Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Lingering Items--Texans Edition

There is any number of ways to measure the progress of a team like the Cleveland Browns, and not every one them is statistically based.

For example, this past Sunday’s victory, which pushed their record to 7-4, showed evidence that the team is no longer in awe of its own success and is now capable of closing out a game it should win, something they couldn’t do just two weeks prior against Pittsburgh. Another is the way in which the defense is starting to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks, demonstrating how much good, in the form of sacks and turnovers, can come from this.

But in my mind, the fact that head coach Romeo Crennel went virtually unnoticed during last Sunday’s game is as much a sign of progress as anything else. There were no overt examples of sideline confusion that dot most Browns games in one form or another. The Browns didn’t foolishly burn an extra time out or two trying to figure out whether to challenge an official’s call. For the most part the players seemed to be in most of the right places at most of the right times. In fact, it’s hard to think of any outward example of an impact, positive or negative, which Crennel had on Sunday’s game. That’s not a criticism.

This of course doesn’t qualify Crennel for any special awards, unless of course you’re Patrick McManamon from the Akron Beacon Journal and your threshold is so low that a winning record after 11 games, after two years of sheer torture, is worthy of a ticker tape parade. In Tuesday’s Beacon Journal (see column here), McManamon argues that the Browns progress to date is a veritable mandate that general manager Phil Savage come out now and publicly declare that Crennel will serve out the final two years of his contract.

Let’s see if I have this right. Savage already announced at the season’s outset that Crennel isn’t nor has he been on the hot seat. Now, because the Browns are showing measurable progress in a season that is only 75% complete, suddenly Savage needs to further back his coach? Wouldn’t that sort of imply that despite what Savage said earlier, he really did have doubts about Crennel? In other words, wouldn’t such a public proclamation actually raise more questions than it answers?

Beyond these rather obvious questions is the rather obvious fact that the season isn’t quite finished. What if the Browns tank the rest of the games and finish 7-9? Sure, that’s progress over last season’s debacle, but so what? In a season where so much seems possible, wouldn’t falling flat with the season on the line take the shine off that record? And by the way, if the Browns do fall flat, does that mean we should patiently sit by while it takes two more years to get to 9-7?

As McManamon admits, Crennel is far from perfect. Indeed, McManamon cites to some of the more obvious examples: the Maurice Carthon debacle, the Charlie Frye debacle, the time out debacle, etc. ad nauseum. McManamon, however, does gloss over some of the other shortcomings of this team, which ultimately are a reflection on the head coach, like its lack of discipline as exhibited by the inordinate number of mental errors that plague the team on a regular basis, such as false starts and personal fouls, the lack of attention to detail in any number of areas, like who exactly has authority to call a timeout in the first place, or the fact that this defensive specialist has one of the worst defenses in the league.

Sure any of these shortcomings can be rationalized away by placing the blame elsewhere, such as on Savage for not acquiring better players on the defensive side of the ball. And maybe that’s true to some extent or even to a great extent. But even Crennel readily admits that the buck stops with him and it does.

This isn’t to necessarily bash Crennel so much as it’s intended to recalibrate McManamon’s perspective scale a bit. It’s also intended to say that nothing good comes out of making any promises that ultimately Savage may not be able to keep. As a work in progress, the Browns are necessarily still in a state of flux. Crennel has already earned the right to come back next year, like it or not. But the rest of this season and particularly next year when the Browns will be facing difficult decisions about their quarterback while no longer being able to sneak up on opponents will be the real measure of whether or not Crennel really has matured into a head coach and whether or not he really can deliver the Browns to the next level as an elite team. If that occurs, Savage won’t need to make any public proclamation about his final year or the next several thereafter. Crennel’s future will be secured by fiat.


Not to go all Mary Kay Cabot on anyone, but I have the same question she had on Monday: What exactly was Braylon Edwards thinking when he drilled a ball into the Dawg Pound on Sunday? Apparently very little.

For anyone that didn’t see the play, early in the second quarter quarterback Derek Anderson hit Edwards with a 19-yard touchdown pass that ultimately tied the game at 7-7. Immediately following the catch, Edwards wound up and threw the ball as hard as he could on a direct line into the Dawg Pound.

According to Edwards, he was just showing some pent up aggression, claiming he was just excited and needed an outlet since he doesn’t dance. Maybe he should learn. Lucky for him the fans in that section were paying attention or someone would have surely been hurt, which very well could have spelled trouble for both Edwards and the Browns.

Fans at sporting events are warned, on their tickets and through announcements, that they need to be alert for balls, bats, gloves, whatever, that may inadvertently leave the field of play. And while there have been any numbers of lawsuits filed by injured spectators over flying balls and bats, most of them have been losers for the fans who filed them because of this warning and the nature of the games. However, this body of law is premised on the unintended nature of the injury. It’s different when it’s the result of intentional or reckless conduct, just ask Albert Belle who was forced to settle a lawsuit filed by Associated Press photographer Tony Tomsic as a result of a ball Belle allegedly deliberately threw at him. Belle also had a run-in with a fan a few years earlier who had called him Joey. Belle drilled the fan in the chest with a ball. It’s unclear whether it resulted in a lawsuit. More likely a private settlement resulted either before the legal process went too far or just after it was initiated. It’s unlikely the incident was merely forgotten.


Now we know the answer to the question of how we can tell if the Browns are wearing throwback uniforms. There will be numbers on the helmets, that’s how.

What is actually somewhat amazing is how little the Browns uniforms really have changed over the years. Not only have the colors remained the same, but so too has the design of the uniforms. Other than an insignificant stripe or two on the helmet or the socks, the uniforms you see today are virtually the same as they’ve ever been.

The reason this is amazing, actually, is that owner Randy Lerner and even former owner Art Modell for that matter, saw no reason to try and tap into additional revenue that tends to follow when teams change colors and fans by new jerseys and such. Look at the NBA in general and the Cavs in particular. Teams somewhat routinely change colors and radically alter uniform design, just as the Cavs did. The teams will argue of course it’s to freshen the look. The truth is that it’s done to re-open a revenue stream. It’s kind of like when you buy a DVD of your favorite movie and the next year it’s reissued with special packaging. It’s only purpose is to separate your money from your wallet.


Here’s a question to ponder: If Brandon McDonald, in his first extended play of the season, has enough ability to shut down a Pro Bowl receiver, what took the Browns so long to get him out there?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Fair Value

When it comes to the business side of sports, there is absolutely one golden rule to remember: in salary negotiations when they say it’s not about the money, it’s about the money.

Keep that in mind as you consider the fawning and sympathetic piece on Cavaliers holdout Anderson Varejao by ESPN’s Chad Ford, an article that was facilitated, not surprisingly, by his getting, in Ford’s words, a “rare” interview with Varajeo. (See story here) Ok, technically Varejao is not a holdout since he is a free agent, albeit a restricted one. Still, as much as anything else, it’s clear from Ford’s story that Varejao still considers himself part of the Cavaliers at this point, not just by the rules of the collective bargaining agreement but also emotionally.

Allowing himself to be played by Varejao and his agent, Dan Fegan, Ford inserted himself into the negotiations by giving Varejao both the means and the ammunition to make his case directly to the public on the supposed injustices being visited upon him. Varejao’s version of the “it’s not about the money” mantra is that he feels he’s not being treated “fairly” by Cavs GM Danny Ferry. Since it’s unlikely that Varejao is referring to the size of his locker in the Cavs new workout facility, it’s probably safe to presume that by “fairly” he means money, boatloads of it.

Just how much? That’s a bit harder to discern. According to the article, we know what is unfair, the Cavs offers. Ford indicated that the Cavs initial offer to Varejao was $20 million over five years, which the Cavs later increased, substantially, to $32 million over five years, or $6.5 million a year. Clearly this just isn’t fair, it’s not even in the same country as fair.

On the other hand, Varejao seemed to chafe at the suggestion that he was seeking $10-11 million a year saying that such figures “just aren’t true.” That sets the inner and out limits. Fairness lies somewhere between $6.5 and 10 million a year.

This is where it helps to understand Ford’s role in all of this in honing in on the exact amount. Through the magic of unnamed sources, supposedly two NBA general managers but more likely either or both Varejao and Fagan, Varejao would consider a sign and trade deal in the neighborhood of $45 million over five years. For those as challenged mathematically as Varejao, that’s $9 million a year, which is pretty darn close to $10 million a year he claims isn’t true.

Ford then slying beings to portray Varejao’s demands as reasonable by suggesting, with a straight face, that Varejao is perhaps the 22nd best player in the league, never mind his limited offensive skills. The implication is that in reality Varejao is selling himself short, which may be true if you accept the underlying premise. Unfortunately, for Varejao and his agent, Ferry isn’t that stupid. He looks at the same statistics they do, and not all of them start and end with Varejao’s relatively modest contributions to the Cavs.

For example, using just the power rankings, which use a variety of offensive and defensive statistics, as a reference point, the 22nd best player overall this year is Allen Iverson. That’s pretty rarified air. For further comparison’s sake, Iverson is making just over $17 million a year. Thus, if Varejao and his agent really believed he was in that class, they are selling themselves short, way short. But don’t forget, there’s nothing that says anyone must accept the premise. Indeed, it’s ridiculous. Varejao isn’t even the 22nd best player in the conference.

But if you accept this rather ridiculous notion, $9 million is pretty darn reasonable. The problem though is one of context. At $9 million a year, that salary would put Varejao on par with Zydrunas Ilgauskus. It also would be a third more than the Cavs are paying Drew Gooden. Ask yourself this, as Varajeo and Fegan must: does that make sense? Hardly. Igauskus is an established starter. He’s hardly perfect, of course, and suffers more than an occasional lapse defensively. But overall he’s a far more established and productive player than Varejao probably will ever be.

Gooden is a starter as well who, too, has more than an occasional lapse defensively. And whether Gooden is the more productive and/or more valuable player than Varejao is a healthy debate and probably depends on the day. But whichever side you come out on that one, it’s reasonable to conclude that it’s a pretty close call, meaning that it is ridiculous to give Varejao a full $3 million more a year than Gooden.

The guess, and it’s only a guess, is that when Varejao told Ford “I don't think I'll be happy in Cleveland knowing that I was [almost] the lowest-paid player there for three years and am still paid much less than players on the team that I outperform,” he was really referring to Larry Hughes and not Gooden or Ilgauskus.

Right now Hughes is making over $13 million a year and hasn’t come close to providing the Cavs that kind of value. On that point and that point alone, Varejao isn’t wrong. This is really the nub of what is taking place. Varejao believes that it is only fair to make in the ballpark of what Hughes makes. Ferry believes you don’t make up for one mistake by committing another.

Varejao says he’s content to play in Europe if necessary and potentially forever before signing a contract that isn’t fair. Of all the scenarios floating about, this is the most unlikely, although his agent’s offer to send this to binding arbitration is a close second. There is no compelling reason to ever let an arbitrator determine what to pay your players, at least voluntarily, ask Mark Shapiro. Besides, what Varejao and Fegan don’t seem to appreciate, at least publicly, is that the market already has spoken more loudly than any arbitrator could and it believes Varejao is wrong.

Fegan, through Ford, perpetuates the myth that teams backed off signing Varejao to a contract because Ferry threatened to match it. That’s only true if it’s in the range that Ferry was willing to pay Varejao in the first place. If it was for the kind of money Varejao has been seeking, then Fegan’s logic falls apart. What’s obviously occurred is that teams considering Varejao were thinking similar prices to what Ferry’s already offering. Making that offer indeed would have been a fruitless gesture. But rest assured, for any team that wants to pay Varejao his fair price he’s there for the taking without any fear that Ferry will match it. To paraphrase Randy Travis, if the phone still ain’t ringing, Varajeo can assume it still isn’t for him.

The other tactic that Fegan, again through Ford, has dropped into the mix is that this whole thing is supposedly making LeBron James pretty darn angry, so much so that he’s likely to leave when his contract is up because the Cavs aren’t willing to do what it takes to be a winner. If that’s true, then James isn’t nearly as smart as he otherwise seems, which is doubtful. Signing Varejao only keeps the Cavs at the status quo, a state we already know isn’t good enough and isn’t likely to be any time soon. Signing him to an above market contract that restricts the Cavs options in the future only makes it worse. Even James has to see that.

Moreover, if James really is upset, then he needs to understand that his goals conflicts. If he wants the Cavs to put together a team actually capable of winning a NBA ring or two, pushing them to sign all of the same guys who aren’t capable of getting him there isn’t going to make that happen. Eventually James will see that as well.

There is a larger point in all of this, though. It is frustrating to see how other teams tend to figure out a way to swing deals that improve themselves dramatically while the Cavs cannot, the Boston Celtics being only the most recent example. This isn’t to place blame on Ferry or anyone else, but the fact remains that in Cleveland, there is always one shortcoming after another. We get the next Michael Jordan but can’t ever seem to find the next Scottie Pippen. Signing Varejao would hardly change that calculus. Actually, though it didn’t start out this way, the first step in changing that may be to solve the Varajeo standoff just as he suggests: a sign and trade deal.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

A November to Remember

The only things missing were the snow and the mud. But in every other way, the Browns 27-17 victory over the Houston Texans felt like the kind of late November win that a team marching toward the playoffs needs if they are going to play meaningful games in December. And at this point, there is no question that the Browns are going to play meaningful games in December.

Flashy offenses with four and five wide receiver sets are nice but they’re built for the warmer weather. If you’re going to win late in the season, particularly in Cleveland, it’s going to be with tight ends that can make the tough catches in bad conditions, running backs that can ground out the hard yards when the footing is poor and an opportunistic defense that pounces at just the right time to drain whatever life might remain in the opponent. And that’s exactly the formula that the Browns followed on Sunday. In fact, it could not have been better executed.

It was a game, indeed a win, which belonged mostly to those tight ends, running backs and an opportunistic defense. Tight end Kellen Winslow II, running back Jamal Lewis, and a defense that forced three turnovers, two of which led directly to 14 points, ultimately were the difference in a game that the Browns had to win to keep alive what is surely turning into a Christmas miracle of a season.

And what a difference it was. Time and again, the Texans had no answer for Winslow, the clear front runner among a number of deserving Browns for a berth in the Pro Bowl. Going into the game he was the leading tight end in terms of total yards, yards per catch, yards per game and most receptions of more than 20 yards. Coming out of the game he did nothing to hurt that status. He had 10 more receptions, giving him 62 on the season, 107 receiving yards, and caught his fifth touchdown pass of the season. Winslow may not be causing fans to forget Ozzie Newsome just yet, but he’s well on his way.

When the Texans return to their practice complex on Monday to review film of the game, what they’ll see mostly is Winslow everywhere the Browns needed him to be. But should they focus more closely, two plays late and one play early will no doubt stand out.

The set up to the first of those two late plays came early in the fourth quarter. After punter Dave Zastudil hit one of his few decent punts of the game, to the Houston 11, the defense was able to hold the Texans to a three-and-out. The Browns got the ball back on the Houston 34 after Josh Cribbs returned the Matt Turk punt to the Texans 34 yard line. If the Texans had any hope of remaining in the game, it was critical that they hold the Browns right there.

But on second and 10 with just under 11 minutes left in the game and the Browns clinging to a seven point lead, quarterback Derek Anderson found Winslow deep down the middle for 21 yards, putting the ball at the Texans 13-yard line. The Browns couldn’t get the ball in the end zone, but a Phil Dawson 27-yard field goal pushed the lead to 20-10 with 8:35 left.

On the Browns next possession, which came quickly on the heels of Brandon McDonald’s first career interception, Anderson again hit Winslow on second down, this time for 20 yards, putting the ball at the Houston eight yard line. Two plays later, Lewis scored from the one yard line, putting the game completely out of reach.

The third key play by Winslow was the seven yard touchdown pass he caught just before the end of the first half. In a drive that started out with much promise, stuttered in the middle and recovered late, Winslow made sure it didn’t end for naught, catching Anderson’s ill-advised pass in triple coverage. If this were college and Winslow were in the running for the Heisman trophy, it would have been his signature play. But this isn’t college and Winslow’s not vying for the Heisman. It still was a signature play. It also gave the Browns momentum heading into the locker room and a blueprint for the second half. It also gave them a lead they never relinquished.

It is in these situations where offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski seems particularly adept. Though he gets deserved credit for bringing innovation to an offense that was literally starving for a direction under previous coordinator, Maurice Carthon, one of the secrets to Chudzinski’s approach is his abject refusal to give up on the run. He knows that it holds the key to long-term success, even though Anderson is playing well beyond anyone’s expectations.

In the first half, the Browns offense was wildly and unusually out of balance. There were only 10 rushing attempts compared to 22 passes. But the Winslow touchdown allowed Chudzinski to restore that balance, which is not as easy as it sounds. Staying true to the running game takes an equal measure of patience and confidence by the offensive coordinator. More often than not, the tough yards early in the game that make it seem as if the run is not working often become the big gains later in the game.

Lewis had 29 carries, 21 of which came in the second half. He also had 137 rushing yards, 94 of which came in the second half. Even that though doesn’t tell the whole story. In that second half, the Browns first possession, a three-and-out, featured two passes. But on that next possession, Chudzinski changed course and decided to pound the ball a luxury that a vastly improved offensive line and a back like Lewis affords him. Lewis was up to the task. From that point on he had two carries of 10 yards each and another two of 15 yards each. Sprinkled among them were numerous carries of five and six yards, all of which served to keep the Texans defense on their heels.

What was perhaps most impressive and where Lewis’ leadership mattered most was on the Browns last possession. After the Browns had seemingly pushed the game out of reach, 27-10, with just under six minutes left, the Texans came right back, going through the Browns defense like a hot knife through a stick of butter, closing to within 10 with just over three minutes left.

Following the onside kick that Browns defensive back Nick Sorenson fielded at the Houston 39 yard line, Lewis single-handedly closed out the game with six straight carries, the most important of which was the 15-yard gain to the Houston 23 just before the two minute warning. Another Lewis 5-yard gain forced the Texans to burn their final time out and from there the Browns were able to close out the game.

The offense, of course, has been the story of the season. The defense, of course, has likewise been the story of the season, but for vastly different reasons. Going into the game, the Texans were the near statistical equivalent of the Browns offensively, which means they’re a pretty good group overall. Indeed, the conventional wisdom, exercised in the form of all the fantasy football players that added Schaub to their lineups this week, suggested that the Browns defense was likely in for a long day. But on this day, in late November, the much maligned group stood up when it mattered most instead of standing down.

And it’s not as if the Texans were awful on offense, at least statistically. Schaub, in fact, was 22-36 for 256 yards and two touchdowns. But if you’re struggling defensively, then you at least should be opportunistic, and that is what the Browns were on Sunday. They intercepted Schaub twice and recovered a fumble by tight end Owen Daniels just as it looked like the Texans were poised to score. In fact, though the defense was giving up yards by the chunk, the turnovers they created each came at a critical point.

The first was an improbable interception by linebacker D’Qwell Jackson that he grabbed about two inches from the turf off a deflection by fellow linebacker Andra Davis just as Houston was entering Cleveland territory early in the second quarter. The second was the aforementioned fumble by Daniels that came at the Cleveland 30. The third, the interception by McDonald, was the most satisfying. With Houston desperate to get back into the game following the Dawson field goal early in the fourth quarter, Houston had the ball at its own 20. On the first play from scrimmage, Antwan Peek sacked Schaub, one of only two sacks the Browns had all game, for a 12 yard loss. On the next play, a desperate Schaub threw for Pro Bowl receiver Andre Johnson but McDonald was there for the interception.

A few words about McDonald, the Browns fifth round pick this past off-season, seems appropriate. Thus far, he’s seen relatively limited duty. Though he was ultimately credited with only one tackle on Sunday along with that key interception, in his first extended play of the season he proved to be a bright spot in a defensive backfield that has spent most of the season chasing receivers unsuccessfully. Johnson, whom McDonald was forced to cover most of the day, caught only three balls for 37 yards. If nothing else, he’s earned another long look next week, which he’ll likely get if Eric Wright is unable to go.

At this juncture, the Browns stand at 7-4 and a trip to Arizona next week to face a Cardinals team that is finally starting to show some life. Though no team remaining on the schedule currently had a winning record entering play on Sunday, the one downside is that three of the five remaining games are on the road where the Browns are just 2-3. The upside in all of it, though, is that this is a Browns team that has not only proven to their fans that they can win when they have to, they’ve proven it to themselves.

When the story on this season is ultimately written, it will contain many story lines. There will be the one featuring the coming of age of players like Winslow, receiver Braylon Edwards and Anderson, who had another solid day on Sunday, completing 24 of his 35 passes for 253 yards and two more touchdowns, giving him 22 on the season, well within reach of the Browns single season record of 30 held by Brian Sipe. He also had one interception. There will be another story line recounting the redemption of Lewis, a player who looked mostly through not only last season but several times this season. But the main story line will be one of rebirth, of a franchise and a fan base and the win against the Texans, on a cold day in late November, will be one of the reasons why.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Lingering Items--Baltimore Edition

A few lingering items from last Sunday’s Browns game…

Whatever shortcomings Romeo Crennel may have as a head coach, and they are plentiful, at least he’s realistic. Grateful to have won the game on Sunday, he nevertheless properly tempered the win by pointing out the Browns can’t continue to make a boatload of mistakes and expect to win many more games. Indeed. We know what happens when that occurs. Crennel’s previous two years attest to that.

But more to the point, in the last two weeks, the Browns in general and the defense in particular have let leads of 15 and 14 points slip away. Perhaps that’s understandable considering they do have the absolute worst defense in the league, ranked 32nd overall. And it’s a ranking they well deserve. Pick a statistic and you can pretty much rest assured that the Browns defense ranks last: points per game, plays from scrimmage, yards per game, third downs converted (ok, in fairness they are 31st in this category), and fourth downs converted.

Thus it’s with very little concern when one or more of the defensive players go down with injuries. How bad can the replacement be? You can’t rank any worse than 32nd.

But on the other hand, it’s not like this is a recent development. The defense started bad against Pittsburgh and has stayed consistently bad through 10 games. It matters little whom they’re playing, either. While they’ve played New England and Pittsburgh, two of the top offensive teams, they’ve also had games against St. Louis, Oakland and Baltimore twice, teams that rank in the bottom third offensively in the league, while Miami, another opponent, is close.

In other words, if you’re waiting for the defense to arrive because of an apparently softer schedule remaining in the last six games, forget about it. This defense isn’t going to get better until it gets overhauled.

The more disturbing development of the last few weeks, and perhaps what Crennel was really referencing, is the offense. Against both Pittsburgh and Baltimore, they hit a wall in the second half and had trouble moving the ball. While halftime adjustments by the opposing teams are playing some role, a bigger issue, particularly in the Baltimore game, was a lack of discipline. Of the Browns 12 penalties on Sunday, half were for false starts. Two others were for holding. It’s pretty difficult to sustain a drive when it’s constantly one step up, five yards back.

Consider this lovely sequence from Sunday: With 8:47 left in the second quarter, the Browns took over at the 36 yard line following a 24-yard runback by Josh Cribbs. This runback became immediately and forever memorable because Cribbs seemed to have fumbled but it was overturned as a result of a Crennel challenge. He’s now 3-23.

On second down and six, tackle Joe Thomas had a false start. The Browns eventually converted the first down, only to have guard Kevin Shaffer false start. Running back Jamal Lewis bailed them out of this penalty with a 21-yard run. Two first downs later and heading deep into Baltimore territory, Lewis was then called for holding, making it first and 20 from the Baltimore 24 yard line. It then became first and 30 from the Baltimore 34 yard line when Shaffer held on the next play. A short pass made it second and 15, which then was nullified by two Thomas false starts. On third and 30 from the Baltimore 34, Anderson hit tight end Kellen Winslow II on a 12-yard pass, taking the ball to the Baltimore 22 yard line, from which kicker Phil Dawson hit a field goal with 1:41 left, making it a 13-7 game. In all, 13 plays, over seven minutes off the clock and only a field goal to show for it.

It may be too much to hold Crennel completely responsible for this kind of mess, but it does speak to a certain lack of discipline and preparation by the team. Ultimately, just like his inability to put together a mechanism that will increase the odds of successful replay challenges, these are the kind of fine details that Crennel has yet to infuse into this team. Not surprisingly, it’s also the kind of fine details that separate the good teams from the also rans. Well, that and a good defense, but that’s a project for the offseason.


As much as Crennel seems overmatched as a head coach, at least he’s neither smug nor a sore loser. In other words, he’s no Brian Billick. Rather than give the Browns even the slightest amount of credit for moving the ball into field goal position against his vastly overrated defense with 31 seconds remaining in regulation, Billick instead complained after the game and again on Monday about how his team was robbed of a victory by the officials, refusing to even acknowledge that the officials in fact got the ruling correct.

The Baltimore media, egged on by Billick, has treated this incident as if it was some sort of conspiracy to stick it to the Ravens. If only that were really true. Anyone and everyone who has seen the replay knows that Dawson’s kick went through the uprights. Whether it then hit the support for the cross bar and bounced back, which is on the other side of the uprights, or some other obstruction, like a camera, matters little. A ball that passes through the uprights is good. That’s the rule.

It would have been a bigger injustice for the referees to have blown the call. In fact, one official apparently did, which is what started the controversy in the first place. But when you watch the replay, it is clear that one official signaled that the ball went through and then bounced back, which is why he called it no good. The other official was unsure and gave no signal. The lack of consensus, required under NFL rules, dictated what followed next.

Of course, it’s not hard to figure why Billick wants to keep the heat on the officials. It deflects the heat he should rightly get for kicking to Cribbs twice at the end of the game, particularly when you factor in that Ravens kicker Matt Stover had successfully squibbed and early kick that resulted in a touch back. It also deflects the heat he should rightly get for again having another lousy offense caused in no small part to his inability to again develop a quarterback. It also deflects the heat he should rightly get for having a porous offensive line that gave up six sacks to the Browns. It also deflects the heat he should rightly get for a defense that is getting long in the tooth and is more effective these days talking a good game than in actually playing one. And finally it also deflects the heat he should rightly get for being 4-6 and winless in the division with only one game left—against Pittsburgh. Good luck with that.

New England head coach Bill Belichick seems to be the favorite coach to hate these days, but for my money that title rightly belongs to Billick and has for a long time. In fact, when he’s shown the door by owner Steve Bisciotti, probably at season’s end, they can retire that trophy permanently. Worse than being a sore loser, Billick is a poor sport.


One nice thing about the NFL is how quickly perspective can change. Two weeks ago, the Steelers overcame a 15-point lead to beat Cleveland and all the talk in Pittsburgh was how, basically, pedigree matters, the superior team finding a way to win. Fast forward a week and the Steelers lose to the woeful Jets. Now the talk is how the Steelers have struggled for the last two weeks, lucky were they to get past Cleveland and not as lucky against the Jets.

Likewise, the Browns. The talk last week was how the Browns blew a 15-point lead to lose a game they should have won. With the victory against Baltimore, the talk now is how the Browns blew a 15-point lead to lose a game they should have won. Otherwise they’d be 7-3. Okay, sometimes perspective doesn’t change.


In my game story this week, I originally stated that it was Leigh Bodden that returned the Kyle Boller floater 100 yards for a touchdown. A reader quickly corrected me that it was Brodney Pool and I apologize for and corrected the mistake. In my defense, though, it was easy mistake to made, so accustomed had I become on Sunday to seeing the back of Bodden’s jersey as he continued to chase Ravens receivers who were running past him.

Sunday, November 18, 2007


When inches mattered most, they mattered most to the Browns. With their season literally hanging on whichever way Phil Dawson’s 51-yard kick with time expiring might bounce off the left upright, the Browns got the break that seems to have eluded them for the last nine years and parlayed it into the most improbable outcome you’re ever likely to see, a 33-30 victory over the Baltimore Ravens. With the win, the Browns now stand at 6-4 while the Ravens sink to 4-6.

It was a game the Cleveland Browns had to win. Not only to keep alive playoff hopes, but to keep in tact an edge that was dulled a bit last week in Pittsburgh. And when Matt Stover drilled a 47-yard field goal with 31 seconds left to give the Ravens a 30-27 lead, that edge looked even duller than the Baltimore Ravens uniforms. But the return prowesses of Josh Cribbs, first with 31 seconds remaining in regulation and then again on the opening kick in overtime, coupled with a suddenly soft and dispirited Ravens defense, allowed quarterback Derek Anderson to twice move the offense into a position for Dawson’s heroics.

But to say that the final play of regulation was shrouded in drama understates by a factor of a few hundred thousand the range of emotions that each team and their fans went through in a 15-minute span. Dawson had missed a field goal of similar length and under similar circumstances last week that would have sent the Pittsburgh game into overtime. But the best kickers are ultimately those with the shortest memories and Dawson certainly showed no lingering thoughts from that Pittsburgh miss.

As good as Dawson hit the kick, its sheer length allowed it enough time to turn from the center of the goal posts toward the left upright. Fortunately for Dawson and the Browns, the ball hit enough on the inside of the upright to allow it to continue to bounce enough forward to literally inch past the crossbar. Then things got interesting.

Instead of falling harmlessly through, the ball hit again, this time at the base of the goal post and bounce back through, confusing even the two officials stationed underneath. After some discussion, the officials apparently decided that because the ball had bounced back through, the kick was not good, sending the Ravens into the locker room with a win they didn’t deserve and their fans to their cars to celebrate in the inevitable parking lot gridlock.

Whoever then signaled to the officials that the ball needed to only make it through the uprights and not remain there deserves at least an assist for this victory. The officials discussed it for the next several minutes, reviewed it, discussed it some more and then let Ravens head coach Brian Billick know that he would have to pull his team back onto the field.

The great thing about Billick is that he wears his emotions on his sleeve and the exasperation and consternation that stretched across his face at that moment will be a memory delightfully etched in the minds of Browns fans for years to come. Meanwhile, the Browns had remained on the field hoping that for once they’d get the kind of call that always seems to go against them. They did and now the game was headed to overtime.

The Browns good luck continued by the mere inch between a coin landing on heads or tails as the Browns won the flip. Stover, eschewing any sort of squib kick when that was the most advisable play, sent the ball to Cribbs, who tormented the Ravens again just as he had done all day and just as he’s done to every other team the Browns have played. Cribbs brought it back 41 yards to the Ravens 41-yard line.

Though the Browns offense was mainly impotent throughout the second half, it was clear that the Ravens were emotionally if not physically spent by this point. Anderson moved the ball effectively enough, including a key 18-yard pass to Kellen Winslow II that seemed to take whatever will remained from the Ravens. The combined running of Jamal Lewis and Jason Wright took the ball down to the Baltimore 19. From there, Dawson drilled the game winner, sending the Ravens to the locker room to whine about a game they deserved to lose and their fans to their cars to ponder the fate of Billick in the inevitable parking lot gridlock.

The victory allowed the Browns to avoid back-to-back losses for the first time this season, a sentence I didn’t think I’d ever write, let alone have anyone read, this late in the season. With the loss, the Ravens are left to figure out how they could possibly have gone from a team that went 13-3 last year to a team that is 4-6, winless in the division and clearly headed home for the holidays.

But in the spirit of the upcoming holiday season, if Billick and GM Ozzie Newsome really need help understanding what’s gone wrong, here’s a hint: get an offense in general and a quarterback in particular. The problem with the Ravens starts and ends with their inability of Billick, the self-proclaimed offensive genius, to ever develop a quarterback. Boller may have looked pretty effective in the second half, but that has to be tempered by the fact that it was against one of the worst defenses in the league. Couple the repeated failures at a key position with an aging defense whose best attribute is its ability to jaw with the best of them, and it’s no small wonder that the Ravens are falling apart. Good for them.

The Browns, on the other hand, seemed headed in a much better long-term direction. But if they are to ever arrive at their destination, GM Phil Savage needs to build a defense, fast. Last week, they blew a 15-point lead to the Steelers, which isn’t nearly the crime that blowing a 14-point lead against the Ravens is. But more than anything else, what these last two games proved is that achieving success by trying to out slug the other team is fraught with great peril, particularly late in the season. Anderson is still too young and too inexperienced to be counted on time and again to rescue this team while the defense founders.

In many ways, this is a game that shouldn’t even have been close. Consider, for example, the first half, as ragged as a first half as you’re ever likely to see. Statistically, the Browns lapped the Ravens several times over. Anderson had thrown for 157 yards, Jamal Lewis had run for 59, Jason Wright another 13, and the offense held the ball an astounding 21:31. They even were the recipient of three Ravens turnovers. Yet they had only 13 points. They should have had much more.

But by not finishing drives and taking advantage of the breaks they had, the Browns allowed the Ravens to remain in the game, even though they were only able to muster two first downs and 38 net yards. But the Ravens were the recipient of two Browns turnovers, one which was a gift interception to Ray Lewis that he turned into a touchdown when Anderson threw well behind a slanting Joe Jurevicius and the Browns only held a 13-7 lead.

The precursor to the second half though was that final Ravens drive of the first half, even though it didn’t result in points. Boller suddenly looked less like Charlie Frye, but without the mobility, and more like Anderson, the quarterback Billick wishes he still had. Boller was hitting his receivers and moving the team, showing the flashes of promise that has basically kept him in the league and on the Ravens despite an otherwise overall unimpressive body of work.

Indeed, on the first drive of the second half the Ravens looked like they knew what they were doing when they covered 78 yards in eight plays. And when Willis McGahee danced after his two-yard run that ultimately helped Baltimore grab its first lead of the day, 14-13, they seemed to have made the kind of halftime adjustments that always seemed to elude Browns head coach, Romeo Crennel.

After the Browns were forced to punt on their next drive, the Ravens were unable to move the ball out of the shadow of their own end zone. A poor punt by Sam Koch turned into a Cribbs run back to the Baltimore 11-yard line. A hard run by Lewis, his most impressive of the day, took the ball to the Ravens one-yard line and from their Anderson snuck it in to put the Browns back up, 20-14.

The Browns looked like they had indeed seized the game for good when, on the Ravens next series, Brodney Pool intercepted a Boller pass in the end zone and returned it 100 yards for the touchdown. It was the longest interception return in Browns history and was aided, in great part, by a vicious hit from Robaire Smith during the runback.

But whatever was working for the Browns defense in the first half just as suddenly stopped working for the rest of the second half. The Ravens in relatively short order began exploiting the Browns porous defense both on the ground and in the air, putting together three straight drives that helped them seize the lead with just 31 seconds remaining. It looked to be the kind of ending, frankly, that Browns fans have seen to many times, making the comeback and the win as satisfying as it was surprising.

Statistically, this game stacks up much like many of the other wins the Browns have had all season. Anderson threw for 274 yards. The Browns ran for 177 yards, with Lewis accounting for 92, and they controlled the time of possession. In fact, the return of an inspired Jamal Lewis was one of the more pleasant surprises of the game. And Cribbs, of course, was his usual self.

As bad as the defense played, they still held the Ravens to 368 yards, which is plenty, but well under the 419 yards the rest of the league is averaging against them. Yet as relatively dominating as the Browns were statistically, the game ended up being won by the one statistic that isn’t kept; inches, as in the number of inches a ball needs to carry past the uprights.

With just one Sunday remaining in November and a relatively soft schedule staring them in the face in the weeks to come, the Browns now have the opportunity to do something special. The only thing that really stands in their way is the same thing that’s been standing in their way all season, a third-rate defense. And if that defense does prevent them from going where they offensive could otherwise take them, then the disappointment that Cleveland fans felt when the Indians failed to get past the Boston Red Sox in the playoffs this past season will pale in comparison. After all, this has always been a Browns town anyway.

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Real Villains

It’s hardly a State secret that Cleveland sports are cursed. Pick a sport, pick a season and whatever good might have occurred is usually offset by something far more insidious.

And while Cleveland fans have had their fill of any number of players and teams over the years that have contributed to the massive inferiority complex that envelops this community like a plague, they’ve also had their fill of any number of outsiders reminding them of their misery. It’s one thing to criticize your spouse. It’s a whole other matter to have someone to take a shot at her, too.

But that’s exactly what Cleveland fans got Friday morning from carpetbagging Plain Dealer reporter Jodie Valade, a Michigan native who has spent most of her professional life in Dallas, when she compiled her list of the 15 or so villains who supposedly have haunted Cleveland sports.

The list was a good premise. That’s why the did something similar and much better a few months ago (search under “brackets” for the 32 most heartbreaking moments in Cleveland sports). Maybe she should have checked, first. The problem with Valade’s effort is that it so lacking in basic credibility that it’s hard to take it seriously. Another effort like that and she may actually replace Bill Livingston on another list Cleveland fans maintain: least liked Cleveland transplants.

Valade, apparently in trying to establish her street cred, leads off with the name Carl Mays as the number one villain. Really? If Valade had conducted a quiz of 100 random Cleveland sports fans in any sports bar in any part of the city, county or state, not one would have named Carl Mays as a Cleveland sports villain, let alone number one. Maybe Valade should have asked.

The fact that Mays’ “crime,” the unfortunate beaning of Indians’ shortstop Ray Chapman, happened 87 years ago is not a memory that very many living Cleveland sports fans actually have, which would seem like somewhat of a prerequisite to any such list. That may seem like an odd way of looking at things because, for example, some of the world’s greatest villains have long since passed on and yet are remembered vividly. But that’s the key. The villain has to be remembered, preserved by history in a way that still burns freshly in the minds of the general populace.

Not only is Carl Mays generally not remembered, neither is Chapman. He was a good shortstop on a good Indians team in 1920 and his accidental death in August of that season at the hands of a Mays spitball was tragic, to be sure, but other than that it’s not as if his career was all that memorable to most Indians fans. It may be that Chapman would have gone on to real greatness, we’ll never know. More likely is that Indians fans remember his replacement, Joe Sewell, much better because Sewell played most of his career in Cleveland and eventually became a Hall of Famer.

To portray Mays in that context as a villain, indeed Cleveland’s number one sports villain, is ridiculous. In fact, if Valade was going to use unintended tragedy as the barometer, a much better pick would have been Gil McDougald, whose line drive hit Herb Score in the face, essentially ending Score’s career. But McDougald doesn’t even make the list, despite the fact that he is a name many more Cleveland fans remember. Although Score technically was in the league for five more seasons after his injury, he only really pitched two of those seasons, mostly ineffectively. McDougald’s unintended blast snuffed out the promising career of the next great Cleveland pitcher, someone who had been Rookie of the Year in 1955.

Which takes us right back to where we started, naming the number one Cleveland sports villain. If Valade had any feel whatsoever for Cleveland sports and its fans, she would know that hands down and forevermore the number one villain is Art Modell. Laughably, he’s number two on Valade’s list.

Most old time Browns fans didn’t like Modell when he fired Paul Brown, one of the greatest coaches in the history of the sport. They were right. But that act was a mere precursor when Modell more than permanently cemented his position as the most evil person ever in Cleveland sports by cutting the legs out from every Browns fan by moving the team to Baltimore. Financially destitute and morally bankrupt, Modell nevertheless had the last best chance to avoid his own negligence by doing the right thing and selling the team so that it could remain in Cleveland. Instead he whined about having no other choice, took Baltimore’s blood money and ran like a coward.

But karma eventually caught up with Modell in a multitude of ways, most notably when he and is idiot son David ran the Baltimore franchise into the ground and he ended up having to sell anyway. Thankfully and with due justice, he now finds himself a pathetic outsider, nearly alone and without the audience and adoration he so craved. It couldn’t have happened to a better guy.

The Modell placement was hardly Valade’s only mistake. Well down on her list but no one else’s are the twin terrors, Michael Jordan and John Elway. Put it this way: when you’re place is Cleveland sports lore is secured through phrases like “the Shot” or “the Drive” you’re pretty darn high on the list of villains. But if Valade thinks that Bill Cowher, Bill Belichick, Jose Mesa and Frank Lane place ahead of Jordan or Elway, then Valade needs to quit reading from the Livingston’s Big Book of Sports.

Mesa isn’t so much a villain as a choker. There’s a difference. It’s not as if he deliberately failed to convert the save in the seventh game of the 1997 World Series. Mesa was a player of somewhat questionable character to begin with and it finally caught up with him when he was tested most. That may make him a permanent member of the Cleveland Hall of Shame, his failure one of the all time great disappointments, but it doesn’t make him a villain. Besides, it’s not as if he went on to further greatness anyway, which also somewhat a prerequisite for a decent villain.

As for Cowher, how he makes the list at all is a mystery. As Valade notes, Cowher practically begged the Browns to hire him. It was Modell, as dumb as he was evil, who turned him down. What was Cowher supposed to do, quit the sport? The fact that Cowher went on to success in Pittsburgh doesn’t make him a villain. Rather, it is but another example of Modell’s bad karma biting Clevelanders in the backside.

Belichick, on the other hand, probably does deserve a place on the list but not for the reasons cited by Valade, who mostly gets the history wrong. She suggests that Belichick deserves his status because he was a lousy coach here and great in New England and also because he “benched” Bernie Kosar. The fact that Belichick has gone on to greatness is, again, more Modell bad karma than anything else. Besides, though he deliberately alienated the fans and the media alike, Modell was in the process of moving the team anyway. And for the record, Belichick didn’t just bench Kosar. He cut him—out of spite. Remember, the Browns were leading the division at the time and the only healthy quarterback on the roster then was Todd Philcox. Valade should have dug deeper.

In that sense, Belichick was even more of a villain than Frank Lane, also on her list, who traded another favorite son, Rocky Colavito. At least Lane arguably got value in return in the form of Harvey Kuenn, who hit .358 in 1959 and .308 in his one year with Cleveland. Belichick got nothing in return except his just desserts when Kosar was immediately picked up by the Dallas Cowboys and subbed for an injured Troy Aikman in the NFC Championship game, helping seal the win that allowed the Cowboys to advance and win the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, the Browns fell to 7-9 and missed the playoffs.

Valade puts Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome and Albert Belle on the list for ostensibly the same reason—greed. Each may be a villain to some but the truth is that most Cleveland fans put in exactly the same position would have done exactly the same thing. Not one of these players was a native Clevelander in the first place and while the Indians nurtured and helped develop each into the player he eventually became, the fact that each turned down less money in Cleveland hardly shocks the conscious. If you need a villain in that scenario, put it on the Dolans, though that’s an incomplete view as well. Under Valade’s logic, if the Indians can’t/don’t resign C.C. Sabathia, will we have to add him to the list as well?

Carlos Boozer, who is last on here list, is a different story. Greed is at the core, too, but it was the manner in which he pursued that greed that caused him to earn his status. Through outright deception, he manipulated his way out of Cleveland so he could grab more money from the Utah Jazz. That puts him on much different footing than the various athletes who have played out their contractual commitments to Cleveland teams and went on to greater riches elsewhere.

Rasheed Wallace? What makes him a villain, the fact that he’s a loudmouth? It’s not like he’s tormented Cleveland fans in any substantial way. Sure, there was the elbow to the head of Zydrunas Ilgauskas in the 2006 playoffs, but it was hardly a difference maker. If Valade had a better feel for Cleveland sports, she would know that two other Pistons rank much higher on the most hated list: Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer. Mahorn threw a vicious elbow to the head of Mark Price in a game in 1989 that put Price on the sidelines with a concussion. It made Wallace’s cheap shot look like a love tap in comparison. As for Laimbeer, he wasn’t so much a villain as a complainer, but he was hated in ways far greater than Wallace.

Valade, pandering and running out of steam by this point, throws in the ubiquitous “any New York Yankee, Pittsburgh Steeler or Michigan Wolverine.” What Valade doesn’t get is that it’s not necessarily the players on those teams that were villains so much as the mere existence of those teams. Too many times the Yankees and the Steelers, in particular, have rained on Cleveland’s parade. As for the Wolverines, I’d buy that reference if Valade had narrowed it to those Clevelanders, like John Kolesar and Desmond Howard, who betrayed their home state and this area to play for Michigan. In each case, they came back to stick it to the Buckeyes.

In the end, Valade’s column is not necessarily of any great consequence, except as an unintentionally amusing and slightly insulting affront to actual Cleveland fans. In actuality, it reads like a semi-desperate plea to look more like a native and less like a tourist. But that status is earned, not bestowed, just ask Livingston. And still the Plain Dealer wonders why they are losing readers?

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Lingering Items

A few thoughts still kicking around following Sunday’s game…

So now we know. It wasn’t mere confusion that caused the Browns to blow two critical timeouts against the Steelers on Sunday, it was institutionalized mayhem. Feel better?

Anyone who listened to Romeo Crennel’s post-mortem on Monday about the Steelers loss got an earful about what happened on the sidelines late in the fourth quarter on Sunday following Heath Miller’s touchdown grab that put the Steelers up for good. Crennel was alternately earnest and testy, tolerating the questions initially and becoming increasingly agitated by them as they wore on. But when it was all said and done, anyone looking for a cogent explanation or at least an explanation that didn’t reveal the shortcomings of the head coach was left to look elsewhere.

For those keeping track of these sorts of things, after the game Crennel said of the ill-fated replay challenge: “I'm not exactly sure what happened, but a timeout was called on the field and then I followed it up with a challenge, and so it ended up costing us two timeouts. What else can I tell you? So put it on me.” Well, exactly, which is why the questions on Monday.

Piecing it together from the various answers on Monday, which is no small task, the first time out was called because a play may have misunderstood a hand signal from a coach on the sidelines and called for the first time out. This may make sense until you remember that timeouts can be called from the sideline so there would have been no need for a coach to signal one in. The better explanation here is that a player or a coach simply screwed up and Crennel doesn’t want to throw him under the bus. Fair enough.

Focusing more on the replay itself, apparently Replay Consultant (interesting title) T. J. McCreight thought he saw something that looked like Miller dropping the ball and reported it to Crennel, who said he was otherwise distracted because he was talking with his kick return unit. Based on what McCreight was telling him, Crennel said he spoke with the officials, who apparently were trying to remind Crennel that he had already called a time out and thus was putting another one at risk. He told them “I’m going to challenge it anyway.” According to Crennel, though he didn’t have definitive information from McCreight on the issue, it was a crucial point in the game and it was worth taking a chance.

Undoubtedly it was a crucial point in the game and, generally speaking, taking that kind of chance makes sense, which was the reason to throw the red challenge flag immediately. But in context, after already having burned a time out for no good reason, risking another one upped the stakes to potentially unacceptable levels. That’s the piece, unfortunately, that Crennel didn’t seem to properly factor into his overall thinking.

Too often Crennel seems like he doesn’t know quite what’s taking place in front of him and that came back to hurt the Browns on Sunday. It didn’t necessarily cost them the game, but it didn’t help either. Crennel is 2-20 in replay challenges, including this season. Last season, when he was 0-7, he ranked at the bottom of the league. Admittedly, the overall success rate isn’t all that great for any team and sometimes it depends on the officiating crew where it is common knowledge that certain referees get it wrong more often than others.

But Crennel’s abject futility in having calls overturned isn’t just an interesting little statistic, either. It speaks to a lack of institutional discipline and a continuing reliance on a coaching staff that time and again fails him in this regard. Crennel apparently cognizant of the team’s shortcomings did replace last year’s Replay Consultant (interesting title) but that hasn’t worked so well either.

Crennel’s right. This one’s on him—to actually fix whatever process or lack thereof that’s in place so that he isn’t left guessing once again and getting it wrong. And while he’s at it, he might want to get a better handle on his own lack of situational awareness and stop making decisions like this on the fly.

In the end, time and again it seems like the Browns are held back by the lack of fine detail work that distinguishes the good teams from the also-rans. It’s not glamorous work, to be sure, and it doesn’t always make a difference, except when it does. It certainly was a difference maker Sunday.

One of the more amusing sidelights to any lousy loss is the number of people who are quick to overlook the obvious while in search of the devious. I’ve received a number of emails essentially claiming, for various reasons, that the Browns didn’t lose the game; it was stolen from them by the referees. As one emailer implored me: write the truth.

Think whatever you want about Sunday’s game, but one thing is for certain, the Browns lost that game through a combination of offensive, defensive and coaching ineptness. When I think about a game being stolen, I think of the U.S. vs. Russia in Olympic basketball in 1972, not some middle of the season, generic NFL game, the outcome of which had only marginal meaning attached to it.

But if you’re in the camp that the officiating cost the game, there’s a few things you’re going to need to ignore while you’re ruminating over whether who was actually more guilty of holding, Darnell Dinkins on the Josh Cribbs punt return or a half of the Steelers line on the Ben Roethlisberger 30-yard touchdown run.

For starters, you’re going to need to ignore Derek Anderson, so good for the first half of the season and even the first half of the Steelers game, suddenly looking like a career back-up and appearing rattled not by the blitz but by the coverages he was seeing from the Steelers secondary. You’ll also probably need to ignore more broadly a Browns offense that couldn’t muster a first down the entire second half until the last minute of the game. If you want to ignore more specifically, then take your pick: the aging Willie McGinest looking like he had been taking tackling lessons from Deion Sanders or an equally aging Jamal Lewis averaging two yards a carry for the second straight week.

Maybe it’s easy to get past these pesky little items as you’re connecting the threads of your latest conspiracy theory, but if you’re going to focus on the mediocre performance of the officials, then you’re obviously in the camp that sees Super Bowl in a squad that will be lucky to get to 8-8. You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.

Speaking of the truth, but in a more positive sense, the surest sign that the Browns are starting to get noticed was the amount of national press the game garnered. There were stories Monday in the New York Times and the USA Today, among others, reporting on what they viewed as a compelling match-up. And even CBS found a way to allocate what appears to be the only high definition cameras it owns to the Browns/Steelers game.

It sure would have been nice, then, had the Browns complied. Instead, the Browns didn’t actually disappoint so much as prove that they are not quite ready yet for prime time. This is a team that’s getting better, but it’s not yet a good team. An overhaul of the defense and the displacement of a few coaches are the only things that stand in the way of that happening.

But despite the cold bucket of water that was Sunday’s game, there was still progress, it just didn’t show up in the statistics. The Browns managed 28 points in a game that in previous years would likely have resulted in a shutout. The skeptics may argue that at least 14 of those points are directly attributable to kick/punt returner Josh Cribbs, which is a strange way actually of diminishing his contributions.

Special teams is a third of any football team. They quite often are the difference in a game, particularly in the NFL where so many games are decided by a field goal. When you put Sunday’s game in context, the Steelers almost lost despite playing superior offense and defense because of their repeated failures to execute on special teams.

The one player who has showed up every week thus far has been Josh Cribbs. Anderson has played well in large chunks and receiver Braylon Edwards is having a good overall season, though he hasn’t been much of a threat the last two games. But Cribbs isn’t just having a good season or even a break out season. He’s having a Pro Bowl season. If he’s not the most feared returner in the league, then it’s only a matter of time.

Move over Jamir Miller, your days as the answer to the trivia question over who is the only Browns player to make the Pro Bowl since their return in 1999 is in jeopardy.

The following question occurred to me while watching the New York Giants play the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night while wearing their “throwback” jerseys: If the Browns were to wear throwback jerseys, what would they look like and how could we tell?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Perfectly Imperfect

There’s a reason a football game is two halves. After playing an almost perfect first half and essentially dominating the bully who’s been stealing their lunch money for years, the Cleveland Browns found out precisely what it means to be a playoff caliber team. And they also found that they’re not quite there yet after losing to Pittsburgh 31-28 on Sunday when Phil Dawson’s 52-yard field goal attempt fell just short.

The story of the game though for the Browns was that of a nearly perfect first half and a mostly imperfect second half that put them on the wrong end of a game that was there for the winning. Call it part growth process, call it part voodoo. Just don’t forget that mostly it was the will of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger that sent the Browns back to Cleveland, scratching their heads and wondering what to do next.

The loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday, while hardly crippling to their playoff aspirations, may nevertheless linger in other ways, particularly given how the game started. It has in the past. But when the first half gun sounded and the Browns found themselves up 21-9, things couldn’t have looked better. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more perfect first half played by any Browns team in recent memory.

How perfect was that first half? Take your pick:

  • After holding the Steelers to a three and out on their initial drive, the Browns put together a 17 play drive that seemed to last longer than the television show Viva Laughlin. But unlike the fate of that short-lived show, the Browns didn’t get cancelled, instead finishing off their third opening drive touchdown of the season. They had one such drive in each of the last two seasons.
  • Head coach Romeo Crennel successfully challenged a call for the first time in what seems like the modern era. It didn’t just lead to better field position. It lead to a Braylon Edwards touchdown, giving him 10 on the season and putting himself within three of Gary Collins’ single season record.
  • The Browns S&M defense, and that would be for smoke and mirrors, found a way to keep a prolific Steelers offense out of the end zone, forcing the Steelers to trade touchdowns for field goals, which helped the Browns build their 12-point halftime lead.
  • That same S&M defense had the only sack of the first half, a crucial third down sack of Ben Roethlisberger by linebacker Antwan Peek late in the first half while the Steelers were unable to bring down Browns quarterback Derek Anderson, though it wasn’t for lack of effort.
  • That same S&M defense caused the only turnover of the first half, a nifty pick of a Roethlisberger pass intended for Santonio Holmes by Brodney Pool deep in the Pittsburgh end of the field, leading to the Edwards touchdown.
  • The Steelers, repeatedly unable to punch, could only watch while Anderson and offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski time and again were making the Steelers defense look like, well, the Browns defense.
  • And finally, Cleveland fans got the double bonus of finally getting to see CBS broadcast a game in high definition and not having to endure the likes of Ian Eagle and Steve Beurlein miscalling another game.

And even as the Browns came back onto the field for the second half, things seemed to be setting up well, what with a steady rain falling and a field and ball looking decidedly more difficult to control.

But that only proved to be true for the Browns in general and Jamal Lewis in particular. After trading two non-descript possessions each, the Steelers got the break they were looking for when Kent State’s James Harrison stripped Lewis of the ball at the Browns’ 34-yard line. Four plays later, Roethlisberger found Hines Ward dancing by himself in the left flat for a 12-yard touchdown pass, allowing the Steelers to close within five at 21-16.

Meanwhile, the Browns could muster nothing in their next drive, as Anderson missed a wide-open Kellen Winslow II on third down and three, forcing the Browns to punt again. If ever there is a point where games can be won or lost, this may have been it. The Steelers took over from their own 15 with the kind of momentum and swagger that made prior Browns teams crumble.

But this is the S&M defense capable of, well, freaky things. A crucial second down sack of Roethlisberger, the Browns third of the game, put the Steelers in third and long, which they ultimately couldn’t convert. Suddenly, things were looking brighter. Unfortunately, when the Browns got the ball back they were facing the reality of having already had four second half possessions, three of which were three and out and the fourth the Lewis fumble, and a quarterback almost completely out of rhythm.

It would be nice to say that at that moment the Browns recovered their lost mojo, but not quite. In fact, if anything, the Browns looked as sloppy by this point as they had all season, finding themselves in a third and 22 (later a third and 17 after a silly Steelers offside penalty) through a combination of penalties and poor execution. Fortunately, as the Browns were fiddling around, the third quarter mercifully ended. It was thus left for the S&M defense and a stumbling offense to find a way to hang on for one more quarter.

But the Steelers are not just the Browns’ white whale; they’re also a pretty fair football team. Hitting with a bit more chippiness than they showed in the first half and making the kind of plays that good teams make late, the Steelers took the Browns to Sunday school on the next drive. Needing to make a play, any play, on third and 10 from the Cleveland 30, all Roethlisberger did was take off for the longest run of his career, a 30-yard gallop for a touchdown. For good measure, the Steelers completed a perfunctory two-point conversion against an obviously dejected defense, putting the Steelers ahead 24-21 with just under 12 minutes to play.

It would be nice to say that at that moment the Browns recovered their lost mojo, and this time it was as true as it was temporary. In one of the most stunning plays of the season, kick returner Josh Cribbs first fumbled the ensuing kick off and was then forced to field a slipper bally at the goal line with the Steelers closing in. But Cribbs, as calm as Browns fans were nervous, picked up the ball and started down the sideline, tiptoeing gingerly while avoiding all variety of Steelers defenders in the process. When he approached the 30-yard line, Cribbs suddenly found an impressive convoy of blockers in front and to his left and patiently followed it as it escorted him into the Steelers end zone.

Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, looking every bit as befuddled as, well, you know who, tossed the challenge flag only to find himself on the wrong side of that review, a place where, well, you know who usually finds himself and later did.

And just like that, a three-point deficit was now a four-point lead and it was the Steelers instead who seem dumbfounded. Well, most of them anyway. Unfortunately, that didn’t include Roethlisberger. All he did was calmly and professionally lead the Steelers right down the field, converting three crucial third down plays, including a 10-yard run to the Browns two that led to Roethlisberger’s second touchdown pass of the game, this time to tight end Heath Miller. After a poor first half, Roethlisberger ended with a line that read 24-34 for 278 yards, two touchdown passes and one touchdown run.

The momentum now stripped from the Browns for the second time in just minutes, they had nothing left on their next drive, going three and out with just 2:54 left and a short 2:54 at that because the Browns only had one timeout after inexplicably blowing two surrounding Crennel’s ill-fated execution of a challenge to the Miller touchdown.

It wasn’t so much that Crennel challenged the touchdown that was the problem; it was the way he did it. Crennel called one timeout after the touchdown so that his coaches could review the play. Then he went ahead and challenged, lost it, and with it went another timeout. Given the situation, had Crennel merely challenged the touchdown at the outset he at least would have saved a time out.

It proved to be critical. Forced to use their final timeout on the next Steelers drive, a conservative three and out, the Browns got the ball back with a little over a minute left. A short Steelers punt to Cribbs, who was devestating the Steelers all day with his returns, got the ball to the Steelers 38-yard line. But a holding penalty cost the Browns that good field position and they were forced to use what remaining time they had left to try and essentially get back to the same spot to allow Dawson a chance to send the game into overtime.

And that’s basically what they did. Joe Jurevicius grabbed a poorly thrown ball at the 35-yard line and one yard short of the first down; a ball that would have been better had it been dropped. Instead, Anderson was forced to spike the ball on third down to set up the Dawson kick with 11 seconds remaining. For a brief moment it looked good, just like the Browns did in the first half. In the end, it fell short, just like the Browns did in the second half.

Though Anderson had three touchdown passes for the fourth time this year, he was only 16-35 for 123 yards, after a strong start. Overall, the Browns only had 163 net yards on offense even though Anderson wasn’t sacked once. In fact, Cribbs 205 yards in kick returns far outpaced the offensive output. Still, the Browns found a way to score 28 points, which is actually quite stunning. In previous years, with the kind of statistical disparity that was this game, the Browns would have been lapped, twice.

There are never any good losses, of course, but if you can plot them on a scale put this one on the bad loss side, not quite Ohio State/Illinois, but in that range. A win in a hostile environment against one of your main rivals who just happens to be one of the best teams in the league would have meant something much more than respectability for this team. It would have meant legitimacy and there’s a huge difference between the two.

Crennel has been named coach of the week by the NFL twice this year and a win in Pittsburgh might have gotten him his third. But whatever coaching ability he possesses that got him those two awards in the first place is nothing compared to what it will take for him to push his team past this loss and into the realm of true playoff contenders. Whether he can pull that off is wildly uncertain. But if he can accomplish that task, and he must, he will have earned the inevitable coach of the year award that will follow.