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.


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