Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Shutting Up the Statistics

There’s a Peanuts cartoon by Charles Schulz in which Charlie Brown’s beleaguered baseball team is getting hammered once again. Linus, I believe, is rattling off the statistics on just how bad it all is and Charlie Brown yells “tell your statistics to shut up.”

It’s easy to appreciate Charlie Browns’ angst. It’s sometimes hard facing the absolute truth of what the black and white numbers reveal. Ignoring them may have been a plot point for Peanuts, but ignoring them when it comes to the Cleveland Browns is no more a strategy than hoping that they’ll change. Reality may bite and it may bite hard, but you ignore the venom at your own risk.

A statistic caught my eye today. It’s a statistic that more than any other I’ve seen chronicling the mess in Berea, places the awfulness of it all in just the right light. The Plain Dealer reported that in the Browns’ last two games, the differential in yards between what the defense has given up and what the offense has gained is a staggering 667 yards (1003 yards given up, 336 gained). Even more alarming, it is the worst two-game differential in the entire history of the franchise, which covers over 900 games dating back to 1946. For further perspective, consider that the second worst occurred during the first two games of the 1999 expansion year.

This is a statistic you can’t easily shut up. It serves as about the only counter-argument to the nonsense of those counseling patience with the new regime.

The popular theory making the rounds of the Mangini Apologist Movement is that things will inevitably get worse before they get better. By using this as the backdrop, the Apologists dismiss the mounting evidence on how bad things really are with this franchise as saying, “well, it’s to be expected.”

Let me take a novel approach: why? Where is it written that things must get worse in order to get better? Why can’t things simply improve from where they stood initially?

It’s fascinating how the narrative on this Browns’ season has changed from one of steady progress to one where it’s all about tearing it down in order to build it back up. Yet that’s become not just the official narrative of the fledgling Apologist movement but also the official narrative of an increasingly disingenuous head coach.

What is being lost in this rush to change the storyline to one that better fits what more reasoned observers see as an abject disaster is the fact that the Browns weren’t an aging team on the tail end of a good run that had reached an inevitable rebuilding point in their cycle. When Eric Mangini and his hand picked sock puppet George Kokinis took over, it was a young team with a smattering of talent. It had only upside, or so most people thought.

What’s turned out instead is that it had a much further downside, a historically, unprecedented, hide the women and children, put on the Haz Met suit, lock the doors, move out of town, shut your eyes, turn off the TV, liquidate the assets, run don’t walk, gut wrenching, vomit inducing, downside.

I’ll concede that the franchise wasn’t in the greatest shape when Mangini and Kokinis buffaloed owner Randy Lerner, but it wasn’t as bad as it is now. In fact, the franchise probably wasn’t even in as bad of shape for Mangini and Kokinis as it was for former general manager Phil Savage and former head coach Romeo Crennel.

The Browns’ receiving corps this year may be awful, but remember that when Mangini and Kokinis took over it also included Kellen Winslow and Braylon Edwards. Whatever you think about either of those two players, each was statistically better than anyone on the roster at the end of 2004. There was no Joe Thomas or Eric Steinbach on that 2004 squad, only Ryan Tucker and Ross Verba. There was no Shaun Rogers on that 2004 team. They were making due with the likes of Gerard Warren, Mike Myers and Ebenezer Ekuban. The defensive backfield in 2004 was better than what Mangini and Kokinis inherited, but Phil Dawson is still the place kicker and the 2004 didn’t have anyone close to Josh Cribbs on special teams.

Whatever problems that 2004 team had, it never once sunk to the depths of what’s now being experienced under Mangini. Savage and Crennel didn’t improve the talent level enough to make the Browns a materially better team but it would be hard to make the case that they made the franchise worse. All they really did was stunt its progress, an unpardonable sin given the promises they sold.

But Mangini and Kokinis have made things far worse. It’s not opinion, it’s fact. By every statistical measure one wants to use, this franchise is worse now than when those two took over and there is absolutely nothing to suggest that it will get any better, certainly not this year and probably not next except perhaps just through the law of averages.

But the Mangini Apologist Movement nonetheless keeps counseling patience in the midst of an absolute shit-storm of ineptitude as if things will magically get better if we just accept the awfulness and wait it all out without question or concern. I appreciate someone taking the alternate view as much as anyone and I don’t think less of them for doing so. But the whole basis for their view is that Mangini has somehow inherited remarkable circumstances and thus more slack must be cut.

Well, let’s go back to the statistics, shall we? The roster Mangini inherited was bad, but it wasn’t historically bad. He then turned over nearly half of it between his trades, his draft picks and his refugees from New York. If these are remarkable circumstances, despite how abundantly unremarkable they actually are, just know then that they are self-inflicted. A killer doesn’t get sympathy for murdering his parents just because he’s now an orphan and Mangini doesn’t get sympathy because he blew up the team and now is left with nothing but shrapnel and spare parts.

If Lerner can ever get engaged with his $1 billion investment long enough to realize that his franchise is on the precipice of sinking into complete irrelevance with a formally proud and loyal following, he might come to realize that this has nothing to do with having a hair trigger reaction to a little bad news.

This is all about correcting a major mistake that almost everyone saw coming except him. In 2007, the Miami Dolphins hired Cam Cameron, the offensive coordinator with San Diego, to lead their team. Under Cameron, the Dolphins eschewed picking Brady Quinn in the first round when they truly needed a quarterback and instead picked Ted Ginn, Jr. It was a surprise pick that turned out to be a major mistake not just because of the personnel involved because of the thought process. It ultimately revealed Cameron as someone in over his head.

Under Cameron, the Dolphins were a confused and ill-run franchise and finished the season at 1-15. As that most bitter of seasons was winding down, owner Wayne Huzienga had seen enough to know that he needed a real football professional to run the operation. He hired Bill Parcells.

Parcells didn’t move on Cameron right away, he didn’t need to. The year was almost over. But he did move on him quickly enough and Cameron’s head coaching career ended, mercifully, after one year.

I point all this out as evidence that things don’t have to get worse before they can better. Things can actually get better pretty quickly. The Dolphins aren’t a great team two years later but on the other hand they did go 11-5 one year after going 1-15. All it takes is competent football minds, not head coaches with insecurity issues and wannabe executives so anxious to advance that they’ll take a job on whatever bizarre conditions are imposed.

There’s probably no final straw in any of this only a million little straws breaking the will of the fans being charged to support this dying franchise. And while debating the quarterback situation is tiresome for everyone involved, just consider that irrespective of your feelings on either Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson, you have to concede that both are measurably worse as players under this regime. It may be the offensive philosophy. It may be the lousy coaching. It may be a hundred other things. But again, statistically this is just a fact.

The Mangini Apologist Movement deserves the right to defend its patron saint just as much as the rest of us deserve our right to dream of a day when this franchise actually gets on the right track; a day when no one tries to advance the faulty paradigm that you must get worse to get better; a day when a truly competent football professional is running this franchise; a day when the right moves are actually made so that showing some patience actually makes sense. Let them defend Mangini all they want, but in doing so the statistics don’t just have to shut up, they have to wither up and die.

Monday, October 26, 2009

What About the Fans?

It’s nice to have some company.

A few weeks ago I suggested on these very same pages that Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini and staff were in over their collective heads and that the product was as bad as it’s ever been. I also suggested that Mangini would be in line for one of the quickest exits in NFL history if not for owner Randy Lerner’s serial indifference to the wants and needs of his fans.

Now Patrick McMannamon of the Akron Beacon Journal has written likewise. It would be nice if just a few more in the media, as proxies for the disgruntled fan base, would join the chorus. Maybe, just maybe, Lerner would hear the drum beats banging furiously for the head of his latest mistake.

I’m not suggesting that Lerner run the team based on a vote of the fans. I am suggesting that he stop the abuse. The Browns performance on Sunday was absolutely the most dispiriting performance I’ve ever witnessed and believe me, I’ve witnessed a whole bunch of bad over the years. Mangini himself said that the team lacked intensity and, for once, I won’t bother to argue with him.

I know Josh Cribbs took a little bit of an issue with Mangini’s assessment and, in truth, any assessments regarding the lack of intensity or professionalism always exclude Cribbs. He’s the one shining light on this miserable wretch of a franchise. If Lerner really wanted to do something positive for Cribbs, he’d fire Mangini now and give Cribbs that money.

Instead, in this topsy-turvy world where incompetence is rewarded and faith and persistence is overlooked, Cribbs is made to sweat out a bad contract he stupidly signed while Mangini and his band of merry idiots thrives as if everyday is Christmas. Well, Christmas can’t come soon enough for most Browns fans. It means the season will be nearly over.

Sunday was a perfect fall day. From all the various choices that laid in front of most people, inexplicably too many of us wasted 3+ hours watching this franchise find new ways to embarrass itself. Leaves could have been raked and golf could have been played. Cars could have been washed and kids could have been taken to the park. Instead on what is likely to be the last decent Sunday until the spring, too many Browns fans had toxic waste dripped on their eyeballs for the 7th straight week.

You could start with the quarterback situation but really you could start anywhere. When it comes to picking apart the carcass of this pathetic team it’s a never-ending supply of rancid meat. Mangini has yet to offer a cogent explanation as to why Derek Anderson is still on the team, let alone its starting quarterback. Anderson is making JaMarcus Russell look like a keeper.

Anderson is the worst-rated passer, statistically, and even that doesn’t do him justice. He has a quick release, yes, but he uses it to get rid of the ball well before the play has developed. Sunday’s game was a virtual greatest hits of reasons why Anderson isn’t a viable starting quarterback in this league. He has no touch on mid-range passes, he doesn’t throw particularly well on the run (and if you’re a quarterback in Cleveland, you better be able to throw on the run), and he’s not particularly accurate on anything other than a really deep pass down the middle of the field and even then that’s only occasionally. If he were trying to play this bad on purpose it couldn’t get much worse.

The fact that Anderson only completed three passes to wide receivers on Sunday may, to some, be a tribute to the defensive prowess of the Packers’ Charles Woodson and Al Harris. But they aren’t gods, except when they have the good fortune of playing against a team with quarterback who can’t throw.

Anderson isn’t a particularly effective leader, either, at least at this point. I have no doubt that he’s working hard or at least he thinks he’s working hard. But that’s irrelevant. Anderson can’t work himself into competency. He’s only effective when the talent around him is at a much higher level. Well, guess what? The league is full of back-ups with the same story.

As for why Mangini is giving Anderson such a long leash when he virtually yanked Quinn by his after just 10 quarters remains unexplained except in the most generic and meaningless way. The longer Mangini continues to try and rationalize the decision, the less it looks like one he made.

It’s well known that Quinn has an incentive in his contract that will pay him $11 million if he plays 70% of the team’s snaps this season. It also boosts his salary for next season. With the Browns falling off the radar screen of even the most ardent fans and late season sell outs looking less and less likely, Quinn’s banishment is looking like it has less to do with ability and more to do with money. And each day that goes by and Mangini continues to play word games while his owner sits mute, the more likely this scenario becomes.

But maybe the real answer in all of this is that there isn’t a quarterback out there that could do much better than either Anderson or Quinn under this regime The offensive line, once thought to be a strength, has played down to the level of the rest of the team. Jamal Lewis is finished as an effective running back in this league. The fact that he has an occasional good run is meaningless. It’s like Barry Bonds coming back into baseball and hitting a few home runs. The receivers weren’t very good when training camp started and aren’t very good now. Layered on all of this is an offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, just learning his craft. It’s an offense that can’t even offer hope as a strategy.

If that’s the case, then it would be hard to play Quinn given the financial ramifications that decision entails. Businesses and people make those kinds of decisions all the time. Look at it this way: if season ticketholders knew that the price of next year’s tickets increased with the number of games they attended this year, do you think they’d continue to go to the games?

On defense, the Browns have been every bit as horrible as they have been on offense and, in some sense, it makes matters worse. Fans are certainly for high-powered offenses, but fans in towns like Cleveland take far more pride in a good defense. Scoring is nice but it’s infinitely more satisfying to punish another team’s players. Watching this defense, with a supposedly Pro Bowl nose tackle, give up huge chunks of yards to the Ryan Grants of the world makes your knees buckle. Watching Spencer Harvan, a rookie tight end/linebacker (according to the Packers’ official roster) run through the defense on a routine outlet pass makes the heart sink. This defense is actually worse than last year’s model which is as hard of sentence to write as it is to believe.

Is all of this on Mangini? Yes and no. No in the sense that only about half the players on this miserable roster are attributable to him. Yes in the sense that about half the players on this miserable roster are attributable to him. Throw in the entire coaching staff belonging to Mangini and all of the sudden the scales trip decidedly against his short tenure.

It’s not that the Browns aren’t trying to work on things. I’ve tried to be both positive and fair on this front. You can see them trying to establish a running game, even without the talent. You can see Mangini trying to establish discipline and rigor in approach. Those are the right things to establish.

The problem is that week after week the same excuses keep getting made and most of them start and end with the phrase “we just need to execute.” Well, it’s nearly halfway through the season and the team still can’t execute even the most basic of tasks, like blocking and tackling? What that really says is that this regime can’t teach and this team isn’t listening, if they ever were.

With Mangini at the helm and the product that his weird little machinations creates, there is absolutely no reason to even bother with this team any longer. It has lost all its capacity to either surprise or entertain. People will watch a car wreck on YouTube a few times because of the perverse pleasure it brings. But they won’t keep watching it repeatedly and that’s where the Browns now find themselves. They are a perverse pleasure no longer.

After 7 games, nearly half a season, the weekly wreck that awaits holds no appeal to anyone. Sure, some fans that already bought tickets will show up early in the Muny Lot and party. But they do so for the same reasons friends gather at a wake. They have absolutely no delusion that this corpse of a team will come back to life, at least not with this Dr. Frankenstein at the controls.

Sure, you can argue for the long-term theory which suggests that patience will eventually be rewarded. But for that to work, the right group needs to be in charge. What is there in this group that would lead anyone to believe that it can eventually bring long-term success.

You can also look at it from the perspective of other cities like St. Louis and Oakland. The fans there must be just as miserable. But there’s no comfort in that. The problems here still remain and have to be addressed.

Mangini was fired from his last job because the owner became convinced that he had lost the locker room. Here in Cleveland, Lerner doesn’t even need to worry about the locker room. Mangini never had it. What Lerner should be asking himself is the same thing the rest of us are asking: What about the fans?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Utterly Predictable

It would be nice to believe that the drama-queen of a football team that calls itself the Cleveland Browns would have the attendant unpredictability accorded that status. It doesn’t. In its utterly predictable fashion, they were drilled Sunday by the Green Bay Packers, 31-3.

In one sense, this loss could be attributed to any number of issues that plagued the team this week; swine flu, car wrecks, no tight ends, bad clams perhaps. In another sense, it’s always something.

The outcome was basically known before kickoff but confirmed on the Browns’ first drive. It featured everything that plagues them as a franchise.

Green Bay, fearing the only player in a Browns uniform they needed to fear, kicked away from Josh Cribbs and had the ball hit the pylon. It was ruled out of bounds and the Browns started their drive at their own 40-yard line. They ended it at their own 42 after having taken a step backward first due to an offensive pass interference call on Mohammad Massaquoi on a ball that he couldn’t have caught no matter how hard he pushed off Green Bay defensive back Al Harris.

Despite setting that tone, there was a moment, however brief, where the team actually showed a whiff of life and actually got on the scoreboard first. After squandering good field position on their first drive, the Browns’ offense found some rhythm on its second drive or for most of the drive anyway. Taking over on downs after the defense stopped Aaron Rodgers and the Packers on 4th and 1 from the Cleveland 34-yard line, the Browns methodically marched down the field as if they’d done it a hundred times this season.

But what they’ve really done a hundred times this season is squander opportunities and this one was no different.

The rhythm established was summarily broken and for the rest of the game after Jamal Lewis got the ball down to the 2-yard line on second down. Anderson was forced to call time out for some such reason and on consecutive plays thereafter fumbled and nearly threw an interception. Billy Cundiff, subbing once again for Phil Dawson, converted the chip shot field goal, after hitting the left upright, and the Browns had a 3-0 lead just seconds into the second quarter. The doink sound the ball made after hitting the upright aptly captured the collective thoughts of thousands.

The Browns’ minor uprising apparently was enough to shake the sleep out of the eyes of the Packers. On the ensuring drive, Rodgers put together a 6-play, 71-yard touchdown drive that featured a 45-yard touchdown pass to tight end Spencer Havner, helping the Packers grab a 7-3 lead. It was shades of the Steelers’ game. Havner was an outlet for Rodgers on 3rd and 1 who then rumbled nearly untouched the entire way to the end zone.

Predictably, the Browns responded with a 3-and-out. But the Packers had 12 men on the field and with that penalty the Browns got another chance. Unbowed, they went 3-and-out again.

The Packers then made it 14-3 when Rodgers hit Donald Driver on what was supposed to be a quick strike but turned even more quickly into a 71-yard touchdown. Defensive back Brodney Pool had a chance at Driver but couldn’t make the tackle. It probably wouldn’t have mattered anyway.

Then it got ugly. On the Browns’ next drive, Anderson spent most of it alternately scrambling for his life and throwing wildly off the mark. The Browns got a gift first down, however, on an illegal contact penalty and Anderson used the extra downs to get his weekly interception out of the way early, this one to Charles Woodson, who took it to the Cleveland 13-yard line.

The Browns’ defense looked to have held the Packers to a field goal but on 3rd and goal from the 2-yard line, Brandon McDonald interfered in the end zone with Driver, giving the Packers 4 more chances to score. They needed 3 but got what they needed when Ryan Grant pushed it in from the 1-yard line. It helped push the score to 21-3 with just under two minutes in the half.

The Browns then made a predictably half-hearted effort at a two-minute drive, half-hearted because they threw short and in the middle of the field mostly. After Anderson was sacked with two seconds remaining and the ball sitting their own 48-yard line, the Browns inexplicably called time out. It was explained 30 seconds later when offensive coordinator Brian Daboll gave Anderson a final opportunity to throw another interception. Anderson’s heave to the end zone was knocked away harmlessly instead.

The rest of the game had the look and intensity of a mid-summer scrimmage, with the Packers testing various aspects of their offense and the Browns willingly complying.

The Packers worked on the run in their first drive but it ended with a missed 55-yard field goal by Mason Crosby. The Browns took over at their own 45-yard line but on 3rd and 2, Anderson hit Cribbs on a short pass, Cribbs fumbled and it was picked up by linebacker Brandon Chillar at the Green Bay 49 yard line. Head coach Eric Mangini challenged the call and, predictably, he was wrong.

When the Packers took over again, they worked some more on their running game. It should bode well for the rest of the season. Grant ran four of the next 5 plays and ran well. That drive, too, though ended just short of the end zone and Crosby hit the short field goal that gave the Packers a 24-3 lead.

The Browns, meanwhile, looked to be working on, well, it was hard to say what they were working on. There were a few perfunctory runs by Lewis into a stacked line of scrimmage, an occasional fumbled snap and a variety of passes that didn’t appear to have intended targets. And the drive would have ended predictably and quickly but the Packers did their level best to keep the drive alive by continually committing penalties, including holding and a late hit after Jerome Harrison had stepped out of bounds after a swing pass and then was inadvertently hit by safety Atari Bigby.

All that nonsense allowed the Browns to get the ball deep into Green Bay territory. Then Anderson hit recently-signed tight end Michael Gaines inside the 5-yard line and he took it to the 1. Lewis then lost 2 yards, Anderson overthrew Massaquoi in the corner of the end zone, Lewis got his two yards back and then Anderson missed badly to Massaquoi in the end zone on 4th down, leaving the ball at the Packers 1-yard line. On the plus side, Mangini didn’t attempt the field goal.

The Packers got out of that jail as if they were in Mayberry. Anderson hit Driver on first down for 18 yards. He then hit Havner for another 14 yards. Two plays later, Rodgers scrambled 19 yards on 3rd and 6. Grant then went off tackle right for 37 yards, getting the ball to the Cleveland 5-yard line. Rodgers finished off the drive with a 5-yard touchdown pass to James Jones and the Packers had a 31-3 lead.

With the Browns deeply entrenched once again in garbage time, it’s hard to know exactly what Mangini was thinking, except that he wasn’t thinking Brady Quinn. Anderson was awful in every way a quarterback can be awful and offered absolutely no resume for why he should see another snap. In fairness, he did have the one good drive late in the first quarter, but as long as we’re being fair let’s not that he helped that drive come unhinged.

Meanwhile, Quinn sat idly on the bench wondering why someone who was 12-26 for 99 yards and 1 interception to that point and a quarterback rating around 40 was playing ahead of him. Maybe this really is a money thing.

But there was Anderson anyway, throwing his next pass at the feet of Lawrence Vickers and another out of the reach of Massaquoi. When it was all over, Anderson didn’t complete another pass and finished the day 12-29.

Rodgers, on the other hand, was brilliant. He threw only 20 times but completed 15 and had 3 touchdowns and 246 yards. He finished with a quarterback rating over 150. The Packers also rolled up 202 yards on the ground. In all, they had 460 net yards while the Browns had a meager 139.

The Browns are now 1-6 and probably petitioning the league office as to why they have to wait still another week until they get a bye. So are their fans.

As for Sunday’s outcome, it’s not so much that it was a set back because this team, despite its win in Buffalo, has shown absolutely no progress since the first game when they were similarly blasted by the Packers’ divisional rival, the Minnesota Vikings. But just as this loss and everything about it was predictable, so too will be the inevitable silver lining that Mangini will find somewhere, especially when it comes to Anderson. There was that one drive. And just as predictably, the fans will mutter, “huh?”

Friday, October 23, 2009

Lingering Items--Steelers Edition

Disaster, at least when it comes to professional sports teams, often is a matter of scale. The Cleveland Browns are in the 11th year of a never-ending odyssey to somewhere, destination unknown. One thing is certain though, few if any fans are happy about it. Ok, one other thing is certain, most if not all fans have have plenty to say about it.

Meanwhile, over in Washington, D.C., the locals are perhaps even more verklempt and it has nothing to do with health care, cap-and-trade or the wars in the Mideast. Apparently those are transient issues when compared to the relative woes of the Redskins. What’s more fascinating though is the remarkable parallels it has to what’s taking place with the Browns.

Daniel Snyder is in his 10th year of ownership of the Redskins. He came into the league like most young owners with too much money came into the league—loudly. He paid fleeting attention to the team’s salary cap and far more to its Q rating. Deals that no general manager outside of Phil Savage would consider making Snyder made anyway. He’s probably still in debt to Deion Sanders.

But recently, Snyder has become nearly invisible. A victim of his past hubris, Snyder has aged into a far more traditional owner, laying low and supposedly letting his football people run the franchise. In that vein, Snyder brought back Joe Gibbs to run the franchise a few years ago but that didn’t do much to restore former glory. Gibbs now hangs around as an unpaid consultant.

The bottom line is that Snyder’s ownership has looked an awful lot like the Lerner family’s ownership of the Browns, but without the glitz. And, guess what? The fans are screaming for Snyder to sell as the only viable path remaining for returning to respectability. That has a familiar ring to it. It won’t happen there as it won’t happen here.

The mess surrounding current head coach Jim Zorn makes the tenure of Eric Mangini in Cleveland look positively tranquil by comparison. While Mangini’s relationship with Lerner is, by contrast, rock solid, the turmoil enveloping each franchise still has the same impact.

Not even halfway through the season Zorn is on the shortest of leashes, hamstrung by an idiot owner who can’t seem to understand that he’s the far bigger problem. Whatever it was that made Snyder rich enough to buy the Redskins, and it’s hard to remember that far back at this point, Snyder believes it doesn’t apply to his current business interest. I’d say the same thing about Randy Lerner, but really, his riches are inherited not earned and there is no business success to translate over.

But maybe none of that matters. If Forbes magazine is correct, then Snyder’s abject mismanagement hasn’t affected the franchise’s value one iota. The same is true in Cleveland. In fact, according to Forbes, the Redskins have doubled in valued from when Snyder bought the team for a then unheard of $800 million and is second in worth behind the Dallas Cowboys.

Unless Snyder is strapped for cash, why would he sell, performance on the field notwithstanding? And that is true of Lerner as well. The economy runs in cycles but NFL franchises are still about the safest investment vehicle out there for the truly rich. The Browns, despite both the economy and their on-field performance, didn’t lose a single percentage point of value in the last year, according to Forbes. More to the point, they are the 13th most valuable franchise, valued at $1 billion, which means that the Lerner family has almost doubled its initial investment of $530 million. At least the Browns are on the right half of something positive.

I’m not a conspiracy theorist by nature, but even someone with the naïveté of Simple Jack can recognize that there is little connection between what takes place on the field and the value of that franchise, except of course when it comes to the Oakland Raiders. They are the worst franchise in the league and their value bears that out.

Lerner, like Snyder, can run through coaches, mission statements and master plans like others run through paper napkins and it isn’t going to impact their real bottom line.

All that means, of course, is that for all the bitching that fans may do about the product being put out on the field, owners like Snyder and Lerner only give it a fleeting thought, no matter what they say publicly. Put it this way, if you knew that you’d continue to get healthy wage increases at work no matter how bad you screwed up would you really care if your co-workers kept complaining about you and asking you to quit?


The final score notwithstanding, the thrashing that the Pittsburgh Steelers put on the Browns last Sunday was every bit as bad as that put on them by the Baltimore Ravens, maybe worse. In the Ravens game it was apparent that the team quit playing somewhere around the 13:15 mark of the third quarter. In Pittsburgh, the team appeared to be trying the whole game. That’s a problem.

The talent deficit between the two teams is huge but it’s not as if you need me to confirm that. What makes it scary to think about, though, is that the dominance by the Steelers of the Browns doesn’t look to end any time soon.

The players claim that a rivalry still exists and it’s nice that Mangini thinks of the Steelers as a rival, but that’s just not the case. They are just another team in a division playing in a game that the Browns have no hope of winning.

That’s really the biggest problem with the Steelers’ abject dominance. It takes any fun out of what used to be a great rivalry. And when you begin to measure what it’s going to take before fans start to believe that this team is on some sort of road to redemption, becoming competitive again with the Steelers would be a good start.

The Browns of the early ‘80s could never seem to get a win at Three Rivers Stadium but the games always seemed to be hotly contested. The 1984 and ’85 games were particularly agonizing as the Browns lost both games in Pittsburgh by a combined 4 points.

But the Browns solved that dilemma in 1986 with a 27-24 win on their way to a 12-4 record. That victory didn’t just put the so-called Three Rivers Jinx to rest, it gave the team a platform and an ability to hold its head high. It also started a 4-year win streak in Pittsburgh, culminating with that magical opening game in 1989 when the Browns, under Bud Carson, blasted Pittsburgh 51-0.

But since then it’s been one pathetic performance after another for a franchise that’s been going in the wrong direction. In the 17 games played in Pittsburgh since that win streak ended, including the playoffs, the Browns have lost 15 of them and rarely has it been even close. The average score has been 28-13. Three of those losses have been shutouts and in 6 others the Browns have scored less than 10 points. It’s also a trend that’s getting worse. The average score in the last 4 losses has been 29-12.

If nothing else, reversing this trend is the real marker for determining whether this franchise is on the right track. No one expects the Browns to suddenly begin dominating Pittsburgh on its own turf, but getting competitive there would be a nice first step.


Another week and another controversy bubbles around the Browns. This time it was Eric Wright rolling his car on the wet pavement early Thursday morning, apparently after a night out that may or may not have included attending the Jay-Z concert.

In his Friday press conference, the media drones from Sector G found every conceivable way of asking Mangini about Wright and what he thought about his being out at 2 a.m. but Mangini, ever the rock when it comes to saying anything meaningful, wouldn’t bite.

The best Mangini would offer is that he personally wouldn’t be out that late and that he wishes his players were home studying their playbooks and thinking work thoughts. But he said that the Wright incident appeared to be an accident, nothing more.

It’s hard to know what happened exactly with Wright but cars don’t typically rollover without some sort of help. That means driving at a high rate of speed, falling asleep at the wheel, driving impaired, or some other such thing. That’s not to suggest that Wright is guilty of any of that. All it is to suggest is that there’s more to the story.

But putting that piece of it aside, Mangini is correct in wondering why his players find it necessary to party into the next morning, especially given the challenges it faces. A lot of fans have the same question. Wright plays on the worst defense in the league and he’s every bit as much the reason for that as any other player on that side of the ball.

Even if Wright hadn’t rolled his car, that wouldn’t have erased the fact that he was out pretty darn late on a school night and there’s a pretty good chance he had some company in the form of teammates. It’s a pretty sure bet too that if nothing else the ensuing lack of sleep ensured that they wouldn’t have been 100% at what amounts to the last significant practice before the next game.

All it really does it underscore that Mangini still hasn’t come even close to securing the hearts and minds of the players he needs to convert. Wright’s undoubtedly glad he didn’t get hurt in the accident but given Mangini’s reaction to the last player that had a late night out, he’s probably just as glad that the trade deadline has passed.


For those keeping score, the Wright car accident was the second of the season for a Browns’ player. James Davis had the first one, which occurred, oddly enough, about a week before he injured his shoulder for good in what’s being termed a post-practice “controlled environment.”

The rumor, fostered by ESPN, was that Davis was injured in some sort of drill after practice when a player in pads, later identified as linebacker Blake Costanza, hit a padless Davis.

Mangini said at the time that he felt there were no league policies violated and that was confirmed by the league office on Friday. Of course Mangini never volunteered what happened in the first place and spoke of it reluctantly only after the reports surfaced from unnamed sources. Someday he’ll learn that early disclosure keeps him from looking so guilty.

For those keeping score, this also is at least the second investigation the league has undertaken of Mangini and his policies (the other had to do with the infamous bus trip in the offseason) to go along with the 5 or so pending grievances. That’s a pretty hefty load in such a short period of time: two investigations, 5 grievances, two car accidents, one in-season trade. For a team trying to avoid distractions, it has a funny way of finding them anyway.


Given how exhausting it is to follow this team on a daily basis, this week’s question to ponder: Who is looking forward to the bye week more, the coaches, the players or the fans?

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Performance-Based Privileges

It may be darkest before the storm, but for Cleveland Browns fans the clouds hanging over their franchise have been so thick for so long it’s difficult to remember what the sun once looked like.

The news that linebacker D’Qwell Jackson is not out for the year because of a shoulder injury should have had more of an impact than it actually does. Jackson is a decent player, maybe even the best player on the defense. But the unit already is the worst in the league and has looked bad far more often than it’s looked good. How much of an impact can the loss of Jackson or any member of that defense really have?

The other news, of sorts, of the week regarding the Browns relates to what they didn’t do, as in they didn’t trade any more players. No one expected head coach Eric Mangini to trade Josh Cribbs so the fact that the trade deadline passed without any action with him isn’t a surprise. But it is a little surprising that something didn’t happen at some level, or maybe it’s not.

There are a few players on this team that would be immediately useful on other teams; players like Joe Thomas, Josh Cribbs, Shaun Rogers and Dave Zastudil come to mind. You could probably throw Eric Steinbach on that list as well. There also are some players that would be useful down the road to some teams, players like Mohammad Massaquoi, Jerome Harrison, and Alex Mack. There may even be a few others that could find roles on other teams if they were available, players like Brodney Pool, Alex Hall and Eric Wright. But no team is going to give you much or anything for them.

And that’s really the point. Mangini isn’t rebuilding this team, he’s building it from scratch and he has very little to work with and very little to dangle in front of anyone else.

So let’s go back for a moment to a time when the last regime was in its salad days and owner Randy Lerner was feeling particularly sprite about its prospects; a time when he was more prone to giving interviews.

It was March, 2007 to be exact when Lerner made the rounds of the local newspapers and more or less gave his state of the Browns address, personalizing it a little for each reporter. I wrote about it here and it’s instructive to visit with Rappin’ Randy a bit to give some perspective on what hasn’t happened since.

Lerner told the media then that owning the Browns was a performance-base privilege. He posited the question that if he can’t perform as an owner, why should he continue to own the team. Since then, he’s answered his own question, he shouldn’t. Don’t take my word for it, take his.

Using the yardstick that Lerner laid out for himself, he said that when Savage took over, there were maybe “five or six or seven” football players on the team, though he left it to others to debate the names. He also said that a team needs about 35 core players in order to be successful. He named 19 players currently on that 2007 roster who fit that category: “I have (Joe) Jurevicius, (Orpheus) Roye, Kellen Winslow, Braylon Edwards, Kamerion Wimbley, Sean Jones, Brodney Pool, Eric [Steinbach], Jamal Lewis, Andra Davis, Charlie Frye, D'Qwell Jackson, Leigh Bodden, Josh Cribbs for special teams certainly if not other, Steve Heiden, and emerging players like Leon Williams, Lawrence Vickers, Jerome Harrison, Travis Wilson.”

It’s an interesting list for a variety of reasons. It gives insight into what both Lerner and Savage were thinking at the time and in that context explains why Savage really is gone and why Lerner should sell. But more instructive still is the fact that it’s just two short seasons later and the only ones still on the team are Wimbley, Pool, Steinbach, Lewis, Jackson, Cribbs, Heiden, Vickers and Harrison. Assuming for the moment that Lerner’s assessment on the players was correct, that means that over half of the “core” players are no longer with the team. And of those 9 still remaining, two are now on injured reserve and a third, Wimbley, continues to tease as he’s done throughout his career. He’s yet to make a real impact.

That means that only two seasons removed from Lerner’s assessment, the Browns are utilizing the services of 7 core players at the moment.

If Lerner were still in a talking mood, it would be fascinating to learn how many core players he now sees on this roster and who they might be. Let’s speculate.

Starting from Lerner’s original list, you have to assume he’d still put Wimbley on it even though nothing’s happened in the last two years to make anyone else put the words “Wimbley” and “core player” in the same sentence unless the word “not” also is thrown in. You can also assume that a case can still be made for Pool, a consummate and underappreciated professional. Certainly, Steinbach, Jackson, Cribbs and Harrison still qualify. But of those still on the roster and Lerner’s original list, the same case can’t be made for Lewis, because of his age and, frankly, his diminishing skills, Heiden, because of injuries, and Vickers, because he’s easily replaced. (As an aside, I’m not sure how Vickers ever really got on the list, but then just look at Lerner’s original list and ask yourself the same question about Leon Williams, Travis Wilson and Charlie Frye.)

Now, from the current roster, you can add in Thomas, Rogers, Zastudil (though Lerner didn’t have him on that list in 2007, hmm), Massaquoi, Mack, and Hall. If Lerner’s being really generous, he’d add, well, actually, I’m not sure who else he’d add without arousing a howl from the fan base. But assuming that there are a few others, that still puts the team well short of the 19 Lerner targeted in 2007 and well short of the 35 players the team supposedly needs to be competitive.

In other words, in 2007 the Browns supposedly were roughly halfway toward the required complement of core players. Now, they are maybe a third of the way there, depending on whether or not you’re an easy grader. (Another aside: I recognize mightily that Lerner’s original list was ridiculous. The 2008 season bore that out. Still, it’s a useful premise for purposes of illustrating the far larger point.)

The other thing that’s noticeable about the list of current so-called core players is the lack of any quarterback on it. Lerner originally had Frye on his list but he obviously didn’t foresee that Savage would dump him a few months later after a bad opening game. When Derek Anderson emerged in 2007 in place of Frye he certainly would have been on that list but his 2008 season, his inability to secure the starting spot going into 2009 and the fact that he’s currently the worst rated quarterback in the league removes him from any consideration as a core player.

There was a time, probably last season, when Lerner would have put Brady Quinn on that list, but he isn’t there anymore. Mangini has effectively written off Quinn and will dump him in the offseason, apparently with Lerner’s blessing. That leaves Brett Ratliff. Mangini may like him well enough but if a 3rd string quarterback really is considered a core player on this team then just forfeit the rest of the games now and bring the season to a close.

Mangini will be finding out, if he doesn’t know already, that there aren’t enough hours in the day or days on the calendar to fix this mess in any reasonable time frame. You can constantly churn a roster as most NFL teams do, you can listen to the siren song of free agency, you can gather draft picks like they’re acorns on a fall day, and you still can’t go from 12 core players to 35 in just a few short seasons.

The other part of this treadmill is that as the years pass, the core players you once had drop off the list for a variety of reasons, including injury, age and salary demands. They also drop off because as impatience kicks in, the temptation to trade one away for the chance on getting two more can be irresistible.

For example, Savage traded Bodden for Rogers. Rogers is the better player, certainly, but it did nothing toward the goal of increasing the nucleus of the team. All Savage did was trade one core player for another. (Another aside because I feel the need to explain: I don’t think Bodden was a core player, Lerner did, that’s all. Lerner was wrong. He often is.) When Mangini traded Edwards for Chansi Stuckey and Jason Trusnik, the team took a step backward from the standpoint of building its base. Maybe Stuckey and Trusnik eventually become core players, but they aren’t now. Ditto for the draft picks received in exchange for Edwards.

And that’s how this gamble really works. Trading anyone worth trading on this current roster would have done little for building a stronger base. Giving away marginal players for late round picks has no promise of accomplishing anything for the long term and nothing for the short term.

For Mangini to effectively accelerate the long process of building the base he’s going to have to develop some of these marginal players into core players and then he’s going to have to get awfully lucky with the draft in a hurry. That’s the task Lerner really has thrown at the feet of his new head coach. It was the same task Savage had and failed at. And if Lerner is every bit as good as assessing the ability of someone to make this transformation as he was at identifying the team’s core in 2007 or picking the last architect, then something tells me those dark clouds won’t be dissipating anytime soon. And, for good measure, just know that in Cleveland if ownership is indeed a performance-based privilege, it’s apparently a fleeting and ill-defined concept.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bring Back the Bills

Thank you, sir, may I have another? That’s about the only thing to say these days when the Cleveland Browns face the Pittsburgh Steelers and it was the most appropriate thing to say on this day as the Browns were once again spanked by the Steelers, this time 27-14. It was the Steelers’ 12th straight win against the Browns and 18th in their last 19 tries.

It wasn’t the blowout 31-0 that the Browns suffered against the Steelers at the end of last season, but the Steelers’ victory wasn’t ever in doubt, either. At least there won’t be any talk this week of good losses or bad wins. This was a solid, old fashioned loss. So for those Browns fans still making goofy bets with co-workers that are Steelers fans, wear that Steelers jersey with pride at work this week as you hang your head in faked shame. Maybe next time you’ll learn to keep your big mouth shut.

In some ways the final score isn’t indicative of the kind of game it really was. The Steelers dominated everywhere but on the final score board, although they won by plenty. They ran up over 500 yards in offense, the first time they’ve done that since 2006 when the Browns were also the victims. But three straight turnovers by the Steelers, two of which were greeted with turnovers by the Browns, kept the Steelers from inflicting more damage.

What they did inflict was plenty enough and it was done by the usual suspects, Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward, Santonio Holmes and Heath Miller. Roethlisberger threw for 417 yards with two touchdowns against his one interception. Hines Ward was the beneficiary of most of that, catching 8 passes for 159 yards and one touchdown. A second touchdown catch was nullified on a replay review near the end of the first half.

Holmes likewise had a big day, catching 5 passes for 104 yards. Miller had 4 catches, most of them at crucial moments, for 80 yards. On the ground the Steelers added another 140 yards, with Rashard Mendenhall leading the way with 62 yards on 17 carries.

On the Browns’ side of the ball, they had a meager 197 net yards on offense. The running game, strong the previous two weeks, was held to 91 yards total, with Josh Cribbs serving as the leading rusher with 45 yards on 6 carries.

Quarterback Derek Anderson was perhaps better than he was against Buffalo, but it’s a matter of degree. He completed more passes, but he had more turnovers. In all he was 9-24 for 122 yards, but fumbled twice and was intercepted once, at the Pittsburgh 1-yard line late in the game. Look for head coach Eric Mangini to note Anderson’s improving quarterback rating. He went from just over 15 last week to 51.04 this week.

Cribbs, demonstrating why he deserves a new contract, in addition to his 45 yards on the ground had a 98-yard touchdown return and was used more liberally on offense than he had been all year in the so-called “wildcat” formation.

After an initial few series by each team that went nowhere, the first break of the game went the Browns’ way when Roethlisberger fumbled the snap and Alex Hall recovered it at the Steelers’ 39-yard line late in the first quarter. Utilizing Cribbs as quarterback with Anderson serving as a decoy receiver, the Browns initially were able to move and perhaps take the early lead. But the drive imploded on the wings of good intentions as head coach Eric Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll went to wildcat well one too many times with one too many looks. On 1st and 10 from the Pittsburgh 14-yard line, Cribbs passed low to Chansi Stuckey who couldn’t handle it. Then, on 2nd and 10, Cribbs passed again for Stuckey but was easily picked off by safety Troy Polamalu, who appeared to be hurt on the play.

That seemed to be all the spark the Steelers’ needed. With virtually no pressure being applied, Roethlisberger was able to literally look at every receiving option twice as he picked apart the defense on his way to putting his team up 7-0 with an 8-yard pass to Miller. The key play on the 8-play 85 yard drive was a short pass to Holmes that Holmes turned into a 41-yard gain. In all, Roethlisberger was 5-5 on the drive.

The Browns’ couldn’t respond, but then again they haven’t been able to respond to anyone all season.

The Steelers then pushed it to 14-0 after Roethlisberger hit Ward for a 52-yard touchdown. The pass looked to be for Holmes but Ward stepped in front, apparently fooling the Browns’ secondary. Not to worry for Holmes. Again he set the drive in the right direction with a 21-yard catch a few plays earlier.

Cribbs, who seemed to be touching the ball on every play at this point, made it 14-7 with the 98-yard return on the ensuing kickoff. It was the second kick return for a touchdown against Pittsburgh in Cribbs’ career. It made the game look closer than it really was but it also gave Cribbs’ agent more fodder for his drive to land Cribbs a new contract. Good luck finding someone on the other end of the line in Berea who’s sympathetic.

It was nice moment that didn’t last nearly long enough. The Steelers were able to hit their “easy” button or so it seemed and looked to have pushed the lead back to 14 points but a 13-yard pass from Roethlisberger to Ward for a touchdown was overruled on review. Hines couldn’t maintain possession through the catch. Then, on third down, Roethlisberger, finally under some pressure, threw recklessly and had it almost picked off. Jeff Reed stepped in and kicked a 32-yard field goal for the 17-7 halftime lead.

That drive also featured a bit of controversy, still unexplained, regarding a very questionable first down call that went the Steelers way and enabled the drive to stay alive. On television, it looked as if the Steelers had come up inches short on 4th and 1 and the first down markers seemed to confirm as much. Oddly, though, and without any further review or discussion, the Steelers were awarded the first down. Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan could be seen liberally dropping f-bombs at that result and he seem well justified in doing so.

The Browns got on the board to start the second half with an honest-to-gosh offensive touchdown on their most professional drive of the season. After having thrown interceptions on their first possession of the second half in 4 of the first 5 games this season, the Browns marched down the field on the strength of some excellent passes from Anderson to Mohammad Massaquoi, including a 43-yarder that got the ball inside the Pittsburgh 10, and then finished off the drive with an Anderson to Lawrence Vickers 1-yard touchdown pass. The brought the score to 17-14 and at least gave the Steelers something to think about.

But if the Browns were going to be able to make a game of it and really give the Steelers something to think about, the defense had to hold the Steelers on the next drive. It wasn’t close. A 9-yard pass to Miller, a 45-yard pass to Ward and just that quickly the Steelers were back threatening. Then an end around from Rashard Mendenhall to Wallace got the ball to the Browns’ 1-yard line and Mendenhall finished off the drive with a 1-yard carry up the middle. Three minutes, 6 plays, 79 yards and the 10-point lead was restored.

Unlike the Steelers, the Browns’ offense couldn’t respond. A quick 3-and-out clearly delineated the differences between these two franchises, two hours apart by land, two million miles apart in ability.

Then things just got outright sloppy. The Browns tend to bring that out in teams.

Pittsburgh, showing the kind of indifference that can creep in against an inferior opponent, looked to try to level the playing field through a series of interceptions and fumbles. The Browns would here none of it.

First, Roethlisberger was intercepted by Brodney Pool, who returned it to the Cleveland 48-yard line. But on a 3rd and 16 Anderson, under pressure, fumbled and Pittsburgh’s James Harrison recovered. Then Willie Parker returned the favor two plays later by fumbling, with Abe Elam recovering at the Cleveland 16-yard line. Four plays later Anderson fumbled again, this time at the 24-yard line, but again Pittsburgh decided the potato was still too hot as Mendenhall then fumbled on the next play with Bowens recovering at the Cleveland 15 yard line.

After it was all over, Cleveland had the ball, couldn’t move it and was forced to punt. All that really happened was a lot of time was chewed up and the Browns, despite having a superior team almost gift wrapping the opportunities, still found themselves on the wrong end of a 10-point deficit.

The Steelers pushed it further on the strength of a Jeff Reed 39-yard field goal that was the culmination of a drive that started at the beginning of the 4th quarter and consumed over 6 minutes. The Browns and Anderson seemed to be moving it well in what was now garbage time but Anderson threw his obligatory weekly interception that sealed the loss.

It’s hard to know where the Browns will go with this increased use of the wildcat formation. Much of that will likely depend on how Mangini and Daboll view Cribbs’ crucial interception at the Pittsburgh 19-yard line. Still in a game where there weren’t many highlights for the Browns, it was something at least interesting to watch.

With still another loss to the Steelers and another potential one looming later in the season, it’s time to stop calling this series a rivalry. Simply playing a team twice a year doesn’t constitute a rivalry. In this case, it’s more like a semi-annual beatdown. If it’s a rivalry that this team needs, then there’s only one answer: Bring back the Bills.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Lingering Items--Bills Edition

The Cleveland Browns only attempted 17 passes last week in Buffalo in what is now being called “fierce” winds. First they were strong, but as the pumping up of quarterback Derek Anderson’s fragile ego continues, the winds are now being upgraded in order to explain what can only be termed a pitiful performance, but more on that in a minute.

The Browns weren’t passing not only because Anderson couldn’t hit the side of a barn from 5 feet away, but because they were insistent, stubbornly so, on running the ball. That’s not a bad thing.

Running the ball in the NFL is one of the least glamorous activities that take place within a game unless a team has a breakaway back like Adrian Peterson. Then, every carry holds the promise of something big. But as a regular diet, a team’s running game still is mostly made up of 3 yards and a cloud of dust. It’s been that way since the days of Woody Hayes and even with all the fancy gidgets and gadgets that come and go, it’s still true today.

Consider, for example, that almost half of the NFL teams at the moment average less than 4 yards per carry, including, for example, the Browns’ opponent this weekend, the Pittsburgh Steelers.
There are plenty of ways to slice and dice the statistics, of course, but the larger message in it is that committing to the running game isn’t usually pretty.

The Browns, on a per carry average, are in the middle of the pack at 3.8 yards. On a yards per game basis, they again are in the middle of the pack at 106 yards. But in terms of the number of rushing attempts per game, the Browns are a top 10 team with 138. In terms of rushing attempts per game, the Browns are basically a top 10 team there as well.

What’s becoming clear as this season continues is that for one of the first times in recent memory, the Browns under head coach Eric Mangini aren’t just a team that talks about committing to the run, they are actually doing it. Right now, the Browns are averaging two more rushing attempts per game than last season, which doesn’t sound like much until you extrapolate that over a whole season. Doing that equates to an extra 32 attempts for a season which is another game’s worth of attempts or, on the current pace, another 106 rushing yards for the season.

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger gets a lot of good press because of a handful of comebacks he’s led but the secret to the Steelers’ sustained success on offense is their ability to run, year after year. New England’s Tom Brady may be the greatest quarterback to ever play the game but Belichick has always made sure that there was a credible running game to balance him out. It’s no coincidence that these two teams annually appear near the top in rushing attempts.

Every offensive coordinator the Browns have ever had has pretty much said the same thing, “we’re going to establish the run.” But then one thing leads to another, the directions get all fouled up, and the next thing you know the final stats showed that out of the 48 plays run that day only 15 were runs.

The Browns this time seem to be incredibly serious about establishing the run. The fact that both Jerome Harrison and Jamal Lewis had 100-yard runs on consecutive weeks is a tribute to the fact that the Browns deliberately pounded at the run. Harrison had 29 carries against Cincinnati and Lewis had 31. It’s not always pretty when teams try to establish a running game but it looks exactly like what the Browns looked like the last two weeks.

This also tends to explain offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s rather odd response on Friday to the question about whether there is a rift between he and Quinn over, among other things, Quinn’s checking off to passes. “We have check with me's every week. It's just a matter of whether we get them called or whether we think that's the best thing to do. In a couple of those, we got into a throwing-fest there a little bit when we were down.” Translated, because you need it, Daboll didn’t really care that the team was down and needed to score to get back in the game. When he wants to run he wants to run and that’s it.

Daboll has a point is you consider that this team really isn’t playing to win as much as they are playing to re-establish themselves as a NFL franchise. A credible running attack is a good start.


The Browns’ commitment to the run and Daboll’s view of it and Quinn’s use of check downs should also be viewed in the context of Mangini’s almost purposeful but subtle trashing of Quinn. On Thursday at his press conference Mangini’s discussed in some detail how the offense has gotten better on third downs in the last few games. This, of course, is just a continuation of Mangini’s whisper campaign to justify what the statistics cannot, choosing Anderson over Quinn.

Fans have their favorite players but from my perspective the starting quarterback should be whoever gets the job done. If Anderson is the best player for the job, then the fact that Quinn was a number one draft choice is irrelevant. Once a player makes a team his draft status is pretty irrelevant. Josh Cribbs was an undrafted free agent and Braylon Edwards was a first round pick. Which player was better for the Browns?

Thus Quinn doesn’t get extra points simply because he was a first round pick and Anderson was barely drafted. But from a pure performance standpoint over the last two seasons, Anderson hasn’t outperformed his counterpart, at least in any meaningful way and surely not enough to justify what appears to be Quinn’s banishment to the back of the bus.

Mangini’s discussion of third down success since Anderson greatly illustrates the point. In truth, the Browns are awful on third downs, irrespective of who’s at quarterback. In fact, they are 30th in the league, converting just 30% of their third downs. They were awful last season as well, converting just 33%. If you break last season down between Quinn and Anderson, there isn’t any meaningful difference. The same holds true this season.

In Quinn’s first two games, the Browns converted 25% and 21%, respectively, of their third downs. Against Baltimore, it was 25%. Against Cincinnati, with Anderson at quarterback, the number ticked up to 31% but then dropped back to just 25% against Buffalo. If you want to slice this even a little thinner, the teams the Browns faced in their first two games, Minnesota and Denver, have defenses that are 7th and 4th, respectively, in stopping teams on 3rd down. The teams Anderson faced, Cincinnati and Buffalo, are 11th and 21st, respectively.

All of this is another way of saying that Quinn faced two tougher teams than Anderson and yet the success rate on 3rd down with Anderson hasn’t ticked up meaningfully. It just adds to the mystery surrounding Mangini’s decision not to give Quinn more than 10 quarters against two difficult teams before essentially yanking him for good.

If Mangini is going to trot out the supposedly minor progress on 3rd down success rate with Anderson in, then he should be willing to talk about the bigger picture as well.

If you’re in to discerning trends, then the Bills game was clearly a step backward, particularly for Anderson. The Browns did continue to pound the ball on the ground, but Anderson was awful. Those looking to make excuses for him have trotted out the windy conditions without acknowledging that Anderson has thrown well in the wind before (e.g. last season’s Sunday night game against the Steelers. On that freakish weather night, the winds reportedly were 50 MPH and Anderson was 18-32 for 166 yards) and the supposedly large number of dropped passes.

In Daboll’s press conference Friday, he wouldn’t specify how many dropped passes there were by his count but didn’t dispute a media apologist who claimed there were 8. I’ve gone back through the tape and can’t find 8 dropped passes. There were 2, maybe 3 if you want to be really generous, passes that were thrown well that weren’t caught. The other 5 or 6 were mid-range passes that the receivers were able to get a hand on but were balls either thrown behind them or at their knees. These don’t qualify as dropped passes. If they did, Braylon Edwards would have had about 90 last season.

What’s even more disturbing is that Anderson did this against one of the weakest teams in the whole league.

It’s nice of Mangini to try and bolster the confidence of his quarterback, but doing so at the expense of your other quarterback on the most flimsy of evidence isn’t going to serve Mangini well in the long run. Like Mangini, the players can only go by what they see as well.


Continuing on that theme for another rmoment, the mystery surrounding why Mangini has tossed aside Quinn may never be known, at least publicly, but before anyone gets too comfortable with Anderson, all signs seem to point to Mangini not being sold on Anderson as the long-term solution, either. Given all that is known about Anderson, how could he be?

The picture that is starting to emerge though is one that explains exactly how Mangini is going about rebuilding this franchise. Essentially he’s fixing the most basic of things that can and should be fixed before moving on to more sophisticated projects, such as who the real answer is at quarterback.

For example, the Browns, one of the most penalized teams last season, are now one of the least, proving that some things can be corrected just by paying attention. There has been a re-emphasis on the defense. It’s nowhere near where it should be but Mangini isn’t wrong when he notes that it’s making progress.

As another example, the defense is getting better at getting off the field. They aren’t in danger of becoming the Baltimore Ravens any time soon, but progress is progress. As Mangini said during his Thursday press conference, defensively the team has improved its ability to shut down opposing teams on 3rd down by 16% in the last two games. That’s far more meaningful than the difference between Anderson’s and Quinn’s success on 3rd down.

Fans might find it hard to believe but the Browns are in the middle of the pack on that statistic, which seems hard to believe given its overall ranking on defense, which is near the bottom of the league. The defense is still allowing opposing teams to convert 39% of their third downs, which is far too high, but getting off the field more quickly is ultimately the goal and this is one of the more positive steps the team has taken this season.

When you total up all these little things, including the re-emphasis on running, it’s clear that Mangini is teaching a team that’s been lying on its belly arms flailing the past few seasons to crawl. This also tends to explain why Mangini didn’t go for Mark Sanchez in this year’s draft. He obviously didn’t project Sanchez as a long-term answer either, which is hard to argue against given the rather spotty entrance that Matt Leinhart, another USC quarterback has made into the league. (Before you email, I recognize Carson Palmer also is a USC quarterback and was establishing himself before his injury. I also know that Matt Cassel is a USC quarterback and given his play at the moment he may become this season’s Scott Mitchell.)

What Mangini probably did envision, though, is that the Browns would have another high draft pick in 2010 at exactly the same time another good quarterback class is emerging. In no particular order, Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow all will be in next year’s draft. It’s likely, too, that Jimmy Clausen will be there. Mangini will have some options any one of which must have looked better to him last spring than Sanchez, particularly when you throw in the extra draft picks he acquired by trading so furiously.

Whether any of this will work will take a few years to discern. And there will be probably 158 other things that happen in the interim that will throw this plan into disarray. But at least there’s a plan. Whether Mangini will be around to see it through is a different discussion for another day.

Mangini told the assembled press on Friday that he has no interest in trading Josh Cribbs. No kidding. Cribbs is the kind of player any head coach covets. He plays hard every play. It may have something to do with the way he got into the league, as an undrafted free agent. It may have something to do with sheer ability that couldn’t be properly showcased in the context of Kent State Football.

Whatever it is, Cribbs is a valuable player and one of the two or three players on this team for whom a real premium could be gotten in a trade.

While Cribbs isn’t really a threat to holdout midseason because of his contract situation, this is a matter that Mangini has to address. Cribbs signed a very club-friendly contract two years ago. Sure, he got $1 million up front, which is pretty sweet, actually, it also was a 6-year contract at relatively minimal salaries. The length of the contract allowed the Browns to prorate the bonus over 6 years meaning that Cribbs’ contract is exceptionally cap-friendly. Let’s see, good player, cap-friendly contract, how long before Bill Belichick is on the other end of the phone?

It’s understandable why Cribbs’ agent is rattling the cages for his client, bemoaning the supposedly unfair contract that another agent negotiated. This is just an agent being an agent. But no matter how loud that rattling gets, the Browns probably won’t do anything with Cribbs’ contract until after this season. The lingering showdown with the players’ union over the impending uncapped year looms large in terms of a team’s long-term planning. There will be a new labor contract at some point but it may take a strike to get there.

The Browns’ probably won’t wait until then to address Cribbs’ contract, but they will wait until there’s more clarity to the situation. This may be a game but there is a business to run.


Given the dichotomy of the Browns’ last two games, this week’s question to ponder: Why is there such a thing as a good loss but not a bad win?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Coming Full Circle

This is exactly what it looks like when the worst thing that can happen to you is that you get what you want.

Brady Quinn always dreamed of playing quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. He got his wish and now there is a death watch lingering over a tenure that appears doomed before it ever really got started. It has to be excruciating to both Quinn and his family.

But this is how the demonization works. First you appear as fortunate circumstance. Then you become the best alternative. Finally you become the person from whom the team has to move on from. For Quinn, a handful of professional games under his belt, he’s gone full circle in Cleveland without ever having had a legitimate chance. Now he hangs on to the team’s roster by a thread.

The Plain Dealer posited the question formally on Tuesday, ESPN chimed in with the by-now cliché that the house is up for sale later in the day and now it’s a question that’s been on most everyone’s mind since last Tuesday when the Browns traded serial malcontent Braylon Edwards: is Quinn next? Probably. It’s just a matter of when.

That isn’t equivocation for equivocation’s sake, either. Head coach Eric Mangini is still a pretty unknown commodity in these parts and while his thought processes aren’t necessarily random they are nevertheless hard to predict. I suspect he likes it that way. Mangini will pull this trigger when he feels the timing is right. If only Quinn would punch one of Shaq’s buddies outside a Cleveland nightclub, that would make it easier to pull the trigger now.

The case for and against Quinn is difficult to make for much the same reason. As a NFL quarterback, Quinn still is mostly unknown.

Before his injury last season, he looked pretty comfortable in charge after taking over for Derek Anderson, who was so awful so often that he made it difficult to remember his 2007 Pro Bowl season. During former head coach Romeo Crennel’s waning days he named Quinn the starter for this season. In that context, Quinn had every reason to feel like it was his team to run even knowing that a new head coach was on the way.

But then he got thrust into another quarterback competition that was billed as fair but only if you’re judging by standards usually applied to carnival games. It was a test he again passed only to find out that he really failed. Given 10 quarters to prove himself against what’s turning out to be two of the best defenses in the league, Quinn suddenly got passive. He wasn’t exactly awful in those 10 quarters, but he was overly mechanical. Like Terrelle Pryor at Ohio State right now, Quinn looked like a player trying to hit every box on a mental checklist each time he dropped back to pass.

Making matters more difficult for Quinn was the fact that the offensive coordinator, Brian Daboll, was brand new and very inexperienced, all three running backs were banged up and the teams Quinn had to face are among the best in the league at the moment.

But on the bench Quinn nonetheless now finds himself again, mainly because Mangini seems oddly infatuated with Anderson’s big arm, just as Bill Belichick was in a different era with Vinnie Testaverde. For all the indirect nitpicking that Mangini did about Quinn he’s been incredibly steadfast in his support for Anderson despite the fact that Anderson has been statistically worse than Quinn thus far.

Consider also that since Anderson has been in, he’s had two running backs healthy, both of whom have gone over 100 yards in the games he’s started and he’s been playing against defenses that aren’t among the league’s tops. Still, he’s struggled and for all the reasons he struggled last season. He has no short-range touch. He also uses a quick release and a lack of scrambling skills as an excuse to hurry a play when sometimes prudence cautions that he let it develop a little bit.

Anderson isn’t an awful quarterback and there actually may be a big upside to his further development. Surely no team would throw in the towel on him at this stage, but that still doesn’t explain what can only be termed a mystifying reluctance to do the same with Quinn. He must be missing some sort of quality that Mangini believes is key to a quarterback’s success but to this point Mangini hasn’t stated what that might be, at least publicly.

And this is where the cycle becomes complete. Quinn’s freefall in the draft is well known. But as the whisper campaign about him takes on new life, that freefall itself is becoming fodder, as in “maybe all those teams really did know something.”

Maybe they did, but sometimes the obvious gets overlooked in order to arrive at an answer to the narrative someone’s trying to create in the first place. The story at that time, I think, is still the right story. Outside of Oakland and Miami, quarterback didn’t seem to be the most pressing need of any other team at that time. Oakland picked JaMarcus Russell first and don’t you think they’d like to have that one back? Miami is the team that really threw the curve ball by drafting Ted Ginn, Jr. instead of, say, Quinn. Once Miami took a pass, Quinn was bound to fall further. Former general manager Phil Savage saw that as an opportunity to grab Quinn late in the first round and, to my recollection, everyone thought it was a stroke of semi-genius.

Quinn falling into Cleveland’s arms seemed like harmonic convergence, the kind of things that happen to teams from other cities. What was far more unanticipated was the startling way that Savage would implode as a general manager. It’s made all his decisions suspect even though not every one was a clunker. The drafting of Quinn is now being viewed, at least by Mangini, through those Savage-colored glasses.

And that’s where Quinn finds himself at the moment, somebody else’s guy. Mangini feels no loyalty to him. Why should he? Mangini’s marching orders are to rebuild this franchise and with a team this bad no position should be safe. Teams are always desperate for quarterbacks and when you see that St. Louis, for example, was starting Kyle Boller, you just know that Quinn will be a significant upgrade to some. The question is how desperate are those teams to part with a decent array of draft picks, particularly on a player whose current team seems to be purposely devaluing him. That’s a problem that Mangini and his assistant boss, general manager George Kokinis will have to solve. The key issue is timing.

But whatever happens with Quinn or even Anderson, the Browns’ season isn’t going to suddenly turn around. This isn’t a team in transition. It’s a team attempting to reinvent itself.

When Mangini outlined his offensive priorities before the season, he said he wanted his team to be able to run the ball. Well, every coach says pretty much the same thing. For all the changes over the years in the game there are still some universal truths and one of them is that teams need to be able to run to be successful in the long term. The Browns are deeply entrenched in this philosophy at the moment, which is actually a refreshing change.

That’s what makes all this talk about trading Quinn even more puzzling. At best all Mangini and Daboll want is for the quarterback to manage the game. That would seem to play into Quinn’s strengths more than Anderson’s but it ultimately doesn’t matter. Mangini seems to have his mind made up and that’s to build a team with Anderson at quarterback.

It won’t be the most popular decision Mangini’s ever made but then again on the list of complaints people have about him at the moment, this falls somewhere in the middle.

So whatever demonization that is now taking place regarding Quinn, it will never approach the far more deserved buildup that Edwards got. Unlike Edwards, all Quinn did was try his best. Apparently it just wasn’t good enough.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Running Counter to Theory

Entering Sunday’s game, the Cleveland Browns and the Buffalo Bills were the football equivalents of Patty and Cathy Lane, one pair of matching bookends, but hardly different as night and day. Statistical twins in all but record entering the game, they exited it with that flaw corrected as the Browns beat the Bills 6-3, in a game that set football back to at least the time when The Patty Duke Show was a primetime staple.

History will show that the Browns won it on an 18-yard field Billy Cundiff field goal with just 26 seconds remaining in the game. How they got there was the story of the entire game.

With the game tied 3-3 and just over 7 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, the Browns Dave Zastudil had his 7th punt of the day downed by defensive back Mike Adams at the Bills’ 4-yard line. It was Zastudil’s 3rd punt of the day downed inside the 5-yard line. The Browns’ defense looked to have forced a punt three plays later but defensive lineman Corey Williams was flagged on a very iffy roughing call on Bills’ quarterback Trent Edwards. That gave the Bills an automatic first down.

The Bills were eventually forced to punt but were no longer backed up. Brian Moorman’s punt sailed into the end zone and the Browns took over at their own 20. Three plays later Zastudil was punting again. But the break of the day came when returner Roscoe Parrish tried to field the ball as he was backing up. He fumbled, just as the Bills had done all day, and Blake Costanzo jumped on it at the Bills’ 16-yard line with three minutes left.

With the Bills out of timeouts, the Browns were content to milk the clock, getting the ball down to the Bills’ 1-yard line before the Cundiff game winning kick.

All the missteps and misadventures of that sequence was a microcosm of what was truly a miserable game.

Going in, the Browns figured to run given that their receiving corps was in great flux, the Jamal Lewis was returning to the starting lineup, and the Bills have a very suspect defensive line. It’s exactly what they did, repeatedly running Lewis into the line series after series.

What it didn’t yield in points it did at least yield in yards for Lewis. He had 31 carries for 117 yards, the second straight week a Browns’ running back went over the 100-yard mark. Jerome Harrison retreated into his previous role as change-of-pack back and had 8 carries for 21 yards.

But the Browns, counter to theory all year, couldn’t use the run to set up the pass. Derek Anderson had about as bad a game as a quarterback can have and probably sent head coach Eric Mangini into the film room immediately after the game trying to figure out whether to start Brett Ratliff next week.

When Anderson wasn’t overthrowing his receivers, he was under throwing them. On the few occasions where he got the ball where it was supposed to be the receivers dropped it. Beneath the wreckage read a line that was as ugly as a last second prom date: 2-17, 23 yards and 1 interception and a rating of 15.074.

On the Bills side of the ball, sporting much the same game plan for much the same reasons, almost nothing went right. They didn’t run particularly well and when forced to pass quarterback Edwards didn’t do that very well, either. Marshawn Lynch had 17 carries for 69 yards and Freddie Jackson added 30 yards on 13 carries. Edwards was 16-31 for 136 yards, 1 interception and a rating of 49.933. It was hardly enough to make Browns’ defensive coordinator Rob Ryan eat his words.

Though each team had some success on the ground, that was hardly the story of the game. From almost the opening kick to the final play, the game featured enough pratfalls and missteps to make another ‘60s staple, Lucy Ricardo, proud.

The Browns’ first drive was illustrative of most of the game. Lewis ran up the middle on the first four plays. On 3rd and 5, in a 4 wide receiver set, Anderson went, where else, but to his tight end, Robert Royal. The pass was low and the Browns punted.

It was a pattern that was repeated, often.

The Bills, playing Cathy Lane in this sitcom, did much the same thing. On their first drive they too came out running up the middle with Lynch. But a procedure penalty, a sack and a short pass on 3rd and 14 by quarterback Edwards came up short. Throw in a personal foul on center Geoff Hangartner after the play was over and the Bills punted. And that’s pretty much how it went, at least until the Parrish fumble that cost the Bills the game.

It would be too haughty to suggest that a game this insignificant was a chess match. With offensive ineptitude the order of the day, Mangini and his counterpart, Dick Jauron, played the field position game like two old timers playing a strategic game of checkers outside of Floyd’s barbershop.

On this count, the Browns were the first to advance across the board and get their queen, in the form of a 24-yard Cundiff field goal in the first half. The back story to this field goal unfolded like the 7,683rd repeat of that Lucy episode with the conveyor belt.

After a mind-numbing array of punt exchanges, Adams downed a Zastudil punt at the Bills’ 1-yard line. The Bills’ offense went into immediate false start mode, their third of the half and costing them all of 6 inches. This led to an Edwards’ quarterback sneak on first down, thus leading to speculation that Brian Daboll, the Browns’ offensive coordinator, was calling plays for both teams. A short run on second and a short pass to the tight end on third forced the Bills to punt again and this time the Browns really did have good field position, or so it would seem.

With Moorman punting from deep in his own end zone, Cribbs was able to field the ball at the Bills’ 42-yard line. But a holding penalty pushed the ball back on the Cleveland side of the field. The comedy of errors and ineptitude continued unabated.

The Browns would have blown the field position if not for an untimely offside penalty by the Bills defense on a third down sack of Anderson. It gave the Browns another chance and Cribbs took the handoff from Anderson and sprinted down the left sideline 31 yards. But two short runs and another missed pass forced a 24-yard Cundiff field goal giving Cleveland a 3-0 lead.

The Bills then took over and put together their best drive. It still wasn’t good enough. After driving down to the Cleveland 11-yard line the Bills had two penalties and a loss on a run, pushing them back to the Cleveland 31-yard line. On 4th and 24, Edwards was flushed out of the pocket and through deep toward Owens and into at least double coverage. The ball was batted down by Brodney Pool and Cleveland held on to its 3-0 lead as the half ended.

The Bills finally got on the scoreboard with a field goal of their own, a 36-yarder by Rian Lindell, to open the second half. But true to the Bills’ roots, it was a drive of one distraction after another getting there. Beyond the obligatory false start penalty, their 833rd of the day, the drive almost died until Lynch took a short pass on 3rd and 9 and turned it into a 35-yard gain aided greatly by some very poor tackling. The drive eventually did die, as expected, a few plays later forcing the Lindell field goal attempt.

With the score tied 3-3, it looked to be a return of the infamous Snow Bowl, except it was a bright, sunny day in Buffalo and the game was being played by two teams with rosters full of players that will be out of the league before either team makes the playoffs again.

The Browns did their part in acting like it was the elements, yea the elements, by continuing to mostly run Lewis. On Anderson’s best pass of the day, he had tight end Royal down the left side with a step on the defender but the ball clanged off the gloves Royal apparently was willed by Braylon Edwards before he left town. Steve Heiden was then called for an illegal crack back block Anderson threw poorly to Harrison who, had he caught it, would have been well short of the first down anyway.

About the only other excitement of the second half came on the Browns’ next possession, when Anderson, already just 2-12 for 23 yards, threw his perfunctory interception. Looking for Massaquoi running deep, Anderson misfired and safety Jarius Byrd laid out for the interception. He would have been down right there except that Massaquoi, the nearest Browns player, was busy complaining about something. Byrd got up and ran it back 14 yards.

No matter as Edwards bailed his counterpart out a few plays later. Edwards, scrambling as he was most of the day, looked for Owens down the left side line but found Eric Wright instead. But three run plays later and now officially fearful that Anderson would throw another interception, the Browns opted for the punt. Fielding the ball at the Bills 40 yard line, Parrish proceeded to run 15 yards backwards. It was the game’s signature play.

The Bills then went about making matters worse. On 3rd and 3, Edwards threw what could charitably be described as a screen of sorts to Lynch who was tackled immediately and short of the first down. Lynch, crashing into the Browns’ sidelines, got up and gesticulated furiously. The referees apparently didn’t know what to make of it all and flagged Lynch for unnecessary roughness. It was their 11th penalty of the day. The subsequent punt by Moorman, into the wind, gave the Browns the ball at their own 47-yard line.

Yes, it was early in the 4th quarter, but this had the feel of the Browns’ best chance to break the tie and keep this game from inflicting further pain on its patrons by going into overtime. It wasn’t and but for the Parrish fumble a few minutes later the game might still be going on.

There was nothing about the Browns’ performance, outside of Zastudil, that signaled anything other than it was a week full of upheaval and distraction. But again running counter to theory, all of the ineptitude and retreat resulted in Mangini’s first win as head coach of the Browns. Go figure. He’ll probably celebrate, but just barely.

As for the Bills, it’s hard to know what excuse they’ll use. Outside of an inability to block on offense, tackle on defense, line-up onside or listen to a snap count, they were a study in discipline and precision. If Jauron survives the season, then there ought to be a Congressional investigation.

With the win, the Browns now head to Pittsburgh. The Steelers are struggling a bit out of the gate this season but, unlike the Bills, they’ll know how to pile on the points if the Browns and Anderson have another day like they had on Sunday.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Lingering Items--Bengals Edition

For a team that’s been serially awful for so long, the Cleveland Browns sure don’t act like it, or maybe they do. Each week, miserable loss by miserable loss notwithstanding, this team puts its fans through their paces. Fans emerge each week, tired and beaten down, as if they’d just finished another final exam in advanced chemistry.

After the game against the Baltimore Ravens, all the talk was about whether or not head coach Eric Mangini would survive to see another week. It was exhausting. Now, after the Bengals game, fans have had the chance to bat around the implications of Braylon Edwards’ tough-guy act outside a Cleveland bar only to then have those implications realized by his subsequent trade to the New York Jets. It’s been exhausting.

The only one that didn’t see wide receiver Braylon Edwards getting traded was probably Edwards himself, although it’s also not beyond the realm that Edwards orchestrated his exit by purposely not conforming to the “Mangini way.”

But however this exit ultimately was accomplished it was an act more than any other thus far that serves as Mangini’s signature moment. The trading of Kellen Winslow, Jr. happened in the off-season when people were still under the reflected glory of a magical Cavaliers seasons and dreaming of great moments that were not to come with the Indians. The cutting of Shaun Smith early in camp raised an eyebrow but not much else. No one liked him much, anyway, including, apparently, the Detroit Lions.

Thus for now and for the near future anyway jettisoning Edwards will serve as the official stake in the ground for Mangini’s tenure and from the sounds of things anyway, this one act bought him more goodwill than even he probably anticipated.

In the last few days, I’ve received more emails than I could have imagined not only supporting the move but praising, yes praising, Mangini for having that uniquely New York trait of chutzpah for pulling it off. I can see their point although it’s not exactly unheard of for the new guy in town to take on the biggest mouth first in order to snap the others back in line. It’s Arthur Fonzarelli 101.

And in Edwards Mangini certainly was taking on the biggest mouth. That is, the biggest mouth after Smith was cut. Cutting Edwards off at the knees is something that had no chance of going unnoticed.

I always believed that Edwards’ exit, whenever it would come, would be addition by subtraction. The Browns may be short on veteran talent at receiver, but don’t think for a moment that a new day hasn’t dawned with the troops.

Don’t take my word for it, read the quotes yourself and make sure to read between the lines. Start with Mike Furrey. Talking to the media on Thursday about the impact of Edwards being gone, as reported in the Plain Dealer, Furrey said: “We don’t have maybe the superstar that everybody’s looking for, but we have quality guys that are out there who want to play and make plays and are looking forward to start gelling.” Hmm.

But there was more from Furrey: “You saw New England [win without a star receiver] for a long time. Guys just go out there do what they’re supposed to do and keep their mouth shut and make plays and win games.” It’s such a great quote both for what it says and what it doesn’t say.

Indeed that’s the vibe out of Berea and even among a lot of fans, a circumstance that that didn’t seem likely just a week ago. Edwards and his attitude toward all things non-Edwards was like a steady stream of air inflating a balloon ever closer to its breaking point. Mangini sensed that too and acted before the balloon did break. Extricating Edwards provided just the release valve both the franchise and the fans needed in the wake of the million other things that have gone wrong this season.

The argument for keeping Edwards seems based mostly on theory. Edwards may possess the requisite talent but he’s in the last year of a five year contract and his one Pro Bowl season essentially puts him in the Zagar and Evans category, a one-hit wonder.

Maybe Edwards will strike it big in New York and the hits will start coming again. Truthfully, that’s up to him. He has the talent. He lacks the heart. But even if he New York becomes his Oz this tin man will never be the Browns’ equivalent to CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Manny Ramirez or Jim Thome. Edwards never wanted to be here and had he stayed would have been on the first plane out the day the season ended. Those former Indians at least had sustained success here and acted as if they wanted to stick around.

If the players now feel like they have something to look forward to with Edwards gone then it seems appropriate for the fans to share that same sentiment, at least a little.


It’s hard to know what to make of the fact that with the trade of Edwards the Browns now have essentially become the Jets, one season removed. The 10 former Jets now on the team represent 20% of the active roster. Remind me again, what was the Jets’ record last season? Why was Mangini fired?

In some ways this must have been what the Denver Broncos fans felt like in 2005 when virtually the entire defensive line plus backups found their way to Denver. The Broncos had virtually no defensive line to speak of and hired former Browns defensive line coach Andre Patterson to perform the makeover.

Revamp he did by bringing in Courtney Brown (free agent), Gerard Warren (4th round draft pick), Ebenezer Ekuban and Mike Myers (trade for Rueben Droughns). It didn’t help the Broncos all that much and while they did get decent contributions from Ekuban and Myers for a bit, none are active in the NFL at the moment. Ok, that’s not technically correct. Warren plays for Oakland, but given both the initiative he’s shown over his career and the team that currently pays his salary, can anyone really claim that makes him active? The gamble ended up costing Patterson his job as well.

The parallels with the current Jets aren’t exact. The Browns need players at nearly every position. The former Jets were brought in to not only fill a slot but more so to seed the locker room and school it in the Mangini way. If/when they fail, no one will much notice anyway and Mangini certainly won’t lose his job because of it.

The addition of Chansi Stuckey and Jason Trusnik are a bit different. Both are relatively young players and both appear to have far longer prospects with the team than players like Abe Elam, for example. They will always be judged in the context of the Edwards trade, along with the two draft picks that the Browns ultimately receive.

Historically, the addition of a bunch of players that the new head coach is comfortable with is commonplace. It’s like bringing a few trinkets from your mom’s house when you finally move into your own place. Eventually this trend will run its course and new things get bought just as here when Mangini begins to build the club through the next several drafts, assuming he gets that far.


At his various press conferences during the week, Mangini can be as dull as dirt in discussing everything from what happened to what will happen next. The same goes for offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s weekly Friday press conference. Daboll has been an excellent student in the Mangini move-your-lips-but-say-nothing school of public relations that it’s sometimes difficult to tell the difference between the two. Then there is Rob Ryan.

The Browns’ defensive coordinator is at least entertaining. He may not be as outspoken as his twin brother and Jets head coach Rex Ryan, but maybe that’s because the Browns’ Ryan only gets to speak to the media once a week. Here’s a vote that he becomes the Browns’ official spokesman.

This week Ryan had two gems that have gone viral on the internets. First was his contention, unprompted, that he thought that Bengals’ kicker Shayne Graham missed the game-winning field goal last Sunday. I had exactly the same thought at the same time. It did look wide right.

The problem is the placement of the camera at the time of the kick. While it was in the center, both its height and its depth makes it nearly impossible to tell if the kick passed through the uprights. But the fact that two referees were positioned under the cross bar and both signaled it was good, without hesitation, might seem like pretty good evidence that perhaps the camera in this case did not provide the best visible evidence.

Not to give Ryan a hard time, but maybe, just maybe he brought it up as a way of deflecting any questions about why his defense couldn’t hold the Bengals on that crucial 4th down play in overtime that led to the Graham field goal. In that case the camera provided more than adequate visible evidence of the miles this defense needs to travel before it escapes the bottom of the rankings.

It also is probably worth mentioning that the reason a kick that looked a little iffy wasn’t reviewed stems from the fact that it is not reviewable. According to the NFL’s rule book, only kicks that may or may not have gotten over the crossbar are reviewable. That certainly wasn’t the case with Graham’s kick. It was far above the uprights, which is why it was so difficult to judge.

Recall that Phil Dawson’s field goal against the Baltimore Ravens two seasons ago was reviewed because the issue was whether or not it went over or under the cross bar. The officials got that ruling correct, eventually. But in the case of Graham’s field goal, it wasn’t a question of whether it went above the crossbar, only through the uprights.

NFL officials have discussed in the past extending the uprights to make it easier on officials and that would certainly help. But it’s not as if this issue comes up much, unless you count the Rich Karliss kick against the Browns n “the Drive” playoff game against Denver, but why dredge up that old thing?


Back to Ryan. His other gem had to do with Bills quarterback Trent Edwards. Again, unsolicited, Ryan seemed to violate one of the key tenets of coachspeak, saying something controversial about an opponent.

Basically, Ryan said that the Browns aren’t exactly facing either Brett Favre or Carson Palmer this week in Edwards, which is as obvious as it is true. But then Ryan added: “This guy [Edwards] always seems to have a lot to say, so I'm going to say the same thing. Let's go. Let's get it on, see what he's all about this week.”

Now calling out Edwards for having a big mouth is a fascinating juxtaposition given that it was Ryan doing all the loud talking. It also seemed a little odd because Edwards isn’t Favre either when it comes to talking to the media. What apparently has been grinding at Ryan is that Edwards did lead the Bills to a game winning drive against Ryan’s Oakland Raiders last season and then had the temerity to suggest, merely suggest, that maybe Ryan’s team was a little tired on that last drive.

My guess is that Ryan’s team was a little tired on that last drive. Heck, Ryan’s team was a little tired in the second half of the Browns’ first game this season against the Vikings so conditioning may be an issue. But putting all that aside, is that really something to get into a verbal slap fight about?

Again, not to give Ryan too hard a time or else Mangini may suddenly make him unavailable on Fridays each week, but I’d much rather he fix the Browns defense before putting additional pressure on it to back up his words.

In terms of rankings, the Browns are pretty much where you’d figure a 0-4 team would be, at or near the bottom on everything that counts. As bad as the offense is, ranked 29th overall, the defense is actually worse. It is ranked dead last in overall defense, 31st in run defense and 27th in pass defense. Maybe that’s because those statistics are based on total yards surrendered that the defense looks so bad. The Browns’ offense hasn’t exactly helped the defense in staying off the field but then you could argue why the Browns’ defense is so adept at keeping opposing offenses on the field.

Everyone knows the Browns are bad in every way a team can be bad. That’s what makes Ryan’s words so fun. He has to know he’s setting himself up for these kinds of comments and forges ahead anyway. If Mangini really wants to deflect the focus on all things wrong, he shouldn’t just trot Ryan out once a week, he should give the guy his own reality show.


Running long this week, but blame it on the vast amount of news a team this bad can still manage to generate. Quickly, then, this week’s question to ponder: What’s the over/under in weeks before Ryan is suddenly unavailable to speak to the media?