Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Lingering Items--Holiday Leftovers Edition

Because no one reads the morning newspaper anymore, it will probably get overlooked that the Plain Dealer on Tuesday had two items about the Cleveland Browns coming down on both sides of the debate over head coach Eric Mangini's status. One of those items in particular was probably the surest sign yet the Mangini will be back next season with the Browns and I'm not talking about Mary Kay Cabot's interviews with players who came out in support of their coach. We'll get to that in a moment.

No, the item of note was Bill Livingston's column advocating for Mangini's dismissal. It's not that Livingston added anything particularly novel or insightful to the conversation. He usually doesn't. It's just that his m.o. is to try and see which way the wind is blowing and then ride that tide, to mix my metaphors as Livingston might. The problem? He is generally wrong, a Cleveland sports writing version of George Kostanza.

But let's not get all caught up in the Livingston tea leaves. The truth is that no one knows what club president Mike Holmgren is going to do because Holmgren isn't going to talk about it for at least another week. So it's all just a guess anyway.

There are some things we do know and one is that Holmgren isn't enamored with the offensive scheme. How could he be? Another is he has an itch to coach again, mainly because that's what he's told us. Neither of those are good Mangini. We also know that Holmgren doesn't think so little of the job that Mangini has done this season to fire him before season's end. Finally we also know the bevy of statistics that show that while the Browns' record isn't better the team is improving. Both of those things are good for Mangini.

That's all just a mixed bag of items that Holmgren has rolling around inside his head at the moment. But to actually predict what Holmgren might do is a fool's game. Even weighing in on it at this point is getting pretty old. It's just finding new ways to say the same things to back up the opinion you formed long ago.

But if there really is a new item to add to the mix it was Cabot's item (along with a similar item in the Akron Beacon Journal) about the number of players coming out strongly supporting their coach. That would seem like a good thing.

To throw a little cold water on this show of support, just know that this kind of thing isn't unusual, in the abstract. In any locker room there are going to be players who like their coach, either because the coach brought those players in and gave them a chance others didn't or because they just generally like the guy. For those players it's easy to talk on the record.

On the other side of the locker room are going to be players who feel wronged by that coach for their own self-serving reasons. Maybe they feel like they weren't given a fair chance to prove themselves. Maybe they just don't like the cut of the coach's jib. Those players usually don't talk on the record.

All that said, it's still meaningful that players would speak up so dramatically in support of Mangini. It's meaningful because the reason Mangini's tenure in New York ended so quickly is that the feeling about Mangini inside the Jets locker room was nearly unanimous—they couldn't stand him. The inmates should never run the asylum but it's antiquated thinking that if the players hate the coach then the coach must be doing something right. In truth, he was doing something wrong and Jets ownership and management was convinced that it wasn't going to change.

It took Mangini an additional year to learn what Jets management understood. Mangini changed little in his first year with the Browns from his days with the Jets and it was nearly the reason he was fired before that season ended.

But Mangini seems to have learned and the fact that players like Sheldon Brown, Lawrence Vickers and Alex Mack, a pretty good cross section really of aging veterans from other teams, veterans on this team who have seen it all, and emerging younger players, are willing to come to their coach's defense speaks volumes, or at least it should.

It may all be for naught of course because if Holmgren wants to return to coaching and do it here in Cleveland then Mangini's fate is sealed and none of the positives will have any impact. And if that turns out to be the case, at least now Mangini should know that the changes he made will get him another shot somewhere, which is something that seemed ludicrous just 12 months ago.


While Mangini's fate is the hot topic around town, the coach whose status isn't getting enough attention but should is Byron Scott's with the Cavaliers. After 30 games this team is 8-22 and seems as directionless and as poorly coached as any team in Cleveland history.

The argument of course is that Scott doesn't have much to work with but is it less than what Mangini has with the Browns? That is a stretch. In large measure the Cavs are nearly the same team as last season except without two key components, LeBron James and former head coach Mike Brown. The loss of James makes the team worse, of course, but would this same team under Brown but with James nursing an injury for the season's first 30 games really be 8-22?

It seems quaint now the thought that dumping Brown would be a major positive for this franchise, not enough to offset the loss of James but enough of a positive to keep the franchise going in the right direction. Instead the loss of Brown seems to be making every bit as much of a difference as the loss of James.

It's hard to quantify, of course, but the one thing that could be said about Brown that can't be said of Scott is that Brown hardly ever seemed in over his head. Ok, maybe Brown was in over his head when it came to the playoffs, particularly deep in the playoffs. But that's a high class problem. Right now this team would be better off with a coach who didn't seem, well, so clueless about what it takes to put a team together and play winning basketball.

When you listen to Scott in interviews, he sounds smart enough. He stands stoically and folds his arms a lot, too. And yet when you sift through it all you start to realize that he's mostly hot air and lost, irretrievably lost. He changes strategy and lineups so often that its understandable why the players look so confused out there.

Contrast that for a moment with Mangini. Whether or not you are a Mangini fan or detractor we can all agree that he has a way of going about his business and he doesn't waver from it. His process may not lead the Browns to the Super Bowl someday but he does have a system. Scott isn't even that fully realized.

When this historically bad Cavaliers season comes to a close, owner Dan Gilbert is going to find himself with an incredibly shrinking season ticket holder base. It would have shrunk anyway without James and the promise his game always brought but it will shrink even more because of Scott. Indeed, if Mangini survives with the Browns, then there's an even greater likelihood that he'll be around longer than Scott. Gilbert isn't the hair-trigger owner that he's often portrayed as being but he is decisive. As Bob Dylan once wrote, “when something's not right, it's wrong.” And once Gilbert lands on that fact with Scott, which will likely be sooner than later, Scott will be gone and the Cavs will reboot. It may be Gilbert's only chance to save the franchise from another two decades of futility.


I'm pretty sure this is how Larry Bird rolled.

There was an item in Business Insider this past week that really put into perspective why James was never going to re-sign with Cleveland. The item is a PowerPoint presentation by SA Global Plus, a fledgling (to be incredibly generous) media company based in Miami that is putting on James' birthday celebration on December 30th at Coco de Ville, a hotel in Miami.

The presentation is an example of the kind of celebrity excess that is the world that James and his ilk live in, the kind of excess that James could never get in Cleveland.

The presentation is really a pitch to line up corporate sponsors for James' birthday party. (Here's a link to the presentation) For $10,000 the sponsors will get appropriate signage at the party and a chance to stuff their goods in celebrity goody bags, because what adult birthday party doesn't have goody bags? On its web site SAGP, as they like to call themselves, promises an “A” list roster of musicians, athletes and models. The presentation, which SAGP has since removed from its web site, also promises its major sponsors (defined as someone willing to pay $500,000), additional involvement in what they call the “LeBron James Dinner Party Tour.” The Tour started in New York two weeks ago and continues through February in several major cities (Cleveland is not included) and coincides obviously with the Miami Heat's schedule.

If all this sounds ridiculous it's because it is. But let's be fair to James. This isn't the first celebrity birthday party to be sponsored and it won't be the last. This kind of thing is actually pretty common these days among the slightly accomplished types like James, Lindsay Lohan, and Paris Hilton, to name a few that have likewise gone down this path.

How any of this ties into winning a NBA championship isn't exactly clear but maybe winning a championship really was never James' point. The birthday party and dinner tour that he has aligned himself with for whatever chump change it puts in his pocket is the antithesis to the dedication and commitment it takes to actually accomplishing something meaningful with your life. James lives and moves now in a world that values the cult of celebrity above all else. It is the antithesis of a family dynamic where instead of surrounding yourself with the kind of support system necessary to achieve your goals you instead put yourself in the middle of a vacuous world where your support system consists of celebrity friends who aren't friends at all but paid party goers designed to make you look more important than you'll really ever be.

Maybe James can eventually win a ring but that is never going to happen until he understands that the only real way to get to Carnegie Hall is practice, practice, practice and not simply to buy your way in.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Watching the Paint Dry

It wasn't so much the effort or even the turnovers that did in the Cleveland Browns on Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens. It was the simple fact that the Ravens were a better team playing with motivation against a team whose season can't end soon enough. In a result that need not have been predicted by Nostradamus, the Ravens beat the Browns 20-10 and clinched a playoff spot in the process.

The turnovers didn't help, certainly. Quarterback Colt McCoy threw three interceptions and Mohamed Massaquoi had a fumble after a reception. But the turnovers merely ended fairly promising drives that were serving mostly to keep the score closer than the game actually was. The effort, too, seemed better than it had been the previous two weeks, but it too served merely to mask the differential in talent between the two teams.

In truth, it was a snooze-inducing borefest where the final result was never really in doubt as the Browns now are ending the season exactly the opposite of how they ended the last season — on their way to possibly losing four straight as their run game has all but abandoned them at exactly the time it tends to kick in for good teams.

How snooze-inducing you ask? Well, technically, the game was close at the half. But within mere seconds after the second half started, the game's final score took place. From there it was a lazy Sunday afternoon with both teams holding the ball long enough to keep the game moving with little if anything to disrupt the clock's inevitable march to 00:00.

I'm not going to accuse the players on each side of going through the motions, but let's just say that Baltimore wasn't worried about winning, Cleveland wasn't worried about losing and they all just looked like they'd rather be somewhere warm, even if that happened to be a smelly locker room.

If you missed the second half (and the first half wasn't exactly action packed either), here's the summary and I'll do my best to stretch it out to make it look like more happened than it did.

First, with the Browns only down 13-10 to start the second half they looked to catch the Ravens napping on the opening kick of the second half by having Dawson attempt an on-side kick. Like a joke cigar in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, it blew up in Cleveland's face when the ball didn't travel 10 yards before going out of bounds, giving the Ravens the ball at the Cleveland 36-yard line.

On the first play of scrimmage afterward, Flacco escaped a sack and ran for 15 yards down to the Cleveland 21-yard line. Flacco then found Derrick Mason in the back of the end zone on the next play as Sheldon Brown did everything but actually apply handcuffs to Mason to prevent the catch. The touchdown pass and Cundiff extra point gave the Ravens a quick 20-10 lead.

From there the second half resembled a game of shuffleboard on a Tuesday afternoon at Del Boca Vista retirement home, except less exciting.

The Browns did “threaten” to do something positive in the second half in a drive that started at the 9:36 mark of the fourth quarter. Alas it ended when McCoy, at the Baltimore 27 yard line, overthrew Mohamed Massaquoi at the goal line and it was intercepted by, who else, Ed Reed. Reed returned it to the Baltimore 29 yard line with 4:35 remaining in the game. It was Reed's second interception of the game. That now gives Reed, I think, an interception against every Cleveland quarterback he's faced since the Browns returned in 1999. (Note to editor: Don't bother to fact check that stat. It doesn't matter. Even if it's not true, it seems like it should be.)

After that the players on both sidelines donned coats to block out the wind and some plays were run. Then the game ended, the coaches shook hands. A few players said “hi” to someone on the other team and headed for the locker room. Ravens head coach John Harbaugh could now prepare in earnest for the playoffs. Browns head coach Eric Mangini could now prepare for what likely will be his last game as a member of the Browns.

But let's not wallow. Maybe it was a game that was mostly negative for the Browns but there were a few positives to chew on. First, though the Ravens were keyed on stopping running back Peyton Hillis (they succeeded) the Browns' defense was equally keyed on stopping Anquan Boldin after the display he put on in the first match up between these teams earlier in the season. The Browns' defense succeeded. Boldin had 2 catches for 15 yards.

Second, intimidation. The Ravens figured on intimidating McCoy just because they are, well, the Ravens and have one of the league's All Pro Mouths in the form of linebacker Ray Lewis. It didn't work. McCoy once again didn't look over-matched. He didn't look great, either, but it wasn't because he was intimidated.

Third, the lead. For the 15th straight game this season and 19th straight overall, the Browns had a lead at some point in the game.

Finally, rookie cornerback Joe Haden had another interception, his 6th of the season. Oh yea, one more thing. Brian Robiskie had another touchdown catch. Heartfelt story about a coaching father and his semi-blossoming son to follow.

Admittedly those are the kinds of positives a fan has to take when he knows, just knows, that his team doesn't have enough talent to compete week in and week out with the league's better teams. And as painful as it is to acknowledge for many, the Ravens are one of the league's better teams. They didn't do anything particularly fancy or well against the Browns on Sunday but did most things well enough, including forcing three turnovers in the first half and another in the second half. It wasn't necessarily a dominating performance but it wasn't as if the Browns were ever really threatening to win, either.

The Browns' opened the game well enough, moving it effectively by having McCoy throw quickly. But McCoy threw an ill-advised pass to the inside of Massaquoi near the goal line and it was picked off at the 4-yard line by cornerback Lardarius Webb. If nothing else, it was an effective punt.

The Browns' defense then held the Ravens offense and after a nice punt return by Josh Cribbs, took over at the Baltimore 40-yard line. After McCoy hit tight end Ben Watson on a nice out pattern for a first down, offensive coordinator Brian Daboll pulled out the bag of tricks he'd been ignoring for weeks. It was about time because without what I'm about to describe, there actually were no Browns highlights the entire game.

With Seneca Wallace at quarterback and a troika of receivers to the left, Wallace handed off to Hillis who then handed it to Massaquoi who then found Brian Robiskie in the end zone for a 29-yard touchdown pass. The thrown ball wasn't a beauty, more Jake Delhomme than Peyton Manning, but it hung up long enough for Robiskie to make a nice adjustment and cradle the ball just before it hit the ground. Harbaugh challenged the call but it was upheld. The Phil Dawson extra point made it an early 7-0 lead.

The Ravens responded with a 16-play 80-yard drive but stalled at the Cleveland 9-yard line when quarterback Joe Flacco threw high to Boldin, forcing the Ravens to settle for a Billy Cundiff 27-yard field goal. The Ravens got right back in business when Massaquoi fumbled after a short pass from McCoy on the Browns' next offensive play and it was recovered by linebacker Jameel McClain who returned it to the Cleveland 20 yard line. Flacco then hit T.J. Houshmandzadeh on a 3rd and 5 for a 15-yard touchdown that helped give the Ravens a 10-7 lead.

On the Browns next drive, McCoy was again intercepted, by Reed, naturally, who returned it to midfield. The Ravens tried some trickery of their own on their next play when Flacco attempted a flea-flicker but saw it nearly intercepted at the goal line by safety T.J. Ward. The Ravens were able to get one first down on a Flacco scramble but couldn't get another and again settled for a field goal, this time a 40-yarder from Cundiff that extended the Ravens lead to 13-7.

The Browns drew to within 13-10 just before the half with a 30-yard Phil Dawson field goal that followed a 10-play 50-yard drive. It looked for a moment like McCoy might get the Browns lead at the half but he threw high and late to Robiskie who had a step on the coverage down the right sideline.

From there, the Ravens added 7 more points seconds in the first half and it was smooth, if cold, sailing from there.

Statistically it wasn't as if any particular player on either team had a great day. Flacco, for example, was only 12-19 for 102 yards. But he had the two touchdown passes and was intercepted once. McCoy was 15-29 for 143 yards and the three interceptions. Perhaps the best pass of the entire day was the Massaquoi to Robiskie touchdown. Ravens running back Ray Rice led all rushers with 92 yards on 25 carries. Hillis had 35 yards on 12 carries but in fairness it appeared as though he injured his back on the game's second play. Mike Bell (you know, the guy the Browns got for Jerome Harrison) had 27 yards on 7 carries.

With one game remaining, the Browns can at least grab a final measure of pride, not to mention a better record than a year ago, against a Pittsburgh Steelers team that is already playoff bound and thus slightly less motivated. It's probably a game the Browns won't win. They certainly won't be favored. But it is perhaps one last chance to at least show club president Mike Holmgren that they do want Mangini to remain the head coach. Based on the last 3 performances however, I'm not so sure they care.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Shades of Scarlet and Gray

Somewhere, Cam Newton just smiles.

Maybe the Ohio State Buckeyes players suspended Wednesday by the NCAA just should have had their fathers negotiate the memorabilia sale. That's the lesson I think the NCAA was trying to send when it suspended quarterback Terrelle Pryor and four of his teammates on Friday for selling their own personal items to a shady Columbus tattoo parlor owner, as if there were any other kind of tattoo parlor owner.

Assuming that Pryor and his suspended teammates return for their senior season, the Buckeyes will have to muddle through the first four or five games without them as they ponder their sins if they can just figure out exactly what they were.

See, the NCAA, with a rulebook as thick as the skulls of the people that enforce it, had to figure out for themselves why it is that student-athletes can't sell items that are rightfully theirs for whatever the market price might be. They eventually landed on something and now the players will be carrying a scarlet and gray A on their records for the rest of their lives.

Meanwhile, Cam Newton just smiles.

The danger of pointing out the ludicrous nature of what just took place at Ohio State is that you'll be labeled a Buckeye apologist. But the alternative is to assume that the rules in this case are black and white, which they aren't, and that nothing about this situation yields even the slightest shade of gray. In truth, that's all there is here, every shade of gray imaginable.

Let's put this into context, shall we? Pryor and Company didn't break any laws, at least the kinds of laws that you and I adhere to each and every day as we muddle through life. What they did was violate a NCAA rule that when bent to read whatever you want it to read says that items you were given for your accomplishments on the field aren't really yours until you leave college. Thus if you try to do with them what millions of others do with similar items via EBay each and every day, your eligibility will be in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, Cam Newton just smiles.

What I'm still having difficulty understanding, and I'm a lawyer, is exactly what Pryor and company did wrong. Personally it bothers me that the group placed such low value on awards they received like Big 10 championship rings and gold pants awarded for beating Michigan each season that they had no qualms about selling them. (OK, I understand the gold pants because, frankly, how many do you really need?) But that's a moral issue of sorts, not legal.

Surely if a player has a 1998 Ford Escort or a bike he wants to sell, the NCAA would not have a problem or perhaps a far lesser problem anyway. But because these were awards each earned on the field, suddenly it's a problem, a really big problem, the kind of problem that requires really, really harsh punishment.

Meanwhile, Cam Newton just smiles.

It's a fine line and one that doesn't exactly make sense. One guess is that the NCAA is most concerned about the uniqueness of the items (except, of course, the gold pants for beating Michigan which, after the last 10 years, are as plentiful as grains of sand on a Florida beach) because they garner a higher price from the shady sorts trafficking in memorabilia that makes the NCAA nervous. But if that's the issue then it's easy enough to say when awarding the items that it is against the NCAA rules to resell them while still in college, except that there is no NCAA rule on the book that actually says just that.

Which is why even if you understand the policy implications at work the action that took place here still doesn't make sense.

That a generic NCAA rule would be interpreted thusly came as a bit of a surprise to everyone involved, including, by the way, the NCAA. It admitted in doling out this particularly harsh punishment that its education on this rule at exactly the time it was supposedly violated was less than stellar. Then it went ahead and whacked the players a tad harder because they didn't report their misconduct, which they didn't know was misconduct, sooner. This circular logic makes sense only in the context of the NCAA giving themselves enough wiggle room down the road to negotiate down the punishment a bit as a concession to the fact that their decision is questionable in the first place.

Meanwhile, Cam Newton just smiles.

This is what aggravates most. Newton escaped any punishment whatsoever even though the NCAA had verifiable proof that the person closest to him, his father, was trying to sell him to the highest bidder. In the NCAA's view, it wouldn't be fair to punish Newton because he could smile and say. “gee, I didn't know my dad was doing that. He just told me where to go to school and I showed up.”

Pryor, Posey, Herron and Admas will get no such leeway. They knew they sold their stuff and they knew they made a little money off of it when doing so. They just didn't know it was a violation of any rules. Why would they?

The scuttlebutt is that the players, or at least some of them, sold the items to help out their families. It's a nice little twist to the story that makes their decisions a little more understandable (assuming it's true), but even if they kept the money for themselves I still struggle to understand the problem.

As scholarship athletes they get their education free. I've paid plenty of tuition to plenty of colleges so I understand the value of what the athletes are given in exchange for performing on the field like trained seals. It's not insubstantial. But they don't get a cash stipend as athletes and they don't dare work part time anywhere because of all the problems that can cause with the NCAA. Not all of them come from even middle class backgrounds and thus don't have parents with enough means to front them the spending money that nearly every other non-athlete has as they go about their college lives.

Meanwhile, Cam Newton just smiles.

As a lawyer, I understand intimately that ignorance of the law is never an excuse. Imagine if it were? But this isn't the law, it's a freewheelin' NCAA rulebook whose application changes seemingly every other minute. And if you don't believe that then just consider how the NCAA dug out an even more arcane provision of that rulebook to make sure the 5 players weren't suspended for the Sugar Bowl.

Basically, the enforcement folks felt that punishing the players for the Sugar Bowl would have been to the extreme detriment to the Bowl itself and all the fans from both teams that plunked down cash to attend. In other words, the NCAA wanted to appear magnanimous in not punishing the innocent for the sins of a few.

It's a nice thought, certainly, but how about all the innocent players the the NCAA has punished over the years because their ex-coach ran afoul of NCAA rules? Is it fair that 80 or so players at USC for example must suffer the consequences of the real sins of Reggie Bush (a player who knew he was violating about the only black letter rule the NCAA has) and the athletic director and coaching staff that facilitated those sins? Aren't they innocent victims suffering far worse and for a far longer period of time than anyone who may have plunked down their dollars to see a meaningless Sugar Bowl game just because they thought Terrelle Pryor would be playing?

Meanwhile, Cam Newton just smiles.

What this all demonstrates, really, is that the NCAA enforcement process has grown beyond the ability of the current regime to handle it. The issues are more complex than a rulebook written in the 1950s can now handle and every time they try to apply outdated rules to modern situations they end up with answers that undoubtedly are going to leave everyone scratching their heads.

Now of course the Buckeye haters out there are relishing the suspensions because, well, they are Buckeye haters. Nothing breeds contempt like success. But the real cautionary note in all of this is that the inconsistent hand of the NCAA will come down anywhere at any time. So before you start feeling righteous about your team and looking down your nose at another's misfortune, just know that sooner or later that random hand will come down on your team as well. It always does.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Singing From Different Hymnals

For the second straight Tuesday, Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini had to explain a crushing defeat against an arguably inferior opponent. For the second straight week he also had to defend his record against a growing chorus of disbelievers by saying that he believes the Browns are headed in the right direction.

Forget about all those who are claiming that Mangini needed to win X number of the season's last 4 games to retain his job. The only real questions that will matter to team president Mike Holmgren is whether or not the Browns are indeed headed in the right direction and whether or not Mangini is the guy who can drive them the furthest down that path.

That the Browns seem headed in the right direction seemed pretty obvious until two weeks ago. Almost everything about this year's team after 12 weeks was far better than everything about last season's team after 12 games. For starters, consider just the record. The Browns last year were 1-11. this year's version was 5-7. Beyond just that most visceral difference was a boat load of statistics on both sides of the ball. More touchdowns, better running, less points given up, far closer games, take your pick.

But the last two games against two other league doormats in Buffalo and Cincinnati have changed the perceptions about the direction of this team measurably. The games have been close, certainly, but anyone watching knows that the Browns have been handled in both games. The same cliches that were true 50 years ago about football are just as true today. Games tend to be won or lost along the offensive and defensive lines and in the last two games the Browns have lost those battles to teams that collectively had less wins than they did. It's been demoralizing.

It's also a disturbing trend certainly but it's more disturbing only if you think that progress or decline is a straight line process in the first place. It never is.

Mangini called the last two games hiccups, meaning that he doesn't believe they are really representative of where this team is headed. What Holmgren needs to figure out first is whether or not that's true. If they are as Mangini suggests, then far more representative of this team in his view is the way the team played against New Orleans and New England.

But surely that can't be true either for if it were this Browns team would be a playoff contender and I think that if there is one thing everyone can agree on it's that this team is not a playoff contender.

So let's just say that neither of those two game stretches represents the real Browns and erase them from the record and evaluate this team on a 12 game basis, which seems the kind of reasonable approach Holmgren might employ. That means that heading into games against Pittsburgh and Baltimore, two teams that need to keep winning, the team is 3-7, which really fits this team like a glove anyway.

When a team sits at 3-7 it really is hard to say which direction it's headed in and that's why, to a certain extent, Mangini's pleas in that regard tend to fall on deaf ears. There were times, certainly, when everyone felt that former general manager Phil Savage had this team headed in the right direction, too, and for many of the same reasons.

Savage decided to rebuild the offensive line and drafted Joe Thomas and signed Eric Steinbach, the two stalwarts of the offensive line still. He seemed to pull of a draft coup by getting Brady Quinn late in the first round after he already had drafted Thomas. Savage also went about trying to upgrade the receiving corps by complementing Braylon Edwards with Donte Stallworth. Savage also pulled off trades to bolster the defensive line, trades that seemed to make most people optimistic if not giddy. The linebacking corps remained a weak spot as did the defensive backfield, particularly on the corners. But then the team Savage took over had so many holes that they all couldn't be filled at once.

The larger point is, though, that there was a time when Savage could rightly claim the team was headed in the right direction and it didn't just seem plausible, it seemed true. As it turned out, of course, Savage wasn't really headed in any particular direction. A scout at heart, he was collecting players like they were bubble gum cards but the approach lacked cohesion. Savage also entrusted his collection to a coach with absolutely no ability to make any sense out of it so whatever Savage accomplished ended up looking even more disjointed anyway.

This is all to suggest that some of the telltale signs that Mangini points to as indicative of a team headed in the right direction are things we've all seen before. That doesn't mean that Mangini's view isn't any less or more plausible or any more or less true than what we heard from Savage. It does mean that Mangini, like Savage, is solidly vested in his way of doing things so it follows naturally that Mangini is going to defend what he's done.

The task for Holmgren is to wade through the sea of self-interest and try to make sense of it all. It won't be easy. That's because as confusing as last season may have been, particularly in the way it ended, this season has done little to add clarity.

When Holmgren rode into town last season, the team was out of control. Holmgren was given free reign to fix it all, yesterday. That didn't seem like a good sign for Mangini. But then a funny thing happened on the way to Holmgren's trying to make sense of it all. The team inexplicably rallied around Mangini at his darkest hour and went on to win the season's final four games. If it all left the fans scratching their heads, imagine how confusing it must have been to Holmgren.

This season hasn't gotten any easier. There have been times, stretches actually, where the direction seemed clear and you could find few if any who didn't think it was right, just like Savage in the early years. But then there have been times, stretches as well, where the direction seems as muddled as anything that Savage brought to the table. Even if you discount the last two games, it's not as if the Browns were trending positively before that. The wins against Miami and Carolina seemed gifted more than anything else and in each you could clearly see that what has plagued the team recently was a product of what was developing then. The offensive game plan was growing stagnant and the defense was getting pushed around.

In other words, at exactly the point where the direction should be its clearest, the Browns seem as confusing as ever. In the last two weeks Mangini, Colt McCoy and Peyton Hillis all offered that the team seems to lack focus or energy. This isn't some media-created controversy but the honest observations from those closest to the situation.

That will get noticed by Holmgren, certainly because it goes exactly to where this team is headed. It's one thing to abide a team that's less talented as you work to improve it. It's another to abide a team that has stopped working hard as the season plays out its string.

But even if Holmgren is convinced that the Browns, despite recent signs, are headed in the right direction, the next question and perhaps the key to Mangini's future is whether or not Holmgren thinks Mangini is the guy to get them the furthest down that path. If anything, this question seems like the easiest to answer, at least from afar.

There has never been a sense that Mangini is Holmgren's kind of guy on a number of levels, from the way Mangini handles his quarterbacks to the way he handles his offense, to the way he handles the media. It's not so much anything that Holmgren has actually said but more so what he hasn't said. Though he kept Mangini around for the 2010 season, Holmgren has never once stood up and said “this is my guy.” There's been no impassioned defense of the coach or his way of doing things. It's been a lot of sitting back and observing and dropping phrases like “I'm not sure what the offense is trying to do” and “I'll evaluate it all come season's end.”

If Holmgren is going to keep Mangini after what's amounted to about a 20-game audition, then it will be because he's absolutely convinced that Mangini shares his vision. But there are just too many signs suggesting that isn't the case. In the end, if Mangini goes it won't be because he lost to Buffalo and Cincinnati. It will be because Holmgren finally recognizes the awesome responsibility he undertook when he signed on with Randy Lerner in the first place and realizes that the only way to attack that responsibility is with guys singing from your hymnal. Whatever else you might say or think about Mangini, it's always been clear that he is most comfortable standing in his own pew singing his own songs.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Their Own Private Punxsutawney

It's almost as if you can actually hear “I've Got You, Babe” playing the minute the clock strikes 1 p.m. eastern standard time each Sunday. Playing as if they are stuck in a NFL version of “Groundhog Day” the Cleveland Browns once again played football mostly at its tedious best on their way to losing to their second straight league doormat, this time the Cincinnati Bengals, 19-17, in a game that seems closer than it actually was.

The Browns are now 5-9, assuring themselves of another losing season. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Losing to one doormat can happen. But when you lose to two straight, what does that say about your team? Exactly.

Maybe it was only fitting. The Browns' started the Bengals 10-game losing streak with a 23-20 win in week 4 and it only seemed right that they ended it, too.

The story of the game was a Bengals rushing attack, led by Cedric Benson. As CBS announcer Don Criqui repeatedly reminded the hundreds watching on television, the Bengals only rushed it once in the second half of last week's loss to Pittsburgh. Well, they rushed it a lot more than that as Benson had 150 yards on 31 carries. Bernard Scott was effective in spelling Benson with 40 yards on just 8 carries.

The question perhaps is why were the Bengals so effective running the ball in the first place? Was it simply a matter of lulling the Browns into complacency with an anemic running attack all season that left them 30th in the league entering the game? Maybe it was because they ran it only one time against Pittsburgh last season. Maybe it had something to do with a defense that looked as if it had last minute Christmas shopping it needed to get to.

Those are mysteries for another day. All that is known right now is that the Bengals put on a frustratingly effective display of football at its most basic by running, running and then running some more while holding the ball a full 15 minutes more than the Browns. It gave the Browns' offense very little time to find any rhythm. Of course, it could be argued that if the Browns' offense had made a few more first downs sometime between the first and last drives the time of possession stat wouldn't have been so lopsided. Again, though, who am I to argue at this point? Let's just say that both are true.

Despite all of that, it wasn't as if the game had no value. Colt McCoy confirmed that he should be the starting quarterback, making it far easier for the Browns to concentrate on trying to fill about 20 other holes on the team. Oh yea, Brian Robiskie caught a touchdown pass. That isn't a typo.

Let's go to the video tape.

It all started so well, but then again isn't that the way it started last week?

Inserting McCoy at quarterback gave the Browns' offense a jolt in the way a can of Red Bull at 11 p.m. on Saturday night gives you a jolt. Alternately living dangerously and easily McCoy led the Browns straight down field on the Browns' opening drive, going 3-4 for 55 yards, including a 20-yard pass to tight end Robert Royal for the touchdown that helped give the Browns a quick 7-0 lead. At least the Browns did one thing right. They extended their streak of leading in a game to 18 straight, dating back to last season.

McCoy had a few high passes in that drive and a pass or two that could have been intercepted. But McCoy has a charm about him at the moment that at least gives you the sense that he really is the team's best chance to win. It's just that he's fighting such headwinds, like a running game that other teams have figured out and an offensive line that has weakened considerably as the season has worn on. Still on that first drive McCoy had completions, of 17, 18 and 20 yards on the drive which lasted all of 6 plays and covered 75 yards. Unfortunately, it wasn't until the Browns' last drive that they were able to look as effective.

On that last drive McCoy, frustrated all day by a running attack that wasn't working and a pocket that collapsed more often than a folding chair at a graduation party, put together a nifty 5 play 88-yard drive that culminated with a 46-yard touchdown pass to Robiskie. That isn't a typo. McCoy found Robiskie streaking (relatively) down the left sideline, hit him perfectly and Robiskie went into the end zone untouched. The onside kick wasn't recovered and it gave the Bengals the ball at the Cleveland 44-yard line.

As befit the rest of the game, the Browns couldn't keep Benson and the Bengals from gaining the one first down it needed to run out the clock.

While the Bengals were the better team today and perhaps on the season, despite the records, it isn't as if the Bengals are a model of efficiency. They ground out yard after yard all day but could only finish off one drive for a touchdown, which explains a whole lot about their problems.

The Bengals only touchdown of the day came on their second drive and it showed why they can still be a dangerous team, particularly when you consider they have far better skill players than the Browns. Using a heavy dose of Benson and some timely third down passes by Palmer, who went 5-5 on the drive, the Bengals marched 91 yards in 11 plays with Benson finishing off the drive by carrying it in nearly untouched from 18 yards out. Clint Stitser's extra point tied the game at 7-7.

The Bengals took a 10-7 lead on their next drive on a Stitser 25-yard field goal. It was a drive that established a pattern of sorts with the Bengals using Benson to push the ball down field only to see the drive end prematurely. The only thing it did was keep the game from getting out of hand. The Browns' defense couldn't contain Benson all day and even when they did, Palmer usually had enough time to find an open receiver.

The Browns, meanwhile, were painfully repeating a game plan that was unveiled against Miami two weeks ago and used to even lesser effect last week against Buffalo and now against Cincinnati. It featured a heavy dose of trying to run the ball into the middle of a defense with 8 players near the line of scrimmage. It ended, usually, with a Reggie Hodges punt. Lather, rinse, repeat.

That said, it's only fair to note that the Browns did find a little fire late in the third quarter with a drive that was nearly reminiscent of their first, but with better running, McCoy and Hillis pushed the ball from the Browns' 34 yard line down to the Bengals' 5 yard line. Then on 3rd and 1, Hillis couldn't get the yard as the hole closed that quickly. Head coach Eric Mangini, once again eschewing a 4th and 1 deep in opposing territory, opted to have Phil Dawson kick the 23-yard field goal that brought the Browns back to within one score at 16-10 just as the fourth quarter was getting underway. The decision not to go for the touchdown on 4th and 1 was far more defensible than a similar decision a week ago on the Browns' opening drive.

And it's a decision that may have seemed like a good idea at the time but it became a moot point a few minutes later when Palmer hit Andre Caldwell on what turned out to be a 53-yard screen play. It got the ball down to the Browns' 20-yard line. The Bengals got it to the 5-yard line but once again were forced to settle for a Stitser chip shot field goal that again pushed the lead to 9 at 19-10.

The Browns made it respectable with the Robiskie touchdown at the end (that's not a typo) but because touchdowns still don't count for 9 points and onside kicks usually aren't recovered in the NFL, especially when the other team knows it's coming, the Browns weren't able to truly threaten the Bengals.

One of the abiding mysteries as the Browns get deeper into the season is what, exactly goes on in the locker room at halftime. The Bengals' game plan was well established in the game's first half and yet the Bengals were able to pretty much pick up in the second half where they left off when they went into the locker room. That meant two things, really. First, the Bengals kept moving the ball but not getting into the end zone. Second, whatever else the Browns defense and their coordinator Rob Ryan talked about at halftime, we know it wasn't adjustments.

As for the offense, same question. The Bengals' defense was mostly selling out on the run, stacking 8 players near the line of scrimmage on running plays. When it was time to pass, the offensive line was giving McCoy about as much time as Republicans give Barack Obama and with similar results. McCoy had little time to throw anything more than a quick swing pass and those generally aren't going to be successful when it's 3rd and long.

In that context it's actually quite surprising that McCoy was a respectable 19-25 for 243 yards, 2 touchdowns and no interceptions, though most of that yardage came early and late. Hillis though could only manage 59 yards on 15 carries. More to the point, though, is that the offense just isn't creative enough at this point to scare anyone.

The Browns may be one of the more confounding teams in the league this season. It seems like they are improved from last season and have the stats to back that up but each week the gap between Browns circa 2009 and circa 2010 closes a bit more. They aren't talented by most measures but they do have some interesting players on both sides of the ball. They appear to play hard, usually, but then have too many lapses on both sides of the ball to say they are disciplined. They've beaten two of the league's best teams and yet struggles with teams at its level. It all adds up to a confusing record that isn't great, certainly, but yet seems to indicate that it's a better unit than a year ago. Whether that's really true will be known in a few weeks because with games against Baltimore and Pittsburgh upcoming, the Browns have a very real chance of matching last season's win total. All the difference in the world though comes in how each of those teams got to their 5 wins.

At the end of the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is finally able to move on once he becomes the man he always should have been. If the Browns are going to ever exit their own private Punxsutawney, they are going to have to be the team they always should have been. From the looks of things right now, there's no reason to think that “I Got You, Babe” isn't going to play on the radio right before kick off next week against Baltimore.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Saving His Own Skin

There’s nothing like a bad loss to renew a coaching debate.

When the Cleveland Browns scurried out of Buffalo on Sunday with their collective tails between their legs, the message boarders and media speculators wasted little time pinning Mangini’s fate on the outcome of the team’s final three games.

In some ways, that makes sense. The last three games, coming as they do against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Baltimore, provide a good late season measuring stick. The Bengals are like the Browns at the moment, the season more or less over before it began in earnest. Pride, jobs next year and their head coach’s fate is all that remains to play for. Call it the “Mail In Bowl.” Pittsburgh and Baltimore need to keep winning. It will be a testament to or an indictment of Mangini depending on how the team responds.

In other words, it’s exactly the kind of final exam any head coach should have to take if his job is seriously in jeopardy. The problem, though, is that I don’t think that Mangini’s job really is in that much jeopardy unless team president Mike Holmgren wants to return to coaching and wants that to be in Cleveland. In that case, Mangini already is gone.

But I don’t think Holmgren really does want to return to coaching anyway. Whatever time he has left between now and actual retirement is far better spent in the front office and as each day passes I get the sense he realizes that.

There are plenty of statistics around to make whatever case you want about any topic you want, especially sports. Mangini doesn’t even need a Harvard Business School grad to crunch the numbers in this instance to make a somewhat compelling case for himself. There are enough good stats floating around the surface to make the case that this team is appreciably better than it was a year ago, assuming that is one of the key standards by which Mangini is being measured.

Mangini’s argument really can start with the last four games of last season and carry through to Sunday’s game against Buffalo. In that time his team is 9-8 and played an objectively difficult schedule to get there. In that stretch, the Browns have led in every game they’ve played. The defense has only given up more than 30 points once, last season to Kansas City in Week 15. They’ve also scored 17 more points than the opposition in their last 17 games. To contrast the difference, consider that for all of last year, including those last four games, the Browns were outscored by an average of 13 points per game.

If Mangini needs to dig deeper he can always point to the players on the roster. It’s filled with more holes than the plot to Inception. Indeed, to take the talent presented and still find a way to eke out a positive record over its last 17 games qualifies as a minor miracle on the level of Cleveland side streets getting timely plowed and the pot holes getting timely filled.

But before Mangini goes and gets all secure, hopefully he recognizes that there is a case to be made that the current trends aren’t looking nearly as positive. The defense is still collapsing at exactly the moment it needs to rise up and that was evident on Buffalo’s last drive Sunday. The real problem though is on offense.

So when Holmgren makes his evaluation of Mangini, another key will be to determine how open Mangini will be to changes on offense. Don’t ponder that question too long. In the world of pro football where the supply of head coaches always exceeds the demand, it’s pretty easy to see on which side of the bread it is buttered, meaning that Mangini will be open to pretty much anything Holmgren might suggest.

To survive in this business, particularly when your resume to this point is a little thin on accomplishment, a head coach like Mangini can’t afford to take too much of a philosophical stand on anything that isn’t completely aligned with his boss. And what we know right now from the few words Holmgren has said on the subject, the team’s offensive scheme is at least as confusing to Holmgren as it is to the rest of us.

Thus, don’t be surprised if, following his discussion with Holmgren, Mangini hangs onto his job and then brings offensive coordinator Brian Daboll in, thanks him for his hard work, writes him a nice letter of recommendation and then sends him back to the available assistant coaches pile where he’ll be lucky to find a job in the near term as a quarterback’s coach. Mangini will then go about finding an offensive coordinator more versed in Holmgren’s “west coast” offense and then thank God or the Fonz or whatever deity he prays to that it’s not him out looking for a job at the moment. .

All this occurs because it is becoming clearer as each week passes is that Holmgren’s view of the offense is well justified. Over the last several weeks, starting exactly at the point when the Browns’ unrelenting schedule relented, it seems as if Daboll has tried to take on teams head on, which seems particularly ill advised. This team has a strong runner in Peyton Hillis but they have no receivers to speak of and a skittish and weak-armed starting quarterback who seems too afraid to try and throw the ball down field. It isn’t a recipe for trying to take on any team mano-a-mano.

The Browns’ last 3 games more than prove the point. The game against Carolina featured a steady diet of Hillis and not much else and the Browns were lucky to emerge with a victory when a last second field goal attempt by John Kasay hit the upright. The Browns used the same formula against Miami and squeaked by again thanks to a dropped interception by Miami and a gift interception by Mike Adams. The same formula was carried into Buffalo, which featured the worst run defense in the league. It finally crapped out.

It’s understandable that the Browns’ attack would be so run-centric. But in the last several weeks it’s come at the expense of any of the creativity and unpredictability that the offensive attack featured earlier in the season. It’s almost as if Daboll and/or Mangini got it into their heads that this team was ready to compete offensively on an even basis with anyone and then went out to prove how wrong they were.

So much of the blame on Sunday’s game went to quarterback Jake Delhomme, but the problem isn’t with Delhomme but the coach or coaches that put him on the field in the first place. Delhomme’s a great guy, a true professional on a team that has had too few in recent years. But his skills have diminished appreciably and that’s apparent to anyone bothering to watch.

And yet unless McCoy can play on Sunday in Cincinnati, it will be Delhomme back behind center trying to out execute a Bengals’ defense that will not only know what is coming but when it will be coming as well.

There’s an argument that losing McCoy for these last three games has gotten the offense off track, but it’s an argument that doesn’t make sense. This offense was installed without even a fleeting consideration that McCoy would be leading it this year. His play has been exciting and makes the entire offense seem less turgid because he’s a threat to run, but fundamentally the offense is merely a set of plays and not a comprehensive scheme designed to take advantage of any mismatches. Daboll is a signal caller. He’s not a coordinator.

When Holmgren observed that he wasn’t quite sure what the offense is trying to do, he wasn’t alone. Even Mangini admitted in his press conference this week that he wasn’t sure the team had a well conceived game plan this past week. It was the clearest sign yet that the fractures are forming and that even Mangini is starting to realize that his continued employment may very well depend on Daboll’s unemployment.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

An Exercise in Tedium

Well, there will be no end-of-the-year 4-game winning streak this year.

The Cleveland Browns, who seemed to overwhelm the competition last year with a rediscovered late season running game that literally saved head coach Eric Mangini's job found themselves a victim of their own medicine as the Buffalo Bills rushed for nearly 200 yards en route to a 13-6 win. The loss dropped the Browns to 5-8 and assuring another season without a winning record.

A thing of beauty this game was not. It was nearly exactly what you might expect from two teams playing in December with a combined 7 wins between them. It was mistake filled and mostly served to highlight two franchises that are still firmly gripping the bottom rungs of the league's ladder.

There would be no sudden end or last second collapse. There would be no ball grazing a goal post to tip the fates one way or the other. Instead it was mostly a painful journey through all the reasons these two teams are what they are. Though the game was played in a steady rain, it really didn't seem like it was the overriding factor in the game.

A far bigger factor was the Browns' inept approach and even more inept execution. In the game they had 5 fumbles, 3 of which were by Hillis. They lost two of them. They also had the 1 interception that allowed the Bills to close out the game. For good measure, they never even crossed midfield in the second half. The Bills were slightly better, fumbling twice and losing it once. They also had their share of goofy mistakes, starting with being offside on the opening kickoff.

Still, credit should be given to the Bills since they found a way to win. And when the Bills get into their film room come Monday, they will enjoy in particular how they finished the game. Let's preview that film session for them.

After a predictable Jake Delhomme interception late in the fourth quarter, the Bills pounded the ball nearly at will at the heart of the Browns defense to run out the clock, ending the game at the Browns' 7-yard line. It was a little mercy shown and a little exclamation point for a team that going into the game had but 2 wins all season.

If Delhomme was using Sunday as a chance to make his case to remain the starting quarterback for the team's final 3 games, he wasn't persuasive. Skittish for the second consecutive week, Delhomme rarely looked down field to pass and in the process made the Browns offense even more predictable then the outcome of “It's a Wonderful Life.”

Even a team with the worst rushing defense in the league, which the Bills have, will eventually be able to stop the run when they know nothing else scary is coming their way. Just put 8 or so players up close to the line of scrimmage, which the Bills mostly did. Although Peyton Hillis had 108 yards rushing, there was virtually no passing game to support him as Delhomme was just 12-20 for 86 yards and 1 interception.

The fact that the Browns would try to run the ball was hardly a state secret anyway. And it certainly seemed like the Browns might be in for a good day based on the ease of their first drive. It featured 8 straight runs that covered 54 yards, nearly all of which were by Hillis. It allowed Hillis to quickly get the yards he needed to go over 1,000 for the season, making him the 9th running back in franchise history to achieve that milestone.

The problem was that the Browns needed to cover 55 yards in that drive to get into the end zone. But for reasons as mysterious as they were mystical, the Bills' run defense tightened up once the Browns were 1st and goal from the 5-yard line and as a result the Browns settled for a 19-yard Phil Dawson field goal for the quick 3-0 lead. On the plus side it kept a nice streak in tact as the Browns have now had a lead in every game this season. On the down side, it was the only real highlight of the game for the Browns.

For a moment, though, the Browns looked to be right back in business after the Dawsn field goal when linebacker Chris Gocong forced a Ryan Fitzpatrick fumble and it was recovered by Eric Wright, who took it back to the Buffalo 25-yard line. But Hillis returned the favor on the next play as he tried to leap over a defender and lost the ball to nose tackle Kyle Williams. The Bills put together a nice drive in response but weren't able to turn the fumble into points when they came up short on 4th down at the Cleveland 35 yard line.

It didn't matter. The Bills were able to get on the board and get the lead on their next possession thanks to 11-yard touchdown pass from Fitzpatrick to David Nelson. It was the conclusion of a 14-play 89-yard drive that bled the Browns' defense one paper cut at a time. It also was the only touchdown of the game.

The Browns' only other score of the day was on their next possession when they marched right back on the Bills but then had to again settle for a short Dawson field goal. What was most notable about the drive, however, was that it featured Delhomme's only down field pass of the entire game, a 34-yard hook up with receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. But Delhomme, despite all the time anyone would have needed, couldn't find an open receiver on 3rd down from the Buffalo 8 yard line forcing the team to settle for the field goal.

Looking to trade field goals for touchdowns, the Bills turned right around and marched through the Browns' defense just before the half. But there's a reason they are who they are as well. With the ball sitting at the Cleveland 5-yard line and 36 seconds remaining, the Bills came out of time out and preceded to get a delay of game penalty, which is the kind of things teams with two wins tend to do. That pushed the ball back to the 10-yard line. Fitzpatrick was then sacked and missed on a 3rd down pass, setting up a Ryan Lindell 30-yard field goal. It gave the Bills a 10-6 lead at the half.

The second half was simply an exercise in tedium. Still, there was some fun to be had if your sense of humor runs to the absurd.

If it does, then you'd have a hard time finding anything more absurd than the Browns' drive that started late in the third quarter and carried over into the fourth. It began at their 9 yard line, lasted over 5 minutes, featured 10 plays and covered a grand total of 24 yards before Reggie Hodges punted. There were 3 fumbles, two by Hillis and one by Cribbs. The Cribbs' fumble really told the story of the drive, indeed the day.

The play started when Hillis and Delhomme ran into each other while attempting a fake hand off. It fooled no one. By the time Cribbs came around from the right end, he was greeted by a host of Bills players who had more or less set up camp about 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage as they waited for this excruciatingly long play to develop. Cribbs was stripped of the ball as he attempted to avoid the inevitable loss of yardage and appeared to have lost the ball completely but somehow emerged with it when the play was all over. It allowed the drive, such as it was, to continue but only for a moment more.

The fun continued on their next possession when Delhomme fumbled deep in Browns' territory while attempting to pass. When the ball came loose, Bills defensive back Bryan Scott recovered and was heading into the end zone untouched. But the back judge, who likewise was having a rough day, whistled the play dead quickly thinking that it was an incomplete pass. Bills head coach Chan Gailey challenged the call and it was overturned, giving the Bills the ball at the Cleveland 23-yard line. It could have been a critical mistake by the official because the Bills were not able to punch it in the end zone, despite getting it down to the Browns' 1 yard line. They had to settle for a 19-yard Lindell field goal and a 13-6 lead that theoretically kept the Browns within a touchdown with 7 minutes remaining in the game.

It was just theoretical. Delhomme piled on still more misery on the Browns' next drive when he literally threw a ball up for grabs on 3rd and 8 from the Browns' 49-yard line. Of course it was intercepted by Bills cornerback Leodis McKelvin who returned it back to the Buffalo 42-yard line. From there running back Freddie Jackson took over and iced the game for the Bills.

As far as performances go, it was probably the Browns' worst of the season given the level of competition and the decided advantage they seemed to have going into the game. They didn't just play down to their level of competition. They played below it. There was no cohesion on offense and as they have done too many times this season, the Browns' defense couldn't get the stops they needed when they needed them most, meaning late in the game, although that hardly mattered ultimately.

As Mangini crossed the field at the end of the game to shake Gailey's hand, you could see the anger streaming from every pore. He knows that if nothing else, this kind of performance isn't going to quiet those that already are convinced that he needed to essentially win out once again to save his job. I'm not so sure about that but there's no question that Mangini won't be using this game as his primary argument when he discusses his fate with Mike Holmgren come season's end.

From here, the last breather on the Browns' schedule is next week against the woeful Cincinnati Bengals. Of course, that was a description that until today applied to the Buffalo Bills as well and we know how that has since turned out. And perhaps even more depressing is that given the extremely limited interest in a game where, once again, the teams combined have 7 wins, we'll likely be subjected to once again the crack broadcast team of Don Criqui and Steve Beurlein. Talk about your lumps of coal.

Friday, December 10, 2010

A Stopped Clock

It is said that even a stopped clock is right twice a day and so it is with the Bowl Championship Series as well. The fact that it worked out this year as the strong consensus number one and number two teams are playing in the national championship game doesn’t mean the BCS is a perfect system or even the right system. It’s just a jerry-rigged fix that gets it right once in awhile.

I’ve railed against the BCS in the past because of what it is and what it isn’t. My point is simple. Either go back to the way things used to be or go to a full-blown playoff. This middling approach causes middling results.

Maybe the BCS is the best that can be done. That’s because a playoff system, whatever merit it might have, is far more of a problem then most people believe, suggesting that the BCS is with us like a crazy aunt. The current bowl system, the real impediment to a playoff, is far more intertwined into the fabric of Division I college football than most people appreciate. It’s easy for the media to take an etch-a-sketch approach to damn near anything. You don’t like what the current picture looks like? Just shake and start over, simple as that.

Well, it’s not that simple.

According to a report on ESPN.com, at a recent IMG Intercollegiate Forum that featured a lengthy discussion among the athletic directors of the major conferences, a healthy debate ensued on the merits of the current BCS system. Lest anyone think that there isn’t a case to be made for the current system, they should listen to what Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany had to say.

Delany makes the obvious but important point that much of the debate starts from the premise that teams and fans alike are conditioned to think about playoffs. Indeed, playoffs are the fabric of virtually every sports league from 8-year old T-ball to the NFL. Thus, the natural inclination is that the only way to arrive at a true national champ is through a grinding system of post-season games that leads to a winner take all final.

It’s way too late to try to condition fans otherwise but Delany’s point, subtly made, is that no one stops to consider challenging the conventional wisdom of the underlying premise. You could dissect the playoffs in virtually any sport and find an unworthy champ. It’s often the case that teams with the best regular season record don’t end up winning it all for any number of reasons.

So it is a valid point to make that even a playoff system doesn’t necessarily do any more to guarantee the “right” team was crowned national champ. But the counter to it is that when it comes to NCAA football, where the disparity between conferences can be far more dramatic than the disparity between divisions in professional sports, there is a better chance that the theoretical “right” team will be the national champ after being tested through a playoff system.

But the far more salient point that Delany makes is to point out the difficulties inherent in a playoff system given the current bowl system and conference affiliations. Those who scoff at these as mere parochial concerns really do miss the larger issues.

As Delany notes, the automatic bowl bid conferences like the PAC 10 and Big 10 gave up some of their access to, for example, the Rose Bowl, traditionally the most lucrative bowl game of all, in order to serve the greater good which, in this case, means teams from lesser conferences like the Mountain West, which is sending TCU to the Rose Bowl this season against Wisconsin.

Whatever else you might think about TCU and the level of competition it plays, no one much argues that a Wisconsin vs. Stanford Rose Bowl would be a far more desirable match up from just about every angle. In the context of college sports, the sacrifice that the Big 10 and the PAC 10 made in order to allow the Wisconsin v. TCU game to happen instead is significantly underappreciated by the playoff advocates.

Stated differently, as Delany points out, a playoff system of virtually any configuration comes at the expense and financial sacrifice of the schools at the top for the benefit of the middling schools and conferences, like the Mountain West and the Big East, who give up virtually nothing.

It may all be just money, but it’s real money you’re taking out of one school’s or one conference’s pocket to put into the pockets of lesser schools or conferences. In a different context, say a tax increase for millionaires to provide more benefits for the poor, we’d rail against it as a socialistic redistribution of wealth. But since it’s football, this is all just fine.

Another point that Delany doesn’t much get into but is still worth noting is the premise that a playoff system creates even greater wealth for everyone. Yet I’ve not seen one model, one study, one proposal from one network that actually supports this premise.

The working assumption is that there is no limit on the money that the networks will spend for the rights to televise NCAA playoff football. That simply isn’t true. More to the point, whatever money the networks would spend would eventually impact what amount, if any, they’d be willing to pay for all of those minor bowl games featuring teams not good enough to make the playoffs.

And before you say good riddance to those bowl games, remember that these lesser teams are never going to give up those opportunities. If nothing else, it gives them more weeks of practice, giving them a head start on the next season.

If you don’t think, for example, that the Michigan Wolverines suffered some the past two seasons because they weren’t bowl eligible the previous year, you aren’t paying attention. That extra game and those extra practices are akin to an early start on spring football.

What really emerges from this entire debate is that the true advocates for the BCS, meaning those colleges with the most to lose economically through a more democratic playoff system, actually have a point. I suspect they understand that the BCS isn’t perfect or even very good. It’s as if they’re trying to scratch an itch knowing that the back scratcher isn’t quite long enough to reach the whole problem.

There are some that predict a regular playoff season within 5 years and they may be right. But every playoff proposal that someone has concocted has the same thing at its core: forcing the big schools to forego the potential millions that their current bowl affiliations tend to yield. That is why virtually every playoff proposal has been dead on arrival.

These big schools, be it Ohio State, USC, Oklahoma, or Alabama, have budgets they need to balance and that isn’t going to happen if their most lucrative sport, football, is put in a position of potentially foregoing millions just so that the occasional TCU or Boise State can run with the big boys for a few years.

No one seems to relish a return to the old days and the chance that there might be disputed national champs based on the vagaries of pollsters. Fine. But if a playoff system is going to happen, it won’t be until someone steps forward with a proposal that addresses the big schools fundamental interest. They aren’t going to go along until they are compensated for the sacrifices that are being asked to make. Since no one has come forward with that kind of proposal, we all better just get used to this do-loop of bitching every December about the stopped clock that is the BCS and get comfortable that at least every once in awhile it gets it right.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

A Tale of Two Coaches

It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times. There was little wisdom, there was plenty of foolishness. There was little belief and loads of incredulity, it was the season of darkness, the winter of despair. So went the tale of two cities, Cleveland and Denver, as they finished off their 2008 football seasons on similar footing, fans aghast at what had become of their teams.

And as those teams entered what looked to be that winter of despair, they were not unlike any other team at any other time looking for direction in the form of new head coaches. And so it went, Denver and Cleveland, tying their fates to coaches of similar fashion.

When Pat Bowlen for the Broncos and Randy Lerner for the Browns went looking for new leaders, they both were seeking a similar path. Now, the teams seem headed in opposite directions. For once, though, it appears it's the Browns heading down the right road while the Broncos are left tilting at windmills.

Almost as soon as Eric Mangini was fired by the New York Jets following a disastrous 2008 season he was hired by Browns’ owner Randy Lerner. Lerner didn’t even have a general manager in place, so excited was he about Mangini. This guy had head coaching experience, dammit. There would be no Romeo Crennel, redux.

Lerner appeared to put as much due diligence behind the decision to hire Mangni as the average mortgage broker did into loaning to suspect home buyers just before the housing market crashed the economy.

A few perfunctory questions would have revealed that Mangini was a polarizing figure who, despite a fast start, wore out his welcome in New York just as quickly, branded as the cheap team’s Belichick. Maybe he was trying too hard, maybe he didn’t know any better, but Mangini took on the Belichick persona without any of the success that made that kind of surliness tolerable. In turn he alienated Jets players and the front office which, at the time, was being run by one of his best friends, Mike Tannenbaum. On the way he also took a blow torch to his relationship with Belichick, just because he could.

If Mangini found another job, it surely would be as a coordinator. Who'd take another chance on him as a head coach?

But Lerner didn’t really know what he didn’t know and hired him anyway, perhaps the most underwhelming hire since Chris Palmer anyway.

Meanwhile, four days later Bowlen had seemingly scored a coup by hiring McDaniels. He was the ultra successful offensive coordinator for the ultra successful Patriots who now seemed more than ready to take flight with his own team. He came without any of the baggage of Mangini and twice the praise. He carried, too, the blessing of Yoda Belichick.

Browns’ fans scratched their heads, again. Mangini was a known and limited quantity while McDaniels was a local boy. He was born in Barberton, played high school ball at Canton McKinley and played college ball at John Carroll. If Lerner wanted to build some goodwill with an alienated fan base, McDaniels appeared to be the near perfect hire.

Yet Lerner gave little if any consideration to interviewing McDaniels because McDaniels lacked the one line on his resume that Mangini had and that was previous experience as a head coach.

Maybe Lerner really was on to something there.

In the run up to their first seasons, both Mangini and McDaniels had run ins with players. Mangini alienated Shaun Rogers by ignoring him at a team function. Mangini didn't score points with the new class of rookies he drafted (not well, by the way) when he volunteered them to help out at his New England sports camp.

McDaniels wasn’t faring any better. He alienated Jay Cutler when Cutler learned that McDaniels was trying to trade him for Matt Cassel, a McDaniels protégé with the Patriots. Cutler then went public, saying he couldn’t trust McDaniels. A Belichick progeny is a Belichick progeny and Cutler was quickly traded to Chicago.

On the field, it was McDaniels that got off to a fast start, winning his first 6 games. It papered over the fact that he was putting his faith in Kyle Orton instead of the more mercurial but more talented Cutler.

Mangini, meanwhile, had the roughest start possible. He was pissing off players left and right and still found time to engineer a coup of the front office by getting George Kokinis, the team’s president and one of Mangini’s few friends in the league, fired. Somewhere around the time that the team's record stood at 1-8 or so, few thought Mangini would make it through the season. As things spiraled out of control, Lerner decided to hire Mike Holmgren as his head zookeeper, which put Mangini’s future further in doubt.

Then a funny thing happened. After those first 6 wins, the Broncos’ wheels came off slowly, surely and ultimately. They lost their next four games, temporarily righted the ship with two wins, and then proceeded to drop their next four. A season of great promise ended at 8-8 and no playoffs. Despite the carnage, it was that last game that really served as a portent of things to come as the Broncos were drubbed by the Kansas City Chiefs 44-24. The Chiefs were quarterbacked by, ironically, Matt Cassel. To this day, the Broncos haven't recovered.

In Cleveland and against all logic and reason, Mangini’s team won its last four games by unleashing a running attack that seemed to surprise every one. It was the most improbable win streak since the Indians started the 2002 season by winning 11 of their first 12 games. If nothing else, the win streak forced Holmgren to give Mangini another season.

This past off season brought still more turmoil for McDaniels. He traded disgruntled but talented receiver Brandon Marshall. He also dumped two running backs, Casey Wiegman and Peyton Hillis, while getting little in return. The Hillis trade was particularly lopsided given what Hillis has become and Brady Quinn hasn't. Then McDaniels engineered the drafting of Tim Tebow anyway. The age of reason it was not.

With that as his backdrop, McDaniels started his second season looking down the business end of an angry fan base. He did nothing to change their minds. The losses haven't just piled up, they've become historic. Then McDaniels got himself embroiled in his own mini-me version of Spygate and embarrassed the franchise. It cost him the support of his owner. It cost him his job. The Broncos are now the Browns, 2008 edition.

Mangini, on the other hand, is experiencing his better days. Unburdened of all responsibilities except coaching energized Mangini in ways unimaginable. He shed some weight as he was shedding himself of most of his Belichick tendencies and rediscovered his own personality. And the players responded. They aren't perfect. Not by a longshot. But the Browns are 5-7 and by almost every metric you could point to are an improved team.

There sometimes is no accounting for the winds that blow in the NFL. McDaniels seemed to have it all and threw it all away so quickly. Mangini hung on by his fingernails and now has a firmer grip on his job than ever. And for the fans here in Cleveland, it's doubtful they'd trade places with their counterparts in Denver. As Browns fans are finding out, sometimes the best things in life may actually be not getting what you want.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

A Small Bit of Redemption

The game didn't carry the same cache as the other Cleveland-Miami game that took place earlier in the week, but at least the result wasn't the same. Giving Cleveland fans a small level of redemption against all that is South Beach, the Browns beat the Miami Dolphins 13-10 in a game noted more for its tedium than its elegance.

Usually when a game features a kind of tit-for-tat where one team's scoring effort immediately is matched by the other's it can result in some pretty exciting football. This game featured plenty of tit-for-tat. What it didn't feature, though, was anything approaching exciting football. Each inept offensive series seemed to be matched in kind by the other team. The few scoring drives that there were likewise were quickly matched making one wonder why each team felt so compelled to merely mirror what its counterparts were doing.

Nonetheless, the dam had to break at some point, though most would have bet it would have been in overtime. For a second it looked like the break would be in the most predictable way possible when Browns' quarterback Jake Delhomme, under pressure with less than two minutes remaining and needing to convert on third down, gift wrapped a pick-6 pass to cornerback Roland Carroll. But Carroll apparently hadn't fully read the script and dropped the ball, forcing the Browns to punt.

After Reggie Hodge's 9th (yes, 9th) punt of the day left the Dolphins at their own 25-yard line, Henne missed on his first two passes and then put the ball in the hands of defensive back Mike Adams off of a David Bowens deflection. Adams returned it to the Dolphins' 3-yard line. It was Henne's 3rd interception of the day. With the Dolphins having only one time out remaining, the Browns positioned themselves for a game winning field goal as they wound the clock down to 4 seconds. Phil Dawson, making up for a miss earlier in the game, nailed the chip shot 23-yarder for the victory that now puts the Browns' record at 5-7 with 4 games remaining.

Until this late turn of events, the game tapes of this match up seemed destined to be sold on some late night infomercial for natural sleep aids. It was nearly as boring as a Friday afternoon lecture on microeconomics.

Indeed if you hadn't realized that both the Browns and the Dolphins actually had more or less their full complement of players, you'd swear that the NFL lockout had already taken place by the way this game was played. Depending on whether the person talking is an offensive or defensive coordinator, there was either great defense taking place on both sides or poor offense. I watched it. The offenses were a problem.

Consider, first, the Browns. With a game plan that read, “hand off right to Peyton Hillis, pitch left to Hillis, screen pass to Hillis, punt” the Browns seemed content apparently to bore the Dolphins into submission. It didn't work, which is why the Browns ended up punting 5 times in the first half and 4 more in the second..

Consider next, the Dolphins. They have two good running backs in Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams and seemed content to run them with reciever Brandon Marshall out. It was mildly effective. What wasn't was quarterback Henne's passes which is why Brandon Fields had 3 punts in the first half. What's misleading there is that one of Miami's drives ended in a blocked field goal attempt and two others ended abruptly with interceptions.

One particularly underthrown pass by Henne to a wide open Brian Hartline resulted in cornerback Joe Haden getting his 4th interception in the last 4 games and his 5th of the season. But the Browns, naturally, followed that up with a quick 3-and-out.

A particularly overthrown ball by Henne landed in the hands of safety Abe Elam and that led to Cleveland's first points off a Phil Dawson 31-yard field goal. The Browns' drive that ended in the field goal offered its own measure of frustration even as it gave the Browns the lead temporarily.

Either offensive coordinator Brian Daboll was skittish about giving Delhomme anything but safe passes to ponder or Delhomme was too skittish to to anything but throw underneath unless it was safe passes long that couldn't be intercepted, like the overthrown pass to Chansi Stuckey in the end zone or the underthrown sideline pass to Mohamed Massaquoi.

The Browns' lead didn't last long as the Dolphins, naturally, tied the score on their next drive, a drive that was mostly a marker for the entire first half. A few decent plays and a Matt Roth roughing penalty put the Dolphins on the Cleveland 40-yard line with 1:25 remaining. From there the Dolphins went backwards thanks to a sack by Shaun Rogers and an offensive pass interference penalty. After Henne threw short on a 3rd and 27 yard play, Carpenter came in an nailed, barely, a 60-yard field goal, a Dolphins' record, to tie the game with just a few seconds remaining in the half.

It was only fitting that a game this tedious should remain as tied as it was when it started.

If you were looking for adjustments at the half, at least by the Browns, your time would have been better spent looking for the ghost of St. Nicholas. The Browns took the opening kick of the second half and proceeded to run exactly the same things with exactly the same way results, including another Hodges punt.

The Dolphins likewise didn't go in much for the adjustment thing either and matched the Browns with their own ineffective drive to start the second half.

On their next possession the Browns did seem to be putting together a decent drive when Delhomme thanks to a down field pass to Watson that went for 22 yards that got the ball to the Miami 26-yard line. But a short pass, a run that went for no yards and a sack forced the Browns to attempt a 47-yard field goal. Dawson's kick hit the left upright squarely and bounced away benignly, leaving the score tied. Meanwhile the Dolphins' thumbs kept twiddling.

The Dawson miss was actually a measure of synchronicity with Dolphins kicker Dan Carpenter whose 41-yard field goal off the Dolphins' first drive of the game was blocked by Rogers.

The Browns finally put a touchdown on the board on their next possession and it came, not surprisingly, by throwing a change up at the Dolphins in the form of some down field passes. Starting with the ball at their own 6-yard line following a Fields punt and a holding penalty on the kick, Delhomme found Massaquoi downfield for 37 yards, quickly moving the ball to their 46 yard line. Delhomme then found Watson for another 15 yards. But it was a short crossing pattern by Massaquoi where the Dolphins' defender fell down that took the ball to the Miami 3 -yard line. Then Delhomme found Watson at the goal line for the touchdown that helped push the lead to 10-3 with just over a minute remaining in the third quarter.

The Dolphins tied the game on their next possession, naturally, by putting together their only effective drive of the day as well. It covered 80 yards in 11 plays and marked the first time the Dolphins had been in the red zone all day. It culminated with a Henne pass to tight end Anthony Fassano for 11 yards that helped tie the score 10-10. They didn't get in the red zone again.

That touchdown occurred with over 10 minutes remaining and from there it was a race to see when this thing might end because how was more or less predicted.

It's probably a measure of the fading confidence that Daboll and head coach Eric Mangini have in Delhomme that they kept him in check most of the day. It's probably also a measure of Delhomme's own fading confidence that he abided dutifully. It was only when he was forced into relying on his own instincts near the end of the game that the real Delhomme returned and it was almost a disaster.

Still Delhomme didn't turn over the ball and was 24-34 for 217 yards and one touchdown. Hillis, bottled up all day by a Dolphins defense that had little to do other than key on him, had only 57 yards on 18 carries. He did have 7 more receptions though but for only 22 yards. If there was a star on offense it was Watson who had 10 catches for 100 yards and the one touchdown.

On defense, as long as Brown and Williams were kept in check, and they mostly were, the Dolphins didn't present much of a scoring threat. The defense did tackle well and cornerback Joe Haden had his best day as a pro as he pounded more nails in the coffin of former starter Eric Wright. And though Henne was only sacked once, he was harassed all day and never could find a rhythm.

Henne had a forgettable day certainly with the 3 interceptions, particularly the late one to Adams. He was only 16-32 for 174 yards. More to the point, though, Henne seems to lack the arm strength necessary to stretch a defense anyway. It certainly didn't help that Marshall was out and Hartline missed the second half. But the other side of that is that the Browns have been playing without wide receivers all year so the sympathy for Henne is limited. Brown had 50 yards on the ground while Williams added 48.

The Browns are in spitting distance of having a winning record and travel to Buffalo next week. But if they are going to finish this season like they did last season, they will need more of a spark than Delhomme can provide. If Colt McCoy isn't ready, it may be time once again to see what Seneca Wallace has to offer because with the Browns' game plan so obvious, it's going to take something more than a steady diet of Hillis to finish this season strong.

Friday, December 03, 2010

Quitness, Indeed

The last thing that anyone needs at the moment is another screed about how LeBron James betrayed the city of Cleveland. Pretty much every word that could be written about the personal and professional disaster that James brought upon himself this summer has been written. And there’s been plenty of words already about how Cavaliers fans acted and reacted on Thursday night when James returned to town.

But as James and his talents head back to South Beach after Thursday night’s beat down, Cavaliers fans are left not just with the image of what basketball is really like in this town without James. They’re also left with the image that the team representing this city is a colossal embarrassment in more ways than any of us ever imagined.

Owner Dan Gilbert went on Twitter after the game and basically said that words couldn’t express what he was feeling at the moment. Maybe that’s a sign of maturity given the words he used to express himself after James stabbed him in the back. I was never one of those that felt Gilbert went off half-cocked on that one. If anything, he handled it with more class than he needed to.

But this is the time that Gilbert needs to stand up once again and find the right words. He needs to speak the truth not about James but about the inferior product he has put on the court, and I’m not just referring to the talent level, either. What Gilbert and Cavaliers fans saw last night was a team lay down on national television and defer to James in the way that a dog defers to its master.

But it wasn’t just the lay down that grinds. What was so jaw-dropping embarrassing, what was so pathetic and what Gilbert has to come to grips with is that the team on the court on Thursday night refused to have the backs of their fans. It’s a team of soft and indifferent players who didn’t care enough to actually treat the game against the Heat like it was an actual rivalry. To them it was just another game in a meaningless season, something to get through on their way back home.

The main reason that football fans in Cleveland and Pittsburgh love that rivalry so much is that the players carry it with them on the field. It’s more than just fans of one city hating the players of the other. It’s the fact that the players on each side seem to turn it up more than a notch when they walk onto that field and look across the field at their rival. The hits are harder and sometimes cheaper. The players act like they want to work out the frustration of every fan, one hard hit and one chop block at a time.

When Joe “Turkey” Jones tried to plant Steelers’ quarterback Terry Bradshaw into the middle of the Municipal Stadium turf, head first, every Browns’ fan was living vicariously. It represented exactly what they had always wanted to do if only they could get on the field. And when James Harrison knocked two Browns out of the game a few weeks ago, Steelers’ fans were just as ecstatic, believe me.

The same is true for the Ohio State/Michigan rivalry. Wolverines head coach Rich Rodriguez may not appreciate the intensity of the game, but Ohio State’s Jim Tressel sure does. He knows how the fans feel about Michigan and the players get that. Anyone who watched that game last week saw the Buckeyes hit just that much harder because the opponent was wearing maize and blue. It wasn’t just the victory that was so satisfying. It was also the punishment inflicted on the way.

But last night at the Q, Gilbert’s team acted as if the Heat were the Vancouver Grizzlies or the Sacramento Kings. And for good measure they then treated James like royalty and they were still the loyal subjects, there to serve and protect.

It wasn’t just that they hugged James before the opening tip off like a long lost brother from another mother, which some did. It was more that they treated the night as mostly a joke, amazed that fans even cared enough to boo in the first place. The look and smile on Daniel Gibson’s face as he interacted with James early in the game was far more offensive than Derek Anderson’s gigglefest on the Arizona sidelines was for Cardinals fans.

That isn’t to single out Gibson, either. Frankly everyone on the Cavs’ team just seemed happy that James was in the building, oblivious really to what the fans were really saying as the boos and the chants reigned down on James like the flecks of rosin that James tossed in the air before the game as he practiced his pre-game ritual without even an attempt by any Cavaliers player to knock him off his moorings.

If any player on the Cavs really understood the frustration these fans were feeling and wanted to act on it, he should have stood at the scorers table without letting James get near it before the opening tip off. Even if it meant getting a technical foul, even if it meant getting a disqualification, one player at least and the whole team if possible should have stood lock step and blocked that damn scorer’s table and not let James do his little powder act as if nothing had happened in the last 5 months.

Once the game started, it was even worse. There was a perfunctory hand in his face once in awhile as James darted in and about. But there was never a moment even hinted at where even one Cavs player took it upon himself to let James know that he had stabbed this city in its collective backs. Where was the hard foul? Where was the inadvertent elbow to face that a player like Bill Laimbeer or Rick Mahorn used to throw with regularity? Heck, most fans would have been thrilled if someone had just pushed James to the ground as he danced along the baseline. Sure, there was a report that some assistant channeled Phil Savage and told James to "shut the f*** up." And oh yea, Mo Williams supposedly gave James the cold shoulder after halftime. Ouch. We'd all be much happier if Williams had instead jammed his shoulder into James like James did to his coach last week. That's how a message gets sent.

Instead all you got was a bunch of really malleable players rolling out the red carpet to a player that screwed them and the team they play for and then acted like Kevin Bacon taking a swat to his backside and asking for another.

James casts a large shadow in NBA circles. He’s a pied piper of sorts and lesser players, like pretty much the entire Cavs roster, just seem happy to exist in his orbit. He’s the high tide that raises all ships and the last thing any of them want to do is anger him. You never know the blowback on that.

That is exactly what the fans got on Thursday night. Cavs’ players weren’t looking to represent their fans so much as their own self-interest. They know that the thing that stands between them and joining, say, the Heat at some point is James’ blessing. Say something or doing something untoward now to the King and there is little doubt that he’ll carry that slight with him and make you pay somewhere down the road, if not on the court then in the wallet.

While the stated goal on Thursday night was a victory, the real goal for the fans was they wanted a strong message sent to James and the Heat that they aren’t going to steal their souls and get away with it without a fight. They wanted every possession every shot contested as if this was the final game of a death match against their worst enemy. Instead what they got was a display of indifference that was every bit as damaging to the collective psyche than The Decision.

Cavs players had the chance, indeed the obligation, to establish a hated rivalry with the Heat and instead punted because it just doesn’t matter to them.

Gilbert guaranteed this team would win a championship before the Heat does. I don’t know that the Heat wins a championship simply because James is tragically flawed. But I do know that this Cavs team will never win a championship so long as its roster is filled with tourists. What this team needs are natives, players that give a damn about themselves and the fans. This team right now stands for nothing and on Thursday night Cavs fans found out that it will fall for anything.