Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Busting Up the Concrete

The Cleveland Browns are a lot of things this season, but until this weekend no one would have considered them existentialists. Yet here they are offering up a variation of the classic existential question by essentially positing: can a team this bad have a controversy at any position?

So much is wrong with this team from the ownership to the leadership on the field that such transient thoughts about quarterback controversies or whether the Browns have effectively ruined the career of Quinn, or Anderson for that matter, seem rather trivial. Assuming Mangini replaces Quinn with Anderson will that really make any noise?

That doesn’t mean there isn’t something to be learned here. As usual, there is and it is about head coach Eric Mangini. He’s turned into bizarro Chris Palmer.

Remember when Ty Detmer was signed on to be Tim Couch’s mentor in the fateful first season back 11 years ago? The veteran lasted all of 8 quarters until Palmer pulled the plug, essentially telling the world that the team wasn’t going anywhere so it was time to give the first-round pick the experience he would need to carry him and the team into a better place a few seasons down the road.

At the time Palmer’s decision was controversial mostly because the NFL mindset then was that rookies can’t play quarterback; it stunts their long-term development because failure allegedly shatters their confidence. How quaint that notion appears today, except in Cleveland. Palmer’s decision didn’t work out but it wasn’t wrong. It didn’t work out because the Browns were so bad that any quarterback who stepped on the field risked career-threatening injury, which is basically what happened with Couch. It wasn’t wrong because the franchise was building and he at least was trying to establish some semblance of a foundation.

Flash forward to Sunday. Mangini, the bizarro Palmer, does almost the exact opposite. He pulled his first-round pick, albeit 3 years removed, after a mere 10 quarters to insert a more veteran (barely) quarterback who is more suited to backing up than starting.

Mangini’s decision, unlike Palmer’s, may turn out OK but it is wrong. Instead of admitting the scale of the rebuilding process underway, Mangini acts as if this is a minor fix that will make the structure that much more sound. Hardly. Mangini took over a franchise with no structure and the minute he puts something in place he acts like a bride furnishing her first apartment, moving the end table here and the chair there. The fans play the patient husband tolerating these little moves knowing full well that they hardly make a difference.

Getting the quarterback position settled is one of the more important elements to building a successful team in the NFL. When you consider all the reasons the Browns have been awful the last 10 years, the lack of a quarterback is among the root causes. Mangini seemed to understand that at the outset and sought to remedy it. He had the chance to draft Mark Sanchez but apparently felt that there was already enough to work with here for both the near and long term to allow him to fill what he felt were more pressing needs.

After supposedly conducting a thorough competition over the better part of two months in order to put the forms in the right place, Mangini took a jack hammer to the concrete before it was fully cured. He did this on the strength of scant evidence presented in 10 quarters of football played against three objectively better football teams. And if Mangini names Anderson the starter, as expected, it apparently will come down to one play, Anderson’s 16-yard completion on third down to Mike Furrey.

In essence, Mangini is reworking the forms and pouring a new foundation three games in, throwing away virtually everything that had accumulated to that point in favor of one meaningless first down in a game in which his team had already been vivisected by a Ravens defense that had grown bored with the ease of their conquest.

When Palmer dumped Detmer in favor of Couch, most thought it signaled panic. As much as anything else it helped grease the skids for Palmer’s firing. If Palmer had made that decision today, most would probably praise the move because, well, the NFL mindset on rookie quarterbacks has changed. In some ways, Palmer was just ahead of that curve.

The opposite, however, is not true. Mangini, allegedly a veteran head coach, is the one panicking. More than just panicking he’s also signaling that he can’t be trusted. As ludicrous as the so-called quarterback competition in preseason was, it was important for Mangini to name as starter the one who emerged or else lose whatever credibility he was trying to build with his new team. When Mangini named Quinn as starter, it seemed like the right decision. The results of the competition were somewhat inconclusive but of the two participants most agreed that Quinn played less bad.

But those results are now apparently irrelevant in favor of 10 quarters of Quinn’s work against one meaningless pass completed by Anderson. If Mangini is so easily swayed, was the so-called competition ever anything more than window dressing anyway? In actuality, what this really says is that Mangini is completely indifferent to how random he appears. In his mind he probably thinks it adds to his aura.

The players always will put as good a face on all of this as they can because, really, they have no other choice. Existing under a petty dictatorship where every raised eyebrow and misspoken word may lighten their wallet, why on earth would they bother to have an opinion, at least publicly? Besides, for all the talk about “team” professional athletes within the same franchise are just a loosely affiliated federation of competitors. Thrown together mostly by chance they know that at any given moment they could be sitting in someone else’s locker room or at home in their Lay-Z-Boy waiting for a call from their agent on where they’re headed next. One player’s misery may be another’s opportunity.

Mangini, of course, is as free to take advantage of this built-in mindset as he is to reshuffle the deck as much as he wants. It comes with the job. Just like Randy Lerner shouldn’t hamstring this franchise by adhering to decisions that were wrong just for the sake of continuity (hint, hint) Mangini shouldn’t be so constrained either.

But why is it that Quinn is being castigated by Mangini in favor of a quarterback who has far more sins on his resume? Why is Mangini giving Anderson a pass for the three interceptions he threw on Sunday and crucifying Quinn for his one? Anderson came into a difficult situation during Sunday’s game only if you accept the premise that the Browns had a shot to win the game in the first place. They didn’t. Quinn was hamstrung with the same constraints—no running game, limited receiving corps and playing against one of the best defenses in the league—that Anderson had. The fact that Anderson entered the game with the team down 20-0 at the half hardly changed that equation.

All this talk about the quarterbacks also begs a larger question. What is Mangini doing about the overall approach to the offense? Stated differently, how safe is Brian Daboll’s job? During the first week of September three teams fired their offensive coordinators: Buffalo, Tampa Bay and Kansas City. Those seemed like panic moves at the time and in truth they were.

But we’re three games into the actual season and no one seems to be asking the rather obvious question as to how Daboll’s performance could escape the scrutiny that Quinn’s has gotten. If it’s possible Daboll has even less qualifications to be an offensive coordinator than Mangini has to be a head coach, but maybe that’s his attraction. Mangini, always the underdog, appreciates a compatriot.

Daboll never played the game as a professional and was a safety for the University of Rochester. His coaching career is likewise undistinguished. He started as a restricted volunteer at the College of William and Mary, went on to become a graduate assistant at Michigan State and then somehow landed in New England with the Patriots as a defensive assistant, whatever that means. Ultimately he spent 4 years as a receivers coach with the Patriots and 2 years as a quarterback coach with the New York Jets. In context to Mangini’s very similar resume, Daboll’s ascension by Mangini to full blown NFL offensive coordinator makes perfect sense.

What’s fascinating to consider in all of this is that both Mangini and Daboll were given ample opportunities that they probably didn’t deserve to move up the ladder while Quinn is being left to rot for having the audacity to play poorly for 10 quarters with a team as pointless and directionless as the Browns.

It may turn out that neither Quinn nor Anderson is a NFL caliber starting quarterback. But that’s a question that will get answered when either or both find themselves with another team and a better chance. Given the panicked and random way this regime makes decision, that’s really their only hope.

This isn’t to defend or protect either Quinn or Anderson so much as it is to underscore the problems with the puppeteer pulling the strings. Ample evidence exists and it’s growing daily that the puppeteer doesn’t know what he’s doing. Lucky for him, the one pulling his strings checked out about 5 minutes after his hiring was announced.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Where Down is the New Up

Somewhere between Romeo Crennel and Eric Mangini is the right head coach for the Cleveland Browns. If you’re out there and available at the moment just raise your hand, and do so high enough so that it can be seen somewhere in England where owner Randy Lerner surely is hiding.

On any other team under these same circumstances, Mangini might be in line to hold the record for the quickest hook of a newly-hired coach. But as it is, he’ll be given due time to snuff out the last sign of life in this franchise by Lerner, as disaffected of an owner as exists in professional sports. If it’s three years, so be it. Lerner has more than demonstrated by deed if not word that he couldn't care less.

That the Browns would be bad this season isn’t a surprise to anyone. That they are this bad at this moment surely is. But more to the point, Mangini has his troops playing as if they are purposely trying to get him fired.

Just about everything associated with this team is in disarray. The locker room is a circus. You have veterans with maturity issues playing juvenile pranks on rookies. You have immature rookies lashing out because they were doused with water. In each case, preparing for the next opponent seems like an after thought. Then there is also the matter of a mini-players revolt as a number of them, already irritated with Mangini’s petty ways and even pettier fines, are filing grievances with the league in what might be record fashion.

Whether these grievances have any merit is largely irrelevant. The fact that they have been filed so quickly into Mangini’s tenure is strong evidence that there is a deep and abiding distrust of the man in charge and an even deeper and more abiding lack of respect for him.

Sure there are players that will stand by his side, but these are mostly the former Jets that he breathed new life into by giving them a job here in Cleveland. There were also a few non-former Jets defending their head coach, but that’s suspect in the present environment. Does a fine await them if they don’t? If the polling was anonymous you’d have trouble finding anyone else in the locker room willing to put their own reputation on the line to stand up for him.

It isn’t just the pettiness, it’s the dispirited way Mangini goes about putting together the team. As the new man in town he decided to open up a quarterback competition rather than evaluate the evidence at hand. Fair enough. But then he went about constructing it in a way that made so little sense not even the main participants, Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson, had any idea where they stood until a few days before the Vikings game.

Stop and contemplate the implications of that and you can begin to understand why this team has had one touchdown in three games. If both Quinn and Anderson were being kept in the dark, how clueless must the other 25 or so players on offense have been? Mangini kept them wondering who would be their leader and as a result they built allegiance to no one. The results speak for themselves.

But it goes further than that. Trying to gain a competitive advantage at the expense of teaching a team that didn’t score a touchdown in its last 6 games last season how to score again, Mangini ran a vanilla preseason instead. Consequently, what little time Quinn and Anderson had to work in those games added little to their regular season preparation. The Browns threw about 152 screen passes in the preseason. In three games they’ve thrown, perhaps, three and no one on the Minnesota, Denver or Baltimore defense was fooled for a minute.

But it goes even further than that. The Browns’ receiving corps was thin going into the preseason. When you’re number one receiver is Braylon Edwards, known more for running his mouth and dropping the ball, that’s the first warning sign. But then Mangini traded Kellen Winslow without a viable back-up. There still isn’t one.

Mangini appeared to address the shortcoming by drafting two, count’em, two receivers in the second round. Keep in mind that in Brian Robiskie, he was the 7th receiver drafted and by all measures other than Mangini’s, was the most polished receiver in the draft. He can’t even get himself activated for game day because Mangini, always the thinker, just had to find a space for that third string defensive back on special teams. Robiskie isn’t probably the only one in the locker room scratching his head over that one. The other second rounder, Mohammed Massaquoi might as well be inactive. He sees time late in the game, if at all, so busy is Mangini trying to shoehorn Joshua Cribbs into a role he’s not quite suited for.

Layered on all of this is a first time offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, the first branch I suppose off the Mangini tree. It’s been three games and I defy anyone to present a cogent explanation for what exactly the team is trying to accomplish under his direction. The runs are perfunctory, the passing game unimaginative.

Argue all you want that the running game is lousy because the running backs are lousy, but as you’re doing that remember to lay the blame for that at Mangini’s feet. He’s the one that left the team so thin at the position. As for the passing game, it may be that Quinn doesn’t like to look downfield, but as I watch things unfold, it doesn’t look like there are many plays designed to go downfield. Edwards is double covered on virtually every play. Cribbs is a neophyte at the position and can’t get open. Michael Furrey is a specialist at going underneath, never past the first down markers. The Browns under Daboll are content to dump and dink because that’s all they can think to do.

It’s impossible to believe that the Browns are this bad. The offensive line features a Pro Bowler, a well thought of high-priced guard and a decorated rookie at center. They aren’t the second coming of the 1973 Buffalo Bills, but they also aren’t the second coming of the 1999 Cleveland Browns either. There is some talent. Why, then, can’t it open holes or protect a quarterback?

There is probably any number of theories but the one I keep landing on is coaching. Simply put, Mangini and the coaching team he assembled are in over their collective heads. They are not putting any of these players in a position to be successful. Nothing is done to slow down the rush, less is done to open up the running game. Quinn is confused because he’s in a confusing system with no purpose.

On defense, Bob Ryan is doing nothing to make anyone feel like the New York Jets pegged the wrong Ryan brother as their successor to Mangini. Ryan gets a bit of a pass, though, because outside of perhaps Shaun Rogers there isn’t a player on this defense that could start for any other team.

Watching Brandon McDonald, for example, flail away against Baltimore only confirms that this was another personnel assessment that former general manager Phil Savage got exactly wrong. Watching “highlights” of the Denver/Oakland game reminded me of how Savage touted JaMarcus Russell as the next great quarterback. It’s too bad, really, that Savage wasn’t able to snag Russell. He’d fit in perfect here.

Mangini isn’t to blame for players like McDonald but he is to blame for the current product on the field. It’s not an issue of this taking time to turn around. There is nothing to turn around. Mangini has taken a team that was run aground under the last regime and instead of trying to redefine it he’s busy poking enough gaping holes in it to make it impossible to float again.

If Lerner thought that Mangini would be a steadying force, then just chalk that up as another in a series of bad decisions Lerner’s made since he reluctantly inherited the team. When Mangini yanked Quinn in the third quarter of a game that didn’t have a chance of winning before it started, it only confirmed Mangini’s unsteady hand.

What’s fascinating to contemplate is why exactly Mangini would take a situation already desperate and deliberately make it worse by inserting Anderson ostensibly to add a spark. He had to know that it wouldn’t work and if he didn’t know it that only makes it that much worse. It confirms to the players, on both sides of the ball, that their head coach has hit the panic button. If you think they aren’t playing for him now, just wait. When it comes to things like this, players aren’t as dumb as Mangini would like to believe. If he wanted a spark with Anderson then why did he wait until the team was back on the field to start the second half? It was a panic move by a head coach not worthy of the title.

Whether Quinn starts next week or Anderson or even Brett Ratliff or the ghost of Bruce Gradkowski, just know that the ensuing turmoil was self-inflicted by what is quickly becoming the worst off-season move in the history of the NFL, Lerner’s hiring of Mangini.

All of which gets me back to my original point. On any other team under these circumstances, Mangini would be searching for a realtor. In Cleveland, where down is the new up, Lerner is probably trying to figure out how to give Mangini and even greater role in the organization.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Chasing Their Tails

It’s time to stop judging the Cleveland Browns by such conventional standards as wins or losses. The watchword for these Browns is simply “progress” as in was there any noticeable progress from the previous week’s disaster? Adjusting expectations according, the Browns were more Denver bad than Minnesota bad as they were blasted by the Ravens, 34-3.

Like a bad movie being played on a continuous loop, head coach Eric Mangini decided to revisit the relative salad days of preseason by reintroducing a quarterback controversy for the coming week. Here’s what we know. The limits of Mangini’s patience is 10 quarters. That’s how long he gave his preseason quarterback derby winner Brady Quinn before pulling the plug by inserting Derek Anderson in the game to start the second half. It didn’t pay immediate dividends. In fact it didn’t pay any dividends, unless you consider that it made a dark and dank situation even more muddled. Anderson moved the team once but threw 3 interceptions in his limited time. You figure out what that means, I’ve lost the will.

If there’s a controversy next week regarding the quarterback slot, it will probably be over who has to start. Being forced to start at quarterback for this team, a team without a running or receiving game, is like being forced to clean the bathroom with a toothbrush after a frat party.

While 3 interceptions in such a short period of time are impressive by even Cleveland standards, Anderson had a few nice moments. Playing in garbage time that seems to be arriving earlier each week, Anderson at least put his team in relative to position to score by driving them down to the Ravens 8-yard line on his second drive.

The drive featured a number of “good Anderson” plays where he avoids the rush and throws down the field followed by a number of “bad Anderson” plays where he inexplicably trips over his feet and misses a mid-range pass. Still, for a moment it was good enough to give fans hope that someday soon a real touchdown might be scored.

Just not on this day. Down 27-0 and apparently deciding that in some sense progress is measured in points, Mangini eschewed 4th and goal from the 12 (yea, they were 1st and goal from the 8) and instead sent out newly-signed kicker Billy Cundiff for a 30-yard field goal. How very Romeo Crennel of Mangini.

As for the rest of the game, at least it fell apart early, dispelling any notion at the outset that it might be competitive and giving fans enough time to get some chores completed.

Taking the opening kick off and moving the ball for a brief moment on their first series, it blew up 5 plays into it when quarterback Brady Quinn was intercepted by cornerback Dominique Foxworth at the Baltimore 37-yard line. Foxworth then lateraled to Ray Lewis who got the ball to the Cleveland 31 yard line. From there, after a perfunctory toying with the Browns’ defense on 4th down, Willis McGahee essentially walked into the end zone so unmolested that he could have Twittered his status on the way and just like that the Ravens had a 7-0 lead.

Meanwhile, back on the Ravens side of the ball, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron used the team’s second drive to demonstrate not just to the Browns but to the rest of the league that this is a team in full.

Like Artie Lange at a Vegas buffet line, the Ravens marched through the Browns with ease for the drive’s first 77 yards but a timely sack of quarterback Joe Flacco forced the Ravens to settle for a 37-yard field goal by Steven Hauschka. The drive was greatly aided by the Browns’ defense’s inability to put pressure on Flacco for most of it and a late hit penalty that will have Mangini poking out his eyeballs when he looks at it on film Monday, but those are just details. The Ravens made it look effortless. The Browns, on the other hand, looked to be using less effort.

Here’s a question to ponder so early in the week: on the Browns’ next drive, Jerome Harrison had the team’s longest run of the season, 17 yards. On first down Quinn quick snapped a quarterback sneak. The question is why? Did he think that Harrison was a yard short of the first down on his run? Was he trying to catch the Ravens napping? Was Maurice Carthon subbing for Brian Daboll as offensive coordinator? The answer isn’t all that important except that it is. It was a wasted play against that feasts on wasted plays. Two plays later, the Browns were punting.

But this being about progress and not results, the Harrison run did change field position. Dave Zastudil’s punt was downed at the Baltimore 9-yard line. An illegal block penalty put it at the Baltimore 3-yard line. This is the spot in which it would be nice to write that the Browns defense, emboldened by having the Ravens buried deep, tightened and held, forcing the Ravens to punt from their own end zone and giving Cleveland the ball at the Baltimore 45-yard line.

Actually, it was nice to write that, though it would have been nicer if it were true. Instead the Ravens put together another long drive, 92-yards to be exact, before being stopped at the Cleveland 5-yard line. Hauschka hit the 33-yard field goal (which would have been a 23-yarder but for a holding penalty on his first kick) and pushed the score to an even more insurmountable 13-0.

Again, though, this is about progress and from a progress standpoint the Browns defense may have given up two incredibly long drives, 77 yards and 92 yards, back-to-back, but at least they didn’t let the Ravens in the end zone. Kudos, I guess, to Rob Ryan.

Where, then, to fit in the Ravens next touchdown, the one that helped make it 20-0 at half? The answer, of course, is somewhere between the 77-yarder and 95-yarder. This one was precisely 80 yards. For those bothering to do the math, that’s 4 drives in the first half covering a total of 271 yards. For perspective, that’s more yardage than the Browns had in either of the first two games.

The Browns, as usual, didn’t find the end zone in the first half. They didn’t even come close. Not a whiff. But since this is about progress, call it a draw. They haven’t scored a touchdown in the first half of either of their first two games, either.

It’s probably best not to get into too much detail about what took place in the second half. The overarching story was Mangini pulling the plug on Quinn and Anderson doing his best to punch his own ticket elsewhere. For the rest of it, let’s just put a positive spin on it and acknowledge that not as much progress was made as Mangini had hoped. Here were the highlights:

• Opening kickoff, Browns were offside. Mangini, I think, swallowed his tongue.

• Browns defense holds Ravens, forcing their first punt at 12:47 of the third quarter, thus marking this the first halftime adjustment that’s worked for the Browns this season.

• When Anderson entered the game it wasn’t a surprise. I remember thinking at the moment Quinn threw the interception on the Browns’ first drive that his days as the starting quarterback were dwindling quickly. Apparently Mangini had the same thought at the same time. Scary, huh?

• Anderson shows exactly what a backup can do when given the same empty toolbox as the starter. He, too, throws an interception on his first drive, thus keeping it at “1” the number of halftime adjustments this season that have been effective.

• McGahee goes where Adrian Peterson and Correll Buckhalter have gone before. He rumbles 34 yards down to the Cleveland 19-yard line, treating Brandon McDonald as if he were his little brother by pushing him out of the way twice.

• Ray Rice completes what McGahee started by running the final 9 yards, giving the Ravens a 27-0 lead. In England, it’s 6 hours later and owner Randy Lerner is just sitting down for dinner. Good show, mate.

• As Anderson began his second drive, the media drones from Sector 2 readied the next wave of quarterback questions for Mangini while the Ravens defense contemplated whether or not to stay interested enough to try and pitch a shut out. Ah, the game within the game. The Browns win this little battle when they foil the shut out with the Cundiff field goal.

• For apparently no reason, Shaun Rogers throws Ravens guard Ben Grubbs to the ground and gets an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Oddly, this seemed to rattle the Ravens enough that McGahee fumbles on the next play, deep in Browns’ territory, and the Browns recover. The Ravens didn’t stay rattled for long as the Browns were forced to punt a few plays later.

• In what may be one of his final drives as a Cleveland Brown, Anderson throws long and downfield in the direction of Edwards. Dawann Landry, wearing Ravens purple, sees it land in his gut for the interception.

• With a 27-3 lead, Ravens head coach John Harbaugh gets word from the press box that tiebreaker points might be needed. Flacco throws long to Derrick Mason, who makes a great catch and move on an outclassed McDonald and turns it into a 34-3 game. McDonald must be worried that he is soon to receive the Martin Rucker treatment. It’s barely 3:30 p.m. EDT, there’s still over 7 minutes remaining and yet it seems like the game already has lasted 4 hours.

• Anderson throws his third interception and somewhere on the Browns’ bench Quinn is probably muttering under his breath, “told ya.”

• Troy Smith enters the game and for two series the Browns hold. Smith deserved better.

Sorting through the wreckage, the final stats tell the story in one sense but not in another. The Ravens had 479 yards in offense, the Browns 186. Flacco was 25-35 for 342 yards, Quinn and Anderson were a combined 17-27 for 115 yards. Baltimore had 142 yards on the ground and the Browns had exactly half of that. It would be hard to find a game more lopsided out of the Texas-UTEP game.

As bad as things were last season, the sting of this season is far worse actually. Promised a new direction and a new attitude, most fans didn’t even begin to contemplate that that meant backwards and worse. There is no spark or passion on this team as it takes its cue from the emotionally inept Mangini. The players know that theirs is a boat that is drifting listlessly and that Mangini is responsible for the lack of rudder. He put the team in this position offensively by not committing to one quarterback early in preseason and he took an ax to whatever continuity was being built (admittedly not much) by throwing Anderson in when things got tough.

If the Browns really want to fix this mess then they have to set a course and learn to live with it, for all the ups and down that may come. Instead they change direction on a whim and with their third straight blowout loss, find themselves once again going in circles. Apropos to nothing, the New York Jets are 3-0.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Lingering Items--Broncos Edition

The news that the Cleveland Browns waived tight end Martin Rucker was greeted by most with a mere yawn or at best a knowing smirk. Either way it’s below the radar when there are far bigger issues to deal with. But, really, in some sense isn’t the cutting of Rucker a marker for the biggest issue facing this team, a deep and abiding lack of talent?

Rucker was one of former general manager Phil Savage’s classic picks. Thinking, as he usually did, that he was once again outsmarting the rest of the league, he traded a 2009 third round pick to Dallas for another fourth round pick in 2008, which turned into Rucker.

If Savage were still around, the fact that he wasted a third round pick on another bust would be a dischargeable offense. Hopefully it will probably keep him further unemployed. As the Plain Dealer reported, Savage was well aware that Rucker couldn’t block, which is something most teams want from tight ends, dismissing his complete lack of skills by challenging the reporter to name a tight end that could block. Since Rucker wasn’t drafted to fill the role of a traditional tight end, he basically was competing for the position of slow receiver. In that context his being waived was inevitable. The Browns already have plenty of those.

The larger issue though is what Savage did to this franchise in the process of making such a bone-headed move. Essentially, the Browns had no 2008 draft. It was mortgaged for three defensive linemen, a quarterback and a linebacker in the persons of, Shaun Rogers, Corey Williams, Ahtyba Rubin, Brady Quinn, and Alex Hall, respectively.

Of that group, the only one to contribute meaningfully so far has been Rogers. The level of his contribution though is hard to gauge. He was chosen for the Pro Bowl on the strength of a season in which he anchored a defensive line that was one of the worst in the league. Evidently it would have been far worse without Rogers but even with him the team went 4-12. Maybe they go 3-13 or 2-14 without him, as if that would really would have mattered.

Corey Williams hasn’t been a bust but neither has he been much of a contributor, mainly due to injuries. Rubin looks like a decent prospect but again this season the defensive line can’t stop the run so it’s unclear how much of a difference he, Rogers or Williams, singularly or collectively, are making anyway. Quinn is the team’s starting quarterback on an offense without a credible running game or a credible complement of receivers to catch the ball. He looks bad but there isn’t a whole lot of ways to look good, either. As for Hall, whatever his contributions might be, the Browns linebacking corps is one of the worst in the league. Do the math on that yourself.

No team can essentially give away draft after draft after draft after draft and expect to be competitive. The Indians’ season is a testament to exactly what eventually happens when draft neglect has been committed in serial fashion. The Browns of this season and last are making a case of overtaking the Indians as the Wikipedia entry for that point.

That gets head coach Eric Mangini off the hook except that it really doesn’t. To this point his 2009 draft isn’t looking so smart, either. All the manipulating and cleverness that he tried to exhibit on draft day cost him Mark Sanchez and instead brought the team a rookie center and two receivers who apparently can’t even beat out a converted college quarterback and kick returner, even if he is one of the best kick returners in the league. There also are a couple of linebackers that haven’t contributed despite the gaping need the team has at that position and a defensive back that plays on special teams because, again, he can’t crack an incredibly weak starting defensive backfield. Finally, there’s a running back who shows promise but hasn’t contributed much in two games despite, wait for it, a gaping need at that position as well.

That’s not to pass judgment on the Browns 2009 draft class. It has plenty of time to get better and one preseason and two games in is just far too early to judge it to conclusion. But it is fair to suggest that it ought to contributing more considering the alternatives that are playing in their places. In any case, last year’s class is kaput. Rucker is now gone and forgotten. But what won’t be is what he stands for; another failed draft. If 2009 turns into another failed draft, just add another few years before the team can even hope to be competitive.


Does the fact that Coye Francies tried to take on the entire Browns’ locker room after being the victim of some sort of prank mean the wheels are starting to fall off the team so soon? Probably not. But of all the comments made about it, the most intriguing was that made by receiver Braylon Edwards when he told reporters, according to the Plain Dealer, “welcome to the Browns’ locker room.”

In that comment Edwards was clearly telling the collected media, in front of whom the skirmish broke out, that this kind of chaos is de rigueur for the team. Small wonder Mangini doesn’t want the media around.

It might be fair to ask why any Browns are playing a prank on any player, no matter how juvenile, instead of concentrating on not suffering their third straight beat down. But that would just be poking at the obvious. What is clear is that despite all the discipline he promised to bring, Mangini is no more in charge of the locker room than his predecessor.

Under former head coach Romeo Crennel, Brady Quinn was the victim of a prank that he was none too happy about, the shaving of his Sampson-like locks last year. Then there was that little tête-à-tête (that’s two French phrases in one item, take that Gladys McCoy) Quinn had with Shaun Smith. That all probably meant that Quinn doesn’t have much of a sense of humor or it might mean that neither incident was particularly funny. But it also meant that Crennel was busy sitting in his office while the players were doing anything but trying to win the next game.

There is a “boys will be boys” element to every team and in sports, the pranks are particularly amateurish, usually involving humiliation. But right now the Browns are being laughed at nationally because their play on the field is a joke. Now they’re also being laughed at nationally because their players can’t take a joke.


The muted response by Browns’ fans to last week’s loss in Denver can only mean that a large portion of them are already in either stage 4 or 5 of the grieving process. That means some are still depressed by most are in the acceptance phase, which is healthy.

Occasionally I get a random email from someone still in the bargaining stage, as in “if Jamal Lewis can just….and if Quinn can find Edwards…and if Eric Wright becomes the Pro Bowl corner he should be…then this team can make the playoffs” or something like that. But those are far less than they used to be.

The Browns as a franchise died when Art Modell moved them to Baltimore. The new Browns arrived terminally ill, clinging to a ventilator. The plug was effectively pulled when Randy Lerner took over as owner. The best way to look at it these days is to simply think of Mangini’s hire as the equivalent to the team starting over from scratch. It’s a refreshing state of mind, actually. It makes you realize that it’s no longer about trying to keep grandpa alive but about watching a newborn grow. Whether it has the right parents is open to much debate. But this truly is a franchise at the moment that is learning to crawl—forward.


As a bit of a follow-up to an item last week, it is noted that Green Bay New York Jets Minnesota Vikings quarterback Brett Favre has apologized, sort of, for getting his former team, the Jets, and his former coach, Mangini, in trouble with the league. Poor Brett is just apoplectic about having cost them $150,000 in fines, but not apoplectic enough to reimburse either of them.

Mangini, as usual, has put the whole matter behind him though he never addressed it either. I mention this because it’s a fascinating counterpoint to the rather impassioned justification Mangini gave for fining Abram Elam $1700 for not paying for a $3 bottle of water at a hotel. Mangini said there is a code of conduct that everyone in every walk of life lives by and his football players should be no different. In that, of course, Mangini’s views are above reproach.

But Mangini is also rather convenient when it comes to the more squishy issues of league rules as they apply to him. Mangini knew full well that he wasn’t properly reporting Favre’s injury last year but continued to do it anyway. He wouldn’t have been caught but for Favre’s big mouth. If you’re keeping score, that means that Elam’s offense wasn’t walking out without paying for the water, it was getting caught.

To this point Mangini hasn’t substantively spoken about the $25,000 fine he received from the league. In basically sweeping it away, he creates the impression that he doesn’t believe he did anything wrong but there’s no use fighting big brother. Maybe he actually feels that way, maybe he doesn’t. But either way, Mangini missed a teaching opportunity with his troops that, more than empty words about his players’ place in proper society, would have demonstrated exactly why it was proper to fine Elam fine and any other player similarly situated. Mangini could have done this by the simple act of publicly declaring that his actions last year with respect to Favre were wrong, a violation of the rules for which he was rightly fined and then giving his word that it will never happen again.

Mangini couldn’t do that because he lacks that gene. If he did, it wouldn’t be Saturday before Browns fans found out that the starting kicker has a serious enough injury that the team was auditioning emergency kickers.

The truth is that Mangini plays the outer boundaries of any rules he simply doesn’t like. League rules require that he provide the media reasonable access to the team and he complies with the letter but hardly the spirit. He pressured rookies into taking a 10-hour bus ride, a ride Mangini himself was unwilling to make, skirting again the spirit if not the letter of the collective bargaining agreement. In both cases he’s left a bus-load of pissed off people in his wake.

It’s a disturbing pattern, actually. There’s no problem with Mangini holding his players accountable for not acting like jerks in public. There is a problem when Mangini is only willing to live by that same code when it’s convenient. Ethics and integrity aren’t about what you do when someone’s looking. They’re about what you do when no one is.


If a team can possibly be a “soft” 2-0 then the Denver Broncos have met that charge. After opening against the Bengals and then the Browns, the Broncos have gotten off to a the kind of start Browns fans can only dream about and, in the process, have given their fans a reason to believe that Pat Bowlen’s firing of Mike Shanahan was the right move at the right moment.

It won’t last.

Denver’s cause will be helped this year by the division they play in, but it won’t be helped enough. As long as the Broncos continue to start Kyle Orton as their quarterback, and what choice do they have really, they and their fans will eventually face reality. You can drink all night and not feel like you’re drunk, but that doesn’t mean you won’t have a headache when you wake up in the morning.

The Broncos, frankly, are a borderline pathetic franchise at the moment. They beat the Browns last week because that’s what they, like the Steelers, always do. But there are bills coming due. Head coach Josh McDaniel’s decision to trade quarterbacks with the Bears was not just plain dumb, it will become a millstone around his neck when his offense can’t keep pace with the better defensive teams in the league. When they play the Steelers or the Ravens, take either and give the points.

The Broncos defense may have been able to stifle the Browns offense, but then again I think Ohio State’s defense could hold the Browns to under 10 points at the moment. When the Broncos begin facing teams with a legitimate offense, their defense will struggle. The seeds of that struggle were evident even against the Browns.


The San Francisco 49ers haven’t yet signed receiver Michael Crabtree. If the 49ers are smart, they’ll let him dangle some more. The 49ers have made an offer befitting Crabtree’s place in the draft but Crabtree wants an offer befitting where he believes he should have gone in the draft. Eventually he’ll sign. Sitting out the year will result in money he’ll never recoup. All this is a very long set up for this week’s question to ponder: When the 2009 season concludes, who will have more receptions, Crabtree or Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

More Puzzle Than Pieces

Rarely is it a good time to be a Cleveland sports fan but some times are better than others. This is one of the others.

Browns fans seemed particularly despondent over the team’s dismal performance at Denver on Sunday. It wasn’t so much that they expected the team to win. They just didn’t expect them to lose that bad. As the game played out in its mind-numbing slowness, it’s glacial pace gave fans plenty of time to contemplate just how long it might be until this team, this franchise, is competitive again. From the looks of things at the moment, it will be years.

That the Browns season is effectively over two games in is just another helping of bad news on a town that thought that this past NBA season would bring the championship this town believes it deserves. An inability to match-up with an otherwise inferior opponent carried an aura of inevitability of the defeat that surely came.

Then, of course, the meltdown by the Cleveland Indians followed, carrying with it all earmarks of a business model that’s built around developing players that can later be traded. The Indians are a franchise without the financial wherewithal to develop and retain core players and fans just know at this point that any World Series title depends mostly on the harmonic convergence of young players exceeding expectations before they can be free agents.

With the Indians season now a distant memory despite a handful of games remaining and the Cavs still a several days away from camp (and sorting out what the heck Delonte West was thinking), focus is on the Browns. It’s not quite a team in disarray in the Romeo Crennel sense, but it’s a team with limited purpose.

Trying to get a bead on head coach Eric Mangini is proving more elusive as each day passes. Quarterback Brady Quinn, a rookie quarterback in every way but name, is saddled with a somewhat suspect offensive line, a non-existent running back led by a back several years past his prime, and a receiving corps with a college quarterback and kick returner extraordinaire acting as its second best option.

Then there’s the defense. It features a secondary that can’t cover a slot receiver or tackle a running back. The last time the linebackers put pressure on an opposing quarterback on a regular basis, Clay Matthews, Sr. was only known as Clay Matthews. And the defensive line? In two games opposing teams have averaged more than 200 yards on the ground and the nose tackle is a Pro Bowler.

Where does that leave the team now and, more importantly, where is the direction that Mangini wants to take it? At the moment there’s no way of telling because the next time that Mangini provides a substantive answer on anything will be the first time. He’s no more going to offer a credible explanation on why he’s trying to mold Josh Cribbs into a big-time receiver at the expense of two potential big-time receivers that he just drafted in the second round then he is on why, despite the fact that Jamal Lewis is done as a running back, he left the team so thin in that department.

Fans are always about instant gratification but the sense of dread is not over immediate results. No one is calling for Mangini to be fired and most fans know, intellectually if not emotionally, that it’s going to take far more than one off –season and a few games to fix this mess. But on the other hand they’d at least like to think that entering their 11th season, this version of the Browns has more of a chance to win a few games than the expansion version did. It is on this notion that Mangini will be judged.

Assessing Mangini in this context thus far is difficult. The team has a serious deficit in talent and while Mangini made all the calls on which personnel would be retained and which would be jettisoned, it’s not like he could fire everyone and start over, either. What he has done so far, though, begs a few questions that he’ll never answer.

Among the most puzzling is why Brian Robiskie was inactive for the Denver game and why Mohamad Massaquoi basically didn’t play until garbage time. Is it really the case that Cribbs is well ahead of both of them or more the case of trying to figure out right now the full limits of Cribbs’ potential?

It’s no knock on Cribbs to say that his usefulness as a receiver is limited. He can run reverses just fine but lacks the polish and skill to run crisp routes and get open consistently at the moment. That may change down the road by why is it being done at the expense of two receivers with far bigger upsides?

One theory is that the more Cribbs is out there with the first team offense, the more effective the so-called wildcat offense will become. That probably holds some merit but until Cribbs starts throwing from that formation, NFL defenses will know what’s coming and respond accordingly. The Vikings only needed to see it once to stop it the second time.

Mangini hinted at an answer with respect to Robiskie, offering the rather odd excuse that Robiskie was inactive because Mangini needed to get newly-acquired Patriots castoff defensive back Ray Ventrone in the mix on special teams. Hard to tell if that was a slam at Robiskie or a slam at the special teams, but either way the Browns have essentially relegated one of their second round picks behind an unsigned free agent begging for a gig until Mangini through him a lifeline.

Another puzzle is the defense. Sure, it lacks credible defensive ends, linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties, but why are they so out of shape? Or is it my imagination that they can’t sustain either their stamina or their interest for a full 60 minutes?

You can argue somewhat correctly that if the offense would sustain a few more drives maybe the defense wouldn’t get so tired. But what of the notion that this is only the second game of the season and the players should be less banged up and in enough shape to sustain their energy irrespective of how long they’ve been on the field in a particular game? They do this for a living, the least they can do is be in shape.

The challenge for Mangini, just two games in though it feels like 22, is not only stifling the losing culture but keeping it from further metastasizing. Show me a team that is losing like this and I’ll show you a team that is falling apart at the seams. Want proof? Look at the spectacularly dismal way Eric Wedge is bringing his limp horse of a team back to the barn. It is exactly the same feeling that fans had at the end of the Browns season last year, more bored than pissed looking on at injured and indifferent players acting as if a rectal exam would be more welcome.

It may be far too soon to say the players on this team are just mailing in their performance each week, but it isn’t too soon to conclude that they go into each week expecting to lose. It’s the inevitable result when the elements of an indifferent owner, bad hires, bad drafts and bad karma meet. Maybe Mangini can become the change agent to actually alter the recipe of this toxic soup, but given the way his team and his draft picks have played thus far, the list of things that need to get fixed isn’t any shorter.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Another Week, Another Streak

The streak continues, take your pick.

After losing to the Denver Broncos on Sunday 27-6 at Denver’s Invesco Field, the Browns kept in tact the NFL’s longest drought for not scoring on an opening drive and the NFL’s third longest losing streak, thanks Detroit, thanks St. Louis. Meanwhile a new touchdown-less streak has begun. Yes, the offense is that bad, again.

The Browns, lacking much of a passing game and less of a running game couldn’t sustain drives when they needed to or take advantage of opportunities when presented. An earnest effort early undone by a lack of talent, the Browns were kept in the game for mucht of the game mostly because the Broncos offense under Kyle Orton is nearly as bad, despite the team being 2-0.

As an aside, here’s something that was clear from the Broncos first drive. Orton is no Jay Cutler. When the Broncos stop plowing their way through the second division of the AFC North, head coach Josh McDaniels can blame himself for ushering out the temperamental but far more talented Cutler for Orton. Orton defines NFL mediocrity in a position where it’s hard to hide. With an occasional good pass thrown in among the several bad ones, Orton almost single-handedly kept the Browns in this game until they imploded in the middle of the third quarter.

For now, the Browns are relegated once again to talking about getting better, fixing what needs to be fixed and moving on past their third 0-2 start in the last four years. At least it started promising.

Peyton Hillis fumbled the opening kickoff from Phil Dawson giving the Browns the ball at the Broncos 22-yard line. But the Browns weren’t going to break a nearly two-year old streak of not scoring a touchdown on their opening drive on this day and, as usual, settled for a Dawson field goal. With gifts few and far between for this team it felt as if the Broncos decided to spot the Browns a 3-point lead and then buckled their chinstraps and said, “let’s play.” They could have spotted the Browns a lot more.

But so much of what the Browns do is for the benefit of others. On third and long from deep in their own territory on the game’s second drive, rookie center Alex Mack dribbled a shotgun snap to Brady Quinn that Quinn couldn’t handle. The fumble was recovered by linebacker Darrell Reid at the Browns 10. Broncos quarterback Kyle Orton then hit tight end Tony Scheffler on a slant inside of a badly overmatch Kamerion Wimbley for a 3-yard touchdown pass on third down giving the Broncos the 7-3 lead.

It looked like the blowout it would eventually become.

At various points the Browns and Brady Quinn showed enough life to think that maybe with a few more games under their belt they’ll start to convert a few of their opportunities. Just not on this day. On the Browns second drive, for example, Quinn moved the ball from his own 20 to the Broncos 29 on a combination of Jamal Lewis and Quinn’s new found penchant for finding wide receivers instead of tight ends, but alas this drive too stumbled, yielding to a 47-yard Dawson field goal that closed the gap to 7-6.

The Broncos pushed the lead back to 4 with a 23-yard Matt Prayter field goal after their 13 play, 5 minute drive stalled at the Browns’ 6-yard line. The drive featured Orton hitting his favorite target, receiver Brandon Stokely, on a short pass over the middle that Stokely took 37-yards to the Cleveland 28. The Broncos had a chance to make it a 7-point lead just before the half after another long drive, this time 15 plays, but that drive fizzled too and Prayter missed a chip shot field goal. It was another in a series of opportunities squandered by the Broncos’ own brand of ineptness, offensively, despite almost no visible pass rush from the Browns’ defense, even when it blitzed.

Here’s another aside. I know that the television announcers want to appear as though they have something good to say about every team. But Steve Beuerlein took that to an extreme by twice referring to Browns’ cornerback Eric Wright as one of the best in the league. It must have happened when I wasn’t looking and admittedly I don’t watch the Pro Bowl, but Eric Wright? Beuerlein took that as accepted fact because Orton, hardly the best judge of talent, supposedly called Wright one of the five best cornerbacks in the league, no doubt in a pre-game “Pay your respects to the opponent and don’t give them any bulletin board material” interview.

A game within striking distance again at the half eventually turned into an ugly mess, this week a little later than last, although the Browns tried their best to help. In the second half’s opening drive, Quinn hit Josh Cribbs over the middle on 3rd and 9 from the Browns’ 24-yard life but Cribbs fumbled it away. At least he fumbled it forward as the Broncos recovered it at their own 38. The reason that turned out to be such a good thing is that the Broncos offense is essentially Cleveland West. A few predictable decent plays followed by the even more predictable bad plays by Orton forced still another Prayter field goal and a 13-6 lead.

If the game had ended right there it would have mattered little. Broncos fans seemed bored and Browns fans, at least those still watching, were probably in the kitchen packing tomorrow’s lunch. The Broncos had a chance to push it to a 10-point lead with just under 3 minutes left in the third quarter after another drive inevitably stalled for the Broncos but Prayter missed another field goal, this one from 37 yards as fans in two cities yawned in unison.

For just a bit it looked like the Browns were again showing some life after the Prayter miss. It was as if they awoke to realize that the game still was within reach, technically. Quinn hit Braylon Edwards on back-to-back passes but then had three straight deflected, one to an open Mohamad Massaquoi and two at the line of scrimmage and were forced to punt after getting the ball to the Denver 44.

Then the wheels, wobbling mightily anyway, finally fell off. On the Broncos next drive, a short pass from Orton to Jabar Gaffney turned into a 37-yard play and got the ball to the Cleveland 2-yard line. Even the Broncos couldn’t miss that lay up and didn’t when Hillis went in for the touchdown which helped push the lead to a now insurmountable 20-6.

Emboldened, the Broncos defense then blew up the Browns’ next drive with two sacks and a false start penalty on tackle John St. Clair. It was a game that could cost him his job as Denver defensive tackle Elvis Dumervil treated him like a blow-up doll, running over him with regularity on his way to sacking Quinn 4 times. Dave Zastudil had to punt from deep in his end zone, giving the Broncos good field position. Three plays later running back Correll Buckhalter, doing his best Adrian Peterson imitation of a week ago, ran through the middle of the Browns defense on his way to a 45-yard touchdown run that pushed the lead to 27-6 with just over 8:30 left in the game. That loud sound a moment later was the signal that garbage time had officially begun.

But this week’s version of garbage time wouldn’t be nearly so prolific. The Browns took it from their own 31 to the Denver 32-yard line but the game mercifully ended when a Quinn pass for Cribbs was intercepted by Darcel McBath. Orton, as unlikely a victor as you’ll ever see, took a knee on the game’s final play.

If there’s a drawing board to head to, rest assured that where you’ll find Eric Mangini. When he gets there, the pens will probably be out of ink. His team, perhaps more disciplined, is every bit as awful as last year’s version. The defense is porous and can’t rush the quarterback and the offense can’t sustain drives or score touchdowns. The numbing sameness of it all is wearing thin in every corner.

Quinn was about the same as a week ago, going 18-31 for 161 yards and 1 interception and one fumble. He didn’t exactly own the job but the play of the offensive line didn’t exactly give anyone reason to think that Derek Anderson, or Tom Brady for that matter, would have been any more successful.

In all the Browns had 3 turnovers, including the Cribbs fumble. The running game was nearly non-existent with Lewis carrying it 14 times for 38 yards. About the only real bright spot for the Browns was the re-emergence of Edwards, who had 6 catches for 92 yards, a few of the acrobatic variety. More importantly, he had no dropped balls.

The Broncos weren’t exactly an offensive machine but did enough over the course of the game to wear down the Browns’ defense and put the game away. Orton was a deceiving 19-37 for 263 yards, deceiving because most of those yards were the result of long runs after short passes. Knowshon Moreno had 75 yards on 17 carries and Buckhalter, thanks to his 45-yard touchdown run, added 76 yards on 9 carries.

The story of this game, ultimately, is that it’s the same old story. Mangini surely is trying his level best but is finding that no manner of discipline and order can turn this ship around quickly. It won’t just take time. It will take better players.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Lingering Items--Vikings Edition

When a team is as devoid of playmakers as the Cleveland Browns, it’s no wonder that attention tends to tilt toward the few that fit that description. Browns’ wide receiver Braylon Edwards, arguably one of the team’s few playmakers, has been an interesting study in the last several days and it’s only going to get more interesting as time marches on.

Edwards, you see, is in a contract year. Fans in Cleveland have experienced the full range of Edwards since his arrival. He’s mercurial, to an extreme. Thoughtful sometimes, complicated always, Edwards almost goes out of his way to be a lightning rod, particularly now, a year in which he should want nothing more than to just have tons of passes thrown his way in order to increase his chances of an exit from the purgatory that this franchise has become.

To that I say, here’s hoping he achieves that goal. But for Edwards, nothing ever comes easy. He so wants to be seen as the complete package—good teammate, good professional, good receiver. In almost everything he says these days you can nearly read the thought balloons above his head. “Must show composure.” “Embrace the media. Be a ‘good’ interview.” “Show future teams you’re not a distraction.” “Act like a ‘team’ player.” “Look good to potential sponsors.”

In truth, there’s nothing wrong with any of that. The NFL and every professional league for that matter is full of its self-promoters, guys who are looking to leverage their athletic prowess into additional income off-the-field and set up their non-playing futures now. Think Corbin Bernsen in “Major League.”

The first Edwards clip-and-save comments came shortly after Sunday’s game. Edwards not only took the blame for Brady Quinn’s interception, but he expanded on what it will take for him and Quinn to get on the same page, saying “we’re professionals. This isn’t college; this isn’t high school. We don’t make excuses as it relates to a quarterback controversy or a competition.” Maybe not, but something, ok Edwards’ history, suggests that if a few more balls don’t start coming his way and soon, excuses will start to get made and fingers will start to point, just not inward.

Actually, it didn’t even take another game. In just that subtle way Edwards has of deflecting responsibility, he let it be known to reporters on Wednesday, as reported by The Plain Dealer, that perhaps offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s offense isn’t really designed to make the best use of his pass-dropping skills by suggesting that it’s more methodical approach to scoring will only serve to limit his own usefulness to the team.

Meanwhile Edwards also grew testy when asked repeatedly about his lack of chemistry with Quinn, snapping at reporters trying to cover every angle of a question that’s been asked and answer, as they say in the legal business.

It’s understandable that Edwards would get irritated with the media, especially those that cover the Browns on a regular basis. As a group they aren’t exactly the hardest working people in the newspaper business. If it occurs to one reporter to ask a question, the others will eventually ask it again in order to try and elicit the same quote.

But that isn’t going to win him the kind of friends in the media he’ll need if he ever has any great hope of burnishing a reputation as a prima donna. Everyone has a job to do and if Edwards is in the reputation-leveraging business, then he’s going to have to get better at it. Right now, he’s a mess. Ask yourself this: would you buy a used car from the guy?


Edwards biggest problem from a reputation and perception standpoint stems from a faulty filter between his brain and his mouth. He can tell himself, as he essentially did Wednesday in talking to reporters, according to the Beacon Journal, that “the biggest thing for me is the mental mindset…being selfless. The thing for me is to be calm, let the game come to me and have the mental capacity to be in control at all times.”

Edwards’ goals are too outsized. For now, he should settle for being in control half the time and progress to most. At all times is years off, if ever.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that what Edwards says is always wrong. He may be absolutely correct in his assessment of Daboll’s offense. At this point, it’s hard to tell. Daboll is a first-time offensive coordinator and that is something that shouldn’t be discounted in trying to ascertain the near-term future of this team. Teams don’t usually fare to well out of the gate with new systems to begin with Throw in the fact that some of these systems are being run by coaches in over their heads and you have a mini-disaster in the making. The Browns are serving as Daboll’s on-the-job training.

When former head coach Romeo Crennel tried to pound one of the game’s biggest square pegs, Maurice Carthon, into the round hole of offensive coordinator, it turned into a disaster. Carthon, a former fullback, figured that a fullback should be the focus of the offense and went about actually demonstrating exactly why that was a bad idea.

Rob Chudzinski, on the other hand, brought a more vertical approach to offense that ended up fitting quarterback Derek Anderson well, at least for a season. The problems with his system were exposed when the personnel being utilized to execute it couldn’t in fact execute it. When Joe Jurevicius went down before last season the Browns lost the sure-handed receiver needed to move the sticks when the running game isn’t working and teams have taken away the deep route. It was highly dependent on personnel and brutal to watch when the personnel wasn’t there to support it.

Chudzinski never did adjust his offense to account for the change in personnel last season and as a result the team suffered greatly. He also lost his job, setting himself back in the process.

From what we’ve seen thus far from Daboll, his system may be less personnel dependent than Chudzinski’s. It seems far more plodding in its approach, reliant more on smaller gains and longer drives than it does on big plays. In some sense it was successful last Sunday. The Browns had only two three-and-outs, not counting either the series where the Browns took over just before the end of the first half or the one where Quinn through the interception. They held on to the ball for 26:38, which isn’t dramatically different than the Viking’s 33:22 time of possession.

The major difference between the two teams boiled down with what they were able to do with the time they had. The Vikings have a punishing running game with Adrian Peterson and enough weapons on the edges to keep it at a healthy mix. The Browns, on the other hand, lacked the talent to sustain a drive. Sustaining long drives in the NFL is difficult for any team and will be particularly difficult for a team like the Browns which features both a suspect running game and suspect receivers. Given their approach, it’s going to be a long year.

About the only thing left is for the Browns to occasionally mix in a no-huddle offense and not just confine it to the few minutes before each half. It’s a high risk strategy because it tends to get your defense back on the field more quickly and if there is something the Browns don’t need at the moment it’s their defense spending too much time on the field. Still, as a way of keeping the opposing team off balance, it’s something they’ll have to try or else they’ll continue to struggle putting points on the board, particularly in chunks of 7.


The news that Mangini was fined by the NFL for not properly reporting Brett Favre’s injury last season is hardly a surprise. Mangini kept Shaun Rogers and Jerome Harrison out of the entire preseason and never bothered to tell anyone why. But the fine also contains a number of subplots.

First, it wouldn’t be much of a surprise if Favre deliberately threw Mangini under the bus, even as he was doing so with that “aw shucks” country boy persona he’s perfected over the years. As coach of the N.Y. Jets last season Mangini was hardly pushing for the Favre acquisition. Given Mangini’s offensive tendencies (see previous paragraphs) it’s not hard to see why he wouldn’t have wanted a reckless gunslinger like Favre.

Favre probably felt a little betrayed by the Jets organization not only because of the way he was utilized but also because he was, you know, injured and shouldn’t have been playing and/or putting himself further in harm’s way. A little payback is right in the Favre wheelhouse.

Second, the fine, although not particularly large, should be enough to at least wake Mangini up about how he goes about communicating injuries in the future. Indeed, the way he filled out this week’s injury report, adding virtually anyone with a hangnail, is evidence of that. The last thing Mangini believes in is transparency in his operations.

If you think that Mangini is just acting like every other coach, he’s not. Consider, for example, how quickly Andy Reid of the Philadelphia Eagles communicated about Donovan McNabb’s cracked rib. Had it been Mangini, the first notification of any problem would have come on Wednesday via the injury report and all it would have said was “upper body soreness.” Mangini operates on a level of paranoia befitting of Belichick.

Third, and this is all related, it is somewhat ironic to see Mangini caught up in a rules violation given how he ratted out Belichick a few seasons ago for supposedly taping opposing team’s defensive signals. Mangini allowed himself to be portrayed as some sort of angel-on-high exposing the evil anti-Christ Belichick as a cheat. Like so many others who are so quick to call out violations of principles they themselves don’t uphold, Mangini is now exposed as a hypocrite most already knew he was.

Argue all you want about the difference in the violations between Belichick and Mangini, but the core issue is the same. Mangini was skirting a well-established rule for a competitive advantage, just like Belichick. Mangini knew he was violating the rule, just like Belichick. He didn’t care, just like Belichick. Mangini now has his little comeuppance and somewhere Belichick is probably having a good laugh.


Given the rather tepid reaction to the Browns’ loss last week, due mostly to extremely low expectations for the locals, this week’s question to ponder: When is the next time the Browns will be favored to win?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

It's Too Late to Apologize

Cleveland Browns fans may never rise to the level of battered spouses, but they show every characteristic of having the syndrome. No matter how much or for how long they’ve been pushed around by the various owners, coaches and players for these many decades, the love affair with the team continues to thrive. Thank you, sir, may I have another.

Sure, Browns fans will call the talk shows to bitch from week to week. And, yea, they’ll write some pretty negative comments on the various message boards that dot the internet. But they show up each Sunday nonetheless, at the Stadium, in the bars, on their Lay-Z-Boys, thinking that maybe just this time they’ll be treated right.

It’s too soon to tell, of course, whether this regime will be any better than the others, but with all the apologizing coming out of Berea at the moment, you do get the sense that they know the drill. Tease the fans for 30 minutes, lay an egg for the next 30 and then apologize, promising not to do it again.

There was Mangini positively effusive, for him anyway, on all the miserable things he did wrong on Sunday. He says he didn’t communicate effectively with the team at halftime, apparently believing that a group of professional football players need to be reminded on the length of a NFL game.

He also took the fall for one too many times running Josh Cribbs out of the “wildcat” “flash” or whatever they’re calling a rather predictable set where the center snaps it directly to Cribbs and he, you know, runs straight ahead.

Then there was everyone’s favorite teammate, Braylon Edwards, stepping up and accepting blame for Brady Quinn’s interception, saying that he was on the wrong page with his quarterback. Edwards didn’t say much about first missing a key block and then following it up with an illegal block, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he’s really sorry about that, too. Maybe Mangini needs to have a word with the position coach on the role wide receivers play in a team having a decent running attack.

The funny thing is, for once Browns fans aren’t looking for apologies. You’d have trouble finding one knowledgeable fan who thought the team had a fighting chance on Sunday anyway. With expectations lowered for all the reasons we already know, fans seemed actually upbeat about Sunday’s performance. All in all, it wasn’t that bad, certainly not as bad as they thought it could be.

The fans that email me on a regular basis we’re far more willing to see the glass half full than half empty and even more willing to cut Mangini a break and not rush to conclusions. Fair enough. They gave Chris Palmer a break. They gave Romeo Crennel a break. The least they can do is cut Mangini a little slack one game into the season.

So much of what happened on Sunday is hardly the responsibility of Mangini anyway that his taking the blame is meaningless, even if it was sincere. The overarching reason the Browns lost on Sunday was that they are far less talented than the Vikings. Mangini and George Kokinis just got here. There’s only so much they could have done since last January to change that basic fact.

There’s no need to chronicle all the missteps of the previous Browns’ brain trust, but a few underscore the task Mangini inherited.

For example, the Browns had a chance to draft Adrian Peterson but chose not to. It’s hard to say they were wrong on that because they did get Joe Thomas. Great left tackles aren’t minted every day and when you have a chance to get one, you should. But in doing so sacrifices get made and in this case it cost the Browns a stud running back. They still are without one.

The Browns’ previous brain trust also was responsible for both drafting Brady Quinn and then burying him on the bench for two seasons. Their theory was that Quinn needed to serve an apprenticeship even while other rookie quarterbacks have been able to make the transition in their first season. It’s a theory that’s grown ever more quaint as more and more rookie quarterbacks enter the league and jump rather successfully into starting roles. Was Quinn coming out of college really that far behind Joe Flacco, Matt Stafford, or Mark Sanchez?

The Browns’ previous brain trust also was responsible for drafting Edwards third overall. He’s been the best of his draft class, but that’s damning with feint praise. It was a poor year for drafting wide receivers. In fact, 2005 was a poor year for first rounders so, in that sense, Edwards is just holding serve.

It was the Browns’ previous brain trust that recklessly threw away draft picks to get both Paul Hubbard and Martin Rucker, the former now sitting on the Oakland Raiders practice squad and the latter mostly sitting and watching Robert Royal become Quinn’s favorite receiver. Hubbard has raw speed but even rawer skills and Rucker had good college stats. Neither has translated well into the NFL at the moment. You get the sense that Mangini would never make those kinds of trades.

That doesn’t give Mangini a full pass, however. If he wants to take the blame for something, he probably should start with an ill-conceived strategy designed, supposedly, to reveal a starting quarterback, but executed in a way that made the entire offense almost completely unprepared for Sunday’s game.

This is where Edwards’ mea culpa comes in. Giving Edwards the benefit of the doubt on his sincerity, what the heck?, he can talk all he wants about how everyone is a professional and chemistry, essentially, is for college punks, but repetitions matter.

It’s not as if almost everyone didn’t see this coming. Edwards and the rest of the Browns rather thin corps of receivers were probably the biggest victims of Mangini’s shell game with the quarterbacks. And while we’re on that subject, let’s talk about Sunday’s false start penalties by the second biggest victims of Mangini’s preseason strategy, the offensive line.

In some ways false starts are evidence of a lack of discipline, but the lineage of Sunday’s problems can be traced directly to two factors: the Vikings rather talented defensive line and, you guessed it, the lack of repetitions with Quinn. Offensive linemen are always looking for an advantage. They know the snap count and are prone to jump it at just the right time to get leverage. When you’re playing a team like the Vikings you need all the help you can get.

But for it to work well, the linemen need enough repetitions with their quarterback to get used to his cadence, particularly under game conditions. When the line and the quarterback are in sync, they should be able to finish each other’s sentences. Mangini denied them that chance in preseason and now can hardly blame them for an entirely predictable outcome.

Mangini is right. These things can get corrected and eventually they should once Quinn and his teammates have a few more games under their belts. Until then, expect more struggles.

There are a million ways to deconstruct Sunday’s loss, and many of them useful as the necessary step toward long-term improvement. But apologies were hardly necessary. Browns fans aren’t all that upset at the moment; they understand more than Mangini why the franchise is currently in the state it’s in.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Progress Noted; Much Work to Do

It wasn’t so much of a new beginning as it was a continuation of the previous end. The Cleveland Browns, unveiling a new head coach, a new starting quarterback and, a new approach, looked too much like the Cleveland Browns of last season, pick the game, in losing to a far more talented Minnesota Vikings team, 34-20.

But for a first time in what feels like since the Carter Administration, the Browns offense scored a touchdown. More on that in a minute.

That the Browns lost to the Vikings was neither surprising nor a shame, nor was the way they lost it. The Vikings are one of the league’s more talented teams, with a plethora of good players where good teams tend to have them, on the lines, at the edges and in the backfield. Adrian Peterson, held mostly in check during the first half, did what great running backs do: wore down the Browns defense through continual pounding and ended the game with 180 yards on 25 carries and 3 touchdowns. I hope you had him in your fantasy league.

The NFL could have done the Browns a favor and scheduled, say, the Cincinnati Bengals or maybe even the Denver Broncos this first week to give the team a fighting chance. Still, this exercise was useful in giving both Eric Mangini and fans alike a decent gauge on where things stand at the moment. Progress has been noted, but there’s still much work to do.

In the first place, this team has to improve, dramatically, on offense. Jamal Lewis, either in the last throes or rejuvenated, ran pretty effectively most of the day, gaining 57 yards on 11 carries, even if it was mostly irrelevant 57 yards. The Browns still had trouble finishing drives and putting points on the board. Brian Daboll meet Rob Chudzinski.

As a measure of their offensive desperation, Quinn and the Browns padded their offensive stats in the last few minutes of what was clearly garbage time in an attempt to merely score a touchdown. It worked. Time to exhale.

As sublime as it was ridiculous, the long national nightmare ended, a mere 416 plays after it started. Brady Quinn hit tight end Robert Royal on a 36-yard pass over the middle for a touchdown, the team’s first in 7 games. No celebration would follow. The team never bothered to choreograph anything. It brought the final score to 34-20 which is far closer than the game actually was.

Though the offense is still non-existent, the game wasn’t a complete disaster. For a half, the Browns went toe-to-toe with the Vikings. Running it well against a team that is built to stop the run, the Browns took a 13-10 halftime lead on the strength of a Josh Cribbs’ 67-yard punt return and a spirited defense that seemed to have Favre and the Vikings a bit confused. Maybe they were just overconfident. It’s a fine line.

Indeed, things started well enough for the Browns when Vikings head coach Brad Childress tried to be clever with an onside kick to open the game. It might have worked last year. But the attempt to dump it short over the initial line of coverage failed when safety Abram Elam stayed in position and fell on it at the Browns’ 49-yard line. That little slice of discipline, missing so often last year, was a refreshing change.

It also was a refreshing change to see, for a half anyway, a Browns team that could both run the ball and stop the run. Peterson had only 25 yards heading into halftime and the Browns were able to keep the pressure on Brett Favre, the NFL’s answer to Roger Clemens, but without the steroids.

After the ill-fated onside kick, the Browns first drive showed more wrinkles than any drive in the preseason. It featured the re-emergence of the “Flash” formation and a nice pass from a scrambling Quinn to Royal as the Browns marched to the Minnesota 20-yard line. But like so much of what happened last season, the drive failed when a shovel pass from Quinn to James Davis came up well short on 3rd and 9. That led to a 37-yard Phil Dawson field goal and an early 3-0 lead.

The Browns’ defense, perhaps revitalized by nose tackle Shaun Rogers, forced the Vikings into a quick three-and-out. Two runs to Adrian Peterson yielded nothing. That momentum drained quickly when the Browns’ next drive fell apart mainly due to a Braylon Edwards illegal block penalty and a shank punt from Dave Zastudil, giving the Vikings the ball at the Cleveland 49-yard line.

It was all the opening they needed, or so it seemed. The Vikings, mostly on the strength of Peterson, marched right back but came up short when Peterson was stuffed for a loss at the Cleveland 2-yard line and Favre and receiver Sidney Rice, apparently reading from completely different playbooks, missed badly on a pass to the corner of the end zone. The Vikings had to settle for a Ryan Longwell 21-yard field goal.

On the ensuing kickoff, Cribbs put his team in a hole by first fumbling the kick in the end zone and then deciding to run it out anyway, getting back only to the Browns’ 14-yard line. It proved to be a nice gift. Quinn fumbled the next snap, was sacked on third down and then Zastudil’s punt was returned by Darius Reynaud to the Cleveland 23-yard line. A swing pass from Favre to Peterson took it to the Cleveland 2-yard line and from there Peterson finished it off, helping give the Vikings a 10-3 lead early in the second quarter.

It was about this time that the teams of Cleveland Past would have folded the tent and just mailed in the rest of the game. If Mangini accomplishes nothing else, he’s accomplished this much. His team quit playing later than most.

On the Browns next drive, they came marching right back only to be denied again and settling for a Dawson 20-yard field goal. For a time it appeared as though the Browns were about to tie the game. Running mostly at the heart of the Vikings defense set up what appeared to be a Quinn to Braylon Edwards 34-yard touchdown pass. But Edwards was interfered with by cornerback Cedric Griffin, shoved out of bounds and unable to reestablish both feet in bounds before making a terrific catch off his shoe tops. The Vikings challenged the touchdown ruling and was sustained, giving the Browns the ball on the interference penalty at the Vikings 6-yard line. Lewis got the ball to the three and Cribbs got it to the one on a direct snap but lost two yards when the Browns went back to that well one more time and once too often. Still, it got the Browns to 10-6.

A Vikings drive with just over two minutes remaining in the half was stymied as the defensive line kept enough pressure on Favre and safety Brodney Pool, coming in on a blitz, sack him back at the Minnesota 9. A short pass brought up fourth down, setting up a Kluwe punt. The kick sailed into the arms of Cribbs who sprinted down the left sideline for a 67-yard touchdown run.

The next Vikings drive was stymied as well and the Browns had one more chance to score before the half, taking over with a minute to play. But Quinn and the Browns couldn’t move it in the hurry-up offense and had to settle for running out the first half, clinging to a 13-10 lead. Call it foreshadowing.

It was the crushing reality of lowered expectations that visited the second half as the Browns’ run defense mostly disappeared and Favre, though still pressured from time to time, managed to complete enough mid-range passes to keep the rest of the defense on its heels.

The Vikings came out in the second half playing as if they suddenly realized that they were up against the Browns and not the Pittsburgh Steelers. Mixing in some nice running by Percy Harvin, who was taking over from a temporarily dehydrated Peterson, with a timely pass interference penalty against cornerback Brandon McDonald, the Vikings took the lead on the strength of a Peterson 2-yard touchdown run. Longwell added the extra point and the Vikings regained the lead, 17-10.

Now, of course, is when Browns teams of Cleveland Past really did fold. This time would be no different. After a couple of nice runs by Lewis, Quinn attempted to go deep to Edwards. Either there was miscommunication, with Quinn thinking Edwards was headed to the outside and Edwards thinking the pass was coming inside, or Quinn just threw a really bad pass. It really matters little as the ball was picked off by Griffin at the Minnesota 18.

The Vikings then came back and continued to pound the ball at the heart of the Browns’ defense, effectively mixing in enough passes to keep the defense from crowding the box. It was the right formula as the Vikings put together a 13-play 82 yard drive, culminating with a Favre to Harvin 6-yard pass for a touchdown that helped give the Vikings a 24-13 lead.

Although there was still an entire quarter to play, when a team hasn’t scored an offensive touchdown in nearly 10 months it’s hard to imagine exactly how it will overcome an 11-point lead. Alas it couldn’t. Whether playing traditionally or in no-huddle mode, the Browns offense is still more stutters than steps.

The Vikings, on the other hand, were able to both shorten the game and widen their lead with that punishing running attack and a Quinn fumble that gave the Vikings the ball at the Browns’ 34-yard line. A few Peterson runs that were offset by the Browns’ fourth sack of Favre set up another Longwell field goal, this one from 37 yards that gave the Vikings the 27-13 lead with just under 7 minutes left.

Because this wasn’t preseason, those last 7 minutes weren’t really garbage time, except they were. With the Browns hell-bent on scoring something, anything, the Vikings used the time first to tee off on Quinn and the feeble Browns’ offense and then to make sure that Peterson more than exceeded 100 yards on the ground. Peterson did that and more taking it 64 yards on one play past a poor tackling, ill inspired defense that helped push the lead to 34-13 and put Peterson at 180 yards rushing for the day.

Armed with their “score or die” mantra, the Browns kept the game going long enough for the Quinn-to-Royal touchdown pass that effectively ended the game.

When it was over, what you were left with was the same lousy aftertaste of too many seasons past. A game that started out with some promise felt too much like almost every other loss last season, with players at the end lacking focus, committing errors, and going through the motions.

If you look just at that first half, there was a little to be encouraged by. For the most part they showed a little more spirit, a bit more discipline and a bit more preparedness than at any point last season. But when you look at the body of work you also were left with a Browns team that is still woefully short on talent, especially compared to the better teams in the league, and will likely struggle week-to-week.

As for Quinn, he was mostly efficient but mostly ineffective. Under pressure often, Quinn repeatedly overthrew receivers deep and generally had trouble finding any rhythm with the receivers. Now a cynic might suggest that the lack of playing time in preseason might have had something to do with it, but that’s just an inconvenient memory at this point. Quinn was 21-35 for 205 yards, one touchdown, one interception and one lost fumble.

Favre, the last guy alive who will know when to say when, wasn’t great but didn’t have to be. With a running attack featuring Peterson and occasionally Harvin and Taylor, the pressure isn’t on Favre to raise the team up. All he does it not have to let it down and he didn’t on this day, going 14-21 for 110 yards and one touchdown.

As a measure of some respect, the Browns won the sack battle, 4-3. At least there’s something to build on.

Now the Browns travel to Denver to take on a team that is undergoing its own makeover and beaming a bit from taking the measure of the Cincinnati Bengals, 12-7. Look at it this way. If the Browns can find a way to beat the Broncos next week, they’ll hold the tiebreaker advantage against the Bengals. Again, it’s something to build on.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Lingering Items--Kick Off Edition

With the NFL season getting under way, it’s understandable that the national media would be genuflecting at the altar of the Pittsburgh Steelers as the model franchise. It’s an easy column to write even if it ignores the role that the Cleveland Browns, a former rival turned speed bump, has played in contributing to their success.

In the simplistic way that these things usually get analyzed, most writers have quickly concluded that the secret recipe is the Steelers’ legendary continuity on the field and in the front office and basically say “see, if every team had that they’d be as good as the Steelers.” Analysis complete. Next story, “what does Brett Favre think about playing for a former division rival?” Queue the pop psychology.

Yea, well, I suppose, except it is, well, rather a simplistic view. Continuity for its own sake is hardly the most laudable of goals, although former Browns general manager Phil Savage might disagree. In the name of continuity he kept marching former head coach Romeo Crennel out there year after year believing that the healing powers of time passing would suddenly transform Crennel into a capable head coach. It didn’t and, in the name of sanity, Savage was sent along his merry way.

This isn’t to single out Savage. Any team can simply hang on to whoever’s in charge at the moment and declare themselves successful, actual results notwithstanding. Continuity isn’t a goal, it’s an outgrowth. In the case of the Steelers, it’s a convenient label that serves merely as a description for what truly is the key to their success: good hires. It took decades to develop but the Rooneys now have a real eye for talent.

As a team, the Steelers roster turnover each season tends to be in the same ballpark as most other teams. That’s the outgrowth of a hard salary cap and a fairly vibrant free agent market. The key, when it comes to personnel, isn’t just having the right players, it’s having them at the right prices. Veterans tend to cost a team more money just because they’re veterans and teams are thus willing to cut the chord if a comparable replacement can be found at half the price. The Steelers aren’t any different in that regard than the Browns.

Savage was fond of stressing the importance of continuity from one year to the next even as he was turning over about half the roster each year. In other words, teams that seemingly preach continuity only practice it selectively because, well, it’s not about continuity at all. It’s about the right people in the right place at the right time.

Football, in that respect, is no different than any other sport or any other business. At its heart it’s a people business. The Steelers’ vaunted continuity isn’t by design or by accident. It’s just merely the result of the fact that they’ve made great hires over the last 30 or so years. Chuck Noll was a great head coach, a legend. He had to grow in the job like anyone else, but no organization, including the Steelers, would have allowed him that luxury if had not been able to demonstrate the key qualities for being a successful head coach from the start.

When Bill Cowher took over for Noll, he faced the burden of taking over for a legend but had the luxury of doing it under a far more highly tuned organization than the one Noll had when he first became coach. Whether Mike Tomlin lasts as long as either Cowher or Noll isn’t set in stone but he, too, benefits from a highly-skilled organization that’s been in place and knows what works. His chances for success were already far greater than other first-time head coaches. That doesn’t mean his success was a lay-up. The fact that he hasn’t blown the opportunities he’s been given thus far demonstrates that he, too, is probably a great hire.

Contrast that for a moment with the Browns. For all practical purposes, the franchise folded in 1995. Whatever momentum that had built up over the previous 50 years was lost. The franchise was re-born five years later with only a name, colors and a record book to show for what had taken place in the past. As refreshing as a cleansing can be, the return of the Browns was so much more than that. It was, basically, an expansion franchise with a distant history.

In that context, the supposed lack of continuity with the Browns is understandable. Let’s go back, again, to the Steelers for a moment. The Rooney family has owned the team since its formation in 1933. In the first 20 years of that franchise, it had 10 different head coaches. In the 10 years before it landed on Noll as its head coach, they had 3 different head coaches and only 3 seasons in which it was even over the .500 mark. Noll struggled his first three seasons as well. That means that for at least the first 36 years, they weren’t so good at building continuity.

Eventually they landed on the right hires. But those right hires may not have ever revealed themselves but for the other key factor, good drafting. Noll’s ascent as a head coach coincided with the arrival of the likes of Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Jack Lambert, need I go on? This sort of harmonic convergence is as responsible as anything for what now is being called continuity.

As a franchise, the Browns are mere babies. It would be nice to think that it won’t take them 36 years before they start to get things right and it probably won’t. But the fact that there have been more fits than starts is more than understandable in an historical context.

Maybe Eric Mangini turns into the next Chuck Noll and the national media 10 years from now extol’s Cleveland’s great continuity, but the likelihood of that happening depends somewhat on whether Mangini and general manager George Kokinis can find their own versions of Bradshaw, Harris, Swan and Lambert. That’s the real recipe and, for what it’s worth, it appears at least that they know it.

It’s that simple even as it’s that hard.


For the first time since the Browns returned, local fans face the very real possibility that one or more games will be blacked out this season. This isn’t a problem peculiar to the Browns but is something being faced by the overwhelming majority of teams. NFL games are expensive and right now it is a luxury that many in the hard core fan base either can’t afford or choose not to.

The Browns have various promotions going trying to increase attendance. Recall, for example, that they partnered with the Indians on loge sales for individual games. They also have a package for the average fan, 3 tickets and refreshments for $96. They aren’t alone.

This is why it remains so puzzling that owner Randy Lerner would allow his hand-picked head coach to do almost everything in his power to keep the fan base and their proxy, the media, at bay. If any group of fans has been misused and abused, it’s Browns fans. That isn’t all Lerner’s fault, of course. Art Modell and the NFL had a significant hand in it. Still, Lerner hasn’t exactly turned things around and now, with still another makeover and three to four year gestation period ahead of them, it’s time to give the fans a break. Bring them closer, don’t push them away.

Mangini and company instead treat them like necessary evils. The whole quarterback debate stands as Exhibit A. Whether or not it should be important to fans who is starting for their team, it is important. It gives them something to either rally around or debate. Mangini could care less. He’s got his own agenda and the fans aren’t part of it.

The only way this kind of strategy can’t backfire for Mangini is if he becomes wildly successful. New England fans embrace Belichick even as he continues to act like a prick toward them. But New England at least had some success before Belichick arrived. The Browns haven’t had any real success in about two decades. Context is everything.

Mangini seems to be bringing some necessary order and discipline to a franchise that didn’t have much of either before he arrived. That’s a very good thing. But anything worth building will take time and Mangini should be buying all the goodwill he can to bridge the abyss that has been 10 years in the making, 20 if you want to go back that far. Instead he seems singularly bent on making his life as difficult as possible and at the worst possible time for the franchise.

When things got rough for Belichick in Cleveland, it didn’t help his cause that he was wildly unpopular with the fans. He had no one to lean on and ultimately fell on his face.

The Browns are going to struggle at various points in the season. All teams do. As the head coach, Mangini will naturally face the brunt of the backlash, the depths of which highly depend on how the fans feel about him personally. Whether he wants to acknowledge it or not, Mangini and his team need the hearts and minds of the fans. He won’t survive without them.


I’ve never been much into predictions. But it’s an obligatory by-product of covering a team in a sport and thus I venture reluctantly into trying to figure out how the Browns will do this season.

The short answer is the most truthful: I don’t know. If I did, I’d place huge sums of money on it and then retire early to enjoy golf on a daily basis. The more complicated answer is: it depends. In the NFL particularly, schedules and injuries have more to do with a team’s final record than anything else. It’s not necessarily the teams you play but when you play them and where. And all that gets thrown out the window if there are too many injuries.

In the Browns’ case, however, there is a more overarching issue. This team is a mystery and it’s on purpose. Mangini has deliberately kept people guessing about a variety of issues beyond just the starting quarterback. Key players have been missing during the pre-season with virtually no explanation. The injury list that Mangini released, apparently at gun point, says very little. Thus, when it comes to the Browns there is little of the usual facts upon which to base your best guess.

So let’s start with the basic premise on which the NFL operates: every team should go 8-8. From there it’s just a matter of adjustment. If you think a team is a little above average, 9-7 is a very safe pick. Likewise if you think a team is a little below average, 7-9 is a great guess. The elite teams tend to win at least 10 games. The dregs usually end up in the 4-5 range, mainly because at some point their seasons spin out of control and they give up hope and head for home in time for Christmas.

The Browns are not an elite team by any measure. They’re probably not even average, which means you have to start with a prediction of 7-9. Now it’s time to think about personnel and schedules.

I don’t think the Browns were really as bad as their record last year. I think they were a 7-9 team coached down to a 4-12 record. Just paying attention and being more organized is good for a victory or two. I also think that Mangini has a better command of the entire operations and is far more detail-oriented. The team will be better prepared each week. I think the schedule is more favorable than in year’s past. It’s certainly less disruptive. Outside of a Thursday and Monday night game, both within the division, the Browns play mostly play at 1 p.m. each Sunday. There’s something to be said for, dare I say it, continuity, at least in that sense.

When I put all that together, roll it around inside a mostly hollow head, I start to think that Mangini can get this team back to where it’s talent level properly is: 7-9. Fans will see it as improvement. I see it as just getting back to square one. But if it gives the team hope and is a stepping stone to a better future, then it all will have been worth it. If it doesn’t, it’s time to start handicapping who the next head coach might be.


Given how much the media revere the Rooney family at the moment, this week’s question to ponder: Had they been in charge of the Browns last season, would they have hired Eric Mangini as their head coach?