Tuesday, January 29, 2008

A Desert Disaster

The scene is eerily familiar, only this time the local fans don’t have the same rooting interest.

It was a little over a year ago when an undefeated team with but a few close calls during the regular season found its way playing for a championship in the Arizona desert. That team featured the top quarterback, indeed the top player in the game at least that season, and enough skill players surrounding him to make opposing coaches drool. To the extent that the media can ever reach a consensus on anything, it did this time. No doubt this team would finish what they had started and would be anointed one of the great teams of all time.

Making matters seem all that much more inevitable, its opponent was not highly regarded and was thought, at best, to be maybe a year or two away from being a serious contender for a championship. The opponent featured some intriguing players, to be sure, but had barely won its conference. There was also a double digit point spread to contend with. In short, but for a few contrarians dotting the landscape, mainly in the team’s hometown, no one else gave them much of a chance.

But the Florida Gators turned into the little team that could and handily wiped the carpet with the Ohio State Buckeyes at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, capping an improbable year for the Gators and its coach, Urban Meyer.

In many, many ways, this Sunday’s Super Bowl featuring the New England Patriots against the New York Giants is playing to all these same themes. New England is the consensus number one team in the league with the consensus superior talent. The Giants seem lucky to be there.

The parallels, of course, don’t all work. For example, in most ways, Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel is the anti-Bill Belichick. Tressel isn’t exactly a quote machine himself, but he is very accessible to the media and hardly treats reporters’ questions as if they are an intrusion. As passionately as he wants to win, Tressel hardly seems motivated by the kind of hate and rage that tends to fuel Belichick’s engine. Probably because he’s coaching college kids, Tressel maintains a much healthier perspective on not only what a game means, but what it doesn’t.

Meyer, too, is hardly Tom Coughlin, the Giants head coach. Where Meyer is cool and collected in every situation, Coughlin wears his emotions on his sleeve. Meyer has been nothing but successful at each stop along the coaching trail with no one ever threatening to run him off. Coughlin’s career has had at least as many downs as ups. When the Giants lost their first two games this season, the New York media and Giants fans were already calling for Coughlin to be fired, particularly coming off an 8-8 season that should have been much better but wasn’t because so often the coach and his players seemed to be at each other’s throats all the time.

Improbably, though, the Giants turned it around enough to finish at 10-6, the same record as the Browns, and now find themselves in the Super Bowl mainly because they got hot at the right time. The remaining question, of course, is whether the Giants are laying in wait, like the Gators, to deliver another disaster in the desert to what many consider to be an incredible mismatch.

This is where it gets tricky. In the first place, the differences between college and pro football are so vast that at times the only thing the two games seem to have in common is that the scoring plays in each count the same. For example, barring injury you’re never going to see either Belichick or Coughlin use a two-quarterback system just to give the other team a different look.

But the big difference is that it is much easier to make apples to apples comparisons in pro football than it ever will be in college. When the Buckeyes and Gators finally met in the national championship game, what they knew about each other is what they could see on film alone. Not only didn’t they play each other during the regular season, they didn’t have any common opponents. Thus, despite all the talk about the difference in speed in the SEC vs. the Big Ten, it was nearly impossible to tell if that really was the case with respect to these two teams.

Moreover, the talent level from team to team in college football, even when played at its highest levels, is wildly inconsistent. Even really good teams in college aren’t good top to bottom. Thus, what a coach observes on tape about his opponent is difficult, at best, to translate. That stud defensive lineman who seems to dominate may just be a case of facing relatively weak offensive linemen from week to week. That quarterback who never seems to get sacked may just have been playing against relatively poor pass rushing teams most weeks.

In the NFL, the talent level is far more consistent. In a sense, every NFL team is a college all star team. There are differences in talent levels from team to team, but they aren’t substantial. Using this year’s Browns team as Exhibit A, the difference between a team with a losing record and one who went 10-6 is usually one or two players, not 10-12.

But perhaps the biggest difference is that it is not all that unusual for the Super Bowl participants to have played already played each other in the regular season, and if not the current season, then the previous one. One of the most memorable games of this year was the Patriots/Giants game during the final week of the regular season. It not only had historic overtures, but it also essentially sparked a resurgence of the Giants, even in defeat.

But the larger point for this discussion is that each team is well aware of what the other can do, having just played each other a few weeks ago. Each team knows the other’s strengths and weaknesses not just based on what they see on film but what they personally experienced. For each team, their game plan for the Super Bowl will be based far more on actual knowledge than mere guess work than either Tressel’s or Meyer’s game plan for the national championship game.

In a way, Sunday’s Super Bowl is but a continuation of that final regular season game, with the two week run-up to it serving as an extended halftime. Given what each team already knows about the other, the difference maker is less likely going to be pure emotion, as it was when the Gators faced the Buckeyes, and more so on which coach can make the right adjustments.

Indeed, if that is the criteria, the Patriots have a decided advantage. Using just this season as an example, the Patriots have outscored their opponents by a large margin in every quarter. They were +93 in the first quarter, +103 in the second, +46 in the third, and +73 in the fourth. The Giants, on the other hand, were a remarkable -24 in the first quarter, +28 in the second, +1 in the third and +21 in the fourth.

Some simple conclusions that can be drawn from this are that the Patriots were a far more dominant team than the Giants, within each game and from game to game. It also tells you that the Patriots were not often challenged whereas the Giants often played from behind and that their 10 victories were highly dependent on their ability to eke out close games.

It’s also fair to suggest that these figures also underscore that Belichick’s teams were far better prepared for their opponents going into each game than the Giants given the point differentials in the first quarter. Coughlin and his staff eventually made adjustments throughout that helped them ultimately be successful, but Belichick and his staff got off to great starts each week and kept the pressure on throughout. By doing so, the Patriots were able to dictate the tempo of the game and force teams to adjust to them, not the other way around as was the case with the Giants.

It also says something about the game-day coaching abilities of Belichick and Coughlin. An interesting article posted last summer on the web site NFL Stats sought to quantify the impact of game-day coaching by taking the number of wins that a team could expect in a season based on its on-field statistical performance and comparing it to actual wins. When actual wins exceeded expected wins on a consistent basis, the author surmised, one differentiating factor was the head coach and his ability to squeeze more out of the talent at hand.

In that analysis, which did not even include the 2007 season, Belichick in New England (as compared to Belichick in both Cleveland and New England) led the pack. In New England, his teams consistently win over two games more per season than on-the-field performance otherwise bears out. Indeed, anyone watching the Patriots this season had to marvel at the team’s ability to win when not playing its best. Coughlin’s teams, in both Jacksonville and New York, tended to win slightly less games than expected. Neither of these results is much of a surprise.

None of this means that Coughlin is a lousy head coach and thus the Giants have no chance. But it does point to an X factor to consider when placing your Super Bowl wagers. And while all this may be just another elaborate set up for the ultimate downfall of the seemingly superior team, this isn’t Ohio State vs. Florida either. There very well could be a disaster in the desert. Just don’t look for it from the underdog this time.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Welcome to Happy Land

Word that Browns general manager Phil Savage is in discussions with the agent of head coach Romeo Crennel for a contract extension is hardly a surprise. These discussions, coming on the heels of contract extensions given to Indians manager Eric Wedge last season and Cavs coach Mike Brown this season, seem to be the happy by-product of what happens in this town once its teams become a bit drunk with success.

But on closer examination, it appears rather doubtful that Savage, Indians general manager Mark Shapiro or Cavs general manager Danny Ferry are just giddy spendthrifts. Instead, there appears to be a deliberate intent, particularly when it comes to the Browns and the Indians, for the owners of the franchises to more directly intertwine the fates of the general managers and the coaches.

It doesn’t take just a cynic to note the timing of Wedge’s three-year extension last May relative to the five-year extension that Shapiro signed a few months earlier. It also didn’t go unnoticed that before the talks heated up between Savage and Crennel’s agent, Browns owner Randy Lerner was already talking publicly about giving Savage an extension.

Given what appears to be the impending extensions of both Savage and Crennel, the extensions signed by Shapiro and Wedge, and the extension recently signed by Brown, gosh the only one left out in this parade has been poor Danny Ferry, the Cavs general manager. But lest anyone think that Ferry’s situation is different, it’s really not. Instead, there is a third element linking both Ferry and Brown—LeBron James.

Ferry’s contract is set to expire in 2010, Brown’s in 2011. Not coincidentally, James is signed through 2011. It may be oversimplifying to say that if Ferry can’t sign James, either because James doesn’t like the direction of the franchise or because he no longer likes playing for Brown, both Ferry and Brown will find themselves on the outside looking in. But it’s not oversimplifying to say that Cavs owner Dan Gilbert doesn’t come across as someone who would tolerate the loss of the team’s key asset without exacting some penalty in return from the offending parties.

An interesting question arising out of all this is whether or not this forced symbiosis that each team is now practicing was by calculation or chance. Assuming it’s not by chance, it does confirm an unmistakable trend in professional sports generally: the days when the head coach was a team’s most important hire are nearly over. If anything, for most teams the emphasis is now clearly on the person acquiring the talent, not on the one managing it.

Consider, for example, the situation with the Oakland As. Billy Beane, the As’ general manager, is considered something of a guru. He showed a host of mid and small market teams how to be competitive against clubs with far bigger budgets. His statistics-heavy approach has been emulated if not outright copied by a host of other general managers, including Shapiro. But one thing Beane has never seemed to have done is tie his fate to any particular manager. Beane already is on his third manager in 10 years.

The same holds true for boy wonder Theo Epstein, the Red Sox general manager. He’s on his second manager. It may be that Epstein is far more pleased with manager Terry Francona than he ever was with Grady Little, but you get the sense that if Francona trips up, Epstein wouldn’t hesitate to cut the cord. Even the New York Yankees parted ways with Joe Torre, despite years of success, while keeping general manager Brian Cashman.

There are similar examples one can easily find in both football and basketball as well, enough so that there is little doubt which way the pendulum was swung. But there is one team bucking that trend and it appears to be the model that all three Cleveland teams are following—the New England Patriots. General manager Scott Pioli and head coach Bill Belichick arrived there together in 2000 and have worked nearly seamlessly ever since in building a franchise that is consistently competitive. Whichever side you come out on the argument as to who is more responsible for the Patriots success, it is at least clear that the Patriots are a two-headed monster.

One thing that is surprising is that despite the success of the Patriots, few other teams have followed their model. Whether it’s the movies, television or sports, nothing breeds repetition like someone else’s success. But giving the Dolans, Lerner and Gilbert the benefit of the doubt, it’s clear they have now put their franchises on the same relatively less traveled path in which the general manager and the coach either swim or sink together.

Whether or not this is a good idea is one thing. But even if it is, whether or not a team can pull it off is a whole other matter.

On the first point, a team where the general manager and head coach are working in concert is always preferable to a situation where the two parties can’t get along. It’s why A. J. Smith in San Diego fired Marty Schottenheimer after he went 14-2 last season. He was willing to take a step back to move forward. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the two parties have to be tied at the hip, either. In fact, there are compelling reasons against it.

There’s something to be said, for example, for maintaining hierarchy if only to keep the subordinate in line. You get the idea in New England that Belichick hardly considers Pioli his boss, which can be dangerous, but when push came to shove in New York, Torre was out of a job, which may be unfortunate for him but it will certainly keep new manager Joe Girardi in line. Whether one situation ultimately is better than the other is highly dependent on not just the talent of the people involved, including the owners, but their egos.

In the final analysis, whatever strategy is employed is still a matter of execution. If the general managers and the coaches are going to be linked as they are in New England, then it is absolutely imperative that the principles make it work in the same way. Given the relationships involved in Cleveland that seems to be the real driving force behind the extensions that have taken place. Even if you dispute the underlying premise, it is undeniable at this point that Savage and Crennel, Shapiro and Wedge, and Ferry and Brown have found a way to work together successfully with little or no friction.

Savage, for example, seems comfortable with Crennel out front. Savage may give the occasional press conference, but it’s generally at rather typical junctures—pre-season; mid-year, post-season. Shapiro, on the other hand, is clearly the face of the Indians. In many ways, he’s far more visible and certainly more quotable than Wedge and that doesn’t seem to bother Wedge in the least. With the Cavs, both Ferry and Brown understand that it is all LeBron all the time.

Whether this will translate to ultimate success for any of these teams is far from clear, particularly when there are serious questions about the competency of some of principles. But to this point, at least, each team has had enough success that it it’s hard to find too much fault with the respective owners for letting it play out just as it is for a few more years.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Belichick Reconsidered

Another Super Bowl and another year with the Cleveland Browns watching from the cheap seats.

The frustration of not making the playoffs may still be fresh in the minds of many Browns fans, but just as frustrating, maybe even more so, is the gnawing realization that the New England Patriots and Bill Belichick in particular are headed once again for the Promised Land.

There may not be a statute of limitations on animosity for Browns fans, particularly when it comes to those who so richly deserve it, like Art Modell. But at the same time, it’s worth reconsidering the underlying premise, particularly when it comes to Belichick. Is it really a grudge worth holding?

Belichick is still a reviled figure in Cleveland. Not quite on the same level of Modell, certainly, but perhaps on par with the likes of Michael Jordan and John Elway. But unlike Jordan and Elway, whose ultimate success often came at the expense of good but not great Cleveland teams, Belichick’s sin, it seems in retrospect, is that he wasn’t then the coach he is now. True, certainly, but in the end it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

When Modell hired Belichick, he claimed it would be his last hire ever. Modell could never keep his word, of course, but in this instance he was technically correct. It would be Modell’s last head coach hire in Cleveland because Modell then ripped the team from his adopted home town and moved it to Baltimore in exchange for the wad of cash he needed to avoid bankruptcy.

It was hard then to place much stock in just another in a series of Modell’s hires over the years. All came with incredibly high praise that eventually soured when Modell’s own incompetence as a business man, coupled with some lousy luck in key games, prevented him from winning a Super Bowl with the Browns.

To be fair to Modell in just this one instance, he wasn’t wrong about Belichick but, like always with Modell, his timing was off. The attributes Modell saw then, refined over the years, are the reasons Belichick has created a coaching resume of historic and unprecedented proportions.

Ultimately, though, the biggest favor Modell did for Belichick was firing him before he got to Baltimore. It forced Belichick to reassess his life and his goals. Remember, leading up to that termination, Belichick’s reputation couldn’t have been worse, even if it was mostly self-inflicted. Whatever his merits as a coach at that time, he carried with him an arrogance that belied his modest accomplishments to that point. He was excoriated, not unfairly, by the Cleveland media for being uncommunicative, for being petty, for you name it. In short, the media all but called him a “rat bastard” in print though that was the common thought that came to most people’s minds. In fact, it’s relatively easy to find folks who believe that Belichick so poisoned the atmosphere in Cleveland that he, as much as Modell, is responsible for the Browns leaving.

That’s always been a hard theory to sell, but it’s a popular notion nonetheless. Belichick may have spent Modell’s money like a drunk in a liquor store, but Modell facilitated the indulgences. Moreover, Modell’s empire, such as it was, was always pretty flimsy anyway. Ultimately, it was a long-term series of bad business moves, Modell’s legacy in fact, which cost this town the Browns, not Belichick. In other words, it didn’t matter who the coach was or his talents, Modell, as he was fond of saying, had no choice.

That’s why it’s always been hard to understand the grudge the team’s fans continue to harbor against Belichick. After all, this town has seen at least its share of bad coaches in virtually every sport. He’s one of the many, not one of the few. But, ah, yes, the Bernie Kosar incident. That’s really the nub of the matter isn’t it?

In that regard, Belichick’s sin was always one of timing not candor. He cut Kosar mid-season in 1993 supposedly because of his “diminishing skills,” a phrase that is part of the vernacular of this town, like “the Drive,” “the Fumble,” and “Mad dog in a meat market.” As it turned out, that was a pretty accurate assessment and something Belichick obviously felt going into the season when he signed Vinny Testaverde and benched Kosar well before he finally cut him. The problem, though, is that Belichick’s assessment came while Testaverde was injured and seemed more in response to an unstated power struggle between Belichick and Kosar over control for the hearts and minds of the team than any immediate skill issue that had to be addressed.

Wherever one comes out on the whole fiasco, it pretty much cemented Belichick’s reputation in Cleveland, something from which he still hasn’t recovered. But Cleveland fans have forgiven much more from far less. What’s interesting, though, is that this is hardly a grudge that goes both ways. When you can get Belichick to say anything at all about his time in Cleveland, he eventually finds the right words and never trashes the fans, Modell or much else. In other words, Cleveland fans seem to be in some sort of unrequited hate relationship with Belichick.

This is all unfortunate because those fans holding a grudge are missing an opportunity to really appreciate what a head coach performing at the highest level possible really looks like. It’s akin to failing to appreciate the virtuosity of someone like Tiger Woods because he ticked you off when he didn’t sign an autograph for your kid at the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone. Like it or not Cleveland fans, Belichick and Woods are share the same rarified air.

When you take the time to analyze Belichick and his success, it’s actually more remarkable what you don’t find rather than what you do find. You won’t find a smooth talking, aw shucks hale fellow well met. You won’t find a guy who runs up and down the sideline high-fiving his players as if he were one. You won’t find a coach who has invented some new offensive scheme, like Bill Walsh, nor someone who invented a new approach to defense. Mostly what you don’t find is someone who fits the popular, but often inaccurate notion of what it takes to succeed as a head coach.

Instead, his success has come from the attributes that have been taught ever since the first pig was sacrificed for the sake of a ball: Hard work; blocking; tackling; attention to detail and technique; an emphasis on minimizing mistakes; avoiding penalties; not focusing on the last play, but focusing on the next, that sort of mundane thing. Belichick appreciates talent but you can see from his teams that he wins games with a combination of great talents and niche players, all sharing the exact same goal. In his world, desire is every bit as important as talent, maybe more.

Belichick doesn’t ask anything more of his players than he’s willing to do himself and it shows. He has mastered the intricacies of the salary cap in a way teams can only admire but never seem to be able to duplicate. Other teams may load up on high-priced free agents in order to make a playoff run but usually find themselves in salary cap hell a few years later. Belichick’s teams never suffer that same fate. He has an uncanny ability to find talented but undervalued players and isn’t afraid to cast aside higher priced players when their cap value exceeds their contributions. It doesn’t always make him popular, especially when he cuts ties with a fan favorite, but it helps sustain the success. The ends in this case do justify the means.

All this is not particularly sexy, it just works. It’s why Belichick can sustain turnover in the front office, on his coaching staff and on his roster. Ultimately, his players know that he will put them in the best position to be successful, which is all, really, anyone can ask.

Belichick’s amazing run may frustrate Cleveland fans, but this is so much more than giving the devil his due. Cleveland fans may never celebrate his success, but they should know they were instrumental in it. What’s made Belichick who he is has at least as much to do with the failures he experienced here, many of which were of his own making, some of which were not, as anything else. The truth is, when he was in Cleveland it just wasn’t yet his time.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Quite a Character

For all those Ohio State fans still lamenting head coach Jim Tressel’s second straight loss in the national championship game, I have two words for you: Rich Rodriguez.

Rodriguez has barely been head coach of the Michigan Wolverines for a month yet in that short period of time he’s created enough adversity for himself that the Michigan administration might as well fly a red flag permanently. And with each passing day, Buckeye fans discover a new reason to appreciate what they have in Tressel as the contrast between him and Rodriguez couldn’t be starker. As Tressel might say and probably has, adversity doesn’t build character it reveals it.

The first indication of the kind of person the Wolverines got with their third choice was the fact that Rodriguez didn’t have the guts to deliver his resignation personally. He wrote it out and had his graduate assistant deliver it to West Virginia University athletic director Ed Pastilong. Good message that out to grace the entrance of the Michigan weight room: “When the going gets tough, get a graduate student to do your work.” If that’s the kind of toughness and courage that Rodriguez will bring to the Michigan program, it won’t be long before its fans are screaming for Lloyd Carr to come out of retirement.

Rodriguez’s cowardly resignation may be partially explainable, however, by the next sign of his questionable values. Before either Mountaineers administration or players knew of the resignation, Rodriguez was on the telephone with highly-prized recruit Terrelle Pryor of Pennsylvania to tell him that he was leaving for Michigan. Now word is trickling out that Rodriguez didn’t just call Pryor, he may have also called two other recruits while still technically employed by West Virginia. The West Virginia administration has gathered Rodriguez’s cell phone records and is still investigating.

Rodriguez at present is denying the timeline although Pryor’s statement at the time, as reported by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, certainly indicates otherwise. But the fact Rodriguez put himself in this position peels away still another layer of what’s turning out to be a quickly rotting onion. One would think, for example, that Rodriguez might be more concerned about the reaction his leaving might have on the players he had already personally recruited and coached for several years at West Virginia. Instead, he seemed much more interested at that moment with trying to lure Pryor to Michigan, almost as if his hiring there had depended on it. Hmm.

More insidious, though, as reported by the West Virginia Gazette-Mail, is that Rodriguez’s call to Pryor may also have simultaneously prevented West Virginia from making a call to a recruit who had publicly announced that the Mountaineers were high on his list of possible choices. At the time of the call, there was a so-called quiet period with respect to recruits in effect under the NCAA’s rules, meaning that coaches could only contact a potential recruit once a week. Since Rodriguez was still technically in the employ of West Virginia at the time, that prevented anyone else from the West Virginia program from contacting Pryor for the rest of the week. One wonders whether Rodriguez, on behalf of the Michigan program, called Pryor again that same week after he officially became Michigan’s coach. Hmm.

If Pryor ends up in Michigan, the Wolverines athletic director, William C. Martin, should probably expect a friendly call from an NCAA investigator. As Desi said to Lucy, there will be some splaining to do.

As it turns out, the calls to recruits is turning out to be the least of the issues. Underlying this whole mess is the little matter of the $4 million that Rodriguez is trying to deprive West Virginia for ditching the program just one season into a multi-year extension he had signed last August. Rodriguez, through his lawyers, has rattled enough sabers to make it pretty clear that the administration shouldn’t expect a check anytime soon, so much so that West Virginia filed a pre-emptive lawsuit to ensure it would be able to collect.

The $4 million is owed under what is referred to as a liquidated damages provision in Rodriguez’s contract. In simple terms, when a person breaches a contract, he will owe the other party damages or money in an amount that would make that person whole as if the breach had never occurred. The nature of some contracts makes it difficult to measure the amount of the damage. This is particularly true with coaching contracts because a coach of a successful program that quits while under contract can devastate his former program. There is potential lost revenue from season tickets and loges, lost recruits, lost booster and advertising income and the like, all of which is very difficult to calculate. Consequently, the parties often will add a liquidated damages provision to basically define up front the monetary damage that they believe the school will incur if the coach leaves. Courts will generally enforce a liquidated damages clause unless they believe it is a penalty in disguise. That is because courts will not typically impose a penalty, in addition to damages, against a party for breaching a contract.

This is the rub in the Rodriguez case. Through intermediaries Rodriguez has made it known that he believes that West Virginia breached its contract first and thus the liquidated damages provision doesn’t apply. When that argument doesn’t work, and it probably won’t, his lawyers will turn to their best argument, that the $4 million doesn’t represent damages but instead is a penalty because of the amount. This, too, will be an uphill battle given the unique circumstances of this case: a popular relatively long-term coach who has brought a program twice to the brink of the national championship game. It’s fair to say that West Virginia will suffer financially and for awhile. Whatever one thinks of Rodriguez’s successor at West Virginia, one thing is clear he has a lot to rebuild in the wake of this mess.

Rodriguez didn’t help himself by taking a shredder to all of his files, the latest questionable act of his that West Virginia is now investigating. Whether the files were official files of a state university and hence public records is a legal matter still to be sorted out. If they were, Rodriguez may have some legal trouble to boot. But even if they were not, they clearly had some value to the program and will be difficult to re-create, meaning that Rodriguez unwittingly enhanced the cause of his former school in its quest to enforce the $4 million liquidated damages clause by causing damage that’s difficult to calculate. Moreover, yet to be answered is whether Rodriguez’s little Enron incident was done out of simple spite or to hide some unflattering truths about the program he ran. Hmm.
With the controversy intensifying each day, you would think that Rodriguez and his new employers would try to make it go away. Instead, Rodriguez has fanned the flames by laughingly claiming to the Toledo Blade that he can’t understand why he’s being smeared by the West Virginia administration. After all, he says, he’s tried to take the high road. If Rodriguez defines the high road by his conduct, from how he hid his interview from his employers, to how he then denied it took place, to how he then delivered his resignation, to how he then called a recruit before telling his own players, to how he then shredded his files, then the bar truly has been lowered to new depths in college athletics.

Fortunately, that’s not quite the case. Though Ohio State, like virtually every program, has had its share of athletes in trouble, no one has yet to question the ethics of Tressel. The national media may complain about the Buckeyes playing the lower-division Youngstown State, but what they miss is Tressel using that game as a way of repaying a debt of gratitude he feels he owed to the school and the program that gave him a chance. Right now, Rodriguez won’t even pay the debt he actually owes to West Virginia.

I suppose there are coaches who have had worse starts to their new jobs than Rodriguez, George O’Leary at Notre Dame comes to mind, but not many. If he’s going to overcome these self-inflicted wounds, Rodriguez better hope that recruits and their parents do not put much stock in the questionable backgrounds of the coaches they let into their living rooms.

The success Tressel continues to have in recruiting each year says otherwise. But if Rodriguez is banking on parental indifference to cover his sins, then the good news for Buckeyes fans is that their team should continue to enjoy the competitive advantage they currently hold over the Wolverines for at least as long as Tressel remains in Columbus.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Druggies

Blame it on the law of unintended consequences.

By naming names in the report he prepared for Major League Baseball on the use of performance enhancing drugs, former Senator George Mitchell unwittingly turned much attention away from the long-term, mostly ignored drug problems that still plague baseball to this day and toward figuring out exactly what was flowing through those needles that found themselves stuck to Roger Clemens’ butt.

And now, of course, a veritable cottage industry has arisen almost over night in terms of figuring out who’s telling the truth in the on-going soap opera between Clemens and his former best friend and personal trainer, Brian McNamee. Clemens doesn’t deny being a drug abuser, only that the abused drugs were steroids. He admits to downing Vioxx, a now discredited prescription pain reliever, as if they were Skittles and was regularly shot with Lidocaine, a prescription anesthetic. His trainer, under the threat of going to jail if he didn’t tell the truth, claims otherwise.

It’s an interesting debate that will probably decide the ultimate fate of Clemens’ legacy, but it is mostly a sideshow, which is a shame. The real issue is why baseball still won’t come to grips with the full scope of its drug problem.

On Tuesday, the House Oversight and Reform Committee held another hearing on steroids in baseball, a follow up of sorts to Mitchell’s report this past December. Commission Bud Selig, as expected, fell on his sword and adopted a mostly “the buck stops here” attitude, an approach that was convenient but meaningless given the simple fact that the drug culture flourished for years and years under his watch. Union president Donald Fehr, on the other hand, hedged a bit when trying to do the same but mostly came across as an ill-informed boob with little concern about the long-term health effects of the union members he claims to represent.

There was enough to titillate the average fan when a fair amount of the hearing was spent on Clemens, Miguel Tejada and the lengths to which San Francisco management went to protect its money tree, Barry Bond. But another focus of the hearings garnering a bit less attention was the flaws in baseball’s existing drug policies, despite Selig’s continued insistence that the programs are world class. Hardly.

Representative John Tierney of Massachusetts, for example, used the hearing as an opportunity to shed light on the issue of amphetamines. The back story is that amphetamine use was open and notorious in baseball (and probably most sports) for decades. In 2006 baseball finally outlawed their use and began testing for them. At the same time, however, it created a “therapeutic-use” exemption, meaning that any player who could con a doctor into writing a note could continue to use prescription amphetamines without penalty. The diagnosis of choice has been Attention Deficit Disorder and the drug of choice Ritalin.

In the first year of amphetamine testing, 28 players received the exemption, which basically mirrors the general population. But for reasons that neither Selig nor Fehr could explain, that figure ballooned to 107 the next year a figure that Tierney said was now eight times the general population. Selig did submit that they were trying to figure it out. The question, as always, is how hard.

In a story in Wednesday’s New York Times, Tierney expressed his frustration that Congress shouldn’t have to keep holding hearings in order to get baseball to address these problems. But if Tierney was frustrated coming out of the hearing, one wonders how he must have felt after reading the Times story in which Rob Manfred, baseball’s vice president in charge of labor relations, essentially downplayed the whole issue by saying that the Commissioner’s office, meaning Selig, really wasn’t all that concerned, even as Selig seemed to say otherwise. Added Manfred, “nobody knows why it jumped.”

Really? Nobody can figure that out? Maybe Manfred and Selig need to think outside the box and consider the crazy notion that it has something to do with addicted players finding a loophole in a poorly-crafted policy and driving a truck through it. Getting a doctor to write a note isn’t exactly the hardest thing to do. Ask the guy on the loading dock who bruised his finger at work and got the doctor to excuse him from work for two weeks. Better yet, ask Paul Byrd.

If that doesn’t illuminate it for Manfred and Selig, they should try talking with Dr. Gary I. Wadler, an anti-doping expert and internist, who points out in the Times story that Ritalin and the like help a person concentrate while also masking pain and increasing energy and reaction time. In other words, it jumped because players continue to crave a chemical edge and now have found a sanctioned way to make that happen. Duh.

But as reprehensible as baseball’s casual indifference is toward the four-fold increase in one year in players who suddenly have ADD, more galling is their continued insistence that their drug testing policies have been effective. The therapeutic exemption is just one flaw. The fact that baseball only conducts a total of 60 unannounced off-season drug tests among its more than 1300 players is another. As Rep. Diane Watson of California said at the hearing, based on pure statistical probabilities, it’s unlikely that the average player would ever be subjected to such a test.

Selig said the right thing, as he usually tries to do, that baseball is committed to a program that requires “adequate” unannounced testing, but he knows full well that any such agreement must be bargained with the union. Selig has never been able to adequately stand up to Fehr on virtually any issue and nothing Fehr said at the hearing suggests he will be any more agreeable now. The truth is that Selig and his fellow owners lack the will to place the integrity of their sport and the health of their players above their own economic interests. If it comes down to shutting down the sport in order to gain a meaningful, meaty drug testing policy, everyone, including Selig and Fehr, knows damn well which interest will prevail.

Another major flaw in the program, as highlighted by John Fahey, the president of the World Anti-Doping Agency in a story in the USA Today, is baseball’s continued insistence that it run its testing program in-house. “Professional baseball's response to Sen. Mitchell's report is baffling,” Fahey said in a statement, according to the story in USA Today. “To suggest that it might continue to keep its anti-doping testing program in-house ... is demeaning to Sen. Mitchell and the congressional committees who view doping as a serious threat to public health.” As Fahey points out, an in-house program ultimately lacks accountability and helps foster the problems that are just now coming to light, such as the unexplained increase in therapeutic-use exemptions.

But Fahey reserved his biggest criticism for what he called baseball’s “blatant disregard for the truth” when it comes to testing for HGH, human growth hormone. Selig and Fehr continue to insist that there is no validated urine test for HGH, which is technically true. However, according to Fahey, there is a reliable blood test for HGH and, more importantly, the taking and storing of blood now for future testing is widely in use. The problem, of course, is that baseball’s testing policies do not allow for the drawing of blood let alone for punishment tomorrow for a positive test yesterday.

Left to their own accord from here on out, baseball likely would do nothing more than it’s done already and, if they could get away with it, would probably rescind half of what they have done. When it does move, it’s not because it’s for the good of the game but because a bayonet, in the form of the threatened repeal of their anti-trust exemption, is pointed at their eye sockets.
If you see a pattern in all of this, you’re not alone. Selig and Fehr like to talk a good game but their actions speak much more loudly. They want to appear to be tough on drugs but lack the philosophical conviction, not to mention the political will, to do what it would really take to ensure the public that their sport is both honest and clean. At the moment and for the foreseeable future, it’s neither.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Comeuppance

The NFL, like most sports, has a way of keeping you humble just when you think you have it all figured out. Just ask either Todd Grantham or Tony Dungy.

Entering the weekend, Todd Grantham was the Browns defensive coordinator, the high energy, high emotion translator of the vaunted Romeo Crennel 3-4 defense. Tony Dungy was getting ready to lead his defending Super Bowl championship Indianapolis Colts team into the 2007 playoffs, the overwhelming favorite to meet the New England Patriots in next week’s AFC Championship. But as the last grains of sand dribbled through the hourglass that was the weekend, both had seen better days.

For Grantham, he now wears the title as former defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns. When Browns general manager Phil Savage met with the media on Wednesday, he offered no hint that a change was in the offing. Perhaps it wasn’t. But somewhere between the end of that press conference and until the time it took to write and release the announcement on Friday, Savage had a dramatic change of heart. Grantham out, Mel Tucker in.

The story of Grantham’s departure is starting to sift out slowly and in the way these things usually do, through unnamed inside sources. The Plain Dealer’s Mary Kay Cabot, who was played like a violin by Crennel’s agent, Joe Linta, regarding an extension for Crennel, was apparently taken into someone’s confidence, finally. She wrote on Sunday that the back story on the Grantham firing had mostly to do with a young coach letting his ego get out ahead of his accomplishments. When Savage gave Grantham a two-year extension last year, which Crennel supported, he praised Grantham and said he’d make a fine head coach someday. Apparently Grantham read “someday” as “any day now” and became a bit of a prima donna in whom the players lost trust.

It’s as good of an explanation as any, I suppose, but it begs the question of why this kind of thing is just coming out now. Cabot writes that Tucker now needs to regain the trust that Grantham lost within the organization without even acknowledging that at no point prior to Sunday did she or any of her half-asleep colleagues covering the team on a daily basis ever notice a schism that was apparently at least a year in the making.

If Cabot’s story on Sunday is correct, Grantham became an unbearable pain in the butt about twenty minutes or so after he signed that extension last season, so much so that some players privately complained. It may be all true, but the only attribution Cabot cites is unnamed inside sources that have only been speaking about the situation in the last day or so. Odd no one noticed it before.

In any case, as I noted previously, the comeuppance suffered by Grantham was a particularly precipitous fall from grace. Savage wasn’t wrong when he praised Grantham last season. He was and probably still is head coaching material. But if he was thisclose to becoming a head coach last year, he’s now as far away as he’s ever been. Grantham is only 41 years old and has plenty of time to rebuild his career. But he’s going to have to go back on the sales floor for awhile before he gets back into management. With all of the turnover that takes place in the NFL coaching ranks every off season, that shouldn’t be much of a problem. Heck, Maurice Carthon is still in the league.

One of the lessons in all of this, of course, is that contract extensions are meaningless, at least from a fan’s perspective. Keep that in mind if Savage ultimately gives one to Crennel. Just as often, it’s the kiss of death, as it was in the case of Grantham.

There is no question that Savage sees, if not greatness, then at least stability in Crennel. But if Crennel is ultimately going to be successful, and one good season is no more of a barometer for him than it is for quarterback Derek Anderson, he is going to have to find a way to stay engaged with all facets of the operation without micromanaging any of them.

One of the most shocking things to come out of the whole Carthon debacle of a year ago was how little interaction Crennel had with the offense at all, which Crennel himself admitted. He was spending far too much time with the defense. If we can read anything into the Grantham affair, it’s that once Grantham was given the extension, Crennel stepped away and let him do his job, only to find the results lacking. If the “inside sources” are to be believed, things only started to show improvement near the end of the season when Crennel reasserted himself more directly in the process. Personally, I think a weak end of the season schedule was far more responsible. But if the inside sources are correct, then whatever that might say about Grantham’s shortcomings, it also highlights a weakness in Crennel as a head coach.

In any case, one of the more interesting subplots to watch next season is the interaction between Crennel and Tucker. If Crennel is going to be successful as a head coach, as compared to the success he knew as a coordinator, he’ll have to find a way to temper his instincts to do the work himself on defense and instead provide overall guidance and leadership while letting Tucker do his job, just as he’s done with offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.

If Crennel needs any proof of that, just look to Brian Billick’s downfall in Baltimore. For awhile, he looked like a genius when he dumped offensive coordinator Jim Fassel part way through last season and took over the play calling responsibility himself. But it really was an act of desperation and when he continued the experiment into this season, his neglect toward the rest of the team showed, in spades. The Ravens were awful in almost every way a team can be.

If Tucker is the right guy for the job, then it will be because he can successfully translate the philosophies of his head coach into on-the-field performance. And if Crennel is the right guy for the job, it will be because he found a way to perform like a head coach and not a coordinator. This season, and the Grantham debacle, shows at the very least that Crennel has more work to do.

As for Crennel’s counterpart in Indianapolis, Tony Dungy, he’ll deny it forever, but in his heart of hearts he has to know that part of the reason his Colts lost to the San Diego Chargers on Sunday was his decision to treat the last regular season game as if it was the fourth game of the preseason. By resting his starters on both offense and defense, Dungy ran the risk that his team would be stale once the playoffs started. It was a risk he shouldn’t have taken.

The time off didn’t seem to have as much of an effect on Peyton Manning and the offense, except when it mattered most at the end of the game, as it did on a Colts defense which was ranked third in the league and had given up the fewest points of any team all season. But whatever the culprit, it was certainly a comeuppance for Dungy and, frankly, was well deserved. And Browns fans should be forgiven if they’re laughing just a bit too loudly at the Colts misfortune.

The fact that the Browns didn’t make the playoffs was their own fault. A victory against Oakland earlier in the season or Cincinnati late would have sealed it. But Dungy letting his team tank the last game of the season so that its divisional compatriots, the Tennessee Titans, could likewise make the playoffs wasn’t helpful either. But no good deed goes unpunished and, as a result, Dungy is left to again answer why one of the most talented teams in the league underachieved. It’s something he should be used to.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Getting Defensive

Because it was the end of the season and because he had to say something, Browns general manager Phil Savage conducted his post-season post-mortem on the state of the Cleveland Browns this past Wednesday. Perhaps the most newsworthy item of all was that there really wasn’t much to report. For a season that started and ended poorly but had a whole bunch of good stuff in the middle, the relative quiet and stability and all the hope that brings for next season was the message that Savage wanted to convey. That lasted exactly two days.

Though there were plenty of opportunities for general manager Phil Savage to address the issue when he met with the media on Wednesday, the Browns chose instead to wait until Friday to announce that defensive coordinator Todd Grantham had been summoned to head coach Romeo Crennel’s office and told to bring his playbook.

The announcement on the Browns web site of course strongly suggests that the decision rested with Crennel as it solely quotes him saying that “following our discussions after the season, it was decided that it was in the best interests of the organization to move in a different direction.” Indeed. Just like it was Crennel’s decision to dump accept the resignation of former offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon. And just like it was Crennel’s decision to hire Rob Chudzinski.

Given that the Browns already had the worst defense in the league, moving in a different direction was a given. The fact that it is without Grantham is a mild surprise, but that’s about it.

What is strange, though, is that Savage didn’t take care of this essentially clean-up item prior to trotting himself out in front of the media just two days earlier. At the very least, this suggests that there is much more to the story. However, don’t look for Grantham to spill the beans, at least not anytime soon. He signed a two-year contract extension last June and it’s likely that his ability to continue to collect on that contract, at least until he gets another job that pays him as much or more, hinges on his being tight-lipped about his parting.

The most likely scenario though is that Grantham and Savage ultimately had a fallout over philosophy, the classic reason for most coaching changes. It would hardly shock if Savage felt that schematically changes had to be made. The defense has clearly deteriorated each year under Grantham. In 2005, it ranked 16th in the league. Last year, it was 27th. This year, it finished 30th, a ranking that is actually aided greatly by the fact that two of the Browns last three games were against the Buffalo Bills and the San Francisco 49ers, two of the worst offenses in the league.

These statistics merely reinforce what was becoming more and more apparent on the field. Defensive backs were simply out of position much of the time and thus prone to giving up the big play. But even that paled in comparison to the consistently awful play of the front seven. The Browns were 28th against the rush and no team around them in that category came close to having a winning record. In other words, it’s reasonable to conclude that Savage felt that the only thing standing between the Browns and the playoffs was a better defense. That’s not completely wrong.

But it wouldn’t shock if Grantham felt that the schemes were less of an issue than the injuries, the fact that the most of the aging veterans Savage signed didn’t work out and an overall lack of talent that Savage otherwise failed to procure. While Savage was spending all of his time and capital on the offense, the defense once again was patched together with used parts purchased with the change found under the seat cushions. With better players, Grantham likely argued, no one would be questioning his schemes. That’s not completely wrong, either.

Given this stalemate of sorts, it probably became clear to Savage in the last day or so that Grantham’s likely desire to stay the course and the Browns stated desire to change the course couldn’t coexist. The general manager is always going to win in that battle, something Crennel himself learned when he decided not to fall on his sword by protecting Carthon last season. Frankly, it’s why Crennel is still with the team.

Another factor that can’t be discounted in this matter is the pending contract extension for Crennel. Whether warranted or not, the fact that it is likely to happen, according to Savage, solidifies Crennel’s position with the team in the near-term. That doesn’t mean that Crennel suddenly became emboldened by his new found status to take a stand against his own hand-picked coordinator. More likely, what it probably means is that Savage essentially used the extension as a way to salve any hurt feelings that Crennel might have over Grantham’s firing.

For Grantham, this certainly was a free-fall from the heady days when he was being considered as a head coaching candidate at his alma mater, Michigan State, and even with the Browns if Crennel didn’t work out. As for who might replace him, there is speculation that Mel Tucker, Jr., the secondary coach, is a likely choice. But if past is prologue, the Browns will look outside, just as they did at the end of last season when Chudzinski was hired instead of elevating Jeff Davidson to the job, even after Davidson essentially performed it after Carthon was fired allowed to resign. And if past is prologue, again, the decision on who to hire will rest solely with Savage with Crennel acting in a consultative role only.

Don’t look for any of this to result in the Browns suddenly dumping the 3-4 defense, Crennel’s signature. What you should look for, though, is the Browns to hire someone whom they feel can better translate Crennel’s defensive philosophy to the players on the field, someone who can ultimately get more out of the likes of Kamerion Wimbley and someone who can, in the end, find a way to get the defense off the field once in awhile.

But even if Savage can indeed find all of that in one person, the job is only half complete. If he fails to turn his attention to fixing this pitiful defense by bringing in better players, then it won’t matter even if Savage can find the reincarnation of Buddy Ryan in his prime. The defense won’t markedly improve and Browns fans will spend another season pulling out whatever hair remains in their heads while Grantham if off resting somewhere pausing once every two weeks or so to cash another of Randy Lerner’s checks, silently smirking.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

The World According to Bill

Losing games is never easy, though no one ever said it would be. Some games are more meaningful than others certainly and thus those losses sting harder and linger longer. All you can really do is try to learn something from the experience and move on. You cannot alter the past only your future. Though that doesn’t mean we don’t try from time to time.

The outpouring of emotion following the Ohio State Buckeyes second consecutive loss in a national championship game is following that natural order of things. It’s been almost a mini version, actually, of Elisabeth K├╝bler-Ross’s five stages of grieving: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, with most fans currently stuck somewhere between denial and anger. The feelings are too raw, apparently, for lessons learned.

There have been postings to the message boards at TheClevelandFan.com that have been all over the map. Almost every body with access to a computer and a forum has weighed in, including, of course, yours truly. Some can’t believe that the Buckeyes laid an egg for two years in a row. Others are simply angry about it and lashing out in every direction. There’s been some transient levels of bargaining and depression but little, to this point, acceptance. Then there’s Bill Livingston.

In Wednesday’s Plain Dealer, Livingston again proves, as if he had to, that while others can have their ups and downs, his ability to be consistently wrong knows no parallel. Rather than put the Buckeyes loss into some sort of perspective or to offer some greater insight (he did attend the game didn’t he?), he instead uses his allocated column space to once again take a hack at one of his favorite targets, Buckeyes coach Jim Tressel.

In Livingston’s world, Tressel is a poser and a phony whose accomplishments are always less than they otherwise appear to be, the latest example being the LSU loss. It’s fine, of course, if Livingston or any other columnist wants to paint a more complete picture of Tressel than some fans who have deified Tressel might want to see. But it’s another thing altogether to simply hack away unfairly.

In this regard, it’s not as if Livingston hasn’t done it before. You can compile a pretty decent size library of Livingston columns about his criticism of Indians manager Eric Wedge, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding. Does it mean that Wedge has done everything right in his tenure of Indians manager? Of course not. But Livingston’s inability to provide perspective or discern trends, which really is the core of his job, is becoming legendary. He’d rather continue to grind the axe he has against Wedge, even at the expense of his own credibility.

Livingston has been on a similar crusade when it comes to Tressel for years. There was the column in November, 2006 (no longer available, mercifully, in the Plain Dealer’s archive) in which Livingston seemed to credit Tressel for successfully making the transition from Division I-AA to Ohio State but really was a vehicle for criticizing Tressel’s supposed inability to discern quarterback talent. He claimed, for example, that Tressel was slow to see Troy Smith’s talent while not acknowledging that Justin Zwick was a much better and higher profile prospect. Smith was a late bloomer, to be sure, who really didn’t come into his own until, under Tressel, he learned to think pass first, run second. (My view on Livingston’s column appears here)

Then there was the column last season (likewise no longer available from the Plain Dealer’s archives) in which Livingston took Tressel to task for not voting in the final USA Today coaches poll as to who should take on the Buckeyes in last year’s national championship game. This was, of course, after Livingston initially came out and supported the move. (My view on this Livingston masterpiece appears here) Straying for from his intended point, Livingston used Tressel’s non-vote as a launching pad for a broader criticism of the coach, implying that his ethics and values were, if not questionable, then at least not where they should be. His chief evidence for this character assassination was the supposedly too soft punishment he leveled on former linebacker Robert Reynolds for a cheap hit in a 2003 game.

Wednesday’s column follows the same worn formula but also reveals more than a touch of inconsistency, demonstrating perhaps that Livingston likewise must not have access to the Plain Dealer’s archives. In it, Livingston uses the loss to LSU as another reason to take down Tressel another peg or two, but not in a way that makes much sense.

First, he basically minimizes the 2002 national championship out of existence by alternatively suggesting it was either unfairly gifted on the heels of a bad interference call or that it was essentially nullified because of Maurice Clarett’s substantial legal troubles since that game. Second, he then subtly suggests that Tressel’s pursuit of Pennsylvania high school wunderkind Terrelle Pryor is an act of desperation, an act that will be further played out if he lands Pryor and then starts him ahead of incumbent quarterback Todd Boeckman.

If you’re having trouble following the logic of that last paragraph, no need to adjust either your minds or your eyes. Only in Livingston’s world would it make sense anyway.

The inconvenient fact remains for Livingston and his ilk that Tressel has won a national championship at Ohio State. That victory, which was every bit as big of an upset as Florida’s victory against Ohio State last year, if not more, isn’t tainted in the least. However you decide to come out on the interference call in overtime, the one thing that can be fairly said is that it was a close call. Maybe the referee should have swallowed his whistle, maybe not. But one thing is certain, that penalty call wouldn’t even make the list of the 50,000 worst calls by officials in sports in the last decade. As for Clarett, the fact that he let his own outsized ego and desperation take hold of him to the point that he committed a crime years after that game doesn’t magically invalidate his performance in that game. To even offer the suggestion, as Livingston does, is as ridiculous as it is bizarre.

As for Tressel’s pursuit of Pryor, Livingston is as off-base as ever, which is a pretty far-reaching statement, actually. Pryor is the consensus number one high school player in the country. He’s number one in every scouting service and was the USA Today high school offensive player of the year. Nearly every coach from across the country has pursued Pryor. Indeed, if Tressel was not doing so, he would be rightly criticized, likely by Livingston.

Further, Livingston’s underlying inference is that Pryor has a shady background or, in Livingston’s words, he’d be a “shortcut” for the program. Exactly, why, however, he doesn’t say, meaning he can’t support it. Pryor did have an incident last fall when he was allegedly given a citation for disorderly conduct for reportedly being “mouthy” with security officers at a Pennsylvania amusement park. But if this sole incident is the basis for Livingston’s implication that Pryor is trouble, then he should just level it and let others make a judgment. Instead, he simply dangles the implication out there that landing the nation’s top high school recruit, who happens to be African-American, would be a “shortcut.” Nice.

The other interesting aspect to Livingston’s criticism is how inconsistent it is with his other column, noted previously, in which he criticized Tressel for not being able to recognize quarterback talent. Anyone who saw Pryor play last Saturday in the U.S. Army High School All American game in San Antonio, a game in which Pryor not only won the MVP award but looked as if he were playing a different game at a different level than anyone else, knows he’s a major talent. Only a fool wouldn’t allow him to compete against the incumbent, whoever it is. If Pryor ends up with the Buckeyes and can overtake both Boeckman and Antonio Henton, then he would deserve to start. Any other decision and you could almost see the next column Livingston would recycle, saying how Tressel can’t properly evaluate talent.

The issue isn’t whether Tressel should be subject to criticism for his performance and that of his team. Even Tressel understands that’s fair game and comes with the territory. The issue really is why the Plain Dealer continues to provide Livingston with a forum to exorcise his personal demons against those with whom he harbors personal jealousy for accomplishing far more. Given the deteriorating quality and readership of the paper, the answer lies in what appears to be the Plain Dealer’s overarching problem, they just don’t care.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Defining Moments

It’s could have been different, it just wasn’t. And as a result, Ohio State finds itself again wondering how they let still another national championship slip away from them.

By this point everyone knows the story of the 2007 game in which an overconfident Buckeyes team was schooled by an upstart, hungry Florida Gators team on its way to a humiliating defeat. Monday night, the Buckeyes weren’t overconfident. They weren’t even favored. Thus the 38-24 loss to LSU wasn’t necessarily humiliating. But after starting the game with so much promise, the Buckeyes went flat in virtually every phase of the game, allowed the LSU Tigers to find their composure, and ultimately took a series of more body blows to their own reputation, that of their coach and, ultimately, to that of the entire Big Ten.

But again, it could have been different, it just wasn’t.

While the second half was essentially even, its story line was mostly secondary. Where the game was really lost was in the first half. While no one play exactly turned the tide in that first half, there were four plays in particular that made a huge difference in the outcome:

1. The Steve Rehring false start on second and five from the Tigers 10-yard line in the first quarter:

At the time the Buckeyes were leading 7-0 and poised to go up 14-0. Quarterback Todd Boeckman had just completed a 44-yard pass to freshman running back Brandon Saine, getting the ball to the Tigers’ 15-yard line. On first down, running back Chris “Beanie” Wells gained five yards, setting up a second down and five at the Tigers 10-yard line. On the next play, Rehring, playing tackle, committed a false start. That play nullified the Wells run and put the Buckeyes into a second and 10. Boeckman got the five yards back on a scramble on second down, but when the Buckeyes couldn’t convert the third-and-four, they settled for a 25-yard Ryan Pretorius field goal to go up 10-0.

It seemed like a great start and it was. But the fact that the Buckeyes weren’t able to take a two-touchdown lead had an impact on the psyche of the Tigers defense, not to mention the Buckeyes game plan. It was early, certainly, but to that point the Tigers had no answer for whatever the Buckeyes were running and another touchdown would have put the Tigers defense on their heels even more than they already were. But the Rehring penalty, a mere five yards, altered the rest of the series dramatically. Two plays to make five yards instead of one are much better odds, particularly the way Wells was running. Holding the Buckeyes to a field goal was a significant psychological boost to a reeling Tigers defense, indeed to the entire Tigers team.

2. The no-holding non-call on the Jacob Hester 20-yard run in the first quarter on the Tigers second possession.

After the Buckeyes had gone up 10-0, the Tigers took over. An important play for the Tigers was the 10-yard Matt Flynn to Early Doucet pass for the Tigers first down that seemed to settle their offense dramatically after the near disaster of the first possession. And as important as this play was, it was the 20-yard run by Hester three plays later that seemed to get the Tigers offense rolling, a run that was aided greatly by when a Tigers player held linebacker James Laurinaitis as Hester sprinted by. Chalk this up if you want to sour grapes, but the hold was blatant. The Tigers player had Laurinaitis by the jersey and you could still see stretched jersey in his hand when Laurinaitis turned toward Hester as he was running right past him. Had the penalty been caught, it would have third down and 17 from the Tigers 26-yard line. Instead it was first and ten at the Ohio State 40-yard line. From there, the Tigers were able to get into field goal range and get on the board, closing the gap to 10-3.

3. The Buckeyes non-recovery of the Chad Jones fumble.

On the very next series, the Buckeyes were forced to punt from their own 42-yard line, a chance to pin LSU deep into its own territory. Punter A. J. Trapasso complied with a 50-yard punt that was fielded by Jones at the Tigers 8-yard line. A few missed tackles later and Jones was now at the Tigers 16-yard line, where he fumbled. Though several Buckeyes seemed to have the best opportunity to recover, it was the Tigers’ Harry Coleman who did recover. It would have been a crucial turnover that at worse would have put the Buckeyes back up by 10.

Perhaps buoyed by their good fortune, the Tigers moved the ball down right down the field assisted in no small measure by two Buckeyes personal fouls—the late hit out of bounds by Donald Washington, which looked questionable on the replay, and a Laurinaitis face-mask on receiver Demetrius Byrd that took the ball down to the Buckeyes 13-yard line. Immediately following the Laurinaitis penalty, the Tigers completely fooled the Buckeyes by sending four receivers out right and then throwing to tight end Richard Dickson on the left, who was completely unguarded, for a 13-yard touchdown. Suddenly, a game that the Buckeyes could have been leading by 10 was now tied.

In a way, the failure to recover the fumble was similar to the Browns Daven Holley failing to recover the fumble on the opening kickoff against the Cincinnati Bengals in the Browns second to last game. In each case, a turnover deep in the opponent’s territory at that particular moment easily could have sent those opponents reeling. Instead they were both missed opportunities that would haunt each team—Ohio State and Cleveland—well after the final gun sounded.

4. The dropped touchdown pass by Brian Robiskie.

Immediately following the Tigers touchdown, the Buckeyes appeared to have re-grouped. Wells peeled off a 29-yard run, Boeckman completed a 19-yard pass to Robiskie and in two plays the Buckeyes already were at the LSU 28. On the next play, Brian Hartline committed a personal foul that took the ball back to the LSU 43, but Boeckman hooked up with Saine for a 22-yard play that made it third down and three yards to go from the LSU 21. Eschewing a chance for the first down, Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressel called for a pass down the left side to Robiskie. It was the right call. Boeckman lobbed the ball in perfectly to the usually sure-handed Robiskie. But in what was probably the signature play for missed chances, Robiski lost the handle on the ball and so too did the Buckeyes on an opportunity to go back up by seven.

The situation was further exacerbated when Pretorius’ 38-yard field goal was blocked on the next play. The Tigers recovered at their own 34-yard line and immediately went down the field and scored on a 10-yard Flynn to Brandon LaFall touchdown. In but a few minutes time, the Buckeyes went from possibly being up by seven to being down by seven. It was from this 14-point turnaround from which the Buckeyes didn’t recover.

There were a host of additional plays thereafter that also could have made a difference but didn’t, either. Two plays come immediately to mind. First, after the LaFall touchdown was there anything more predictable than the Boeckman interception that followed on the next series? It was the perfect bookend to a momentum swing that had been officially completed. But the aggravating aspect of that interception wasn’t so much Boeckman’s throw as it was Ray Small’s failure to fight the Tigers’ Chevis Jackson for the ball. It appeared that both players had their hands on it but it was Jackson who clearly wanted it more than Small at that point. At the very least, Small should have broken up the play.

The other came early in the second half. The Tigers took the opening kickoff and were moving it until defensive lineman Vernon Gholston sacked Flynn on second down. The 15-yard loss, which included an intentional grounding penalty on Flynn, made it third down and 23 yards to go. The Buckeyes held but on the punt, reserve linebacker Austin Spitler broke through and was in position to block the punt, only to miss and run into the kicker. The personal foul gave the Tigers the ball back, another personal foul, this time on Cameron Hayward, gave the Tigers good field position and they went down and scored, pushing the game to 31-10. At that point, whatever glimmer of hope remained for the Buckeyes was quashed.

Losses are always the sum of their parts and Monday certainly was no exception. And while the media will excoriate the Buckeyes, Tressel and the Big Ten, the truth is that the Buckeyes lost not because they were slower than their SEC counterparts or even because they were necessarily outcoached. It’s not even clear that LSU is a superior team, the final score notwithstanding. The Buckeyes lost not because they were dominated statistically (they weren’t), but because they failed to execute when it mattered most—in those seemingly few small plays that end up defining a game.

For now and again it’s back to the drawing board for the Buckeyes. They’ll recover from the loss, mainly because at its core the Buckeyes program is as solid as it’s been at any time in their long, storied history. But unless the Buckeyes can go undefeated next year, or even the year after, which would mean wins against USC during the regular season, they won’t come close to sniffing another national championship game unless every other team in the country has at least three losses. Even then it’s questionable. But they have only themselves to blame. It’s what happens when you’re given the national stage twice and squander it.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Negotiation 101

The first step in getting someone to buy what you’re selling is to blur the distinction between their wants and their needs. The principle applies whether you’re selling cars or toothpaste. Or football coaches.

Sports agent Joe Linta, who just a few years ago was peddling stocks and bonds for Prudential Securities, is now peddling football players and coaches to NFL executives. On that score, he’s like a thousand others. But in this case, he also represents Browns head coach Romeo Crennel, who still has two years left on the last contract he signed. Linta has spent the last few days trying to convince Browns general manager Phil Savage that the Browns shouldn’t just want Crennel under contract for an additional three years, they really need it.

According to a story that made the rounds in the Plain Dealer on Friday, the Browns and Linta supposedly were in on-going talks on an extension for Crennel. Linta told Mary Kay Cabot “the talks were very positive. I really believe [Browns owner] Randy Lerner will want to make Romeo the face of the franchise for the next five years. Hopefully we can work toward that end.”

But in a story on Saturday by Marla Ridenour in the Akron Beacon Journal, Linta denied such talks are on-going. According to Linta this time, he did call the Browns, but not to discuss an extension. Instead, the call, he said :…would be akin to an end-of-the-year evaluation meeting, not necessarily talking about football. '”Nobody said anything about a three-year deal. It was an inquiry from me to see where we stand, 'Let's evaluate this three years into it.’”

Given that Cabot’s story appeared before Ridenour’s the most plausible explanation is that Linta used Cabot as a pawn in his efforts to manufacture sudden interest in his client. It wouldn’t be the first time that an agent used a pliable and gullible member of the media to further the interests of his client.

If you parse Linta’s quote to Cabot closely, which neither Cabot nor her editors apparently did, Linta doesn’t actually claim that he and the Browns were engaged in contract extension talks, though he implies it mightily. What he does is say specifically is that he spoke with the Browns, though about what he carefully didn’t say, probably because he wasn’t asked. Then he says he believes Lerner will want to make Crennel the face of the franchise and concludes with a hope that the two sides can work toward that end. You can see the “if dog, rabbit” logic Cabot used when writing her story, but again Linta doesn’t actually claim there were any talks of a contract extension. He just let Cabot conclude as much and run with it, which she did.

And for a day, Cabot’s story had legs, was all over the internet, and made its way eventually to talk radio on Friday night, where Mark “Munch” Bishop and his guest, former Browns offensive lineman Jim Pyne, implored Savage to indeed make Crennel the face of the franchise because of the positive message it would send to potential free agents about the stability in Cleveland. Bishop then told touching stories of the many unnamed Browns players he spoke to who simply well up when they speak of their love for Crennel and what a swell coach he’s been. Why Bishop wouldn’t name the players involved is a different issue for another day. But Bishop’s testimonial was then followed by the carefully screened callers who, too, talked about the great job that Crennel has done with the team.

At this point it would seem that Linta had done his job well. Now all that was left was for Savage to take the bait and get a deal done with Crennel right now.

Ridenour wasn’t so easily fooled. She contacted Linta (side note: agents are never hard to find when they are trying to make money) and must have asked him directly whether he and the Browns actually had a specific conversation about extending Crennel’s contract. To that, Linta had to admit that no, he and the Browns hadn’t had such talks but he sure as heck thinks they should because that would make the Browns look “rock solid” to potential free agents. Oops.

Ridenour then apparently asked Linta if he was the source of the Crennel-to-Miami rumors that just happened to precede the Crennel contract extension story. He told Ridenour “it would have been a great rumor for me to plant. I wish I could take credit for it.” Not exactly a denial, particularly considering how Linta likes to insinuate one thing when the truth is something else. In other words, it’s probably safe to assume that Linta either directly or through someone in his fledging JL Sports agency is indeed the source of that rumor which, just coincidentally, was first reported by another member of the Cleveland media, Tony Rizzo.

Putting this all together, it seems like Negotiation for Dummies by a ham-handed practioner, and it still worked, at least somewhat. The Browns finish 10-6 but missed the playoffs. Fans are strangely thrilled with another season watching others play for the Super Bowl. Rizzo gets a “hot tip” from an unnamed source that new Miami Dolphins president Bill Parcells is interested in Crennel (if only that were true!). That rumor is picked up by ProFootballTalk.com, a gossipy web site that allegedly is read by NFL executives but is surely read by others in the media. Suddenly, it’s a national story, big surprise. Next, Crennel’s agent surfaces to imply that the Browns and Crennel are talking extension, the not so subtle further implication being that Savage is so concerned about Parcells stealing his coach that he needs to get a deal done now. The local media gets into a further feeding frenzy and the next thing you know there is such a groundswell of support for Crennel that it would seem foolish for Savage not to extend Crennel’s contract.

Too bad that Ridenour had to come along and throw cold water on this all. To that point this whole thing was following pretty much the story line from the brilliant little movie, “For Your Consideration” in which a technician on a movie set tells an actress that he heard from his girlfriend who supposedly saw a story on the internet that someone who had visited the movie set saw the actress’s performance and it was “Oscar worthy.” The press agent for the film latches on to the story tells another and another and suddenly there is Oscar buzz in Hollywood among the media about the movie itself and each and every actor in it. It builds to the point where there is talk that the movie itself, which was retooled in response to the Oscar buzz, would get a Best Picture nod. In the end, there was nothing much to any of it, the film is ignored and so too was the actress.

In the end, there really isn’t much to this Crennel extension story, either. It’s all pretty petty stuff really but it is nonetheless fascinating to see the inertia that can be created through a little media manipulation by an agent whose only real concern is to make money for his client and for himself. Blaming Linta for acting like an agent would be like blaming a snake for slithering. That doesn’t excuse the local media for its part in facilitating what is essentially a non-story, Ridenour excepted, nor should it obscure the bottom line reality in all of it: an extension of Crennel’s contract at this point is premature at best.

Just because Linta claims Crennel would be a lame duck with only two years on his contract doesn’t make it so. Crennel with one year left on his contract wouldn’t make him a lame duck, either. All it really means is that the team is taking a wait-and-see approach, which seems about the right thing to do with a coach who is averaging less than seven wins a season in his three years in charge. Besides, if contract length meant anything, Brian Billick would still be the head coach in Baltimore. Last season he was rewarded with a four-year extension and was fired this year after going 5-11.

The other thing to keep in mind is that professional football players really do understand that they are in a business and not just a sport. Coaches getting hired and fired is all just part of the job. Nobody likes the uncertainty that instability at the top creates, but when it comes to professional ball players with relatively short careers, money is far more important. Put it this way, for every free agent who claims he signed with a team because the head coach is supposedly firmly established, there is an equal and opposite number who signs with a franchise that just fired its head coach because it represents a new start and new direction. In other words, it’s about the money.

Linta has a vested interest in extolling Crennel’s virtues and hiding his flaws. But if it was prudent for Savage not to fire Crennel after last season’s 4-12 debacle, it’s just as prudent for Savage not to get overly jazzed about this year’s 10-6 season either. Somewhere between these two seemingly opposite results is an underlying truth about Crennel’s abilities as a head coach. If Randy Lerner is really as smart as Linta claims, then letting the truth about Crennel be revealed over its more natural course is what actually serves the Browns interests far more than getting caught up in the manufactured hype of an agent. It also is likely to save Lerner a pile of money.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

The Edge of Emotion

There is a palpable sense of dread in the air as the Buckeyes begin their final preparations for Monday night’s BCS national championship game. It’s the kind of dread that most Cleveland fans certainly recognize having lived with the “please don’t let my team lose another big game” feeling most of their lives.

Call it a hangover from brutal 41-14 loss to the Florida Gators if you want, but it’s also fueled by a sense, largely unspoken among Buckeyes fans anyway, that this year’s Buckeyes team is not worthy of its current status and thus it’s bound to disappoint.

When half a season often passes between the last game of the regular season and the beginning of the bowl season, particularly the BCS bowls, whatever momentum that existed has long since been stilled. But if the Buckeyes do lose on Monday, it won’t likely be a question of talent. More likely it will be their inability, once again, to find the emotional edge that is often the difference in these college bowl games.

Consider this year’s bowl season. Start with the Rose Bowl. USC ran roughshod over Illinois egged on mainly by a lingering feeling that it had the best team in the nation this year but was thrown off track by injuries. The Illini, on the other hand, seemed to lack any emotion whatsoever. Surprised as anyone at how their season turned out, the Illini never expected to be in the Rose Bowl in the first place and played like it. They brought a wide-eyed sense of optimism but not much else and the 49-17 final score aptly reflected the emotional gulf between the two teams on Tuesday.

The Georgia/Hawaii game went much the same way. Georgia had been reeling since it was rightly snubbed for the BCS championship game. Their argument, with some appeal if not merit, was that they were more highly rated than LSU and thus should have been the SEC team that benefited when Missouri lost to Oklahoma and Pittsburgh beat West Virginia at season’s end. At the time, Georgia was number four in the rankings and LSU was seventh. But with LSU playing in and winning the SEC Championship against Tennessee while Georgia was sitting at home, the victim of having lost to both South Carolina and Tennessee earlier in the season, the pollsters ultimately determined that the rankings were just wrong and pushed LSU to number two and into the BCS title game.

This slight, perceived at best, was more than enough against a Hawaii team that looked like it would struggle against the MAC champion. Hawaii, another Western Athletic Conference champ like Boise State last year, may have had a little Boise State sort of edge about them entering the game, but that was hardly enough to overcome a bigger, stronger Georgia team with a bigger, stronger emotional edge. It showed in the 41-10 score.

The same story line continued on Wednesday night in the Fiesta Bowl. Despite having essentially been humiliated by a supposedly lesser opponent in Boise State the year before, the Oklahoma Sooners learned nothing from that experience. Instead, for the second straight year they walk away from a BCS game suffering another really bad loss.

It would have appeared entering the game that Oklahoma, like Georgia, had developed a chip on its shoulder about being left out of the national championship game. But whatever edge that perceived slight created was more than dulled by the self-inflicted perception that the Moutaineers would be little competition, reeling as they were from first suffering a crippling loss to a really bad Pittsburgh team, and second having lost the oily and overrated Rich Rodriguez as their head coach, a loss that has been controversial to say the least.

Meanwhile the Mountaineers, under a well liked interim coach practically begging for the job permanently (which he got) found a way to channel their rage and frustration against an Oklahoma team that should have known better but didn’t. From the first snap to the last play and the four hours in between, the Mountaineers literally ran the Sooners ragged, drilling them 48-28.

Even the Capitol One Bowl match up between Florida and Michigan followed much the same script. Florida was the fat and happy squad with the Heisman Trophy winner and the arrogant swagger of a team that figured once it showed up, its Big Ten opponent would crumble, kind of like Ohio State last year in the BCS national championship game, despite Florida already having lost three times this season.

The overmatched Michigan Wolverines, reeling from a season of coaching missteps and blown opportunities, were lucky to make it to a New Year’s Day bowl game at all. Added to the mix was a retiring coach who seems more beloved now than he ever did and an opportunistic third choice coach-in-waiting hovering over the proceedings like a kid waiting for his parents to leave on vacation already so he can drive the ‘vette.

But on the way to cementing his status as the latest genius, Florida head coach Urban Meyer couldn’t find a way to solve a Michigan offense that could only get 91 yards against Ohio State. As a result, he and his vaunted Gators, the beasts of the SEC and clearly faster and better than any team ever in the history of the Big Ten, found themselves on the losing end of a game in which they were the recipients of four Michigan turnovers.

The difference maker, obviously, was emotion. The Wolverines, with aspirations for a national championship before the season started, found themselves without anything much to play for after the season’s first game. But given a chance to send Lloyd Carr solidly into retirement with a warm and fuzzy feeling, not to mention the chance to lance the boils of big game failures by the likes of Chad Henne and Mike Hart, the Wolverines overcame a litany of poor tackling, dropped passes and turnovers early in the game to suddenly dominate when the game mattered most—in the fourth quarter.

The Buckeyes can choose to learn the lessons of these games by osmosis or can simply take a look at the film of their game against Florida last year. The beating they and the program took should be lesson enough as to exactly how much of a part emotion plays in the outcome. Many of the Buckeyes who played in last year’s game now admit they had lost their edge somewhere between the thrilling victory against Michigan and the improbable run and minor controversy that resulted in Florida getting into the game. The Buckeyes were heavily favored, had every accolade to enjoy and felt that they couldn’t be beat.

Florida, guided by Meyer, used the Buckeye’s arrogance against them to develop an underdog mentality that had, as its goal, proving that they not only belonged on the same field with the Buckeyes, but that they could beat the Buckeyes. When Ted Ginn, Jr. returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, it turned out to be the worst thing that could happen to the Buckeyes, and not simply because Ginn got hurt. The Buckeyes falsely assumed the rest of the game would be a similar cakewalk all the while the Gators were planning their revenge, which they ultimately extracted in spades.

The real question facing the Buckeyes on Monday is how they will use last year’s loss and their underdog status, despite their ranking. Can head coach Jim Tressel funnel it into intensity, concentration and execution or will the team succumb to the weight of expectations? Certainly Tressel has been trying to pull the right levers on this score, even to the point of having a DVD made of all the negative things being said about the Buckeyes nationally. But will it be enough?

Last year’s loss was as much a psychological blow to the Buckeyes program as it was to the Big Ten overall and also hurt Tressel’s reputation, whether or not it should have. A win cures all. That won’t happen, however, if the Buckeyes and Tressel cannot find enough in this entire emotional quagmire to create a razor-sharp edge. And if they cannot, that dread fans are feeling now will continue unabated because the bashing they’ve been currently taking, as painful as it’s been for Buckeye fans, will turn out to be well deserved. And nothing hurts worse than the truth.