Friday, January 29, 2010

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The NFC Championship game is over and Brett Favre and his latest potentially former employer, the Minnesota Vikings, have been left on the side of the road to the Super Bowl. That must mean it’s time for Favre to begin his yearly kabuki dance to the tune of the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”

As this ritual plays out each late winter/early spring, the radio inside Favre’s head must be on an endless loop of Mick Jones singing “If I go there will be trouble and if I stay it will be double.” Meanwhile the fans of the Vikings, this time, will be holding their collective breath to see if Jesus-in-shoulder-pads will walk across the Great Lakes and back into their open arms.

Favre’s inability to know when to say when isn’t unusual when it comes to professional athletes. To localize the story a bit, Jim Thome just signed a 1-year contract with the Minnesota Twins, putting him two teams short of completing the rounds within the American League Central.

Perhaps Thome signed with the Twins because he thought that the state of Minnesota and the Twin Cities possessed magical powers of rejuvenation as Favre enjoyed an excellent regular season all while complaining about every ache and pain in his aging body. Maybe instead this is Thome’s last stop on a very long career.

In one sense, it seems a bit sad and a bit pathetic to see once great athletes continue to hang on because they seemingly have nothing else to move on to. It’s also a little exasperating to watch Favre play the role of drama queen each off season. But to be fair we do live in a capitalist society and it’s hard to begrudge anyone doing what he can to make a buck. If the owner of the Twins or the Vikings is willing to dole out millions, how are they the bad guys for being willing to take it?

The short answer is that they’re not.

Let’s face it, the life of a professional athlete at the tope level is far more peaches than beans, to quote noted sage Archie Bunker. The salaries make no sense in the context of most everyone else’s daily life. It’s a great, if limited, existence. The song that really should play in their heads is “Money for Nothing.” And if you scour sites life Deadspin on a regular basis, you also learn that for most of them, the chicks are free, too.

And yet both fans and athletes continue to struggle with the question of when enough is enough. It’s one of sports’ great rhetorical questions.

Everyone has their own view on this, of course, and it really is athlete specific. Jim Brown and Barry Sanders, for example, walked away with still plenty left in the tank. As they did so, they left many fans in their wake aching for more. Johnny Unitas looked positively ridiculous riding the bench in San Diego for one miserable season at age 40. For that matter, Joe Montana looked ridiculous in Kansas City.

It’s not just the big names, either. Did anyone really want to see Jamal Lewis back with the Browns this past season? But there he was anyway unable to walk away on his own. In truth he was brought back only because head coach Eric Mangini didn’t feel like there was any other option. Mangini looked at Jerome Harrison and saw a part time back. He also looked at the rest of the roster and saw a bunch of untested rookies.

The plight of Lewis actually illustrates exactly why this issue is such a struggle for everyone involved. When Mangini bit hard and brought Lewis back he didn’t then want to disrespect him by having him stand on the sidelines. As a result he stubbornly trotted Lewis out there game after game, to the exclusion of Harrison mostly, even though it was obvious that Lewis was done.

Indeed, if not for Lewis’ injury, Harrison likely would never have had what turned out to be a break out season. It’s also fair to say that the Browns’ late season win streak, which occurred despite and not because of the quarterback play, doesn’t happen unless Lewis gets hurt. So in a sense, Lewis ended up repaying Mangini’s early season faith by actually getting injured. It probably is the single biggest factor in what saved Mangini’s job.

This kind of situation plays itself out over and over again in city after city, sport after sport. Favre is a Hall of Fame caliber quarterback. But each year he comes back is another year in which the player behind him has a lost season of development. It’s actually why Green Bay forced Favre’s hand. They were tired of promising young quarterbacks that the team would soon be theirs as it became more and more obvious that Favre apparently had no intention of ever retiring.

For the Packers, it’s worked out well. While Favre has been bouncing around the country, Aaron Rodgers has developed into a pretty fair quarterback who still has a decent upside. It’s likely Rodgers wouldn’t even be in Green Bay at all if the Packers management had decided to accede to each of Favre’s demands.

The Twins signed Thome not only because he can still hit the long ball occasionally but also for the so-called “veteran leadership” position. It’s really the same role Mark Grudzielanek will play for the Indians this season. I suppose it’s an important role, but it’s also a roster spot that won’t go to a younger player.

It’s not even that the Twins or the Indians won’t get some level of production out of Thome or Grudzielanek. They will. But at what cost? For the Twins, the cost might be far less than the Indians. They are closer to the playoffs than the Indians and someone like Thome could put them over the top. Is that worth a lost season to a promising rookie? Most would say “yes.”

But for the Indians, the answer is more complex. It’s hard to calculate what a year of development at the big league level really means, but it obviously means something. How would the Indians have known the value of Grady Sizemore had they kept in buried in the minors in favor of somebody who used to be someone who now was just hanging by the bottom rung?

The other side of that argument, or at least the one Eric Wedge always used to put forth, is that you’d rather see that promising rookie play regularly at AAA than occasionally at the big league level. It’s an argument of convenience.

In the case of Wedge, he much preferred the Grudzielaneks of the world anyway. But being a major leaguer is much more than just playing on the field. It’s the bigger crowds, the increased travel. It’s one adjustment after another and stunting that part of a player’s development isn’t healthy, either.

In truth, there isn’t a professional athlete alive that ever completely solved this internal struggle just as there isn’t a team that’s found the right balance. The guess is that Brown and Sanders had moments in the few years after their retirement where they thought they left too soon. And as Favre was picking himself up off the ground last week in New Orleans it had to occur to him that he may be getting a little to old for this stuff.

The irony, of course, is that when they do retire, as they must, then end up in much the same place as other retirees, playing golf. And of all the sports out there, only professional golf has figured out how to solve the problem. It created the perfect way for players to gracefully put themselves out to pasture. It’s called the Champions Tour.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Finally, Closure

The Cleveland Browns may have finished playing earlier this month, but the season officially ended on Sunday in the form of the Indianapolis Colts’ 30-17 victory over the New York Jets.

As long as the Jets remained in the playoffs, Browns fans were never going to get peace of mind, given the seemingly endless series of stories about, take your pick, Eric Mangini and how he feels about it all and Braylon Edwards and how he feels about it all.

Just this past weekend, for example, the stories about Mangini ranged from those in the New York papers basically thanking him for failing and paving the way for Rex Ryan to that in the Plain Dealer in which Mangini expressed his pride in having a hand in the Jets current success. Two sides of the same coin I guess or, as a professor of mine used to say, “it all depends on whose ox is being gored.”

Then of course were the stories about Braylon Edwards. Mostly I think Edwards is the embodiment of the modern-day “me first” athlete. Selfish to a fault and even more clueless, Edwards almost stubbornly refuses to miss an opportunity to give someone a chance to dislike him.

But on the other hand, sometimes I get the sense that he’s actually bi-polar and just forgets to take his meds.

Here’s a taste. After Sunday’s loss, Edwards, discussing his touchdown catch, said “I got the team excited.” That’s the Edwards we’ve all come to know and love. Giving praise where praise is due, to himself. Quarterback Mark Sanchez had nothing to do with getting the team excited on a ball that was thrown exactly where it needed to be. It was all Edwards all the time.

But then Edwards went on at length, actually, about how being part of the Jets has made him come to appreciate what it means to be a team player, his previous quote notwithstanding apparently. He claims he now understands, for example, what it takes to get to a championship game. “I just really learned about team, what it means to play on a team, what it means to be a team player….”

Call me a cynic if you must, but that sounds like Edwards already working on his next contract. The real Edwards is the one who felt it was he who got the team excited. And for the record, Edwards had exactly one more catch in that entire game. That got us all excited.

But this isn’t so much about continuing to flog the dog that is Edwards. With the Jets’ loss, he’s now someone else’s problem officially. Even if Edwards had remained with the Browns all season there was virtually no chance that the Browns would re-sign him. He is, after all, a Michigan guy and you know how Browns fans feel about that, just ask Edwards’ dad.

So close the book now on Edwards. He’s just another chapter in a book that will always be bigger than he is. Edwards’ chapter now is no less nor more important than those devoted to, say Mike Junkin or Reuben Droughns. If Edwards actually does mature and become the force that his athletic skills seem to promise, then good for him. Just know that it would never have happened here and it will probably only happen as it’s been--sporadically. Good luck, goodbye.

For Mangini, the Jets’ loss now lets him and Jets and Browns fans close the book on his New York experience. In some ways, this year’s Jets were as much Mangini’s team as Ryan’s. A number of key contributors on that team were brought in by Mangini, directly, in the case of someone like Nick Mangold, and indirectly, in the case of someone like Sanchez. Conversely, a number of other players were extracted from that team and brought over to the Browns with Mangini. Coming and going, Mangini had a heavy hand in what the Jets did and did not do this past season.

But from this point forward, the impact Mangini has on the Jets will be muted. Ryan is clearly established as the head coach and the success of this past season will allow him to make an even greater impact on what the team looks like next year. Browns fans, too, will stop looking back. Mangini is here now for at least another season and his Jets experience is becoming merely a speck in the collective rear view mirrors of all concerned.

It was interesting to see many draw the analogy that Mangini has basically become Pete Best to Ryan’s Ringo Starr. It’s somewhat appropriate if you take the view that Mangini, like Best, wasn’t given any particular reason why he was fired. Where it falls apart is that Best never really did anything else after that whereas Mangini is now ….waaaaaiiiitt a minute. If the analogy holds true, then that doesn’t bode well for Browns fans. Name me one song that Best recorded after he left the Beatles.

Given how the Jets finished the season, the analogy that comes to my mind is that of John Cooper and Jim Tressel. When Cooper was fired, the Buckeyes were in disarray. They had loads of talent thanks to Cooper’s skills as a recruiter but organizationally they were a mess.

After Tressel took over, the first thing he did was instill discipline and pride back into the program. Though he went 7-5 his first season, he did have that improbable victory against Michigan that seemed to reinvigorate the program. The next year it went undefeated with most of Cooper’s talent and became national champions..

Admittedly that analogy isn’t perfect either, but stay with me for a moment. The Browns of 2008 under Crennel had some talent (they won 10 games in 2007 with much the same players) but organizationally they were an undisciplined mess. Inmates like Edwards and Kellen Winslow were running roughshod on the guards while the rest were content to freelance without being watched 24/7.

Along comes Mangini and while not exactly Tressel in more ways than I have time to document, he at least did restore discipline to the team. Moreover, the Browns late season surge was jump started by the improbable victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, their equivalent to the Wolverines, and it seems to have set them in the right direction for the next season. It certainly turned the fan base.

Does that mean the Browns have a Super Bowl in their near future? Doubtful. If you watched the 4 remaining playoff teams you got a good sense of how far behind the Browns really are. But organizationally this team is light years ahead of where it was when it started the season and eventually a certain level of success will follow like night follows day.

The best teams in the league got that way because they adhere to certain fundamental principles that seemed to escape Browns owner Randy Lerner until recently. Now that the Browns have finally put into place credible day-to-day leadership coupled with a methodical approach toward acquiring players, the talent level on this team will improve. Perhaps quickly.

And just as important to all of that is the ability to get closure on the remaining hangover from this past season. With that now behind the team, fans can finally look ahead. It’s not clear what’s ahead, but at least it’s ahead.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Why Cleveland, Not Buffalo

Along about the time that the Cleveland Browns were at their nadir this past season, many openly speculated whether anything or anyone could fix the mess. The theory was that the Browns were so off track in so many ways that no one with a lick of sense would even bother.

It was also about that same time when owner Randy Lerner essentially undertook the implied challenge and emerged, rather quickly actually, with not just anyone but someone in the form of Mike Holmgren, the former head coach of the Seattle Seahawks.

Most people that I’ve talked with in the league think Holmgren has more than just a lick of sense. He’s viewed as a thoughtful and inside player, someone whose resume is neither artificially enhanced nor noticeably thin. You might be able to poke as many holes in it as you care to, but Holmgren’s record still stands solidly intact.

The underlying question is why Holmgren would take the job. The answer to that is easy enough. It had the essential elements of any good opportunity: freedom, power and money. Holmgren has the benefit of working for an owner that wants to stay in the background even more than Deep Throat of Watergate fame. Indeed, Lerner wants nothing more than to have someone like Holmgren oversee every aspect of his asset and enough money to pay him to do so. In legal terms, it’s as if Holmgren has Lerner’s full power of attorney.

But it actually goes much deeper than all of that. Case in point, look at the mess in Buffalo and then start counting your blessings.

The Bills have had all sorts of difficulty filling one of the toughest jobs to get in football: NFL head coach. There are only 32 such jobs and yet the Bills have all but posted the job on Craigslist in order to get a taker. People selling time shares in Boise have an easier time getting nibbles than the Bills do on their head coaching job. After scouring the cut out bin, they finally got Chan Gailey to take the job.

To understand the dynamic, consider the contrast between Bills owner Ralph Wilson and Lerner. The 91-year old Wilson is nearly double Lerner’s age. He’s a Hall of Famer whose seemingly run the franchise since there were real buffaloes in Buffalo. He has a history Lerner could only imagine.

And it’s not as if the Bills are perennial losers. It just seems that way lately. Hey, you lose in consecutive years to Cleveland you’re going to take a few lumps. But the Bills actually are a relatively storied franchise dating back to its days in the AFL. They had pre-double murder O.J. roaming their backfield. They had the aptly named Electric Company of an offensive line supplying the Juice. They had Jim Kelly and Jack Kemp. It’s a franchise with a real history.

The problem these days is that Wilson is a meddling fool of an owner. He’s become the Al Davis of the East, someone who is so far past his prime that he’s forgotten what it looked once looked like. Since 1997, the Bills have been through five head coaches and are searching for their sixth.

With that kind of track record you’d think that every one of those coaches have been abject losers. Actually, that isn’t even close to being true. Wade Phillips was 29-19 in his three seasons. In fact, in those 12 years, the Bills have only approached Browns-like territory once, in 2001 when they were 3-13. Otherwise, they’ve mostly just bounced around just below .500.

Wilson is one of the league’s great complainers about competitive balance but it’s fallen mostly on deaf ears in a salary-cap construct. Buffalo is small market, like Green Bay, but it’s got an equal chance as New York. The owners share revenues and the draft can’t be manipulated by the draftees to ensure they end up with large market teams with the wherewithal to pay them.

Yet the Bills hade no hope of finding a someone as their coach. They’ve been turned down by Bill Cowher and Mike Shanahan. They’ve also been turned down by the next lower tier-- Brian Schottenheimer, Russ Grimm and Jim Harbaugh. By hiring Gailey, I guess they did find an anyone.

If you want to understand the state of the Bills’ franchise, that’s it. As Jerry Sullivan, a sports columnist for the Buffalo News aptly put it, “it’s a second rate franchise struggling to hire a second-rate coach.”

Say what you will about the Lerner family’s stewardship of the Browns, but it’s only been a second rate franchise in terms of results on the field. Lerner may be a fool for other reasons, but a meddling fool he’s not. He hasn’t been afraid to toss his money around like confetti as a trail of fired coaches and administrators would attest. He’s worked hard to enhance the game-day experience as best he could, at least on the periphery. Indeed, the only place he’s failed is when it comes to hiring the right people to get the right football results.

About the only time the Browns really had trouble attracting a coach was in its first years back and with good reason. The Browns were saddled with all sorts of league-imposed impediments to getting up and running and most potential coaches could see that results would be years off.

But since then, even as coaches have been run off in droves, others have been willing and eager to step forward and fill the breach. Debate all you want the merits of the coaches that have been hired, but the fact remains that the Browns generally got the person they targeted. The only problem is that their aim has been awful, but that’s a far different issue.

Another part of this whole equation is the fans. This isn’t to get into a pissing match with anyone over whose city has better fans, but the fact remains that Browns fans enjoy a somewhat exalted status within the league. Team owners, head coaches, able assistants throughout the league know that the Browns have a deeply loyal fan base that ultimately will put whatever differences divide them aside when game day arrives.

The best proof of that lies in the swirl around Eric Mangini. When the Browns were wallowing at 1-11, he was essentially the devil incarnate. His every flaw was magnified and most fans couldn’t wait until Mangini’s siege was over. They vocalized it loud and long.

But a simple 4-game winning streak became an intoxicating tonic. Fans didn’t care about the quality of the wins or the competition. They just cared about the wins themselves, especially the one against the Steelers.

As each win built upon the next, a large portion of the fan base altered its view of Mangini. It’s not that they became convinced that he’s a misunderstood genius. They just felt that he had achieved enough in that last month of the season to warrant another look and voiced it just as loudly.

That kind of passion is a heady motivator to the kind of A-type personalities that are attracted to positions of power in the first place. In short, the Browns fans show up week in and week out, good news or bad, win or lose, coddled or abused.

The question in Buffalo at the moment may be why anyone would want that job. It’s a pretty long list of reasons. The question in Cleveland always has been, why wouldn’t someone want this challenge? At the moment, it’s hard to think of one reason, which is probably how Holmgren arrived at his answer so quickly in the first place.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Cleveland Browns 2009 Retrospective--Final Installment

Note: The Cleveland Browns 2009 season was one for the ages. It could be summed up in as little as one word “oy” or 100 million. I’ve opted for somewhere between the two. It may be that all of you, or most anyway, are so tired of this past season that you’d rather have your toe nails pulled than read another word about it. Believe me, I understand. But for those brave few willing to go along on one final journey with me, just know that I appreciate your courage and have tried to make it worth your while.

Part VII. This is The Part Where The Second Half Begins.

The myth that this team had to get worse to get better is just that. It was bad before Eric Mangini arrived and while it was expected that the steps forward would be small and infrequent there was no reason to think that there was still steps backward it could take. There were. The team was averaging 4 less points than the year before (a year in which it didn’t score an offensive touchdown in its last 7 games) and was averaging 25 yards less on offense. Defensively, it was now giving up 4 more points and almost 50 more yards per game.

The players didn’t seem particularly pleased with the state of things, either. Jamal Lewis, one of the team’s captains, came out publicly and questioned almost everything about what Mangini was doing. He claimed the players were often kept in the dark and were essentially be treated like crops on a farm. The next day the players in the locker room applauded him.

Randy Lerner, ever the silent one, responded to all the drama not to the media but to a random emailer, telling him that he remained open to new and fresh ideas and thinking on how to make the team better. He would then take that bit of populism further by meeting with the fans’ self-appointed leader, Dawg Pound Mike, who was starting a movement to have fans boycott the opening series of the Browns’ next game.

Lerner and DPM had a “great conversation” according to DPM, which in this context probably meant that DPM got to plead his case for lower beer prices in the stadium. Fortunately for Lerner the bye week got in the way and about the only one still interested in any sort of protest when the next game rolled around was, you guessed it, Dawg Pound Mike.

The Browns did use their bye week to accomplish two things. First, Derek Anderson was banished to the bench permanently. Demonstrating that even he has a gag reflex, Mangini had finally seen enough of Anderson to realize that there was no question to which he was the answer. It helped, too, that it would now be statistically impossible for Brady Quinn to earn any sort of bonus.

Second, Lerner demonstrated he too had a gag reflex and fired George Kokinis, saying that the team was now in search of a serious, credible leader. That statement inflamed Kokinis and his lawyers because it implied that Kokinis wasn’t doing his job. He’s now suing the Browns for the value of his remaining contract and the case is in mandatory arbitration before the league office. That statement also should have inflamed Mangini who thought that by getting Kokinis out of the way he would be that serious, credible leader. Outwardly it didn’t, but the statement resonated with the fans. It would prove to be a turning point in more ways than one.

Following the Kokinis fallout Lerner officially brought Bernie Kosar back into the fold in an undetermined role as a consultant. Mangini outwardly welcomed another set of eyes. Inwardly, he had to be seething. Kosar, with virtually no experience, would now have just as direct of a pipeline to Lerner as Mangini. It had to sting.

Meanwhile, early word was that Lerner had former Seattle Seahawks head coach Mike Holmgren in his sights to take on the role of football czar, a position pioneered, sort of, by Bill Parcells in Miami. The early word proved correct.

With the season now a complete and utter disaster, Mangini became even more entrenched. He talked repeatedly about his “process” but never once bothered to explain it. With more an more media members calling for his ouster, Mangini took to a series of interviews with the networks that were designed to improve his public profile. It didn’t work. Mangini used the forums to again reiterate that all this was a process but otherwise allowed no further insight into his thinking. He would have been the textbook example of how not to handle a crisis but that award went to Mark Steinberg at IMG a few weeks later in the midst of Tiger Wood’s public meltdown.

But there was a second half of the season to play and with it came the re-birth of Quinn. In one of the season’s most unintentionally funny moments, Mangini explained that Quinn had improved dramatically by watching each week and earned the start. What really improved was the economics of Quinn’s contract. By inserting him now, the Browns could be assured of not having to pay Quinn what amounted to an extra $11 million in the form of a performance bonus and an increased 2010 salary. Of course, Anderson was the league’s worst quarterback by a country mile but that apparently had nothing to do with Mangini’s decision, either.

The second half of the season didn’t start any better than the first half ended, or than the first half began for that matter. The Browns were shut out by the Ravens 16-0 on national television on Monday night. The Ravens proved themselves to be a merely average team and yet were able to keep the Browns from ever sniffing the end zone. Quinn was very Anderson-like, going 13-31 for 99 yards and 2 interceptions. In other words, for the Browns, it was a typical day at the office.

A few days later, Lerner let it be known, again through email, that he saw himself sticking with Mangini into 2010 despite the wreckage. Lerner would later acknowledge, however, that the decision would ultimately rest with the new but yet unnamed football czar.

Part VIII. This is the Part Where the Worm Begins to Turn, Sort Of.

The first real sign that there indeed was any life in this team came the following week in an entertaining loss to the Detoirt Lions, 38-37. It was a game in which the Browns blew an early 21 point lead, then a 3-point lead and finally a 6-point lead with no time remaining. It also was the game that the Lions’ new quarterback, Mathew Stafford had been waiting for.

For the game, Stafford had 5 touchdown passes against one of the worst defenses in the league. The Lions scored the game winner in a furious rally in the last 2 minutes. With 8 seconds remaining and the ball on the Cleveland 32-yard line, Stafford was forced to scramble and unleash a Hail Mary to the end zone. It was intercepted by Brodney Pool but Hank Poteat was flagged for interference as the clock expired, giving the Lions one final play.

Stafford was hurt on the play and didn’t look to be able to continue. But Mangini called time out, giving Stafford just enough time to recover for one final play. Predictably he found Brandon Pettigrew in the end zone for the game winner.

In the pantheon that is this Browns’ season, the loss represented the first visible sign of progress. The offense at least was able to move the ball repeatedly, albeit against what amounts to their NFC twin.

Mangini used the following week’s press conference to unleash his one true moment of candor. He used it judiciously, accusing Lions coach Jim Schwartz (you remember him, he’s the guy that Pioli wanted Cleveland to consider) of having his players essentially fake injuries to keep the Browns’ no-huddle offense at bay. It represented another former colleague of Mangini’s being thrown on an ever more crowded road, just waiting for the on-coming bus. Mangini would later claim that his comments were misinterpreted but took the blame for that occurring in the first place.

The Browns’ resurgence wasn’t immediate. First there would be another loss to the Bengals, this time 16-7. It wasn’t the offensive outpouring of a week before, but then again the Bengals don’t use the Lions’ defense. The story of that game though was more about the Bengals, who, despite surging to the top of the defense, looked like a pretty spotty team in the process. The Browns were now 1-10. There’s your progress.

Things really didn’t get better the following week as the Browns dropped a 30-23 game to the San Diego Chargers. The score was closer than the game as the Browns scored late when the game was out of reach and time was expiring. It was a perfect trap game for the Chargers but they managed to keep their season intact by essentially doing just enough to beat the hapless Browns.

The Browns now stood at 1-11 but none of that would end up mattering as the following Thursday the Browns got perhaps the biggest monkey off their back in the form of the Steelers. To the dropped jaws and stunned looks of the thousands that watched, the Browns beat the Steelers 13-6, thoroughly dominating the reigning Super Bowl champs in the process. It was the Steelers’ fifth straight loss and seriously damaged any chance they had to get back to the playoffs.

It was a night worth celebrating, a night beleaguered Browns fans deserved. It also was a night that belonged to Cribbs. He set up one score with a 54-yard punt return and was nearly unstoppable out of the wildcat formation. He had 8 carries for 87 yards.

For Mangini’s dwindling base of supporters, the victory represented justification that the “process” was working. Never mind the damage inflicted over the previous 12 weeks, apparently this one victory was enough to forgive all sins. Statistically, however, the Browns remained at the bottom of the league on both sides of the ball in every meaningful statistic.

The Browns made it two straight victories the following week, beating fellow league doormat Kansas City, 41-34. They did it in record breaking fashion. Cribbs notched two more kick returns for touchdown, giving him 8 for his career and making him the NFL career leader in that category. Jerome Harrison, mostly forgotten since the first Cincinnati game, came out of nowhere to set the Browns’ single game rushing record. On the day he had 286 yards on 34 carries, shattering Jim Brown’s previous mark of 237 yards. Still the Browns needed the two Cribbs returns and had to survive a late scare by the Chiefs to get the victory.

If there was any real progress to measure in the victory, it was this. The Browns finally were developing an offensive identity. The Browns had quietly become a no-huddle, run first offense. Quinn was being asked to manage the game and the offensive line and with right tackle John St. Clair finally heading to the bench in favor of anyone else, the offense was finding a sustainable rhythm.

But even better news was delivered a few days later when Lerner finally delivered on his promise to find a serious, credible leader. Mike Holmgren was hired as the Browns’ new president and given essentially free reign to remake the franchise in any way he saw fit. It was a watershed moment for Lerner, a move that showed that eventually he could get something right. He finally had put the hands of his franchise into someone with a successful track record; someone with league-wide respect and credibility. It was a decision that is likely to have more far reaching ramifications than a modest two-game win streak.

The Holmgren hiring represented something of a reprieve for the players as they now knew that their fates weren’t solely in the hands of Mangini any longer. For a player like Cribbs, for example, it gave him someone knew to plead his case to for a new contract. Reportedly, in one of Holmgren’s first official acts, he gave the all clear for the club to re-do Cribbs’ contract, something Mangini never quite found the time for despite all the implied promises.

Buoyed by the sudden goodwill floating around Berea, the Browns made it three straight the following week, beating another fellow doormat, this time the Oakland Raiders, 23-9. Whatever direction the Browns might be on, it’s clear they aren’t heading the same way as the Raiders. Indeed, the Raiders looked like the Browns of 2008, committing one mistake after another on their way to the loss. The Browns looked positively disciplined by comparison, which is one of the few promises Mangini had been able to deliver on all season.

But the win also had the specter of Holmgren’s hiring hanging over it and what it all would mean for Mangini. In his first press conference as Browns’ president, Holmgren promised only to evaluate Mangini in the context of the entire season. Pointedly, he made no commitment to Mangini’s future. More pointedly, Holmgren related the story of his first season in Seattle and how it was a mistake not to get all of his own people in place that first year. If you were into reading tea leaves, this didn’t bode well for Mangini.

But Mangini’s fate would have to wait until season’s end. There was still the matter of that last game of the season in front of a half full stadium sitting frigid in the whipping wind for God knows what reason.

Part IX. This is the Part Where the Browns Get A Simple Twist of Fate

The Browns played Jacksonville in the last game of the season in absolutely frigid conditions. Although the Jaguars hadn’t been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, their only chance hinged on them beating the Browns and nearly everyone else in the league losing.

The Jaguars played like they were in a hurry to head back to Jacksonville, which, by the way, wasn’t much warmer because of a late season cold spell, while the Browns played like kids at recess. They also proved, just as they had earlier in the season, that it really didn’t matter who quarterbacked this team as long as the running game worked.

Jerome Harrison had his third-straight 100+ yard rushing game and Josh Cribbs had a nifty 14-yard touchdown run out of the wildcat formation. Still, it was hard to know what to make of what was now a 4-game winning streak.

It was the first time the newly reconstituted Browns had achieved that milestone, but it came against teams that didn’t make the playoffs. The run game was now as formidable as any in the league but where had it been the previous 12 games? It was a game of puzzles, in other words, that weren’t likely to get solved until Mike Holmgren officially took over as club president.

Holmgren’s tenure officially began the day after the Jacksonville game, though he had been working a bit behind the scenes. He got off to a great start by conducting the season’s most engaging news conference. He carefully explained his philosophies, hinted that Eric Mangini might not be retained, but allowed himself the time necessary to make the right decisions.

Over the next few days, Holmgren and Mangini held a series of meetings to discuss his future. Most didn’t think it would end well. Mangini wasn’t a Holmgren kind of guy philosophically and operationally. Holmgren likes his offense to be of the West Coast variety with less downfield passing and more controlled throws designed to keep the ball moving. He likes his defense to be of the 4-3 variety where all the burden doesn’t fall on the linebackers to make it go. And while Holmgren has the necessary paranoia that every NFL executive has, but he’s far less guarded with the media and never gives anyone the sense that he thinks he’s working on nuclear fission.

After those few days, Mangini and his staff emerged with their jobs in tact. Holmgren didn’t bother to explain it in any great detail to the media, but the speculation remained that it was a decision of convenience. With a potentially crippling labor war shaping up with the Players Association, now didn’t necessarily represent the time to keep still another ex-coach on the payroll. It also gave Holmgren the chance to personally view and assess Mangini for another year. If Mangini could continue the progress, great. If he couldn’t, Holmgren could step in the following season as the coach without it looking like the Browns were resetting the pin deck.

Overshadowing the Mangini decision, though, was still Josh Cribbs. While the Browns did begin trying to re-work his contract, they weren’t moving nearly fast enough for his dime-store agents who then took things public and, in the process, made their client look greedy.

Few if any fans questioned whether Cribbs should get more money. But most understood that it wasn’t as if another game was pending at the moment and, hey, didn’t Holmgren have other more pressing matters on his agenda, such as hiring a general manager?

Besides, no one took Cribbs’ statement that he probably played his last game in Cleveland seriously. Cribbs was still under contract with the Browns for the next three years and while no player probably is untouchable, Cribbs comes the closest. In other words, fans mostly yawned at the news.

Also overshadowing the Mangini decision was the impeding hire of Philadelphia Eagles general manager Tom Heckert, Jr. as the Browns’ new general manager. But all of that is getting ahead of myself at the moment. That’s really the start of the 2010 season.

But looking back and surveying all of the wreckage and some of the triumphs, what stands out most is how much a toll this season really took on the fans. Mangini’s hiring wasn’t greeted with parades, but most were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Then all he did was take them on a ride that would plum the depths of this franchise further before getting it back up to some sort of steady state. It was a ride that will be hard to forget.

The fans will always be in it for the long haul, but the reality is that the fan base of this franchise is dwindling, something that will become more pronounced in the seasons to come. The end of the old Browns, coming as it did in the mid 1990s wasn’t so great. Then there was the break and then what amounts to a 10-year death march. That’s nearly a generation of futility and, with it, a generation of lost fans.

The Browns can, of course, get it all back. The Holmgren hiring was so important because at its core that’s Holmgren’s charge. And while he’ll have plenty of company in his front office, someone who will only observe from afar will be Randy Lerner. You just get the sense that with his hiring of Holmgren, Lerner can focus on what really interests him: English Premier League soccer.

And if this all works out just as Lerner sees it in his mind’s eye, then the fans will be happy, and next year’s season in review on this site can be about half as long with twice as much good news, and I’ll be happy.

Monday, January 18, 2010

The Cleveland Browns 2009 Retrospective--Installment #3

Note: The Cleveland Browns 2009 season was one for the ages. It could be summed up in as little as one word “oy” or 100 million. I’ve opted for somewhere between the two. It may be that all of you, or most anyway, are so tired of this past season that you’d rather have your toe nails pulled than read another word about it. Believe me, I understand. But for those brave few willing to go along on one final journey with me, just know that I appreciate your courage and have tried to make it worth your while.

Part V. This is the Part Where the Games Begin, On and Off the Field

The record will show that Eric Mangini’s first loss with the Browns was that 17-0 disaster against the Green Bay Packers. After changing almost everything in the offseason, the Browns started the new season exactly like they finished the old—dispirited, confused and giving little effort. As for the so-called quarterback competition, Brady Quinn looked better than Derek Anderson in the same way that spinach looks better than asparagus. Neither player seemed particularly adept at taking the wheel.

Oh yea, in two themes that would be repeated again and again, Braylon Edwards complained that he was being over scrutinized every time he dropped a pass and Cribbs looked like the only true professional on the field. And in even more foreshadowing, Channel 3 ended up buying all the unsold tickets in order to be able to broadcast the game. Even after the stock market had long since crashed some folks just can’t help themselves in making bad investments.

Inside the Berea complex, Mangini was becoming all touchy-feely, trying to build camaraderie by rearranging the locker room. He inter-mixed offensive and defensive players, veterans and rookies. His aim was to build familiarity with each other, if nothing else. With all the new faces, it couldn’t hurt.

The Browns turned things around a bit in their second preseason game, beating the even more woeful Detroit Lions. Anderson was his usual uneven self, looking sharp initially and then finding it difficult to complete the shortest of passes. Quinn handled himself better overall but was his usual unspectacular self. Two weeks into the preseason and the Browns still were not close to naming a starting quarterback.

As the media fretted for any sort of insight from Mangini that was never going to come, other mysteries abounded. Shaun Rogers wasn’t practicing and no one would say why. Ryan Tucker was a similar mystery as was Brodney Pool.

But the Browns did manage to beat the Tennessee Titans in their third preseason game. The Titans outplayed the Browns at every turn but couldn’t convert their opportunities into touchdowns. As it turned out, that’s how the entire Titans’ regular season went as well.

With neither Anderson nor Quinn playing well enough to be declared the undisputed champion of Mangini’s training camp version of American Idol, focus instead turned to the running game. The Titans’ game made it clear that Jamal Lewis had lost a step and that James Davis might be a star in the making. Everyone wondered about the fate of Jerome Harrison, who played little because of an injury and ended up surviving when Davis became injured in one of Mangini’s post-practice opportunity periods. Rumors swirled that Davis had been hit by a player while not wearing shoulder pads, a rumor that turned out not to be true. Still, the league and the Players Association investigated.

As the preseason ended, Mangini went right up to the league imposed 6 p.m. deadline before disclosing his final roster cuts, though it was hard to understand why. Gone were Charles Ali, Isaac Sowells and Phil Hubbard. How tough could those decision have been?

With the season getting ready to start, I reluctantly agreed to make a prediction, which I try never to do Yet as I look back, the only thing I got wrong was the record, although isn’t that the whole point of predictions? Anyway, I wrote: “I don’t think the [2007] Browns were really as bad as their record…I think they were a 7-9 team coached down to a 4-12 record. Just paying attention and being more organized is good for a victory or two. I also think Mangini has a better command of the entire operations and is far more detail-oriented. The team will be better prepared each week….When I put all that together…I start to think that Mangini can get this team back to where its talent level properly is: 7-9. Fans will see it as improvement. I see it as just getting back to square one. But if it gives this team hope and is a stepping stone to a better future, then it all will have been worth it. If it doesn’t it’s time to start handicapping who the next head coach might be.”

A few things about that prediction I’d like to clear up. First, except for the record, I hit on most of what this season has been about. Mangini is more detail-oriented and in better command of the overall operations. Where he fell short was that he couldn’t get this team back to its previous level. Nonetheless, because the Browns finished relatively strong against relatively weak teams, fans saw it as progress. I still see it as just getting back to square one, at best.

Mangini continued to play the competitive advantage trump card by refusing to name a starting quarterback with the opening game only a few days away. Word leaked out by that Friday, but it wasn’t as if the Vikings were all that worried. They went on to drill the Browns 34-20. On the plus side, the Browns scored a touchdown on offense, something they hadn’t done for the last half of 2008.

While the Browns played well in the first half, they fell apart late under the crush of silly mistakes and uninspired play, leaving fans with the same aftertaste of season past. After the game and in the entire run up to the Broncos game, Mangini apologized for not getting his players to finish the game and for running Cribbs out of the wildcat formation one too many times. Edwards, meanwhile, trying to appear his mature best, took the blame for a Quinn interception. Meanwhile he was still dropping balls thrown right at him and blaming the fans for the scrutiny.

All in all, it wasn’t a very encouraging start.

Part VI. This Is The Part Where Things Start Going Really Badly.

Before beginning the prep work for Denver in earnest, Mangini found out that he was suddenly $25,000 lighter as the result of a fine was levied by the NFL for not properly disclosing the extent of Brett Favre’s injuries while with the Jets. That works out to about 17 water bottles (see below).

The fine was a sweet little twist of the screw by Favre. It was clear that Favre was injured in the latter parts of 2008 and yet his injury status was downplayed by the Jets. He then let it drop casually in a conversation with reporters while in Minnesota that the Jets were fully aware that he had a torn bicep muscle. I’m sure Bill Belichick was smiling somewhere. After the usual NFL investigation Mangini, the Jets and Jets general manager Mike Tannebaum all were fined. Mangini, of course, never addressed the issue publicly but the Browns’ injury disclosures suddenly became more plentiful and more detailed.

The rest of the week didn’t get any better for Mangini as the Denver Broncos made easy work of the Browns, 27-6. With that loss, the Browns kept in tact the NFL’s longest drought for not scoring on an opening drive and the NFL’s third-longest losing streak. They also failed to score a touchdown on offense, starting a new streak in that department.

On the Broncos’ side of the ball, new head coach Josh McDaniels looked positively brilliant for trading Cutler in favor of Kyle Orton. All Orton did was chew up the Browns secondary, something nearly every quarterback in the NFL likewise accomplished. But what was most clear on this day was that turning around this ship wasn’t just a matter of imposing discipline and order. It was and remains a matter of getting better players.

Now here’s where I digress for a moment to address all those who think that I’m just about bashing Mangini. I noted after the Denver game that trying to assess Mangini in the context of the talent he had would be difficult. Moreover, I noted that it would take more than one off-season and a few games into the next to fix this mess. Mangini’s fate, I posited then hinged on whether he could make his team more competitive than the expansion team fans saw 11 years earlier. A very fair assessment, indeed.

When a season is as miserable as this past year, it’s hard to find the actual low points. But you could make a pretty fair case that the Browns’ third game of the season, an embarrassing 34-3 loss to the Ravens, was it. More than all the mistakes being made, it was clear that the players gave up. At halftime, Mangini had seen enough of Quinn to send him to the bench for however long it would take to ensure that he couldn’t earn a bonus for playing in 70% of the team’s offensive plays. This would represent the game when people started to wonder in earnest whether Mangini really was the right person for this team.

At that moment the Browns looked in as much disarray, if not more, than at any time in 2008, which is a pretty bold statement. Mangini was being criticized for all of the petty discipline he imposed, like the $1,500+ fine on a player (Braylon Edwards) for not paying for a bottle of water at the team hotel (in retrospect, fully justified), and players were filing grievances against him by the score.

Inside the locker room, there were the former Jets still supporting the person giving them a job and then there was everyone else. Then there was the matter of yanking Quinn as he did. After conducting one of the worst open competitions of any position in any sport, Mangini assured that neither player would be ready for the season and it showed.

Meanwhile, Mangini was spending what seemed like most of his time justifying his decision to go with Anderson by highlighting individual plays, such as that good decision he made on 3rd down, while ignoring the other warning signs, like all the interceptions.

In all and with all the changes that had been made, it was hard to believe that the Browns were actually worse than the previous season, yet there they were and now Mangini was again retrenching.

The reason this Ravens loss was so important is that it serves to remind those who claim progress has been made that the progress has been only in the form of getting this team back up to the depths it sank to in 2008.

Despite a week of controversy, a constant in Berea this past season, the Browns rebounded the next week in Cincinnati. No, they didn’t win. But they took the Bengals to overtime before losing 23-20. The Browns held a late 20-14 lead but the defense collapsed with 1:44 remaining, also a season-long theme. The Bengals could have won it in regulation but Shaun Rogers showed off one of his specialties, the blocked kick. Meanwhile Anderson couldn’t move the Browns into field goal position to win the game.

Anderson, now inserted as starting quarterback, started slow but then repeatedly found a wide-open Mohamed Massaquoi, who had 8 catches for 148 yards. Jerome Harrison, re-emerging as he occasionally does, rushed for 121 yards on 29 carries. For his efforts, Harrison was back on the bench the next week.

For all the giddiness the loss brought to Browns’ fans, they were treated to an even better gift a few days later in the form of the trade of Edwards to the New York Jets. Edwards, who didn’t catch a pass the entire game, took out his frustration on a man half his size in the form of the owner of a Cleveland night club. It not only got Edwards a ticket out of Cleveland but it also brought on the wrath of LeBron James as it turns out that the man in question was a close friend of the King. Hearing James call out Edwards during an interview would have easily won as season highlight until the Steelers victory snuck up and bit everyone on the butt.

The Edwards trade brought the Browns Jason Trusnik, a 4th year player from Nordonia High School and Ohio Northern, wide receiver Chansi Stuckey, and two draft picks. Trusnik and Stuckey were and remain mostly role players but there would be no criticizing this trade. It was the quintessential definition of addition by subtraction.

However, it also served as the beginning of a deep schism inside of Berea that would eventually lead to the firing of Kokinis by Mangini Lerner. Kokinis wasn’t involved in any aspect of the Edwards trade, an odd situation considering he supposedly had the final authority over the roster. It served as the beginning of the end of another relationship in Mangini’s life.

The Browns got their first victory of the season the next week against the team that served as their last victim as well, the Buffalo Bills. It was a mess of a game that was won on a Billy Cundiff 18-yard field goal after Bills’ returner Roscoe Parrish tried to field a Dave Zastudil punt with 3 minutes left in the game. Blake Costanzo jumped on the ball and the Browns milked the clock down to the last few seconds before the Cundiff kick

Mangini acted as if his team had won the Super Bowl instead of an inartistic mess of a game against one of the league’s doormats. Still, it ensured the Browns would not go 0-16. Anderson again had drawn the start on the strength of his game against Cincinnati and Mangini’s desire to avoid paying Quinn any sort of bonus. Harrison was back in his usual role of change of pace back while Lewis had 31 carries for 117 yards. Anderson, on the other hand, was awful. He completed 2 passes in 17 attempts for 23 yards and 1 interception. Still it was enough to earn him a start the following week, mainly because Quinn’s ability to reach his bonus was still in question.

Quinn meanwhile was dangling and word leaked out that he supposedly had his house up for sale. Actually he did, deciding that he didn’t need something approaching 4,000 square feet in which to wander around after practice. He settled on a condo closer to Berea.

The Browns’ success was short lived as they were spanked by the Steelers a week later, 27-14. It wasn’t quite the blowout that the previous season closer had been, but it also wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would indicate. Ben Roethlisberger had his way with the secondary, throwing for 417 yards and 2 touchdowns. Cribbs helped keep the game close by returning a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown. He was also the leading rusher with 45 yards on 6 carries.

Anderson again was awful. He completed only 9 of 24 passes for 122 yards, fumbled twice and was intercepted once. It would earn him a start the following week. D’Qwell Jackson would see his season end with a shoulder injury.

The Browns followed up one miserable performance with another, getting drilled the following week by Green Bay 31-3. The Packers smartly kicked away from Cribbs all game and Aaron Rodgers found his game. During garbage time, Mangini again refused to go to Quinn even though Anderson was finding even more ways to look awful. On the game he was 12-29 for 99 yards and 1 interception.

It was now halfway through the season and the team had shown no progress over 2008. It became clear to me then that Mangini and his staff were in over their heads. Despite all his talk about the process he was following, it was now clear that the team was worse than a year before and for no apparent reason.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Cleveland Browns 2009 Retrospective--Installment #2

Note: The Cleveland Browns 2009 season was one for the ages. It could be summed up in as little as one word “oy” or 100 million. I’ve opted for somewhere between the two. It may be that all of you, or most anyway, are so tired of this past season that you’d rather have your toe nails pulled than read another word about it. Believe me, I understand. But for those brave few willing to go along on one final journey with me, just know that I appreciate your courage and have tried to make it worth your while.

Part III. This is the Part Where Mangini and Kokinis Lower the Bar and Blame the Past

The interesting thing about Mangini is that whenever he really wanted to get some kind of information out there, he was usually able to find a way. In a story he or someone inside the organization essentially tipped to the Plain Dealer, Mangini let it be known that he felt the franchise was being handicapped by the former regime because of roster bonuses due several players, including Joe Jurevicius, Kevn Shaffer, Derek Anderson, Stallworth, Joe Thomas, Corey Williams, Shaun Rogers and Jamal Lewis.

In truth, these roster bonuses were simply the by-product of trying to fit high-priced players into a salary cap by signing them to long-term contracts. The Browns were well under the salary cap anyway and the structuring of these contracts was one of the reasons why. Moreover, these bonuses served as convenient mile posts for making future decisions about certain players. They kept the Browns from being locked up in salary cap hell in the future.

Using them as an excuse was a nice narrative for Mangini to try to get out there, but it just wasn’t accurate. Paying players like Thomas and Rogers was a no-brainer. Anderson was a little more iffy as was Lewis. Jurevicius was only owed $250,000. But the biggest question mark of all was Stallworth, who was owed $4.75 million. He was signed by Savage in the same way that Andre Rison was signed by Bill Belichick years earlier. It worked out about the same way.

Ultimately, Mangini paid him the money. It was a decision he and the rest of the Browns’ organization would come to regret.

After getting word that the Browns were going to pay him the roster bonus, Stallworth spent the evening in Miami Beach celebrating. Among those celebrating with him was Braylon Edwards, the franchise’s proverbial bad penny. After a night of drinking, Stallworth got into his car, drove for a bit and then plowed into Mario Reyes, who was looking to catch a bus to return home to his family after working the third shift. Reyes was dead at the scene.

After paying the Reyes family a healthy, but undisclosed amount of that bonus money, Stallworth worked out a very sweet deal with the local prosecutors. He served a brief prison sentence and is in the midst of a lengthy probation. He’s also on indefinite suspension from the NFL.

For a coach that likes to draw lines as bright at Mangini does, particularly about player conduct, he dithered on what to do with Stallworth, because of the money. It was a sad testament. Mangini could have made a bold statement and cut Stallworth immediately. It would have accelerated his salary and bonus for cap purposes but that was a highly manageable and transient concern. Instead, Mangini let the league handle it. Penny wise, as always, and pound foolish, as always.

As March was coming to a close, it was the first time that Mangini and his hand puppet Kokinis made it first known that they were leaning toward keeping both Anderson and Quinn and conducting an open competition for the job once training camp opened.

The fact that they wouldn’t pick a starter from among those two was hardly surprising. Anderson was coming off an awful 2008 after a brilliant 2007 and Quinn had looked good in limited time before getting hurt. Still, at the time, many thought that Mangini was just being coy, not wanting to tip his hand in case anyone else in the league was paying attention. They weren’t.

Meanwhile, the Plan Dealer’s Bud Shaw was pleading with the Browns to move heaven and earth to sign Jay Cutler, an Anderson clone with a slightly better record, at the expense of Quinn. Cutler ultimately was traded by Denver to Chicago where he went on to huge stretches of ineptitude followed by fleeting moments of mediocrity.

With Mangini holed up in the background somewhere plotting his revenge on the NFL via the upcoming draft, the NFL and the ESPN found a completely worthless way of burning two hours of programming via their 2009 Schedule show. Yes, it took them two hours to reveal each team’s upcoming schedule and provide the kind of meaningless analysis you’ve come to expect from the World Wide Leader.

The NFL, with more primetime games to fill than deserving primetime teams, gave the Browns two national appearances, down from the 5 the previous season. One was a late season Monday nighter against the Ravens. The other, an even later season Thursday nighter against the Steelers.

Now in another one of those foreshadowing moments that I have from time to time, after looking at the Browns’ 2009 schedules I said about the final game against Jacksonville in Cleveland “I hope you’re enjoying that perk at a half-filled stadium freezing under a blanket while a steady 20 MPH wind, gusting to 45 MPH, whips across your cheeks like a worn razor blade.” I think the only thing I got wrong was the wind speed. On Sunday it looked to be about a steady 25 MPH.

Part IV. This is the Part Where Mangini Turns Into Monty Hall

As the draft was approaching, the rumors the Browns were floating around the league had them trading Braylon Edwards to the Giants for Domenick Hixon and some draft choices. Indeed, Mangini did try to make that trade but the Giants balked. As it ultimately turned out, Mangini wasn’t kidding about trying to move Edwards. In a season full of so many missteps, this wasn’t one of them. The only one who didn’t think so was ESPN’s Colin Cowherd, who spent a few shows spinning it all good in Edwards’ direction. I’d say he’d probably wish he had those shows back, but with Cowherd it’s always hard to tell.

When draft day finally approached in late April, the Browns spent the day moving up, down and sideways in the first round before trading down late into the first round and finally settling on California center Alex Mack. To make that happen, Mangini had to trade with his former club, the Jets, who used the Browns’ pick to draft quarterback Mark Sanchez out of USC.

The choice of Mack was at once a stretch and an insight into Mangini’s thinking. It was similar to his move in New York when he drafted Ohio State’s Nick Mangold.

Building a team from the lines on out is always a good choice. But the rest of Mangini’s draft was, well, just plain weird. All the wheeling and dealing got him a boatload of extra draft picks which Mangini used in the most random of fashion. The second round tells the story. In it he drafted two receivers—Ohio State’s Brian Robiskie and Georgia’s Mohamed Massaquoi—and then really reached in taking defensive lineman David Veikune from Hawaii. Sure, these were areas of need, but no one thought these were the players we needed.

Maybe the draft is best explained by reference to the veteran free agents Mangini brought with him from the Jets, players like Kenyon Coleman and Abram Elam. Mangini took some grief for bringing in those players but it did make some sense. As converts to the Mangini way they would be counted on to spread the gospel to a locker room full of skeptics. But those players looked to also be gap fillers that would allow Mangini to focus elsewhere in the draft, or something like that.

The lack of cohesion to the draft choices made it difficult to grade it. Even now, Mangini’s first draft is at best a mixed bag. None of his drafted players were major contributors although Mack started and played all season at center and got much better in the process. As for Robiski, Massaquoi and Veikune, the jury looks to be out for awhile.

With the draft completed and mini-camps beckoning, one story emerged that continued throughout the season: the plight of Josh Cribbs’ contract. In May, Cribbs hired a new agent who took a look at the contract that Cribbs signed two seasons ago and essentially said it was “outrageous, salacious and preposterous.” He then went about pleading his case.

The problem that Cribbs’ agent, J.R. Rickert, found was that the new regime wasn’t too excited about honoring the commitments that the previous regime had made. Crennel had named Quinn the 2009 starter, for example, only to see Mangini declare it open season on picking the new quarterback. Now Rickert was finding a similar stonewall when trying to enforce a commitment that Savage, with Lerner’s blessing, made to re-do Cribbs’ contract.

Mangini, again with an eye on the budget, felt that giving big money to a special team’s player, even one as valuable as Cribbs, might not be the best investment. He wanted to see more out of Cribbs, including whether he could be a regular on offense. He laid a carrot in front of Cribbs in May and left it dangling throughout the entire season, often telling the media that he thought a new contract would get done soon. Soon still hasn’t arrived.

While Cribbs and his agent were making the most noise about renegotiating a contract, with Cribbs at times seemingly threatening to sit out, one that flew under the radar screen was Phil Dawson. Dawson refused to report to any of Mangini’s pre-camps in a bit of a silent protest about his contract situation. Dawson eventually reported to preseason training camp without a new contract in hand. He didn’t help his case by getting hurt.

As for the rest of off-season Camp Mangini, it was going along swimmingly, at least from Mangini’s mad scientist perspective. He was irritating the bejeezus out of the players by having having them run laps for making mistakes, like false starts. He also was irritating the bejeezus out of the local media for playing hide the sausage on even the smallest bits of information. Finally, he was irritating the bejeezus out of both Anderson and Quinn as the so-called open competition commenced.

And if all that wasn’t enough, Mangini committed still another public relations blunder of his own by “volunteering” his rookies for a 10-hour bus ride to Connecticut to work at his football camp. Meanwhile, Mangini, trying to build team camaraderie, flew to Connecticut instead.

After word broke out about the camp, thanks to a whole bunch of agents who had gotten an earful from their disgruntled clients, Mangini rode the bus home. But the specter of the bus trip caused an inquiry by the league and the Players Association, one of three they were forced to make of Mangini this past season.

If only the Browns hadn’t fired their entire public relations staff all of this might have gone down much more smoothly. As it was, though, the Browns had bigger problems. They were having trouble selling loges and went into business with the Indians who likewise were having the same problem, offering a so-called “Touchdown Package” that would allow fans, for the price of $15,000, to watch the Tribe play St. Louis and Detroit and the Browns play Pittsburgh, all from a luxury box, refreshments extra.

As the dawn of Mangini’s first real training camp beckoned, word came down that the Browns were being sued by one of their own, Joe Jurevicius, who had missed the entire 2008 season because of a staph infection contracted after relatively routine arthroscopic surgery following the 2007 season.

Jurevicius claimed in his lawsuit that the Browns did not properly maintain, disinfect or clean their therapy devices making it likely that he would suffer a staph infection.

Staph infections have been a particularly thorny issue with the Browns as a number of players have suffered from them over the years. While I understood the concerns and frustration of players like Jurevicius, I always doubted his claims. Yet, isn’t it interesting that following the filing of the complaint and with all the Browns’ injuries this season there hasn’t been a staph infection?

One of the more refreshing aspects of the Browns’ training camp was simply the fact that every player was under contract before it started in earnest. Cribbs wasn’t happy not having his contract renegotiated and neither was Dawson. But both were in camp as was every draft choice. For a team in desperate need of anything positive, this would be it for awhile.

In the early days of camp, Mangini made his presence felt in the form of summarily dismissing defensive lineman Shaun Smith. Smith, as most remember, got into a locker room fight with Quinn the previous season with Quinn ending up with a fat lip. Smith always had his own agenda anyway and served as the perfect foil for the point Mangini was trying to drive home. It helped that Smith also wasn’t very good. Smith spent the next several months on the sidelines before landing, briefly, with the Detroit Lions. The Cincinnati Bengals picked him up, cut him a few days later, and then signed him once more when more injuries hit. As a point of reference, the week after Smith was signed again the Bengals lost their last game of the season to the Jets, 37-0. As another point of reference, the Bengals lost in the playoff re-match the following week.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The 2009 Cleveland Browns Retrospective--Intallment #1

Note: The Cleveland Browns 2009 season was one for the ages. It could be summed up in as little as one word “oy” or 100 million. I’ve opted for somewhere between the two. It may be that all of you, or most anyway, are so tired of this past season that you’d rather have your toe nails pulled than read another word about it. Believe me, I understand. But for those brave few willing to go along on one final journey with me, just know that I appreciate your courage and have tried to make it worth your while.

Part I. This is the Part Where the Browns Franchise Finds Itself Walking Alone, in the Middle of a Storm, on a Road to Nowhere, Again.

There are probably a million or more ways to look at the Cleveland Browns’ 2009 season and probably even more conclusions that could be drawn. But one thing that is undeniable. It’s been a long, strange trip indeed.

I promised to write a book about the season, and that might come in time. But I thought the best thing to do first was to try and make some sense of what we all just experienced. I wanted to follow the journey, really, that new club president Mike Holmgren had to take to get himself up to speed before deciding whether or not to keep head coach Eric Mangini.

In more ways than not, the 2009 season was worse than the 2008 season, although it’s a pretty close call. The Browns entered the 2008 with lofty expectations from the national media and ended up crashing and burning on the heels of 4 years of abject mismanagement on and off the field.

That was a season that had Braylon Edwards as its poster child. A Pro Bowler in 2007, Edwards developed the swagger and entitlement mentality reminiscent of most of today’s professional athletes. But Edwards never did develop the professionalism he actually needed to sustain his one good season. Instead he was lackadaisical in approach and it showed on the field in the form of one dropped pass after another. It was the story of the entire team, actually.

Edwards’ failures fairly summed up the end of the road for Romeo Crennel and Phil Savage, but I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. The story of the 2009 season actually starts with Crennel and Savage still in charge, sort of.

A lot about placing the 2009 season in context depends on when you think last season ended. For me, it was December 28, 2008. That was when the Browns played their last game of the Phil Savage/Romeo Crennel era and it ended, exquisitely, with a 31-0 pasting at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers, the team’s most hated rival.

In that game the Browns set the NFL’s record for longest streak without scoring an offensive touchdown and also had the dubious distinction of being the first Browns’ team to be shut out in consecutive games.

In my recap of that game I noted that by hitting what looked like rock bottom (and it was, but for that year only) in that manner they did, the Browns guaranteed that their fans would be dealt a steady diet of Kevin Harland and Rich Gannon as announcers for 2009. It’s exactly what they got, with the occasional Randy Cross thrown in for good measure.

The loss to the Steelers and the dispirited way that season ended raised the most obvious question, where do the Browns go from here? The worry then, fully justified soon thereafter, was that owner Randy Lerner hadn’t managed to get anything right yet and was now putting himself of overseeing the next makeover. Would it end well? How could it?

As it turned out, Savage’s fate was already sealed before the kickoff of that woeful Pittsburgh game. Lerner had fired him prior to the game but didn’t bother to tell anyone until after, apparently not sensing the irony in claiming that Savage’s termination was due, in part, to poor communication skills.

The mistake Lerner had made in Savage was a common one for Lerner. When hiring based on established track records was called for, Lerner instead opted for hope. Lerner figured Savage could fit comfortably into the general manager’s job simply because he had sat at the feet of Ozzie Newsome in Baltimore. What Lerner never realized was that Savage was more comfortable with stats than people. Newsome probably is still laughing at that miscalculation and thanking God during every waking moment that he left for Baltimore when Modell did.

Savage left a legacy of some decent draft choices (virtually every key contributor for the Browns this season, for example, was brought in by Savage) and a bevy of botched ones as well. Ultimately, it was Savage’s inability to be a steady, calming influence and face of the organization that was his undoing. He had embarrassed Lerner and the Browns in nearly consecutive weeks with his handling of the news of Kellen Winslow’s staph infection and compounded the problem first by issuing a perfunctory apology and then by sending a profane email in response to one written by a disgruntled Browns fan fed up with what he had been seeing on the field. Again, his apology was perfunctory, as if he’d done nothing wrong in the first place.

As for Crennel, the shoe dropped on him after the final game. In typical Lerner fashion it was through a written statement and again without any appreciation for irony in that he claimed he fired Savage a day earlier, in part, due to his lack of leadership skills.

Crennel was a very decent man. Approachable and serious minded, Crennel treated the players like men and found himself being rewarded in the same way parents are rewarded for trusting that their 17-year old won’t break into the liquor cabinet while they’re away for the weekend. His teams lacked discipline of almost every sort and his tenure can be summed up in perhaps the two words that described the team’s most common penalty, “false start.”

Lerner’s first thought in trying to replace Crennel was a good one, Bill Cowher. But Cowher told Lerner before that fateful Pittsburgh game that he didn’t plan to coach in 2009 and stuck to his word. Lerner found himself thus at a crossroads. Having failed by hiring a lifelong assistant like Crennel, Lerner could either find someone who had head coaching experience or someone who had head coaching ability. Naturally, he opted for the former when he needed to opt for the latter.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves, too. Certainly Lerner’s first task surely would be to find a general manager before tackling the issue of who might be the Browns’ next head coach. That’s the right order, isn’t it?

As it turned out, it wasn’t the right order at all. Shortly after the 2008 season ended, the New York Jets apparently did Lerner the biggest favor of all and fired Eric Mangini as its head coach. Mangini was given the nickname of Mangenius when he took a 4-12 Jets team and turned it into a 10-6 playoff team in his first season.

But that nickname quickly faded when the Jets reverted back to form the following season at 4-12 and then, in Mangini’s last season, started 8-3 and then lost its last 5 games to miss the playoffs. It was time, general manager Mike Tannebaum said, to move where all teams eventually need to move to, destination new direction. That’s pretty damning stuff, actually, just 3 years into the direction they were on with Mangini.

For Lerner, Mangini had the two attributes he most coveted: a connection with Bill Belichick and head coaching experience. That was the sum total of the due diligence he performed. But that may not have been even Lerner’s biggest mistake. That would be reserved for letting Mangini pick his new boss, which he did in the form of George Kokinis, the former Baltimore Ravens pro personnel director.

On the surface it sounded like Kokinis was Savage redux, right down to the resume. But that wasn’t exactly true. As a pro personnel director, Kokinis’ focus was on current players in the league, not college players. In other words, he wouldn’t be much help in the draft.

Putting aside the problem with letting the subordinate hire his own boss, Kokinis was an odd selection because the Browns’ biggest trouble area was the draft. What we didn’t know at the time was that Mangini hired Kokinis specifically because he lacked that skill. It let Mangini wander free around the draft. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves, too. I’ve got to stop doing that.

Mangini’s official hiring came on January 9, 2009 and marked the first time, probably, that any NFL team had elevated its former ball boy to head coach. Lerner, of course, didn’t announce the decision personally. That task fell to Mike Kennan, the club’s president, a title Kennan would relinquish once Holmgren was hired.

The courtship of Mangini was quick, particularly so considering that no other team looking for a head coach at the time had even given Mangini a second thought. At his introductory press conference Mangini said all the right and usual things. But the proof, as I noted then, would be in whether he does the right things. Call it foreshadowing. But even greater foreshadowing came in the form of a question posed by the Jets fan who ran the website: who in their right mind would replace one ex-Patriot flop with another ex-Patriot flop? Destiny, thy name is Lerner.

Part II. This is the Part Where Mangini Settles In and Others Suddenly Become Unsettled

After the hiring of Mangini and Kokinis, the rest of January was relatively quiet, unless you happened to work in the Browns’ front office. Blaming the economy, Lerner approved the layoff of 15 employees, including the public relations staff. Meanwhile, there were a host of castoffs able to ride out the economy in slightly better fashion in the form of Lerner castoffs still owed millions, castoffs like Carmen Policy, Butch Davis, Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel.

Maybe these 15 layoffs were part of a tanking economy. But to say that they weren’t in part the result of a makeover being overseen by Mangini would be wrong.

At the time Lerner was having staffers clean out their desks, he was allowing Mangini to have the Berea complex physically overhauled at a considerable cost. Of all the changes that occurred, the one that caused the most controversy, though, was his painting over a mural of Browns’ legends. Some saw it as Mangini purposely trying to break with the past. Others saw it as Mangini wanting to let everyone know who was calling the shots. They were both right.

Meanwhile, Mangini was keeping many of Crennel’s assistants dangling, insisting that they be held to the letter of their contracts while preventing them from interviewing elsewhere. Part of that was because he hadn’t yet finalized his own staff. Part of it, maybe the bigger part of it, was the simple fact that it was saving the Browns money. Per league rules, if the Browns fired the coaches before their contracts were completed and the coaches found other employment elsewhere at a lower salary, the Browns would be on the hook for the difference. A coach that resigns, however, has no such luck.

At the very least, it set a tone. In retrospect, it was the beginning of a number of blunders Mangini would make that made him one of the most unpopular hires in Browns’ history, at least for the first 3 months of the regular season, anyway.

As February dawned, Mangini gave his first full press conference. It was a virtuoso performance as he talked often and said nothing. He mentioned the mural and how that was all one big misunderstanding and said a few nice things about D’Qwell Jackson and Josh Cribbs, but not much else. Actually it was unclear why Mangini had the press conference in the first place, unless it was to set the ground rules with the media for what was to come. It did and Mangini never got the media back on his side for the rest of the season.

Kokinis wasn’t much better. A few weeks after the Mangini press conference came Kokinis to publicly declare that he and Mangini were on the same page without ever giving anyone a clue what page that actually was. As it turned out, they didn’t know themselves.

But one thing was clear from the Kokinis press conference. Mangini had placed him on a short leash. Kokinis wouldn’t discuss, for example, whether the Browns planned on placing the franchise tag on safety Sean Jones, about their only free agent worth trying to keep. Likewise, he wouldn’t discuss his thinking on Derek Anderson other than to say “you really have to fit Derek within the whole structure of the whole football team.” It’s still one of my favorite quotes ever because it precisely captures the guise of saying something while actually saying nothing at all. But to Kokinis’ credit, it was exactly what Mangini wanted him to say.

Someone who was far less shy in talking substantively was Scott Pioli, the new general manager in Kansas City. Talking freely at the combine in Indianapolis, Pioli went on to praise in almost over-the-top fashion Detroit’s hiring of Jim Schwartz as head coach. It wasn’t just that this was praise at the exclusion of Cleveland’s near simultaneous hiring of Mangini so much as it was insight on why Pioli wouldn’t take the general manager’s job in Cleveland.

Pioli and Mangini are like oil and water at this point owing mostly to Mangin’s role in the whole Spygate affair while Pioli was in New England. But more to the point, speculation is that Pioli wanted Lerner to consider hiring Schwartz in Cleveland as part of the package of bringing Pioli in but Lerner instead was fixated on Mangini. It was the deal killer of all deal killers.

As for Mangini and Kokinis at the combine, they were their usual insightful selves. The Browns were either interested in a running back or maybe it was a defensive end. They were going to keep Anderson or maybe trade him. They’d consider moving Josh Cribbs to safety or maybe running back. What the two didn’t realize is that the only ones interested in the Browns’ plans were their fans. The rest of the league and billions worldwide could have cared less.

Already getting off on the wrong foot with the fans, the media and the holdovers from the front office, Mangini decided to go for the grand slam by taking on the players. In the most highly publicized snub since Don Knotts wasn’t nominated as best actor for his role in The Incredible Mr. Limpett, Mangini ignored the hulking Shaun Rogers at a charity function in late February, claiming he just didn’t see him.

Mangini’s explanation wasn’t believable because the two almost literally bumped shoulders in their bids to ignore each other. Rogers claimed he felt disrespected but what was really going on behind the scenes was that Rogers (and other players) had gotten a letter from Mangini a few days earlier that they would be required to report for the team’s upcoming workouts in mid-March at their playing weight.

Rogers, who struggles with weight issues and never met a Boston crème pie he could resist, felt disrespected because he always answered the bell during the season.

To some, Rogers was just acting out his nickname of Big Baby. As it turned out, it was just another misstep by Mangini; a failure to understand the pulse of his new team.

Meanwhile, in an effort to reclaim some of the draft picks lost by the previous regime, Mangini (or was it Kokinis?) traded Kellen Winslow, Jr. to Tampa Bay for a second round pick in the coming draft and a fifth round pick in 2010. Ultimately, it was a trade of mutual convenience. Winslow wanted his contract renegotiated and Mangini wanted draft picks. Tampa Bay was the willing dupe.

In some sense, Winslow was missed. Mostly, though, he wasn’t. Winslow wasn’t happy with the Browns for a number of reasons and wanted a fresh start elsewhere. Whatever skills Winslow still has, they aren’t ever going to be what his college potential promised due mostly to injuries. A team rebuilding didn’t need someone like Winslow. Of course either did Tampa Bay but they went on to re-do his contract anyway, making him about $20 million richer. Meanwhile, somewhere Josh Cribbs steamed.

When the NFL’s mid-winter meetings hit in early March, the Browns were mostly bystanders. That was a good thing. It was a refreshing assessment that signing a high-priced free agent wasn’t what this team needed. There were just too many holes and not enough cap space to go around. It was something that Savage never really understood as he went about throwing money at the likes of Donte Stallworth the season before.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Healing the Wounds

Time heals all wounds as much as it wounds all heals. Case in point is Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini.

A year ago he was the full-of-himself new sheriff in town quickly and nosily putting his imprint on the Browns. It mattered little that there was a general manager, hand picked by Mangini at that, in his path. He had a direct line to owner Randy Lerner which was pretty heady stuff for someone who had just been fired for, among other things, being a full-of-himself pain in the butt in New York.

Indeed, Mangini’s presence in Cleveland then was of such overwhelming force that Tom Heckert, Jr., then the Philadelphia Eagles general manager, withdrew his name from consideration for the same position in Cleveland. Heckert wanted to hire his own head coach more than he wanted Mangini thrust upon him.

Fast forward those 12 months and all the miles in between and now Mangini finds himself chastened by the turn of events he set in motion and Heckert finds himself as the Browns’ new general manager even though he didn’t get a chance to hire his own head coach and even though he had Mangini thrust upon him. And everyone seems perfectly happy with all of it.

What’s changed? Everything. The version of the Browns today is by far, by leaps and bound far, by country miles far, by night and day far, by farther than far, the most professional version since probably the Marty Schottenheimer days.

There is an owner in place that has no interest in meddling in anything, content is he to simply write checks and occasionally watch the team from the tunnel. There is a president in place that is as credible of a football mind as exists in professional football today. There is a general manager in place that actually has a proven track record of success as a general manager. There is a general counsel in place to oversee the legal issues that this team tends to get embroiled in too often that is a respected legal mind on the fast track to league-insider status. Then there is Mangini.

I’m not sold on Mangini. But I am sold on Holmgren and trust his judgment. If after interviewing Mangini formally and informally for the last few weeks he’s convinced that Mangini can be an asset to this franchise, then the decision deserves every bit as much of the benefit of the doubt as does Holmgren’s hiring of Heckert.

Holmgren’s decision to keep Mangini and how that decision interplays with the hiring of Heckert seemed to stem from a number of factors. Holmgren’s convinced, for example, that Mangini is a team player. That’s probably the most debatable point. Mangini has developed a track record of discarding members of his teams in very dramatic ways when it suits his self-interest.

Holmgren also seemed impressed in the way Mangini’s team recovered from an incredibly bad start to finish strong. It’s not worth arguing this point, either, but let’s just say there’s plenty of valid counterpoints to the whole “we’re on the right track because we beat 4 straight non-playoff teams” kind of thinking.

Ultimately, though, it seems that the decision to keep Mangini was professional courtesy. It just seems to rub Holmgren the wrong way to dump a head coach, any head coach, after one season. Holmgren seems to have taken a look at the landscape, concluded that it would have been difficult for anyone to have had success in such a dysfunctional environment and absolved Mangini of his role in creating that dysfunction.

Having grown up schooled in the Belichick way, Mangini really didn’t know any other way of operating. The Jets were not a Belichick-inspired organization and that, as much as anything, is what made it difficult for Mangini to survive there. Having been hired immediately in Cleveland gave Mangini no sense that there were even problems in his approach.

It’s not even so much that Mangini’s vaunted process failed him so much as it is that he was ill-equipped to oversee it. If this past season has proven anything it’s that Mangini works best when he can concentrate on coaching. Putting himself in charge of everything created the disaster that ultimately led to Holmgren’s hiring.

Holmgren obviously sensed the same thing and said as much in his press conference. Heckert is now in charge on the roster and Mangini is in charge of getting that roster to play winning football. Technically, that’s what the structure looked like a year ago, too. But with Holmgren and not Lerner ensuring that the boys play nice together, it’s far less likely for the general manager to get cut off at the knees. That’s a far different scenario than was presented to candidates like Heckert a year ago and is why, ultimately, Heckert is in Cleveland today.

Browns fans should be excited about not only having Heckert aboard but about the changes that have taken place in the organization that have allowed it to attract a candidate like Heckert in the first place. Whereas Phil Savage and George Kokinis supposedly were being groomed for a general manager’s job while in Baltimore, neither had been in that slot before.

Moreover, neither of them had any specific public accomplishments while in Baltimore that would give fans confidence that they were the correct hires. It’s likely true that within the Ravens organization each had played significant roles in helping Ozzie Newsome establish the roster, but ultimately it was Newsome that set the course.

In Philadelphia, Heckert didn’t have final say on the roster but he did run the Eagles’ draft and in doing so he’s been much more successful than the Browns have been in that same period of time. That as much as anything will determine whether this team is a success because it has as much as anything been responsible for its failures.

In a way, though, this whole process seems to have been more cathartic to Mangini than anyone could have anticipated. With plenty of time to absorb the concept that the paradigm he created had dramatically shifted Mangini from all accounts seems to have shifted with it.

Mangini now enters 2011 in a far different way than he did 2010. Sure, he’s still head coach, still gets to wear the brown and orange and he kept his parking spot at the Berea location. But no one inside or outside of Berea sees him as the final word on anything anymore.

Relieved of that burden, Mangini may actually turn into a credible head coach. At least that’s what Holmgren and Heckert and banking on. If that turns out to be the case 12 months from now, then the organization will be far better off as well.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

Amateur Hour

Let’s put aside for the moment Cleveland Browns’ president Mike Holgrem’s decision to retain head coach Eric Mangini or even Holmgren’s pursuit of his general manager to focus on Josh Cribbs. Despite all the major goings on in Berea this week, it’s Cribbs and his contract dispute that has garnered most of the attention.

Here’s what I know about the Cribbs situation: J.R. Rickert is a lousy agent. All Rickert has done for the last several days is prove that he’s an amateur among professionals and the person caught in the middle is his earnest and gullible client.

Cribbs last signed a contract extension before the 2007 season. It was a six-year deal that gave him more than $1 million in guaranteed money. Then, of course, Cribbs went on to have a breakout season in 2007 and made the Pro Bowl. He had a very good 2008 and then, beginning last May, he began asking for a new contract.

When May turned into June and June eventually into December, Cribbs added another Pro Bowl selection to his resume but still found himself without that new contract.

The timing of Cribbs’ contract demand last May coincided with his hiring of Ricket. Agents in the NFL get new clients by convincing those prospective clients that their previous agents were hacks and that they deserve a new contract. It’s how Drew Rosenhaus got famous.

In Rickert’s case, all he had to do was focus Cribbs on his contract and how the Browns were literally stealing money from him for paying him as if he was still an undrafted free agent instead of the Pro Bowl player he’s become.

Once Cribbs signed with Rickert, the pressure on the Browns began. Taking a page from his Sports Agent 101 handbook, Rickert has worked the public relations angle in the same way that that striking school teachers work the parents by claiming it’s all about the “best interests of the students.”

Although the Browns have mostly yawned at Rickert’s histrionics, he has managed to shape public opinion. Right now, most Browns fans have concluded that Cribbs is underpaid with no basis to come to that conclusion except emotional.

Cribbs is clearly the Browns’ best player on about 10 different levels. He worked his way up from undrafted free agent out of Kent State to possibly the league’s most valuable kick returner and special teams player. He never gives less than full effort. He’s excellent in the community. In short, he’s pretty much been everything anyone can ask of a professional athlete in any sport. In terms of this team, he’s been the one consistent source of pride for a franchise far more use to embarrassing itself.

Objectively, Cribbs is underpaid relative to his peers but not necessarily as much as Rickert would like the public to think. But even if Cribbs was grossly underpaid relative to his peers, that’s only part of the equation anyway.

The fact remains that Cribbs, without a gun to his head, signed that six-year contract in order to secure a million dollar payoff upfront. Maybe it wasn’t the best business decision of his life, but it wasn’t his worst and in any case his current contract is a burden he brought on voluntarily. For anyone to summarily conclude that the Browns aren’t being fair is itself unfair.

There also is the issue of setting a precedent by renegotiating so early into a new contract. From a business standpoint, even before the ink is dry on Cribbs’ new contract, the line will start forming outside of its new general manager’s office of players who likewise want a better deal.

But there also is another side to the whole matter and that’s the side where it appears that owner Randy Lerner and former general manager Phil Savage both promised Cribbs a new contract and then didn’t follow through. A delay in that regard could be excused once Savage was fired after last season, but Lerner has remained and it was his moral if not legal duty to make sure that his new head coach Eric Mangini took care of fulfilling Lerner’s commitments quickly.

From almost the minute Mangini got this assignment he put it down pretty low on his priority list. Mangini always felt that if Cribbs was due more money it would be because his value to the team would be greater than just on special teams. A major reason why the Browns kept pushing Cribbs into the mix as a wide receiver was an effort to expand his role and justify a bigger contract.

Cribbs has shown himself to be merely average, at best, as a NFL receiver. That’s not a sin, just a fact. He’s far more valuable in the wildcat formation where he can better utilize his running skills and still remain as a threat to throw the ball. But the wildcat formation is and always will be a change of pace. No team in the NFL can survive on a steady diet of that kind of formation.

Thus where Cribbs finds himself still is one of the most valuable special teams players in the league and a decent but not overwhelming threat on offense. What, ultimately, is all that worth?

Enter Rickert. The truth is that even Rickert can’t figure it out. In one conversation he’ll equate Cribbs to Devin Hester and in the next conversation say he’s not seeking Hester-like money. Rickert will then pull out supposedly comparable salaries in the $3 million/year range but then say that he’s not looking for that kind of money, either. All we really know is that he thinks an $800,000 a year salary increase is an insult.

The person to feel sorry for in all of this is Cribbs and not because he’s suffering financially. Cribbs is sincere to a fault. He wears his emotions on his sleeve, both good and bad. When the Browns didn’t respond to Rickert’s latest ludicrous threat to get back to him by 5 p.m. last Wednesday or else he’d go public, it was Cribbs that had to deal with the backlash.

Cribbs supposedly has cleaned out his locker and, at the moment, doesn’t believe he’ll ever be back with the Browns. It’s the line Rickert laid in front of him but Cribbs, true to his nature, delivered it truthfully and in heartbreaking fashion. Cribbs may believe it at the moment but that doesn’t mean there’s a shred of truth to it.

Negotiation on any deal, be it for a player in the NFL or for a TV at the local Best Buy, is about leverage. The more you have, the easier it is to strike a better deal. Rickert knows he has absolutely no leverage at the moment. He has a client with 3 years remaining on a contract and absolutely no way to extricate him from it at the moment.

Rickert can demand until his face turns red that the Browns trade Cribbs but the Browns are under no obligation to honor that request. Cribbs can threaten to sit out but if he does, whenever he returns he’ll still have 3 years remaining on his contract.

Rickert said recently that Jay Cutler finagled his way out of Denver by demanding a trade and thus the same thing can happen here. But comparing Cutler and Cribbs is laughable. Cutler wasn’t particularly well-liked in Denver and no one really shed a tear when he left. It also helped that Denver had a whole new management team that made parting with an underachiever like Cutler even easier.

In Cleveland, Cribbs is anything but a persona non grata. He’s wildly popular with his fans and the entire team. Holmgren may have no connection with Cribbs but he’s smart enough to know and appreciate Cribbs’ value.

What will really happen is that once things settle a bit in Berea, Cribbs will get his contract extended, which is pretty much the same thing as renegotiated but it gives the Browns cover with other players and their agents.

The extension will push the contract out a few more years at least and will include a huge, guaranteed signing bonus and perhaps some roster bonuses in the next 3 years to raise Cribbs’ take home pay in those years without changing his salary. And when it gets all done everyone will be all smiles with each side announcing how thrilled they are that Cribbs will be with the Browns for the remainder of his career.

Rickert, of course, will then use the Cribbs situation to lure another player into his stable and this same scenario will play out somewhere else without anyone the wiser that this whole thing would have gotten done in pretty much the same way even if Cribbs had never hired Rickert in the first place.