Thursday, January 29, 2009

Lingering Items--Super Bowl Run-up Edition

For the near term, the Cleveland Browns’ next path forward is set. Arguing now about how owner Randy Lerner got there is as futile as trying to understand why Braylon Edwards is more concerned about the stadium’s jumbotron graphics than his pass catching technique. Yet, even with the path charted, it’s still difficult to shake the feeling that a little more deliberation on Lerner’s part may have paid greater dividends. It did for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Mike Tomlin, the head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is in his second year as the head coach. He inherited a good team from former coach Bill Cowher, but if anything that was a disadvantage. The last thing a veteran team that had just reached the pinnacle would seem to want is a wet behind the ears coach. It just reeks of starting over. Yet here the Steelers are, once again, in the Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, the Browns sit as far from the upper echelon of their league as ever. Four years burning down the road and about the only thing that’s changed is the stripe on the side of their game pants. They have a team that isn’t quite old and not quite young either. It is an odd mix of veterans and projects with the kind of unsettled issues that are typical of a 4-12 team. It just begs for starting over. Instead, Lerner decided now is the time for a veteran coach. The contrast couldn’t be more striking.

Lerner was determined from the outset that his next head coach would have NFL head coach experience. When Eric Mangini suddenly became available, he shot to the top of Lerner’s list. Short of throwing up on Lerner’s shoes during the interview, there was little else Mangini could have done to blow the chance to become re-employed quickly even if it was by a team with desperation written all over its face.

This is where it’s still worth while to step back and reconsider the what ifs. Recall that when Cowher retired, the Steelers already had two pretty good coaches-in-waiting within their ranks, Ken Whisenhut, the offensive coordinator, and Russ Grimm, the team’s assistant head coach. Either was the more logical choice. Both were already there, knew the players and had paid their dues. It’s difficult to plan that kind of continuity.

But something happened on the way to the quick coronation of one or the other—the Rooney Rule, so named for the Steelers’ owner, Dan Rooney. With the essentially self-imposed requirement to interview at least one minority, Rooney was forced to be more deliberate and Steelers’ history and reputation will be forever thankful for it.

As even Rooney has acknowledged, Tomlin was a long shot when the hiring process started. Even though Rooney’s interviewing of Ron Rivera, who was the Chicago Bears’ defensive coordinator, satisfied league requirements, Tomlin probably doesn’t get that interview by any team other than Pittsburgh. Rooney wasn’t just satisfying his own sense of fairness, he was doing what an owner with real vision does, measure twice and cut once.

As a result, Rooney discovered in Tomlin, a young coach with a pretty thin resume at the time, someone with that “it” factor. Given a chance to interview in a non-perfunctory setting, Tomlin took the opportunity to wow Rooney and ended up with the job he never thought possible. In the time it’s taken for the Browns to redesign their org chart again, the Steelers are back in the Super Bowl as favorites, again.

**

While we’re taking a measure of what ifs, let’s revisit Mel Tucker, the recently deposed defensive coordinator of the Browns. Sure, Lerner interviewed Tucker for the Browns’ top job, but only because he had to satisfy the Rooney Rule, but it hardly served as a speed bump to slow down the momentum Lerner had created for himself. Having already made up his mind, there was nothing Tucker could have done, , to change Lerner’s mind. Small wonder that Tucker’s interview lasted only about an hour, according to several reports. Contrast that with the all-day interview Lerner supposedly had with Mangini.

This isn’t to suggest that Tucker should have been hired, but rather to underscore how Browns’ fans were again short-changed by a near-sighted owner while that team to the east enjoys the spoils that come from having an owner with his eyes firmly fixed on the bigger picture. Lerner talks about wanting to emulate the great franchises of the league, like the Steelers, and then goes about doing so by violating nearly everything they are about.

Maybe Lerner figured he couldn’t take a risk in really considering someone like Tucker given the state of the franchise. But some would argue, like me for instance, that this was exactly the time he needed to be bold. By being dismissive of Tucker and perfunctory Lerner placed a much higher premium on being quick than on being right and in doing so made a mockery of the Rooney Rule for good measure.

What’s even more instructive about the Tomlin story is that once hired all he did was go about ensuring some level of continuity by making sure defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau stayed put. If nothing else that was Tomlin recognizing the limits of his own experience. All Mangni has done since he’s been hired is push a promising coordinator like Tucker aside and paint over the legends mural in the team’s headquarters. The contrast couldn’t be more striking.

Rooney certainly could have gone with a safe choice in Whisenhut, the coach his team will be facing on Sunday. By all accounts that would have worked out just fine. But what separates a franchise that’s going for its 6th Super Bowl ring from one that hasn’t even been to that dance is an owner that can read the room and one who can’t. When safety was called for, Rooney went bold. When boldness was called for, Lerner went safe.

The popular thought is that none of this will much matter if Mangini ends up being successful. That’s probably right. There isn’t a Browns’ fan around that isn’t already sick of the plethora of false promises and false starts. There isn’t a Browns’ fan around that isn’t aching, just aching, to be proud once again to wear his or her brown and orange jersey in public again. In fact, there isn’t a Browns’ fan around that doesn’t want to see Eric Mangini transform from The Ball Boy to the Mangenius and lift a Super Bowl trophy in the middle of Public Square. And while it’s easy to by cynical about virtually everything Browns’ related these days, somehow it doesn’t feel cynical anymore to think that long before Mangini lifts a Super Bowl trophy to an adoring crowd in Cleveland, Tucker will be doing so on behalf of some other franchise.

**

It’s early but there’s already a candidate for my favorite quote of the year and it comes from the imaginative lips of former general manager Phil Savage.

According to a report by Tony Grossi in Thursday’s Plain Dealer, Savage was doing his usual milling about at the Super Bowl saying little and confirming nothing. But what little he did say was exquisite. Without discussing the circumstances of his firing, Savage said: “Nothing surprises anybody in this league. I think I was more surprised that we trade for Shaun Rogers, he has the year that he had and we go 4-12. That’s more surprising to me.”

Talk about Phil being Phil. In just two short sentences he pats himself on the back and again throws his handpicked former head coach under the bus. The other thing it tells me is that Savage never did understand the fan base of the team he oversaw. I feel relatively confident in saying that the fans’ reaction to the 4-12 season was well beyond mere surprise. But then again, neither empathy nor insight were ever traits that Savage much demonstrated anyway.

For those teams out there looking to hire Savage, watch out. Under that “aw shucks” persona resides a closet narcissist with an outsized ego and a strong self-preservation instinct. If anyone could gain perspective from sitting out a year or two, it would be Savage. Fortunately for him he’s in a position to do just that given how much of Lerner’s money that now resides in his bank account.

**

With Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band scheduled to appear at halftime of Sunday’s Super Bowl, this week’s question to ponder: “Why isn’t a Cleveland date on Springsteen’s newly announced tour?”

Monday, January 26, 2009

Core Beliefs

If there was anyone other than George Kokinis that was as relieved in his finally being named general manager of the Cleveland Browns, it would have to be owner Randy Lerner, but not for the reasons you might think.

Sure, having bodies to fill slots on the org chart are important, but beyond all that is the simple fact that Lerner can avoid any more questions about why he won’t put himself in front of the camera to explain this organization, at least for another three or so years anyway.

It wasn’t a surprise to anyone that Lerner had club president Mike Kennan introduce Kokinis while Lerner remained safely ensconced behind the cameras. Lerner has been reluctant, to be charitable, to explain a process for finding a new coach and a general manager that alternated between deliberate and haphazard. Now Lerner can safely retreat back behind the scenes while the new kids in the hall go about establishing whether or not they were worthy of the faith, not to mention the millions, Lerner’s placed in them in the first place.

What we know about Kokinis is what we’ve known for several weeks now. He got his start in Cleveland and cut his teeth in Baltimore. In his press conference today Kokinis said that he brings the same overall approach to the college draft that is utilized in Baltimore and was utilized in Cleveland under former general manager Phil Savage. Let’s just hope that Kokinis leans more toward the Baltimore experience than the chaos Savage created.

Fans who want to find flaws in the Kokinis hiring are as well served as those who want to find merit. There is more than a little danger, for example, in having the head coach essentially hand pick his own boss. There’s also the not so little matter that Kokinis brings precious little experience when it comes to the college draft. As the Baltimore Ravens’ director of pro personnel, his job was to focus on players already in the league, not the hundreds of wannabes that teams must evaluate each season.

But Kokinis does come recommended. Ernie Accorsi, the former Browns and New York Giants general manager, apparently served as an informal consultant to Lerner during the general manager search and strongly supported this move. Accorsi is exactly the kind of person Lerner should have been consulting. His recommendation carries enough weight to buy Kokinis an extended honeymoon should, or more likely, when things get rough early on.

It’s also at least as much of an advantage as a disadvantage that Kokinis was a director or pro personnel for a team in the Browns’ division. If there is one thing that was very clear under the prior regime, they proved particularly inept at fielding a team that could be competitive within its own division. The more help the Browns can get in that regard, the better.

Fans who were looking for instant gratification from the hiring of Kokinis and even Mangini can’t say they weren’t warned. Though on a far less dramatic and consequential scale, Kokinis basically gave his Browns’ version of President Obama’s warning on the lack of quick fixes for the problems of the day. Kokinis, perhaps deliberately, perhaps not, essentially lowered fans’ expectations for a quick turnaround by not coming out, guns blazing, and telling the fans that come next season he and the franchise will make its fans proud.

What he did say, instead, was that both he and the new coaching staff have much work to do in first evaluating the team, player by player, before drawing any conclusions, offering only that there were some talented and capable players on the roster. They know the kinds of players they like—“smart, tough, disciplined, selfless, passionate”—and want to build from there. Kokinis called them the core beliefs he and Mangini share.

That’s as good a start as any. And as much as anything it’s the most encouraging thing to come out of Berea in a long while—the heads of the organization talking about core beliefs. It’s the most obvious element that’s been missing from this team for years. Because the Browns have basically stood for nothing they’ve fallen for everything. The record more than bears that out.

The devil, as they say, is in the details. It’s one thing to lay a foundation and erect five pillars upon which the rest of the organization will sit. It’s another to bring it to fruition. It would be fascinating, actually, to sit in on some of those first meetings, some of which might already have occurred, where Mangini and Kokinis really get to survey the wreckage of the last regime. While they may find a few more capable players than Savage did when he came aboard, it won’t be significantly more. But to their point how many, really, meet three of those five criteria, let alone all five?

Instead, they will find fairly substantial holes in fairly substantial places, like linebacker, the secondary, receiver and running back. They will find an offensive line that is also depleted and too dependent on the return of Ryan Tucker. They’ll find one quarterback who can throw but can’t pass and another quarterback whose development was babied while younger quarterbacks with similar skills thrived elsewhere, including with Kokinis’ former team.

They’ll find that some of the more passionate players on this team are also some of the most selfish. They’ll find that some of the more talented are also some of the least focused and disciplined. In other words, while this team may not be the island of misfit toys, it’s a far cry from the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers, the two teams that have to be first in their sights.

When Mangini and Kokinis go about trying to figure out how to credibly fill all those holes, they’ll also be faced with the grim reality of having only four draft picks in 2009 to do it. The Browns are well under a salary cap that may be in existence for only one more season anyway, but they’ll also know that teams that devote too much cap space trying to fill fundamental holes with pricey free agents get caught in a vicious circle from which the only escape is a radical roster purge.

What has made all the top teams in the league successful is a similar formula: develop your own players, through the draft and undrafted free agents, and fill in the few remaining spots that can push you to the next level with established talent. Outside of the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, it’s basically the formula for major league baseball as well. Teams in either league that try instead to fill too many holes via free agency find themselves almost unable to develop their own talent. There are only so many spots on a roster.

Assuming that Kokinis and Mangini understand this point, and all indications are that they do, then they truly are in it for the long haul and are going to have to continue to find a way to manage the expectations of the fans who have been doing nothing but waiting for a generation. That won’t be an insubstantial task.

But on first impressions, Kokinis didn’t necessarily excite. That wasn’t the point anyway. Far more important was the simple fact that he at least didn’t disappoint. By all accounts eyes are wide open. If so, then he’ll quickly realize that, yes, the light at the end of the tunnel he’s looking down really is an on-coming train.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Lingering Items--Business Edition

Times are tough everywhere. It seems like twice a day there is a story about one employer or another laying off workers by the hundreds, sometimes by the thousands. But if you’re former Cleveland Browns’ president Carmen Policy, it means waiting out a soft economy in a $15 million estate in the heart of Napa Valley.

According to a story in Friday’s Wall Street Journal, the estate is surrounding by grape vines for Policy’s winery which is housed at another location. This luxury comes, if not directly, then as near as a straight line as is possible, from the generosity of the Lerner family. Policy was a minority owner and club president for Al Lerner when he bought the Cleveland franchise back to life. When Policy ultimately was too distracted to really do the team much good, he was bought out at a handsome premium, especially given the fact that he essentially had no money of his own in the team in the first place, and given a first class ticket to Napa. All in all, a nice and expensive consolation prize for doing more harm than good.

I thought about the contrast between Policy and the 12 or so workers that got laid off this week from the Browns. While they may have been given some severance pay, the likelihood that they were treated like Policy, or Butch Davis, or Phil Savage, or Romeo Crennel, is pretty remote. Indeed, for a fraction of the price that any of the foregoing received for their spectacular failures, all the laid off could still be employed today.

But when it comes to this franchise at this point in its existence, connecting dots isn’t a core competency.

When the layoffs occurred, the Browns, in almost knee-jerk fashion, blamed the economy. Worth asking, though, is exactly which part of the economy is to blame?

This past season, every Browns’ game was a sell out. For reasons that apparently have nothing to do with performance, the season ticket base remains relatively high. They still sell their share of swag and $4 hot dogs and $8 beers. The riches continue to flow to them like they do to every other team from the league’s lucrative media contracts signed before this economic downturn. In other words, to the extent that any industry can be immune from the problems plaguing its customers, it’s the NFL.

But the other part of the story, the one not readily discussed by the team, is the significant hit they’ve taken in so-called luxury revenue for the last several seasons. While they won’t admit it publicly, the Browns are having trouble renting out their loges. Corporate Cleveland, which is counted on heavily for support, isn’t responding to this team in nearly the same numbers as it did when the Browns first returned. Some of that is the economy certainly. Some of it is also the simple fact that when client entertainment dollars are limited there better entertainment values in the city at the moment. Choices are getting made and increasingly it’s at the expense of the Browns. This hit to the Browns’ bottom line is real.

While Cleveland’s economy can be blamed—you don’t have to have an M.B.A. to know, for example, that when a Pittsburgh bank takes over your city’s biggest bank there will be repercussions locally—the suggestion from Browns’ camp that this is what led directly to the layoffs is pure spin worthy of Policy. The Browns have literally burned through so many millions over the last several years papering over their failures that they no longer have as big a cushion to weather a sinking economy.

In truth, the downturn in luxury revenue has been years in the making, even when the economy was better. It’s stems from one indisputable fact—the Browns have been a lousy team. When they returned, everyone wanted a piece, irrespective of the results. But as the losses and the years have piled up and the mismanagement has become the dominant story line, there is no longer much cachet to owning a loge at Cleveland Browns Stadium. Clients are far more likely to want to see LeBron at the Q than Brady on the lakefront. When the Browns are out of contention by their third home game, companies have trouble giving the tickets away. The value in owning a loge is tough to measure anyway, but when you literally have to beg people to use it, it’s pretty clear that it has about as much value as a Lou Camille rookie card.

Welcome to the actual business of running a professional franchise. Wins do matter. Having an excited and energized base does matter. Having a product that people want to spend money on does matter.

If I had a nickel for every time I heard someone say that Browns’ owner Randy Lerner is “a good businessman” I could buy a team in the English Premier League. But the assumption that Lerner is some kind of master businessman is based solely on the fact that he happens to be rich, which is based solely on the fact that he had the good luck to be Al Lerner’s son.

Randy Lerner is a gentleman. He’s earnest almost to a fault in his quest to improve this franchise’s lot. He means well. But none of that has made him much of a business man. Indeed, all Randy has done since inheriting the business empire that his father built was to sell it. He then turned around and bought a soccer team. Ok, he likes his toys and maybe, just maybe, that toy will make him some money. But focusing just on his business acumen when it comes to the Browns, the evidence is mounting that he needs help, significant help.

The Policy debacle and buyout cost this franchise millions but it can’t be laid at Randy’s feet. Pretty much everything else can. When Butch Davis quit on this team, it was just months after Lerner had given him a two-year contract extension that he hadn’t earned. Lerner also had elevated him even further in the organization’s hierarchy, all on the strength of a 5-11 season. In total, Davis voluntarily left a positon he was unqualified to hold with three years and some $12 million left to be earned. For reasons that were never explained, Lerner nevertheless paid off Davis as if he had been fired. It was a nice gesture and completely unnecessary. But if that’s how Lerner wants to spend his money, so be it, unless you’re one of the recently laid off I guess.

Fast forward to last spring when Lerner gave lengthy, multi-million dollar extensions to both Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel that neither had likewise earned. Both still had two seasons remaining on their contracts. A good businessman may have given both a pat on the back and said “good job” and let’s talk about what we can accomplish next season. Not Lerner.

In the case of Savage, at the time he was fired he had four years remaining on a contract that paid him approximately $2.7 million a year. Crennel had three years remaining on a contract that was paying him about $ 4 million a season. And let’s not forget that at the time Crennel got his extension, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski received an extension through 2011 as did Mel Tucker, who had been promoted to defensive coordinator. The figures on those contracts weren’t reported, but most coordinators make at least $1 million a year, some double that. Thus assume that combined the two had $6 million left on their contracts when they were fired.

If you’re doing the math at home, that means that when Lerner cleaned house recently, he was still on the hook for around $25-30 million. But it’s also safe to assume that it won’t cost Lerner quite that much. in each case a financial settlement was or will be worked out in recognition that each is likely to find another job. Still, by even the most conservative estimates, the purge cost Lerner $15 million, minimum, and likely far more. Throw in the $12 million he paid Davis and in just the last few years Lerner has essentially given away upwards of $30 million of his money to former employees that have failed him.

Layered on all of this, of course, is the hit to the luxury revenue that the team has taken because of all of its on-field failures, pretty much all of which can be traced from Policy straight through to Crennel. If all this makes Lerner a good businessman, it’s chilling to think what would constitute his being a bad businessman.

Meanwhile, a variety of low-paid front office types hit the streets in response. Maybe it was the economy that’s to blame, but not the economy you and I are experiencing but the one the Lerners heaped on themselves.

**

Speaking of Policy, the story about his life in Napa is fascinating. But of all the revelations, this one stood out:

“Upstairs is the Policy’s private domain, where a small guest room houses a crib for their grandchildren. On another patio, the outdoor shower (which former 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark calls ‘sexy’) has windows that can be shuttered for privacy or opened to the expansive views.”

What strikes you as more unusual; the fact that Policy and Clark are still so close that Clark showers at Policy’s house or the fact that Clark is taking showers on an outdoor patio and in the vicinity of where where Policy’s grandchildren are napping? To me, the whole thing seems, what’s the word I’m looking for here, oh yea, “creepy.”

**

A few words about Dante Lavelli.

His loss will certainly be a public relations lost for the Browns. Lavelli had been one of the most visible and best representatives of the Browns in the community and embodied everything that’s ever been right with this franchise.

Lavelli, almost more than any other Browns’ alum, had the perfect pedigree. He grew up locally (Hudson), played his college ball in Columbus for the Buckeyes and played his entire pro career in Cleveland. His first four seasons were played in the All American Football Conference and his last seven in the NFL. He was inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1975.

Lavelli was a constant presence in the community on behalf of the Browns. He was never anything less than gracious and accommodating. He loved to sign autographs and even as his health was failing in recent years, he always took the time to write neatly on whatever article was given to him to sign “Dante ‘Gluefingers’ Lavelli, HOF ’75.” He also liked to remind people that the NFL should have counted his accomplishments in the AAFC as part of his NFL career. He wasn’t bitter about it, just correct.

One of Lavelli’s favorite hobbies was golf. He played in nearly every golf outing sponsored by the Browns or the Hall of Fame, year after year. I had the privilege of playing golf with Gluefingers on a few occasions in some of those outings and ran into him at least twice a year over the last 10 years or so. Because he met so many people, he usually just gave them nicknames. To him I was “Lefty” because I play golf left-handed. You couldn’t find a more pleasant playing partner or a more competitive one. Gluefingers wanted to win. The last time I saw him was in the fall at a golf outing fundraiser for the Hall of Fame Foundation. Looking more frail than he ever had, he still played as much as he could, which meant he’d contribute as best as he could to the scramble with some chipping and putting. To the surprise of no one, Gluefingers’ group won, naturally.

I think about Lavelli often in the context of wondering why a player like Braylon Edwards isn’t better. I suspect Lavelli often wondered the same thing.

**
As new Browns’ headquarters starts looking more and more like that of the New York Jets, this week’s question to ponder: “If Eric Mangini hires another assistant and nobody cares did the hiring ever really happen?”

Monday, January 19, 2009

Evil Rewarded

The biggest kick in the teeth that Cleveland Browns’ fans took this weekend didn’t come from the Pittsburgh Steelers or even the Baltimore Ravens. It came directly from the feet of the Arizona Cardinals.

That the Steelers are in their 7th Super Bowl doesn’t come as much of a surprise. They are a very good team. Besides, at this point, the hatred Browns’ fans have for the Steelers is mostly historical. With each beating suffered at the hands of the Steelers, a once great rivalry becomes just a distant memory to Browns fans. What is a surprise is that the Cardinals, long the benchmark for woefulness in the NFL, somehow managed to turn one mildly successful season into a Super Bowl run.

If you’re a glass half full kind of person, you may take some comfort in the “every dog has its day” story of the Cardinals. If you’re glass half full person, which is to say a Browns fan, then you see it for what it is, confirmation that the local franchise is cursed.

If there is any franchise in any sport less deserving of success than the Cardinals, feel free to drop me an email. Right now I can’t think of one and I’m likely to disagree with any one you might come up with anyway.. And let’s not misconstrue this as a knock on the Phoenix/Scottsdale area. I happen to be very fond of the place and their people. This is solely about the evil and incompetent Bidwell family which has owned the Cardinals since 1932.

As much as the local fans like to complain about the Browns and as easy as that has become in recent years, there is one thing that the Browns have never been and that’s the Cardinals. In nearly 8 decades of ownership, the Bidwells have guided the franchise to exactly 21 winning season. By comparison, the Browns are relative newbies, having entered the league in 1950. But in those 54 years (excluding the 4 years when the franchise was dormant, although arguably that’s been its state for the better part of 20 years, but I digress), the Browns have had 34 winning seasons.

On just that basis, it’s hard to call Browns fans long-suffering when compared to the pathetic wretches that actually invest their energy in following the Cardinals. The reason Browns’ fans feel so put out has something to do with the fact that 13 of those losing seasons have come just since 1990. But in roughly that same time period, the Cardinals have had 15 losing seasons. In other words, as the kids might say “get over yourselves, Browns fans.”

As much as I like to complain about Randy Lerner and his erratic ownership of the Browns, he’s Bill Gates when compared to the Bidwell family. For that matter, so was Ted Stepien. (Ok, maybe not Ted Stepien) In the first place, Lerner and his father never moved the franchise, although if you’re into conspiracy theories then you’re still harboring closeted beliefs that Al Lerner helped orchestrate the Browns’ move to Baltimore just to get ownership of the team here. The Bidwells have moved the Cardinals twice, 1959 and 1987. Even Art Modell wasn’t that evil. If you’re into patterns, the next scheduled move for the Cardinals should be sometime around 2024, which will be about the time that current owner, Bill, will start complaining about the creaky fixture of a facility that the University of Phoenix Stadium will eventually become.

Perhaps one might give a pass to the Bidwells for the first move out of Chicago in 1959, but I won’t. At the time, Chicago had two franchises, the Bears and the Cardinals. One was a model of professionalism and success, the other was the Cardinals. In 27 seasons in Chicago under the Bidwells, the Cardinals had 21 losing seasons. They did have one highlight, 1947. That year the Cardinals actually were NFL champs with the help of running back Charley Trippi. (Interesting side note: I’ve met Trippi on a number of occasions. Still active and as vibrant as ever, Trippi is a class act. If you get a chance to get to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, make sure to see some of the highlights featuring Trippi. Thus, while the Cardinals are the epitome of ineptitude, mismanagement, avarice and greed, Trippi gets a pass. Fate and a then unheard of $100,000 over 4 years is the reason he was with the Cardinals, nothing more.) It was also the year that Violet Bidwell, the wife of the William Bidwell, Sr., took over the team after her husband died.

As an owner, Violet treated the franchise like she was a Bidwell from birth. Except for 1947, the Cardinals remained generally inept and mostly broke for the remainder of their tenure in Chicago and eventually they had to move, out of fan indifference if nothing else. But being the NFL, where just about everything is back to the future, the city of St. Louis beckoned to bail out the Bidwells. The story is that the NFL voted to relocate the Cardinals to St. Louis to take advantage of an emerging market that was also being courted by the rival AFL. It also helped that the St. Louis community guaranteed the Bidwells a certain level of ticket revenue. See, nothing changes.

And nothing changed for the Bidwells, either. All they did for the next 28 years in St. Louis was bleed the franchise and the rest of the league dry until the city finally had had enough. It may have taken 28 years, but the city of St. Louis eventually got wise to the false promises if not outright lies of the Bidwells. While fielding a team with a losing record in 14 of their 28 seasons, and that’s not counting two years in which they went .500 but giving them credit for a 5-4 record in a strike-shortened year, the Bidwells never personally suffered. A lucrative revenue sharing arrangement in a league that saw nothing but increases in revenues all but assured that would be the case. Indeed, the Bidwells became what many fans and players alike feared—owners in a sport with no incentive to win because financial rewards was no longer tied to on-the-field success.

Having then had his fill of St. Louis, Bill, Jr. followed in the footsteps of his mother and moved the franchise again, this time to Phoenix. While this may not seem like much to Cleveland fans who saw Modell uproot their team, be well assured that it was Bidwell who played a key role in the Browns’ move to Baltimore.

To understand the context, you first have to remember how the Irsay family uprooted the beloved Colts from Baltimore and moved them to Indianapolis in December, 1983. Robert Irsay played the city of Phoenix off of Indianapolis. Eventually Phoenix dropped out of the bidding leaving Indianapolis to Irsay, who snuck out of Baltimore in the middle of the night.

Where most fans saw a traitor, Bidwell saw an opportunity. Thus empowered, Bidwell started pushing around the St. Louis populace, complaining about an outdated stadium while ignoring the managerial bungling of his family. Phoenix and Jacksonville, two cities desperate for a NFL team were in the mix, but Bidwell also played on the emotions of the Baltimore fans, dangling the Cardinals as a potential prize for a city desperate for football.

Phoenix eventually won what amounted to a bidding war, under the theory, apparently, that any NFL team is better than no NFL team. But Baltimore took copious notes. Eventually that led them to basically mortgage the city’s future in order to bail out another incompetent owner, Art Modell. Sure, the Browns don’t move if the Irsays never move from Baltimore. But the Browns don’t move without Bidwell basically schooling Baltimore in how to steal a franchise.

If you happened to watch the end of the Cardinals/Philadelphia Eagles game on Sunday, you saw the doddering old fool Bill Bidwell, son of William and Violet, shuffle on to the field to enjoy a moment some 61 years in the making. It would be easy to view Bill as the sort of endearing older gentleman finally seeing his life’s work come to fruition. The truth is that Bill, more than most, got to see his life’s work come to fruition years ago with each and every loss suffered by the franchise that he and his family have owned for nearly 80 years. Winning the NFC championship this season was an aberration on the level of Romeo Crennel going 10-6 with the Browns. Sooner rather than later, the Cardinals will return to their norm.

For the cities of Phoenix and Scottsdale and all of the suburbs surrounding them, getting to the Super Bowl must feel a little like winning a raffle you forgot you entered. They have about as much emotional investment in the Cardinals and the Bidwells as Paris Hilton will have in her next boyfriend. But they’ll celebrate anyway because, hey, it’s a party.

The problem, though, is that for the Cardinals (and not the Phoenix area) to get what they really deserve, which is a humiliating loss on the biggest stage possible, it must come at the hands of the Steelers. It’s a bit of a Hobson’s choice for Cleveland fans but at least the Rooneys have never moved their franchise. Besides, they know to treat their fans.

You’ll never catch me actually rooting for the Steelers under any circumstances. But if the Cardinals should end up on the wrong end of a 28-0 score in a few weeks, you won’t see me shed any tears either. Besides, if there’s any sight worse than seeing Hine Wards’ smug grins it is that of Bill Bidwell dancing a celebratory jig.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Lingering Items-- -9 Degrees Edition

The Only Thing Missing is Ryan Seacrest: It wasn’t the record breaking cold snap this morning that sent the shivers down my spine. It was the news that Cleveland Browns’ owner Randy Lerner seems to be going about his search for a new general manager the way “American Idol” goes about finding the next Carrie Underwood: fly around the country auditioning a bunch of wannabes and give them a yellow ticket back to Cleveland for a closer look.

I have nothing against any of the candidates Lerner has interviewed thus far. Indeed, I am four-square with Mike Sundquist, recently fired as the general manager of the Denver Broncos, that the Browns present an intriguing opportunity. By the way, Sundquist isn’t an actual candidate yet. He’s sitting by his phone somewhere in a Denver suburb waiting for it to ring. So is William Hung.

The real intrigue in the Browns’ opportunity is its unique mix or professional challenges and outright insanity. Not only is there much actual work to do, but the real perk is that if you show any modicum of competence, you’ll be immediately rewarded with a reworked and extended contract for millions more and then be paid off on its full value when it turns out a season later that the modicum of competence was just an illusion. Lerner does have a pattern.

But most intriguing of all, perhaps, is the emergence of Lerner as something more than the mostly absentee owner he’s been to date. To those who question the wisdom of his bass-ackwards search of a general manager, Lerner said that it didn’t much matter because both the general manager and the coach would be reporting to him anyway.

That’s a significantly different reporting structure for Lerner and signals that, if nothing else, he’s ready to put himself in a much more active role with the day-to-day operations of the team he claims to cherish so much.

The fact that Lerner let Scott Pioli, who, on paper, looks to be the most qualified to take over the Browns’ football operations, get away also confirms the point. There were early indications that Lerner was turned off by Pioli’s supposed outrageous demands and that’s why an agreement never came to pass. Lerner dispelled that notion. But this is simply a matter of degree. Given the deal Pioli struck with Kansas City, it’s obvious that Pioli wanted not only a say in hiring the new head coach, but also have that head coach report to him.

View these “demands” as outrageous if you will, but the fact that Lerner was not willing to make the same commitments to Pioli that Kansas City was tells me that Lerner may actually have realized that his hands-off approach, while welcomed by megalomaniacs like Phil Savage, was actually counterproductive to the franchise. That’s not a suggestion that he meddle a la Art Modell. The last thing the Browns need is another high dollar, low value wide receiver to bust the cap.

Maybe They’ll Ask for Bailout Funds, Too: The early word is that the Cleveland Indians will have a payroll in the $83 million range for the 2009 season. If that holds, then the Indians will actually have increased their payroll by around $5 million from 2008 and given the general economic malaise that has impacted every other team not located in New York that’s not to be taken lightly.

The $5 million question is whether it was money well spent. There’s a lot of excitement over Kerry Wood, for example, but he’s still a pitcher with a history of arm troubles and a slim resume when it comes to closing. Wherever else you might come out on this issue, just know that if he fails it is going to create a huge hole that is going to be difficult to fill, Jensen Lewis notwithstanding. It also could end up being the catalyst to the Indians engaging in another midseason salary dump as well. A team like Cleveland living on the economic fault line needs attendance to make its financial structure work. A slow start exacerbated by injuries to or ineffectiveness by key players with big salaries (see, Hafner, Travis) will be met with far less tolerance in the Indians’ front office this season then it would otherwise have in better economic times.

Fishing for Diamonds: Much of the e-mail I get about the Indians falls into the category of complaining about the fact that the team spends most of the off-season bottom feeding. I understand the angst and share it as well. But in truth unless the Dolans are willing to deficit spend out of their own pocket, that’s all this team is ever going to do. In baseball terms, Cleveland is a small market with small market economics. Blame it on the spineless owners who kowtow to the union every time there is a mention of a salary cap.

Shopping on the Island of Misfit Toys is never going to be satisfying for any fan. But that’s what the Indians and a whole bunch of other teams have been reduced to in order to field a team each season that has even a fleeting chance of competing. While it can make for interesting baseball at times, mostly it’s just frustrating.

Major league baseball is a league of haves vs. have nots. The haves, like the Yankees and the Red Sox, mostly try to outspend each other in an insane arms race of sorts with the same goal of mutual destruction. The have nots keep trying to find diamonds in the dust the haves leave behind. Every once in awhile, one of the little engines that could, like last year’s Tampa Bay Rays, is able to achieve a sense of harmonic convergence. It rarely lasts.

The lack of complete revenue sharing is at the root of the problem and as a result teams like the Yankees simply have access to more local money than teams like the Indians. They have a bigger media market and a larger base from which to draw fans.

The Indians are hardly alone in trying to find treasure out of someone else’s trash. The impacts of a struggling economy are always uneven and while no team is immune some are better positioned than others to survive it. But in major league baseball, the problems this creates are far more pronounced than in any other sport because of the lack of revenue sharing. Where the pain is shared more evenly in the NFL and the NBA, the gulf between the haves and have nots just gets more pronounced in major league baseball. Look at it this way, when was the last time any team in the NBA or NFL complained of being located in a small market?

Milwaukee Brewers’ owner Mark Attanasio said recently that it may be time for baseball to revisit the idea of a salary cap. But if there’s anything that is clear about the owners in baseball is that they take positions reluctantly and move on them slowly. The odds that there will be a salary cap within the next 10 years are roughly the same as their being a legitimate playoff in major college football.

Just Think If He Could Really Shoot: Having hit on the Browns and the Indians, I’d be remiss if I didn’t give at least some acknowledgement to Cleveland’s best professional sports team, the Cavaliers. Some have labeled this season as “charmed.” The reality is that this is simply a talented team with depth.

While LeBron James’ leadership and defensive play have rightly gotten most of the attention thus far, it would be difficult to overstate the impact Anderson Varejao has made this season. Last season, Varejao got a late start due to a silly contract dispute and then reported out of shape. He didn’t really get moving or lose the paunch until the season was mostly over.

This season, though, Varejao is living up to his contract, justifying in large measure the demands of his agent that were based more on speculation than results. Because he’s in far better shape, Varejao seems in far better control of his game than in years past. His “Wild Thing” persona now reflects more accurately his hair style than a somewhat manic, driving on two-wheels-on-the-side-of-a-cliff style of play of previous seasons.

As a result Varejao is on track to better virtually every one of his career statistics. Averaging about the same amount of minutes per game as he did a year ago, he’s shooting nearly 10% better from the field than last season and averaging a career high 9.3 points per game. Similarly, his turnovers are down from last season and his blocks are up, although only slightly. More importantly, he’s become a very credible fill-in for the injured Zydrunas Ilgauskas and is giving general manager Danny Ferry pause to think that a contract extension, once unthinkable, is now more likely.

A Question to Ponder: Browns fans already know that one of the two teams they loathe the most, either the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Baltimore Ravens, will be in this year’s Super Bowl. But is that worse than the thought of the Arizona Cardinals finally making the Super Bowl?

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The More Critical Decision

One of the great unknowns in the Cleveland Browns’ recent hiring of Eric Mangini as head coach is exactly what level of due diligence owner Randy Lerner undertook. What we do know is that by hiring Mangini now, Lerner placed far more emphasis on the importance of the head coach over the general manager.

The conventional wisdom is that an opposite approach is preferred. But as Lerner made clear, at least for now, both jobs will report to him anyway so from that perspective there was no hierarchal reason to secure a general manager first.

But whatever else Lerner may have considered in hiring Mangini; the emphasis he placed on prior experience is unmistakable. It’s a point he shares with many fans as well. But given several recent examples to the contrary, the question is how important is that really?

If recent NFL history tells us anything, far more critical than simply prior experience or the order in which the general manager and the coach are hired is the need for both occupants to be on the same page. Lerner seems to recognize this fact but he unnecessarily complicated matters by not giving the new general manager a say in the hiring of the head coach. If Lerner doesn’t get the general manager decision right, the fact that Mangini has prior head coaching experience isn’t going to amount to much.

As with almost anything else, there are statistics available to make a case for whatever you want to argue about the importance of experience in the Browns’ search. If you look at the winning coach of the last 11 Super Bowls, it tends to buttress Lerner’s view that experience is critical. Only two of those were coaches whose first experience came with the team they led to the championship—Brian Billick in 2001 and Bill Cowher in 2006. The rest were all veteran coaches on their second teams.

On the other hand, there is a plethora of statistics to make the counter argument. In the end, about all you can really conclude is that experience can be important but ultimately it’s a crap shoot with even far less success rate than the draft. About the only way to increase your odds is to pair an experienced coach with a decent team and a competent front office and even then that may not be enough. Some people are just good coaches, most are not.

From 1997 through 2008 (a period covering 12 season) and not counting in-season interim hires (unless they became permanent), there have been 81 new head coaches hired in the NFL or, roughly, seven each year. While the perception often is that most coaches hired tend to be re-treads, the fact is that far more teams took fliers on individuals with no prior NFL head coaching experience (50 of the hires) then the other way around (31 of the hires). In fact, there have only been three seasons in the last 12 (1997, 2003, 2004) when more vacancies have been filled with former NFL head coaches than newcomers and then just barely. Conversely, in half of the years the number of new hires far outweighed the number of former coaches hired, a trend that is growing.

For example, in 1997 there were 11 new head coaches hired. Five of those coaches were first timers; six had previous head coaching experience in the NFL. In 2006, when there were 10 openings, eight of the hires were first timers, two were former head coaches. In 2007, the split was five new to two former. In 2008 all four openings were filled with first timers.

That trend appears to be continuing in 2009. The Denver Broncos just hired Josh McDaniels as their head coach, a first timer that Lerner interviewed for the Browns’ opening. Every other team interviewing is likewise looking for a McDaniels type as compared to a Mangini. While Jim Schwartz had a second interview with the Detroit Lions a, no one is interviewing Marty Schottenheimer or even Brian Billick. In that sense, Lerner’s hiring of Mangini is bucking a definite trend.

But far more important than just this simple trend is whether being a bit of a contrarian guarantees Lerner any greater chance of being right than say, Denver’s hiring of McDaniels. Certainly Denver doesn’t think so. But that doesn’t mean they are right either.

Consider the two sides of the coin that the 1997 season illustrates. That season the Giants brought in newcomer Jim Fassel. Kevin Gilbride, also a newbie was hired by San Diego and as was Steve Mariucci when hired to replace a retiring George Seifert (who unretired a few years later). Fassel lasted the longest, seven seasons. He won 58, lost 53 and had one NFC championship. Mariucci lasted six seasons and had a winning record in four of those seasons. His Achilles’ Heel was the playoffs. Gilbride was simply a bust.

But those owners that hired experienced coaches hardly fared much better. Dan Reeves, who had been fired earlier that season by the Giants, took over in Atlanta and lasted 7 seasons. He hit his high water mark in his second season with Atlanta, advancing to the Super Bowl. The next 5 seasons were mostly a bust and by the time he was fired, the Falcons were 3-10. Bruce Coslet fared no better in Cincinnati than in Oakland. Peter Carroll lasted only one season in New England before abandoning the pro ranks. Joe Bugel was equally bad in Oakland as he was in Phoenix. Bobby Ross had some success in San Diego but had none in Detroit. In fact, the only real success story was Dick Vermeil, who returned after a 15 year absence, lasted 3 seasons with the St. Louis Rams before retiring with a Super Bowl ring. On the other hand, he couldn’t find that success with Kansas City a few years later.

You can pretty much find similar results in every other season as well.

But far more fascinating than all of that is the simple fact that whether teams hired newcomers or veterans, the attrition rates are similar and awful. If you discount coaches who retired, nearly every coach hired from 1997 through 2005 has already been fired, some more quickly than others. Here’s the list of coaches who quit or were fired from those seasons: Dan Reeves, Bruce Coslet, Bobby Ross, Jim Fassel, Pete Carroll, Mike Ditka, Joe Bugel, Kevin Gilbride, Steve Mariucci (twice), Wade Phillips, Chan Gailey, Jim Mora (Sr. and Jr.), Jon Gruden, Brian Billick, Dick Jauron, Ray Rhodes, Gunther Cunningham, Mike Riley, Chris Palmer, Dave Campo, Mike Sherman, Al Groh, Dave Wannstedt, Jim Haslett, Gregg Williams, Dick LeBeau, Butch Davis, Marty Mornhinweg, Marty Schottenheimer (twice), Mike Tice, Bill Callahan, Steve Spurrier, Dennis Erickson, Denny Green, Mike Mularkey, Norv Turner, Romeo Crennel, Nick Saban, and Mike Nolan.

Here’s the far more modest list of coaches that remain active with the same team: Andy Reid, Mike Holmgren (retired at the end of this season), Bill Belichick, John Fox, Tony Dungy (retired at the end of this season), Jon Gruden (at Tampa Bay after being fired from Oakland), Marvin Lewis, Jack Del Rio, Lovie Smith, and Tom Coughlin.

If you want to throw in the 2006 season, you can add four more to the fired list: Rod Marinelli, Mangini, Art Shell and Scott Linehan. And for good measure, throw in the name of Cam Cameron, who was fired last year after one season in Miami.

When you look at the list of the 10 head coaches still active with the same team that were hired between 1997-2005, they break evenly into newcomers and veterans. Here, though, is at least where you can make a little more of a case for hiring experience. None of the newcomers on that list has yet to win a Super Bowl whereas each of the veterans has.

Whether any of this bodes well for Mangini is hard to say. Certainly recent examples like Belichick, Gruden, Coughlin, Dungy, and Holmgren proved that it can be worthwhile to give a former coach a second chance. On the other hand, there are more veteran coaches in that same time period that have failed, such as Reeves, Ross, Coslet, Ditka, Schottenheimer, Rhodes and Green, to name a few. Likewise, there are some good examples of newcomers that have been successes, even without winning a Super Bowl, but far more that have been failures.

The one common thread of each veteran that has been successful is that he’s done it with a team that already had some talent and a competent front office (although in the case of Holmgren, he essentially became the front office for several of those years). Each franchise had already experienced some level of success already and in each case the veteran coach came in and was able to push the team over the top. In each case (excluding Holmgren) also was critical in hiring the new coach. Conversely, for those who failed, they tended to fail with lousy teams with lousy front offices anyway. It mattered little who hired the coach. Indeed, the same conclusions are generally applicable to the newcomers as well.

This trend doesn’t bode well for the Browns at the moment. It is a team with some talent but not nearly enough. There is no front office and the one that was in place was far from competent. In other words, there is much work to do and a fan base with the patience of a puppy.

Mangini might be a terrific coach whose experience is invaluable. McDaniels may be the next Belichick. Ultimately, though, it may not matter who Lerner hired. Unless he can find the right person at the top to put this humpty-dumpty of a team back together the right way, any head coach is already well on his way to becoming just another discarded egg shell.

Friday, January 09, 2009

Suffering Through the BCS

There is a new champion in college football and hardly anyone outside of Gainesville, Florida seems all that thrilled about it.

Certainly there is always going to be a little jealousy creeping in anytime someone other than your favorite team wins something of consequence. Thus a little bashing of the Florida Gators, or whoever else might have found themselves in their position, is expected. But this season, just as the season before it and the season before that, the din has grown louder for a playoff system for Division I football. And this season, just as the season before it and the season before that, the folks who bring about the Bowl Championship Series could care less about your concerns.

What most people forget, however, is that Division I already has a playoff system so arguing about creating one is misplaced. The real problem that never gets articulated is that the current playoff system is too restrictive. It’s basically a two-team playoff with those teams picked by a confusing amalgamation of polls.

At some point, the critics of the BCS will get their way. In the current economic environment almost anything that at one time seemed unimaginable is likely to happen. It is easy to envision a collapse of the sacred bowl system on a purely fiscal basis, which would eliminate the major obstacle to a more expansive playoff. But even if that doesn’t happen, eventually those who really control sports in this country, the broadcast networks, will force a comprehensive playoff system on the naysayers and protectionists that refuse to budge to logic and reason.

But until that happens, the best way to fix the BCS is to simply abolish it. On pure merits, a one game playoff will always yield far more controversy than it will solve. There simply is no way to satisfy the number of teams with a claim on one of two slots and far too many variations and lack of comparators to ever insure that those voting in these polls will get the top two teams correct.

This season is instructive but nearly any season in the past 10 would do. To my eyes, USC was the best team I’ve seen this season. I understand they lost to Oregon State, which lost to Penn State. I understand, too, that their head coach, Pete Carroll, keeps finding a way to underprepare his team at least once a season which leads to them being on the outside looking in more often than not. But having watched USC dismantle both Penn State and Ohio State this season, it was easy to see that this is a team with far more talent from top to bottom and side to side than any other team in the country.

Maybe you’re one of those that believe that wins against Big Ten teams are meaningless. But having watched Ohio State do everything right but win against, first Penn State and then a Texas team that was far more highly ranked convinced me that Ohio State wasn’t nearly the patsy that many believed.

The SEC had their share of good teams, including the national champion, again this year. Florida is clearly a very good team. But is it just another good team made better because of the presence of college football’s best player, Tim Tebow? Oklahoma seemed unstoppable heading into the game with Florida, despite its one loss. But a team averaging 50 points a game or more for a good part of the season couldn’t get more than 14 on Thursday night. Florida, too, was having its way with every team prior to Oklahoma, almost scoring at will against them, and yet only managed 24 points against a highly suspect Oklahoma defense.

And let’s not forget about Utah. They dominated Alabama, a number one team for a healthy part of the season.

The point, though, is not to trash any of these teams or to argue against Florida this year. It’s simply to note that the outcome of the Florida-Oklahoma game solved nothing. Florida is still a one-loss team, just like USC and Texas. Utah is still undefeated. Each has a legitimate argument for why it’s better than the other, even if you don’t share their viewpoint.

It’s not as if anyone outside of those with a vested interest in the BCS system thought that the outcome of the Florida-Oklahoma game would solve anything going in. Thus it’s not a surprise they still feel that way coming out. In other words, it’s pure fantasy to say that whoever wins the BCS national championship game is an undisputed champion. It’s not designed to yield that result, no matter its claims.

Given what’s undeniable, why play the game at all? If a playoff in major college football is too logistically complicated for this nation to solve, a nation that solved the logistics of landing men on the moon and getting a package from Anchorage to Poughkeepsie overnight by the way, then stop trying. Stop acting as if the worst thing in life is different polls crowning a different teams number one.

The argument against the BCS is all the more compelling when you consider the unintended consequences this convoluted system has created. Essentially, the BCS system has chosen to sacrifice the value of a winning a conference championship in its quest to bring relevance to one game being played later and later each January. At the same time it’s also rendered meaningless every other bowl game except the self-titled National Championship game.

From a fan’s perspective, there simply is nothing meaningful about winning the Big Ten anymore, as an example. All it does is get you in the Rose Bowl. It doesn’t necessarily get a team a leg up on getting into the BCS title game. Indeed, given how little respected the Big Ten is these days, being the Big Ten champ carries all the prestige of being the prettiest girl in shop class.

The same goes for the Pac 10. If any major conference is less appreciated than the Big Ten it’s the Pac 10. USC is almost always a good team and the rest are almost always not. USC has its way in that conference every year, well in every year in which they take each game seriously anyway. It wasn’t the loss to Oregon State that kept USC out of the National Championship game, it was the lack of respect pollsters have for the conference.

But if there was no BCS at all, and it’s not hard to remember when that was the case, winning the conference carried not only prestige but a real chance to be crowned number one by someone, even if not by a consensus. This year’s Rose Bowl would have taken on far more meaning for both Penn State and USC and would have carried far greater implications if it had been on equal footing with all of the major bowl games. But since there was a BCS National Championship game looming with two other teams, it carried all the significance of a Randy Lerner press conference. The same is absolutely true of the Sugar Bowl game between Alabama and Utah. While it may have been sort of fun to watch Utah dominate a SEC team, it carried no meaning.

What I miss most are the days when there was a compelling reason to watch the Orange Bowl, the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl. Now those games are just pictures at an exhibition with the added benefit to the teams of a lot of cash to keep them wedded to the current system.

When the presidents of the major conferences and their surrogates at the BCS say they aren’t interested in a playoff, they really are saying they aren’t interested in bringing certainty. Fine, then it would be great if they’d stop pretending they are by foisting a compromise on the public each year that is actually makes the problem worse, not better. Jettison the BCS games as the failed experiment they have become and really restore meaning to the bowl games you claim to you’re trying to protect in the first place.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Ball Boy

Feel better? Ready to re-up that season ticket package or buy some new swag? That’s what Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner is hoping when, in his usual fashion, he formally “announced” the hiring of recently fired former New York Jets head coach Eric Mangini today as the Browns’ next head coach. Of course Lerner didn’t formally announce anything. Per apparent protocol, he had someone else do it.

But before focusing on Lerner, I must confess that I wasn’t even aware the Browns were in the market for new ball boys. I thought they had bigger priorities.

But the Ball Boy is what we get. Whether he ever grows into the more flattering nickname of Man-genius here is a verdict that can’t be rendered for awhile. It’s not that the hiring of the Ball Boy is necessarily a bad thing. It’s not necessarily a good thing, either. It’s just a thing. It isn’t the kind of hiring that will ignite a run on the box office but isn’t likely to cause a mass exodus from the season ticket base either. The fans are greeting the hiring with all the indifference it deserves. On a scale of Bill Cowher to Carl Pavano, the Ball Boy’s hiring is far more Pavano.

Certainly hiring the Ball Boy allowed Lerner to check off a number of boxes he had on the “needs” side of whatever ledger he drew up before the “search” began. There also are a number of significant boxes that can’t yet be checked off. At this point in the Ball Boy’s career there just isn’t enough for anyone to give his hiring an unqualified thumbs up.

That doesn’t mean that hiring the Ball Boy was the wrong decision. It just wasn’t particularly inspiring. The historical economic downturn is going to be a significant challenge for every team in every professional sport. Cleveland is no different. Even if the Browns had been a successful franchise, Lerner would still be facing erosion in loge sales and season tickets in 2009. He needed to hit a home run in order to give those on the tipping point a reason to tilt in the Browns’ direction. Instead he hit a ball up the middle and stands on first base while the official scorer reviews whether it was a hit or an error.

That Lerner wouldn’t take the dais himself, at least with cameras rolling and microphones in the on position, to introduce the Ball Boy wasn’t a surprise. He sent the mostly unknown and ubiquitously titled team president Mike Kennan to make the pitch. Lerner can continue to court the “I’m not comfortable in the spotlight” image all he wants but the reality is that in doing so he underscores his own lack of leadership.

Being rich, particularly when it was more inherited than earned, doesn’t make one a leader. But having decided to run the franchise, Lerner can’t escape the inherent obligations, one of which is to lead this franchise. From time to time those obligations are going to make him uncomfortable. That’s the essence of leadership. Yet on this most important day for his franchise, he once again abdicated his responsibilities. He hardly lives up to the image his last name conjures.

It would be one thing if Lerner hadn’t actually made the hiring decision. But from all accounts it was solely Lerner’s decision. He owes it to the people he expects to fund his underlying venture to stand up in front of the camera and explain himself. It’s not that much to ask and even less to do.

As to the underlying decision, it does have a bit of ass-backwardness about it. But if it’s Lerner’s intention to have his head coach and his general manager be functional equivalents, then there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. If the Ball Boy ends up reporting to the general manager, then there’s trouble ahead, if not soon then someday anyway. Again, though, it’s hard to know since Lerner has never been one to explain much of anything.

The more fascinating aspect to this all is the simple fact that Lerner essentially is flying solo in this whole process without any personal record of success in that regard. Whether that makes him courageous or insane won’t be known for awhile. But what is known is that Lerner won’t have a John Collins or a Phil Savage to blame. This is a decision he owns alone.

For those looking to gain some insight into what may have caught Lerner’s eye, the one thing the Ball Boy did say in his press conference that is bound to raise more than a few eye brows was that he too believes in the 3-4 defense. To this point, there is far more evidence that could ever be needed that it hasn’t worked well here. It is personnel driven and the Browns don’t currently have the players on the roster to effectively run it. The Ball Boy allowed that he won’t use it if the team doesn’t have the personnel, which was refreshing, so maybe this will be his first priority when it comes to rebuilding the offense this off-season. Ok, maybe second. He has to hire his boss first.

Pretty much the rest of the Ball Boy’s comments were what you’d expect. Yes, he’s excited. Yes, he’s learned from his experiences. Yes, he believes in discipline. Yes, he understands what it means to be a Browns fan. In short, he said all the right things. The proof of course is whether he does the right things.

While it may not be for the Ball Boy to answer, the question still remains as to why Lerner fixated on him and struck the deal in this way even with an apparent lack of competition for his services. Lerner wasn’t available so there’s no definitive answer. But part of it anyway seems to be that the Ball Boy has ties to the organization, even if very tenuous ones at this point.

It’s apparent that Lerner believes that one of the absolute keys to the successful rebirth of this franchise is for it to be lead by someone who’s been in it before. As a result his “search” was anything but comprehensive. Everyone that Lerner reportedly met with thus far has that connection, directly or indirectly, including Cowher. From there everything else seems to have flowed. The problem is it’s the fans that are standing at the bottom of the hill from which all that stuff is flowing and, frankly, they are tired of getting soiled.

While the hiring of the Browns 12th full time head coach won’t generate enough heat to melt the frost off a windshield that doesn’t mean it won’t turn out well in the long run. But for a good portion of the fans tired of patiently waiting for the next football savior, the strong suspicion is that they are asking themselves the same question as the Jets fan who runs the FireEricMangini.com website: who in their right mind would replace one ex-Patriot flop with another ex-Patriot flop? Destiny, thy name is Lerner.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Red Flags

Because Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner seems almost singularly obsessed with New England Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick at the moment, it’s fair to pull out one of Belichick’s stock phrases in assessing Lerner’s general manager/head coach search thus far: I can only go by what I see. And what I see is troubling.

At the moment and indeed at any moment, Lerner seems fixated on making the combination of Eric Mangini, the former New York Jets head coach, and George Kokinis, the current director of pro personnel for the Baltimore Ravens the team to resurrect the franchise. It’s not a coincidence that both have a direct connection back to Belichick and his time in Cleveland as if that represents some sort of golden era in Browns’ history.

While there is some book on Mangini, Kokinis is mostly an unknown commodity. Mangini has that mythical head coaching experience that Lerner seems to believe that the fans crave, disregarding even the recent success of John Harbaugh in Baltimore or Tony Sparano in Miami.

Mangini wasn’t exactly a huge success or an abject failure with the Jets. Like most head coaches, his results ended up depending heavily on the successes and failures of his front office. His ticket out of New York was effectively punched when the front office decided to bring in Brett Favre to supposedly put the Jets over the proverbial hump. It didn’t work. Meanwhile Chad Pennington was cut. As it turned out, the Jets would have been far better served by doing exactly the opposite. So be it.

Kokinis currently toils as the director of pro personnel, which is a subtly but distinctly different job than the one Phil Savage held while in Baltimore, director of player personnel. Kokinis’ focus is on the players already in the league. Savage, like others who share his old title, focus on the new blood from the college ranks. The relevance here is that while Kokinis was negotiating contracts and focusing on potential free agents, someone else in the Baltimore front office was focusing on the draft. If the thought is that Kokinis will singularly improve Savage’s miserable record in the mid and late rounds of the draft, there’s nothing to suggest that outcome. So be it.

To say at this juncture that either hire would be a disaster would be unfair. Frankly, there’s no way to make those projections. Mangini seems far more organized than Romeo Crennel ever was but on the other hand his teams faded when they needed to step up. Sound familiar? Other than the fact that he’s worked in a successful organization, Kokinis is mostly a blank slate.

I say mostly because there is one thing we do know about him and that is that he and Mangini are fast friends. They toiled in anonymity under the dictatorial rule of Belichick more than a decade ago which supposedly hardened their veneer and sharpened their football skills. Apparently Lerner feels that if Mangini is his Matt Damon then he needs to complete the team with Mangini’s version of Ben Affleck in the person of Kokinis to ensure that he has a team in place that is for once on the same page.

Maybe.

What Lerner doesn’t seem to have considered, which is amazing really, is the downside of one friend working for another. The world is full of friends who went in to business together only to end up as mortal enemies. Maybe the reason that Mangini and Kokinis are still such good friends has something to do with the fact that they work in different organizations.

Making this situation potentially even more volatile is the underlying process Lerner has employed to land on Kokinis as a legitimate candidate for the general manager position. If the various reports are true, then Lerner was overwhelmed by Mangini during his interview. It was Mangini in turn that recommended Kokinis as his “personnel guy” and the reason a guy not even on the radar screen a week ago has emerged as a top candidate. This means that if both are hired, Mangini will be the one who hand-picked his own boss.

If that doesn’t sound like an uh oh in the making, particularly for a franchise that has experienced almost nothing but for the last 10 years, then you just aren’t paying attention. Why is it that Lerner feels the semi-accomplished Mangini is worthy of having that sort of responsibility at this juncture? Is there an acute demand for Mangini’s services at the moment?

Giving Mangini the power to pick his boss may not have been Lerner’s original intention, but that’s the outcome and letting the inmate pick the warden has all the earmarks of creating a paper warden. If there’s one thing that everyone at this juncture understands, the Browns need someone strong at the top. Lerner isn’t that person. Savage wasn’t that person. Now Lerner stands on the precipice of bringing in someone who may be reluctant to butt heads with the underling most responsible for his elevation in the first place.

Ultimately, this is the problem I have with Lerner’s thought process. If he goes through with what looks like the current plan then it serves as confirmation that he’s reduced a relatively complex situation down to seemingly simple solutions.

It is absolutely true that Savage and Crennel weren’t on the same page, but that has nothing to do with them not being best friends and everything to do with Savage’s shortcomings as an administrator. More to the point, the distance in the relationship between the two at the end should serve as a cautionary note to Lerner.

Savage and Crennel did have a good relationship before Crennel was hired. In fact, it was Savage more than anyone who pushed for giving Crennel the head coaching opportunity that Savage felt was long overdue. Savage pushed for this hiring knowing full well Crennel’s defensive philosophies. If not a direct endorsement of those philosophies it was at least reasonable to conclude that Savage was on board with them.

Yet it was Savage that basically deviated from the plan by drafting and otherwise stockpiling the team with defensive personnel ill-suited for the schemes being played. Maybe it was because Savage felt that there were higher priorities to serve, but that decision came with consequence.

But that’s only part of the story. Crennel took the job knowing that Savage had final say over the roster. Crennel may have been desperate to prove his mettle as a head coach, but he accepted the job with full disclosure. In doing so he had to know that there was every possibility that Savage would fail him, which he did.

But that, too, is only part of the story. What ultimately drove these two in different directions are the inevitable conflicts that can arise between a boss and a subordinate, particularly when they are both in survival mode. The fact that Savage and Crennel were once close made no difference.

Lerner seems almost willing to take the same chance with a Mangini/Kokinis team, even though it is hardly necessary. We already know that Mangini has thrown one former friend in Belichick, a friend who gave him his start, under the bus when it was in his best interests to do so. Spygate doesn’t happen without Mangini’s inside information. Who’s to say that Mangini wouldn’t act similarly toward Kokinis the minute Kokinis does something contrary to what Mangini perceives are his best interests at that moment? If/when that happens, what’s Lerner’s next move to counter the disruption that will cause?

Many have suggested that this is Lerner’s last chance to hire the right team to lead the Browns. Hardly. As long as he continues to own the team he has the luxury of making as many mistakes as he wants, even if that’s not his intent. And since we can assume it’s not his intent to mess up this decision, the question remains why Lerner would ignore all the red flags flying in his face at the moment in order to be the first owner to hire a new coach. If this was a case of letting perfect be the enemy of good, it would be one thing. But this is more a case of letting a good be the enemy of a quick.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Lingering Items--Season-Ending Edition

Although less than a week ago, it’s actually hard at this point to even remember the Cleveland Browns’ last game of the season. So much has happened in the interim and, besides, the game was mostly irrelevant. Thus, to the extent there are still some leftovers from the drubbing the team took against the Pittsburgh Steelers, they seem well past their expiration date at this point.

By any objective measure, it was as miserable football season in Cleveland, far more miserable than four years ago when owner Randy Lerner attempted his first overhaul. But on the misery scale it still pales in comparison to the year in which former owner Art Modell yanked the franchise from the city. That is and forever will remain the yardstick against which all other seasons get measured. Far better to have a team to complain about than to have no team at all.

And as awful as the season was, there were still a few nuggets of interest that in context are simply puzzling, but in a mostly good way. For example, even with all the interceptions that Ken Dorsey and Bruce Gradkowski were tossing at the end of the season, the Browns still ended up +5 in the takeaway/giveaway department which seems as anachronistic as anything else in this lost season. But what does it mean?

For too often, that ratio has been used as a barometer for a team’s relative successes or failures but that’s hardly a conclusion you can draw this year. When you look at the final regular season statistics, nearly half of the NFL’s teams ended up in positive territory. But far more interesting than that is that the Browns were not the only woeful team on the positive side. The Kansas City Chiefs were likewise +5 and the Oakland Raiders were +1. Collectively those two teams won only 7 games and the three teams combined for only 11 wins, which was less than 5 other teams. The Packers, who only won 6 games, were a +6.

What’s particularly interesting with the Browns is that their total was achieved on the strength of 23 interceptions, which was second in the entire NFL to only Baltimore’s 26. But even that doesn’t tell enough of the story. The Cleveland defense had only 17 sacks all season, second lowest in the league. As anyone who watched this team will tell you, pressuring the quarterback wasn’t a Cleveland strength. It would be natural to conclude that interceptions might be hard to come by as a result, but they weren’t. The Ravens, on the other hand, have a far better pass rush and had twice as many sacks with 34. While they had 3 more interceptions than the Browns, that’s a relatively insignificant difference given that opposing quarterbacks were far more harassed by the Ravens and thus more likely prone to mistakes.

What exactly does that say about the Browns’ secondary? At the very least, when it was in a position to make plays it did just that. The problem, of course, stemmed from the fact that it wasn’t in position nearly often enough. The Browns’ defense gave up the highest yards per pass attempt in the league at just over 7 yards. The Ravens? A mere 5 yards a game.

Another little nugget to glean is that linebacker D’Qwell Jackson led the entire NFL in tackles with 154. The next closest was Patrick Willis of the San Francisco 49ers with 141. It’s not a surprise that Jackson or some other linebacker would lead the Browns in tackles, given the 3-4 defense played, but it is surprising that Jackson would lead the entire league. Frankly, nothing about Jackson’s season much stands out. Yet when the final numbers are counted, he had a very solid season even as we all complained about a lousy linebacking corps.

Turning to the offense, there were 49 running backs in the league that had at least 100 carries. Only 16 of those had more than 1,000 yards rushing and Browns’ running back Jamal Lewis was one of those 16, ending the season with 1,002 yards.

Certainly a 1,000 yard rushing season isn’t what it used to be, especially when there were only 14 regular season games. But given that only half the teams in the league had a 1,000-yard rusher, it’s still a meaningful benchmark. Lewis seemed to have a season much like Jackson. Nothing particularly memorable stands out. Indeed, Lewis’ longest run was only 29 yards, which was the shortest of all backs that run for more than 1,000 yards. Yet when it all gets tallied up, it’s hard to diminish Lewis’ accomplishment, particularly when you consider how abysmal the offense was the last 6 games of the season.

If you want to dig even a little deeper for something positive, it’s also worth noting that Braylon Edwards, as beleaguered of a receiver as you’ll ever find, still managed almost 900 receiving yards for the season. Overall, that placed him 31st among the 129 players in the league with at least 200 receiving yards, meaning that for all the drops and all the drama he still finished in the top third of the league. If nothing else, it’s something Edwards can build on as he works to rebuild his confidence and, perhaps, his career.

**

One of those great barroom conversations that never get resolved has to do with whether fans should be loyal to their particular team irrespective of what it actually does on the field. The truth is, many fans are even if they won’t admit it.

But I was reminded of that debate because of on an email I received in response to my column on Randy Lerner and whether he was the right person to be making the hiring decisions for this team.

Without going into great detail, the essence of the email was that it was just so much piling on by this point and that it’s the negativity of people like me that is causing much of the negative attitudes toward the Browns. Apparently if we just wrote something positive once in awhile, things would be better. I suppose it would have helped to have something positive to write about once in awhile, but let’s not let the facts cloud the issue.

The emailer has a perspective, which I respect, but one I could never fully embrace. The problem with it I think is it places blame on those that report what’s happening and not on those who are making things happen. I’m not na├»ve to think that the media doesn’t have an influence on what others think. Of course it does. And while some in this business use the First Amendment as a convenient shield to hide behind any manner of irresponsible conduct on their part, those who truly appreciate the impact that the media can have recognize the responsibility that goes along with it when they write. It’s not enough to simply say “I don’t make the news, I just report it.”

There are many ways, in fact, to report the news. A writer can certainly shape others’ opinions. Indeed, that’s the whole point of writing a column in the first place. Sports can be even trickier because nearly everyone who writes about it does so because they are a fan at heart. The trickiest of all is writing about the teams you grew up watching when your interest in sports was first kindled. But in the end, you have to see things for what they are and not what you wish them to be.

I start from the point of view that no one, me included, wants to see any Cleveland team fail. Bad teams often give a writer more fodder, but when a season like this last Browns’ season unfolds it’s almost like reporting on a friend with a lingering, serious illness. The task is less fun and more arduous with each passing day.

But you can’t hide from the truth, no matter how much you’d like. This year’s Browns’ season was a slow but steady death march for anyone who cares about the team. Watching and writing about Romeo Crennel’s repeated shortcomings as a head coach doesn’t meet anyone’s definition of fun. It was particularly difficult because Crennel is a very decent man. He simply wasn’t a good head coach. Phil Savage, too, is a decent person away from the field, but a lousy administrator on it. His sometimes bizarre actions contributed to the circus atmosphere. And the more each was defended by the management that ultimately tossed them aside, the more important it was to keep the heat on.

Ultimately, it’s about accountability. In this business, it’s a two-way street. The email writer suggested that it must be nice to write in a manner in which no one holds you accountable, even as the email writer was holding me accountable for my writing. The point the email writer missed is that anyone who writes about the teams feels a tremendous sense of accountability. The owners of the Cleveland professional sports teams demand a lot from the fans, whether it’s in the form of ever-increasing ticket prices, overpriced swag or increasingly bizarre schedules to meet the demands of the broadcast media. Fans have a right to ask for a decent product in return and someone has to give voice to those who believe that too often that sacred bond between franchise and fan is being abused, particularly in Cleveland. If the rest of my email is any indication, and I think it is, most fans are very appreciative that this site and those who write for it have become that voice.

**

It’s another playoff season without the Browns, but that doesn’t mean that Browns fans don’t have some sort of rooting interest in the outcome, even if it is to root against the usual suspects. Thus, given the upcoming playoffs, this week’s question to ponder: Which team’s playoff loss will feel more satisfying, the Ravens’ or the Steelers’?