Monday, November 30, 2009

What's the Point?

After another perfunctory, uncompetitive loss, this time to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, the question is begged: is there any point to the Cleveland Browns’ season any more?

The Browns had no legitimate chance of winning on Sunday and have only a fleeting chance of winning any of their remaining games, mainly because they finish up in a 2-week do-loop against Kansas City and Oakland, teams nearly as bad as them. But when they take the field each week already knowing this, that doesn’t mean the season should be as pointless as it’s been.

According to head coach Eric Mangini, all this season’s ever been about is his vaunted process. Giving him a large benefit of that doubt, then shouldn’t this season really be about furthering that so called process? Stated differently, why is it that Mangini forsakes his own high draft picks in favor of the discarded waste of others and the ritualistic servitude of aging veterans who won’t be here next year?

The fact that the season was lost before it really started was known several weeks ago so it isn’t as if winning ever really was the point. Somewhere around halftime of week 1 it became pretty clear that Mangini had done enough damage to the franchise to make it uncompetitive in the near term supposedly at the expense of building a nice, bright future. Instead, each week has been another nearly unobstructed pointless step in no particular direction. When Cincinnati Bengals’ loudmouth self-promoting receiver Chad Ochocinco says he doesn’t care about the Browns, he’s speaking for a legions of others as well.

Mangini’s calling card and the mantra he repeats like Rain Man pining for Wapner is that this is all part of the rather painful process that the franchise needs to endure in order to be redeemed. He speaks as if he views his work as that of an endodontist performing large scale root canal on 10 teeth at a time in order to eventually stop all the pain. It’s as if he’s about to say that someday we’ll look back on this and it will all seem funny.

But the fans are mad, the team is sad and owner Randy Lerner is going to find himself without any money if he doesn’t step in soon. The franchise is in decay but that’s the overview. The worst sin of the moment is the fact that the season hasn’t just become unwatchable, it’s become pointless.

The Indians of my youth were repeatedly bad, out of nearly every pennant race by the 4th of July. The Indians of the present are becoming much the same thing. But at least when they were out of it they’d use the rest of the season to empty out the “talent” from the minor leagues and give them some needed major league experience. Sure it made you wonder why the Indians kept charging major league prices to view minor league talent, but it at least served as the most visible sign that the Indians were building for some amorphous vision of the future.

With the Browns, what fans get is Mangini’s near outright refusal to make the rest of this season meaningful for players that might still have a future in the league. Sure, Mangini has re-inserted Brady Quinn as quarterback and that’s to his credit. The only way to find out if he has enough between the ears to play this game at the highest level is to actually let him play.

What then, though, of players like David Veikune and Brian Robiskie? Both are second round picks by this very head coach. Second round picks aren’t supposed to be throwaway choices or walking the sidelines in street clothes on the 11th game of the season. They represent the very building block of every franchise, not the parade of undrafted free agents and waiver wire acquisitions that Mangini seems to court. Yet they are merely afterthoughts, relegated to some island of misfit toys.

Mangini didn’t address the Robiskie situation directly. He never does. Just know though that he addressed it indirectly by commenting on why Jake Allen, just signed off of the Green Bay Packers practice squad for goodness sakes, could get some playing time. It’s because he looked good in practice.

Let’s stop there for just a moment. Allen was signed off of another team’s practice squad just last week. He’s barely had time to check into a hotel, let alone practice. He couldn’t possibly understand offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s overly complex and completely nonsensical offensive schemes, mainly because virtually no one whose been here the whole time does either. Yet he supposedly put on a good enough show in practice to warrant playing time against Robiskie, a guy whose been here the entire season?

The truth is that no one who hears that explanation will believe it’s the truth. It’s these more subtle but insidious gestures that make Mangini uniquely unqualified for his current job. He can try to polish his image all he wants with meaningless interviews where he answers nothing directly, but his actions are what make him the worst head coach in the history of this franchise. Whoever is in second place—Chris Palmer, Forrest Gregg, Nick Skorich, take your pick—is in no danger of moving up a notch.

If Robiskie’s biggest sin is that he’s not fast enough, it’s not as if he suddenly got slow. His speed seemed ample enough to warrant a second round selection but it’s as if Mangini just woke up and figured out that Robiskie isn’t ever going to be a team’s number one receiver and is punishing him daily for that.

If it’s Robiskie’s route running, then how bad must it be compared to Mohamed Massaquoi? This isn’t meant as a slam to Massaquoi, either. He’s a nice receiver and will be a good complement on a team with a true number one receiver. But his route running is borderline awful. Isolate on him during a game and you will see a receiver who is wildly inconsistent. If it’s a 7-yard down and out, Massaquoi may go 6 yards one play and 9 the next. He hasn’t yet figured out that hitting that 7-yard mark each and every time is what gets you the ball consistently. A quarterback has to know where you’re going to be. Massaquoi also has trouble understanding his assignment on the blitz. He turns up when he turns in and turns in when he should turn up.

All of these flaws are correctable and Massaquoi is making progress, mainly because he’s getting playing time. But Robiskie has to sit and watch, hamstrung by a head coach that seems to be holding him out in an act of vengeance. Maybe he’s ineffective on special teams. Maybe he objects to participating in Mangini’s so-called post-practice opportunity periods. Maybe he should have signed his contract sooner. Maybe he doesn’t wear his tie to team functions. But whatever it is, it can’t be lack of talent. How could anyone tell? This team has none to begin with and acting as if Jake Allen, a practice team player sitting idle the entire season is suddenly impressive enough to warrant playing time is simply dishonest.

As for Veikune, if anything his case is even more compelling. He supposedly is making a switch from defensive end to linebacker on a team with a serious deficiency at both spots. Instead of Mangini giving him valuable playing experience against credible competition, he has him going only against, well, it’s not clear who he’s going against in practice.

Because Veikune isn’t a starter, he probably gets only a few reps each practice session. Maybe he’s on the scout team, meaning that his practice is limited to a few reps of physical contact and plenty of walkthroughs. But as for any actual experience, there isn’t any worth noting. For him, like Robiskie, the year’s been wasted.

Meanwhile, Mangini brought in Matt Roth, a waiver wire pick up from Miami, this week. Roth is more experienced but didn’t arrive for any sort of practice until Thanksgiving and yet found himself in a starting role a few days later.

The Browns are short at linebacker both because of injury and incompetence. But this is a situation tailor made for getting a young player valuable playing experience. What is Mangini worried about? That a running back coming out of the backfield might catch a pass and have a big gain? Oh wait, that’s already taking place on nearly a weekly basis and Veikune is nowhere to be found.

If Mangini wants respect for his process and the latitude to give it a go for another year, then he has to provide some sort of compelling vision of the future. To this point, all he’s provided is a muddled view of a team in constant transition with no end game in site. If the process is about building for the future, then why has he wasted the year for two high round picks that should be part of that future?

Even if every one of the remaining games on the schedule was winnable, the Browns won’t be a winner this season. The only point from game 1 forward should have been about building the future. Instead it’s been about only one thing: eviscerating the past. Any talk that it’s about the future is lip service designed to buy Mangini more time to do exactly what no one’s quite sure.

When the final words are written on this season it will turn out that this entire exercise, from the idiotic quick hire of a discredited coach to the disjointed draft to the preseason quarterback competition to the post-opportunity practice sessions to the dumping of the handpicked general manager to the erratic play calling to the self-proclaimed house of cards the defensive coordinator built will turn out to be one pointless exercise that begs the most obvious question of all: why is Mangini even being permitted to coach the last 5 games?

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Bottoms Up

There’d be no overtime this week. The Cincinnati Bengals wouldn’t need it.

With just a victory against the Cleveland Browns on Sunday being the only thing standing between them and a perfect record in the AFC North, the Bengals ground the Browns into submission with a dominating and not nearly as close as the final score would indicate 16-7 win.

The victory put the Bengals atop the division at 8-3 and facing only two teams, Minnesota and San Diego, with winning records in their remaining 5 games. The playoffs seemed assured and they can start printing the tickets now, but they shouldn’t settle in for a long stay. The Bengals aren’t nearly good enough on offense to go very deep in the playoffs.

They are good enough, however, to beat the Browns without much trouble. The broader story of the game was mostly the gulf between these two teams that just a year ago shared door mat status in the AFC North. Now the Bengals are sitting on top looking down after years in obscurity while the Browns remain a door mat, even more so if that’s possible.

The Bengals, after trying to diversify early in the game with an offense built for the run, repeatedly pounded the ball with Larry Johnson and Bernard Scott from mid-second quarter on and gained 210 yards on the ground. It was 41 more yards than the Browns had in total offense.

For the Browns, theirs is a case of an offense built for nothing. It was clear from the outset was that the Bengals aren’t the Detroit Lions, at least on defense. The Browns offense, after its brief visit last week to the NFL’s version of Lourdes, Ford Field in Detroit, was back stuck in the same muck that it’s been in most of the season. Able to neither run nor pass effectively, the Browns offense never really gave the team much of a chance to make the game competitive even when it had a chance to do so, the final score notwithstanding.

Credit to that goes to the Bengals defense. They didn’t necessarily harass Quinn into poor throws. Mostly he did that on his own. It was more a case of the Bengals defense playing with integrity, sticking with their assignments and bottling up the Browns receivers and running backs all day.

The Bengals themselves showed that their offense was less than the sum of its parts. With good skills players abounding, the Bengals nevertheless have an anemic passing attack and will have difficulty against teams that can actually stop the run. Still, their trademark this season has been the long sustained drive which fit perfectly into the Browns’ biggest weakness, an inability to make a big play on third down. It was a perfect match.

The Bengals first score was instructive. After a mind-numbing 16-play drive that consumed most of the first quarter, Shayne Graham hit a 37-yard field goal, giving the Bengals the early 3-0 lead.

The fact that the Bengals were held to a field goal was a victory of sorts for the Browns’ defense and also mounting evidence that this Bengals team has its own set of offensive problems to contend with in the passing game. Bengals’ quarterback Carson Palmer was able to connect on 4 short passes but was sacked once—by newly signed linebacker Matt Roth—and forced to scramble on another. More importantly, the Browns’ defense, at least for this series and, really, for the entire game, didn’t allow the opposition to turn short passes into long gains, something that’s plagued this defense all season.

From there, the teams exchanged punt after punt, which is nothing particularly new for the Browns. For the Bengals, though, it should serve as a warning shot, particularly after their fumbles and foibles against the Oakland Raiders a week before.

The Bengals offensive line is strong in run blocking but weak in pass blocking. They had trouble holding back a 3-man rush. Palmer always seemed skittish in the pocket anyway and spent most of the game scrambling, even when he seemed to have time. When he was able to throw, he was often off the mark, particularly in the first half, and when he was within the vicinity his receivers had trouble holding on the ball.

Despite these difficulties, where the Bengals were finding success early in the game was with the running game, which is hardly a surprise, even with Cedric Benson inactive. Johnson and Scott never broke off the huge runs of an Adrian Peterson but they were able to consistently find holes, keep drives going and keep the clock moving.

After dabbling unsuccessfully with the pass early, the Bengals figured it out halfway through the second quarter. In an 11-play drive that covered just 63 yards, the Bengals ran it 7 times, softening up the middle for the pass. Palmer then hit tight end J.P. Fosci for a 4-yard touchdown pass that helped the Bengals extend their lead to 10-0. It was a prescription they followed most of the rest of the day.

But what would a Browns game be without the opposition getting the benefit of an untimed down? This week’s comic relief came with the first half dwindling down.

After the Browns went 3-and-out following the Bengals touchdown, 30 seconds remained in the half. Hodges, punting from his goal line kicked it only 38 yards, allowing the Bengals to take over at the Cleveland 40 yard line. But having to rely solely on the pass, Palmer was sacked on second down back to the 50 yard line, taking the Bengals out of field goal range with only 8 seconds remaining. Then, on what should have been the Bengals last play before the half, Palmer was once again forced to scramble and looked to be sacked but a personal foul on Shaun Rogers for horse-collaring Palmer gave the Bengals an untimed down which they used to have Graham hit a 53-yard field goal and the 13-0 half time lead.

The Browns showed some life early in the second half. For any other team it would have been the equivalent to getting back into the game. For the Browns it was merely a slight peak in an otherwise deep valley.

After shutting down the Bengals to start the second half, the Browns used a little trickery to get temporarily jump started. Quinn, handing off to Cribbs, then ran down the left side line with Cribbs hitting him for an 18-yard gain. A Quinn to Mohamed Massaquoi completion took the ball to the Bengals’ 20 yard line. Then, on 2nd and goal from the Bengals’ 9-yard line, Quinn ran straight up the middle on a quarterback draw for the touchdown. It was the Browns’ first rushing touchdown in more than a year. Phil Dawson’s extra point made the score 13-7.

The Bengals then responded with another lengthy drive, this time a 10-play drive that ate up most of the rest of the third quarter as the Bengals played it smart and mostly kept it on the ground. But the Browns’ defense stiffened in enough time to keep the Bengals out of the end zone, forcing them to settle for a 28-yard Graham field goal and a 16-7 lead.

A series of yawns then followed, though if this had been a competitive game this was about the moment it should have gotten interesting. Instead it was perfunctory.

After Graham kicked the ensuing kick off out of bounds, giving the Browns the ball at their own 40-yard line, the Browns failed to capitalize. Quinn threw low to both Massaquoi and Cribbs and the Browns were faced with a 4th-and-1 from their own 44-yard line. Mangini gambled on 4th and 1 and Quinn gained the first down on a sneak. The drive continued, but not really. Three plays later it was over and the Browns punted. Hodge, demonstrating why he was out of work earlier in the season, hit it down the middle and into the end zone for a touchback. It was a net 20 yard punt.

If the Bengals had been playing a credible team or themselves were a top-tier team, this was the drive to put the game away. Failing that, they should have rightfully expected to see the opposition instead march right down field and turn the game on its ear. But the Bengals aren’t yet a top-tier team but they weren’t playing a credible team either.

After getting 1 first down, the Bengals were forced to punt. No matter, the Browns offense played their part, quickly going 3-and-out, with the seemingly obligatory false start penalty thrown in for good measure.

The Bengals then had another chance to put the game away but again could not. With the ball at the Cleveland 39-yard line and facing a 4th and 1, the Bengals then false started their way to a punt that gave the Browns the ball back at their own 10 yard line with just under 7 minutes remaining. But after a few first downs, one of which was by penalty, the Browns too were relegated to the punt. With 3:49 remaining in the game, it hardly mattered whether the Bengals would use this time to put the game away. For all practical purposes the game already was bathed, in its pajamas and being read a bed time story.

As the game was winding down, Rogers was injured and had to be carted off. On any other team that would be a very costly loss. But on a team that already sports one of the worst defenses, another injury, even to one of the team’s few good players, will hardly make a difference.

If Quinn doesn’t end up making it in the NFL as a starting quarterback, it’s games like Sunday that will be the reason. As good as he looked against a weak Detroit team was as bad as he looked against a far stronger defense in Cincinnati. Though Quinn was victimized plenty by dropped passes, that wasn’t really the story of his game. Quinn wasn’t under siege so much as he too often was putting passes in the wrong location or too often was on a different frequency with his receivers. The NFL demands consistency and following up a good game with its polar opposite is no way to impress the scouts.

Palmer didn’t exactly light it up either, but he didn’t have to. He had the benefit of a good running game, something the Browns simply don’t have.

Indeed, what the Browns don’t have can take several pages to document. Suffice it to say, though, that it’s best explained by just stating that even as flawed as the Bengals are right now they’ll likely end up with at least a 10-game lead on the Browns by season’s end. Now that hurts.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Accountability 101

Is someone in Berea finally paying attention? Maybe. Maybe not.

A few weeks ago (or maybe just a few columns ago, hard to remember when it comes to Team Drama and its plucky head coach Eric “Sue Sylvester” Mangini--and if you don’t get that reference then you haven’t been tuning into Fox’s show Glee but you should) I wrote that owner Randy Lerner was doing a perfectly miserable job at managing the Cleveland Browns’ brand because of a depleted and overworked public relations staff. Maybe the tide is starting to turn.

On Wednesday, Mangini threw himself on a cross of sorts by essentially admitting that he was wrong for suggesting that the Detroit Lions were deliberately faking injuries to slow down the machine that is these Browns. He didn’t say it that neatly or cleanly, of course. He’s Mangini after all. Everything comes with a qualifier and this time it supposedly was the frustration of losing coming through. And in case you’re wondering, no his original statement didn’t come in the heated moments just after the game ended and yes they came a full day later.

Still, it represented the high water mark for the beleaguered public relations staff of the Browns. When you have a “client” like Mangini a control freak with an alarming commitment to his own instincts and a simultaneous disdain for those of others, getting him to admit anything at all that signifies weakness or wrongness more or less constitutes one of the few victories of the season.

Just don’t believe it. Don’t believe it for a minute. The comments directed toward what is certainly a former friend in Lions head coach Jim Schwartz were the product of calculation not frustration. Mangini holds himself accountable to no one or nothing. If he were a company, his mission statement would read “I’m right, you’re wrong, get out of my face.”

There are at least two theories as to why Mangini reversed course on his public throw-down on the Lions. First, it could be that someone from the public relations staff grew a paid and clued him into the notion that he sounded like a whiner. An alpha male like Mangini can’t afford to let anyone see him sweat, the theory goes, and thus anything that made him look less manly had to be corrected, quickly. If that’s the case, kudos to the miserable wretch in the public relations department that drew that short straw. I hope your resume is up to date.

The second theory, and the one I subscribe to, is that Lerner put him up to it. It’s really the same thing Lerner did to Phil Savage last year after dropping an F-bomb to an emailer after the Buffalo game. You could almost see the gun being pointed at Savage’s head as he made his mea culpa, like a hostage being forced by his captors to film a propaganda statement. The same is true for Mangini. But given his acting experience on The Sopranos, which consisted of him eating pasta and smiling like a loon, he pulled it off much better. At least he didn’t look like he was being forced to go to church, like Savage did.

But maybe there really is a third theory, the one in which Mangini has a rare moment of self-awareness and accountability. It would be nice to think that this was the case. Nice, but this isn’t Fantasy Island. See, the problem with Mangini’s complaining about the Lions has nothing to do with the fact that it made him look like an ass. It had everything to do with the fact that his players picked up on it and carried forward with it.

Pretty soon, the common theme among any player interviewed was that “geez, it sure as heck looked like a lot of injuries were happening at just the right time, just as we were really starting to find our groove” or something like that. From a player’s perspective, then, the loss had little to do with them and far more to do with the dirty, low down, underhanded tricks foisted on them by those wascally wabbits in Detroit.

The first thing that a professional athlete wants and the last thing he needs is someone else to blame for his shortcomings. Watch a professional golfer miss a two foot putt and then walk toward the cup and tap down a make believe spike mark. It’s far easier to blame the miss on a spike mark then nerves.

Athletes like to talk about accountability as if it is the highest order of existence but shy away from it like a teenager avoiding a kiss from his grandmother on the holidays. When Mangini put the notion out there publicly that the Browns didn’t lose the game because of dropped touchdown passes or an inability to stop a rookie quarterback for one of the league’s worst teams from moving 88 yards in less than two minutes with no time outs, it gave the players all the cover they needed to avoid what really should have been a teaching moment. And this team needs all the teaching moments it can get.

It speaks, really, to the larger issues plaguing this franchise, issues that go well beyond Mangini.

For too long under the combined Lerner ownership this franchise has suffered from an abject lack of accountability. Sure, things are tried, statements are made, and processes are developed. When it doesn’t work out, there’s no apology. Fans are told that the next bullet in the barrel is the real thing. It never is.

No one associated with this franchise ever stands up for anything. Lerner can’t bring himself to stand in front of a camera. He claims he’s camera shy, which is fine, but until he gives a reason for anyone to believe any differently, all he’s really saying is that he’s a coward.

From there it flows. Every general manager or coach he’s hired to be his proxy as the face and voice of this franchise ends up explaining the latest mess not in terms of flawed plans but in terms of external factors gone awry. Lines in the sand never get drawn.

Mangini is just the latest paper tiger. He talks about patience and a process but offers nothing concrete that would make a fan think there is any substance to what he says or that he has any inclination to be personally held accountable should he fail. As things crumble around him, it has nothing to do with anything he’s done wrong. It’s all just part of the grand scheme of failing upward toward success. It’s a mindset that ultimately seeps into the psyche of the players.

It’s why the culture in Cleveland never changes. No matter which players float in and out of Berea like driftwood on Lake Erie, whatever fine talk they are given about accountability when they arrive is undercut by a far more lasting impression they are presented of an owner and a coach who shirk accountability themselves.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Useless Excuses

For a man living in his own glass house, Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini sure likes to throw rocks.

Engaged in so much questionable, rule-bending conduct of his own (the “voluntary” bus trip to Connecticut; the post-practice opportunity sessions; the failure to properly report injuries to the league office; pushing George Kokinis out as general manager and then trying to make it seem like it was his fault), Mangini has no trouble pointing fingers at others for perceived infractions when it suits his own purposes. This time it’s Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz, a former colleague of Mangini’s, as if that matters.

According to Mangini there was a certain, what’s the word, unusualness, about the rash of injuries that Schwartz’s defensive players seemed to have just when the Browns’ scary good offensive machine was rolling on Sunday.

If Mangini throwing a colleague and friend under the bus sounds familiar it should. He’s done it before with Bill Belichick and Kokinis, now he’s doing it with Schwartz. Apparently professional football is unlike any other business or venture in that it doesn’t rely on personal relationships. And people wonder why Mangini is so disliked within NFL circles?

It’s not as if Mangini directly through Schwartz to the wolves. That would take a brass set that Mangini doesn’t have. Instead he did it by implication, repeatedly calling attention to the supposedly high number of injuries Lions players seemed to be suffering at just the right time during Sunday’s game and letting the listener draw the conclusion. It was Mangini’s way of saying to everyone listening “you’re clever. You can connect the dots.” Indeed, just not in the way Mangini would like.

That’s part of the trouble with Mangini. He’s a professional sociopath. He has nothing but contempt for almost anyone around him, he’s secretive, often paranoid, authoritarian to a fault, incapable of making lasting attachments to anyone and wholly unable to feel shame or guilt about anything he’s done. In other words, he’s textbook.

There’s no question that Sunday’s loss was difficult. The Browns for once were moving the ball effectively even though it was against a mirror-image team. They scored 37 points in one game, a figure that might be difficult to match over the season’s remaining games combined. They had a penalty called against them that is rarely called even if it was the right call. And then the defense couldn’t make one play when it really needed to.

Yes, it was a difficult loss and particularly difficult on Mangini who probably is hanging on by the slimmest of threads at the moment. But to essentially point a finger at Schwartz for engaging in gamesmanship is a sly but cowardly way of shifting the blame for the loss from the place from which it came in the first place, the handiwork of Mangini and his staff.

There was much talk last week about Bill Belichick’s decision to go for a first down on a crucial 4th down play from his team’s 28-yard line in the waning moments of a key game against Indianapolis. Lost in all the overreaction to that decision was the simple fact that the odds favored Belichick on at least two fronts: the ability to convert and the ability to stop Indianapolis if the conversion failed. If the odds favored Belichick’s defense being able to keep Peyton Manning out of the end zone from the 28 yard line when only a touchdown would do, imagine the odds favoring the Browns’ ability to keep the Lions out of the end zone when they were starting from their own 12 yard line with less than two minutes and no time outs.

When you put the game in that context, you begin to understand how ridiculous it is for Mangini to even mention the Lions’ suspiciously timely injuries, let alone imply that they kept his team from building momentum. The Browns and momentum don’t belong in the same sentence unless that sentence also contains the words “lack of” between the two.

It’s trite but true. Winners win and losers make excuses. Ah yes, the process, let’s not forget the process. This is all part of it.

But beyond just the incredible defensive meltdown on that last drive was another key to the loss: two sure touchdown passes being dropped. The first was by rookie running back Chris Jennings just before the half. The second came later when Mohamed Massaquoi couldn’t find the handle on a deep pass near the Lion’s end zone. That lack of execution slowed down the offense far more than anything Schwartz was doing.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the so-called fake injuries are as old as the game itself. If Mangini hasn’t been able to instill in his players the ability to overcome such silly moves then there are far bigger problems on the team, like a coach who highlights this fact by making the complaint in the first place.

There are a lot of ways to look at the loss to the Lions on Sunday but it hadn’t once occurred to me that undeserved was one of them. To me, it was well deserved, just another step in the wrong direction, not the giant steps that the team had been taking, but a step nonetheless.

The Browns’ defense turned Lions quarterback Matt Stafford into two parts Tom Brady and one part Willis Reed. As has been its m.o. for far too many games, the defense allowed teams to turn dump off passes into long runs by being out of position and missing tackles and ultimately allowed itself to get into a position where it couldn’t protect a 21-point lead against the previously worst team in the league.

But in fairness, at least the Browns proved that they can be competitive with the dregs of the league, though I don’t remember reading that as one of owner Randy Lerner’s main goals when he hired Mangini. Maybe we all just misunderstood the point of the season. Attitude properly readjusted, this all bodes well as there may still be a few fair fights left on the schedule in the form of games against Kansas City, Oakland and Tampa Bay.

The arc of Mangini’s tenure in Cleveland has been as interesting as it has been jagged. His goals change to fit the ever changing narrative of the season, each set back and flare up spun as an orchestrated part of a mythical process.

But the goals of the fans haven’t changed. They want a winning team. They don’t want to hear about injuries or steps backward to move forward or processes or three quarters of the crap that Mangini shovels at them on a daily basis. In short, they don’t want excuses they want results.

Maybe the fans were always unrealistic about their own team and for that they should be forgiven. They’re fans, after all, not analysts. But given no visible signs of progress but plenty of signs to the contrary all a boatload of useless excuses does is widen the gulf between them and the team. And given the paucity of fans watching in Detroit these days, it’s pretty chilling to see what that gulf actually looks like.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Pecking Order Established

Well, at least neither team played down to their competition. That would have been impossible.

With the NFL’s bottom rung clearly at stake in the bizarro NFL’s version of the anti-Super Bowl, the Cleveland Browns demonstrated that they can be entertaining when the competition is perfunctory. They also demonstrated that they can lose in the most disappointing and heartbreaking fashion after dropping two certain touchdown passes, blowing an early 21-point lead, then a 3-point lead and finally a 6-point lead with no time remaining. Detroit Lions quarterback Matt Stafford tied the game when he hit back up tight end Brandon Pettigrew on a 1-yard touchdown on an untimed play set up by a Hank Poteat interference penalty in the end zone as the time expired. Jason Stafford’s extra point gave the Lions the 38-37 victory.

It was Stafford’s 5th touchdown pass in one of the NFL’s wildest games of the season. Unfortunately it probably had the NFL’s smallest audience of the season as the game was blacked out in Detroit and a perfect weather day probably had most Clevelanders outside doing anything but watching football.

The Lions’ final touchdown came on a furious rally that began with just under two minutes remaining in the game and the Lions out of time outs after burning them during the Browns’ previous series. With the ball on their own 12-yard line following a Reggie Hodges punt, the Browns were protecting the sidelines at the expense of the middle and the Lions moved quickly into Browns territory. But with 8 second remaining and the ball on the Cleveland 32-yard line, the Lions and Stafford had only a Hail Mary pass remaining.

Scrambling furiously Stafford was able to unleash a pass to the end zone that initially was intercepted by Brodney Pool as the clock expired. But Poteat was flagged for the interference penalty giving the Lions that final, untimed play. Though Stafford was hurt on the throw and with back up Daunte Culpepper seemingly entering the game, the Browns called two time outs. It gave Stafford enough time to recover for that final, fateful heart stab of a pass to Pettigrew.

Until then, it looked to be a game that the Browns were poised to win. Now, of course, the NFL’s pecking order is firmly established. Ten games into a meaningless season it’s the Browns in a walk, definitively settling a carry over argument from last season that posited whether the Lions reverse perfect season have happened had they played the Browns. No.

Although the game was certainly a coming out party for Stafford, who hit 26 of his 43 passes for 422 yards and those 5 touchdown passes, it was a coming out party of sorts for Brady Quinn as well. He nearly matched Stafford with 4 touchdown passes of his own and 304 yards passing on a 21-34 day with no interceptions. But in the end it was the two dropped touchdown passes, one by running back Chris Jennings and another by Mohamed Massaquoi, and Quinn and the Browns’ inability to get a key first down with two minutes remaining in the game that allowed the Lions to rally for the victory.

For awhile though, it looked to the Browns’ day, finally. The Browns’ offense, with just 5 touchdowns all season, took on the look of the New England Patriots circa 2007 and Quinn looking every bit like Tom Brady, at least until the end. Sure, it was the Lions defense and if it had been Tom Brady playing the Patriots probably would have had a dozen touchdowns and that final first down, but Quinn at least demonstrated that he can play well against inferior competition.

In what was a magical first quarter for the Browns, Quinn had 3 touchdown passes, a 59 yarder to Mohamed Massaquoi, a 40 yarder Chansi Stuckey and a 6 yarder to Josh Cribbs. Tack on a 44-yard Phil Dawson on the first possession and the Browns had an early 24-3 lead and nearly as many points in the first quarter as they’ve had in the first half of the previous 9 games.

But the Lions and Stafford were also playing against inferior competition and Stafford, like Quinn, showed he can play well in such circumstances. If there was any doubt in that regard it ended on the Lions’ first play from scrimmage when Stafford dumped the ball off to running back Kevin Smith, who turned it into a 63-yard gain that ultimately turned into a 31-yard Jason Hanson field goal. It also put to rest any notion that Browns’ defensive coordinator had somehow performed witchcraft by turning a rag-tag, injured Browns defense into a force. Giving up 38 points and 473 net yards to the Lions, a team with but one victory before Sunday, should put that talk to rest.

After the Browns built their huge first quarter lead, Stafford and the Lions decided it was time to punch in for the day. A dump pass to running back Aaron Brown turned into a 26-yard touchdown. Stafford then hit Smith for a 25-yard touchdown and for good measure hit receiver Calvin Johnson on a 75-yard touchdown that helped tie the score. That pass was the culmination of a 6-play 94-yard drive that took just 2:34 to complete.

As entertaining as that all was, it didn’t compare to the Browns’ final drive of the first half, which was an adventure to say the least. Taking over with just 5 minutes remaining in the half, Quinn moved the team from the Browns’ 20 to Detroit 11. It led to a 29-yard Dawson field goal that gave the Browns a 27-24 lead at half, but that is hardly the whole story.

The drive featured the Browns eschewing a long field goal and going for a first down on 4th and 4 from the Detroit 29. But then the Browns strangely wasted nothing but time thereafter. On third down, Quinn looked to have another touchdown pass as he threw perfectly to Jennings streaking down the right sideline. Jennings let it go right through his hands. Then on 4th and 9 from the Detroit 21, the Browns lined up for a field goal only to have Dawson take the snap directly and pass to Mike Furrey for an 11 yard gain. But with only 6 seconds remaining, the Browns then kicked the field goal. A successful fake field goal followed by an actual field goal. I doubt you’ll see that again.

After the teams traded possessions to open the third quarter, the Lions took a 31-27 lead on a 1-yard pass from Stafford to tight end Will Heller. It was the culmination of a 10 play, 84-yard methodical drive, the key play of which was a Stafford 30-yard pass to Johnson that got the ball to the Browns’ 1-yard line.

The Browns couldn’t respond on their next series though in fairness to Quinn, Massaquoi dropped what looked to be a touchdown on a long pass down the middle. It was the second dropped touchdown pass of the game, the first coming by Jennings on that last drive before the half.

But at least the Browns found another way to score. With Hodge’s punt landing inside the 5-yard line and a Detroit holding penalty on the return, the Lions were pushed back to their own 2-yard line. A false start pushed it back to the Detroit 1. After a first down on a pass interference, the Browns defense swarmed Stafford in the end zone. He was called for intentional grounding giving the Browns a safety and making the score 31-29. Importantly, it also gave the Browns the ball back as the third quarter ended. But Quinn and the Browns couldn’t respond.

That would have to wait until their next possession. Starting at their own 34 yard line, the Browns got what looked to be the go-ahead touchdown with Quinn engineering a plodding but impressive 15 play, 75-yard drive capped off by a 2-yard pass to tight end Michael Gaines for the touchdown. The Browns then successfully converted for two points on a direct snap to running back Jamal Lewis that pushed the lead to 37-31 with under 6 minutes to play.

Dawson then made things interesting by kicking the ball out of bounds on the ensuing kickoff. It gave Detroit the ball at its own 40-yard line. With the ball just shy of the 50-yard line and Detroit facing a 4th and 1, head coach Jim Schwartz had Stafford sneak the ball up the middle. Stafford made it just by the nose of the ball. But two plays later Stafford threw deep into triple coverage to Johnson and Pool jumped high in the end zone to pick off the pass.

Unfortunately for the Browns there was still 3:40 left to play. A team that’s had trouble moving the ball all season, it was almost like a worst case scenario. The Browns were able to get one first down but needed another to avoid what turned into the game winning rally by the Lions. They came up short and with it lost the game.

But say this for both the Browns and the Lions. Given a chance to be boring and ineffective, the teams used each other’s ineptitude to great advantage in giving fans of both teams the most entertaining game of the season. One team was always going to come up short and it really matters very little in this instance that it was the Browns. Both teams are at the bottom of the heap anyway and a victory by either isn’t going to change that fact.

What will change, though, are the fortunes of the Lions, if not now then soon anyway. Stafford has grown considerably over the season and Johnson is the kind of receiver Braylon Edwards always wanted to be. They need a credible defense. Sound familiar?

The Browns are a little further behind. They don’t have anyone on the roster the caliber of Johnson and though Quinn played well and showed great leadership and an ability to throw down field, there probably aren’t too many head coaches that would choose him over Stafford at the moment. The Lions, too, seem better situated at running back with Smith while Lewis is playing out the string and Jennings has quite a ways to go.

The Browns next head to Cincinnati and then are home against San Diego and then Pittsburgh. It looks to be a long three weeks.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Lingering Items--5 Years Later Edition

Whatever the genesis of Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner’s fear of public speaking, at least he can use a keyboard. “Speaking” as it were to the Lake County News-Herald a few days ago, Lerner let it be known that he sees himself sticking with Eric Mangini.

Read into that whatever you will, but if it signals that Lerner already is putting restrictions on the new football guru and general manager he intends to hire, then it’s not a good sign. Lerner has proven to be particularly inept when it comes to making football decisions of any sort. That being said, if he can convince Mike Holmgren to take over the guru spot, that would be the first good decision he’s made and he should stop there. Telling Holmgren who to fire and who to retain can be officially categorized as working out of classification.

To the casual fan, the issue surrounding Mangini can be easily simplified. Those counseling patience and consistency argue that you can’t possibly demonstrate either by pulling to plug on Mangini this soon. Those arguing for regime change rightfully point out that patience and consistency are laudable goals but only when the circumstances dictate.

To me, the question boils down to whether or not you can envision Mangini as the head coach of this time 5 years from now. He was hired for the long term and it still makes sense to evaluate him in that context. And on that score, those who suggest that somehow re-evaluating Mangini is unfair, I’d ask them to point to me any circumstance where a new hire isn’t evaluated early in his tenure and probably more often than Mangini. Indeed, not doing this kind of yearly evaluation, at a minimum, would be a breach of duty on the part of Lerner.

When I reduce the question down to its most basic element I can’t envision a scenario where Mangini is the head coach of anything 5 years from now, let alone this franchise. Whatever his other merits may be, and I’m not suggesting that he doesn’t have some, they clearly aren’t as a head coach. He failed in New York and he’s failing here in an even more spectacular way.

Assuming that you can’t envision Mangini has the head coach 5 years from now, then it makes more sense to pull the plug earlier than later. Ignore the cavity in a tooth all you want, but all that’s happening in the interim is it’s getting worse.

Here’s where those advocating for another year must confront the inconsistencies in their position. In arguing for Mangini the overriding theme is that he inherited a mess and straightening out isn’t done quickly or easily. All that is, of course, true. But the reason it was such a mess is that the previous regime of Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel were given far too much time practice their incompetence at the expense of the team.

Crennel was a nice defensive coordinator, good but not great. He was an awful head coach. He lacked the basic organizational skills so necessary for someone at the top. As a lifelong assistant himself he well understood their plight and thus was of a mind to let his own assistants go mostly unchecked. He took a fatherly approach to discipline but lacked the ability to escalate the discipline when his Ward Cleaver talks with misanthropes like Braylon Edwards were not effective. His “treat them like men” view was admirable but there was no one to step in when dad wasn’t in the room and the immature boys in the group were running amok.

As a result, so much of the basics to running a football team were either missed or not enforced. The team was sloppy, ill-disciplined and generally unconcerned with outcomes. That didn’t leave just because Crennel did. Left to fester over a number of years a culture grew that has seeped deeply into every bowel and crevice in Berea. It’s still there.

Savage was a nice scout, good but not great. He was an awful general manager. He was far more comfortable with timing players in the 40 than he was with pushing the kind of paper necessary to do the general manager’s job effectively. The biggest complaint with Savage was that he was rarely seen around the facility during football season. He was far more comfortable scouting a Boise State/Utah match up than he was scouring the waiver wire and practice squads for hidden talent. He collected players as if he were collecting football cards. A decent eye for talent, he had no concept of how to build a team.

As a result, so much of the basics to putting together a sustainable, credible, competitive football team were ignored. The franchise had some individual talent, certainly more than when he got here, but was no closer to being a team than when he got here. Left to his devices far too long, the mess he left for those coming after him was extensive.

Now consider what would have happened had Lerner pulled the plug on these two much sooner, particularly Crennel. If nothing else, the situation for the next regime would have still been daunting, but far less so.

That’s the point with Mangini. The more time he’s given, the more time to set the franchise further from relevance. Mangini is far more organized than Crennel. He has far more definitive ideas on how everything about a team should be run than Crennel. He may treat the players like men but he doesn’t turn his back on them and they know it. All of that is well and good.

The problem though is that he simply lacks the basic passion and interpersonal skills necessary for a guy in his position to be successful. He neither inspires nor motivates. He shows no capacity for trust and has a history of turning on those that have helped him when it serves his short-term and immediate interests. People just don’t much like him and that goes far beyond the players. He has no charm, little wit and lacks any element of charisma. He’s just not the kind of guy that others are willing to walk through fire in gasoline-soaked underwear for.

All of this will be true tomorrow and it will be true next year and the year after that. Let him stick around for another year or another 3. But these fundamental problems won’t go away and it’s why he won’t last another 5 years. There may be consistency and patience exercised if Mangini is given another year, but all it really does is push a difficult decision that will get made further down the road and push the ultimate timeline back, just as it did with the previous regime.


Watching Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco struggle against the lowly Browns last Monday illustrated quite well the underlying issues with Derek Anderson. Indeed, Flacco’s sophomore struggles are similar to those of Matt Ryan of Atlanta and almost every other quarterback (or major league pitcher, for that matter) whose had quick burn success followed by the inevitable return visit to planet Earth.

As I’ve written many times, the development of young talent is never a straight line. There are the inevitable small steps forward and giant leaps back. It’s as true in sports as in any other business.

But the one difference in professional sports in particular is that the competition can get all the footage it wants on you and then adjust to your weaknesses far more quickly than you’d ever see in the business world. Setbacks in progress are inevitable. Flacco and Ryan are struggling for the same reason that Anderson struggled in 2008. The league is populated with professionals well schooled in making adjustments.

The reason Anderson isn’t starting now and may never be a starting quarterback again, barring injury to the starter he backs up, has everything to do with the fact that he couldn’t make the counter adjustments needed to move to the next level. As teams zigged in response to his game, the downfield pass at the expense of the midrange, Anderson didn’t develop a second pitch. He still can’t make the bread and butter throws necessary to consistently sustain drives and force defenses to play him more honestly. Teams see him behind center and know what’s coming.

The difference between quick and sustained success has everything to do with a player’s ability to counter whatever the rest of the league has thrown at him. Anderson can’t, simple as that.

From what I saw of Flacco last week, he looked every bit the kind of player who you would think would come out of a place like Delaware State. If the rag tag group of misfits that the Browns put on the field last Monday can adjust to him, particularly given the numbers he threw at them earlier in the season when the Browns’ defense was more healthy, imagine how bad a good defense would make him look.

In fact, that’s what Flacco’s statistics bear out. His high water mark was the first game of the season, against Kansas City. From there it’s been more or less a steady ride down, except for the temporary bump back up when he played Cleveland the first time. None of this is really a surprise. The ball is now in his court to make the adjustment. He hasn’t done it yet.

We know pretty definitively that Anderson couldn’t respond. We’ll know more about guys like Flacco and Ryan later this season and into the next.

As for how this plays out with the Browns and Quinn, he hasn’t even developed enough of a game yet to make other teams adjust. Unless he gets a running back, a credible right side of the offensive line and receivers that can run down field and actually get open, he’ll never get that chance. Teams can run the most basic of defenses knowing that Quinn and the offense don’t have enough to consistently exploit it. For Quinn, it’s not a matter of making counter adjustments but developing enough to make other teams adjust to him in the first place.


Watching Ravens kicker Steve Hauschka miss another kick right and then get cut the next day made me reminisce about former Browns kicker David Jacobs. The story of Hauschka and Jacobs is similar.

Jacobs, like Hauschka, replaced a relative legend. In Jacobs’ case, it was Don Cockroft. With Hauschka, it was Matt Stover. The Ravens cut Stover after last season mainly because, though still deadly accurate, his range was waning. With field goals of 50+ yards becoming far more commonplace in the NFL, the Ravens found themselves at a relative disadvantage with Stover. In the case of the Browns and Cockroft, he retired, probably a season or two too late.

Jacobs never seemed to be quite the right fit for the Browns. Whether the pressure to replace Cockroft was too great or whether he just lacked enough talent (probably a little of both) Jacobs was awful, quickly. After 5 games, he had made only 4 field goals out of the 12 that he attempted. He was then cut. He got looks with a few other teams but never had a real NFL career.

The story however, had a good ending for the Browns.

After two years into a career with Pittsburgh, Matt Bahr got cut. He was signed for the 1981 season by San Francisco and then cut, just in time for the Browns to pick him up. Indeed it was his availability that led to Jacobs being cut. Bahr, like Stover, wasn’t necessarily the strongest kicker, but he too was deadly accurate and was a fixture in Cleveland for the next 8 seasons. It helped, too, that the Browns had Steve Cox as punter and long-range field goal kicker. It gave them the nice option of keeping a short-range but accurate kicker around for a lot of years.

When Bahr was eventually cut after the 1989 season, a Dave Jacobs clone in the form of Jerry Kauric, was signed. Kauric lasted but one season giving way to Stover who rode out of town with the rest of the team after the 1995 season.

Hauschka, like Jacobs, like Kauric, collapsed under the weight of replacing a fixture. Whether he ends up on the scrap heap like Jacobs remains to be seen, but with far more kickers available than jobs, that will be the likely end.

This week’s question to ponder is one of those that works equally well as a statement: The Browns have scored 5 offensive touchdowns in their last 15 games, seriously?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Long Journey Down

If Monday night’s national embarrassment did any good for the Cleveland Browns franchise, it’s this: it now can’t sink any lower. Even a loss to the Detroit Lions next Sunday can’t make the situation any worse. Rock bottom has been reached. It’s been a long hard ride getting there but at least there’s no further to drop.

But since this involves the precipitous drop of an inanimate object (and no team is more inanimate than the Browns), forget about Newton’s third law of motion. There is no equal and opposite reaction coming, at least any time soon.

The Baltimore Ravens are a mere shadow of their former selves. They are a very, very average offensive team with a defense now lacking the ability to still win games by simple fear and intimidation. Ray Lewis meet Jamal Lewis. Enjoy your time next year together reminiscing about how good you both used to be, because you were. Just not anymore. And yet, with all the Ravens’ attendant problems, playing incredibly average was more than enough on both sides of the ball.

There it was, on national television, and why in the name of all that’s holy were they on national television?, the Browns managing to put on full display for anyone interested in exactly what raging incompetence looks like a comprehensive primer on the depths to which this once proud franchise has sunk.

This is now worse than the expansion year, by leaps and bounds in fact. Head coach Eric Mangini, enabled by an owner with more passion and cents than ability and sense, has done a world class, benchmark setting job at sucking every last bit of life out of the team. So well has he done his job in that regard that the Browns will defy Newton. There will be no bounce back, at least not any time soon no matter who gets the key to this clunker next.

Monday’s game really drove home the point about what a crock Mangini and his so-called “process” really is. Those still willing to give Mangini the benefit of the doubt he doesn’t deserve act as if he has some secret recipe for turning around the franchise that no mere mortal can replicate.

Let’s see if I can try. The plan here in Cleveland is to get better players at nearly every single position. To accomplish that we’ll need to do a better job scouting and drafting, so we’ll need guys that are good at that as well. And just so we don’t do anything on the level of Dan Snyder-stupid while we’re getting this stuff done, let’s make sure we have someone smart providing sanity checks on anyone’s thought of inadvertently handing over $6 million a year to a washed up free agent. For my next act, I’ll teach you the secret to losing weight: eat less and exercise more.

The point is that Mangini’s so-called process is nothing more than any competent NFL executive would put in place with any team. The task is daunting in Cleveland because of the utter lack of talent from the top of the pyramid on down, but fundamentally the task isn’t any different than what any other team is trying to accomplish on a regular basis.

So let’s dispense with the notion that somehow the Browns are on some cosmic journey that necessitates total implosion before redemption and recognize instead that this self-appointed King of Berea isn’t wearing any clothes.

Even if Mangini had the capability of making smart decisions, and I’ve yet to see one, he is so lacking in basic leadership skills that he could never get them properly executed anyway. It’s like the desk clerk at the car rental agency in the Jerry Seinfeld routine who can’t distinguish between taking and holding a reservation. Mangini is the guy who can take reservations, he just doesn’t know how to hold the reservation, which is really the far more important part.

Listening to Mangini after Monday night’s game was to listen to a passionless automaton drone on cluelessly about why the franchise is in such a sorry state without understanding his unique role in it all. Every mistake that was made Monday night wasn’t a cause for the defeat but a symptom of a far larger problem.

What Mangini can never fully appreciate is that the universe that he’s created within the bubble of Berea is a flawed eco system where basic nourishment is lacking. It’s as if Mangini is an evil auto mechanic and purposely seeing how much he can get out of an engine using but one quart of oil. What fans experienced Monday night was an engine in the process of actually seizing up.

Players can’t grasp what Mangini’s trying to accomplish because he’s a poor communicator with an abject disdain for his audience. Players don’t respond to his petty mind games and dirty tricks because this isn’t the 1960s. It’s a digital society in which tech savvy players stay in constant contact with their friends and acquaintances on other teams to better gauge what’s normal and what’s not. And when a Brian Robiskie sends a text to an A.J. Hawk, likely the usual response is “dude, that is so messed up.” Maybe he doesn’t use the word “messed.”

But the end is indeed near for Mangini. The most telling sign was the reaction by the players leaving the field after Brady Quinn threw his second interception that led to the Baltimore field goal and 16-0 lead. The helmets were off. Heads were hung in defeat and there was still a quarter and a half left to play. It’s as if the 50-some voices on that side line had the exact same thought: a team that’s only scored 5 offensive touchdowns wasn’t going to suddenly come to life with Chris Jennings at tailback and Robert Royal at tight end. And that’s not even to pick on Jennings and Royal. They are just convenient markers. Substitute any other two names you wish. There are no innocent to protect.

These players know that Mangini is now a dead man walking. They wouldn’t play for him when they thought he was a keeper and certainly aren’t going to play for him knowing that there’s no way he ends up being retained. Having watched Josh Cribbs get lit up on a meaningless last play of the game was all the warning signal the rest of the team needed to reassess their priorities. It’s no longer about winning, it’s about not getting hurt.

Because Monday was a nationally televised game, it was never going to be blacked out. The economic interest of the local media outlets made it an easy play to buy the remaining tickets and hand them out to charity. I’m betting they still went unusued.

But that won’t be the case for the rest of the season. Sure, the Steelers game is sold out because there are a lot of local Steelers fans (and more converts each day) who can’t get a ticket to Heinz field. The rest are in real jeopardy and it’s hardly a stretch to predict that they won’t sell out. Why would anyone buy a ticket?

The apologists can blame it on the economy because in their world, Mangini is the misunderstood genius orchestrating what he’d probably view as the greatest resurrection. But in truth this is exactly what the bottom looks like and since we’re down here now we might as well get used to the view. It’s going to be a long stay.

"The Process" Moves On

Contemplating the wreckage of another Cleveland Browns’ loss to another team that’s owned them, the truth, sadly, is that the outcome of Monday night’s game against the Baltimore Ravens was as inevitable as Ron Jaworski describing a swing pass as if it were a military operation.

Even the return of Brady Quinn, dead and buried until lucrative bonuses were unreachable, couldn’t do much to throw life into the lifeless. If only Quinn, abused as he’s been by head coach Eric Mangini, had had the chutzpah to take the first pass, Longest Yard style, and turn to the sideline and drill Mangini in the groin with it, then maybe there would have been some intrigue.

But Quinn is still trying to build a career, Mangini trying to save one and thus the game was played straight, or at least what amounts to straight in these parts these days, and intrigue was mostly missing as the Browns lost 16-0 and saw their record drop to 1-8.

On the plus side, the planned protest went off about as well as a Cleveland offensive series—ill planned and poorly executed. On the downside, perhaps the biggest downside, Josh Cribbs was needlessly drilled on the game's last play and left on a stretcher.

For those not willing to ruin a perfectly good Monday night, the final score indicates a close score, or relatively close anyway. The Ravens did, after all, cover the spot. While it wasn’t a blow out, mainly because the Ravens at this point are a very average team, it really wasn’t like the Browns ever really had a chance. They failed to score, for goodness sakes and never really came close. What the game really demonstrated, as if the point hadn’t already been made 8 other times, is that this team isn’t yet good enough for garbage time, let alone prime time.

But for the half full types, the first half of the game was mostly competitive due to a spirited Browns defense running head first into a tentative and average Ravens offense. When the teams entered the locker room it was with the dubious achievement of having accomplished something that hadn’t been done in the NFL all season, a scoreless first half.

But while the first half belonged to mediocrity, the second half belonged to the Ravens long enough to ensure that they would improve their record to 5-4 and keep their dwindling playoff hopes alive.

And what a quick and decisive smack in the face it was. The Ravens found life quickly in the second half, scoring all of its 16 points in the half’s first 7 minutes before the game settled back into what amounted to the Browns-Buffalo Bills matchup from earlier this season, but with better announcers.

Quarterback Joe Flacco, looking more like a rookie than at any time in his two year career, seemed harassed and confused by the Browns defense in the first half. But after a quick 3-and-out by the Browns to open up the second half and a bad punt by substitute punter Reggie Hodges, the Ravens took over from their own 41-yard line. Flacco hit Derrick Mason on a 41-yard pass down the right sideline to get the ball to the 13-yard line. Then, with the Browns defense in disarray and with only 10 players on the field, Rice ran off tackle and into the end zone for the game’s first score. The Steve Hauschka extra point gave the Ravens the 7-0 lead.

On the Browns’ first play after the Josh Cribbs kick return Quinn had his pass for tight end Robert Royal tipped and then intercepted by safety Dawann Landry who returned it, naturally, for a touchdown. The extra point was blocked by Shaun Rogers but the score was suddenly 13-0 and the game effectively over.

But in case that wasn’t quite enough to convince even the most stout of optimists then Quinn’s next interception in the next series sent them and the team back to the bench with heads down knowing what was to come. For the record, it was a 3rd and 12 pass to Mike Furrey that should have been caught, in fact rather easily. But Furrey could neither hold on to a ball nor did he possess enough sense to knock it to the ground. Cornerback Chris Carr caught the deflection. The Ravens then moved it to the Browns 26-yard line before settling for a 44-hard Hauschka field goal and the 16-0 lead.

From that point, both teams seemed to lose sight of the fact that a game was still taking place and an audience was watching. The Ravens seemed to use the remaining quarter and a half in the game to work on whatever it is they need to work on (and from the looks of things, it’s a lot) while the Browns worked on “the process.” And for what it’s worth, it’s now 9 games in and “the process” is as mysterious and ambiguous as the plot of a David Lynch movie, just not as successful. Nine games in, 5 offensive touchdowns.

It wasn’t as if the Browns were necessarily awful or at least any more awful than they’ve been all season. It was more a case of the same things plaguing them that have plagued them all season. Whatever imagination and innovation they might otherwise have shown in the first half, and there was some, was abandoned in favor of a predictable approach of short passes and screens in the second.

Much of that, I suppose, was attributable to the fact that the Browns were being forced to throw and the Ravens defense, looking old, tired and uninspired in the first half, finally seeing some blood. But one bubble screen begot the next and it was suddenly crystal clear why it really didn’t matter much whether Quinn, Derek Anderson, Anthony Quinn or Anderson Cooper was behind center. The Browns lack playmakers and at this point in the season nothing is going to change that simple, painful fact.

At least the game started well enough for the Browns. A Ravens offense, limping and trying to find its way, quickly went 3-and-out. Then Jamal Lewis ripped off a 12 yard gain on the Browns’ first play and survived a replay challenge over a fumble that occurred after Lewis was down. The Browns looked to change the rhythm of a game that was all fits and starts initially by using the no huddle offense on second and third down. It didn’t yield another first down but it was something different, anyway.

The Ravens, meanwhile, were out of sync. With less than half the first quarter gone they already had used all three of their timeouts—the first on the ill-conceived replay challenge and then two more when the Browns defense seemed to have Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco confused. Throw in a missed 36-yard field goal by Hauschka that seemed to have head coach John Harbaugh checking his cell phone to see if he still had Matt Stover on speed dial, plus two sacks and the Ravens, an average team anyway, seemed to be playing down to their competition.

The first real sign of life came on the Browns first drive in the second quarter. Backed up as a result of a holding call on a Josh Cribbs punt return, Quinn hit Mohamed Massaquoi on a quick out pass on third down that Massaquoi turned into a 30-yard gain. After one more first down, tackle John St. Clair helped kill the rest of the drive when he false started and pushed the Browns into a 3rd and 9. Quinn then read blitz from the right side but Cribbs did not and it turned into a pass to nowhere and another punt. Some lives weren’t meant to live I guess.

And that’s the way the game seemed destined to go. A few decent plays here, a few steps back there, kick and do it all over again. The Browns, more crisp and imaginative on offense than at any point this season, had trouble sustaining whatever success they were experiencing. The Ravens, both on offense and defense, looked old, uninterested and tired. Flacco seemed mostly confused and tentative and linebacker Ray Lewis was nearly invisible, finally.

As much as the Ravens were clearly struggling, it wasn’t as if the Browns defense didn’t have something to do with it. Playing spirited throughout, they kept the pressure on Flacco and didn’t seem to panic when running back Ray Rice broke loose a few times. But all it really did was keep the game deceptively competitive until halfway into the second half.

Quinn’s return wasn’t the Cinderella story that would have made a nice narrative. Indeed he was very Anderson like, going 13-31 for 99 yards, 2 interceptions and a quarterback rating of 23.4. The running game wasn’t much better. Overall the Browns had what’s become a typical day at the office with 160 yards of total offense.

The Ravens actually weren’t a whole lot better, but more than good enough. Flacco was 13-18 for 155 yards, Rice had 89 yards rushing with Willis McGahee adding another 35.

None of this was a surprise, but then again it wasn’t supposed to be.

If you want a gauge on if/when the Browns might be competitive against another NFL team, then forget games like Monday night’s. The Browns don’t have enough firepower on either side of the ball for that kind of matchup and it showed. Instead, let’s ponder that next week the team visits Detroit for the first of several real tests against like-talented opponents and be thankful that it’s not on Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Lingering Items--Wrecking Ball Edition

When people lack the information they need, they’ll go about filling in the blanks with assumed facts and then treat these assumptions as reality. It goes on in sports all the time. We don’t know if Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini will be able resurrect a franchise he’s spent the season burying so whatever side of the debate you fall on with respect to whether he should stay or go colors how you go about providing an answer to the underlying question that only time can actually confirm.

Mangini, the ultimate biased observer, likened his situation with the Browns to the New England Patriots of 2000 in an interview recently with CBS Sports. His premise is that Bill Belichick was vilified at first but given time was able to turn it around. Putting aside about a million holes in the theory, Mangini’s point is that “the process” takes time and those who curse him now will be singing his praises later.

With that, others jump into the fray to defend Mangini’s wrecking ball approach by continuing to counsel patience as if that is the magic pixie dust that will make the Browns a local version of the Patriots.

The flaw here is that this has never been about patience. Cleveland fans have plenty of that. It’s about progress and competence and Cleveland fans have seen nothing of either since the Mangini brought his demolition crew to town. In fairness though, they didn’t see much of it before he got here, either.

Forget about addition by subtraction moves like the trade of Braylon Edwards. Anyone suggesting that this necessary excision somehow made things worse so that they ultimately can get better obviously wasn’t watching the team last season. Edwards is an intriguing player at this point only because of his high draft status. With but one year of accomplishments to go along with several years of mediocrity, he’s still an “if” category player, as in “if we can get him under control” and “if we can get him motivated” and “if he can hang on to the ball then, you know, he’s a pretty valuable guy.” But without much to distinguish himself yet in New York except a high-profile snub by Rihanna, the bloom on Edwards’ rose, metaphorically speaking, has pretty much wilted.

Rather than try to draw an analogy about New England that serves to justify the point of the current wreckage, look to the past as the best evidence of what’s to come. And in looking at the cold hard facts, where exactly is there something substantial on which to hang your hat that Mangini is the right guy to do anything more than he’s already done to this once proud team? Truthfully, there is nothing other than Mangini’s ability to parlay one job into the next. Having climbed the mountain, an admittedly admirable task, all he’s done since is prove that he should have stopped several feet short of the peak. As a head coach, he’s an awful good ball boy and maybe a decent defensive backs coach.

If you want to talk analogies, then the similarity with what is going on in Cleveland what is taking place at the University of Michigan is fascinating and provides ample evidence for the axiom that every analogy has an equal and opposite one waiting in the wings.

When Rich Rodriguez headed to Michigan he made it crystal clear that he would be overhauling the program, whether or not it really needed it. His system, particularly on offense, is unlike anything that anyone in the Big Ten plays on a regular basis. In that sense, people knew that immediate results weren’t forthcoming.

Thus when the Wolverines faltered last season under the weight of player defections and philosophical 180s°, no one was surprised. But all the Rodriguez supporters said that he had a track record of making major strides in his second year, just look at what happened in his second year at West Virginia was the common cry.

Well, two years in and what do you have? Michigan isn’t West Virginia and the reasons why are all the explanation anyone needs to see what the comparison the Rodriguez believers used was silly. The Wolverines are struggling in the Big Ten again and haven’t made the anticipated progress because the problems inherent in his system are magnified when applied to the Big Ten. This isn’t to say that Rodriguez may never win at Michigan or that there isn’t even some merit to the spread option, read and react that Rodriguez runs. But it is say that the physicality of the league almost across the spectrum eventually takes its toll on teams that try to survive on the backs of smaller, supposedly faster players. It’s a very physical league and always will be.

Of course there were people that saw this all along and never bought into the idea that Rodriguez was right for Michigan. Whatever the merits of his style, he personally suffers too much from the same things that trip up Mangini. He thinks he’s smarter than everyone when the reality is that he’s arrogant to a fault and character-challenged. In short, he’s nothing like what the University of Michigan really stands for and the obviousness of his square-peg status is starting to occur to almost everyone at this point.

In much the same way the Browns can stick with Mangini even as the flaws in his approach reveal themselves similarly. But be wary of trying to draw the analogy to New England unless you’re also prepared to talk about all the various systems and coaches long time doormats like the Detroit Lions have gone through without any anticipated up tick. The New England experience is a nice story but it’s the exception not the rule. It’s also a bar Mangini couldn’t live up to even if he changed everything about himself, which he can’t in any event. Treating everybody as carpet to be walked upon eventually takes its toll. In New York, it was three seasons. In Cleveland it’s been barely a half season.

And what, my friends, would be a week in the lives of these Browns without still more drama to contend with?

Now it’s a bit of a pissing match between team captain Jamal Lewis and Mangini over whether or not Mangini is working the team too hard during the week.

Lewis, for his part, likened the players to mere crops under Farmer Mangini. But the good farmer is not tending well to his crops and as he goes to market each Sunday he doesn’t have much to sell. As analogies go, this is one I can heartily get behind.

Whether or not Mangini is working the players too hard is always going to be subjective. Mangini, for his part, naturally denies the charge. (As an aside, notice again the parallels with Rodriguez and the complaints by his players earlier in the season? Scary.) Different coaches do follow different philosophies. Under Romeo Crennel, the team rarely practiced in pads during the week and weren’t any better for it. In fact, if I recall correctly, one of the things Lerner and fans alike thought they would be getting out of Mangini was just this sort of taskmaster approach for a team clearly in need of it.

What doesn’t make much sense in any of this though are those that view Lewis as a whiner, arguing essentially that Lewis can’t fully come to grips with the fact that he’s washed up and thus is pointing the finger of blame elsewhere.

That Lewis is washed up is hardly a secret and I’ve said as much since the beginning of the season. But I rather doubt you can rationalize away his moment of candor by claiming it’s a bitterness borne out of a player facing up to his own mortality. More likely, Lewis feels completely unburdened after announcing his retirement and actually has nothing to lose by being the only publicly honest person affiliated with the Browns.

It’s not exactly news, though, that Mangini’s approach has been to grind his players into submission. It was the exact formula he used in New York up until the moment the players revolted and had him fired. The fact that he brought this same approach to Cleveland was, as noted, initially seen as one of his calling cards. It’s like Michigan fans complaining about Rodriguez running a spread offense.

The one thing to support Lewis’ view, however, is the mounting injuries on this team and I’m not just talking about the serious injuries suffered by two rookies in the so-called post-practice opportunity periods, as ill-conceived and misleading of a moniker as any. Injuries are often borne out of fatigue. When a player is tired he’s not functioning at full speed and going anything less in the NFL is the exact formula for a serious injury. It’s exactly why coaches keep players out of that last exhibition game.

Mangini and Lewis can debate the issue of how much work is enough and never reach a consensus. Just know, though, that Lewis isn’t the bad guy here just because he spoke his mind. There aren’t more because most of the rest of the team has far more at stake if they were to likewise speak out. Rest assured, though, when Mangini is gone the stories that will be told will be legendary.


Listening to Mangini try and explain why Brady Quinn is back at quarterback was perhaps the most unintentionally funny moment of the season.

In essence, Mangini said that this was more a decision for Quinn and not against Anderson. Quinn, according to Mangini, is back because he got better while not playing while Derek Anderson is out because he got worse by playing. It’s pretty much the same rationale he used to explain why Anderson was inserted as a starter after sitting out the season’s first 10 quarters.

If this were any other coach, you’d think that Mangini was just spinning this in a way to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings. But Mangini is all about hurting anyone and everyone’s feelings. It’s the biggest tool in his toolbox of motivational techniques. Besides what’s the point of sparing the feelings of two quarterbacks he doesn’t like?

But that doesn’t mean Mangini is being dishonest. Far from it. Quinn did get better, but it’s all definitional and as Terrell Owens might say, there are 11 million reasons why.

This has always been about the $11 million incentive bonus in Quinn’s contract but Mangini can’t admit that without alienating every agent for every player and facing, possibly, an official rebuke from the league. It’s hardly coincidental that Quinn is coming back at a time when earning the bonus is no longer possible.

Quinn, almost by default, was the better quarterback in preseason, though better is a very relative term. Starting Anderson would have been disingenuous on every level after his preseason and his body of work in 2008.

But at some point, perhaps the second day of practice, perhaps the second series of the Minnesota game, Mangini surmised that his team was doomed irrespective of the quarterback. After that it became all about managing the money for the future and suddenly Quinn was on the bench. Put it this way, on the list of Mangini’s faults, this one doesn’t make the top 50.

It was humorous in the interim to listen to Mangini stammer for reasons to support Anderson even as he threw 3 interceptions in one half against the Ravens. It was an oft-repeated refrain: Sure we didn’t score, but hey did you see that 3rd down pass to Robert Royal?

With the Browns no longer in danger of being burdened with a huge payout this season to Quinn and an inflated salary next season that would lessen his trade value, it’s easy to see exactly how Quinn indeed got better playing while Anderson got much worse.

The Browns game this week was almost subject to a local blackout. Likely some will be. In that vein, here’s this week’s question to ponder: If the Browns game is on local television but no one is watching, does that qualify as a blackout?

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Public Relations 101

With Eric Mangini effectively in charge of every little thing coming out of Berea these days, it’s small wonder that the Browns aren’t any better off the field as they are on it.

All the missteps and high-minded disasters on the field have been well chronicled. But less is said it seems about how poorly owner Randy Lerner, through abdication to Mangini, has managed the Cleveland Browns brand.

Let’s not kid anyone here. The Browns are a laughingstock and deservedly so. But in that they aren’t alone. The NFL this season is a breeding ground of embarrassment. The Detroit Lions have exactly 1 win in two years. St. Louis, Washington, Tampa Bay and Kansas City have collectively 5 wins, three behind the New Orleans Saints. (By the way, isn’t one of the greatest stats of this season the fact that the Browns offense has only 5 touchdowns while the New Orleans defense has 7? In fact, this may be the greatest stat of all time.)

Yet it’s the Browns being singled out most weeks as the picture of ineptitude while their idiot cousins are being ignored. Part of the reason has to do with the housecleaning that Mangini and Lerner undertook shortly after Mangini was named head coach. In that purge, two key members of the public relation staff were let go, ostensibly for cost cutting reasons, leaving that department a bit short-handed.

Whether Mangini had anything to do with those firings isn’t exactly clear although the timing relative to his hire suggests that he at least knew it was coming and wasn’t of a mind to stop it. But what is far more clear is that Mangini, as major king domo, is now responsible for the approved messaging emanating from Berea.

It’s pretty apparent how that’s going. Listen to a Mangini press conference, if you can. It’s as painful as watching the Browns play on Sundays. Mangini steps to the microphone with a few opening remarks of little consequence and then spends the rest of the time either ignoring questions completely or giving half answers, at best. It’s a pretty damning display, really, and sets the overall organizational tone of don’t ask and don’t tell.

The Browns are in crisis and instead of addressing it publicly, directly and honestly, they’ve developed a bunker mentality befitting of the head coach who apparently came out of the womb believing that the other babies in the nursery were trying to steal his secrets about potty training.

Surely Mangini’s communications about the various quarterback changes throughout this season is a prime example. From treating the identity of his season opening quarterback as a state secret to explaining his various rationales for the subsequent benches has been loopy enough to leave even the most cynical among us aghast.

Then there’s been the whole George Kokinis was he fired or is he just in hiding thing. But as it turns out, these are just the tip of the iceberg. For the kids in college, the handling of the so-called protest being “organized” by a pair of long time fans serves as a case study in Public Relations 101 on exactly what not to do.

Anyone with a lick of sense knows these so-called fan protests are as trite and cliché as the bets that the mayors of the opposing cities make at Super Bowl time. Such protests never work on a large scale because the last thing most ticket-buying fans want to do when their team is in the toilet is call attention to the fact that they were dumb enough to buy the tickets in the first place. As for those fans who aren’t currently funding the enterprise, what do they have to complain about anyway?

Properly ignored, this protest would have died its natural death. In a nutshell here is how the Browns handled it instead. Lerner met with the two for a couple of hours and let them know that he really cares about the franchise and really wants to get it right. We know that not because Lerner or anyone associated with the team told us but because that’s what the two “fans” told us. It’s an interesting approach, public relations practiced one person at a time.

Given how quickly the Browns fan base has been dwindling the last few years, meeting with every remaining fan with an ax to grind probably isn’t the overwhelming task it once might have been. But is that really the best way to win the hearts and minds of those you’re asking to pay to clean up your messes?

Instead of getting out ahead of the story and shaping the message in a way they wanted it shaped, the Browns through the sheer incompetence allowed the two fans to become the team’s unofficial spokesmen instead. And their message: Randy’s a good guy who cares but nothing he said convinced us we’re wrong so guess what, we’re protesting anyway.

More strategically, though, Lerner going rogue on this demonstrated that it’s not just the big things the Browns get wrong, it’s the little things, too. Lerner essentially gave legitimacy to a nonsensical protest that always had far less traction than imagined by giving them a personal forum. Now these two have become the face of the franchise and Lerner’s little talking act all but guaranteed that they’ll be the face of this week’s broadcast, and not in a good way. There’s a way for an owner to connect directly with the fans but I’m pretty sure this isn’t it.

Lerner would have been far better served by using Bill Bonsiewicz, the team’s spokesman, or, better yet, the services of a real expert crisis communicator to develop a more thoughtful plan for addressing fan frustration.

Had that happened, the meeting might still have taken place but certainly not in the way it did, privately and without follow-up. If Lerner really is the frustrated fan committed to righting this ship isn’t it better to hear that directly and constantly instead of indirectly and randomly through emails and unofficial sources?

But because Lerner knows more about scarves than he does organizational development it’s never occurred to him that having Mangini at the top of the pyramid, especially with George Kokinis in witness protection, essentially puts Mangini in charge of still another team function for which he’s uniquely unqualified.

The Browns are a public relations challenge but no more so than any number of other teams, all of whom suffer from the same problem—organizational incompetence. Years of bad decisions piled one upon the other are what cause teams or companies to tank like a Lindsey Lohan movie. But the problems aren’t insurmountable.

In the law, there’s a saying that if you don’t have the facts in your favor, argue the law. If you don’t have the law in your favor, argue the facts. If you don’t have either in your favor, argue public policy. Right now all the Browns have to argue is public policy and instead they clam up because that’s the personal comfort zone of their football czar. It’s a strategy that isn’t serving either him or the team any better than the team’s draft strategy last spring.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Doomed to Fail

To say that Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini looks foolish again is to state the obvious. To say that this is the time he needs to look the opposite is to state the impossible.

Mangini, in the midst of the biggest crisis of his professional life and apparently hanging on to his current job by the strength of his lower bicuspids, used his bye week judiciously and proved it on Monday by declining to name a starting quarterback for next Monday’s game against Baltimore. And a whole fan base and the entire NFL just shook its heads and said “sheesh.”.

What’s the rush, really? Mangini claims he’ll address this in a few days because, among other things, he hasn’t talked with his quarterbacks yet. Apparently George Kokinis took the team’s phone book with him when he was escorted out a week ago. Brady, Derek, if you’re reading, coach needs your cell phone number, fast.

Naming a quarterback for this team at this point is like the governor picking out a turkey to pardon at Thanksgiving, except that the lucky turkey in this case is the one who gets to sit back and wear a ball cap during the game without worrying that Mangini will ruin his career further. But if past is prologue, and it is in this case, Mangini will end up sparing neither and sacrificing both. He is just that random, or foolish, take your pick.

With the second half beckoning, this can’t be at all what Mangini envisioned when it all began during the halcyon days of mid July. Then Mangini was a known commodity begging for both patience and the latitude not to be judged by his past mistakes in New York.

Four months later, patience has been pushed to their breaking point but at least he’s not being judged by his past mistakes from his New York days. He’s committed so many new ones in his short time here to put his job in jeopardy that it’s hard to remember why he was canned in New York. Oh yea, it was for treating the players like pawns, for being sneaky and subversive and, generally, for losing the respect of everyone in the building. Ok, some things are hard to escape.

It could be, though, that the reason that Mangini can’t decide whether the lowest rated quarterback in the league, two seasons running, deserves still another chance is because he’s been preoccupied with reports about owner Randy Lerner’s sudden fascination with credibility. The news that Lerner may be targeting former Seattle Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren to run the football operations in Cleveland can’t be seen as good news to or for Mangini.

Holmgren would indeed bring instant credibility to the Cleveland organization and would send the rest of the NFL, busy doubled over laughing at the Browns at the moment, a message that Lerner really is serious this time about improving his franchise’s prospects.

In some ways, the story of Holmgren is the story that Mangini is trying to carve out for himself. Like Mangini, Holmgren never played at the professional football, though he was drafted. Instead, Holmgren’s entrée into the NFL was through a series of coaching jobs starting with high school. He moved on to be the quarterbacks coach of Brigham Young before being hired as quarterbacks coach of the San Francisco 49ers. From there he went on to be head coach of Green Bay before taking the combined job of head coach and general manager of the Seattle Seahawks.

Ultimately, the combined job proved to be too much for Holmgren, just as it was with Butch Davis. Holmgren resigned his general manager’s job in 2002. That move proved to be beneficial to both Holmgren and the Seahawks. From 2002 until the 2008 season, the Seahawks didn’t have a losing record and went to the playoffs each season. In 2005 the Seahawks lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl.

The overriding question for those still invested in Mangini is whether a similar future awaits, particularly when you consider the parallels. From where things currently stand, that’s highly doubtful and for one overriding reason, Mangini himself.

This is precisely the time for Mangini to fall on whatever sword he’s been carrying and act like he’s learned something through this mess. Instead of seeing someone like Holmgren as an ally with whom he has much in common, Mangini more than likely will set the impeding relationship ablaze.

It’s not as if Mangini doesn’t have a track record of doing just that. He burned his bridges with Bill Belichick and then Mike Tannebaum, except when it comes to trades. Then Tannebaum extracts his revenge by fleecing Mangini at every turn. There’s also the little bridge burning Mangini just completed with George Kokinis and, for good measure, his former assistant, Erin O’Brien. These aren’t isolated examples. They’re a trend. At least his Christmas card list is manageable.

Then, of course, is the rest of the story.

Whatever Mangini’s success had been pre-NFL, his actual NFL experience has been very suspect. A hard worker, certainly, he’s learned a lot about Xs and Os by watching a lot of film. It’s a solitary experience that sequestered him from having to establish the people skills necessary to effectively translate that knowledge to those responsible for execution. It shows. He knows virtually nothing about handling actual people. As a result whatever book smarts he’s acquired hasn’t translated to success, particularly at the head coaching level. More importantly, though, he’s shown no capacity for change, either.

Having flamed out in New York all he’s done in Cleveland is ratchet up the paranoia as if that was the problem. Mangini’s biggest blind spot is that he thinks if he just keeps talking about his “process” and how long it will take enough times, everyone will magically buy in as if he’s really discovered cold fusion.

The reason no one is buying into what Mangini is selling of course has everything to do with the lack of respect he shows for those who he courts. Frankly, Mangini thinks the players aren’t real bright and can’t tell a ham from a wienie. Jamal Lewis, as established a veteran as exists in the league, candidly admitted that halfway through the season even he doesn’t understand what Mangini’s trying to accomplish.

Imagine, then, how any of the number of rookies on this team must feel. All they know of the NFL at the moment is that head coaches covet power, hate the media, and play games with players’ psyches as if it’s a blood sport. It would be one thing if sooner or later Mangini’s little mind games and overriding personality deficiencies revealed themselves to have some higher purpose. Instead it all just comes across as a guy in way over his head, which is exactly what he is.

If Mangini really had the capacity to change, he would have understood why he failed in New York and actually applied a few lessons learned. Instead, he views his New York experience a success on which to build. Pity.

When Mangini came in and immediately isolated Shaun Rogers, it made it seem like a matter of miscommunication. Everyone, myself included, gave Mangini the benefit of the doubt and essentially labeled Rogers immature, a narrative that fit with his experience in Detroit.

Instead and in context, the Rogers incident was heavy with foreshadowing. It may very well be that Mangini just didn’t see the big guy when they were at the same charity function. But given how much disdain Mangini seems to have with everyone lower than him in the food chain (and that includes pretty much everyone but the owner), it makes sense.

The point though is not to revisit the Rogers incident so much as it is to highlight exactly why Mangini won’t be able to co-exist with someone who will exercise real authority.

If indeed Holmgren comes to Cleveland or even if it’s any of the other names being bandied about, don’t look for Mangini to survive. Lerner may be saying that in his view Mangini will be back in 2010. But the lawyer in me sees the lawyer in him and just knows that Lerner’s parsing his words knowing full well it will be someone else’s decision.