire and remains so. It’s not an accident that you’d need a microscope to see any sustained improvement since his hire.

With the Cavs making the NBA finals last year and the Indians back in the playoffs this year, Cleveland fans have had their expectation levels raised. More importantly, their b.s. meters have become more sensitive. They can spot a con and a phony and while they may not have yet concluded that Savage is either, their needles are starting to flicker. And as Savage continues to stand behind Crennel all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, it’s only going to get worse.

What ultimately seems to distinguish Shapiro from Savage is that Shapiro never spent much time trying to pound square pegs into round holes. Shapiro isn’t impetuous so much as he is agile. He has certain principles upon which he’s built his team but isn’t afraid to make adjustments. Savage, too, has a plan but is much more reticent to admit mistakes, let alone get them fixed.

Savage may be adhering to the conventional wisdom that says that hiring a new head coach would be tantamount to starting over. But the conventional wisdom isn’t always right and need not be here. Assuming that it’s the right hire, there’s no reason that a new coach can’t be one of the final pieces instead of the beginning of a new puzzle. Or in other words, at least get us as far as Georgia.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

In This Corner...

It’s hard to gauge what was more amusing in the last few days: Browns head coach Romeo Crennel’s threat to overhaul the defense or Braylon Edward’s admission that the Browns may have taken the Oakland Raiders a tad too lightly last Sunday. Let’s consider the candidates in more depth.

In this near corner is the notion that the Cleveland Browns, a team that had won only 11 games and lost 23 just since Crennel arrived, could take anyone too lightly. True, it was the Oakland Raiders, a team that is 6-28 in the same time frame. But on the other hand, isn’t the Browns looking down their noses at another team a little like Charlie Brown dissing Ziggy?

Lest the players forget, the victory against Cincinnati wasn’t so much earned as survived. The offense played unexpectedly well while the defense played awful for the second straight game. Showing no ability to analyze what every Rick from Brunswick could plainly see, Edwards and the rest of his teammates apparently figured that the best that lightweights like Josh McCown and Daunte Culpepper could do was score, maybe, half the number of points that a legitimate quarterback like Carson Palmer did, which in their strained calculus would be enough considering the scary talent the Browns have on the offensive side of the ball. And had they been right, they would have won the game. The problem was that close doesn’t count in math, even if you show your work. When you’re off by a few, which they were, you’re still wrong. The other problem was that one game does not an offensive juggernaut make. As a result, the Browns scored a bit less than half as many as they did the week before and that just wasn’t enough.

Edwards and the rest of the offense may think that putting up 51 against the only defense fighting the Browns for worst in the league puts them on par with teams like the Indianapolis Colts, but last time I looked, Derek Anderson wasn’t Peyton Manning and Edwards wasn’t Marvin Harrison. Heck, at this point in his career Jamal Lewis is barely even Joseph Addai.

Thus, even the most casual of fan had to be amused when Edwards admitted that “we let the win [against Cincinnati] linger on. We underestimated [the Raiders]. They stunned us the first half.” The incongruity of it all notwithstanding, the subtext of the statement is the team wasn’t properly prepared, a common failing under Crennel.

On this score, Crennel has proven to be about as adept at getting his team ready to play a big game as was John Cooper at Ohio State. Though Cleveland vs. Oakland doesn’t exactly resonate the way an Ohio State vs. Michigan game does, make no mistake that last Sunday was a big game for this franchise at this time. In that context, and past being the prologue it always seem to be around here, the fact that the Browns were flat in the first half hardly surprises.

In fairness to Crennel, he did mention to the media early last week that he would be telling his team not to get too giddy over the Cincinnati victory. But as we’ve discovered over these last few years, for all the professed respect Browns players say they have for their head coach, they don’t seem to spend much time actually listening to him which, ultimately, is what will do him in.

But the point for today is that Crennel let his team walk onto the field in Oakland not just expecting to win, but assuming they would. And until he can find a way to properly communicate the difference between these two concepts, the cluelessness of the team, which mirrors that of its head coach, will amuse even as it continues to inflict pain.

But let us not forget what’s sitting in the far corner. In his weekly Monday press conference, Crennel threatened to overhaul the defense. You can almost write your own punch line to that one if you’d like but as you consider how best to construct the joke and the payoff, take into account the following…

About the only real selling point for hiring Crennel in the first place was his supposed credentials as a defensive specialist. Fans were basically promised that he’d bring a New England Patriots-like edge and toughness to the Browns. Hardly. At this point most would probably agree that the Browns would be further ahead if they had just gotten a few of the Patriots players instead, like a Mike Vrabel or a Ty Law for instance.

As it stands, Crennel, who spends most of his time with the defense, has a defensive unit that currently is yielding the most points per game in the entire league and doing so in near-record fashion, has been on the field for more plays than any team in the league, and is yielding the second most yards per game. And that’s the first string and the major defensive categories. Feel free to pick virtually any statistic that is kept for defense and Crennel’s charges will be at or near the bottom, neck and neck with the Bengals, another team coached by a defensive genius.

While such ignominy certainly calls for an overhaul, the problem is that the Browns inventory of spare parts is a little thin at the moment. Discredit for that goes to GM Phil Savage who would probably be the first to admit that given so many holes and so little time, rebuilding the offense was a greater priority this last offseason. He’d be right but that neglect now threatens to undermine the somewhat positive surprises on the offensive side of the ball.

Maybe the fact that there are so many holes in the defense is why Crennel was very nonspecific in just how this overhaul might actually take place. Even as he was discussing it he began a bit of retreat once he realized that while it might be nice to sit defensive back Eric Wright for, say, the rest of the season, that’s hardly practical. Wright is better than what sits behind him, apparently, assuming you trust Crennel’s personnel judgments in the first place. The same goes for the defensive line. Ted Washington may be almost 400 pounds at this point, but even a lousy offensive line like Oakland’s didn’t seem to have much problem moving that pile of goo.

So feel free, Romeo, to overhaul what took you all of camp and the first three games to create. After all, how can he miss making midweek adjustments leading up to a game against a hated divisional rival? But if he does fail, how would we know anyway? When you’re at the bottom, there’s no place further to drop.

As for what is most amusing, picking a winner is hardly necessary. Enjoy them both. Given what we know of this team by now, this is likely to be the only fun Browns fans will get to have this season. And don’t worry about it getting too old too quickly. With the Indians entering the playoffs there’s a real chance that the bridge to the Cavs season will be better and shorter than any of us actually anticipated anyway.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

One Step Up, Two Steps Back

If the Browns team that opened the season against the Pittsburgh Steelers wasn’t the best barometer by which to judge them, then neither was the game last week against Cincinnati. Instead, the true measure of this team seems to be the jumbled ball of confusion and contradictions that lost against Oakland Sunday afternoon.

With a chance to “string” together consecutive victories for the first time in four years, the Browns instead gave their fans just enough hope and just enough pain to remind them of the difference between fantasy and reality.

The last drive was the most instructive. With just over a minute left, no time outs and 91 yards between them and the goal line, the Browns and quarterback Derek Anderson stumbled, stuttered and yet somehow found a way to move the ball within relatively easy field goal range with just three seconds remaining. But, of course, the prospect of the first two-game winning streak in four years was too much weight to bear. The line collapsed up the middle and Phil Dawson’s kick barely got three feet off the ground before it was blocked, giving the Raiders their first win of the season. You’re welcome. Glad to oblige.

And if the last drive wasn’t the most instructive, then surely it was the play of Anderson generally. He wasn’t Charlie Frye vs. Pittsburgh awful, but he wasn’t Anderson vs. Cincinnati good, either. Instead he showed he’s every bit the project that almost found himself on the outside looking in when the final cuts were announced at the end of the pre-season.

Anderson threw two interceptions on Sunday that were every bit as bad as Cleveland fans have come to expect from their quarterbacks in the last several years. On the other hand, he threw one touchdown, ran for another (in a drive in which he was 6-7) to bring the Browns within two points late in the fourth quarter, and ultimately put the team in position to win the game at the end. But in the end, what really matters, at least for Anderson, is that he survived for another week against the only measure being applied to him these days: playing just well enough so that GM Phil Savage isn’t forced to pop the cork too early on Brady Quinn.

If the loss to Oakland wasn’t necessarily unexpected, it was nevertheless disappointing for the same reason that virtually every loss is disappointing. Once again, the team, particularly early, simply seem unprepared. And if lack of preparation wasn’t the issue, then it was lack of focus. In either case, why is it that much more often than not, that’s the aftertaste that lingers with this team?

Head coach Romeo Crennel may scratch his head over this and even may own up to the fact that it’s his responsibility, but it just doesn’t seem like this preparation thing ranks very high on his priority list.

Exhibit A was the Browns’ first possession. On the very first play from scrimmage, tight end Kellen Winslow committed pass interference that immediately put the team in a hole. After temporarily digging themselves out of that jam, Anderson then was sacked and fumbled backward, ultimately losing 24 yards. A delay of game penalty, a false start penalty and the Browns were just as quickly facing third and 40 (yes, 40!) from their own 20 yard-line, exactly where the drive started. One drive, three penalties, one fumble. Only an optimist would call it bad luck.

Exhibit B was the drive in the second quarter that led to Sebastian Janikowski’s third field goal in the first half. With 4:45 left in the first half, the Browns started their drive at their own 27 and immediately found themselves first and 10 at their 42 following a Raiders pass interference penalty. On first down, Anderson missed badly to tight end Steve Heiden. On second down, Anderson’s short pass to Tim Carter was complete but was called back because of an illegal formation. That pushed the Browns back to second and 15 and ultimately third and fifteen because of another poorly thrown pass by Anderson to Heiden. Finally, put in a hole by players who can’t seem to line up correctly, Anderson completed the trifecta of lousy passes by throwing to Kirk Morrison of the Raiders as if he was the intended receiver. Morrison took it back to the Cleveland seven, setting up the field goal.

The fact that the Browns found themselves within striking distance at that point is a tribute mostly to the fact that the Raiders suffer from the same sort of issues that plague the Browns: penalties, fumbles and a general inability to capitalize on the poor play of the other team by scoring touchdowns when they need them most. And the fact that the Browns were able to actually put themselves back into it was due mostly to kick returner Josh Cribbs. His 99-yard kick return following the Janikowski field goal provided just enough of a spark and a wake-up call to remind the Browns that they were playing the Raiders and not the Patriots. A Lamont Jordan fumble a few minutes later allowed the Browns to get a late second-quarter field goal by Dawson and suddenly what should have been a Raiders blow-out was only a 16-10 game.

Despite the contradictions and conundrum that the Browns offense presents, the one constant this season has been the defense. It’s been awful in every way you’d care to define the word. And at every critical juncture Sunday, save perhaps for the last drive when the Raiders didn’t seem all that interested in getting a first down anyway, it allowed a mostly inept Oakland offense to make the play it needed to in order to, ultimately, eek out its first victory of the season, even if they had to survive a makeable Browns field goal to get there.

This is a defense, folks, that has huge problems. The backs couldn’t even hang with the mostly mediocre Oakland receivers. The convenient, though correct, excuse is that it is banged up. But it’s been banged up since the start of training camp, which means that Savage hasn’t done enough to find sufficient reinforcements. Again, as in last week and the week before and probably next week too, Eric Wright was outclassed, getting badly burned on Oakland’s first touchdown. And it could have been worse. Though the Oakland quarterbacks, combined, were only 14-26 for 226 yards, they were done in several times by dropped balls, with Mike Williams being the main culprit.

Certainly we’ll hear all week how there was still much to build on in the loss and some of that may be true. Cribbs, for example, continues his march toward the Pro Bowl and Braylon Edwards again played particularly well. But ultimately the few positives were once again undercut by too many negatives—dropped passes, missed receivers, fumbles, penalties and blown coverages. The team you saw is, unfortunately, exactly what you thought.

With this loss, it won’t be so much back to the drawing board for the Browns as it will be back to the wishing well, as in wishing that they could find a way to continue enough momentum from week to week to actually convince its fans that progress is being made. It was nice to hear that Savage refused to call last week’s victory against the Bengals a signature win, mostly because of the defense. But this wasn’t necessarily a signature loss, just typical. More’s the pity.

So while Oakland fans are celebrating the Raiders return to the win column, for however brief that may be, Cleveland fans can at least say that in the other Cleveland/Oakland game that also took place Sunday, their team was on the right side of that one. And when you think about it, that was the much more meaningful game anyway.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Twin Sons, Different Mothers

With Notre Dame football, they say you can hear the echoes. The problem these days is that they aren’t the echoes of Knute Rockne or the Four Horsemen, but of an implosion of the program that’s taking place in South Bend. And at its center is Charlie Weis, essentially the twin brother of a different mother to the Browns’ Romeo Crennel.

Though Crennel doesn’t bear nearly the same brunt of responsibility for the state of the Browns that Weis does for the sorry state of Notre Dame football, the similarities in their status and the status of what they oversee has to make their former head coach, Bill Belichick quite proud of his progeny.

The struggles Weis is encountering mirror his friend Crennel’s struggles with the Browns. It shouldn’t go unnoticed, for example, that both coaches jettisoned their opening day starting quarterback. Frye was traded to Seattle but whether or not that was GM Phil Savage’s idea or Crennel’s may be one of the last remaining mysteries around that particular debacle but is not as relevant as the result. Demetrius Jones, who opened the season behind center for Notre Dame, is off to Northern Illinois after just one game and if it was his idea, let’s just say that it wasn’t discouraged by Weis.

Weis is flirting with history at Notre Dame and not in a good way. His 0-3 squad faces the very real possibility of being the first Notre Dame team to start 0-4. Likewise, Crennel, even with the surreal win over the Bengals last Sunday, has more or less flirted with bad history since he got here. The win against the Bengals, for example, was only his second against a division opponent in 14 tries. He also must hold some sort of record for futility on replay challenges.

Beyond these odd parallels, it does raise the issue of why storied programs trusted their fates to lifelong NFL assistants.

In the case of Weis, the overwhelming majority of his career has been spent on someone else’s NFL staff. While he did spend a fair amount of time in his early years coaching high school football (his only head coaching experience before Notre Dame) and four years in the late 1980s on the football staff at the University of South Carolina while earning a masters degree, he started in the NFL in 1990 and there he stayed, under first Bill Parcells and then Belichick, in New York and then New England.

Prior to getting the job in Cleveland, Crennel had no head coaching experience at any level. He spent 10 years in college, most of which was with Parcells at Texas Tech, and entered the NFL in 1981, mostly with Parcells and Belichick.

But there is more than just these similarities. In the amount of time each had been in the league as assistants, every NFL franchise had been through at least one head coaching change. Most had been through several. Yet neither was ever hired for the top spot, if they were even ever considered. To put the most positive spin on it possible, every NFL owner and every NFL general manager charged with hiring a head coach repeatedly found someone more qualified than either Weis or Crennel to lead their franchise. At some point it stops being bad luck.

Despite what should have been a red flag to the Notre Dame administration, they hired Weis, who now seems as overmatched as a head coach as does Crennel. An offensive guru, Weis’ current team is officially the most inept offense in the entire Division I. Beyond being merely inept, they look unprepared, which has been a nagging problem with the Browns under Crennel. As he goes about trying to fix what’s wrong, Weis seems clueless where to start. In other words, Notre Dame is suffering the shortcomings that kept Weis from getting a head coaching job for so many years in the first place.

Which is the dilemma the Browns find themselves in today. The fact that Crennel was completely unsuccessful for years in getting a head coaching job wasn’t much of a red flag to the Browns. The victory against the Bengals was as nice as it was unexpected. But one victory cannot erase the institutional problems on this team. It can only obscure them until the next time they surface, which is inevitable.

Selecting a head coach may be a bit more art than science, but there is a fair amount of science involved nonetheless. It’s not an accident, for example, that the Pittsburgh Steelers have had just three head coaches in the last 38 years. The Browns are on their third head coach just since 1999, fourth if you count Terry Robiski.

One of the reasons, it seems, has to do with the Steelers’ approach. Chuck Noll was 37 years old when he was hired. Bill Cowher was 34 years old when he was hired in 1992. Likewise, new head coach Mike Tomlin was 34 years old. After some missteps preceding the hiring of Noll, the Rooney family hit on a formula that has served them, and others, well. Find a young, talented up and comer with enough experience to be respected but not so long in the tooth that he’s lost his ability to be flexible. It’s a formula that most other NFL franchises have followed, except Cleveland, which has been unable to land on any formula since their return.

Chris Palmer, who was nobody’s first choice, was 49 years old when he was hired. Butch Davis was 51. Crennel was 57 years old when he was hired. On that level it seems like the Browns approach begins and ends with checking for gray hairs. But digging deeper, there is more, or less, afoot depending on your perspective.

For example, Palmer sort of fell to the Browns when other choices, like Brian Billick, turned down the job. Though not as old as Crennel, Palmer was nevertheless the long-time assistant that had been passed over before for the top spot and hasn’t been considered since. Having made the mistake of hiring the bridesmaid lifelong assistant, the Browns changed course, dramatically.

Davis was a bit of a mixed bag, neither completely a college guy nor a NFL guy. He spent several years as a college assistant, mostly with Jimmy Johnson, before following Johnson to Dallas. He then fled the NFL, Charlie Weis style, for the reigns of a high profile college job. But Davis was successful and used that to make a grand entrée back into the NFL as a head coach. Given the leverage that his college success created, the Browns succumbed and turned over the entire football operations to him, a move that Davis was if not ill-suited for than at least completely unprepared for and a move that ultimately kept this franchise from escaping the Dwight Clark years. In the end, the problem with Davis was not as a head coach but as a personnel evaluator. However, keeping him in one role but not the other would have been untenable to Davis. Had that been possible, there is some likelihood he’d still be the coach of this team.

Having made mistakes with two different approaches, the next selection begged for the more tried and true method that the Steelers and others had followed. Inexplicably, however, the Browns decided to re-visit something that has not seemed to work for any franchise, including their own, the elevation of an entrenched assistant. Not so inexplicably, it isn’t working again.

Crennel isn’t a bad guy. In fact, quite the opposite. If he was a jerk he wouldn’t have survived as an assistant for so many years. But the fact that he’s a nice guy who is genuinely liked by the players is hardly the most crucial skill necessary for being a successful head coach. Where Crennel continues to fall short is in his ability to present a coherent, organized and prepared team, week after week. While it’s difficult on many levels to comprehend how a team can look so inept one week and so proficient (at least offensively) the next, such wild swings shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise. In fact it defines the issue.

The real trick, and where Parcells and particularly Belichick excel, is bringing a level of consistency and expectation from week to week. You can argue that it’s easier to do when there is sufficient talent to deal with, but that’s not necessarily the case. Belichick’s teams in Cleveland weren’t the most gifted and Belichick himself made his share of mistakes. But rarely were those mistakes of preparation or organization. If anything characterized Belichick, the consummate up and comer who got his first NFL head job, not surprisingly, when he was 39, it was and remains an incredible eye for detail and penchant for hyper organization.

These are the areas where both Weis and Crennel fall woefully short. Not surprisingly it’s why their teams likewise follow suit and will so for as long as they remain in charge. Get used to it, Notre Dame. Get used to it, Cleveland.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Team Extreme

It wasn’t so much that the Browns scored 51 points in their win Sunday over the Cincinnati Bengals that made the game unbelievable. In fact, it wasn’t even so much the final score of 51-45 either. It was the last play. When quarterback Derek Anderson took a victory knee on the last play of the game it was official: Browns fans have seen it all.

There isn’t a casino in the country, check that, the world, that would have given odds on an Anderson victory kneel happening. Not just Sunday. But at any point this season. And with all due respect to one of the greatest athletes in Cleveland history, LeBron James, serious thought ought to be given to painting over his James’ likeness on his “Witness” billboard downtown with a picture of that last play. Who knows when we’ll see it again.

Conjuring up the ghosts of 2004 when Kelly Holcomb and Carson Palmer engaged in an eerily similar shootout, Palmer and Anderson again riddled the respective opposing defenses like they were playing Notre Dame. Only this time the Browns didn’t come up on the short end. But it was close.

Leigh Bodden, who did nothing to keep his nemesis, Bengals receiver Chad Johnson, in check the entire afternoon nonetheless came up with the one play that counted most—an interception on the Browns 27 with 26 seconds remaining that sealed the improbable win. Until that point, the only Cleveland fan watching that game who didn’t think the Bengals would score and send the Browns to defeat is a liar. After all this is a team and a franchise that has conditioned its fans to demand the least and expect the worst.

With the victory there were at least two clear points that emerged. First, GM Phil Savage will get his wish: more time to develop backup quarterback Brady Quinn. Anderson’s performance on Sunday gets him a few more starts, at least, even if he throws up on himself next week against Oakland. Second, it’s time to call Dr. Finklestein and tell him he can forget about mom for awhile, we’ve got a whole new set of issues to deal with. This time on the defensive side of the ball.

Actually a third clear point emerged as well. The Cincinnati Bengals are a fraud. As bad as the Browns defense played, the Bengals were far worse than the six point difference on the scoreboard or the 23-yard difference in total yards would otherwise suggest. For example, the 51 points scored in Sunday’s game is more than the Browns have scored in their previous five regular season games, combined. Similar games can be played with most of the gaudy statistics the Browns offensive compiled on Sunday. But even more striking is the fact that the Bengals didn’t record a single sack. Not one. And this against an offensive line that gave up six last week.

Nobody expects the Browns to do anything this year, so the fact that they gave up 45 points to an offense as explosive as the Bengals isn’t much of a surprise. But the Bengals have Super Bowl aspirations; at least they claimed to have after their opening day victory against the Baltimore Ravens. Giving up 51 points to anyone, let alone the Browns, is a legitimate cause for panic.

The Bengals can claim fatigue from expending all their energy on the Ravens game last week. But just as Baltimore’s self-proclaimed offensive genius Brian Billick can’t seem to create a consistent and coherent offense for his team, neither can self-proclaimed defensive genius Marvin Lewis create a credible and consistent defense for his team. The Bengals have been mostly awful on defense for the bulk of Lewis’ tenure and his team’s ridiculous showing against a Browns team in near-total disarray this entire week isn’t going to do wonders for his reputation.

Though whether the Bengals were suffering a hangover, took the Browns too lightly, or are really that bad hardly matters right now. What does matter is that the Bengals defense, in one game, essentially did something Romeo Crennel hasn’t been able to do in his two-plus years as head coach, build some confidence for a team and a city starving for it.

Unlike last week’s game against Pittsburgh where virtually nothing went right and the few positives were so far outweighed by the negatives as to render them meaningless, Sunday’s game had a season full of highlights. Running back Jamal Lewis, demonstrating that classic style of a bruiser, wore down the defensive line with small but hard runs early to set up huge hard runs later. In all, he totaled 217 yards rushing, including a 66-yard touchdown run with six minutes left in the third quarter.

But Lewis was hardly the only star. Josh Cribbs is a legitimately feared return man with legitimate Pro Bowl aspirations. Receiver Braylon Edwards had the break-out game we’ve all been waiting for with eight catches for 146 yards and two touchdowns. And while he didn’t catch it, you couldn’t help but respect the attempt he had in the first quarter after the Browns took over following a Sean Jones intercepted. Edwards leaped high over the middle on an Anderson pass and was punished greatly for it. He got up a bit shaken but otherwise in tact. Edwards is a lot of things, but soft isn’t one of them.

Tight end Kellen Winslow turned in another solid game with six catches for 100 yards and one touchdown while receiver Joe Jurevicius had four catches for 44 yards and two touchdowns. And Anderson, anointed the starter when GM Phil Savage finally got his way by dumping Charlie Frye on Seattle, was 20-33 for 328 yards and five touchdowns. Though Anderson can best be described as a work in progress, give him credit. He started shaky and ended strong which hasn’t exactly been a formula for any Browns player of late.

But back to Dr. Finklestein, who, if can get Marvin Lewis off his couch, will likely find Browns defensive coordinator Todd Grantham cooling his heels in the waiting room. Grantham’s defense needs help. Let’s not forget that the Bengals had 531 yards of total offense themselves, 401 of which came off the arm of Palmer. Rudi Johnson chipped in with another 100-yard game against the Browns. In short, but for the Bodden interception late and the Jones interception early, it wasn’t as if the Browns defense provided much of a speed bump to the Bengals. Throw in the 365 yards the Browns gave up to the Steelers last week and in just two games the Browns already have given up 900 yards.

The problem, of course, is not too difficult to pinpoint. It all starts up front, whether it’s offense or defense and right now the Browns defensive line is awful. Ted Washington, who is about the size of two C.C. Sabathias, takes up space and that’s about it. He’s showing every one of his 16 years in the league. Orpheus Roye, the only credible player on the line right now, still is playing like he’s hurt. Robaire Smith, another Savage free agent signee this off-season, is essentially a non-factor.

With a defensive line that can’t seem to stop the rush or put much pressure on a quarterback, it leaves a relatively thin defensive backfield exposed. It’s not that the Browns defensive backs are without talent, it’s just that there isn’t an abundance to spare. The fact that rookie Eric Wright is a starter tells you all you need to know. Wright may develop into a quality back eventually, but right now he’s awfully green. He played only 22 college games or slightly less than two full seasons split between USC and UNLV. To put it charitably, he still has much to learn.

While it’s doubtful that the Browns are as good as they looked against the Bengals, the victory at least gave some credence to the theory that the Browns aren’t as bad as they looked against the Steelers, either. And in a town suffering so mightily for their football team, this qualifies as a legitimate piece of good news.

As for the Bengals, put it this way. For the same reasons that the Michigan Wolverines should be barred from entering the Top 25 at any point this season as a result of their loss to Appalachian State, the Bengals should be barred from any list of this year’s Super Bowl contenders. If you can’t stop Cleveland, you can’t stop anyone.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Pulling the Plug

With all that seems to be going on in Berea with the Browns these days, it would hardly shock if their mission statement was cribbed from the Japanese proverb that says “Vision without action is a daydream. Action without vision is a nightmare.”

Demonstrating a propensity to effectively alternate between daydreams and nightmares while keeping reality at arms length, the Browns have no idea where they’re going so to them any road will do. And because the sun has set and it’s another new day, there’s another new road for the Browns.

In what surely will go down as one of the more memorable press briefings by the Browns in recent memory, GM Phil Savage, in the course of but minutes, left fans on Tuesday wondering exactly what he and his wreck of a franchise are trying to accomplish this season.

Initially, Savage laid out the case that the objective is to win, saying “Some people think we're doing some kind of experiment, but we’re not. We are trying to win. Unfortunately, things got derailed Sunday before we even got started. Obviously, we have to play better. I think our team knows we’re very serious about winning, and I think they'll have confidence in whoever we put out there.”

But if that really is the case, which is unlikely, surely it was completely undermined a few minutes later when Savage essentially relegated winning to an afterthought when he said: “The important thing in the big picture is that we develop Brady Quinn in the right way. That is the most important thing that we have to do this year. That's what we’re trying to do. . . . And win.”

Seeing the quote really doesn’t do justice to how that message was delivered. The “and win” wasn’t said for emphasis. Far from it. It was a tagged on afterthought when Savage suddenly realized that he had just told season ticket holders and everyone else who owner Randy Lerner is counting on to financially and emotionally support this franchise that nothing, not winning, not preparation or professional effort, not even credibility, is more important than developing Brady Quinn. (You can hear the press conference by going to the Browns official website (, clicking on the multimedia tab and searching for Savage’s September 11 press conference.)

As unprecedented as the trade of Charlie Frye may have been, it pales in comparison to the unprecedented site of a general manager throwing the towel in on the season after just one game. The Browns aren’t talented enough to make the playoffs anyway so maybe he was just stating the obvious—that henceforth the Browns are in an extended pre-season mode. But there still is something dispiriting about the one person charged with making all personnel decisions telling the fans just nine days into the season that hey, winning would be nice, but we’ve got more important work to do.

Maybe in some perverse sort of way Savage should be credited for his candor. But it’s also fair to suggest that if Savage believes that anything in professional sports trumps winning, then he’s really in the wrong job. In fact he’s in the wrong profession.

You can’t create a winning culture without winning and so long as Savage believes that the development of the 22nd pick in the draft, a pick that fell to him by happenstance and luck, prevails over building that winning culture, the long nightmare that has been the Browns return will continue uninterrupted.

This is not to be naïve about Savage’s comments. It’s clear he’s taking a long view of the situation and essentially saying that getting Quinn to realize his potential will eventually yield wins. And, in his view, if sacrificing a season for the long-term is what it takes Savage seems comfortable with it. But are the fans? Are the players? Not likely.

Professional athletes are an interesting breed. The public often focuses too much on the business side of their lives, bemoaning the contract negotiations, the holdouts and the outsized salaries. But at their core, what makes athletes who they are is a competitive nature that doesn’t countenance losing. Collecting a good salary is a nice perk, but what keeps them coming back every day and makes them take such risks with their bodies is the chance to win, to establish superiority over others. It’s their most basic instinct.

The same is true with the fans. The reason there is a separate section in every newspaper in the country dedicated to sports, the reason forums like this exist, the reason that every town with a radio tower offers an outlet for every Rick from Brunswick to talk sports, is because fans are passionate about their teams and demand the opportunity to revel in their wins and complain about the losses. Fans want to win every game and get very emotional when that need isn’t met. What they don’t want to hear are excuses or long-term views or sacrificing the here and now for some elusive promise seasons away.

That’s why Savage’s comments are likely to be going over inside and outside Berea about as well as a Romeo Crennel halftime pep talk. He has pulled the plug on a season almost as soon as it got started. In the process, he has asked his players, including the free agents he brought in here to win now, to sacrifice their current health in order to help achieve a goal that they might not be around to witness, let alone enjoy. He also has asked the fans to subjugate their need to win now for a greater payoff somewhere down the yellow brick road. And in doing so, he’s also asked both groups to take a tremendous leap of faith that nothing else will go wrong in the interim.

It’s hard to imagine any scenario where that would be an acceptable request, particularly given the Browns unwillingness to participate in that request by, say, cutting ticket prices in the meantime. But given the credibility gap that is by now at least a mile wide and a thousand miles deep between the Browns and the fans, Savage truly is asking the impossible.

But then again, Savage wasn’t really asking anyway, was he? Given a long leash inside a franchise with no actual organization to it, Savage spoke like a man who has absolutely no concern for the consequences.

What Savage may not realize yet, but someday may, is that those consequences are nonetheless quite tangible. They involve such petty matters as the alienation of an entire generation of Browns fans who now have gone 13 years, almost a generation itself, without anything substantial to hold their interest.

Oh well, there’s always the hope that Savage will be right about Quinn. After all, he was right about Chris Redman, Kyle Boller and Charlie Frye.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Avalanche. Indeed.

Is Randy watching? Is Randy listening?

Those are the two questions I keep returning to after further mulling the state of the affairs in Berea with the Cleveland Browns. We’ve heard enough from GM Phil Savage. We’ve heard more than enough from head coach Romeo Crennel. What we don’t know, indeed what we are kept from knowing, is whether owner Randy Lerner is watching or listening or even if he particularly cares.

It may be that Lerner was at Monday’s 7 a.m. autopsy, but that’s not known either. Heck, it’s not known whether Lerner was even at the beat down on Sunday against Pittsburgh. And if he was at either or both, what are his thoughts? How can he allow the Lerner named to be sullied by the rank amateurs who have been given the keys to the Berea complex?

The apologists among us can nitpick Sunday’s disaster all they want to unearth a positive moment or two. But doing so only misses the much larger picture. This franchise is a mess and that was before they jettisoned Charlie Frye, ostensibly the winner of a really intense and open quarterback competition as far away as possible while still keeping him in the league. Savage can let his eyebrows furl and get all emotional about how he’s sick and tired of all the negative talk. He can continue to make excuses for his befuddled and overmatched head coach. But if he was anywhere near the Stadium Sunday he bore witness to a franchise that literally hasn’t moved the needle an inch since 1999.

And this isn’t just an issue of putting Brady Quinn in as quarterback come Sunday or picking up a decent free agent here and there, or even getting rid of Frye. It’s an issue of a franchise in such chaos and disarray from the top down that such irrelevant player moves amounts to nothing more than rearranging the deck chairs on the Titantic.

It was both amusing and instructive that Crennel referred to Sunday’s game as an avalanche. The exact quote was “as the game went on it was like an avalanche.” It harkened back to the veritable salad days of Chris Palmer’s reign of error on this franchise when he said: “Sometimes, I feel like I’m driving a runaway train. In the first two seats are the owners. In the other two seats are the personnel people, and back in the coach are the players and coaches. Everyone is yelling, ‘Stop the train. Stop the train.’ And you don't have time to tell them, ‘Hey, we can't slow down. We've got to keep going.’”

But Palmer could be excused, to a certain extent, for having such an observation. The re-born franchise was barely two years old at the time and the league itself had as much a hand in handicapping the franchise out of the gate as did the bumbling Carmen Policy and his incompetent sidekick, Dwight Clark. The statute of limitations on those excuses have long since expired.

What’s really sad in all this is how dead-on Palmer’s quote still is in describing the current state of the Browns. For all of Savage’s maneuverings this franchise is still a rock heading for a windshield. Listening to the quotes from the Steelers players after Sunday’s game, they know it to. There was no chippiness in their demeanor. Underlying their quotes was more than a tinge of sadness and remorse for a once proud franchise and worthy adversary that is no more.

At this point, the Browns’ sole purpose is to serve as the relative break for teams in an otherwise grueling NFL schedule. There isn’t a player or coach from an opposing team that has any respect for this team, notwithstanding the mumbo jumbo any of them might say in a weekly pre-game conference call. And what’s worse is that the Browns, under Savage and Crennel, haven’t given an opposing player or coach any reason to think otherwise. In fact, everything thing about the disorganized and haphazard approach they took on Sunday only confirms what the opposition was thinking anyway.

And if gaining the respect of the opposition isn’t high on the priority list, how about focusing then on the hapless fans that have supported this wreck for all these years? At this point is there a season ticket holder out there who isn’t right now gnashing his or her teeth over the fact that they not only now have tickets they don’t want, they also have tickets they can’t give away, let alone sell?

Surely, the people buying the jerseys and t-shirts, tailgating in the Muny Lot, or hanging out in the bars deserve something more than they’ve been given since 1999. Maybe supporting a professional franchise is a sucker’s bet in the first place, but without it there is no team, no league. This is, ultimately, what Lerner, Savage and Crennel just don’t seem to get.

Surely Crennel isn’t happy about what took place on Sunday, though with him it’s hard to tell. Surely Savage isn’t happy either and with him it’s easier to tell. But being unhappy needs to translate into something tangible in order to change that emotion. To this point, Savage and Crennel have proven to be equally inept at turning thought into meaningful and measurable positive action.

It’s true that you can’t fire all the players but it’s also true that you can’t fire the owner, either. That’s why hacks like Savage and Crennel are foisted up for sacrifice. And while that sacrifice may very well be warranted, it doesn’t even come close to addressing the utter lack of direction that Lerner has failed to provide to his asset, too busy is he tooling around Europe.

That complete lack of a management structure in the front office is repeated on the field. One does follow the other. As incompetent a head coach as Crennel is, it’s hard to expect any kind of planning or preparation when ownership doesn’t do likewise. Ask yourself this question: who exactly is running this franchise? Good luck unearthing a credible answer to that.

Lerner is listed on the masthead and his close friend Bob Kain is listed as holding the ambiguous role of Vice Chairman. Then come three senior vice presidents, which includes Savage, and four vice presidents. Notice something missing? Who’s the chairman? Who’s the president? Who’s the chief executive officer?

Lerner may be proud of the relative streamlined nature of his organization, but given his disconnection with the franchise, it is essentially rudderless, a ship in search of a captain and it shows, upstairs and on the field, day in, day out. As Savage continues to defend a coach completely ill-suited to his current role, it only underscores that Savage is ill-suited for his current role. And as Lerner continues to stand silent while what he owns disintegrates, it only underscores that Lerner too is ill-suited for his current role.

The Cleveland Browns have become a national joke that continues to provide fresh material to their audience every day. Permanently dumping their starting quarterback after only one game is just the latest gem. The only problem is that it’s not particularly funny for any of us that give a damn, or used to anyway. But is it to Lerner? Who knows? Is Randy watching? Is Randy listening?

Sunday, September 09, 2007

That Happened

Well, so much for that.

In a season that many fans felt would finally mark the beginning of something new, something different, there was an amazing sameness to the debacle that took place on Sunday at Cleveland Browns Stadium.

Let’s see, the Browns lost, again, to the Steelers in, again, blow-out fashion. Not only does that mean that head coach Romeo Crennel hasn’t yet beaten the Steelers, it also means he hasn’t beaten anyone in the entire Central Division. Ever. The Browns, predictably, went three and out on their first possession. And let us not forget everyone’s favorite statistic: Crennel lost two more replay challenges, making him 0-9 for his career.

But what is most disturbing beyond these irritants is the fact that, again, a Crennel-coached team looked completely unprepared, which is understandable since they had only nine days to ready themselves.

No one seriously questions whether or not the Steelers have better players than the Browns. They do, in spades. But what is hard to fathom is how the Browns could look so dismal out of the gate. Not only did they fail to get a first down in their first possession, which isn’t necessarily a portent of anything, but on their very first punt of the day they had four separate penalties, which was a portent of all that followed. Four penalties on one play is not something you’ll see very often. It makes you wonder what the heck were the other seven guys doing, taking the play off? Oh yea, make that six other players since replacement punter Paul Ernster was busy running for his life after fumbling a perfectly-snapped ball. At least Ernster got the ball back. Maybe Crennel will let him keep it as a memento of his short-time with the Browns. Goodbye Paul, we hardly knew ye. But fret not for Ernster, he’s one of the lucky ones.

The usual suspects were also having their typical day. Charlie Frye threw his usual interception and so did Derek Anderson, who fumbled for good measure. Jamal Lewis, rendered essentially moot when the Browns predictably fell behind early, fumbled as well. So too did the always mercurial Braylon Edwards. In all, five turnovers. Yet, somehow, despite the rocky beginning, it was only 17-0 at halftime, not a completely insurmountable lead.

But as poor as Crennel is in preparing a team for a game he’s even worse on game day. If anyone thought that the Browns might come out differently after the half, then you’re just not paying attention. Whatever he said at halftime couldn’t have landed with more of a thud as the Steelers took the opening drive, predictably, for the touchdown that ended any fleeting thought that the game might get competitive.

In surveying the wreckage, about the only positive was Crennel’s strategy in keeping secret until game time who the back-up quarterback would be. Crennel didn’t want the Steelers to be able to prepare for the Browns’ second stringer, which is a good thing. You’d hate to think what the Steelers would have done had they had a chance to prepare for Anderson.

Perhaps Crennel actually knew something we all didn’t about his starting quarterback. But it was revealed soon enough. Charlie Frye couldn’t have looked less like a third-year player in a make or break year if he had tried. Instead, he was shakier than Don Knotts. You could see the indecisiveness in the way he held the ball for so long, so intent was he on not making a mistake that all he could do was make mistakes.

But like Ernster, Frye’s probably one of the lucky ones. The only chance he has, or should have, of entering a game from this point forward is if Anderson and Brady Quinn both get hurt.

And in this regard, there is some slight hope, assuming you’re a long-term thinker. On the heels of this dismal day, Brady Quinn undoubtedly moved up on the depth chart. While it’s doubtful he’ll start next week that is only because Crennel is stubborn and doesn’t want to look like he’s abandoned all hope going into the second game of the season. He’ll start soon enough.

But if Crennel is waiting to make that move because he’s worried about the fragile psyche of his team, he need not. Ill-prepared though they might have been, that is absolutely no reason for their playing without any pride whatsoever. The offensive line essentially refused to hold a block, the defensive line refused to push back and the defensive backs looked like tackling was a second language. In other words, this is a group that has proven to be particularly resilient to being motivated by embarrassment save for, maybe, Kellen Winslow, who caught four passes for 83 yards and actually threw a few hard blocks and Antwan Peek, the newly-acquired linebacker.

As for the rest of the misfits, whatever positive scraps you can find are far outweighed by the negatives. One particular image should suffice and that was of defensive back Sean Jones throwing his hands up in disgust at fellow defensive back Brodney Pool for letting Santonio Holmes blow by him for the Steelers second touchdown, a 40-yard toss from Ben Roethlisberger. Way to have your teammate’s back. Oh yea, for good measure there also was rookie Eric Wright covering receivers like he was Owen Wilson in “Wedding Crashers” trying to cover Zack. It may be a bit soon to nickname Wright “Toast” but let’s put it this way, the bread is warming.

Which gets us back to Savage and his barometer for Crennel. Savage has been definitive in support of his head coach, allowing himself only the slightest of outs by saying he’d reconsider if the Browns lost a bunch of games 50-0. Well, that’s looking less like an out for Savage and more like a prophecy. Frankly, the only reason the score wasn’t worse was the fact that the Steelers themselves looked a bit rusty. Oh, and it rained, too.

There is no doubt that Savage and Crennel will say the usual stuff about looking at the films and having some work to do and getting things corrected. And they’ll also caution that it is too soon to write off the season. But that’s what Lloyd Carr told his team and fans after their loss to Appalachian State and look how that turned out. At least the Michigan Wolverines can still win their conference. The Browns have been all but mathematically eliminated. In week one.

Friday, September 07, 2007

Perspective. Please.

Maybe it’s just a cornerback thing.

The news that Browns cornerback Leigh Bodden was arrested Wednesday night for aggravated disorderly conduct conjured up the memory of former Browns cornerback Corey Fuller who was arrested a few years ago under somewhat similar circumstances.

In both cases, the trouble began because our cornerbacks couldn’t drive in the right direction. In Bodden’s case, it was at the Cleveland airport. In Fuller’s case, it was on his way to the Flats following a pre-season game against Green Bay. For Bodden’s sake let’s hope he doesn’t further follow in Fuller’s steps, however. As it turned out, driving the wrong way ended up being the least of Fuller’s legal problems, but I digress.

The arrest of Bodden raises the important angle that our mainstream media pack seems to have missed in its otherwise overblown coverage: why can’t Cleveland cornerbacks drive in the right direction? And if our cornerbacks can’t point a car in the right direction how can we ever expect them to run in the right direction when covering a receiver? If you’re looking for bad omens, this could be one of them. Take the Steelers and give the points.

Seriously, though, it’s hard to get too excited over the Bodden arrest. This is one case where head coach Romeo Crennel is absolutely right; it’s a minor traffic matter. Yet because many in the local media suffer from massive inferiority complexes, the story has taken on an odd sort of life of its own. So desperate are they to have their own important story of an athlete in trouble happen right here in Cleveland that they’re willing to manufacture one if necessary.

But whatever one wants to make about the Bodden arrest, this much is true—it’s no big deal. Or is it? Cue the dramatic music. Ponder the implications. Speak in hushed tones: Will this arrest be a distraction? How will it affect the team’s preparation for the big game against the Steelers? Will the rest of the defense be able to focus on Ben Rothlisberger knowing that one of their comrades has a misdemeanor charge hanging over his head? Can Romeo rally the team under such trying circumstances? Who knows, but let’s keep asking the questions until they actually do become a distraction.

This is not to excuse whatever it is that Bodden actually did, but people how about a little perspective here? Hasn’t anyone in the media actually been to Hopkins airport to pick someone up? The Cleveland police working that beat bring new meaning to the word “surly” when you try stop your car long enough to pick someone up outside of baggage claim. Unless your loved one is actually standing outside with bags in hands, don’t even think about stopping. You’ll be forced to circle the airport, again, and the police won’t be very polite about directing you out of the way.

That doesn’t mean of course that Bodden gets to be rude in return. In fact, it’s never seemed like a good idea to pick a fight with someone wearing a badge and packing a gun, particularly at an airport. But it is to suggest that there probably is a little something to Bodden’s claim that there is another side to the story and that there are many of us who will have an understanding nod in his direction when that side is told.

Whatever other side there actually is to that story know this: the legal process, such as it is in a case like this, will run its course and Bodden will likely plead no contest and pay a small fine. And then it should and will be over. Neither the Browns nor the league is going to suspend Bodden and six months from now it will disappear off of his record, assuming it even makes it on it in the first place. But while we’re waiting for this to happen, take heart that the local media will turn it into the circus it shouldn’t be. They already have.

There was Channel 5 (and others, probably) doing a live remote first, from Hopkins Airport and next from the Justice Center to explain in breathtaking fashion the hard-charging breaking news about this major, major story. The local newspapers weren’t much better. The Plain Dealer had two reporters on this story for goodness sakes. It was almost as if Bodden was pulled over on his way to a cock fight while transporting HGH, a pack of pit bulls and a bazooka.

What our local media never seems to get is that by playing up a story like Bodden’s, they unwittingly make it even more difficult for the rest of us to discern a real news story when one does come along. It’s like trying to figure out when something really is on sale at Macy’s.

If a relatively minor player like Bodden getting into a relatively minor verbal hassle with the local police over a parking matter is worth this kind of coverage, what can we expect if/when a major local sports figure actually gets into some real trouble? You think you’re sick of hearing about Michael Vick? Wait until something like that happens here.

A player, any player, getting arrested these days for anything hardly seems like news anymore. But it does happen here and in every city with professional sports and when it does the media seem to take it more seriously than the ever-increasing body count in Iraq. Not to sound like an old curmudgeon yelling at kids to get off of my lawn, but the coverage Bodden’s arrest has received makes me yearn for the days when a player could get into a fight in a bar and not have it splashed across the front page of the morning paper.

I completely understand that the value this society places on its professional athletes dictates that their antics off the field get covered as well, so returning to the supposed good ol’ days isn’t going to happen and probably shouldn’t. And there is something to the notion that off-work conduct can have an impact on a person’s work. But can anyone legitimately argue that’s the case here with Bodden? Not every misstep into a pile of dog crap merits a mention in the news.

Unfortunately though that’s what we’re left with when there isn’t enough actual news for our local media to cover. So strap yourself in for Bodden’s next court appearance. Channel 5 is likely to pre-empt General Hospital to cover it. And while you’re at it, pray that that Kamerion Wimbley doesn’t blow down I-77 at 70 miles an hour after the game Sunday. With the kind of coverage that would get on local TV, we might not ever see regular programming again.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

The Core

As the Browns stand relatively ready to officially begin the 2007 NFL season, there are some, a small number but some nonetheless, who think the Browns have a chance to be one of the more pleasant surprises of the upcoming season.

Most, on the other hand, aren’t nearly so bold. But those in this camp do allow that the Browns seem headed in the right direction. Whether or not you find yourself in this camp is not as important as who its number one resident is: Browns GM Phil Savage.

That at least is the message that came through loud and clear at two different points this past weekend.

While discussing the Browns final cuts on Saturday, Savage used the occasion to give an unsolicited vote of confidence to his beleaguered head coach, Romeo Crennel, telling the media that there is no Crennel deathwatch taking place in Berea. He emphatically stated that he is unquestionably a Crennel supporter, stating “I’ve said it 10 times, he's the right man for the job. There's nobody else out there that could've won more than eight to 12 games over the last two years with the roster we had and circumstances and situations that we've been through.” That was a pretty convenient assessment by Savage in that the Browns won 10 games the last two years, which is right in the middle of Savage’s overall assessment.

The unsolicited support of Crennel was reminiscent of the unsolicited endorsement Savage gave of Jamarcus Russell, the first pick of the Oakland Raiders, on draft day and was a reminder that Savage is savvy enough to understand that the platform he occupies can occasionally be an effective bully pulpit. But if Savage is going to use that bully pulpit, he shouldn’t be surprised when the media and fans alike seek to hold him accountable for what he says. It comes with the territory he staked out.

While standing squarely with his head coach, Savage raised the bar of expectations, albeit slightly. According to an article in the Plain Dealer this past Monday, Savage said he believes that the Browns now have sufficient talent to compete with anyone in the league. “We have a solid core group of 35 players,” Savage told Mary Kay Cabot. “We have a legitimate NFL roster. It gives us a chance to compete and potentially win a lot of games, not only this year but next year and the year after. I feel good about where we are - about the final 53 [players].”

The most interesting aspect of this assessment is how it conveniently squares with what owner Randy Lerner told the media last March in his yearly round of post-season interviews. In a series of interviews with the Plain Dealer, the Beacon Journal and the Canton Repository, Lerner made it clear that a NFL team needs a core of 35 players to be successful and that, following the signing of free agents Eric Steinbach and Jamal Lewis, the Browns stood at about 18 or 19. (See my summary of these interviews here).

At that time, Lerner identified the following players as that core group: “I have (Joe) Jurevicius, (Orpheus) Roye, Kellen Winslow, Braylon Edwards, Kamerion Wimbley, Sean Jones, Brodney Pool, Eric [Steinbach], Jamal Lewis, Andra Davis, Charlie Frye, D’Qwell Jackson, Leigh Bodden, Josh Cribbs for special teams certainly if not other, Steve Heiden, and emerging players like Leon Williams, Lawrence Vickers, Jerome Harrison, Travis Wilson.”

Even if accepting Lerner’s assessment of core players at face value, which is difficult when it includes Leon Williams and, in particular, Travis Wilson, what that tells us is that somewhere between the draft and the final roster cuts last Saturday, the Browns added 16 or 17 more core players from the assessment Lerner had after last season, assuming Savage’s current assessment is correct. The question this begs is exactly who are these new acquisitions? Hard to say since Savage didn’t volunteer specifics and the beat reporters from the daily newspapers are so used to having information fed to them that it didn’t occur to a one of them to ask a rudimentary follow-up such as, “like who?”.

But speculating a bit, certainly Brady Quinn, Joe Thomas and Eric Wright take up three of those slots. It’s likely, too, that the Browns consider Antwan Peek and Chaun Thompson among their core. But that leaves another 11 or 12 players on the current roster that now are considered part of the core that weren’t last year. Maybe that means that Savage now believes Kevin Shaffer, Hank Fraley, Lennie Friedman, Seth McKinnie and even Ryan Tucker are among the core. Maybe Phil Dawson and Dave Zastudil are now in the club. And even if you include all of them while remembering that they were all on the roster last year, you’re still a few players short of defining the core. Even still, the question this also begs is what’s changed? It’s not like the Browns have played a regular season game between Lerner’s assessment in March (which presumably came from Savage in the first place) and Savage’s assessment last week.

This is not to come down too hard on Savage, but it is to underscore the conflicting messages this franchise sends and why they make it so difficult to know what to believe anymore.

The most likely scenario is that Savage can’t possibly believe that there really is a solid core of 35 players on this franchise. Not to make much out of subjective lists, but in Sports Illustrated this past week, NFL writer Peter King chose his top 500 players (out of approximately 1700 total players) and only eleven Browns made the list. Just on pure averages, the Browns fell about six players short. And in some ways, King’s allocation was relatively kind as it included rookies Joe Thomas, Brady Quinn and Eric Wright, none of whom have played a down in the NFL. It’s hard to fathom that a team that already is underrepresented on any such list could simultaneously have 35 core players.

The thing about all of this is that Savage has never struck me as delusional. As front office executives go, he seems to be the most earnest and forthright. But even assuming that part of what he was doing in describing the current team was trying to re-set the tone of the dialogue in Berea, in doing so didn’t he also do the one thing he also criticized the media for doing: put Crennel on the hot seat?

If the Browns do have a solid core of 35 players, then a 9-7 season is not an unreasonable expectation. But truthfully, other than wide-eyed optimists, does anyone believe that a five game improvement is realistic? And if it doesn’t happen, is Savage willing to admit what also seems apparent to everyone but those wide-eyed optimists, that Crennel is not the right man for this job?

Savage deserves a fair amount of credit for taking the long view of the franchise and rebuilding it methodically, finally. And outside of his allegiance to Crennel, it’s hard to find much fault with how he’s gone about doing it. But if the aging Crennel was an awkward fit for a team that lacked talent, and he was, how does he suddenly become a better fit with young and upcoming talent?

In the short term, I suppose Savage deserves the benefit of the doubt on this one because of what he has accomplished to date. But Savage is wrong for trying to divert the media and hence the fans attention from this issue. As long as Crennel continues to make personnel decisions by flipping coins and as long as Crennel continues to look confused and overmatched on the sidelines as the mental mistakes pile up, his status will continue to be debated.

If Savage and Crennel want to have that kind of heat turned down, they’ll have to do it themselves.