Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Power Struggles

If unscientific polls conducted by local television stations have any validity, then the Cleveland Browns’ hiring of Mike Holmgren as their next president is an overwhelmingly popular move in Cleveland. So much so, in fact, that it’s actually hard to find any detractors, even among those still supporting head coach Eric Mangini.

About the only criticism I’ve heard so far about Holmgren is that he’s not Bill Parcells. But even those critics are tacitly acknowledging that this team needed some real direction from the top.

Given this premise, which I accept mainly because it happens to be true, how is it then that anyone can really say the Browns under Mangini have made any meaningful progress this season?

Remember, Mangini wasn’t merely brought in to coach this team. Less than 12 months ago, he represented owner Randy Lerner’s latest franchise savior. Lerner, supposedly so blown away by his interview of Mangini, gave him the deed to the ranch and only the vaguest of directions to go do whatever he thought was best to remake the franchise.

Like a trophy wife shopping with her husband’s American Express platinum card on Rodeo Drive, Mangini was liberated. He performed extensive renovations on the complex itself. He hired his own boss. He put together his own coaching and front office staffs. He wheeled and dealed his way through the draft and had the freedom to bring in as many ex-Jets as he wanted. By the time training camp opened last July, there wasn’t anything about this franchise that didn’t have Mangini’s fingerprints on it in one way or the other.

Yet within that same 12 months, Lerner was no longer so smitten. He once again altered the course of this franchise significantly by publicly acknowledging his own failures and declaring himself in search of a brand new serious, credible leader.

When you consider Holmgren’s hiring in that context, you can only conclude that Lerner was likewise repudiating Mangini’s way, if not by word then certainly be deed. In some ways, it was far more damaging to Mangini’s reputation then if Lerner had simply dismissed him at that point.

That Lerner didn’t fire Mangini probably speaks to Lerner’s affection for Mangini, or maybe it speaks to Lerner’s own sense of guilt over a hiring he probably now regrets. Either way, a team doesn’t simply shift course in the middle of the season like that if it otherwise believes it is going in the right direction.

That’s why Holmgren, in his press conference a few days ago, was careful in letting the assembled media know that whether Mangini stays or go won’t be determined on the basis of a 3 or 4 game win streak at the end of a season that fell apart in week 1.

For Holmgrem and for Mangini, the issue really has little to do with offensive philosophies or whether the players are responding at the moment. What it will come down to is Mangini’s ability to accept a loss in a power struggle he didn’t even know he was having.

For Mangini, Holmgren’s hiring represents a significant demotion even before the season has officially eneded. Mangini was hired with no layers between him and owner Randy Lerner, which really meant that Mangini had the final say on anything and everything related to the football side of the business. Sure, George Kokinis ostensibly stood between Mangini and Lerner but that was only on paper. Once Mangini fired Kokinis, the path was cleared as surely as a plow clears a snow-covered city street.

With Holmgren on board, it’s a new layer. Given the fact that Holmgren plans on hiring a general manager, Mangini will find himself with two significant layers between him and Lerner. In restructuring terms, that’s dramatic, even more so because the layers won’t be minor speed bumps like Kokinis was for Mangini.

It’s really hard to say whether Mangini can operate in that structure. Having tasted what it’s like to have almost absolute power, it’s hard to go back. On top of that, operating in the structure requires swallowing a huge dose of pride. That’s never easy for anyone.

That’s why the real drama of these last few weeks isn’t the outcome of the perfunctory games still on the schedule but the outcome of Mangini’s deep dive into his own psyche. Come January 4th or so, everyone will know exactly how that turned out and how that turns out will ultimately dictate whether Mangini has any real future in the NFL.

If Mangini decides that it’s time to move on, he’ll probably have trouble finding work immediately in the NFL, certainly as a head coach. Don’t forget, Mangini has burned his fair share of bridges already in the league and the likelihood of some other owner taking a chance on Mangini that quickly after what will be perceived as two failures is miniscule. If Mangini does find work it will be as an assistant, which represents an even greater step back than the one Holmgren may be offering.

If Mangini can swallow his pride and accept that what’s done is done, then he has a chance to resurrect his career and perhaps go on to greater triumphs. To do that, though, Mangini is going to have to be satisfied on essentially having to re-earn his place at the big table. He’ll have to accept that for the time being he’ll have input only into personnel decisions and have to accept a change in most of what he believes about getting a team ready for play.

If he can do all that and do it not just with a smile on his face but with a real sense of commitment, then he’ll work his way back up into having a more prominent role if not in Cleveland than elsewhere.

If I’m Mangini’s agent or adviser, I know which way I’m telling him to go. But Mangini isn’t necessarily one of life’s great listeners. I doubt, for example, that anyone close to him was telling him that ousting Kokinis as he did was a good idea.

Having won one power struggle, it’s easy to become emboldened for the next one you face. This time, though, he really doesn’t have any other viable options. Lerner already has spoken on who really is in charge and Mangini now knows it’s not him. For the time being and what looks to be the foreseeable future, emboldened or not this is one struggle Mangini would be best advised not to take on.

Monday, December 28, 2009

What Success Looks Like

If you were looking for just the right metaphor for the Cleveland Browns’ season and perhaps the Cleveland sports scene in general, you couldn’t do much better than Sunday’s victory against the Oakland Raiders.

With nothing on the line, which is usually the case when it comes to Cleveland sports, the Browns emerged as the same jumbled mess, albeit a jumbled mess with a 3-game winning streak when it probably matters least. It’s the usual shot of optimism that Cleveland fans get just about the time they’re convinced all is lost, like a great September by the Indians after a miserable April through August.

Focusing on these small wins is just the kind of thinking in this town that often predominates over the longer view. It keeps coaches and general managers in place longer than they deserve because Cleveland fans don’t have much of a reference point for what real success looks like.

Actually that isn’t true.

The Cleveland Cavaliers, with Dan Gilbert as owner and Danny Ferry as general manager, have put together an organization not just worth admiring but emulating. It helps that they have the world’s best player in LeBron James, but James could easily have gone the way of Kevin Garnett in Minnesota without a good, solid organization behind him to complement his many skills.

Yet fans rarely stop to contemplate the reasons for the Cavs success beyond just the superficial but are more than willing to fly-speck the Browns to find lasting optimism for the future in even the smallest accomplishments. That’s a mistake.

Here’s what we do know about the Cavs success and why, for whatever transient good feeling Sunday’s Brown win brings, the Browns are still light years away from a meaningful positive comparison.

It starts with the owner and flows through a strong general manager.

Both team owners are well-heeled but being well-heeled doesn’t automatically translate into success. There is a world of difference between Gilbert’s money and Lerner’s money even if it spends the same.

Gilbert’s wealth is self-made. He came from a relatively modest upbringing and on his own initiative founded his own company. He worked hard to build that company up from its own modest beginnings. In the process he found out what works and what doesn’t. Most lessons worth learning aren’t in books but in the failures and successes of everyday living and working. It’s served him well in building his next business, the Cavs.

Lerner’s wealth is inherited. That doesn’t make him a bad guy. In fact, Lerner’s a pretty regular guy considering the trappings of his life from birth to now. But he’s never had to work at either acquiring or keeping that wealth. His most significant accomplishment in business is actually selling the company his father built. In the process, he’s never had much of an opportunity to figure out what works and what doesn’t. Never having been anything more than a token figurehead in any business endeavor, he’s had precious little chance to learn the lessons worth learning.

It shouldn’t be a surprise, then, that Lerner was so ill-equipped to own the Browns. Conceptually he may have understood that the only football knowledge he had was that gotten from the backs of the bubble gum cards he collected as a kid, but he had no idea how to actually put together a successful organization to overcome his weaknesses. He’d never done it before.

When Lerner finally decided he had enough of all the ill will this season had brought, it represented a healthy admission of his own past failures. Grabbing Mike Holmgren in the way that Gilbert grabbed Ferry demonstrated that Lerner was finally starting to grasp some of the most basic business concepts that make an organization, any organization, successful.

It’s a great first step. It’s not enough.

The next steps will be even harder. For Lerner that means appreciating his role as the organization’s North Star. For Holmgren, that means establishing some organizational bright lines.

Gilbert is an active owner but he’s not activist, except on the fringes. He sets an operational imperative that places customer service and excellence in execution at its forefront. When you enter the Q, those touches are everywhere.

Neither active nor activist, Lerner has failed to establish any particular operational imperatives for his franchise. Customer service and excellence in execution are mostly an afterthought. When you enter Cleveland Browns Stadium, Lerner’s failures on these front are everywhere.

For Holmgren, he doesn’t need to be the next Bill Parcells. It will do simply if he becomes the Browns’ version of Ferry.

Holmgren isn't likely to ever have the same luck or luxury in being able to build a team around the NFL's version of James. That kind of player rarely exists in any sport. But Holmgren will have a chance to apply the product of his collective experiences to building a team and an organization that reflect his vision in the way Gilbert and Ferry have.

That doesn't start with appointing a head coach with an outsized personality who believes that it's my way or the Long Island Expressway. It starts first with creating a set of principles then finding the pieces and parts.

Ferry inherited Mike Brown, but only technically. Gilbert hired Brown and Ferry came along just a few weeks later, although the timing was more than coincidental. Gilbert a successful businessman with an understanding of what was needed, developed a vision and found the pieces that fit. He wasn't an owner in search of a superstar coach with the next great idea, just an owner in search of those who would execute the course he set.

Say what you will about Brown's coaching, but he never makes himself the story. It's always about the team and its principles that Gilbert established and Ferry oversees. The Cavs aren't just a team with one goal but a team that to a person can recite how that goal will be achieved. Everyone is on exactly the same page.

Say what you will about Mangini's coaching, but if this season's proven anything it's that he's almost always the story. Everything revolves around Mangini in a way that isn't healthy. As a result, the players aren't always reading from the same book, let alone the same page.

For Holmgren and this organization to be successful, that has to end. No team can sustain that kind of self-created drama on a daily basis and be successful. If that means Mangini is sacrificed for the greater good, then so be it.

Lerner is never going to set the vision. He doesn't have that kind of experience. It falls upon Holmgren to have the same courage of his own convictions that Gilbert and Ferry have and be willing to start anew from that imperative rather than try to jerry-rig them into an existing organization that is not of his own creation.

Cleveland fans have seen it work once. It really can happen again.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

To Destinations Unknown

In a game that served mostly as a series of reminders and what ifs, the Cleveland Browns beat a mistake-prone Oakland Raiders on Sunday, 23-9, to notch their third straight victory in a season ending sprint to destinations unknown.

The reminders came in the form of the two starting quarterbacks, Charlie Frye for the Oakland Raiders and Derek Anderson for the Cleveland Browns. The “what ifs” came in the form of what if the Browns had made better use of Jerome Harrison and Josh Cribbs all season and had benched right guard John St. Clair and defensive back Brandon McDonald earlier in the year.

The last time the Browns and their fans saw Frye, he was packing his bags after a little more than a quarter of play into the Browns’ opening season loss in 2007 to the Pittsburgh Steelers. As for the man that replaced Frye that season, Derek Anderson, the last time he was spotted it was on his back and reeling from one ineffective performance after another before being permanently benched several games ago in favor of Brady Quinn.

As it turned out, neither player ended up being the story of the game. Frye showed his game hasn’t changed much, some fire too much ice, while Anderson was mostly doing his level best to get out of the way of both Cribbs and Harrison while limiting his own mistakes. It mostly worked. But the real story of the game was the undisciplined mess that the Oakland Raiders still are after all these years, though without nearly enough good players to overcome that tendency.

The Raiders probably relished the trip to Cleveland over the holidays about as much as kids relish the end of Christmas vacation. But that still doesn’t excuse 13 penalties for 126 yards, many of which came at critical points of drives that forced field goals when touchdowns were needed, and 3 Frye interceptions, the first of which led to Cleveland’s first touchdown before the game was even 2 minutes old and the last of which snuffed out the Raiders’ last scoring attempt.

On Frye’s first pass of the game, he made an ill-conceived decision that landed in the hands of linebacker David Bowens, who returned it 15 yards to the Oakland 17-yard line. Two plays later, Harrison ran the remaining 17-yards untouched for the touchdown that helped give the Browns a 7-0 lead that they ended up never relinquishing.

But it was a Raiders meltdown of classic proportions just before the end of the first half that ultimately propelled the Raiders back to Oakland with the loss.

It started innocently enough for the Raiders. After the Browns were able to pin the Raiders back to their own 1-yard line thanks to handy teamwork by Josh Cribbs and Brandon McDonald on a Reggie Hodges punt, the Raiders were able to regain field position thanks to a booming Shane Lechler punt and two Browns penalties that put the ball on the Browns own 7-yard line.

Pinned back and heading further backward, the Raiders then emptied their frustration bucket all over themselves when a little discipline would likely have kept the score close.

First it was Richard Seymour igniting a scuffle with an unsportsmanlike penalty that was offset by a penalty on Rex Hadnot somewhere inside the pile. But Seymour, not content with having to share the spotlight with Hadnot, let referee Jeff Triplett know about it and was flagged for another unsportsmanlike penalty before the Browns were able to snap the ball. It took the ball to the Cleveland 40-yard line. That was followed a few plays later by another unsportsmanlike penalty, this time on cornerback Stanford Routt for a head butt that was deemed so flagrant that Routt was ejected.

That put the ball on the Oakland 27-yard line. Harrison, still showing great spring in his legs after last week’s record-breaking effort, ran 8 yards. That set up a 19-yard touchdown throw from Anderson to Mohammad Massaquoi. Phil Dawson added the extra point and it gave the Browns a 17-6 lead with just seconds remaining in the half.

The Browns defense couldn’t quite hold the Raiders in those waning seconds. After a few quick passes by Frye moved the ball to the Cleveland 43-yard line, Janikowski hit an amazing 61-yard field goal that closed the gap to 17-9. It didn’t end up giving the Raiders much of a lift and, ultimately, was just an interesting highlight in a highly imperfect game.

The Browns meanwhile were able to push their late first half score to a 20-9 lead with a 33-yard Dawson field goal to open the second half. The Raiders, unwilling to kick deep to Cribbs, instead put the ball in Harrison’s hands and all he did was return it 39 yards to the Oakland 43-yard line. The Browns then broke out their wildcat formation with Cribbs hitting on a 21-yard run that nearly went for a touchdown. But the Raiders defense then stiffened forcing the Browns to settle for the Dawson field goal.

The Raiders offense, however, was still a mess. It couldn’t answer the Browns’ field goal after another drive was snuffed out not so much by the Browns’ defense but another series of penalties including a holding call and an intentional grounding penalty on Frye.

The Browns, not exactly an artistic success themselves, had a chance to push the lead out even further but had a Harrison touchdown nullified on an illegal block by tight end Michael Gaines and then two plays later Harrison fumbled at the Oakland 5-yard line. Oakland linebacker Kirk Morrison recovered, but the Raiders couldn’t find a way to turn it into points of their own.

The Raiders seemed on the verge of getting back in the game as the fourth quarter began, with Frye moving the ball effectively through the air. But on 3rd and 9 from the Cleveland 24-yard line, Frye’s sideline pass was intercepted by McDonald at the 14-yard line. McDonald ran it back 39 yards to the Oakland 47 yard line. That led to a 34-yard Dawson field goal and a 23-9 lead. It was Dawson’s third field goal of the day, the other two covering 42 and 33 yards, respectively.

Then Raiders’ tried to make a game out of it late and may have but for, predictably, a series of mistakes.

Taking over with over 8 minutes remaining and the ball at his own 6-yard line, Frye hit a series of passes that quickly put the ball in Cleveland territory. On 2nd and 10 from the Cleveland 26 yard line, Browns’ defensive back Hank Poteat was then flagged for interference in the end zone on a pass that was intercepted by safety Abe Elam. It put the ball at the 2 yard line. Frye then threw four straight incompletions. Within those four passes though was an interception by Eric Wright that was overturned and an offensive pass interference penalty on Chaz Schilens on 4th down that gave the Browns the ball with a little over 4 minutes to play.

The Browns were not able to get a first down and were forced to punt as the Raiders burned all of their time outs. Hodges punt put the ball at the Oakland 46-yard line. Frye then moved the Raiders quickly into scoring position again but his third interception, this one to Wright, effectively ended the game.

Those final two Raiders drives were a theme as they brilliantly illustrated the Raiders squandering of good opportunities to not just close the gap but perhaps take the lead, only to see drives stymied by mistakes, usually penalties.

For example, the Raiders’ first points came courtesy of a Sebastian Janikowski 45-yard field goal in the first quarter but it could have, maybe should have been more. With Frye finding his rhythm after the early interception, he was able to put together a nice drive that got the ball down to the Cleveland 16-yard line. But a holding penalty on right tackle Cornell Green killed the drive.

On the Raiders’ next drive, which started from the 50-yard line, a false start penalty on 3rd and 3 on tackle Chris Morris made it 3rd and long and led to a Shane Lechler punt.

Then, after the Browns second straight series in the second quarter that finished further from the end zone than when it started forced a put from Hodges out of his end zone, his punt traveled only to the Cleveland 45-yard line and then a penalty on McDonald for running into the returner put the ball at the Cleveland 30-yard line. But the Raiders couldn’t turn it into anything more than a 34-yard Janikowski field goal and a 10-6 deficit after Frye was sacked by Mike Adams on 3rd and 3 from the Cleveland 10-yard line.

As it was last week, the Browns used the game to further solidify a running game that has been taking shape since Jamal Lewis went down for the season. The Browns were again wildly out of balance offensively, running it 45 times against just 17 pass attempts. Harrison once again led the way with 148 yards rushing on 39 carries. Anderson was just 8-17 with one touchdown and no interceptions.

It wasn’t exactly the audition Anderson probably envisioned for new president Mike Holmgren and probably did little to ensure he’ll be back next season. Though Anderson wasn’t asked to do much, he still showed amazingly bad touch on short passes. To his credit, though, he didn’t turn the ball over, though that was more a case of luck in the form of the Raiders defenders, naturally, twice dropping potential interceptions.

For the Browns, they now stand at 4-11 heading into next week’s game against Jacksonville. A victory gives them 5 wins, which would be the first visible sign of progress over last season. But there are still many questions facing Holmgren, not the least of which starts with the quarterback slot and pushes outward from there. Where this thing is headed now is anyone’s guess.

Still, in a season that has been mostly high drama and low execution, a 3-game winning streak has proven to be a nice respite. Sunday’s game, with mistakes flying everywhere, ran nearly 3 ½ hours and yet seemed half as long as most other Browns’ games this season.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Looking for Presents That Aren't There

When Cleveland Browns head coach looks under his Christmas tree this year, the present he’d like most but probably won’t see is the one from new club president Mike Holmgren with a card inside telling Mangini him that he’s being retained for the remainder of his contract.

If you want early insight into why Holmgren likely plans no such gift just look to Randy Lerner. Specifically, look to the reasoning behind why Lerner brought in Holmgren.

Without intending, I suspect, to be disrespectful to Mangini it is interesting that Lerner’s often repeated refrain has been that he needed to bring in a serious, credible leader for the franchise. It’s one of the few quotable things he’s said all season, actually.

Meanwhile, back in Berea, Mangini hearing those words probably texted his agent “WTF?” Undoubtedly Mangini had to feel like he was already the serious, credible sort to Lerner, particularly after he was able to oust former friend George Kokinis with Lerner’s blessing.

After enduring all sorts of slings and arrows from every corner, this one included, for letting a once proud franchise essentially become the Los Angeles Clippers of the NFL because of all his bungling, Lerner apparently had enough. He learned, albeit a few months too late, that Mangini wasn’t a serious, credible leader of a franchise and likely never was going to be that person.

Lerner courted Mangini last off season with the drunken confidence a 20-something courts a woman beyond his reach in a bar as the evening grows late. But in the clear and sober light of day he awoke to find that Mangini was not necessarily the next great thing. He was simply a coach that had just been fired.

But beyond just that stark portrayal, Lerner came to realize that Mangini arrived in Cleveland with plenty of baggage, some deservedly earned some not, and has spent most of his time since accumulating more. More importantly, though, he came to find that Mangini was something of an outcast in established NFL circles.

When it became clear that it was Mangini that ratted out his former mentor, Bill Belichick, for secretly taping opposing coaches signals during a game, it caused the league all sorts of headaches. Belichick clearly had violated the rules, irrespective of whether or not the rules make much sense. Not to digress too far on that issue, just let me put it this way: it’s not a violation of the U.S. Constitution if a police officer decides to tape your secret rendezvous at the local park and use it against you in court but it is a violation of NFL rules for opposing coaches to essentially do the same thing.

But further to the point, the league had to undertake an investigation and mete out punishment against Belichick, something it didn’t particularly relish not because it’s Belichick but because the NFL doesn’t ever want to look like it has any problems.

Whatever you might feel about Mangini’s decision to turn whistleblower, the outcome certainly cost him his spot on the playground. To other coaches, other owners, other players, Mangini was a guy you had to keep your eye on and not for the right reasons. Whatever credibility he might have been building in the NFL was lost over this incident, again fair or not.

Fast forward to his arrival in Cleveland. Fans were already skeptical of getting what they viewed as a retread and not a particularly successful retread at that. Then came all the other incidents, chronicled several times here and elsewhere, that gave fans far more reasons to be suspicious than welcoming. If you were a crisis communications consultant, you could use Mangini’s arrival and early tenure here as a case study on how not to establish credibility in a new situation.

The culmination of all these incidents, none of which individually were fatal but collectively were overwhelming, caused Lerner to realize that nationally and locally this franchise wasn’t being taken seriously. More to the point, it caused Lerner to realize that Mangini, sitting alone and overseeing all he could survey, was not going to be the person to change that perception. If this franchise becomes successful under Lerner everyone will look back to this particular insight of Lerner’s as the turning point.

Perhaps, though, the clearer sign or signs of Holmgren’s intentions regarding Mangini can be found in the total lack of restrictions Lerner placed on Holmgren in offering him the job. It was this absence of any strings that ultimately caused Holmgren to abandon Seattle and all the comforts it held for him personally for Cleveland.

The only reasonable conclusion to draw from this is that Lerner isn’t wedded to the Mangini way in the least. That isn’t to say he isn’t a fan of what Mangini’s been doing, but it is to say that he’s indifferent to whether or not Holmgren wants to blow it up and start over. That alone doesn’t bode well for Mangini on any level.

Think what you will about Mangini’s vaunted process but what’s undeniable is that it hasn’t yet been anything more than a working hypothesis. The field tests conducted over the last 4 seasons have yielded mixed results, at best. More importantly, Mangini’s theories on some of the most basic levels are far different than Holmgren’s and his have proven far more successful over a longer period of time.

Listening to Mangini in his press conferences lately, it almost sounds like he understands that dynamic pretty clearly. He may be confident of his own process and supportive of his own efforts and decisions during the year, but he surely isn’t delusional enough to think that Holmgren is simply going to work from the script Mangini drafted and then tweak things around the edges.

The reason Holmgren was able to parlay the sum total of all of his experiences into his current position is because he has been successful. It would be startling, to say the least, were Holmgren to suddenly abandon his collective beliefs in what makes a franchise successful just to accommodate a head coach whose been in his job for just one year.

Mangini and the fans may or may not be seeing some actual growth this season, it’s hard to tell. After all, this team still has one fewer wins than last season. But it’s not as if anything Mangini’s done has developed much of a root system. If there is going to be a reset, better now than two years down the road.

Then, of course, for Mangini the most uncomfortable sign of all at the moment is the deafening sound of silence from Holmgren or Lerner about any of these key issues. In this case, silence isn’t a friend to Mangini. Maybe next week, once Holmgren has spent his last Christmas for awhile in Seattle and hops Lerner’s plane to Cleveland, he’ll have more to say. But right now, Mangini is twisting in the wind, kind of like how he kept Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson twisting in the wind all preseason.

As the Holmgren era kicks off in earnest next week, Mangini’s fate will be decided sooner rather than later. But as he digs under his Christmas for the present that’s not going to be there, he can take comfort in if not learn something from the words of Greg Lake: The Christmas we get we deserve.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Fighting the Wrong Fight

Whether it qualifies as irony or just bad timing is hard to say. But on the day that the Cleveland Browns announced the hiring of Mike Holmgren to be their president of football operations came word that former general manager George Kokinis has filed for arbitration over his on-going dispute with the Browns.

The two events couldn’t represent the schizophrenic nature of this franchise any more accurately.

Meanwhile, many fans sit blissfully unaware of the things that really shape this franchise. Instead the focus is more simplistic. The team has won two straight games, which seemed impossible a month ago. There were record breaking performances by Jerome Harrison and Josh Cribbs, which likewise seemed next to impossible. At least some aspects of the team seems to be rallying, in a sense, around head coach Eric Mangini. It’s evidence of progress all around, which is apparently all Browns fans ever really want.

Giving due recognition that things aren’t quite as bleak this past Monday as most Monday’s during the season, this team is still 3-11, with two victories against teams every bit as bad as them. The progress has been incremental but started from such an embarrassingly low point that walking and chewing gum at the same time would have qualified as progress as well.

But none of that is really the point of the moment as another embarrassing chapter in Browns history has been visited upon this team even as it begins to steady itself with the hiring of Holmgren.

At issue between the Browns and Kokinis is about $4 million he claims is still owed on a contract that the Browns refuse to honor. Kokinis believes the Browns didn’t live up to certain promises made in order to induce him to leave the Baltimore Ravens. The Browns claim Kokinis was fired for cause, the crime apparently being that he wasn’t deferential enough to his key subordinate, Mangini. The demand for arbitration is standard in these kinds of disputes between members of management of a NFL franchise with Commissioner Roger Goodell or his designee serving as the arbitrator.

The probable end game for the Browns is to find a way to pay Kokinis less than what remains on his contract and still claim victory. It’s an awful goal.

What makes this incident out of character for the Browns is that to this point, Lerner has mostly been a patsy for everyone else he’s sent packing, from Butch Davis through Phil Savage. In the process Lerner has literally parted with millions of his own money as a kind of toll he’s chosen to pay for the benefit of running his franchise in such a scattered fashion.

The question is thus begged, why take a stand now against Kokinis? Parenthetically one is left to wonder what role, if any, Mangini has in Lerner’s new found if ill placed set of stones?

Of all the lousy decisions Lerner has made with respect to this franchise, probably the worst was signing off on the hiring of Kokinis and that has nothing to do with Kokinis’ competence. It has everything to do with the manner in which he was hired, which is to say ass backwards.

For reasons that Lerner won’t ever explain, he let Mangini hire his own boss. What is even less clear is why he thought this situation would work. It’s understandable that Mangini would look to someone with whom he was both familiar and could control. It’s why he went to Kokinis in the first place.

But in order to have the opportunity to hire Kokinis, who was under contract with the Baltimore Ravens at the time, Mangini/Lerner had to promise him a promotion from his previous job as the Ravens’ director of pro personnel. That meant bringing him in as general manager with final authority over football-related decisions such as the composition of the final roster.

In other words, it really was a situation that was on a collision course with itself. Mangini obviously felt that he was the final authority on any and all personnel decisions, irrespective of what Kokinis’ contract said and probably for good reason. After all, Mangini was hired first and more importantly was responsible for perhaps the biggest personnel decision of all, the hiring of the general manager.

At the very least you can attribute this implosion to incredible naïveté on behalf of each protagonist. More likely, it was the inevitable clash that comes with promising two people the same thing.

Either way, the ultimate responsibility for this mess lies at the feet of Lerner. Certainly he had the best of intentions but his decision making in this regard was clearly too simplistic and ill informed. That’s why it’s so puzzling that Lerner would have let his dirty laundry get aired even to this slight extent.

It really matters little how strongly Mangini may feel about Kokinis’ alleged non-performance as house puppet or how strongly Mangini may be pushing Lerner to take this stand. Litigation always start out as an issue of honor and always ends up as an issue of money.

But this case lacks even any issue of honor. There is no overarching principle to uphold or moral imperative to enforce. Inside the league the word already is out that Kokinis got a raw deal and rather than try and make a half-hearted attempt at turning around this perception, Lerner would be far better served by paying the money and moving forward.

The fact that the Browns already drew a line in the sand, even if they eventually erase it, comes come at the expense of the lingering ill will that stance will create. The credibility jolt they got with the Holmgren hiring will have taken another unnecessary hit and for no good reason.

Hopefully when cooler heads will prevail, Lerner’s new general counsel, Fred Nance, will explain to Lerner that at the moment is that it’s starting to look like the Browns have a problem keeping their promises. If the allegations regarding Kokinis sound similar to those being made by Josh Cribbs, perhaps that’s not an accident except that in Cribbs’ case he was relying only on verbal promises and Kokinis actually was smart enough to get his in writing.

That isn’t a good message to send to prospective hires, be they in the front office or on the field. Only those without other viable employment options will tend to take a risk on that kind of atmosphere. Is this the paradigm that the Browns really want to establish for Holmgren?

Lerner seems to now be doing his level best to establish that this is not only a credible franchise but relevant, but he should know that it is a huge mistake for anyone within the Browns organization to spend another minute busying themselves with events like this that represent a step in the exact wrong direction.

With Holmgren on board, these kinds of problems should become a thing of the past and that’s where this one belongs. Yet, until that happens, this event really is the last thing this franchise needed at the moment and yet it now seems like it’s become the most important thing it’s working on.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Credibility. Finally.

The Cleveland Browns, ensconced in a season of historically bizarre proportions, have finally given their fans a reason to celebrate the holiday season and it has nothing to do with refunds.

Randy Lerner, apparently tiring of all the complaining his indifferent tenure has brought about, finally got something right. He said he would bring a serious, credible leader in to run his football operations and he’s done just that in the hiring of Mike Holmgren as the club’s president, according to reports. The formal introduction of Holmgren is expected to occur next week.

For those following the Lerner arc, the hiring of Holmgren serves as the equivalent of Lerner’s hiring of Martin O’Neill, one of the most credible names in soccer, to be the manager of his Aston Villa franchise. All O’Neill did was turn Lerner’s willingness to spend into money well spent and in the process transform Aston Villa from a laughingstock franchise to one of the shining stars of the English Premier League. Hopefully Holmgren will have the same impact on this side of the ocean.

Lerner has been on a little bit of a roll lately with his hires after swinging and missing so badly last offseason. The hiring of Fred Nance, ostensibly as general counsel, may be lesser known to the fan base but he’s every bit as serious and credible as Holmgren and his presence will have a similar impact.

Nance, as much as anyone, was instrumental in bringing this version of the Browns back to Cleveland after Art Modell moved his old team to Baltimore. He also was under consideration for the NFL Commissioner job that ultimately went to Roger Goodell. None of that makes him qualified to decide who the Browns should draft next June, but what it does do is make him qualified to be that serious voice on behalf of the Browns within the NFL’s inner sanctum that they currently lack. In tandem with Holmgren, the Browns will no longer lack for connections.

One of the biggest problems with Lerner’s ownership has been his extreme lack of interest in actually running the franchise. Sure, he’s a fan. He probably views himself as a super fan. But he simply has other more important interests that occupy his time these days than heading to NFL meetings and paying attention to such mundane but important issues as revenue sharing and the state of the collective bargaining agreement.

Because Lerner has been so indifferent toward all the vestiges of his ownership, he hasn’t developed the critical contacts he needs within the various NFL circles; contacts that could have kept this franchise from veering so far off track. Lerner’s been operating far too much in a vacuum when it comes to making critical decisions about the direction and future of this franchise that it’s no wonder it’s in the current state it’s in.

His hiring of both Eric Mangini and George Kokinis will turn out to be the watershed events that finally put into motion the makings of a credible franchise that culminated with the hiring of both Nance and Holmgren.

To go back a bit, Lerner was completely underserved, both on the business side and on the field, by former general manager Phil Savage. In Savage, Lerner felt he was getting the face of the franchise, someone who could represent him to the fans and inside the league and be that serious, credible voice. Savage was never comfortable in that role. He’s a scout at heart, far more comfortable watching East Carolina play Western Kentucky on a Thursday night than pushing papers at a desk and sipping Macallum 18 with Jerry Jones at the hospitality suite inside the Scottsdale Princess during league meetings.

When Savage imploded on the heels of his bungling of the Kellen Winslow situation and the ill-advised f-bomb he directed in writing to a fan, Lerner suddenly found himself pretty much alone on an island of his own making. He had no one credible inside the organization and no established inner circle within the league. Ernie Accorsi is a good contact but he’s retired and drifting further and further from the game each day. Others in the league just didn’t know him enough to take him into their confidence.

As a result Lerner, as uniquely unqualified as someone in his position could possibly be, was left on his own to basically draw up what he wanted in a new coach to replace Romeo Crennel. The key, Lerner believed, was that the new coach had to have head coaching experience. To Lerner, that was a marker for bringing credibility to the franchise.

When Mangini came available, Lerner pounced. In doing so, he never bothered to do even perfunctory due diligence with Mangini’s former employer, New York Jets owner Woody Johnson. Most places do more due diligence in hiring a mail room clerk.

Compounding the problem was that Lerner then let Mangini hire his own boss in the form of Kokinis and we’ve all seen where that ended, with Kokinis being escorted from the premises by security and filing a claim for the money he’s been denied for supposedly not fulfilling his contract. Yet this huge mistake and all it entails finally did cause a light switch of sorts to finally click on for Lerner. It led to the hiring of first Nance and now Holmgren.

Holmgren comes into the franchise at a very curious moment. Though the team has been mostly miserable and has only 3 wins thus far to show for all that’s transpired, two of those wins have come in their last two games. The players’ commitment to Mangini has vacillated all season and yet as of late, when going through the motions is usually the easiest, the team has played its most inspired football of the season.

It probably won’t be the first order of business for Holmgren but it will be close: what to do about Mangini? It’s a far more complicated question than most fans think. Mangini has never carried himself as if he were brought in simply to be the head coach, like Romeo Crennel, and for good reason. Lerner gave Mangini a pretty wide berth in which to operate and pretty much yielded all football authority to him. The dismissal of Kokinis, directly at the urging of Mangini, only solidified Mangini’s power base.

When Holmgren comes aboard, there will be no question that he’ll be the new sheriff in town. He’ll not only have the badge to prove it but a fully loaded gun and the permission to shoot at will. The real question is whether he’ll shoot in Mangini’s direction.

The answer to that depends completely on whether or not he believes Mangini will be happy accepting a demotion back to deputy. Mangini likes to say he had no problem with the set up in New York under Mike Tannebaum, but it’s interesting that Mangini made sure that he wouldn’t have to endure a similar situation in Cleveland by bringing Kokinis aboard.

Mangini also likes to talk about how he welcomes anybody joining the team that can help move it forward. It’s the right thing to say, but Holmgren isn’t coming in as another voice for Mangini to consider as he goes about his business in solitude. He’s not being brought aboard at that kind of money (reportedly $5 million a year for the next 10 years) to smile for the cameras and offer curbside opinions like Jim Brown. The franchise will be his to run.

For Mangini to stay on as coach it isn’t going to come down to the incremental progress of an otherwise miserable team over the last few weeks. It will depend solely on whether Mangini can make what amounts to the biggest adjustment in his professional career. That may mean adjusting to a much different offensive scheme that’s more to Holmgren’s liking. It could mean adjusting his coaching techniques and training regimen. It certainly will mean yielding authority over player acquisition, including the upcoming draft. In other words, Mangini will have to be satisfied simply being a head coach, like Crennel, and having head coach input, nothing more.

This all play out in the weeks and months to come. But for now, Lerner’s hiring of first, Nance, and now Holmgren finally does signify that the Browns are headed in the right direction. It’s about time.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Winning Historically

With nothing to play for but their futures, both the Cleveland Browns and the Kansas City Chiefs had about equal number of reasons to both mail it in and give it their best shot. They opted for the latter and the Browns, on the back of historic performances by running back Jerome Harrison and kick returner Josh Cribbs, hung on for a 41-34 victory, giving them a modest two-game win streak.

Even with Harrison setting the Browns single game rushing record and Cribbs becoming the NFL’s all time leader in kick returns for touchdown, the Browns had to survive a late scare by the Chiefs to secure the win.

After going ahead by 7 with 44 seconds remaining after Harrison’s 3rd touchdown of the day, this one a 28-yarder, Chiefs’ quarterback Matt Cassel hit receiver Mark Bradley for 34 yards and nearly a touchdown before Bradley was tripped up. He then got the Chiefs down to the Browns’ 26-yard line but his final desperation pass in the end zone was knocked down as the game ended.

Harrison’s performance was simply brilliant. With the kind of running backs this franchise has had, it’s nothing short of amazing that the mostly forgotten 5’9” Harrison now holds the single game rushing record. On this day he ran for 286 yards on 34 carries and shattered Jim Brown’s previous record of 237 yards set in 1961.

Cribbs was nearly as brilliant, running back two kick returns for touchdowns, the first for 100 yards and the second for 103. That gives him 8 kick returns for touchdowns for his career and placing him first in that category on the NFL’s all-time list.

With Harrison quietly running for 73 yards in the first half, the game seemed to be setting up early on as a dual between Cribbs and Chiefs’ running back Jamal Charles, who ended the day with 154 rushing yards and 1 touchdown. But Harrison got hot in the second half and was the focal point for both teams. He had a 71-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter, an 8-yarder early in the fourth quarter and then the 28-yarder as the clock was ticking down in the 4th quarter, vexing fantasy league players everywhere who kept him on their bench.

Before that final Harrison touchdown it looked like the teams were heading for overtime after Kansas City tied the game at 34-34 on a Cassel-to-Bradley 12-yard touchdown pass. Cassel was able to get the Chiefs in position for the tie after the Browns’ Phil Dawson missed a 52-yard field goal that ended up giving the Chiefs the ball at their own 42-yard line and put them in position to move quickly for the score.

Even with a 41-point outburst, early on it looked like it was going to be an offensive struggle for the Browns. Despite taking an early 3-0 lead on a 47-yard field goal by Dawson, the offense couldn’t quite find its rhythm. Indeed, if not for Cribbs’ two kick off returns, the Browns might have been left wondering how they got run over by the Chiefs.

After Charles took a simple run around the left side for a 47-yard touchdown, the kind of play that’s burned the Browns’ defense all season, the Chiefs were up 17-13. The Browns then went 3-and-out on their next drive and then couldn’t execute perhaps the one play they should have had perfected by week two, the punt.

As the Browns lined up inside their own 20 yard line, long snapper Ryan Pontbriand snapped the ball before the team was set. The ball hit up back Nick Sorenson on his right leg, bounded into the end zone and was recovered by Alex Studebaker for the Kansas City touchdown and the 24-13 lead.

The Browns were clearly out of sorts, a state that ended quickly when Cribbs took the ensuing kickoff 103 yards for the score, helping bring the Browns back to within 4 at 24-20.

That provided the springboard for Harrison’s second half heroics. He opened the scoring quickly in the second half with his 71-yard run on the Browns’ first possession. From there the Chiefs defense could never seem to find the right formula for containing Harrison as he added over 140 more yards in the half and two more touchdowns.

Despite Harrison’s historic performance, the victory was anything but easy. After taking a seemingly insurmountable 10-point lead at 34-24 off of Harrison’s second touchdown, the Chiefs quickly moved down the field but couldn’t capitalize and had to settle for a 27-yard Ryan Succop field goal.

It was a drive that easily could have yielded more for the Chiefs but also could have been disastrous as Cassel threw late over the middle near the goal line. The ball landed in and then bounced out of the hands of linebacker Kaluka Maiava. With the way Harrison was running, an interception at that moment would have given the Browns the opportunity to run out the clock. As it was, even Harrison’s 3rd touchdown didn’t provide sufficient breathing room.

With the hiring of a new grand wizard of football operations lingering over this team like a stack of dirty holiday dishes from the party the night before, the last few games of the season have turned into mostly an extended interview process for just about everyone associated with the Browns except owner Randy Lerner. But no one has more at stake than head coach Eric Mangini.

The irony now is that it may be two players with their own checkered histories with Mangini that save his job. In the case of Harrison, Mangini has basically kept him mostly buried on the bench even though he’s performed every time he’s been given the ball. In the case of Cribbs, the team’s most inspirational player, Mangini has kept him dangling all season over a new contract despite his being promised one before the season started.

Though Sunday’s victory comes against a lousy Chiefs team, it was an important win nonetheless. After beating the Steelers a week ago, a step backward in Kansas City would have taken any shine off that victory and halted the incremental progress that’s been made. Instead, the Browns were able to follow it up with a solid effort and another baby step forward.

If nothing else, the Browns are establishing themselves as a running team. While Harrison was phenomenal, credit too should go not only to the offensive line, but also to fullback Lawrence Vickers for consistently do what a good lead back should and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll for sticking with the running attack. On the day, the Browns only threw 18 times while running an astounding 49 times.

Although quarterback Brady Quinn statistically was awful, 10-17 for 66 yards and 2 interceptions, he was able to maintain his poise at critical moments. For example, on the Browns’ first scoring drive, Quinn threw to Chansi Stuckey for 11 yards. Stuckey made a very questionable catch but the Chiefs never had a chance to look at it again as Quinn hurried the team to the line and snuck it forward for 2-yards.

Then, in that wild last few minutes of the game, Quinn ran for 24 yards on a bootleg on a crucial 3rd and 1 play from the Browns’ 39-yard line. If not for that run, the Harrison touchdown might not have happened and the game may have gone to overtime and all the uncertainty that entails.

The Chiefs fighting the Browns for AFC inferiority struggled much of the day with Braylon Edwards disease, a malady in which receivers can’t seem to hold onto balls that hit them in stride. Despite what seemed like a dozen dropped balls, Cassel still went 22-40 for 331 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Cassel’s first touchdown pass came after the Browns took a 13-3 lead on a 30-yard field goal by Dawson. Charles’ ability to grind out tough yards set up the pass perfectly as Cassel, utilizing the no huddle offense twice found receiver Chris Chambers, the first for a 39-yard gain over Eric Wright and then for a 9-yard lob pass for the touchdown that helped pull the Chiefs to within 3 at 13-10.

Cassel’s second touchdown came after the Dawson missed the 52-yard field goal attempt with just over 4 minutes remaining and the Chiefs trailing by 7. After the Browns had forced the Chiefs into a 4th and 6 from the Cleveland 12-yard line, Cassel, out of the shotgun, was able to step up into the pocket and avoid the rush long enough to find wide receiver Mike Bradley coming open in the end zone. The Succop extra point tied the game at 24.

The Brown, 3-11 on the season, now have a chance to make it three straight victories with the Oakland Raiders coming in and sporting a whole host of quarterback problems. But before that takes place, it looks to be an interesting week in Berea.

Mike Holmgren appears to be on the precipice of getting the keys to the Browns’ football operations, a dubious Christmas present if ever there was one. With all the questions that raises for the future of this franchise, the best way Mangini and his staff can answer most of them is by putting together two more similar performances. And as Browns fans saw on this day in Kansas City, even when things are working nothing comes easy.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Holiday Dream

Maybe it was the rum balls.

I went to the office Christmas party the other night and while I generally refrain from sampling most of what people try to pass off as holiday treats, someone said “you just have to try Jill’s rum balls.” Which I did. Several hours later, I awoke in a cold sweat after an incredibly vivid dream.

There I was, inside the Browns’ Berea complex, attending head coach Eric Mangini’s Wednesday press conference.

“Good morning. How is everyone today?” He didn’t wait for an answer and just jumped right in. “We have Kansas City this week. They’ve struggled a bit this season just like us but I know they’re going to come in here and compete hard. We’re still a little banged up by our practices have been crisp and I think the guys are still engaged and enthused. I’m looking forward to the match-up.”

Then came the question: “Coach, can you talk a little about the fact that Randy Lerner has been meeting with Mike Holmgren about a job that would essentially make Holmgren your boss. Any concerns?”

“Look, Tony. You know I like to keep those kinds of things in-house. I met with Mike and we had a chance to have a nice talk about how the season’s going, that sort of thing.”

“But Coach, are you at all concerned that you really don’t have any connection with Holmgren? Do you think he’ll give you a fair shot at keeping your job?”

“Again, Tony, I’d rather not get into the specifics. I try to stay focused on the task at hand and ask the players to do the same. Mike and I have great mutual respect. Any questions about the Kansas City game?”

That’s when I pounced.

“Coach. Can’t you see why you have a problem with the fans in this town? Questions get asked, some difficult, some not. You just gloss over them and it makes you look like you don’t care. That’s the impression you give the fans. You act like letting them in on a little of what’s really going on is the worst thing since they moved ‘Friday Night Lights’ to DirecTV.”

“Gary, I understand your point. I really do. There’s a time and place for questions like that and this isn’t it.”

“What do you mean this isn’t it? It’s a press conference. It’s exactly the time and place.”

Then came a long pause. Mangini, gripping the podium with both hands as his knuckles whitened, looked like he just had an attack of colitis. His face scrunched. His eyes shifted left then right. Then he left out a huge sigh.

“Folks, look. I’m going to go off script here. It’s not something I like to do. It’s not something I’m comfortable doing. But maybe Gary’s right.

“Here’s the thing. This has been about the roughest year of my life. I got fired from a job I really loved. I didn’t think it was fair. Woody Johnson never brought his concerns to me about how the players felt. I didn’t get a chance to give him my side. He just said the team was going in another direction and that was that. It was devastating. It doesn’t matter how much money you make. When you get fired it’s about the worst thing that can happen to you. It sucks the breath right out of you. It makes your knees buckle. Your mind suddenly fills with a thousand thoughts. ‘What do I tell my wife and kids?’ ‘Will I find another job?’ ‘Will I have to move?’ If you’ve been through something like that then you’ll know what I mean.

“Then Mr. Lerner called and we had several nice chats. I’ve known Romeo Crennel for years and I hated to see him get fired. He’s a fine, fine man. Honestly, when Mr. Lerner finally offered me the job I wasn’t quite sure I wanted it. Not because it’s the Browns and not because it’s Cleveland. Just because I didn’t want to look like I was disrespecting Romeo.

“But a friend of mine told me that my taking the job had nothing to do with Romeo getting fired. Every coach eventually gets fired. It’s the business. So after discussing it with my wife, we felt it was a good move for us personally and professionally. I came in here very excited.

“Then I got off on the wrong foot. I don’t really know why I ignored Shaun Rogers at that banquet. He’s actually a really sweet buy. I was just being a jerk, full of myself for landing a new job so quickly. It was a mistake. It’s my job to connect with my players, not the other way around. It was stupid and I regret it.

“Then came the whole thing with hiring George Kokinis. George and I go way back. In fact, we both spent some time in Cleveland in our very early days, as I think all of you know. I love George like a brother and that’s why I wanted him here. I knew it looked awkward, like I was hiring my own boss. I read what everyone around this town wrote about it, everyone that is except Bill Livingston. I just can’t seem to get through one of his columns.”

The assembled group broke out in laughter. Then Mangini continued.

“I figured that even though it didn’t look right George and I would make it work. Yea, he was in charge of football operations, but he and I always envisioned it as a partnership. But as we got going, I wanted to accelerate the time table of getting this operation improved. George was more deliberate. That’s not a criticism, just a fact. As the days went by, I kept pushing harder and harder for more and more changes. When George wasn’t responding as quickly as I wanted, I kind of took over and pushed him aside.

“In retrospect, that was a mistake. I was the one that let George down, not the other way around. I owe George a huge apology and that’s something that I’ll be doing privately when he and I both have the time. I don’t want to just make a perfunctory phone call. I want to talk to him man-to-man, own up to my mistakes and hopefully he’ll forgive me and he and I can be friends. I also plan to talk with Mr. Lerner to make sure George gets the money he deserves. Maybe hiring him under the circumstances was a mistake, but I really screwed up his exit.”

Mangini wasn’t even close to done.

“I know a lot of you want to know about what happened with the draft. Well, this team needs players. I think the best way to build a team, on both sides of the ball, is from the line out. That’s why I traded down to a slot where I knew I could get Alex Mack and some extra picks. Alex is making good progress. He has a great future.

“What I think most of you want to know about, though, is that second round and in particular Brian Robiskie and David Veikune. Let me start with Brian. I know this is Ohio State territory and Brian is a local kid. I should have understood that sooner and been more upfront with the fans.

“I know we need receivers and it seemed like deactivating Brian was just about trying to teach him a lesson. Actually, that’s exactly what it was. I decided to deactivate him so much this season in part to show him that just being a second rounder doesn’t guarantee playing time. To me, some things are bigger than a particular moment, a particular game. Lessons need to get learned and I thought Brian needed to learn that. Maybe that’s harsh and maybe I could have handled it differently, but I felt it was the best decision at the time.

“As for David, in truth his selection was a stretch. I think David has a chance to contribute on this team and in this league but not right now. He’s changing positions and he’s just too raw. I know a lot of you think that since this season is about development anyway why don’t I just throw him out there. To me, that would be irresponsible. I’m also trying to develop a lot of other players and they are further ahead of the curve right now.

“Since we’re talking about players, let me say a few things about Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow. When I got here one of the first players I met with was Kellen. He was brutally honest with me. He wanted out of Cleveland. This place held mostly bad memories for him and he wanted a change of scenery. He said that if he remained here he’d work hard but his heart wouldn’t be in it. I appreciated what he said and told him I’d work to accommodate the request. I understand that sometimes the situation just isn’t right.

“With Braylon, it was a much different situation. He’s a disruptive guy. I know he had the one Pro Bowl season but the trick is to follow that up. He couldn’t. When I looked at the film on him from last season, it wasn’t just the dropped passes. He gave minimal effort on his blocking assignments. If he knew the pass wasn’t coming to him he would run sloppy routes. He had Randy Moss’ attitude but not Randy Moss’ accomplishments. Then when he had that fight outside a bar after a game in which everyone on the team, Braylon included, played terribly, I just felt it was enough. He had to go. Frankly, I was surprised the Jets gave us as much as they did.

“I know a lot of you also have asked several times about all the ex-Jets players I brought in. My biggest mistake there was not explaining my thinking, which is something I need to correct in myself. All of them were just players that I felt understood my program and would help out all the new guys. A football team is like any other workplace. A lot happens when the boss isn’t around. If there are guys around that understand what you’re trying to do, it helps when players are just talking with each other. I’d do it again, but I know I would be more straightforward with you guys about it. You and the fans deserve that much.”

Now he was getting contrite.

“I know I haven’t been perfect this year. Honestly, I understand the perspective of those who think I should be fired. It’s mostly of my own making. I need to become a better person in order to become a better coach. These are changes I need to make and whether they’re here in Cleveland or somewhere else, those changes will get made.

“I also wish I would have handled Jamal Lewis differently. He leaves this league hating me, I’ll understand it. You know, teams are made up of all sorts of players. But every team has a guy like Jamal, an established veteran who works harder than the rookies. I knew Jamal had lost a step and really wasn’t in our plans going forward and I let that cloud my judgment. I should have embraced him. He deserved that much. I think that would have helped me more in the locker room.

“I also am sorry about how I’ve handled Josh Cribbs’ contract situation. Mr. Lerner told me that he and Phil Savage had promised Josh a new deal. I just felt like I wanted to see more from Josh before that got done. I should have kept my mouth shut. A person is only as good as his word and if Mr. Lerner made that commitment I should have lived with it and got that contract done. I’m getting that corrected and hope to have a new deal done with him within the next few weeks, at the latest.

“As for Brady Quinn, in truth, and I hope this doesn’t get me in trouble with the Players Association, but I did bench him because of his contract. It was a business decision and those kinds of decisions get made in the NFL every day. Truthfully, building a team isn’t just about finding guys with talent. There is still the financial side of things and that factors into every decision. I knew we weren’t going anywhere this season and we’ll probably not be going much further next season. I like Brady and he’s played better but I’m not completely sold on him as our long term answer. I want him back next year but I couldn’t see dedicating that much salary to him when I’ve got about 15 other key holes to fill as well.

As he spoke, Mangini seemed to get more and more comfortable, as if he had just passed a kidney stone the size of a grapefruit that had been stuck for the last 10 years. Confession looked to be good for his soul.

“Let’s talk about spygate and Bill Belichick. What the heck was I thinking?” And as Mangini started to get into great detail, the assembled media couldn’t believe what they were hearing. This was a new Mangini, a coach that they could embrace. Someone who could admit he wasn’t perfect, that not everything he’s done was to further some mythical process and that yes, he did make mistakes, many of them. Stories started appearing everywhere. I couldn’t wait to write about the change and tell the world that maybe I had misjudged Mangini all along. And as the next few days passed into the next few weeks, suddenly Mangini was the toast of the town.

He was a frequent guest on every radio station, sat for interviews with the local papers, could be seen joking on the sidelines with his players as the team finished out the season in style, all while still finding time to hand out new coats to the homeless bought with money he donated. And as Mangini began to blossom, the permanent fog hanging over Berea started lifting.

But just as suddenly as the dream started, it ended. I was in a cold sweat and my stomach was doing a Texas two-step. But as I laid there awake it occurred to me that if the real Mangini could be even half as candid as the dream Mangini, no one would be calling for his head and the last thing he’d have to worry about is who Lerner hires to oversee the empire and the fans could actually have something legitimate to point to as progress instead of breaking down the remaining games by the sum of their plays to find progress.

It was then I realized, too, that yea, it must have been the rum balls.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Eternal Sunshine

The reaction from Cleveland Browns fans over last week’s victory against the Pittsburgh Steelers has been interesting, to say the least. It may be, as Josh Cribbs said after the win, that it erases the memory of all that’s come before it. Call it the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Cleveland Browns Mind.

I’ve received more than a few emails, about half of which are wondering whether I’ve come unhitched from my moorings. Don’t you get the it, the emailers asked? This was a victory over the Steelers. It’s proof that head coach Eric Mangini’s process is working.

Maybe I don’t get it and that’s the problem. I’d stack my credentials as a Browns observer against nearly anyone reading this. I’ve watched more Browns-Steelers games for more years than many of our readers have been alive. I understand the rivalry.

What I saw on Thursday was an inspired Cleveland team, playing on a national stage it didn’t deserve, beat the defending Super Bowl champs in all three phases of the game. The Steelers didn’t lose the game. The Browns won it, from the opening series forward. It was, as I said then, one of the more improbable victories that this franchise has seen in its last 10 years.

Contextually, I understand what a victory against the Steelers means. What I don’t understand is the need for some to go overboard as if it’s the greatest victory in franchise history. It doesn’t make the top 100.

In the harsh reality of this day, the Browns are still 2-11 and will be lucky to match last year’s miserable victory total of 4. In all but a very small handful of games have they even been competitive. The Steelers also aren’t anything more than a very mediocre NFL team at the moment. A loss to Kansas City might have been a fluke. The loss to Oakland might have been another fluke. But three losses to three really bad teams in near consecutive fashion is a trend.

The Steelers, having fallen so far so fast, are a cautionary tale of how it can all disappear so quickly when there’s a few key injuries and the rest of the team gets fat and happy with previous success. It reminds me of the 2008 Browns, actually, except all they were doing was coming off a 10-6 season in which they managed not to make the playoffs.

And that’s the larger point. Beating the Steelers is great. It always will be. This victory in particular was a needed jolt for a fan base whose team had been delivering nothing but bad news week after week after week after week. Whatever else it might be worth in the collective psyche it’s still not worth getting carried away over. It’s not time to plan the parades or worship at the altar of Randy Lerner over his dumb as a fox insight in choosing Eric Mangini as his head coach.

Let’s talk perspective. In 2007, the Browns, as noted, were 10-6. Heading into 2008, they were viewed by everyone as a team on the come. Derek Anderson, Braylon Edwards and Kellen Winslow, Jr. had Pro Bowl seasons. Donte Stallworth was acquired in the off-season. The draft, or at least what there was of it, didn’t yield much but the team was pretty much in tact from the previous season. Thus, went the thought process of too many experts who should have known better, with another year of experience how could it not be even better?

Rather than get into the bloody detail of how that season all fell apart, let’s instead focus on the fundamentals. Going into 2007, the team had showed no real progress under former head coach Romeo Crennel, as decent of a guy as there ever has been in pro football. The problem with Crennel was that he was ill suited to be a head coach. He lacked the organizational skills and the attention to detail that’s critical to the role. As a long time former assistant coach himself, he was far too deferential to his assistants and couldn’t control their jockeying and the attendant internal politics.

But on the strength of an easy schedule and its own set of improbables, the Browns put together a season to celebrate and all of Crennel’s flaws, long on display, were suddenly forgotten by too many. Indeed both Crennel and Savage were given contract extensions because of their one good season. This was a time to celebrate indeed.

The story of the 2008 season, as much as anything else, was the story of Crennel’s failures as a head coach. There were outsized personalities on that team, just like any other team, but Crennel was never much interested in controlling the troops except in the way that a grandfather babysitting for the afternoon tries to control his daughter’s unruly brood. It didn’t go any better for the Browns, either.

When Crennel and general manager Phil Savage were fired at the end of last season, Lerner had to eat a lot of salary and a lot of crow. Caught up in the exuberance of one good season, he let it dictate his future actions without bothering to dig below the surface.

Call me once bitten, but when it comes to one victory, even against the Steelers, this franchise shouldcaution is the better approach. Remember, the 2008 season spiraled out of control, particularly late. Ensconced in controversy of its own making and being overseen by individuals incapable of dealing with it, it’s not a surprise that it ended up 4-12. But that doesn’t mean the Browns were a 4-12 team and more than the 2007 team was a 10-6 team. Both more closely resembled 8-8 teams.

Now the Browns are one more year removed and this team is every bit the 2-11 team it’s shown to be this season, despite the victory against Pittsburgh. Looking good in a handful of games (a very small handful at that) doesn’t make it a good team. It makes it a bad team that can occasionally play well, nothing more. It may be worthy of polite applause but it’s not worthy of a coronation. This team is still far beyond the outskirts of arriving.

Mangini has a number of characteristics that make him more suited as a head coach than Crennel, but that doesn’t make him suited for the job in any event. He’s more detail oriented, certainly, and far more highly organized. He’s also far more disciplined, personally and professionally. But he lacks any real semblance of a human touch to his approach. He confuses being feared with being respected. He picks petty fights with team leaders. He’s random in his decision making. He’s distrustful of nearly everyone as if he’s working on nuclear fission and not next week’s game plan.

These traits were his downfall in New York and represent his overriding approach still in Cleveland. Interestingly, there isn’t an uncorrectable trait among them but until he shows a capacity to want to make those corrections then that’s the book that must be analyzed when deciding the future of this franchise and whether or not he’s part of it.

The story of the 2009 season, as much as anything else, is the story of Mangini’s shortcomings as a head coach. He adopted an operating premise, blinding accepted by those drinking his Kool-Aid as if delivered on tablets from Mt. Sinai, that a radical housecleaning was the only path forward. It’s a ridiculous premise.

Upgrading talent and changing the culture is an iterative process and not the result of re-invention. All Mangini’s done this season is make the team even less competitive than a year ago. Instead of losing by an average of 7 points as it did last season, now it’s losing by an average of 12. How does that qualify as progress? This is the direct result of personnel decisions Mangini’s made, not just in terms of who he let go but who he brought in.

If Mangini is the right person for this franchise it won’t have anything to do with one victory over Pittsburgh. It will hinge on his ability to grow personally and professionally, which can only start with a candid admission of his failures and an earnest willingness to change something that’s been foreign to him thus far.

I understand the need to find something positive in a season full of negatives. But if this franchise is ever going to improve, it will be the result of the fans wanting more and not settling for small victories in lost season. This fan base has been forced to beat its head against a wall for years. Sure, it feels so good when it stops, even temporarily, but don’t lose sight of how much it hurt in the first place.

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Reprieve

Of all the good news that Thursday night’s victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers brought to the Cleveland Browns and their fans, perhaps the best of all was the realization that their most hated rival has turned soft.

And not just soft as in fat, happy and successful as it sits perched upon the NFL’s highest mountain but soft as in easily intimated and unable to cope.

The Steelers of earlier this season, when they beat the Browns 27-14 with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger throwing for more than 400 yards and receiver Hines Ward smirking his way to 159 receiving yards looked to the Browns like the Steelers of any other season, which is to say unbeatable. But somewhere between then and now, the Steelers have become not just beatable but beaten and not just by others but by the Browns. The Steelers, all primp and polish just a month ago have turned into a bunch of weak nancies that can’t even cope with a little cold weather.

Well, they can get their jammies ready now. The offseason starts for them, just like the Browns, in a mere three weeks.

The victory, in retrospect, was set up by a number of factors coalescing at once. Although the game against the Chargers wasn’t particularly competitive as the game’s outcome was never in doubt, the Browns did stage a mini-rally in the fourth quarter to give the offense some needed momentum. With a short week and no time to unlearn what they had just memorized, the game on Thursday came at the right moment.

On the Steelers’ side of the field, it was almost the exact opposite. Playing at home last Sunday against the woeful Oakland Raiders, the Steelers lost a late lead, were forced into overtime and then dropped the game. A short week, with no time to decompress over the magnitude of that failure, was the last thing that team needed.

Then there was the weather. In the storied history of a rivalry seemingly played in virtually every kind of weather, Thursday night’s game represented the coldest temperature ever in the series. For the Browns, it just became another element to rally around. This is a team, after all, that’s had far bigger obstacles thrown in its way this season, usually by its own coaching staff. For the Steelers, it was another reason to bitch. As the game started, it was the Steelers players, not the Browns, who were huddled together under parkas and cozied up to the heaters on the sidelines.

The Steelers weren’t just out of their game plan from that first series forward, they were out of the game. They couldn’t fight through their own demons, their own injuries, the weather and a small but vocal crowd long enough to prove that they are worthy defending Super Bowl champions. Instead they demonstrated themselves to be a shadow of their former selves, unable to handle the collective weight of the kinds of things that better and stronger teams typically fight through on their way to championships.

The Browns have an emotional leader in defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. It was his victory as much as anyone’s. He speaks his mind, plainly and doesn’t hesitate to call himself out as well as his players. He’s emerging as the glue that’s actually holding this team together. But emotion can only go so far when playing a team with far more talent as the Browns have seen over and over again this season.

For all the good Ryan can do with a defensive unit, he’s not a miracle worker. Brandon McDonald is still Brandon McDonald. Hank Poteat is still Hank Poteat. Yet Ryan could tell from that first sack of Roethlisberger that these Steelers were indeed soft and as a result kept the pressure on, challenging their offensive line to make a play. It never did. Instead it was Ryan’s usually overmatched unit that pushed the Steelers’ offensive line around like a blocking sled on the practice field.

When the Steelers are sitting at home this off-season they will look back at Thursday’s game and be left to ponder how they let it all slip away like this and whether they have what it takes to get it all back. It’s about time that someone else in the division enters an offseason with a head full of doubts.

Exactly when and where the Steelers turned soft, it’s hard to say. At one point in the season they were 6-2. Maybe it was the loss to Kansas City. Certainly last week’s lost to Oakland contributed to the skid. But somewhere between last Sunday and this past Thursday night, the Steelers turned into something they probably thought would never happen to them. They’ve become the bullied.

In actuality, the Steelers are just following suit with the rest of the AFC North. The Baltimore Ravens, entering the weekend at 6-6, are just a bunch of posers and loudmouths at this point without enough bite to scare anyone. The Bengals, despite the record, are going to need a few seasons of success before anyone takes them seriously. For now they are a run-first, plodding offense and a defense that is quietly effective but hardly brutish.

The Browns, of course, are still firmly entrenched at the bottom of what’s become a weak division pecking order but they are no longer singular in their despair. There’s plenty of company, meaning that even small improvements in the off season have a chance to be noticed more quickly in the coming year.

Though any Browns victory is big news in these parts, the only reason to get particularly excited about this one is the fact that it came against the Steelers. Had this victory come against a team with a record similar to that of the Steelers, the Miami Dolphins for example, it would be more quickly dismissed.

Having been pushed around for the better part of the last 10 years by the Steelers, it was a necessary mountain that this Browns team had to climb. Having scaled the mountain once, though, doesn’t signal the end of any sort of journey. This team won’t have arrived until it can prove it’s not soft by staying competitive with the Steelers year in and year out.

The Browns are still 2-11 and the problems brought on by Mangini don’t just get swept under the rug because of one victory, even if it’s a victory against the Steelers. In reality, that’s why this franchise has been such a mess. Under the Lerner ownership it has an amazing capacity for naïveté. It tends to operate in best-case scenario mode all the time, assuming that great things naturally flow from small victories such as these. It’s what’s led to all of the incredibly poor decision making over the years.

This is not the time to lose perspective. Indeed it’s when keeping perspective is most crucial. The Browns’ victory on Thursday was as complete a victory as this team has had in 10 years. All three phases were working. And though players like Josh Cribbs like to say that a victory against the Steelers erases the memory of everything else about the season, the truth is that in the light of the next day it doesn’t.

As this season has worn on and Mangini has become more embattled, he’s been increasingly vocal about pleading his case for more time. One victory against the Steelers doesn’t in and of itself, make that case. What does is the ability to channel that sense of accomplishment of Thursday into an on-going operational imperative.

To this point in his career, Mangini has demonstrated he’s not up to that task. Given a reprieve on Thursday night, in all likelihood he’s down to his last chance. If he wants to continue to be a head coach in the NFL, it’s a chance he can’t squander.

The Browns don’t need to win any of their remaining games for Mangini to save his job so long as he and his team can demonstrate that Thursday’s victory turned into something to build upon. But if the Browns lay the kinds of eggs they’ve laid for most of the season in the upcoming games against Kansas City, Oakland and Jacksonville, then the Steelers victory and Mangini’s subsequent firing will be seen as nothing more than a pleasant little memory in a season filled with despair.

A Night Worth Celebrating

Pittsburgh Steelers, welcome to the dark side.

The Cleveland Browns, their season long since over, brought a little company along for the rest of the ride into the offseason, simultaneously stunning and embarrassing the Steelers and the thousands watching all around the world Thursday night, 13-6. Making the victory even sweeter for the Browns was the fact that the loss all but ended any chance that the Steelers’, last year’s Super Bowl champs, have of making the playoffs.

For the Browns, a team of modest talent and more injuries and a team that doesn’t look to sniff the playoffs for years, it was a chance to experience what a meaningful victory tastes like as they sent the Steelers to their 5th straight loss and, more importantly, stopped both a 7-game losing streak of their own and a 12-game losing streak to the Steelers.

When the final words on this season are written, no matter what happens next this will serve as the high water mark, and well it should.

Though the Browns offense did enough to win the game, it was a game that most assuredly belonged to the Browns’ defense. Disguising coverages all night, the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger seemed confused and unable to ever fully get into a rhythm. He repeatedly had trouble finding open receivers, except underneath, and was sacked an astounding 7 times.

Really, there was no negative in the game. Brady Quinn showed good leadership and remained in charge, his relatively modest statistics notwithstanding. But Josh Cribbs, as he’s been most of the season, was the player the Steelers really couldn’t control. His 54-yard punt return set up the Browns’ first score and he was almost unstoppable for the Steelers’ defense out of the “wildcat” formation. Although Cribbs only had 8 carries, it seemed like far more since he covered 87 yards. Rookie Chris Jennings was effective in his own right, adding 73 yards on 20 carries.

This was the game that the dwindling supporters of head coach Eric Mangini had been waiting for all year. The win against the Buffalo Bills didn’t register because the Bills are like the Browns, just a little further east. But the Steelers, they have cache. And for this night Mangini can finally legitimately celebrate something. The complete game that his team played against a team that needed the win far more than them is probably going to give Mangini something more to celebrate than just the win. Owner Randy Lerner, who looks to take the easy way out of everything, can use this game as the reason to continue the Mangini experiment for another year. Maybe that was the Steelers’ game plan all along.

From the outset, the Steelers seemed far more bothered by the cold, windy weather than the Browns, repeatedly huddling under parkas and around heaters. Indeed it wasn’t until very late in the first half that the Steelers showed any signs of life.

With the elements almost guaranteeing that it would be a game of field position, the ability to control the ball and get first downs would be critical.

The Browns did just that when it mattered most. Their first score, a 30-yard field goal by Phil Dawson, was the culmination of a field position chess match, aided greatly by an inspired defense that sacked Roethlisberger on third down on consecutive series. The 54-yard punt return by Cribbs put the ball at the Steelers’ 8-yard line but a holding penalty pushed the ball back to the 17-yard line and Quinn and the offense couldn’t convert the red zone opportunity into a touchdown.

The Browns got to the red zone again after taking over at their own 49-yard line thanks to a Quinn to Mohammad Massaquoi pass that went for 37 yards. But the Browns again couldn’t convert the opportunity into a touchdown and again had to settle for another 30-yard Dawson field goal.

As much as they were dominating the game to this point, call it the long shadow of 12 consecutive losses to their most hated rival but there was a feeling that the Browns’ two red zone failures would come back to haunt them later.

But as the game wore on it became increasingly apparent that these aren’t the Steelers of old, or even the Steelers of earlier this season. Their next drive, as much as any, laid it out in stark terms.

After starting from his own 26-yard line, Roethlisberger mishandled a snap and lost two yards. He was then sacked on consecutive plays and the Steelers again forced to punt. For good measure, on the punt the Steelers were flagged for holding which negated a fumble recovery that would have given them the ball at the Browns’ 42-yard line and perhaps turned the tide. Daniel Sepulvada’s next punt was down at the Cleveland 40 but a personal foul pushed the ball back to the 26-yard line.

But that changed quickly as Cribbs, already having a big game, ran 37 yards on a direct snap that took the ball to the Pittsburgh 30-yard line. Quinn then connected with running back Chris Jennings for 8-yards and snuck it up the middle for another first down giving them the ball at the Steelers’ 19-yard line, their third trip in the red zone. It was a charm.

Jennings ran straight up the middle for 9 yards and then finished off the drive with a 10-yard touchdown run giving the Browns their first rushing touchdown by a running back this season. Dawson’s extra point gave the Browns a 13-0 lead with just 41 seconds in the half.

For the moment anyway, the Steelers looked cold, tentative and beaten.

But looks were deceiving as the Steelers didn’t just fold for the half. Taking over at their own 33-yard line, Roethlisberger quickly moved the Steelers down the field and had a chance for a touchdown but threw behind tight end Heath Miller at the goal line, forcing the Steelers to settle for a 27-yard field goal by Jeff Reed that closed the gap to 13-3 at the half.

That bit of success seemed to inspire the Steelers out of the gate in the second half. Moving with a crispness that was missing for most of the first 30 minutes of the game, the Steelers quickly went from their own 12-yard line to the 50. But Roethlisberger’s pass to Holmes on 3rd and 5 was low and a promising drive halted.

It’s at these points that games like these are often won or lost. With the ball sitting on their 13-yard line and plenty of game left to play, the Browns didn’t necessarily need to score but they did need to hold on to the ball long enough to let the Steelers’ defense know that they weren’t going to succumb to the pressure of holding a lead.

And that’s more or less what they did, mostly on the back of Jennings who was running often and hard. As a result the Browns were able to change field position, getting the ball to their 45-yard line before being forced to punt. Hodges punt, though, traveled only 27 yards against the wind and Pittsburgh started their next drive at their 28-yard line.

But the Steelers again went 3-and-out with Roethlisberger again being sacked, this time by linebacker David Bowens. It was the Browns’ 6th sack of Roethlisberger in the game and there was still over 5 minutes left in the third quarter. It also represented the first time this season that the Browns were ever in the heads of an opponent. The Steelers were effectively done.

Or so it would have seemed. The Steelers began to pressure the Browns on both sides of the ball, holding the offense to consecutive 3-and-outs while moving the ball down the field themselves. But when Roethlisberger missed badly on a pass to Hines Ward (and in fairness to Ward, he looked like he was held though there was no flag), the Steelers had to again settle for a field goal. They didn’t get any closer.

About the only questionable moment in the game occurred after the Steelers took over at their own 39 and appeared stalled at the Cleveland 34-yard line when Roethlisberger’s pass to Miller was short of the mark. The Steelers were flagged for holding on the play and were going to keep their offense on the field on 4th and 8. But instead of declining the penalty, which even the officials figured would occurred, Mangini oddly took the penalty pushing the Steelers back further but giving them two more chances to get the first down.

Like most everything else on this night, it worked. Rashard Mendenhall dropped Roethlisberger’s 3rd-down pass, forcing the Steelers to punt.

The Browns, using both Jennings and Cribbs effectively, were then able to take a little more than 5 more minutes off the clock before punting. With 6:24 to play and the Steelers starting at their own 21-yard line, there was the sense that this would be the Steelers’ last real chance.

And the Steelers looked for awhile like they were going to make it a classic late season drive by a playoff-caliber team. But after moving the ball into Cleveland territory with just over two minutes left in the game, Roethlisberger was sacked for the 7th time. With the Steelers facing 2nd and 19, Matt Roth nearly picked off Roethlisberger but the ball it the turf. After the two-minute warning, Miller picked up 13 of the 19 yards needed on 3rd down but on 4th down Roethlisberger missed badly and almost had it picked off by Bowens. With 1:43 left and the Steelers down to 1 time out, the celebration was on.

In a season in which so much has gone wrong, most of it self-inflicted, this was the night for a little redemption. It’s hard to figure, really, how that could happen. Statistically the game shaped up as an incredible mismatch. The Steelers were gaining an average of 130 yards more a game on offense and outscoring the Browns by an average of 10 points a game. On defense, the Browns were giving up a staggering 400 yards a game while the Steelers, sporting an unusually weak defense themselves, were still giving up 100 yards less a game. And as bad as the Steelers’ defense had been playing, they still were only giving up 78 yards a game on the ground while the Browns were giving up 155 yards a game.

But the actual game turned these statistics on their collective ears. It was the Browns dominating on the ground with 171 yards to the Steelers 75. It was the Browns that outgained the Steelers in total yards, 255-216. Finally, it was the Browns that beat the Steelers, a sentence I haven’t been able to write in 6 years.

For this game to be the actual start of the vaunted Mangini process and not a late season mirage, the Browns need to use it as a spring board, particularly since they play Kansas City and Oakland the next two weeks. If they’re able to start a modest win streak, then the off season won’t seem as dismal. If past be prologue, though, the one thing we know for sure is it won’t come easy.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Lingering Items--Annual Traditions Edition

Let’s see, it’s the second week of December and that can only mean one thing: the various BCS bowl matchups have been announced. Actually, it also means another thing: time for my yearly rant about the BCS.

To recap for those just joining our programming, everything that’s right about college football played at the highest level is undercut by the ridiculous thinking behind the Bowl Championship Series, from it’s completing misleading nameplate to it’s completing misleading mission. Ostensibly designed to yield an undisputed national champion, all it does is create more disputes than it resolves.

It may be that the BCS more or less got the match ups right this season, but that does nothing to justify its ill-conceived existence. The fact is that both TCU and Boise State, paired against each other coincidentally enough in the Fiesta Bowl, were essentially bought off with millions of dollars in order to keep their big mouths shut. It’s what the BCS does when it has a problem—papers over it with money. If that doesn’t work, it hires a consultant.

The BCS is on a slow but steady trip toward obsolescence. Congress is now involved and despite public perception that the only thing Congress ever does is spend your tax money unwisely, institutions tend to get their panties in a twist every time Congress sticks its nose in their business.

BCS defenders will do their best to fend off Congressional inquiries with the argument that Congress should have better things to worry about ignoring the fact that this little recreational diversion is a multi-multi million dollar business.

This is all well and good but what ultimately will do the BCS in is the convergence of greed and stupidity. I can’t wait.

The greed involved comes in many forms, nearly most of which do nothing for the actual players involved save for the little trinkets they get for participating. As you’d expect, there’s a NCAA rule on it which limits the value of those trinkets to $500. Of course, if you’re not in any sort of bowl game, like a Michigan player for example, getting those same sorts of trinkets from a booster will cause you to lose your eligibility.

The BCS is about the money, but not for the also-rans. The de facto Super Conference made up of the 15 or so programs (at most) that can actually compete for a championship get the spoils; the rest of Division I, not so much. This money helps fill the increasingly larger holes in the college budgets, holes that were there because of the cost of the programs in the first place but deepened because of the economic crisis.

In a perfect world the riches the BCS promises would incent more colleges to make themselves BCS-bowl worthy. And in some sense that’s worked. But the cost of fielding a program that can legitimately compete for a national championship in Division I football has grown, for most schools, far more quickly than the revenue side of their operations.

Indeed, the rising tide of BCS bowls has actually had the inverse affect on non-BCS participants. The “other” bowls became even more irrelevant, substantively and financially. There is less advertising dollars dedicated to those bowls, particularly now, and the crowds are dwindling. The BCS, designed supposedly to respect the integrity of the existing bowls, has basically protected the integrity of a handful of bowls and thrown the rest under the proverbial bus. Let me know how that Eaglebank Bowl works out.

Sooner or later an uprising of college presidents on the short end of the BCS stick will get wise to the suckers they’ve been played for by those dining on caviar. That tide will turn soon enough.

Also giving it a rather big push will be the incredibly flawed way that BCS participants are chosen. This may be the even bigger con. Each year the system gets tweaked but ultimately it’s weighted heavily toward human opinion in the form of various polls voted on either by coaches or the media. The underlying assumption in these polls is that the underlying task will be taken seriously by its participants. Says who?

How many media members or coaches have actually seen enough games played by either TCU or Boise State to have an informed opinion on their body of work or have an understanding of the relative weakness of their competition each week? Miami is in the top 20 but how many have really watched them play? Not to pick on the Cincinnati Bearcats, but they gave up 44 points to Pittsburgh and have given up an average of nearly 40 points in each of their last 4 games and they are in the top 5. Is it simply because they’ve won irrespective of the weakness of its conference or its defense this year? And that’s just four teams off the top of my head.

If you want an illustration of what really happens, consider the outcome of the final week of the USA Today’s coaches poll. On Steve Spurrier’s ballot this past week, he or the sports information director at South Carolina on his behalf, voted Penn State 9th, Iowa 10th and Ohio State 11th. That just proves they either aren’t paying attention or just aren’t taking it seriously. Other similar flaws can be found throughout.

While Spurrier’s vote was mostly irrelevant to the outcome it underscores an incredible problem. If one supposedly highly-respected coach or his sports information director can’t even be relied upon to get the big things right how can anyone have any trust that the little things are right? I put it to you, Dean Wormer, doesn’t that in turn undermine the integrity of the entire system?

If the goal in this country is to have an undisputed national champion then of course a playoff system is the only alternative. First things first, let’s reach consensus that establishing an undisputed champion is even a worthy goal. College presidents can’t claim that a playoff system isn’t in the academic best interests of the players but somehow justify the BCS as a worthy pursuit.

But if the BCS is to persist it ultimately can’t exist in its present form but must be the culmination of an actual, credible playoff system. And it’s not that hard to figure out despite what the BCS-hired twitter gurus will try to tell you. Put it this way, every college involve prides itself first on its research capabilities. Certainly an institution able to make headway in the field of molecular biology can find some frat kid with a little time on his hands to draw up a bracket using Google Docs.


What’s turning into another annual holiday tradition is the voting results of the Baseball Hall of Fame’s veteran’s committee. Revamped last year, the purpose is to honor veterans whom the media did not otherwise feel were Hall worthy during their initial period of eligibility.

This year the Veterans Committee elected former St. Louis Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog and former umpire Doug Harvey. That’s all well and good. Even better, though, is that once again Marvin Miller is on the outside looking in, though he’s inching closer.

Miller fell two short votes for election and if Hall voting has proven anything it’s that just having your name hang around for enough years eventually gets you in. It’s as if these borderline candidates are being rewarded for their persistence, even in retirement.

Let’s hope Miller proves to be the exception to the rule. The passage of time will never adequately erase the memory of how his strident views and Oz-like persona combined to nearly ruin the game. His is a legacy that continues today.

It’s because of Miller that baseball still doesn’t have a salary cap and is divided into haves and have nots. The economic problems facing baseball are so vast and the union’s contributions under Miller and his progeny to solving them so slim that baseball remains on the brink of killing its own golden goose.

I’ll give Miller credit for being a tough advocate on behalf of his clients but that singular skill doesn’t erase the fact that he never worked for the betterment of the game itself. He always saw baseball in relative terms and could have cared less about its long term health.

Miller certainly had a profound impact on the game, but then so too did the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and as far as I know the Veterans Committee hasn’t ever once considered enshrining former Japanese premier Hideki Tojo into the Hall of Fame. The same should go for Miller.


Speaking of baseball’s annual pre-holiday “winter” meetings, the news on Tuesday that the Indians are shopping closer Kerry Wood may have been expected but that has nothing to do with general manager Mark Shapiro’s talent judgments. The issues are larger and relate, as most things economic do, to the aforementioned Miller.

Ostensibly the Indians are shopping Wood because he doesn’t fit into their plans. It’s the same half-truth that accompanies the phrase “I’m not looking to get into a relationship right now.” Since when doesn’t a closer figure into any team’s plans?

Of course, what Shapiro really means is that this particular closer with his particular salary, like that particular girl with that particular mole on his nose, doesn’t fit into his plans. That’s a very loud and truthful statement on the state of baseball economics.

The Indians don’t have another established closer on their roster but are more than willing to go it without one because it’s far cheaper. They know there is no realistic chance for this team to be competitive so why not be uncompetitive at a cheaper price? If you or I were paying the bills you can be damn sure we’d think the same way.

There is always the potential that someone like Jensen Lewis, given the opportunity without having to worry about Wood sitting in the bullpen, can establish himself. That’s the pie-in-the-sky upside. But this move isn’t about Lewis, it’s about a payroll the Indians can no longer afford.

This illustrates precisely why baseball is such a mess. With no salary cap and no meaningful revenue sharing, teams like the Indians do not have any meaningful chance to compete with teams like New York and Boston on a yearly basis. They must rely solely on luck, as in most of their young roster getting good at around the same time and before they’re eligible for either arbitration or free agency. Once in awhile it works. But year in and year out it doesn’t.

Wood, like Victor Martinez, C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee before him, is a “luxury” that bottom feeder teams like Cleveland can’t afford. It’s fun to have champagne tastes but the Indians have a beer budget and with that even a slightly lesser label like Wood is out of their reach.

Nothing on the Cleveland Browns? Ha. This week’s question to ponder: Did the NFL purposely schedule this week’s game against Pittsburgh on Thursday knowing that the NFL Network is still unavailable to a large part of the country?