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?

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