Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Hole in the Middle

Before the start of last season, Mark Shapiro, the Indians general manager, said that a key barometer of the Indians offensive success would be whether or not shortstop Jhonny Peralta regained his rookie season hitting stroke. It seemed like a stretch. This year, not so much.

It’s not that Peralta himself holds the key’s to the Indians offense. It’s just that banner years from Peralta, Victor Martinez, Grady Sizemore and even Ryan Garko may be even more critical to the Indians returning to the post season than whether Fausto Carmona and C.C. Sabathia can apply the same kind of pitching one-two punch. With designated hitter Travis Hafner continuing to perform like Travis Bickle at the plate, the Indians can ill afford anything less from Peralta et al. than they got last season. They likely will need even more.

If the team that Shapiro has constructed is going to overtake the Boston Red Sox, the New York Yankees or any of the other pretenders/contenders in the American League, it can’t afford another season with a hole in the middle of the lineup that Hafner was from May through the playoffs last season. That means that the Indians either fix what’s been ailing Hafner, they get even better production from the rest of the lineup or they find another answer. Likely, it will be a combination of all three.

By all accounts, Hafner is a good guy and he works hard. He seems to have an even demeanor with a player’s perspective on his 2007 season, which is to say that his memory is short. That’s all good. But what Indians fans want to know but don’t is whether any of that will translate into a better 2008 season. Good luck getting an answer to that.

Shapiro thinks he’s putting salve on the wound by downplaying Hafner’s struggles, suggesting that Hafner had a decent 2007 season, just not a great one. Manager Eric Wedge probably thinks he has the back of his player and the respect of the rest of the team by proxy when he publicly claims he’s not worried about Hafner. Hitting coach Derek Shelton probably thinks he’s being helpful by minimizing Hafner’s struggles, reducing them to a rather ubiquitous “he was just a little off.” But these three sat through the same season everyone else did and know in their heart of hearts that Hafner didn’t have a decent season, they should be worried, and they need to find some greater insight if this problem is going to get fixed.

For the most part, the Cleveland media seems to be buying the company line regarding Hafner, probably because Hafner is that aforementioned “good guy” that you really want to see succeed. But pitcher Cliff Lee is a good guy and that didn’t stop the media from burying him early last season after taking their cue from Indians management even though Lee was essentially the pitching equivalent of Hafner last season. Maybe the answer really does lie in a little extra time in the batting cage for Hafner, but so far that doesn’t seem to be working all that well either.

Just a cursory look at the spring training stats tells you that not much has changed in Pronkville. His preseason has been pretty much a microcosm of his 2007 season. Hafner started off well enough in February only to trail so much that by the end of spring training he was back to swinging wildly at pitches in the dirt. In his last 10 spring games, Hafner hit .156 with one home run and three RBI. If you believe in trends, as Shapiro and his cadre of statistical wonks tend to, there aren’t enough Rolaids in the world to ease the queasy stomachs that Hafner currently is foisting upon them.

One of the more popular excuses that have been made for Hafner for his dismal 2007 is that he was just a slump. That’s possible, but it was far longer and 10 times deeper than what most would otherwise consider a slump. Last April, Hafner hit .338 with 16 RBI, five home runs, and two doubles. His on-base percentage was .471, his slugging percentage was .550 and his On Base plus Slugging Percentage was a more than respectable 1.021. Those numbers compared favorably and, in most cases were better than his career numbers.

For the next four months, Hafner turned into Gorman Thomas, but with less power. In May, he hit .228, which actually was better by 10 points than his June. In July and August he averaged right around .251. But beyond just simple hitting, Hafner wasn’t producing runs. His power numbers were down, way down, but that only tells part of the story. With runners in scoring position, where someone like Hafner really is supposed to earn his keep, he was an embarrassing .226. That’s a full 50 points under his career average.

Even more telling is the so-called “clutch” statistics. With two outs and runners in scoring position, Hafner had 15 hits in 70 at bats for a .214 average. Though he had 15 walks that was confined mostly to the first half of the season when pitchers were more careful out of respect for his history. As the season wore on, careful wasn’t even part of the equation. Hafner had 65 walks in the first half of the season, 37 in the second half.

Hafner was only marginally better last season when the game was late and close (defined as a plate appearance in the 7th inning or later with the Indians either tied, ahead by one run or with the tying run on deck). But only marginally, hitting .253. Pick a statistic that matters and across the board Hafner was 30 to 40 points below his career averages in each of those categories.

In a way, I feel like Owen Wilson’s character in “The Wedding Crashers” when he was guessing the contents of wedding presents. I can go on all day like this. Hafner with the count 0-1 hit .238. With the count 0-2, he hit .176. In fact, the best Hafner hit with the count in the pitcher’s favor was .244 when the count was 1-2. That may not be any great surprise for any hitter, but again in each case it was still lower than Hafner’s career averages. In fact, it’s hard to find a measure by which Hafner didn’t significantly regress last season.

While this may seem like so much piling on, it’s really meant to emphasize that what Hafner experienced wasn’t any mere slump, the apologists notwithstanding. The fact that it has continued unabated during this spring only makes it more troubling. But beyond the impact on Hafner, it also deeply affected the rest of the lineup. There were lengthy stretches last season in which the Indians looked like the Tampa Bay Devil Rays at the plate. As Hafner so often went, so did the rest of the order.

The question then is what’s really being done to fix what to this point is being written off as an anomaly. Again, to hear it from the Indians front office, not much. The party line is that there is nothing physically wrong with Hafner, but that same party does acknowledge that Hafner has a gimpy right elbow, enough so that the Indians do not even consider him to be in the mix at first base, except during some inter-league games. You don’t need to play a doctor or detective on TV to suggest that checking whether Hafner has changed his mechanics, even just a hair, to compensate for the lingering pain might be a good spot to start looking for some answers.

In a way, Hafner’s situation is like the person suffering from a pain in his shoulder that a team of doctor’s can’t isolate. Eventually, someone figures it out. Likewise, if Shelton and Wedge aren’t seeing something, then the Indians need to get some more opinions. A player doesn’t build a career with the kind of numbers Hafner had until 2007 only to suddenly go deeply south. There’s a reason for everything and right now the Indians entire strategy seems to be built around hope, as in hope that the pain will subside.

The Indians did win 96 games last season, tied for most in the league. By any measure, that’s impressive particularly considering it was despite Hafner. But for anyone watching the Red Sox playoff series last year, it presented an interesting picture. There were three keys to that series for the Indians: Sabathia, Carmona and Hafner. They didn’t need all three to play well in order to win, but neither could they withstand the ineffectiveness of all three. Unfortunately, that’s what they got.

The Indians are on the precipice of doing something great. The impending loss of Sabathia after the season only highlights how critical it is for the Indians to take advantage of the open window in front of them. But if they don’t want to spend the post-season watching someone else celebrate again, their choices are few. Get Hafner righted or get a Plan B. Another season of watching and hoping is not an option.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Elephants in the Room

As hard as it is to believe, the lack of any meaningful championships in a couple of generations has done nothing to keep Cleveland sports fans humble.

Listening to WKNR’s Greg Brinda and one of his callers dissect the Cleveland Cavaliers the other day reminded me that when it comes to fans, perspective is the first casualty. Apparently common sense is the second. Without trying to recall every painful detail of that inane call, the one point that stuck with me was the caller’s observation that the Cavs half-court offense is “terrible.”

Recognizing that reasonable people can reach different conclusions, it’s still hard to imagine how any aspect of the Cavs could be considered objectively terrible so long as the team has the services of LeBron James. Certain parts of his game may be better than others, but nothing about anything he does would ever be considered terrible. Thus, when he’s on the floor, which he is about 80% of the time, the Cavs will never be a terrible team.

The caller’s point, I suppose, was that Cavs head coach Mike Brown isn’t the most creative coach when it comes to offense and that this is what’s keeping the team from achieving at a higher level. Maybe. But whatever limitations Brown may have generally in coaching the offensive side of basketball hasn’t prevented James from either leading the league in scoring this season or from dominating games in the fourth quarter. In other words, it’s not as if Brown’s offensive schemes are choking off James’ creative instincts.

The larger issue is really one of perspective and common sense. Apparently that caller and a whole host of other fans believe that the Cavs should never lose a game and when they do, it must be Brown’s fault. Of course, those fans would never state it that bluntly though that’s clearly the standard. But the number one rule in analytics that most tend to forget: don’t ignore the obvious. And when it comes to the Cavs, there is a whole lot of obvious to get through long before one gets to the relative merits of Brown’s half-court offense. It’s that kind of analysis that makes me appreciate why there are gun laws on the books in the first place.

As great as James may be, he’s not a machine. Even though the Cavs tend to lose when he’s not in uniform, the opposite simply isn’t true. His talent, his focus, his sheer ability may be well above most any other player in the league, but he still plays a team game. There are roles to be played by the other four on the court with James and their skills and abilities do much to inform his success. And as we now know with Larry Hughes, for example, players don’t always willingly accept those roles. In any case, James may have great influence on the actions of his teammates, but he ultimately doesn’t control them. Every time one of them makes a knucklehead move, it has an impact, and that’s assuming that James himself never does anything wrong, which itself is far from a safe assumption.

Of course, there are also five other players on the floor at the same time, all with opposing jerseys and all with the goal of blunting whatever it is that James and the Cavs are trying to do at any point in time. Many times, in fact too many times for most fans, they are successful. Sometimes you just have to tip your hat to the worthy opponent. The Cavs don’t always lose. Sometimes the other team does win.

But moving beyond the simple team dynamics at play, consider two other overriding considerations. First, the Cavs have had a fair share of injuries throughout the season. Second, Cavs GM Danny Ferry performed a mid-season extreme makeover of the roster that had no chance of gelling quickly under the best of circumstances.

There is no great need to recount all of the specifics of each injury the Cavs have had to endure this season, but it is important to note that James, Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Sasha Pavlovic, Daniel Gibson, and Anderson Varejao all have missed substantial playing time this season. That’s pretty much the group that carried this team into the NBA Finals last season. Devalue that accomplishment all you want, but those injuries are going to have an impact.

As for the roster turnover, even the most cynical fan would admit that it’s been dramatic. Yet, since that time, the Cavs have had precious few opportunities to actually spend time on the practice court integrating the new pieces with the old parts. If you need proof, just watch another Delonte West pass go astray. It’s not as easy as it sounds to put all of that together on the fly, except to someone who’s knowledge of the game comes from the five or 10 minutes of the game he catches every now and then on cable.

Ferry knew that the biggest gamble he took at the trade deadline had to do with the ability of Brown to pull it all together in time for the playoffs given the Cavs schedule and the limited practice time available. That was under the best of circumstances. Combine that daunting task with the injuries and you begin to understand exactly why the Cavs have only played well in spots since the trades.

The thinking goes that as long as James is on the floor, the Cavs have a chance to win. That’s true, but the operative word in that sentence is “chance” and not “win.” There will always be things that even the best simply can’t overcome.

What fans really worry about I suspect is James’ tipping point. The focus on Brown is really a focus on James in the sense that the common perception is that the Cavs won’t be unable to retain an unhappy James when his contract comes due in a few years. But in fans zeal to define the standard they assume is in place, they again ignore the obvious.

James, like most players not named Larry Hughes, really do want to win a championship. There is always another dollar to earn somewhere, but what really motivates is winning. Players want to compete at the highest levels and they want to feel like the franchise they’re playing for shares that commitment. That goes well beyond the transient offensive schemes of the incumbent coach and something someone like James certainly understands. What James does see is that the Cavs compare favorably with anyone in the league. Owner Dan Gilbert has done his part to fund the enterprise in a way Indians fans dream about. He’s spent greatly on infrastructure and has given the Ferry the freedom to do likewise on personnel. He’s more than demonstrated to even the most discerning players a commitment to winning a championship.

If James’ future is going to be dictated by whether or not the Cavs are committed to getting a championship, and in part it will, then fans have little worry, despite what they might think about Brown’s half court offense. But having a commitment to winning and actually winning isn’t always the same thing. No one doubts Mark Cuban’s commitment in Dallas but his team keeps falling short for reasons outside of their control. That’s going to happen just like it happened to the Cavs in the Brad Daugherty/Larry Nance/Mark Price/Hot Rod Williams years. There are always other factors at play, like Michael Jordan, for example.

The Cavs are at an interesting juncture but hardly a crossroads. There is every chance that they’ll fall short of last year’s accomplishments yet still find themselves in a better position to compete down the road. But the only way to really know is once some of the more obvious issues get taken care of, like injuries and practice time. Those sorts of things take time and we do live in an age of instant gratification so for those fans looking for answers to the wrong questions, continue to drive yourselves crazy. Just make sure that in the process you don’t get stomped by the elephants in the room.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Recruiting Wars

When Don Nehlen, the former West Virginia Mountaineers head coach, joked that Terrelle Pryor going to Michigan was probably more important than the Wolverines securing Rich Rodriguez as their next head coach, few figured at the time that it really was one of those “funny because it’s true” kind of jokes. Now they know.

The news that Pryor, the all everything two-sport star from Jeannette, Pennsylvania has chosen Ohio State as the next stop on his athletic journey had to be a bit of a tough pill to swallow for both Rodriguez and for Wolverines athletic director William C. Martin, even if they won’t say so publicly.

To say that Martin hired Rodriguez on the premise that Rodriguez would deliver Pryor to Ann Arbor may be a bit of an overstatement. But anyone who doesn’t believe it wasn’t a factor is being naïve. Rodriguez’s pursuit of Pryor as the perfect specimen to execute the spread offense was relentless and that was before Rodriguez ran out on the Mountaineers when he suddenly decided he didn’t like the color scheme in the locker room or whatever other trivialities he concocted to get out of one contract to sign another.

To gauge the importance that Rodriguez placed on getting Pryor, the only thing you really need to know is that it was Pryor whom Rodriguez first called with the news that he was heading to Michigan. Not his current players that he was abandoning. Not the Mountaineers president or the athletic director who had rewarded Rodriguez far more than he ever deserved. But an 18 year-old high school student in Pennsylvania. That may also be an indictment on how sordid and misguided athletic recruitment has become, but as surely as anything else it tells you something about Rodriguez and his priorities.

Maybe that’s exactly what Pryor saw as well. And if that didn’t have much of an impact on the young man, then maybe what Pryor saw was the three-ring circus that Rodriguez created by his rather messy departure from West Virginia. Maybe, too, Pryor figured that it might be kind of hard to get the ear of his new head coach when he’s busy giving a deposition or attending a court hearing over his refusal to pay the Mountaineers the money he owes them. Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel doesn’t come similarly encumbered and the contrast between the two couldn’t be more striking.

Having thrown most of his eggs in that one basket only to see them break in the process, Rodriguez is now left to actually build a program without the quick fix he and Michigan so coveted. It’s one thing to have to do that in Morgantown where the scrutiny will be less and the fans a bit more forgiving. Having to essentially start over under the white-hot glare of fans of a program with such a storied tradition is quite another. If Rodriguez really is the coach that Michigan thought it got, then in a few years his inability to sell his brand of snake oil to Pryor will be forgiven.

For now, though, there is a healthy group of fans of both programs that will see Pryor’s decision as a continuation of Ohio State’s recent dominance of Michigan. Even the Detroit Free Press headline was “Tressel 1, Rodriguez 0.” It’s a fun thought to Buckeyes fans, but until Pryor actually puts on a uniform, makes some plays and wins a few games, that’s all it will be.
As for the Buckeyes and Tressel, securing Pryor is only the first step in a far longer journey. Much work remains, starting with the fact that they will be dealing with a young and probably still immature athlete who already has attained a certain mythical status.

To date, the only athlete that came with the same level of hype out of high school and actually lived up to it has been LeBron James. For now and evermore, James will serve as the benchmark against which every other super-hyped athlete will be measured, not just in terms of performance but also in terms of ego management. For reasons as unexpected as they are joyous, James has become a global mogul and icon with the demeanor of someone who understands that he plays a team sport. Pryor says the right things right now, but the crush of everyday life will make it much harder to live up to the words.

To his credit, Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith already is fully aware of the challenge that Tressel and the team face in this regard. Smith told the Plain Dealer that the template they’ll follow will be the one they had in place for Greg Oden last year. Said Smith, “we’ll talk to him about decision-making. He’s a pretty mature kid, more mature than people realize, so that conversation I think will be easy. And Jim [Tressel] is very good with making sure that someone like him surrounds himself with the right type of people. I think he’s coming into a good environment where he'll be OK that way. But there’s no doubt we have to do something at the front end to help him understand, when you go to a restaurant, when you go pump your gas, what it will be like, and I’m sure he knows it because he’s going through it now.”

That’s a nice bit of proactivity, but the support system better be awfully strong. Because college football players are denied the ability to get to the pro level as quickly as their basketball counterparts, the leaches and other assorted blood suckers that lurk in the shadows around every major program have that much more time to tempt a player to cross over to the dark side.

Any number of examples exist. Maurice Clarett, Reggie Bush, and Michael Vick come immediately to mind. But if Ohio State is of a mind to scare Pryor straight from the outset, it should probably bus in Art Schlicter from whatever outpost or prison camp he may be at these days. Schlicter was Pryor some 12 years before Pryor was even born. Schlicter was an amazing two-sport star at Ohio’s Miami Trace High School; a big, strong-armed quarterback who would single-handedly modernize Woody Hayes’ three yards and a cloud of dust offense.

In some ways, that ended up being the case, although Hayes wasn’t around for most of that time. Schlicter played well enough for the Buckeyes and still owns a variety of passing records, something that is somewhat unimaginable actually given that era and what has come since. But Schlicter had demons at the outset that went undetected despite the warning signs that were conveniently ignored. How much that ultimately impacted his performance is hard to say but Schlicter never quite instilled in anyone complete confidence and he never did lead the Buckeyes to a national championship, even though he came close in 1979.

That’s not to suggest in any way that Pryor has any similar demons or any demons whatsoever. But it is to suggest that whatever accomplishments they may have or whatever potential is yet to be realized, athletes suffer from the same human frailties as everyone else. And when you’re a college kid like Pryor upon whose shoulder rests a considerable amount of pressure already, it’s very easy for the coping mechanism to become dysfunctional.

Having already built an elite program, Tressel is free to operate at a higher level. With the self-created mess he has at Michigan and a less than stable program that he inherited, Rodriguez has much more primal tasks to tackle. Tressel has the ability to work directly with Pryor in a more meaningful way than Rodriguez could initially have offered. It helps, too, that Tressel is uniquely qualified for that task while the jury is still out, literally and figuratively, on Rodriguez.

In the end, and stripping away all of the other reasons both real and invented, it’s this difference that Pryor probably most saw when he placed that Ohio State ball cap on his head and declared his allegiance to the scarlet and gray.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A New York State of Mind

One of the more interesting byproducts of Cleveland Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia’s shutting down of negotiations for his next contract until after the upcoming season is how it plays so perfectly into the massive inferiority complex of the Cleveland populace. Call it the law of unintended consequences.

When Sabathia pitched in a meaningless pre-season game against the Yankees on Sunday, a game in which Sabathia was about as effective as he was in the playoffs last season, it sent both the Cleveland and the New York media into a minor frenzy. No matter how posed, the essence of the questions was the same: will Sabathia find himself in New York after this season?

It’s a question that Indians fans have basically been asking since Sabathia signed his last contract. In fact it’s a question that Cleveland fans ask every time any decent player on any Cleveland team gets within sniffing distance of free agency, if the fascination Cavaliers fans have with the speculation about LeBron James’ next employer in two years is any indication, and it is.

If the deciding factor for Sabathia is money and length of the contract, then the answer as to whether or not he’ll be in New York next season is probably. The Yankees, along with a handful of other teams, don’t ascribe to the same sort of business metrics to which most of the rest of the league pay attention. They stake no claim to adhering to a budget, at least in the common definition of that term, and thus embrace the freedom that comes with the removal of such pedestrian and self-imposed restraints. No one anywhere doubts that if it takes coming up with the most money and the longest term contract to land Sabathia, the Yankees will find a way to make that happen. They always do.

But if securing that last dollar available isn’t as much of a priority as quality of life, then fans of the Yankees probably won’t see Sabathia leading their young rotation next year. This isn’t a slam on life as lived in the big city, either. It has much more to do with not grabbing the last buck as the tradeoff for enduring the unflinching and often unfair scrutiny of the New York media market.

According to Paul Hoynes’ summary in Monday’s Plain Dealer, after his outing Sabathia encountered the usual three or four Cleveland-based reporters. He undoubtedly encountered the usual softball questions as well which would have been followed by the inevitable puff piece profile in the local paper which seeks to neither enlighten nor inform. But when Sabathia looked surprise that the locker room wasn’t overrun with the drones from Sector G in the form of the New York media horde, it was a look that lasted but an extra second or two as several reporters from New York, as Hoynes describes, streamed into the locker room.

Though Sabathia seemed somewhat ready for the obvious questions coming his way this time, it would be best for him to take note that it won’t always be that way. In Cleveland, a bad outing elicits nothing more than a shrug from the local media, or perhaps just a mild tsk tsk. Throw a bad pitch in New York and Sabathia’s liable to find a reporter from the Post sifting through his garbage cans looking for reasons.

Sabathia, of course, isn’t talking much in the way of specifics about his contract status. He merely repeats the same tired lines he’s been coached to say in order to deflect the inquiries his self-imposed status created. But it was that one answer to that one question that undoubtedly that will most feed the inferiority complex beast that hovers over Cleveland in general and its sports team in particular. As reported by Hoynes:

“Q. In a perfect world, is your preference be to stay in Cleveland? [sic]
A. In a perfect world, of course, I've been here since I was 17. We’ll just have to see what happens.”

Locally, that is as much of an admission that Sabathia is going to New York as anything else fans are likely to hear all season. Cleveland is not now nor will it ever be considered “a perfect world.” But beyond the lack of trappings of a city in a perpetual struggle with respectability, it won’t be a “perfect world” because what Cleveland lacks in cache it also lacks in cash. New York is flush with both.

When fans see the fact that Sabathia shut down off-season negotiations without even giving the Indians the courtesy of a response to its four year deal at approximately $17.5 million a season plus a healthy raise on this year’s salary, they naturally draw two conclusions: Sabathia is after the last dollar and there is no chance that the Indians will pay it. It’s hard to argue either point. The fact, though, that Indians fans next assume that Sabathia’s destination has to be the Yankees is fed less on fact and more on envy.

No matter how great a city New York might be in general, it might as well be Gomorrah on steroids to Clevelanders who see the Yankees as an embodiment of the arrogance and swagger that offend the Midwest sensibilities of a once proud industrial town. They may not be alone in that view, but Clevelanders also see a healthy dose of the Yankees success over the last three or so decades being fed in some measure by various Cleveland connections, not the least of which is owner George Steinbrenner.

All this may be true, but it no more places Sabathia in New York than it did Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome or Albert Belle. The odds of Sabathia staying in Cleveland may be slim, but it won’t be because he necessarily desires the last dollar on the table or that he has a misguided notion that success in New York is necessary to legitimize his career.

The truth is that there may be only a handful of teams capable of paying Sabathia the kind of contract his accomplishments dictate, but as long as it’s a handful, the Yankees have probably less of a chance at landing him than some of the others. Leaving one team for another always involves a variety of tradeoffs, but there is enough available cash floating around a variety of major league cities to convince Sabathia that he can land at one of them and the tradeoffs from the sanguine existence he’s enjoyed in Cleveland will be minimal.

As for Indians fans, the inevitable loss of Sabathia will add to a more than healthy inferiority complex to be sure, but it shouldn’t. The loss of Sabathia will no more deal a blow to Cleveland’s status as a major league city than did the losses of Ramirez, Thome or Belle, or even the year after year failures to win the World Series. That little dose of reality may be little solace to those still pining for that one title in their lifetimes, but it is the truth.

The other truth, the one that might elicit some comfort, will have to be in the form of the Yankees likely coming out on the short end in the Sabathia sweepstakes, just as they did with Johan Santana. The guess is that Sabathia won’t chase the last dollar, even if he chases most of them. Striking that modest compromise will keep him out of the clutches of the Yankees, bring him some semblance of peace of mind, and give Yankees fans reasons other than the recent Red Sox domination to feel just a tad inferior themselves. And for the poor soles in Cleveland, who last experienced a World Series title 60 years ago, to this they can say “welcome to the club.”

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Conspiracy Peas in the Same Pod

I should know better than to allow myself to be sucked into sports talk radio. The hosts usually have, at most, a casual fan’s knowledge of most sports and, besides, most seem to get their information and opinions from the morning newspapers. That’s certainly true here in Cleveland and, I suspect, most other towns.

But the national sports talk shows are supposed to be different. In theory, the hosts have achieved some level of accomplishment and credibility that puts them closer to if not quite equal with the print reporters that cover sports on a daily basis than the average bozo fielding still another call from the suburbs about whether or not he thinks the Indians will be able to re-sign C.C. Sabathia.

Listening to ESPN’s Mike Greenberg on the Mike & Mike show this past Monday rant again and some more about the New England Patriots allegedly spying on the opposition has officially started me thinking otherwise. According to Greenberg, who sounded just a tad unhinged, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell should open up for full public view the league’s continuing investigation into the Patriots and what former Patriots video camera holder and part time golf pro Matt Walsh might or might not know.

Greenberg’s view essentially is that he’s a season ticket holder for the New York Jets, this issue goes to the integrity of the game, and, consequently, he and the rest of the ticket-buying public are entitled to transparency as to the inner workings of the league.

Let’s dispense with the easy stuff first. The NFL, the last time I looked anyway, was still a private enterprise. It certainly isn’t a government agency nor is it even a publicly-held company. It has no obligation whatsoever under the various laws that govern these things to publicly disclose anything, whether it’s Goodell’s salary or who the league hires to clean the rest rooms at its headquarters in New York. That doesn’t mean it can’t publicly disclose such matters and it often does. But undertaking that task on some items doesn’t require it to do so on others.

As for Greenberg’s bizarre sense of entitlement by virtue of his lousy investment in Jets season tickets every year, it’s a great populist justification, but it opens up a slippery slope that I’m not sure even he wants to traverse. Whether he likes it or not, his status, such as it is, doesn’t give him an entrée into the executive offices of the Jets, let alone the league, any more than buying a Prius gives him an entrée into the CEO’s office at Toyota. More to the point, the fact that my monthly cable bill includes a hefty charge for the various ESPN channels doesn’t entitle me to understand, let alone weigh in on, how the various ESPN executives decided to discipline their employee Dana Jacobsen after she acted like a high school sophomore taking her first swig of vodka at the Mike & Mike celebrity roast this past January.

The more difficult issue revolves around the underlying “spygate” allegations. (And, by the way, when exactly does the statute of limitations expire for adding the word “gate” to whatever noun is used to represent an on-going investigation by anyone into anything?) Apparently, there is a fair number of people, including disgruntled Philadelphia Eagles fan and current Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, who tend to think that using video equipment to steal another team’s signals threatens the integrity of the game. Baloney.

All using video equipment does is help one team better document the other team’s signals. If stealing signals was the issue, then the NFL would outlaw that practice, which they don’t. All the NFL’s arcane rule does is prevent the kind of activity that the Patriots engaged in: using a videographer to tape a sideline coach’s signals and note the time so that it can later be synced with the play-by-play log. Nothing prevents a team from having an assistant or an intern train a set of binoculars or a high-powered telescope on an opposing coach if it wants to and write down the various gestures and the time.

This isn’t to excuse the Patriots actions. They and the rest of the teams were warned by the league not to tape the sidelines of the opposing team and they did it anyway. They paid a fairly hefty price for their transgressions. But Specter, with absolutely nothing better to do apparently, has been attacking this matter with the kind of fervor one would hope a more conscientious member of Senate would do with the economy, or gas prices, or the war in Iraq, or poverty, or home foreclosures, or global warming, to tick off just a few of the more pressing problems that average constituents are facing.

Specter initially criticized Goodell for supposedly covering up the results of his investigation into the Patriots and destroying the tapes that were gathered, linking it to the CIA’s destruction of the tapes of its rather aggressive interrogation techniques. Apparently someone got to Specter rather quickly on that one and he backed down on the dramatic and wrongheaded comparison. But he otherwise hasn’t backed down on the underlying issue much to his embarrassment.

What Specter still hasn’t explained is why he continues to even care about this issue, except in the way a sore loser whose hometown team lost to the Patriots in the 2005 Super Bowl might. Try as he and others have, this issue isn’t even comparable to the widespread use of illegal steroids and other performance enhancing drugs in baseball or other sports. That clearly is both a legal issue and an integrity issue, not to mention a public health issue. But videotaping another team’s assistant coaches, or even surreptitiously filming the opposing team’s walk through the day before a game, implicates nothing more than a perceived or potential advantage that can never be proven so why try.

You can forcefully argue the point that knowing what defense an opposing team might be running might be helpful to the offense, or vice versa, but that’s always been more theory than reality. By the time an opposing coach’s signals are deciphered and relayed to his team, there is precious little time to change the play anyway. In other words, it’s about as helpful as batter finding out what pitch is coming just before it’s released.

Moreover, the NFL is as open of a book as any sport, maybe more so. Every game is televised, has been for years, and each team has so much film on every other team that by the time the game arrives, little if anything could possibly be a surprise. You could put a member of the Eagles defense into the Patriots offensive huddle and Randy Moss is still going to catch the pass from Tom Brady if he’s open. It comes down, as always, to execution.
I have no doubts that little pockets of interest around the country still exist about this issue, just as they do about whether or not Neil Armstrong’s moon walk was actually filmed on a Hollywood soundstage. But those same pockets, fueled by blowhards like Greenberg and Specter, still haven’t offered a cogent reason for their on-going obsession, likely because there is none. Maybe that’s why Goodell keeps stiff-arming Specter, which is a more polite response than the one he’d probably rather give and should, an extended middle finger.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

What was Derek Anderson Thinking?

When Ben Roethlisberger re-signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers earlier this week, it wasn’t hard to figure why. An eight-year, $102 million offer that included a $25 million upfront signing bonus is a pretty compelling reason. Harder to figure, instead, is why Derek Anderson re-signed with the Cleveland Browns.

To this point, the debate around Anderson has followed the familiar rubric. Tony Lastoria did a nice job of breaking down the typical debate, arguing effectively that Browns general manager Phil Savage may have jumped too soon based on what amounted to one really good half season by Anderson. As Lastoria noted, but for a handful of games when Anderson really made his mark, the rest of the season was pretty average. There is any number of people ready to counter Lastoria’s view, just check Boards at The Cleveland Fan or the various Ricks from Brunswick that call the local talk shows for a few of them.

But instead of focusing on Savage’s motivation, focus instead on the issue from Anderson’s perspective. No matter how much Savage may have wanted Anderson back, it takes two to make a deal and the Browns weren’t necessarily the most logical choice for Anderson for any number of reasons.

In the first place, the Browns are hardly in need of a quarterback. Brady Quinn is chomping at the bit in the bull pen and the Browns paid heavily to get him last season. And until he actually demonstrates otherwise, Quinn will remain more popular than his accomplishments dictate and probably more popular than Anderson. Thus every time Anderson throws an interception or misses an open receiver, at least half of Cleveland Browns Stadium will be yelling for Quinn. It’s not much of a comfort zone for Anderson to occupy.

Second, and related, there are several teams throughout the league far more desperate for his services. Do you think that more than a minute goes by each day before Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome slaps himself on the side of his head over letting Anderson get away? Do you think Atlanta, with Chris Redman and D.J. Shockley as the only two quarterbacks on their roster, might see Anderson as a better choice than say Joey Harrington, who they just cut? Do you think Bill Parcells really believes that Josh McCown and John Beckett are the answers in Miami? Do you really want me to go through this same drill with every team in need of a quarterback?

Third, whatever Savage might have said about wanting to sign Anderson, he also said plenty by only offering a three-year deal. That gesture spoke volumes about Savage’s long-term commitment to Anderson, irrespective of what the salary and guaranteed money might be in the final deal. Thus, on the surface, it was at least as compelling, if not more so, for Anderson to leave than stay. Yet stay he did.

It could be that the answer is as simple as Anderson not having any other effective choices. He was a restricted free agent and the Browns tender offer put them in line for a first and a third round pick as compensation and many teams may have thought that was simply too steep of a price, especially when you consider that it also would have been necessary to sign him to a contract of at least twice the value as the three-year deal he signed with the Browns. Throw in the fact that Savage made it clear he would take nothing less than the contractually-required compensation for Anderson in a trade and you could understand why some general managers around the league, who usually are far better at finding reasons not to do something than to do it, had to be scared witless.

Even still, as risk adverse as most general managers tend to be, more than a few had to be giving Anderson second and third thoughts. Filling the quarterback slot isn’t easy. Indeed, it’s exactly why Roethlisberger got the richest contract in Steelers history, which will never be the same thing as getting the richest contract, say, in Yankees history.

The other thing is that wherever you may be on the whole Anderson talent debate, what isn’t in dispute is that Anderson is a slinger with a quick release. That’s another way of saying that he makes up his mind quickly and commits to that decision, good, bad, or indifferent. Fans tend to focus on the mistakes that can follow from such traits without ever appreciating how valued this skill is by folks like Savage and virtually every NFL general manager and head coach.

The margin for error in any pro sport is razor thin. In baseball, a quarter-inch difference on where a ball is struck on a bat makes the difference between a routine fly ball and a home run. In football, a fraction of a second on when a ball is thrown often determines whether it’s caught or intercepted. With coaches looking for every conceivable edge they can, they’ll always give the quarterback who thinks and reacts more quickly the benefit of the doubt. It’s why Anderson remained on the team despite a very mediocre preseason.

Thus while his steep price was certainly a hurdle of some height that gave many teams pause to make the jump, the real answer to why Anderson stayed may lie less in the lack of choices he had and more with the foresight of a young quarterback who saw himself in the exact right situation at the exact right time.

The same things that the anti-Anderson camp sees as the reason not to get too excited about him may be the exact same things Anderson sees as the basis for staying, and that starts with a good offensive line. The impact of Savage’s rebuilding efforts cannot be overstated. Show me a team in need of a quarterback and I’ll show you a team with a lousy offensive line.

It helps, certainly, to have talented running backs and receivers, but the one thing a quarterback understands is that a good offensive line covers up a lot of sins. Anderson knows that if he stays here and plays behind this Browns offensive line he has a real chance to put up monster numbers for at least another season, perhaps more, making him an even more attractive free agent when he’ll only be 28 years of age, assuming he plays out all three years of his contract. Anderson didn’t spend much time picking himself off of the turf last season and as long as the offensive line remains relatively injury-free, he isn’t likely to spend much time on his back next season either.

Anderson may certainly have preferred a longer deal with the Browns than the one he got, but considering the alternatives out there, Anderson had to figure that his long-term financial prospects were likely better with a shorter term deal now on a team with a great offensive line. With word that Anderson’s guaranteed money isn’t all up front but spread over all three years, including a sizeable roster bonus next season, both Anderson and the Browns have created a contract situation that would allow him to thrive here for one more season and cash in elsewhere next season if Savage decides he prefers Quinn. In other words, Savage’s lack of commitment is also to Anderson’s advantage.

The wild card in all of this is Quinn. It’s highly unlikely that his presence on the roster made much of a difference in Anderson’s overall evaluation, but it would be foolish for him to ignore Quinn all together.

Not only does Quinn have the aforementioned advantage of being popular without having actually accomplished anything, but the coaching staff too knows that the Browns commitment to Anderson doesn’t necessarily run all that deep, particularly given the kind of contract Anderson signed. Quinn sees the same thing. Anderson showed last year in preseason that he doesn’t respond well to internal competition, but this time his adversary is a quarterback with a much better pedigree.
Anderson didn’t necessarily make a wrong decision in re-signing with the Browns. In fact, it benefits him in more ways than not. But the tendency he has on the field to make quick decisions seems to have carried over to one of the more important off-the-field decisions he’ll have to make. But where he gets a second chance on the next play to hit that receiver he just overthrew, the second chance he might need to really cash in could be years away, if at all.

Monday, March 03, 2008

A Gambler in Nerd's Clothing

A consensus seems to be emerging that the flurry of activity at Cleveland Browns Central initiated by ringmaster/general manager Phil Savage last week is a bold initiative to win now. Maybe, but one thing that is indisputable is that Savage’s moves are the biggest gamble of his career, by a large margin.

In two very distinct ways, Savage has sacrificed the immediate future. He has essentially set ablaze three early round draft picks in the 2008 draft and the various benefits that tend to inure from them if you draft well while at the same time creating potential salary cap hell a few years down the road. That isn’t a criticism, just an observation and a reminder that in football, like most other enterprises, there is no potential for growth without some risk.

But whether Savage’s maneuvering turns into a growth opportunity or a short-term stroke with long-term pain is far from clear. There are various schools of thought on this, but the conventional wisdom is that you build teams through the draft, not free agency. Paying and often overpaying for someone else’s rejects is supposed to be more of a supplement, the final piece or two of a team on the precipice of going deep in the playoffs. Rarely do you see a team, particularly a successful team, part with draft picks.

Where the Browns fit into that matrix is uncertain. They accelerated their growth last year via both the draft and free agency so they aren’t exactly in a total rebuild mode. But with one of the worst defenses in the entire league, the Browns don’t exactly meet the definition of a successful team quite yet, let alone a Super Bowl contender. That’s why most in the league aren’t quite sure of what to make of Savage and the Browns at this point.

Perhaps to blunt this inevitable criticism, Browns head coach Romeo Crennel told the media on Monday, if it helps, just think of quarterback Brady Quinn as this year’s number one pick, defensive lineman Corey Williams as this year’s second round pick and defensive tackle Shaun Rogers as this year’s third round pick. Dangling that observation in front of someone with a computer and an outlet is like dangling a bottle of hooch in front of Mischa Barton.

See, the problem with such goofy analogies by a head coach who has enough trouble keeping track of time outs is that they are, well, goofy. (The Browns would have drafted a quarterback of Quinn’s caliber in the first round given the re-signing of Derek Anderson?) But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not fair to debate his real point: whether the Browns are as well positioned with their recent acquisitions as they would be had they instead held on to their draft picks.

The real benefit of the two trades, even at the expense of the second and third round picks, is that it let the Browns obtain players with an established NFL resume. Draft picks, even early round ones, are still a crapshoot and will always be until some fail-safe mechanism for evaluating the inherent ambiguities of young athletes is invented.

But that same benefit of swapping draft picks for existing players is also its downside. Williams, for example, illustrates both sides. A former sixth round pick, he's nonetheless been an effective defensive tackle for the Packers, certainly more effective than anyone the Browns had on the defensive line last season. Likely he'll have a better 2008 than anyone the Browns could have obtained with their second round pick. But that still doesn't answer the question of whether, in four years or less, that mythical second round pick they now don’t have could surpass Williams in production.

Rogers is even more of a conundrum. To be charitable, the word out of Detroit is hardly encouraging. Rogers has a history of accomplishment with an equal amount of attitude and defiance. He’s overweight and almost seemed to balloon up purposely to make some sort of bizarre point with the Lions management last season. But these were hardly unknowns. Indeed, Crennel admitted as much saying that he felt that that there would be enough stabilizing influences inside the Browns locker room to keep Rogers on track. Certainly that can happen, as was the case when both Corey Dillon and Randy Moss went to New England. But Gerard Warren in Denver didn’t work out too well, so it isn’t always the case that the players can police their own.

Even if both Rogers and Williams have more upside than comparable 2008 draft picks, Savage’s actions on Friday have to be considered as a whole and not piecemeal.

This is where the salary cap implications kick in.

Assuming that the NFL and the players ultimately solve their differences with respect to the collective bargaining agreement and a similar salary cap stays in place for the foreseeable future, the signings of Anderson, Williams, Rogers, and Donte' Stallworth have the potential to linger far longer than any 2008 contributions. While the full details of the contracts of each haven’t been disclosed yet, what has been reported with respect to guaranteed money is quite instructive and not just because it will require owner Randy Lerner to dip a bit further into his fortune.

Williams is slated for at least $16 million in guaranteed money on his six-year contract. Stallworth has about $10 million in guaranteed money on a seven-year contract, and Rogers has $18 million guaranteed on a six-year contract. Anderson has somewhere between $14.5 and 15.5 million in guaranteed money on his three-year contract. Since salaries are rarely guaranteed, these dollars likely represent a combination of signing and roster bonuses, perhaps easily achievable performance bonuses as well.

If each played out the term of his contract, the bonus would hit the salary cap on a prorated basis. In the case of Williams, for example, his bonus is worth $2.66 million of salary cap space each year, based on the length of his current contract. The problem comes if one or more of them don’t stick around.

Like most long-term contracts, the salary piece probably ramps up in later years since the guaranteed money is usually paid up front. Thus, when the salary to be paid in later years -- coupled with the cap hit for the bonus in that year -- begins to exceed the player’s value to the team, he’ll be cut. Think Orpheus Roye. Heck, think Donte’ Stallworth.

When that occurs, not if, the remaining prorated share of the bonuses is then accelerated into the year the player is cut. Thus, the team ends up with less salary cap to work with even though the player is otherwise gone. It’s exactly why former Browns head coach Butch Davis essentially purged the Browns only playoff team several years ago.

These may be problems for another day and another season, but they most certainly are on the horizon. Much can happen between now and then, but the Browns can’t be successful each and every year playing this kind of shell game with free agents at the expense of draft choices. At some point, the lack of draft choices this year will become more noticeable in much the same way as if the Browns had squandered the choices with poor decisions. It’s what put the Browns in the hole Savage is trying to dig them out of now.

The gamble Savage took may be the final jump the Browns need to become a force in the league, but if Savage wants to keep it that way, there is much more juggling he has to do. If he isn’t successful, then another rebuilding program isn’t too far in the future for this franchise and Savage can go back to doing what he loves best, scouting.

Only it will most certainly be with another team.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

A Tale of Two Emotions

If Browns quarterback Derek Anderson had one of the more down and then up days of his young life on Friday, then the Browns other quarterback, Brady Quinn, had one of the more up and then down days of his young life at about roughly the same time.

As most know by now, when the NFL’s version of free agency officially opened for business at 12:01 a.m. Friday morning, Anderson was slated for a one-year tender offer as a restricted free agent. His agents and Browns general manager Phil Savage were unable to agree, prior to the deadline, on the amount of guaranteed money that would be coming Anderson’s way over the next three years.

Savage then prepped the media by announcing that negotiations had failed and that the Browns would now turn their attention to developing Quinn more quickly, given Anderson’s status. It wasn’t entirely clear if Savage felt that Anderson might find another team to bite at a longer term contract and thus part with a first and third round pick in the process, but he had clearly resigned himself to that possibility, even discussing the extra salary cap room he now had and what he’d do with it.

But something else Savage said in that initial press conference was probably much more meaningful to the events that transpired just a few hours later. When asked if the Browns would consider trading Anderson for something less than a first and third round pick as a way of facilitating his exit, Savage, a straight and impassioned shooter if ever there was one, made it clear he would not. This had two intended effects: it sent a message to other teams not to even bother with any such proposals and it greatly limited the maneuverability of Anderson’s agents.

It’s quite possible, indeed pretty likely, that Anderson’s agents could have worked a longer term deal with potentially more guaranteed money from another team, but not at the additional price of a first and third round pick to the Browns. Savage’s other moves on Friday notwithstanding, most general managers value draft picks more than they value members of their own families.

Savage’s strategy, intended or otherwise, worked. The parties got together rather quickly and created what they felt was a win-win situation for everyone, everyone that is except Quinn and the whole boatload of fans that remain unconvinced of Anderson’s long-term value. The assembled media, having just been told about all the advantages that not signing Anderson had presented now were being told that this is what the Browns really wanted to do all along.

In a strange way, it’s probably true. Early on in the negotiations, it was clear that Savage wanted to retain Anderson, but did not necessarily feel that his breakout season warranted the kind of commitment the Dallas Cowboys made to Tony Romo. Anderson had one of the better season’s any quarterback has had in Cleveland Browns history, but he’s still just a one-year wonder. On close examination, there was enough inconsistency in Anderson’s play, despite his production, to rightly give Savage a reason to not completely trash the investment he made in Quinn.

The guess, too, is that Anderson’s agents were more or less finding out the same thing around the league. One good year is great, now show me something. As a result, they probably had no real choice but to work something out with the Browns along the lines that Savage initially outlined.

For Anderson, re-signing with the Browns was a pretty low-risk gamble. As Savage noted, the kind of guaranteed money they are paying Anderson assures that he heads into next season as the clear number one quarterback. Consequently, he doesn’t have to go through one of head coach Romeo Crennel’s so-called open competitions that only ensure that no quarterback will be ready by the first game.

That should give Anderson the breathing space to find his rhythm in training camp without worrying that he’s one bad pass from being benched. It also helps that Anderson now has a good understanding of a system that was new to him last year. But probably the biggest benefit for everyone concerned is that Anderson gets to prove his worth behind one of the league’s better offensive lines and with enough skill players surrounding him so that he doesn’t feel compelled to do more than he’s capable. It’s a far better situation than almost any other that was available to him in free agency. It also increases the likelihood of Anderson having another solid season to the point that his trade value next year might be even higher.

But the high upon which Anderson ended the day likely paled in comparison to what Quinn was probably feeling. At 7 a.m. Friday morning, Quinn was thinking he was going to get a legitimate chance to start next season. By 11 a.m. Quinn found himself pretty much in the same position he was in at the end of the season—holding a clipboard and waiting for Anderson to fail or get injured. This can’t be at all what he imagined as his future just one year ago.

In large measure though, Anderson’s fortunes and Quinn’s status have a common thread: Quinn’s agent Tom Condon. The best break that Anderson got was Condon’s intransigence last summer during negotiations with the Browns. It completely changed the calculus that Savage and Crennel thought they’d be solving entering into training camp.

Instead of situation where Quinn would be part of the mix from the outset, Crennel and company were left with only Anderson and Charlie Frye to evaluate. Though neither quarterback acquitted themselves particularly well, Anderson at least got the chance to demonstrate an ability to make decisions quickly, a skill Frye simply doesn’t have. Anderson also showcased an exceptionally strong, though not always accurate, arm. These two attributes convinced at least offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski that the Browns needed to keep Anderson around, even if he wasn’t going to be the starter.

If Condon hadn’t forced a holdout by trying to leverage the fact that the Browns gave up a number one pick in 2008 to get Quinn as a reason to pay Quinn well in excess of what his draft status (#22 overall) dictated, it’s likely that a contract could have gotten done before training camp started. Had that occurred, both Anderson’s and Frye’s reps would have been significantly reduced in favor of Quinn. Given that Frye was the putative starter heading into training camp, it was Anderson who really would have suffered the most.

As it was, Quinn ended up signing the kind of deal that he could have had early on, a point Savage highlighted when Quinn did sign That 11 days and 16 practices Quinn missed has now proven more costly to than he ever could have imagined. It’s also proven to be more lucrative for Anderson then he had a right to imagine.

Now it looks like Quinn’s chance is at least another season away. There’s no reason to doubt Savage when he said on Friday that he had no intention of trading Anderson this year. There’s likewise no reason to doubt Savage when he said, rather definitively, that Anderson is the starter.

Quinn’s entrée into the NFL has hardly been a smooth one, from the fiasco that was draft day, to the unnecessary holdout, and now to the Browns near-term commitment to Anderson. But if Quinn is the type of player that Savage and the fans now bemoaning the resigning of Anderson think he is, then Quinn will be stronger for the experience. That being the case, then the Browns really are set at quarterback for the foreseeable future.