Friday, February 27, 2009

Lingering Items--Disgruntled Edition

Shaun Rogers is unhappy and somewhere a Detroit Lions fan is smiling. So is a New York Jets fan.

If reports are true then Rogers, a Pro Bowl defensive lineman acquired last year in a trade with the Lions, is unhappy about perceived snubs at the hands of new head coach Eric Mangini. He’s also apparently miffed about a memo he (and presumably others) received about the team’s upcoming workouts in mid-March. Rogers, a player who always has teetered on this side or that of being overweight, was told to make sure he reports for the workouts at his playing weight. Rogers supposedly is upset because he managed to stay on the right side of the weight line all last season while putting together one of the few bright spot seasons for the team.

If anyone is surprised at this development, they shouldn’t be. In the first place, and without trying to be overly technical in the analysis, Rogers is a whiner. He comes by his nickname, Big Baby, honestly. The term often used for players like Rogers is that he “wore out his welcome.” The problem in Detroit, actually, was not so much that he wore it out but that he forced the issue, a problem that ultimately will surface in Cleveland.

Rogers was a key reason why the Lions got off to a 6-2 start in 2007. He was also a key reason the Lions cratered in the second half and didn’t make the playoffs. Rogers, reportedly overweight and disgruntled, spent the second half sleepwalking. It’s not clear what set him off then but maybe it had something to do with not having enough whipped cream for his ho-hos. Whatever it was, though, it grew to the point that the Lions felt that his leaving would be addition by subtracting. So did the fans.

Now the Lions don’t necessarily have the best track record when it comes to making personnel decisions, so it was easy to conclude that this was at least as much a Lions issue as a Rogers issue. And what is it that they always say when someone has “worn out his welcome?” Oh, yea, all he needs is a “change of scenery.”

Rogers got that in Cleveland and responded under the gentle hand of former Browns’ head coach Romeo Crennel. All seemed well enough, in fact, until Crennel was fired and Mangini hired. To say that Mangini carries with him a much different reputation for interpersonal relationships than Crennel does is a tad understated, which is why the Jets fans that wanted Mangini fired are smiling as well. In their view, if not Rogers it would have been someone else. Mangini carries with him that same chip that his mentor Bill Belichick still does. Not having ever played in the league themselves, they overcompensate by constantly reminding everyone around that they are in charge.

The grapevine is as alive and well in the locker rooms of the NFL as it is in your office. Well before Mangini ordered the first can of paint for the Berea offices, Rogers and the rest of the squad had their version of the inside scoop on him. It’s in that context that the rest of the story must be viewed.

Rogers’ first non-encounter with his new head coach came at a charity function in Cleveland. Both Rogers and Mangini were present, reportedly almost physically ran into each other, but neither bothered to acknowledge the other. In what appears to have been a bit of a Mexican standoff by way of middle school girl sleepover drama, both took the attitude, “you first.” For two people with a high recognition need, it was the most volatile mix possible. Not surprisingly, neither went first and the snub was on.

By the time Abby passed a note to Cassie in study hall, Shaun and Eric were like totally not talking to each other. Then Shaun, he was, like, in Berea and, so, like, Eric he was there too but he acted like, you know, he didn’t know Shuan was there and he goes, he goes, like, “I’m not gonna say hi if he’s not gonna say hi” and so Shaun he just gets all like mad and stuff cause Eric didn’t stop by and so he leaves and Eric, he’s like, “hey, I’m the boss here, he should come and see me.” And then Eric he was gonna, like, you know, text Shaun and see if they could hang later but Shaun just got his new iPhone and changed his number and totally didn’t even give it to Eric, which was kind of mean. So now they’re both just totally off the reservation about this.

The chances of the Browns simply releasing Rogers are about 9.7 million to one. That’s the size impact releasing Rogers would have on the team’s salary cap. But just because they won’t release him doesn’t mean that this problem won’t linger below the surface and raise its ugly head from time to time. At some point, Mangini and Rogers will put their school girl theatrics aside and meet like adults. Predictably they’ll emerge from the meeting having “cleared the air.” Rogers will vow to give his all for the team and profess how much he likes playing in Cleveland. All will be well.

But there will come a point in the season where this wound will reopen. With Rogers, it’s a pattern. He likes to be coddled. He’ll mope and maybe dog it a bit just like he did in Detroit until he gets his way. Mangini will throw down his own gauntlet and the game will be on once again. Mangini is building a track record but Rogers already has one. They don’t call him Big Baby because he’s just a lovable overgrown kid.


Speaking of disgruntled, Kellen Winslow, Jr. is headed to Tampa Bay in return for some draft picks. According to reports, he garnered a second round pick this year and a fifth round pick next year. So much for anyone’s pipe dream that it involved a first round pick.

That Winslow was traded hardly qualifies as a shocker, though some are portraying it that way. Winslow wasn’t necessarily unhappy in Cleveland, though he was wildly unhappy with former general manager Phil Savage. What he was unhappy about was his contract status and employed the one agent more than any other, Drew Rosenhaus, likely to exploit that status.

Rosenhaus trolls for other agent’s clients by promising them the moon and the stars. There isn’t a contract that Rosenhaus ever felt shouldn’t be renegotiated. The minute a Rosenhaus client puts together a decent half of football, Rosenhaus is on the phone to the general manager asking for a renegotiation. Thus, the minute Winslow hired Rosenhaus before last season, you could have circled this day on the calendar.

Winslow is under contract until 2010. There was some concern that Rosenhaus might try to have Winslow hold out last season but that subsided. It didn’t, however, disappear. Had Winslow stayed, the chances of his holding out for a better deal were extremely high. Rosenhaus, too, has a track record as do his clients. If there’s a hold out, the odds are high it’s a Rosenhaus client.

But the Winslow contract situation has always been complicated. In the first place, Winslow caused his own problems by foolishly attempting to ride a stunt motorcycle as if that were his profession. He cost himself more than just a season. The injuries and the resulting staph infection still plague him. He’ll never be able to fulfill the promise of his talent as a result.

Although Savage could have rescinded Winslow’s contract because of the nature of the injuries, he chose instead to force upon him a very club-friendly renegotiation. In truth, Winslow had no choice but to accept that outcome. Not knowing whether he would ever really be able to play again, Winslow simply couldn’t risk being cut and taking an injury settlement. It would have been difficult to catch on with another team at anything approaching the same price.

Savage got his way but it caused some hard feelings with Winslow. From Winslow’s standpoint, it was pretty understandable. The Browns took advantage when the situation was in their favor. Why shouldn’t Winslow do likewise? Once Winslow returned from injuries and put together, for example, a Pro Bowl season in 2007, he felt that he had re-earned the salary he gave up. Savage didn’t see it that way and refused to renegotiate.

Eventually, the hard feelings the contract situation were causing blew up in the middle of last season when Savage oddly had Winslow suspended for a game for complaining about the number of staph infections Browns’ players have suffered. Savage had to rescind the suspension and was forced by owner Randy Lerner to apologize. Savage gave that his usual half-hearted best. Winslow, understandably, continued to stew even as he publicly said all the right things.

Winslow had a reputation for being a hot head coming out of the University of Miami, but in truth he was mostly a model citizen while in Cleveland despite possessing an ego that exceeded his accomplishments. He worked hard to rehabilitate. He was, as coaches like to say, a “warrior” on the field. He played hurt. Donte Stallworth he was not.

That Winslow was traded probably isn’t a case of his “wearing out his welcome” in Cleveland. He had no history with Mangini or general manager George Kokinis to suggest that. In fact, Savage’s departure probably was good news in Camp Winslow.

Instead, this is one trade you can probably take mostly at face value: an effort to trade an injury-plagued player for some lost draft choices. But before anyone gets all excited, keep it in perspective. If this trade has anything more than a minimal impact on the team’s success or lack thereof next season, that would be the shock in this whole matter.

With Winslow gone, the Browns basically have three tight ends still on the roster, Steve Heiden, Martin Tucker and Darnell Dinkins. Of the three, Heiden is clearly the most talented. While not nearly as athletic as Winslow or as fast, he is sure handed and is a better blocker than Winslow. Tucker is still mostly an unknown commodity. Savage was a big fan, Crennel and former offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski were not. Dinkins is a role player, nothing more.

The guess is that the Mangini and Kokinis will add at least one more tight end, either through free agency or in the draft. Heiden, as serviceable as he’s been, has had his share of injuries as well. If Mangini ends up having the same view of Tucker as did Crennel, then look for the Browns to add two more tight ends. But in any case, given the other glaring holes in this team, filling these slots will fall well down on the priority list.


Given all the drama taking place in Berea this week, this week’s question to ponder: On which HBO series is Eric Mangini more likely to pop up on next, “Hard Knocks” or “In Treatment?”

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Cutting the Right Corners

Cleveland Indians’ general manager Mark Shapiro often comes across as the kind of guy that likes a good inspirational quip. It wouldn’t be a surprise if on the wall of his office were frames of pictures of hard working but generic-looking athletes with phrases underneath such as “It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up” or “The more I practice, the luckier I get.” But the one phrase likely not on that wall but which probably should be is the one that seems to be guiding this year’s version of the Indians is “cut enough corners, sooner or later you’ll pay the price.”

Anyone following the arc of the Indians has seen an interesting, some would say disturbing, pattern in which the team is really good one year and really bad the next. It’s as if every time Shapiro gets his team to take one step forward, it rewards him by taking one step back the next. If this is a pattern, then 2009 should be a big year. Whether it will be or not will really depend on how well Shapiro has learned from his corner-cutting ways.

Toiling as the general manager for an undercapitalized team in a market as hit hard by the economy as any, Shapiro’s job has always been a challenge. He could continue to field one cheaply built team after another, hope to get lucky once every decade or so, and then go about making excuses as to why his team again finished at the bottom of the division. The good thing about Shapiro is that he’s always accepted the cards he’s been dealt since he was handed the general manager’s job. Rather than complain about always getting a two of spades and a three of clubs as his hole cards, he stays in the game and tries to find a way to draw to an inside straight.

The bad thing about Shapiro, though, is that at times he serves as his biggest fan. Having drawn to that inside straight a few times, it’s almost as if he’s come to believe he can do it on command. Take last season as the prime example. Intellectually, he had to have been worried about two things: Travis Hafner and Joe Borowski. But at some point between budget meetings and prioritizing the team’s needs, he convinced himself that it wasn’t a question of “if” with regard to either but “when.” It was a bad play.

Last year’s team, attempting to build on the success of the previous season, fell apart for two reasons. First, when it mattered most early in the season the offense was awful. The injury to Victor Martinez was unanticipated and certainly was a factor. But the far bigger problem was the hole in the lineup that Hafner had become in 2007. Last season was no better. Hafner not only didn’t regain form he arguably made his situation worse by apparently trying to play through a shoulder injury that ultimately required extensive surgery.

Second, and at least as important, was the disaster in the bullpen. There were many culprits, of course, but none bigger was Shapiro pinning his hopes on Borowski. Given the teams’ economic circumstances, what Shapiro did was understandable. He was trying to save budget dollars in the bullpen and convinced himself that he could squeeze another magical season out of Borowski’s arm. There were plenty of warning signs that Borowski’s 2007 season was more illusion than reality and Shapiro at times had to think the same thing. But that didn’t stop him from seeing if that well still had some crude left in it. It didn’t.

As fans and critics, we often end up focusing too often on the mistakes that get made. But give Shapiro credit. He realized that cutting corners on the bullpen caught up with him and went about doing something about it this season by signing, at a relatively steep price, closer Kerry Wood. It’s a gamble, but it is more in the context of Shapiro holding his two of spades and three of clubs while seeing that the first three cards in the flop are a five of diamonds, a six of hearts and a seven of clubs. Waiting to see what happens on the turn and the river doesn’t seem like a bad play.

The other encouraging piece in all of this is that Shapiro no longer seems to be trying to play an impossible hand when it comes to Hafner. By the time Hafner was shut down last season, he had become a black hole in the lineup. When Victor Martinez likewise turned up injured, the offense lost its bearings.

But slowly and surely, the offense regained its footing in the second half, thanks, for example, to the emergence of Kelly Shoppach and a better second half by Ryan Garko. Right now, Hafner is well into the category of “didn’t he use to be somebody?” The upsides on the “if” questions with Hafner are the same as they were last year, but the key difference is that exhibition baseball has begun and no one seems to have moved Hafner out of the “if” category.

The downside, of course, is that despite the fact that Shapiro enters the season with his eyes wide open on Hafner, his presence in the lineup does alter the mix that was working effectively at the end of last season. When the Indians’ offense finally did regain its bearings last year, it did it in a way that was mostly contrary to how it fielded teams in the past. While not reduced to the mode of constantly trying to manufacture runs, the Indians offense also didn’t really feature those one or two big bats that had been the hallmark of this team for the last 10-15 years. Instead, it relied then as it does now, on players who can consistently get on base and have some pop. Hafner is part of that mix, out of necessity only.

While Hafner used to be a feared power hitter who could consistently get on base, he’s not that guy right now. This, again, is where corners got cut. That isn’t necessarily a criticism, at least of Shapiro. Simply put, Shapiro doesn’t have the budget luxury of taking care of every problem every year. By devoting the money to Wood, and already having a lot of money sunk into Hafner Shapiro was forced to forego finding someone to take Hafner’s place in the same way that Wood replaced Borowski and the cadre of pretenders that stepped in when Borowski flamed out.

What would be a surprise, though, is if this cut corner comes back to bite Shapiro like the one he made last season with respect to the bullpen. There’s always a chance that Shoppach’s 2008 will represent his high-water mark and that Garko simply isn’t ever going to be consistent enough, but there are enough other track records in the lineup and enough talent in the wings to make this an acceptable risk.

Shapiro may see himself more a risk manager than the professional gambler that he’s actually become. In truth there is very little difference between the two. Success in either comes down to the ability to learn from your mistakes just as success this season comes down to whether Shapiro has correctly played the lessons he’s learned. It’s very early in the game, but the results thus far are encouraging.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Lingering Items--Combine Edition

It’s fair to say that it’s been a busy few months for Cleveland Browns head coach, Eric Mangini. First he was dumped, some say unceremoniously, from the New York Jets just days after the regular season ended. Then, almost just as quickly, he was hired by Browns’ as owner Randy Lerner saw him as the perfect blend of experience and hunger to lead the latest franchise resurrection. Since then Mangini’s been busy putting his fingerprints all over Berea while pondering just how to prioritize the Browns’ makeover. In the meantime he’s spent some time paying homage to the mentor he no longer speaks to, Bill Belichick, by cultivating his own image as a media curmudgeon who likewise has perfected the art of talking while saying nothing.

Thus it is with some surprise that Mangini is being taken to task by Mike Florio of for doing something that seems so out of character—talking. According to Florio, Mangini’s public statements about the Browns’ interest in New York Giants free-agent-to-be Derrick Ward could possibly be considered tampering. The theory is that Ward, part of the Giants’ running-back-by-committee, isn’t free to negotiate with other teams until free agency begins on February 27. Until that time the Giants have the exclusive right to negotiate with him. By Mangini expressing his interest, he’s arguably upped the price the Giants might have to pay to retain Ward.

In a technical sense, Florio has a point. As a practical matter, the chances of the league considering this kind of relatively innocuous public comment as tampering is as thin as the Browns’ 2009 Super Bowl chances. Decent running backs are always in demand, something both the Giants and Ward’s agents already know. Besides, if the Giants are really worried about losing Ward, they can slap a franchise tag on him and be done with it.

Still, this bit of “inside football” that Mangini engaged in does have the chance of coming back to bite him, eventually. That’s assuming, of course, the Browns ever have potential free agents that are in demand by other teams. If/when that happens, it would surprise no one if the Giants, or some other team, return the favor by dropping a similar vial of blood into the shark-infested waters the media swims in by expressing their interest in a Browns’ free agent. And just as the Giants aren’t really making much of Mangini’s comments about Ward, it will be up to Mangini to take the high road then as well, knowing that loose lips, deliberate or otherwise, may not sink ships but ultimately they will cost you money.


One of the great things about combine week in the NFL is how overheated the stories become on a daily basis. Not an hour goes by when someone isn’t talking about some college player whose stock has risen and another whose stock has taken a dive based on something that happened at the combine.

What fans need to remember most, however, is to take all of this with a 55-gallon drum full of salt. The combine is far less about actually taking the measure of players and far more about giving teams a forum to spread as much disinformation as possible about their plans. That the teams do this on the back of college kids may be a bit unseemly, but as Hyman Roth would say, “this is the business we chose.”

If you follow the stories just this week about the Browns, they plan on taking a linebacker, or maybe a defensive end, or just maybe a right tackle. Running back intrigues them. They plan on keeping quarterback Derek Anderson, or maybe they’ll trade him for draft picks. Josh Cribbs may move to safety or maybe running back. Sean Jones is a player the Browns like or maybe they don’t.

In other words, the charade the Browns are perpetrating in Indianapolis is a variation of the same game being played by the other 31 teams in the league. There simply is no way to discern what either Mangini or general manager George Kokinis may be thinking based either on what they do or what they say in Indianapolis.

Far more instructive is discerning Mangini’s tendencies and this team’s needs. In this case, they more or less fit hand in glove. Mangini will build this team from the defense on out and in much the same way he watched Belichick build his teams. When it comes to offense, he’ll concentrate first and foremost on the line.

That means that Mangini wants versatile defensive backs. A one-dimensional safety will have no room in Mangini’s defense. It also means that he will want to find a linebacker that can do all the things that a player like Mike Vrabel in New England does for the Patriots. Speed will trump size. Mangini also likes big strong athletes on his defensive and offensive lines. He took former Ohio State Buckeye Vernon Gholston to do that job last year on defense, and former Buckeye Nick Mangold the year before to do that on the offensive line. He also signed Alan Faneca from the Steelers as well. That means overweight space eaters on either side of the ball better find another team.

Thus, if you’re handicapping this year’s draft and free agency sweepstakes and you remember even for a second the huge gaps this team has before it can field a credible 3-4 defense, then forget the receivers and running backs (sorry, Beanie, though you’d look great in a Browns uniform) and focus more on Aaron Curry, Rey Maualuga, Clay Matthews, Jr. and even James Laurinaitis. Mangini may be tempted to zag when everyone expects him to zig, but this is hardly the year to be clever. Mangini and Kokinis need to be right and with the linebacker prospects out there, it affords them the opportunity to be both safe and right, which is never a bad thing.


It was interesting to hear that Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli heaped enthusiastic praise on new Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz at the combine on Saturday. According to Marla Ridenour in the Akron Beacon Journal, Pioli said “Schwartzie is probably one of the smartest people I’ve encountered in this business or outside this business. He’s brilliant. He’s a guy who is really, really hardworking, motivated, strong personality. Tough-minded….Schwartzie isgoing to be a really good football coach.” Wow.

Sure, the two have a history so for most this nugget probably came off as one friend paying his respects to another who finally got the chance he deserved. And maybe that’s all it is. Maybe.

But those with a naturally cynical bend may see it as Pioli’s explanation of why he didn’t end up in Cleveland. As most will recall, Pioli was interviewed early by Lerner and speculation was that he had been given an offer to take over the Browns’ football operations. Pioli seemed to have pondered the situation interminably while Lerner supposedly was left to stew in the corner. Whether an offer was made or not to Pioli is still one of the great unknowns, but the bigger question always has centered on why a natural fit like Pioli didn’t end up in Cleveland. It seemed inevitable.

Some have speculated that Pioli took a close look at the problems in Berea and decided they were far deeper than he originally thought. I’ve always doubted this view, if only because someone like Pioli isn’t going to shy away from a challenge. If anything, that gives someone like Pioli far more chance to make his mark and reputation than a team that is on autopilot.

Others have speculated that Lerner’s fascination with Mangini pushed Pioli away. Mangini and Pioli, who once were friends, no longer are likely because of Mangini’s role in the Spygate affair. I think this is far closer to the truth. Those two working together would have been difficult given all the grief Mangini’s whistle blowing caused for the Patriots and Pioli.

But don’t discount the fact that Lerner didn’t give Schwartz a more credible look as head coach as the real reason Pioli didn’t sign on in Cleveland. Schwartz was scheduled to interview with Lerner but it got cancelled under the guise of the ubiquitous “scheduling conflict.” Had Lerner gone ahead with that interview and, instead, hired Schwartz the strong sense is that Pioli would have come along as well. Even though Pioli wouldn’t have had the chance to hire his own head coach, it’s pretty clear that he would have embraced the idea of coming to a team with Schwartz as head coach.

In that context, it’s easy to view Pioli’s words as carrying an undertone of criticism about what did and did not happen in Cleveland. If that is indeed the case, then at least for the next few years, the rivalry worth watching will not be Pioli and the Patriots, but Pioli and Kokinis. Browns fans won’t have to wait to long for the first installment. The Browns are at Kansas City in week 13 next season.

By hiring Mangini, Lerner inherited Mangini’s Spygate legacy as well. It potentially cost the Browns a chance at Pioli, which leads to this week’s question to ponder: What other fallout might there be for the Browns from Mangin’s role in Spygate?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Same Page

Anyone that had any concerns that the order in which Cleveland Browns’ owner Randy Lerner hired a general manager and a head coach might cause a bit of a disconnect between the two positions can now put those concerns to rest. New general manager George Kokinis gave his first substantive (relatively, anyway) interview since being hired and demonstrated that indeed he and Eric Mangini are on the same page. (See the interview with the Plain Dealer’s Tony Grossi here)

Unfortunately for those Browns fans that think their interest and investment in the team entitles them to a modicum of information about what might be taking place within the repainted walls of Berea, having Kokinis and Mangini on the same page simply means that they prioritize their enemies similarly, the media first and then the fans. Kokinis, in much the same way as Mangini in his non-press conference press conference a few weeks ago, managed to say virtually nothing of note about what the team plans in terms of free agency or the draft.

Though the list of Browns’ free agents isn’t impressive, it is worth knowing, for example, if Kokinis plans on placing the franchise tag on safety Sean Jones, about the only pending free agent worth contemplating. Kokinis didn’t say which way he was leaning, but wouldn’t rule out using the designation in “the 11th hour.” Translated, “maybe, maybe not.”

This means that Kokinis and Mangini have either decided that Jones is expendable or that they can get him under contract easily. A reasonable guess is that they view him as expendable. Even if they won’t say, the decision process they have to go through on Jones more or less takes you down that road.

Kokinis and Mangini have several ways they can go on Jones. They can let him go, unrestricted, into free agency without caring whether or not they can resign him. Alternatively, they can use the tools available under the collective bargaining agreement to more or less ensure his return. The problem with using those tools is that it will involve a significant raise over his current $2 million salary. For a team that’s worried about the cost of administrative assistants in the front office, doubling or more Jones’ 2008 salary might seem a tad distasteful.

One of the tools at hand to ensure his return is to put the franchise tag on Jones, in one of two ways. Another tool is to designate him as a transition player, meaning that they retain a right of first refusal should he receive an offer from another team, which also pretty much guarantees he’ll be back.
If the Browns decide to put the franchise tag on Jones, it can be with either the designation of “exclusive” or “non exclusive.” As an exclusive franchise player, Jones would be guaranteed a one-year contract for a minimum of $6.145 million, based on the current top 5 salaries at the safety position. With that tag, Jones would definitely be back with the Browns because he would have no opportunity to negotiate with other teams.

But even placing the “non-exclusive” tag on him pretty much assures he’ll be back. A non-exclusive franchise player is guaranteed the higher of the average of last year’s top 5 salaries at safety (which is about 10% or so less than this year’s average) or 120% of his current salary. In Jones’ case, he’d get the average of last year’s top 5 because it is certainly more than 120% of his current $2 million salary. More importantly, as a non-exclusive free agent, Jones can negotiate with other teams. If he gets an offer, the Browns have the option of matching it or getting two first round picks in return and letting him go. Jones is a decent player but he isn’t worth two first round picks to any team. Thus the likelihood of any other team signing him with that status is nil.

If the Browns place the “transition” tag on Jones, then he is guaranteed around $5.13 million, which represents the average of the current top 10 salaries at his position. Jones would be free to negotiate with other teams with the Browns retaining a right to match any offer. Unless another team goes off the reservation, which is unlikely, the chance of Jones getting an offer the Browns wouldn’t match is slight.

Given the problems with the defensive backfield, it would seem that Kokinis and Mangini would want to at least tick this one issue off their list by ensuring Jones’ return. Any of these alternatives would appear better than simply letting Jones test the free agency market and risk the loss and the opening it creates. Despite the Browns’ recent belt tightening, which followed the belt loosening they did to rid themselves of Romeo Crennel, Phil Savage and Mel Tucker, the salaries associated with the franchise or transition tags aren’t particularly outrageous. While Kokinis didn’t elaborate on the issue (or any other, for that matter) it’s hard to understand the Browns’ potential reluctance given the team’s few, legitimate defensive backs. If they let him go, they are banking hard on Daven Holley’s return, particularly since Mike Adams, a serviceable back up, also is a free agent who probably won’t be back.

Making this somewhat more puzzling is the simple fact that the Browns don’t have salary cap issues. According to, the 2009 salary cap number is $124 million. Before last week’s roster cuts, the Browns cap number was $113 million. Cutting Antwan Peek, Ken Dorsey and Terry Cousin saved another $4 million. That puts them $13 million under already and that’s before the roster is shed of, for example, Willie McGinnest and his $3.66 million salary cap figure. In other words, the Browns have plenty of room in which to maneuver.

But as with most things these days out of Berea, fans aren’t likely to know until something actually happens. Even then, don’t expect much of an explanation. Get used to reading between the lines.

Maybe what this all comes down to is Derek Anderson, though Kokinis wouldn’t acknowledge that either. What to do about Anderson and the $5 million roster bonus he is due in March probably trumps any issues with respect to Jones or any other player. For all the criticism rightly heaped on Savage, he does deserve credit for negotiating a club-friendly contract with Anderson that essentially has given the new regime more flexibility than they probably initially imagined.

There is no question that Anderson couldn’t have picked a better time to have a breakout season. After toiling in the league and drifting ever toward the “perennial backup” label, Anderson picked his free agent year to light up the scoreboard. Even with Brady Quinn sitting in the wings, it put Savage in a difficult spot given how scarce a commodity quarterbacks are in the league. Yet Savage found a way to get a deal done that essentially put off Anderson’s free agency for another year. Ostensibly a 3-year $26 million contract, it has an escape hatch this year if the Browns’ don’t pay Anderson the $5 million roster bonus that’s due in March.

For Kokinis and Mangini, this scenario couldn’t be better. They can either leverage Anderson for additional draft picks, although not at the level Savage probably could have gotten last year, or keep him and concentrate on the rest of the roster this off season. If they let Anderson go, then they have to find another couple of back ups, which is actually harder than you might think. See, Ken Dorsey. See, Bruce Gradkowski.

But just as with Jones, fans have no idea what Kokinis is thinking with respect to Anderson other than the ubiquitous “you really have to fit Derek within the whole structure of the whole football team.” If you think that’s insightful, just delete “Derek” from that sentence and insert the name “Jamal” or “Brady” or anyone else on the roster. You get the idea.

This isn’t to suggest that Kokinis needs to spill the beans on any of these issues in a way that disadvantages them in talks with other teams. But there is a way to provide insight without telling a reporter when you expect the ground war to begin. Apparently, though, virtually everything about the Browns’ operations is tantamount to battle plans and the only ones that suffer for the lack of information is the fans.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Lingering Items--Juiced Edition

Yea, it matters…
There is a point at which fans become so jaded by the constant revelations of off-the-field shenanigans by those who play the sport that they’d just rather ignore it all. Just play the game. The revelations that baseball’s arguably most talented player and certainly its highest paid was a steroid abuser (and may be, still, who knows?) doesn’t seemed to have twanged the buds of the average fan.

I understand that sentiment. Frankly, I’m tired of hearing about steroids and baseball as much as anyone. But that doesn’t mean that the onslaught of steroids allegations should just be swept away like the 2008 Cleveland Browns’ season. This stuff does matter far more than whether or not Eric Mangini painted the walls inside the Berea a shocking pink.

The steroids era, as it’s becoming known, has literally robbed baseball of its underlying integrity. Records have been established. Players and owners have been rewarded on the backs of a ticket paying public and the networks paying increasingly exorbitant broadcast rights fees. Part of the reason your cable bill is so high is because ESPN passes those fees right on to you. But far too much of those accomplishments and those riches have been earned under false pretenses. There’s something fundamentally wrong with that.

It does make a difference if Barry Bonds owns the home run record and not Hank Aaron. It matters if a Roger Clemens exceeds the accomplishments of a Bob Feller or a Nolan Ryan. When the records and accomplishments of the sport’s icons fall to someone who used illegal means to do it, the fabric of the game begins to unravel.

In every sport cheaters are punished. If a high school or college team uses an ineligible player, the player is banned and the team forfeits the game. If the team won a championship, the banner is stripped and the record book expunged. But a major league baseball team winning games with players who are using performance-enhancing drugs aren’t punished in the least. Yet arguably those wins are far more in doubt than those of a college team using a player that got a “D” in a course but the professor reported it as a “C.”

It would be great if baseball could put the steroid era behind it. Everyone would breathe a sigh of relief. But ignoring the black mold metastasizing in the corner of the room because you’re too scared or tired or whatever to contemplate its ramifications isn’t the answer. The only way to address the problem is to clean it up for good. Rid the sport of the players whose performance was fraudulent. Force out the owners who hid in their luxury boxes in order to avoid confronting the seedy underbelly of their clubs. Rid the sport of the commissioner who fiddled why Cooperstown burned. Demonstrate true zero tolerance and not 10 strikes and “I’m sorry” or else face accepting the next inevitable scandal that could ultimately prove to be even worse.

We now return to our regular programming.


Stupid is as stupid does…

Problem, what problem?

In a nutshell, that’s essentially the position of Marvin Miller, the legendary architect of the absolute worst union in professional sports, the Major League Players Association. Wheeled out as if on cue every time there is a problem in baseball, the 91-year old Miller had plenty to say about the Alex Rodriguez situation and almost none of it is going to help.

Among the more controversial statements he gave to ESPN was that the union should never have bowed to public and congressional pressure to institute a drug testing program in the first place. In Miller’s view, there is absolutely no evidence that steroids actually enhance performance. Thus it is pure folly to test for them because all that ends up doing is causing a boat load of unintended consequences, the Rodriguez situation being just the most current example.

It would be easy to dismiss the comments of Miller as those of a doddering old fool still trying to look relevant. But Miller is no fool. He’s misguided, certainly, ill-informed, obviously, but absolutely nobody’s fool. He more than anyone else, is responsible for the establishment and adherence still to outdated horse-and-buggy thinking on almost any issue of relevance in baseball and these comments just perpetuate his antiquated thinking.

His ESPN interview created a veritable cornucopia of other misstatements and half-truths as well. Miller claimed rather boldly that there is no evidence that the use of steroids is even a health issue, pulling out the old “cigarettes cause far more damage and responsible for 400,000 deaths a year” as if that’s even a relevant comparison. In Miller’s world, steroids use has not been involved in “one documented death.”

That’s just Miller parsing for convenience of argument without bothering to check it for consistency. Claiming steroids hasn’t been a factor in several deaths is just plain false. For example, Lyle Alzado was 42 years old when he died of brain cancer. Alazado himself in his last days attributed his condition to his extensive misuse of steroids. There have been at least 5 pro “wrestlers” who have died in their 30s from various forms of coronary disease and all were abusers of anabolic steroids. The web site Athletes Against Steroids maintains a list of steroids-related deaths and notes, too, that most steroids-related deaths are not of high profile athletes and thus go mostly unreported. If Miller was being consistent, let alone genuine, then he’d have to say that cigarettes aren’t causing any deaths because no one is dying while taking a drag. It’s all that coronary disease and emphysema that’s really causing the deaths.

But even if Miller wants to play that game, it’s beyond question that the continued abuse of steroids has serious health consequences. You can Google “health effects of steroids” and find 486,000 entries to back that up. ESPN did an extensive series on the issue (see story here) that details the short and long-term adverse impact that steroid use has on an individual, both physically and psychologically. If Miller doubts the uncontroverted medical evidence, then he should be made to produce one scientific study to the contrary. He can’t.

Miller then trotted out the well-worn argument that drug testing is inherently unreliable because of the potential for false-positive results. This is a perfect example of a half-truth. What Miller doesn’t say is that the protocols of drug testing, particularly in professional sports, are so rigorous as to render false positives nothing more than a myth. Drug tests are conducted in phases. The initial test is more generalized and it is in that test where false positives may get reported. But any positive test in this phase is then submitted to a far more exacting test to eliminate the chance of a false positive. Ask Floyd Landis.

Personally, my favorite Millerism though was his statement that the union leadership was wrong to bow to the overwhelming pressure put on it by its own members to agree to random drug testing. According to Miller, “leadership can't just take a poll on what membership wants. You also have to judge whether this is in the best interests of the people you represent. If the entire membership voted unanimously to disband, would you do it?” In other words, just because the members want something doesn’t mean it’s in their best interests. And yes, by law actually, if the entire membership voted unanimously to disband, the union would disband, so there.

Miller always has been a polarizing figure in baseball. On the one hand his hard-nosed bargaining tactics advanced the cause of the players and, in the process, made the players’ union the strongest sports union. On the other hand, the next idea he has that’s in the best interest of baseball (as opposed to the best interest of an individual player) will be the first. It’s never been Miller’s agenda to further the interest of the sport, so it’s no surprise that he’s not doing so now. But to not appreciate how damaged the sport is by advocating for positions that would only further that damage may not make you a fool, but it does render you irrelevant.

See ya, Marvin. We’ll call you the next time your help is needed. And if the phone isn’t ringing, it’s us.


If only he had acted like he couldn’t speak English…

Somewhat lost in the Rodriguez affair was the news item that Houston Astros’ shortstop Miguel Tejada pleaded guilty on Wednesday to lying to congressional investigators about what he knew about steroids use in baseball. According to a report in the USA Today, Tejada admitted he lied when he told investigators in 2005 essentially that “I don’t know nothing about no stinking steroids.” Now Tejada awaits sentencing and is hoping against hope that probation is in his future.

What’s instructive about the Tejada situation is the simple fact that it underscores why investigating steroids use is so difficult. When George Mitchell undertook his investigation, the players’ union essentially told its members not to cooperate. That’s something they could get away with because Mitchell had no subpoena power and was not working under the color of law in order to compel cooperation.

But when a congressional investigator, working under the color of law and with subpoena power comes knocking, one is well advised not to dodge the questions or, as in the Tejada’s case, lie with impunity.

This is something that has to give pause to dear old Roger Clemens. Right now his testimony to Congress is under scrutiny and on that front, things aren’t going well. It’s one thing to damage your reputation by being exposed as a cheat. It’s a whole other matter to find your abscessed butt in a jail cell. Clemens may just see this all as another batter that he can send back to the bench with a series of fastballs. Sooner or later he’ll find out he was wrong.


A fool for a client…

Speaking of Clemens, this week a judge dismissed most of the defamation lawsuit that he filed against his former BFF, Brian McNamee. The dismissal was mostly on procedural grounds. The statements McNamee told congressional investigators, for example, are immune from a lawsuit. Most of the other statements McNamee made that weren’t otherwise immune were made in New York and thus if Clemens wants to sue him for those, he’ll have to re-file the case in New York.

There still is one count left in the lawsuit relating to statements McNamee allegedly made to Andy Pettitte about Clemens’ steroids use. If Clemens decides to continue to pursue that, he’ll be in the rather awkward position of having to depose his other BFF, Pettitte. The problem there is that Pettitte has already gone on record as vouching for McNamee’s credibility. Be careful what you ask for, Roger.

My guess is that this lawsuit will die the natural death it deserves. It was filed in the wake of the storm surrounding the Clemens allegations and was meant to deflect attention by portraying Clemens as . Clemens and his attorney probably never really intended to pursue it to a conclusion because doing so would put the entire Clemens family in play. But then again, Clemens has proven time and again that as a family man, he was a good pitcher so anything’s possible.


This Bud’s for you…

It’s been a busy week for The Worst Commissioner in the History of Organized Sports, Bud Selig. When the Rodriguez story broke, he gave his usual furrowed brow look of concern and talked, half-heartedly, about possibly suspending Rodriguez.

But that was never a viable option. There simply is no mechanism in place to suspend Rodriguez for misconduct occurring 8 years ago and Selig knew that even when he initially made the statements. That’s why he almost immediately backed down from that threat and simply left it as is by doing what Selig does best, wringing his hands while scolding Rodriguez as if he were Selig’s 16-year old kid and he had just creased a right corner panel on the family sedan. That had to hurt.

Frankly, Selig moralizing to Rodriguez will be about as effective as anything else Selig as done throughout his slumbering tenure as commissioner. The truth is that the revelations about Rodriguez say at least as much about Selig’s reign as they do about Rodriguez. If Rodriguez is telling the truth (a risky assumption, I know) that the culture of just a few years ago fostered his drug use, then how on earth could Selig not be clued in to that? The only way he could have avoided it was, essentially, by deliberately avoiding it. But deliberate ignorance hardly erases the underlying acts. If it did then a refusal to to watch the Pittsburgh Steelers win another Super Bowl would mean it didn’t happen. If only….

What’s truly amazing about this whole situation is that despite the fact that the longest, darkest and most shameful period ever visited upon professional baseball has occurred under Selig’s watch, those that employ him don’t seem to much care. During that time, all the owners have done is continue to elevate Selig’s status and salary without even once trying to hold him the least bit accountable. Maybe it’s because they know they are just as culpable. A band of brothers, indeed.

By this point, Selig’s become the sports equivalent to Ken Lay, the former (and now deceased) CEO of Enron. While essentially overseeing a criminal enterprise, each disclaimed either knowledge or intent and both profited handsomely. I guess for his sake it’s a good thing that Congress has its hands full with the banks at the moment.

There was an item in the Plain Dealer on Friday where several Cleveland Indians, including Cliff Lee, essentially gave Rodriguez and others a pass for their steroids abuse. The players, too, apparently are tired of this whole mess and just want to move on. Thus this week’s question to ponder: Would Lee still feel the same way if he had lost a perfect game by giving up a home run to a player who later admitted he was on steroids?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Right Nickname, Wrong Reason

A few weeks ago, former New York Yankees manager Joe Torree caught some heat from the local New York newspapers for supposedly telling Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, in the context of a book Verducci just released about the Yankees that Alex Rodriguez’s teammates sometimes referred to him as A-Fraud.

It turns out that righteous indignation of those who disagreed with that characterization was a tad premature. Over this past weekend Sports Illustrated spilled the beans on Rodriguez’s use of steroids. On Monday, Rodriguez told ESPN it was true and that, in fact, his illegal drug use went on from 2001-2003. That means, at the very least, his MVP of 2003 was indeed a fraud along with any and all of his accomplishments during those years.

On some level, this “news” falls into the category of dog bites man. There have been too many of these same sad, pathetic stories about the sport’s pseudo superstars for this “news” to qualify as anything more than just another example of a once-decent reputation being tossed onto an ever-expanding scrap heap. But on other more significant levels, the revelation that the highest paid ballplayer did more than just dabble in steroids is more damaging to baseball’s flagging reputation than the Mitchell Report of a few years ago.

Maybe you can take all of this as a sign that the baseball season has officially begun. It used to commence with the pitchers and catchers reporting for spring training. Now it begins with the latest report of someone testing positive for steroids. But in truth, the Sports Illustrated report and the Rodriguez-come lately admissions have already rendered another baseball season as suspect. Explain to me again why baseball commissioner Bud Selig is worth $17.5 million a year?

It’s hard to know how much of a steroid abuser Rodriguez really was or still is. In the interview with ESPN, Rodriguez admitted he lied to Katie Couric and CBS when he claimed last year he never used the drugs. You don’t suddenly regain credibility by admitting you’re a liar. It may be that his drug use only covered the period 2001-2003, but we’ll never really know unless he’s forced, again, to face another outing of a positive drug test.

There is no question that Rodriguez hopes that the ESPN interview will help salvage what’s left of his reputation. He certainly tried his best to come across as contrite and sincere. But let’s not forget he also came across as sincere in the Couric interview with 60 Minutes. All that means is that he’s a 6-tool player, having established his latest skill, the ability to fake sincerity.

Besides, why should anyone believe that this time he’s telling the truth? It’s not as if he came clean of his own volition. He had no choice. Examine his words in his interview with ESPN. He claims he stopped using steroids in 2003 after he hurt his neck in spring training and had a chance to take a measure of his life. Where’s he been for the last six years then? At any point prior to Sunday he could have taken the brave step forward, admitted his wrongful conduct and pledged to work on eradicating steroids at every level of sports. That would have bought him some good will. The fact that he did not is the height of selfishness and not, as he suggested, the act of a person who has grown beyond the immaturity and selfishness of his youth.

Without giving Rodriguez any sort of a pass on this, it is true that he is far from the only responsible person here. Start with the $17.5 million man, Selig. The fact that this stench still lingers is all the proof anyone needs that he is abjectly unqualified to be the commissioner of anything more complicated than motorized bar stool racing. Selig’s inability to control this situation, to exercise the kind of leadership that a salary like he earns commands, is the major reason why this issue hangs around like an out of work brother-in-law. Selig simply refused to stand up to the union and his fellow owners and shut the game down for as long as necessary until his sport was not only clean but the model for every other spot.

And speaking of the union, they are every bit as complicit at soiling the game in their misguided effort to protect drug abusers. This issue has never been about due process or Constitutional rights. Hiding under the flimsy protection of a collective bargaining agreement that has been slanted in their favor for far to long, from the union’s perspective this has always been about allowing abusers like Rodriguez to enjoy the ill-gotten fruits of their talents in order to raise the salaries of everyone else in the sport. If that means sacrificing the long-term health of the players they claim to represent, so be it. If that means placing every game and every accomplishment under a skeptical eye, so be it. It’s not their job, after all, to care about the game only the players.

It’s almost laughable that the union, particularly Donald Fehr and Gene Orza, are coming under scrutiny now as a result of the Rodriguez matter. These two have been Exhibits A and B for all the wrong reasons for far too long. But like cockroaches scurrying under a newly shined light, the Rodriguez affair has turned into an every-man-for-himself exercise.

To understand this aspect, it is necessary to also understand how the Rodriguez test results came about in the first place.

In 2003, (yes, 2003 and not 1974) baseball still wasn’t punishing steroids users. An agreement was in place that if more than 5% of the active players tested positive for banned substances, then baseball could implement punitive measures against players testing positive in subsequent years.

To what should be no one’s surprise, well in excess of 5% did indeed test positive in 2003. Let’s remember, too, that the penalties that went into effect were hardly much of a deterrent. It wasn’t until Congress got involved in the wake of the Mitchell Report that baseball and the union, under the pointed threat of losing their precious anti-trust exemption, toughened their program. Once the 2003 season ended and the number of positive tests confirmed, Orza, the union’s chief administrator, had no reason to save the test results. But before he could destroy them, the federal government, investigating BALCO and Barry Bonds, had them subpoenaed. The union had no choice but to turn them over or risk even bigger problems. From there, eventually, the Rodriguez revelations were borne.

Interestingly, though, major league baseball doesn’t seem all that concerned that their number one marquee player got that way in part through steroids. They seem far more concerned that the union didn’t destroy the results in the first place. It’s akin to Tony Soprano yelling at Silvio Dante because a police officer found a body he disposed of. Focus not on the underlying crime but on the shoddy job you did covering it up.

Baseball officials also seem a little ticked that Orza allegedly was tipping off players, including Rodriguez, weeks in advance of drug tests back then. Orza denies the claim, as he’s done before, but really in context how is that denial even credible? All of this is just noise drowning out the real problem anyway. At some point someone will step out of self-protection mode and actually take not just responsibility but ownership for solving this problem.

Beyond the players, Selig and the Union, let us also not forget about the complicit owners like George Steinbrenner and his idiot son Hank as well as the Texas Rangers’ chief windbag, Tom Hicks. It was Hicks who gave Rodriguez the outrageous salary in the first place that supposedly put so much pressure on poor Rodriguez that he felt a need to turned to illegal drugs in order to live up to the demands of his new found riches. It was George Steinbrenner who then traded for Rodriguez after his fraudulent 2003 season and Hank who then re-upped with team Rodriguez for another 10 years at the modest sum of $27.5 million a season.

Its owners like the Steinbrenners and Hicks who helped create this culture in the first place by sending a message that other-worldly accomplishments, by however means achieved, were worth outlandish salaries. If it had only impacted their teams that would have at least contained the problem. But it didn’t. It’s a culture that took hold throughout the league and has created the economic disparities that exist today between teams.

It’s instructive that the Yankees official word on this is only that they are disappointed in Rodriguez. That’s a pretty muted response considering they were essentially defrauded not once but twice by Rodriguez and are still on the hook to him for well over $225 million over the next 8 years or so. It’s as if they had just lost millions to Bernie Madoff and just shrugged their shoulders. As a franchise, the Yankees have no convictions so wagging a public finger and scooting this under the rug seems appropriate for them.

But if the Yankees really were disappointed, they’d part ways with Rodriguez irrespective of the cost and without fear that any other team would sign him. Until the owners, collectively, take a stand against this, it will continue. They need to understand that as caretakers of the game, players like Rodriguez, Clemens and Bonds, have lost the privilege of the major leagues. They have abused the gifts they were born with and shown nothing but disdain for the fans and the sport itself.

Because this is America, however, Rodriguez will get his second, third, fourth and fifth chances and maybe a dozen more until he demonstrates that he can no longer hit home runs. But if fans really want to give Rodriguez the chances he doesn’t deserve, they ought to at least first demand something in return. Rodriguez admitted his drug use basically covered three seasons. Forfeiting his salary for the next three years and instead directing the money be placed in a foundation dedicated to the sole proposition of educating and training the youth of America on the pitfalls of drug use would be a good start.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Lingering Items--Transition Edition

Surprisingly they don’t yet have the odds on who will win the coin toss

For those of you who think I never have anything positive to say about the Browns, this one’s for you: already has released their odds on teams winning next year’s Super Bowl. Shockingly, the Browns aren’t at the bottom. At 55-1, they are ahead of the Bengals, 49ers, Raiders, Rams, Lions and Chiefs. That’s an acknowledgement of sorts that there is some talent on this team.

The Browns’ other two divisional rivals, the Steelers and the Ravens, fared much better. The Steelers are an early 10-1 to repeat while the Ravens are a mere 14-1. The Ball Boy’s former team, the Jets, are a 25-1 favorite, far ahead of the Browns. Somewhere in there is a question to ponder.

I’m not a degenerate gambler looking for new and exciting ways to have someone separate me from my wallet, so these odds hold only fleeting interest to me. But even if they held great interest, you have to think that they’ll undergo a fairly healthy makeover once the draft is complete and the bottom-feeding teams, like the Browns (oops, sorry), find still more creative ways to squander their picks. That’s why they are bottom-feeders in the first place (sorry, again).

But if you’re inclined to do something with this there are some intriguing bets. For example, the 8-8 Chargers are a 12-1 favorite, only slightly worse than the Steelers and better than the Ravens. Maybe they odds makers are banking on Norv Turner getting the boot as head coach. The Cowboys are a 9-1 favorite, just behind the Patriots. Again, this seems to have been established without any appreciation for the fact that Wade Phillips is still in charge and Tony Romo is dealing with a girlfriend with a weight problem (according to People magazine, anyway, which I never read).

Truth be told these sorts of things are meaningless unless you’re WKNR’s Kenny Roda and you’re looking for topics after just completing your 26th consecutive “Aren’t the Steelers great, call me with your thoughts” show in a row. But the other side of the coin is that it’s often the bookies that are the most accurate at figuring this stuff out because it’s their money at stake, so there is that. Thus, maybe the Browns really are in for another tough year or maybe there is money to be paid. Pick your poison, just don’t say you weren’t warned.


Not enough hot air to even fill a balloon:

For those of you who think I never have anything positive to say about the Browns, skip to the next item.

Mangini, for reasons not fully explained, held a press conference on Wednesday with the sole goal, apparently, of reminding everyone that Cleveland still has a NFL team and he’s still a NFL head coach. It would have been far more interesting if Mangini actually had some news to deliver, such as that LeBron James had indeed signed with the Browns.

The glass half full types might have seen this press conference as a means for Mangini to reach out to the fans, just to let them know “hey, I care about you, we’re getting after this mess.” After all, Mangini did address the mural issue. He said some nice things about D’Qwell Jackson and Josh Cribbs.

The rest of us will see this for what it most likely was, just the first in a series of encounters with a coach who has absolutely no intention of ever saying anything of substance to the media. Yes, he talked about the mural, the mural, the mural. Yes, he said he respects the history and tradition of the franchise. But if you were looking for any clues about how he feels about the roster, what the team is thinking heading into a busy off season, forget it. While it’s only been a month, it has been a month. He has to have an opinion or two, no?

Does it matter whether Mangini displays some level of transparency between his operation and the fans he expects to remain on the bandwagon? It depends on who you ask. Right now there are a healthy number of fans that just want to see success and are willing to pay almost any price to get it. If that means a truculent head coach with enough paranoia to make even Bill Belichick blush, fine. It’s a legitimate sentiment.

There are a healthy number of others, however, he want to be coddled a bit, acknowledged for the time and money they’ve invested in this team, only to be ignored like a crazy aunt from Scranton. These fans want to be respected and that translates in the first instance into not being talked down to by either the owner or the coach. It’s a legitimate sentiment as well.

For now and unless or until he struggles, Mangini will be banking on the sentiment of the fans in the first camp. In the meantime, expect a frosty relationship between Mangini and the local media at a time when Randy Lerner needs something more approaching the media’s current relationship with President Obama.


Maybe it’s the heat and the humidity:

Transitioning over: Unless you’re one of major league baseball’s dwindling “have” teams, the real cost to winning a World Series is hardly ever discussed. Fans are familiar with the dismantling the Florida Marlins did soon after taking the measure of the Indians in the 1997 World Series, or the dismantling the Marlins did after winning the 2003 World Series. But one of the reasons Florida did that was to purge itself as quickly as possible of the high cost incurred to secure each title. It’s an object lesson.

A story in Tuesday’s USA Today about the Arizona Diamondbacks is instructive. Right now, the Diamondbacks are having somewhat of an identity crisis brought on by the huge debt the team undertook to win the 2001 World Series and, the theory goes, the Cinderella-like season of the football Cardinals.

My sense is that when one team in town has success, it raises the hopes and expectations of the others. Fans can multi-task. The fact that the Cardinals were in the Super Bowl should have far more positives for the Diamondbacks than negatives. Thus I tend to discount the Diamondbacks’ owners and theorists who see that as having any meaningful impact.

What is having an impact is the fact that this season (like the last and the one before that) the Diamondbacks have about $30 million in dead payroll as the result of deferred contracts to players no longer on the team. While the Diamondbacks had a reported $66 million payroll for 2008, when you factor in the additional $30 million or so owed to former players, it ends up being a payroll of almost $100 million, except without the benefit of the two or three players, probably pitchers, that would command an extra $30 million in salary. What the fans see is an ownership unwilling to shell out money to Randy Johnson and Orlando Hudson this last off season. What the ownership sees is attendance of around 2.5 million on a ticket base price that is the lowest average in the league. Expenses are high, revenues are low. Anyone who has run anything more complicated than a paper route can understand that math.

As a result, a team that most put in the “have” category (it is the 12th largest media market, Cleveland is 17th) sees itself much differently. Does that mean they’d trade their World Series title or that Cleveland fans wouldn’t gladly trade what amounts to the despair they’ve endured for years anyway for just one title? Probably not. But it likely means that as they build for the next run, they will do it the way general managers like Mark Shapiro have been trying to do it for years—slowly, methodically and on the cheap.


Fools and their money:

In another fun little juxtaposition, the USA Today story on the Diamondbacks points out that one of those still owed money is Bernard Gilkey, to the tune of $500,000 a year for the next 25 years while a story on the opposite page talked about the $3 million raise Commissioner Bud Selig got last season on his previous $14.5 million salary.

On the surface, that seems like a pretty good pension that Gilkey’s agent negotiated for a player whose accomplishments over a 12-year career can be generously characterized as modest. But then you remember that baseball executives have traditionally been among the dumbest money managers in the history of business, and in that statement I’m considering the first caveman that sold the first wheel for a rhino snout. Then you also remember that Gilkey’s deferred money amounts to $12.5 million, or about $500,000 less than Johnny Damon earned last season with the Yankees, which further proves the point. And then, of course, you get to the surest sign, that the owners paid Selig $17.5 million in salary last year and you start to actually feel like someone is picking on Gilkey even though, using a modest 6% discount factor, his $12.5 million over the next 25 years is equal to $2.9 million, or roughly the average salary of a member of the Indians last season.

I’m all for anyone getting the most money out of their employer that they can muster, but at some point doesn’t it seem ridiculous for an owner to complain about Gilkey’s deferred salary when that same owner signed off on Selig being paid as if he was the third best player in the major leagues.

Use whatever measuring stick you’d like and Selig’s career accomplishments make Gilkey seem like Babe Ruth. Under Selig, baseball had the combined dubious distinctions of ushering in the steroids era and sanctioning an economic model that in 2008 featured a payroll differential of $188 million between the top and bottom teams in the league. And for good measure, Selig continues to play nursemaid to a union that has even less interest in maintaining a drug-free sport or building a sustainable economic structure.

Fans may get outraged over the asinine contracts given to players like Gilkey or David Dellucci but that is seeing every tree and not realizing you’re in a forest. Maybe the rich do get richer, but when it comes to those who own and run baseball, the dumb get dumber.


Everybody’s doing the local-motion:

Depending on who you want to believe, Ohio State either had the top high school recruiting class in the nation or the 9th best. Such is the wildly inexact science of analyzing recruiting classes. No matter what any of the various services or experts tell you, the accuracy of their predictions pretty much mirrors the accuracy of the odds sheet on winning next year’s Super Bowl.

Trying to judge draft classes in the NFL is hard enough. Trying to do likewise for high school recruiting classes is next to impossible. There simply is no good way to judge how the kid rushing for 5,000 yards for the local high school in Port Clinton matches up against the kid rushing for 2,000 yards for a high school in Fremont, California, and that’s assuming they play in similar divisions.

If you think the caliber of play between conferences in college football make it difficult to determine whether Joe Flacco has more upside than Matt Ryan, try making that determination in comparing high schools across the country.

One thing, though, is clear. Certain states, like Texas, Florida, Georgia, California and Ohio, produce a lot of talent. The better you are at keeping that talent in state, the more likely you’ll end up with a decent recruiting class, no matter what or says.

According to a study done by Sports Illustrated of the 65 BCS schools and Notre Dame between 2004-2008, teams that draw at least 50% of their recruits from within a 200-mile radius have a far better chance of winning consistently than those that do not. The top 5 teams by that metric are no surprise: Texas, USC, Georgia, Florida and Ohio State.
Looking at Ohio State’s class this year, 20 of 25 recruits meet that criterion. Let the good times roll, again.


One of the more depressing sights this past few weeks is the number of locals wearing Steelers’ jerseys. The temptation is to call them front runners. The reality is that it’s been a whole generation now since the Cleveland Browns gave anyone a reason to be excited. Thus this week’s question to ponder: On the show “24,” if the chemical plant near Kidron, Ohio had indeed released its toxic chemicals on the surrounding population, which team would have lost more fans, the Steelers or the Browns?

Monday, February 02, 2009

Wasted Envy

On the list of things that should disappoint Cleveland Browns’ fans the most the morning after the Super Bowl, the fact that the groundhog saw his shadow should rank far higher than the Pittsburgh Steelers’ win as any delay in the onset of spring in Cleveland is cause for far more fretting than another Super Bowl without the Browns. It’s been XLIII years and counting without the Browns being on that national stage anyway. Any fan that hasn’t long since adjusted to that probably never will.

But just as spring will arrive eventually, so too will the fans eventually come to grips with the now yearly ritual of realizing just how far these Browns are from basking in the glow of a title.

The world of professional sports, unlike what passes for youth sports these days, places a premium on results not effort. There is no balancing of the cosmos when it comes to the brutal realities of wins and losses. Most fans now realize that it’s simply not true that every dog has its day. That’s why you see more and more Steelers jerseys in and around town these days. You can’t just lose a generation of fans out of operational ineptness and not think it won’t have some effect.

But knowing that salvation isn’t yet on the horizon and believing it might be are far different concepts. That’s why some fans will spend days trying to understand what it means when the Steelers ended up with Ohio State’s Santonio Holmes, who can actually make a catch that counts, while the Browns ended up with Michigan’s Braylon Edwards, who can’t. For that matter, they’ll probably spend some time as well trying to understand how the Arizona Cardinals did manage to find in Steve Breaston a Michigan receiver who can catch while the Browns could not.

These are just a smattering of the anomalies that will drive the locals batty if they let them. Ultimately what gnaws is that everyone else seems to get an invitation to the party while Browns’ fans are left to wonder why they aren’t one of the cool kids.

Feeling envious of the fans of that Team to the East is a waste of emotion at this point unless it’s because of what they stand for and not because of what they’ve accomplished. With six Super Bowl titles, the Steelers are the model franchise of the Super Bowl era. The Browns aren’t the only team looking up to them at this point.

But for all the anger and envy coursing through the veins of Browns’ fans right now, things aren’t as bad as they seem. Consider the sad sacks in Detroit. It’s bad enough that their NFL team just set a record for going 0-16. Now they find themselves looking up to Cleveland in basketball, too. That has to hurt.

The real lesson in Super Bowl Sunday for Browns’ fans is not to look for glimmers of hope in the fact that the Arizona Cardinals, a 9-7 team, nearly pulled off a major upset, or even that the Steelers’ vaunted defense had trouble stopping the pass even when it knew it was coming. Instead, it’s to see the real hope that the Cavaliers gave to them earlier in the day.

The NBA season is about to reach its mythical halfway point and the Cavs, quite simply, are one of the few teams with a real chance to win the championship. That’s a concept that is, frankly, hard to get one’s mind around when you’re mostly shell-shocked by the carnage of the football season.

Sunday’s game against Detroit was instructive for all the reasons that a Browns’ game generally is not. On a larger scale, it featured the refreshing change of a team that didn’t get off to a hot start only to struggle to hang on at the end. The Cavs were in parts lethargic and uninspired early but yet managed to stay in reach of a once-great team hiding its rebuilding project behind the now slow-footed moves of a 33-year old point guard. With the arrival of the fourth quarter, the Cavs put on a display that was equal parts awesome and intimidating and in the process wrestled away control of the game like a suddenly aggravated dad finally confiscating the remote from one of the kids.

When Sunday’s game ended, the Pistons looked whipped. Whatever other aspirations they may have on the season, they knew that they were now well south of where the Cavs sights are set. The Cavs success against the Pistons in playoffs past may have signaled a start to the changing of the guard, but until Sunday’s victory, it was hard to tell if the Pistons were actually aware of that fact. Now they are.

That’s the big picture. The smaller but just as important one is how the Cavs got there. Trailing by eight heading into the fourth quarter, LeBron James was on the bench resting up for what looked like the inevitable final push up the hill. As he re-grouped, the rest of the team took over and in the process sent a message that this team is both wide and deep. By the time James came back into the game with about 7:30 remaining in the game, the Cavs were now up by five. All that was left was for him was to give the edges of this cake one final swipe of frosting, which, of course, is exactly what he did.

The final blow came with 3:48 remaining and the Cavs up by only four, though the gap seemed larger. James found Zydrunas Ilgauskas in the left corner and Ilgauskas buried a 3-pointer. Allen Iverson then turned the ball over and James pulled up and buried another 3-pointer for the seven point lead. The Pistons never got any closer.

What was perhaps most fascinating was how meekly the Pistons did go down in defeat. There was 1:40 left in the game and the Cavs holding a 86-76 lead. Bigger deficits have been overcome in less time, just not this time. The Pistons hardly put forth any effort in that last nearly two minutes. When Mo Williams, for example, rebounded a missed Tayshaun Prince 3-point attempt, the Pistons didn’t even attempt to foul him. They were far more content to just let the clock move as quickly as possible so they could move on to whatever else the day may have held for them.

As wins go, it may not be remembered as the season begins to wind down. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t meaningful. The Cavs place in the Eastern Conference may already have been established well before tip-off, but in the hearts and minds of the beaten Pistons they now knew full well the new pecking order.

To the extent that one franchise can learn from another, Sunday’s game was the perfect opportunity for the Browns to learn something from the Cavs. The Cavs have the swagger and ability that the Browns and their owner crave but can’t find. It helps, certainly, when you have the best player in the league on your team, but James is the first to acknowledge that the team’s success this year is, well, the result of the team.

It starts with owner Dan Gilbert, it flows to general manager Danny Ferry and finally on to head coach Mike Brown. Brown came in with a defense first mentality that he hasn’t wavered from. Ferry has given Brown the freedom to drive that point home, even when it wasn’t being as well received as it is this season, and has gone about acquiring players of a like mind to not just complement James offensively but also to play the game that Brown is trying to coach.

When a plan is put into practice and the results apparent, it seems so simple. Why, then, does it have to be so hard when it comes to the Browns?

Randy Lerner is right when he says that his head coach and his general manager need to be on the same page. If it helps for him to look at the New Englands and Pittsburghs of the world, ok, but the best example is right in his backyard. Rather than deep dive into the psyche of Bill Belichick any longer, Lerner should spend quality time with Gilbert, Ferry and Brown. My guess is that James could also teach him a thing or two as well.

Next year’s Super Bowl Sunday doesn’t look to be any more gratifying to Browns fans as any other. But if the Cavs keep winning, as they should, they’ll continue to be the NBA’s counterprogramming for that day, giving Cleveland fans at least some reason to feel pride even as they shed some tears.