Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Nightmare in the Owners Box

Owning a professional football team would be great if it didn’t come with the players. But alas it does and thus far too often owning a team can be far more trouble than it’s worth.

If you’re Randy Lerner, for example, and you inherit the Cleveland Browns when all you really wanted was a pile of money instead you have to know that feeling. Lerner was ill-equipped to do so when he first took over as owner and only recently has become a little more adept at it.

In the interim he’s probably woken up in the middle of the night screaming dozens of times. He’s squandered millions on bad decisions of his own making that involved placing trust in people he hardly knew. As often happens that trust ended up being misplaced. Lerner’s latest decisions hold more promise than any of those previously made and as a result he’s probably getting comfortable in the notion that he now can do what he’s seemingly always wanted to do, go back to just being a fan. When he reaches that spot, the nightmares should end.

In the last several years it couldn’t have been much fun being Mike Brown, the owner of the Cincinnati Bengals. Though he hired himself a decent head coach in Marvin Lewis he has always held the purse strings rather tight, keeping the team well under the salary cap each and every season.

All this did was increase the pressure on himself and Lewis to take chances on players with a good upside but were otherwise of questionable character. Those kind always come cheaper. As it so often happens, players with questionable character, like anyone else with questionable character, eventually sink to their own depths. Not surprisingly, the Bengals became a league joke as their public relations team seemingly spent more time minimizing still another arrest of another player than talking about the team’s next game.

So many Bengals players have had arrests in the last several seasons that the stripes on the uniform pants look like foreshadowing. You could blame Lewis and there’s nothing wrong with that. He supported bringing in that gang. You can also blame Brown and there’s nothing wrong with that, either. Tone starts from the top.

But the bigger issue, I think, is that these are supposed to be professional football players and adults. They acted like neither and that’s on them.

Which brings us around to where this column was ultimately going in the first place, the Pittsburgh Steelers. Sitting in Cleveland we’ve had a unique perspective of the Steelers over the last 10 years and usually that involves looking up at a scoreboard that reads Pittsburgh 7, Cleveland 0 with 10:15 left in the first quarter and knowing that the deficit is too much to overcome.

You don’t have to be a diehard Browns fan to hate the Steelers, but it helps. Nonetheless, they are the kind of rival about whom you tend to have begrudging respect. They’ve had good, consistent ownership. They’ve hired well. They’ve drafted well. In fact, they seemed to have done most things well at exactly the same time Cleveland has done everything poorly.

While any successful team will have a certain amount of arrogance about it, you never much got the feeling that the Steelers were cocky. Mostly they were workmanlike and professional. The Rooneys seemed to escape most of the same hassles of ownership that has gotten to everyone else.

Not anymore. Because most everything in life is cyclical, the Rooneys are finally are feeling the heat. Santonio Holmes, the former Buckeye, has performed well on the field and questionably off of it. Each time he scrambles to make a problem go away just reminds everyone that often times the best use of a multi-million dollar salary is to buy yourself a little more justice than the guy funding that salary can afford for himself.

There also have been a few problems with Jeff Reed, their kicker. Why a kicker would get himself in trouble is anyone’s guess but when the wheels fall off they apparently all fall off. Reed was arrested twice in 2009, one for beating up a towel dispenser at a Sheetz gas station and another time for public intoxication.

Linebacker James Harrison had his own brush with the law as the result of a domestic violence arrest in 2008. He received anger management counseling which seems a little counterintuitive since he is, after all, a linebacker. But it helped keep the incident under the rug where it belonged and helped frame the rather existential question that if a woman gets hit but doesn’t press charges, did she really get hit at all?

But these three appear to be mere amateurs in the bad decision department. For the true pro you have to turn to Ben Roethlisberger. Sure he’s tortured the Browns and a host of other teams in a wildly successful career to date that’s included two Super Bows. But Roethlisberger at the moment is staring down the business end of an investigation in Georgia over an alleged sexual assault of a 20-year old college student. That investigation just gets lopped onto the other sexual assault allegation against Roethlisberger that’s currently pending in a civil court in Las Vegas.

At this point Roethlisberger hasn’t officially been charged with a crime. And it’s a long way from being charged and being convicted. If history teaches us anything (see Holmes, Reed, Harrison, for example) there are any number of ways to avoid being found guilty of anything particularly serious. So maybe this circumstance goes away without Roethlisberger being labeled a felon.

But the broader point should not be lost. Roethlisberger is a mess. Without putting too fine a point on it, let’s just say that he often appears to be too familiar with the slings and arrows of alcohol intake and it’s not just impairing his judgment and it’s not just endangering his career. It’s endangering others as well.

As a result, he’s now putting others in harms way. That, I think, is where this line has to get drawn. If Roethlisberger wants to sit in his house and Georgia and drink himself silly with no one else around, that’s his business. But when he takes his drunken show on the road, trouble tends to follow.

The Steelers certainly know they have a problem on their hands. At the moment they just don’t know the extent. But they’re concerned enough to keep Roethlisberger away from their football complex for the time being. Yes, he’s that big of a distraction.

In time, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell will punish Roethlisberger. Goodell will probably suspend him for a game or two and may force him into some kind of treatment program. That’s all just the short-term fallout. For the Steelers, the fact that their team is fraying at the edges and that it’s their most valuable player handling the scissors signals a far bigger and longer term problem.

As much as Browns fans (and probably Ravens and Bengals fans as well) would like to hear it, the Steelers aren’t going to throw Roethlisberger overboard. That could change of course if Roethlisberger ultimately is charged and convicted in Georgia. But for the time being, this is a problem that the Rooney family just has to manage. It’s a headache they hardly needed but it comes with the territory and now they probably know what the rest of the owners feel like on a regular basis.

The point all this proves, though, is that no team is immune, not even the fabled Steelers and their fabled Steelers way, from the problems created when immature and selfish athletes and too much money mix. Roethlisberger is both a cautionary tale and a marker for the problem and has put at the forefront an all together not existential question: If a team can’t keep both its kicker and its quarterback in line, what chance does it really have with the rest of the players?

Monday, March 29, 2010

The No-Buzz Zone

Maybe because it’s in Goodyear, Arizona with its attendant time difference, but doesn’t this seem like the quietest spring training in Cleveland Indians’ history?

There Indians open the regular season on April 5th and it almost seems like there ought to be another three weeks of spring training left, just to build some excitement. As it is, even with a crazy 16-6 record in the Cactus League, the Indians are maybe the second or third story every day.

Certainly the distance from Cleveland to Arizona vs. Cleveland to Florida has something to do with it. In these parts, people tend to take their winter vacations in Florida. It’s almost as if everyone around here knew someone who had been to Vero Beach and took in a few spring training games. That alone helped build some buzz.

But of course it’s so much more than that. Even with a new manager in Manny Acta, this team has zero buzz around it. If they come out of the gate roaring, meaning they are playing at least .500 ball at the end of April, I get the sense it won’t matter much. It just seems like the average fan fully understands that this team isn’t equipped to contend for an entire season and even if it were, the Dolans wouldn’t be in a position to finance a late season move to put it over the top.

In more ways than I care to count, the Indians of 2010 are like virtually every Indians team of my youth, which spans the late ‘60s to the late ‘70s. There are a few players scattered about that are intriguing. But there are far too many players mixed in that would have fit in too well on those past teams to get anyone overly excited.

The key difference, though it won’t make much of a difference on the field, has everything to do with the economic realities of baseball in 2010.

The Indians of 2010 are a far better capitalized team than those teams of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, but in other ways they are far worse off financially. The economics of those years were rather quaint. In the last 15-20 years, the economics of baseball have exploded at a pace far greater than at any other time in baseball and in the process it’s created a nearly untenable situation in which far too many teams struggle to put a competitive team on the field.

Maybe a salary cap fixes that or maybe a better distribution of the wealth among the owners does. But until something is done, major league baseball will continue to teeter on the precipice of financial collapse while operating in a construct in which only a handful of teams have a realistic chance of making their fans happy when October rolls around.

The league simply can’t sustain a business model where the median team payroll is just a little over a third of the highest team payroll. Even if you throw out the Yankees for a moment, in 2009 there still were three teams with payrolls that were $100 million less than the league’s second highest payroll team, the Mets. To give you an idea of how out of whack it is when you throw in the Yankees, those same three teams had payrolls that were around $160 million less. In other words, the Florida Marlins, at a league-low payroll of $37 million, could have fielded 5 separate teams with the same payroll and still have had another $16 million or so in walking around money.

Payroll figures for the ‘60s and ‘70s aren’t readily available, but to give you an idea of the kind of scale and change we’re talking about, look at the earliest year in the USA Today database for which total payroll is available, 1988.

In that year, no surprise, the Yankees had the highest payroll at $18 million. Today that barely even buys you CC Sabathia. The White Sox were the laggards in 1988 at around $6 million. It’s a decent gap between them and the Yankees certainly, but isn’t anything close to the gaps that now exist.

For further comparison, consider that in 2009, 22 teams had less than half the payroll of the Yankees while in 1988 only 7 teams had half the payroll of the Yankees. If you went back 10 years from that, you’re likely to see even less disparities. Indeed, even when you go back just 10 years ago, only 8 teams had half the payroll of the Yankees.

Major league baseball has never seen this as much of a problem or at least as enough of a problem to do anything meaningful about it. But the impact on the fans is significant.

The Indians of the ‘60s and ‘70s were undercapitalized because they had lousy, undercapitalized owners that had no money to spend on the team. But even in that paradigm, the differences between the haves and have nots and the salaries of players from team to team were not nearly as dramatic meaning that as much as what kept the Indians uncompetitive was simply the fact that the were lousy at developing players and even worse at trading players.

Right now the Indians are undercapitalized because even though the Dolans aren’t particularly rich in comparison to other owners there doesn’t exist an economic scenario in which it would be profitable for them to keep the Indians competitive with the Yankees anyway. Given that, in one sense you can’t blame the Dolans for keeping tight reigns on the purse strings. What would be the point in loosening them up a little? The team won’t be appreciably better anyway and all it will end up doing is taking money out of their own pockets.

Ask yourself if you’d do something different if you were in the Dolans’ shoes and if you’re being completely honest the answer is a resounding “no.” A better funded owner could change much of this but it will take someone who is significantly better funded, someone who literally doesn’t care to lose hundreds of millions of dollars. There aren’t a whole lot of them kicking around at the moment.

It’s a depressing thought certainly and has more than an air of inevitability about it when it comes to the club’s fortunes on the field. And while that is all the root cause of why there is no buzz around this team, all the fans really bother to internalize is what they see on the field.

The Indians’ lone free agent acquisition of note this past off season was Russell Branyan. The only reason it’s even of note is not because Branyan has anything approaching a credible major league career but because his signing marks the return of sorts of a prodigal son.

But even that signing has been nothing short of a disaster thus far. Branyan will start the season on the disabled list with a bad back that he’s trying to rehab instead of fix through surgery. Even if/when he comes back, his contributions will be minimal at best.

The hiring of Acta wasn’t intended to create a buzz, leaving the only other story line as the young, intriguing players on this team, which is the same story line that generally rotates around minor league teams. It’s kind of fun to pay cut right prices in Akron to sit up close and watch potential major leaguers. It’s a whole other kind of fun to pay major league prices to sit far away and essentially watch the same thing.

The opening of the major league season used to hold so much promise. In a way it still does, except the promise that it now holds isn’t one of hope but one of resignation.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lingering Items--Striking Out Edition

The Cleveland Indians may be in extreme cost-cutting mode, which is about the only explanation out there for how they found a doctor to medically clear Russell Branyan. Perhaps their medical staff is made up of equal parts Dr. Vinnie Boombatz, Dr. Bombay and Dr. Demento.

Branyan has yet to sniff an at bat in the preseason as he supposedly rehabilitates the bad back that kept him out of the last month of the season. With almost no competition for his services given both his incredibly mediocre major league career and his physical condition, the Indians got medical clearance and couldn’t wait to throw $2 million of its shrinking revenue pool at him. Now Branyan looks destined to start the season on injured reserve.

To which I can only say, really? It’s exactly this kinds of bizarre moves that gets fans so frustrated with general manager Mark Shapiro. There is nothing about Branyan’s history that suggests the Indians should have signed him even if he was completely healthy. He’s a hack in the field and a hack at the plate. He can occasionally hit the long ball but all the stuff he does in between those pokes isn’t worth the effort.

But Branyan isn’t healthy, which makes this signing even worse. Supposedly Branyan is at least participating in some spring training activities but the fear is that Branyan’s back won’t physically let him swing and miss too often against actual pitching. Here’s the thing, I think Branyan would strike out just as often if he was hitting off a tee. He doesn’t need 50 spring training at bats to polish his batting eye, he needs a new set of eyes.

Branyan claims he really only needs a week of spring training to get ready for the season and for once I can’t disagree. Branyan has been kicking around professional baseball since the mid 1990s. In that time he’s shown remarkable consistency in his ability to strike out, whether it’s against the American League, the National League or the minor leagues. That’s not a skill that takes much practice to master. You could literally pull a man off the street, give him a uniform and a week of practice, and accomplish the same thing. And I’m guess that would have cost Shapiro far less than $2 million.

At some point, which means when Branyan actually goes on the disabled list, Shapiro will switch into “it was worth the gamble” mode when it comes to justifying the Branyan signing. As Branyan’s back persistently refuses to respond favorably to rehabilitation Shapiro will then switch to “this now gives us a chance to look at the prospects” mode.

Meanwhile as the season turns from one fitful month to the next and Shapiro starts entertaining offers for any assets left of value, we can then begin to calculate the real impact of this little $2 million mistakes. As they like to say in government, $2 million here, $2 million there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.


The National Football league has changed its overtime rules for playoff games to hopefully lessen the impact that winning the coin flip can have on the outcome of the game and this is hailed as progress.

For professional sports’ most tightly wound league, I guess it is.

Now, if the team that wins the coin flip kicks a field goal, the opposing team gets a chance. If that team kicks a field goal then play continues. If that team scores a touchdown or fails to score at all, the game is over.

As innovations go it’s a step in the right direction. The NFL has been reluctant to embrace the college overtime rules because how long it can extend a game and hence increase the chance of injury. That’s fine. But what isn’t quite fine are the reasons the NFL has given for not putting its new overtime rule in effect for the regular season.

The first reason is that the outcome of a playoff game is far more important than a single regular season game. That’s not completely true. Teams miss the playoffs by a single game every year and it’s not hard to imagine a 9-7 record being 10-6 but for the want of a chance in overtime. This is even more true in the last few weeks of the season when there are few if any games remaining to overcome that loss.

Moreover, the sheer number of opportunities for overtime games in the regular season vs. the playoffs strongly suggests that keeping the current overtime rules for the regular season will have a far greater chance of negatively impacting the playoffs than keeping the old rules in effect for the playoffs have had.

And while all that’s a fine debate, it’s not the primary reason the NFL isn’t implementing the new rule for the regular season anyway It all has to do with the length of games and the impact on the networks’ schedules.

Everything about the NFL is regimented, from how much of a sock must show on a player’s leg to the starting and finishing times of games. When a 1 p.m. game runs long because of overtime, it bleeds into the 4 p.m. game. When the 4 p.m. game runs long, it bleeds into the network’s prime time lineup and when a Sunday or Monday night game runs long it bleeds into a network executive’s sleep time.

I’m not one of those who will rail against the influence of the networks when it comes to sports because, frankly, without them most people wouldn’t get to see any sports. They bring the games to the masses and pay hundreds of millions each year to do just that. So if their needs can be accommodated, they should.

Where I think the line gets drawn, though, is when the networks’ influence goes from accommodation to actually impacting the outcome of a particular game. The networks invest a lot of money into their primetime lineups but preserving them by enhancing the predictability of when regular season games end is a step in the wrong direction.

The NFL’s overtime rules have never been particularly fair in the first place but they were equally unfair to all teams and that’s a paradigm relatively acceptable. But as the NFL tinkers with the unfairness, it should address it not just for certain games but for all games. It’s as if major league baseball were to suddenly decide that regular season ties after, say 10 innings, are decided by rock/paper/scissors, best two out of three, while post season ties are decided by as many extra innings as it takes to get a winner on the field.


The Plain Dealer’s Tony Grossi recent article about Holmgren and his philosophy for drafting quarterbacks was interesting both for its candor and it’s message.

As things stand now, according to Holmgren the Browns don’t intend to try and get one of the nameplate quarterbacks early in the draft. That may be a reflection of the Browns’ gaping needs at every position or a reflection of the relative quality of those nameplates such as Sam Bradford and Jimmy Clausen. It’s probably a little of both. And wasn’t it refreshing to hear Holmgren admit on the record that he doesn’t much like Clausen?

Certainly the Browns could course correct and head coach Eric Mangini alluded to as much in his recent comments about how the Browns plan to use all the draft choices they’ve collected like Beanie Babies. But I doubt it, based on Holmgren’s history.

Holmgren has an excellent perspective on drafting players, particularly quarterbacks: keep replenishing the stock. If one doesn’t work out, cut the ties and move on to the next.

Most of the time NFL teams spend years trying to paper over their draft mistakes instead of making the hard decisions early on. Drafting is an inexact science, at best, so it’s not a surprise that it goes awry occasionally (or in the Browns’ case, often). Holmgren’s approach appears to be to treat them as lessons learned and move on.

But Holmgren’s approach, as noted, also is not to pick quarterbacks in early rounds possibly to avoid exactly that trap of trying for years to pound a square peg into a round hole in order to justify the initial drafting decision of a player that doesn’t work out. Think Brady Quinn.

I wonder, though, how this approach really plays out in reality. According to the Grossi story, Holmgren has basically drafted 10 quarterbacks in his years in both Green Bay and Seattle and of those 10 only 3 have been relatively long-term starters: Ty Detmer, Mark Brunell and Matt Hasselback.

On the surface, it’s not a very good percentage and belies, to a certain extent, Holmgren’s reputation with quarterbacks. There are various factors you could attribute to the success rate including, as Holmgren notes, the relative late picks he had when he was in Green Bay.

But the other factor simply is the fact that Holmgren doesn’t seem to like to spend 1st or 2nd round draft picks on quarterbacks. That alone will decrease the chances of success. It’s bound to.

In some ways it’s similar to Ernie Accorsi’s philosophy in Cleveland (and probably elsewhere) when it came to drafting linemen. He felt NFL linemen were made not drafted and thus anything other than a late round pick or an undrafted free agent was all it was worth spending on them.

Eventually that came back to haunt the Browns, just ask Bernie Kosar.

The problem sometimes with successfully converting a late round pick into a valuable skill player (Hasselback was a 6th round pick) is that you begin to think you can replicate it again and again.

The Browns’ quarterback situation may not be on life support but the patient isn’t doing too well either. Jake Delhomme is a question mark and Seneca Wallace isn’t exactly an established star. If Holmgren’s goals with this team are realized, meaning it’s successful, then this may be one of the last chances for the Browns to parlay a relatively good draft status and a bevy of picks into a frontline quarterback. I’d hate to think that instead of taking advantage of it the Browns begin a decade long pursuit of picking a bunch of Spergon Wynns in the hopes of finding the next Matt Hasselback. We’ll see.


You can start with Butch Davis, travel through Phil Savage and end with Eric Mangini and still have only part of the reason why Browns’ owner Randy Lerner finally determined that he needed a serious, credible leader for his franchise.

The rest of the picture is the money. What these various folks brought to Lerner’s franchise didn’t just raise the ire of the average fan who sits at home watching one torturous decision and game after another it raised the ire of those who Lerner really counts on to fund his lifestyle: season ticket holders.

It’s no secret that once the novelty of the Browns return wore off and the reality of massive mismanagement blossomed like dandelions on a spring lawn revenues started going in the wrong direction. Corporations stopped renewing loges, season ticket holders dwindled.

Mangini didn’t do Lerner any favors last season as he seemed to openly work in ways to alienate the fans that remained. Lerner didn’t do himself any favors either as he stayed in the background and remained silent while Berea burned.

Proving that irrespective of your economic status money still talks, Lerner behind the scenes had to see what was taking place and was forced to act. It was time to bring in real grownups to run the franchise. Hence the hiring of Holmgren.

While Holmgren’s hiring was a huge step in the right direction, it didn’t fix everything overnight. Now comes the hard part of wooing back the alienated in order to get the revenue item of the budget back in line. As a first step, the Browns have quietly been trying to re-engage former season ticket holders by offering them a chance to get back into the tent without paying a for a new personal seat license so long as they jumped ship within the last 3 years.

The way to think about this is to think of season ticket holders like disenfranchised members of a country club. Having once paid the initiation fee in the form of a PSL only to find the experience miserable and not worth the money, the likelihood of them returning for more punishment is greatly diminished particularly if they have to endure the indignity of once again paying an initiation fee in the form of another PSL. Waiving the initiation fee or, in this case, the PSL, might get a few back though.

I suspect that the Browns may be able mildly successful with this move but I also suspect that before it’s wildly successful the Browns are going to have to show some tangible and sustainable improvements on the field.

So far this offseason it’s mostly been confusion, but at least it’s the good kind of confusion. Still, having been burned with one of life’s all time worst investments, does any season ticket holder or loge owner suddenly freed of paying for games they aren’t likely to attend ready to immediately jump back in? Probably not. Good try, though.


The Browns’ signing of free agent linebacker Scott Fujita may not have moved the needle all that much in the fans’ eyes, but here’s a reason to like Fujita: brutal honesty.

Fujita is an executive committee member of the players’ union. Talking with the USA Today about the possibility of the owners locking out the players in 2011, Fujita said, among other things: “Why would you want to lock us out and ruin what is such a good thing right now? When 40 to 50 million people are turning in to watch the NFL draft? It’s one of the most boring things on television. So why mess that up with a lockout?”

Good point. But for clarification’s sake, it’s not the most boring thing on television or even the most boring thing the NFL does. That would any preseason game.


Since I’ve given short shrift to the Cavs in this column, here’s a question to ponder: When Zydrunas Ilgauskas decided not to sign with the Cavs for next season as well, do you think he knows something we don’t about who might

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Drafting Passionately

With the NFL draft merely weeks away, the propaganda wars are in full swing. Teams bring in players and express interest in them precisely because they have none. A team's draft plans are guarded as if they are nuclear secrets so pay no attention to the comments emanating for example from the Cleveland Browns' Mike Holgrem about Florida quarterback Tim Tebow.

Tebow had what the experts call a lousy combine. Apparently they didn't like his throwing motion which is not up to the exacting standards of one of the most in-exacting professional leagues. That caused Tebow to re-tool the motion with the help of various former NFL types.

In his recent pro day, which is basically a personal workout conducted under more comfortable surroundings, Tebow wowed the former critics for, I guess, showing he had the capacity to learn and improve as if that wasn't known already.

Holmgren has talked up Tebow a bit but cryptically noted that he thinks that the new motion will give way to the old motion under the pressure of a game. It's like trying to change a golf swing. You can accomplish much on the range but there's something about taking it to the course when you're 180 yards out on your third shot on a par four that makes you revert back to the familiar if less effective motion.

At this point no player in this entire draft is eliciting more polarizing comments about his ability than Tebow. The theories are many: If he really was a NFL quarterback he wouldn't have played his senior year at Florida but instead would have entered the draft. He played in a gimmicky offense. He can't take the snap from behind center. He's too slow and he can't throw.

In the last few days even current NFL players are weighing in and not very nicely, I might add. Miami Dolphins' quarterback Chad Henne's considered opinion was short and sweet: “My judgment is that he's not an NFL quarterback. I'll leave it at that.” Of course Henne, showing all the courage of his convictions you'd probably expect and perhaps being reminded of his own spotty NFL existence, backed off those comments saying, laughably, that he was cut off and didn't get to finish his analysis. Usually when someone says “I'll leave it at that” it's the end of the conversation, but whatever. Henne now says that Tebow's a swell guy.

But is he a NFL quarterback? Jacksonville Jaguars' offensive guard, Uche Nwaneri, apparently doesn't think so. In a widely reported story from this past February Nwaneri posted a message on the team's message board saying, essentially, that he's sick of the folks in Jacksonville thinking that Tebow will come in and save the franchise.

Nwaneri relates a conversation he had with a bank teller who, after suggesting that the Jags should draft Tebow, told the clerk to explain to him exactly what football skills Tebow brings that would get the team to the next level. The teller was silent. Then Nwaneri went on to name the 5 things he felt fans should know before they think Tebow will be “Jesus in teal.” It was the usual stuff: he can't throw, he can't read coverages, the wildcat formation doesn't work in the league, he can't take a snap from center and, oh yea, did I mention he can't throw?

Curiously, though, when Nwaneri was challenging the bank teller, he told him not to specifically talk about Tebow's intangibles, such as leadership because, I guess, it doesn't further the overall narrative.

But this isn't something to be overlooked. The image I have of Tebow is mostly of him helping the Gators paste the Ohio State Buckeyes in the national championship when Tebow was a freshman. That wound may never heal but that doesn't particularly cloud my judgment on Tebow. The kid has a NFL future.

People making a lot more money than me get paid exactly to determine who is NFL caliber and not so I bow to their judgment. But it's worth noting that these people, in the form of NFL scouts, team presidents, general managers and coaches, have a success rate that rivals the average person's ability to fill out a NCAA basketball bracket correctly, and that's in a good year. Half of them would still find reasons to not draft Joe Montana.

Tebow is a curious case undoubtedly. But as the NFL-types pick and poke at his every flaw they do risk missing the overall picture. Tebow is a winner. He finds a way to get things done. He has an uncommon passion for his sport and works harder than nearly everyone else.

Here's a tip free of charge for anyone responsible for doing hiring in his or her organization: hire for passion first. I'll take the candidate with passion for the business over the candidate with better technical skills every time. The passionate person will learn the technical nuances. The technician that lacks passion always will.

The case for and against Tebow reminds me of another player that too many NFL executives missed on because he didn't necessarily fit a predefined picture of what a NFL player at his position looks like. In 1988 Chris Spielman from Ohio State certainly seemed like one of the top, if not the top, linebacker in college, at least to my untrained eyes. But of course the problem was that he was only 6'0” 247 pounds coming out of college, too small supposedly for the pro game.

That year, the league's number one pick belonged to Atlanta and with it they chose Aundray Bruce out of Auburn. You couldn't get a more prototypical linebacker. On the strength of being the league's number one pick, Bruce actually lasted 7 years despite a career that had teams hoping that eventually he'd become mediocre. He didn't make a Pro Bowl. Wasn't named to a league All Pro team even once.

But there's more. The next linebacker taken was Ken Harvey, by Phoenix. Harvey wasn't a bust by any means. In truth, he and Spielman had similar careers, so we'll give Phoenix a pass for taking Harvey instead of Spielman. But let's move down a few more spots in the draft, shall we? The Houston Oilers had the 20th pick that season and didn't get their selection to the podium in time. The Browns pounced and submitted the name “Clifford Charlton.” Houston then took Lorenzo White.

Bruce was a bust because Atlanta could have drafted almost any other linebacker and he would have had a similar career. Charlton was a bust because he may have been one of the worst selections of all time. He played exactly two seasons. You could attribute that to the knee injury he suffered, but other players have come back from that. The truth is that Charlton was a bad pick, perhaps the worst and the injury has nothing to do with it.

In the second round, Atlanta had the first pick and again went linebacker and again blew it, selecting Marcus Cotton out of USC. Cotton lasted four seasons, including a half year in Cleveland, but basically was Clifford Charlton but with a career that was twice as long. With the next pick the Detroit Lions selected Spielman. In his 10-year career, Spielman made the Pro Bowl four times and was named to various All Pro teams in five different seasons.

What Spielman did prove, ultimately, is that the intangibles matter as much if not more than physical size. As passionate a player as you'll ever see outside of Tebow, Spielman turned that passion into an uncanny ability to make plays. It was true in high school, it was true in college and it was certainly true in the the NFL. Spielman didn't have a Hall of Fame career, but what he did have was the kind of career that ought to make NFL personnel types rethink all their facts and figures.

They won't. It's not what they do. Every draft is filled with players that were overlooked by team after team because they didn't measure up in one way or another physically. All these players do is prove that with heart and passion the game is about far more than a 40-yard dash at the combine.

I suspect that when it comes to Tebow he probably doesn't measure up in a way that, say, Chad Henne did. But I also suspect that 10 years from now and looking back Tebow will have had a better career than Henne mainly because what Tebow has and Henne lacks is something that can't be taught.

Whether else you might think about Tebow, don't overlook the fact that he has an “it” factor that makes those around him better. I'm not suggesting that the Browns move heaven and earth to draft him as much as I am suggesting that if he ends up in a Cleveland uniform it won't be the worst draft mistake this franchise has made. The legacies of Charlton and Mike Junkin will forever loom large.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Any Road Will Get You There

Standing among all the trees, sometimes it’s best to remember, first, that you’re in a forest.

As I listen to various reporters and columnists debate the fine intricacies of the Browns’ recent activities around Jake Delhomme, Seneca Wallace, Brady Quinn and Kamerion Wimbley it seems like they all forgot that this team, even with a season-ending four game winning streak only finished with five wins.

This isn’t a very good team to begin with. If anything, this team hasn’t made enough moves. The Browns have won only 38 times in the last 7 years and have lost 74. Is this really the time to debate the relative merits of Wimbley?

Not to single out Marla Ridenour in the Akron Beacon Journal on Monday, but reading her kvetch over whether or not these trades have made the Browns better makes me wonder whether she actually sat through every miserable game the way the rest of the fans are. Nitpicking the trades of both Quinn and Wimbley makes it seem as though team president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert are breaking apart the New England Patriots.

Hardly. They are breaking up the concrete on one of the league’s consistently worse teams, meaning that Ridenour isn’t even asking the right questions. These trades and their other moves are far more than the sum of their parts. They are an indication that play time, finally, is over.

If the release of Derek Anderson and the trade of Quinn didn’t send that message then certainly the trade of Wimbley to Oakland for a third round pick had to. Wimbley may be a former first round pick, but fans are sick of hearing about whether or not the next season will finally justify his draft status.

In truth, Wimbley played well as a rookie and has been mostly MIA since. Saying he’s the best linebacker on this team is like saying Jake Westbrook is the best pitcher on the Indians. It’s a relative measure on a scale that’s abysmally low. Wimbley wasn’t worthy at the time of a first round pick by former general manager Phil Savage and his play year in and year out since has driven home that fact. Frankly the Browns were lucky to salvage a third round pick and I don’t care whether it was the lower of the Raiders’ two third-round picks.

That doesn’t mean Wimbley wasn’t a good guy to have around. But his production is easily duplicated by players making far less. You have to balance the budget somewhere.

As for whether or not Delhomme and Seneca Wallace make the Browns any better at quarterback than the duet of Quinn and Anderson, that’s one of those classic and meaningless bar stool debates. It may not be completely fair to judge Anderson and Quinn in the context of this team because the talent they had to work with was so poor, but what it is completely fair to conclude is that neither could rise above that wreckage, either.

You can make the case that every quarterback, even Tom Brady, needs talent around him to look good and be correct. But the case is also made that the good quarterbacks make those around them better. Brady, for one, has made an awful lot of average receivers look good.

Neither Quinn nor Anderson seemed to have that gene. Anderson certainly looked good in 2007 but when Braylon Edwards went off the rails, Kellen Winslow wasn’t available to him and Jamal Lewis was proving that he was done, Anderson couldn’t overcome the greenness of their replacements. If anything Anderson proved he’s a system quarterback at best and not someone who can thrive under any circumstances.

Quinn will always be more of a mystery. The knock on him is his accuracy and often times it was easy to see why. But he seemed to play better out of a no-huddle offense meaning that the players looked at him as a leader. He could get guys in the right spots. Yet he never could completely take the reigns of the job and mold it into his own.

The larger point, anyway, is that the Browns are going in a completely different direction on so many different fronts that it’s beginning to get difficult to keep up.

Consider the players the Browns designated as restricted and unrestricted free agents. Rex Hadnot and Hank Fraley were decent contributors to an indecent team. Yet both are now gone. Holmgren and Heckert have indicated that they’re willing to say goodbye to Jerome Harrison who holds the franchise record for most rushing yards in a game. This is a polite way of saying that the Browns have thrown up a heavy construction zone and wearing a hard hat alone may not be enough to keep you safe.

The cutting of Anderson was foreseen by everyone, including, I think, Nostradamus. Less seen, though, was the signing of both Delhomme and Wallace and the trading of Quinn. The trade of Wimbley seemingly came out of nowhere and yet it didn’t.

Meanwhile the Browns have overpaid a bit in free agency for a linebacker, an offensive lineman and a tight end. And while it’s never a good idea to overpay any player in a sport with a salary cap, it is offset by the stockpile of draft choices, nearly all of which will cost them less.

Holmgren didn’t necessarily offer a lot of insight in explaining the recent surge of activity but he did confirm the more salient point: action was needed. To really accomplish that goal requires a stockpile of draft choices as they serve as the currency on which NFL action really takes place.

NFL executives value draft picks more than their own family and right now Holmgren and Heckert are sitting at a poker table with a pile of chips that the other participants covet. For once the Browns are in an enviable position and have people actually capable of taking advantage of that.

Here’s the only variable fans really don’t know at the moment: Where in the name of Spergon Wynn is this franchise headed? Admittedly, that’s a pretty big question and one that isn’t easily answered by the disjointed threads of what’s taken place so far.

Even Holmgren didn’t offer much insight on that question, sensing, I guess, that at the moment what matters more is that the franchise is actually moving and dramatically so. In the past what’s passed as movement has been movement around the edges. Head coach Eric Mangini’s dumping of Edwards and Winslow weren’t nearly as dramatic as what’s currently taking place. They didn’t signify any particular move as they did a parting of ways with two known malcontents. That’s a move anyone can make.

Moving your starting quarterbacks and two starting offensive linemen? Dumping a starting linebacker, a former first rounder at that, on the league’s worst defense for a third round pick? That’s a statement.

There’s a saying that if you don’t know where you’re going any road will get you there. For too long that seemed to be the underlying mission statement of this franchise. Now, even without any great insights from either Holmgren or Heckert as to their current thinking, you still get the sense that this franchise as a far clearer direction. The fun part for Browns fans now will be figuring it all out.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

In with the Old, Out with the New

Of all the sentences I imagined myself writing about the 2010 version of the Cleveland Browns, the least likely was “now starting for the Browns, Jake Delhomme.” Ok, that's not true. That's the second least likely. The most unlikely was “now entering the game at quarterback, Seneca Wallace.”

Yet that's where the Browns now find themselves a week or so into free agency and still several weeks from the 2010 draft.

The agreement the Browns reached on Saturday with Delhomme on a two-year deal makes some sense in that it was obvious that nobody associated with the new Browns' regime, team president Mike Holmgren or general manager Tom Heckert in particular, seemed to have much fascination with either Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson. Inside of the span of just a few days, both quarterbacks who couldnt' wrest control of the starting position here find themselves elsewhere. For Quinn, that's Denver. For Anderson, who knows.

Whether Holmgren and Heckert are right or wrong is irrelevant for the moment. The two were brought in exactly for this reason--to make the hard decisions and move the franchise forward. You can't criticize a bird for flying.

But lest anyone think that the signing of Delhomme and Wallace settles the quarterback position, it doesn't. All those signings really represent is a stop gap measure for a season or two while Holmgren and Heckert go about fixing the league's worst defense.

Delhomme is 35-years old, which isn't ancient when compared to someone like Brett Favre who, I believe, is 164 years old at this point. But Delhomme is on the back side of a career that has seen some decent highs and fairly typical lows. This past season was a struggle for Delhomme illustrating how a team's golden goose can suddenly look expendable as the number of golden eggs laid decreases precipitously.

Indeed Delhomme seemed nearly ready to ride out his last few years as a backup for Drew Brees, so despondent was he following his release by the Carolina Panthers. But the Browns' willingness to pay him starter's wages for 2010 changed him mind in the way only money could and now Delhomme gets a chance to spend his next few summers and falls in Cleveland instead of his hometown of New Orleans. At least he's no stranger to humidity.

There's a theory that perhaps Delhomme may be coming in to mentor Wallace, but no matter what Holmgren says about Wallace's upside it's doubtful even Holmgren sees him as the long-term answer either. More likely is that the intention with Delhomme is that he starts in 2010 and then mentors whatever young quarterback Holmgren and Heckert eventually set their sights on.

Maybe that young quarterback is Brett Ratliff, a third stringer that head coach Eric Mangini actually traded for last season. But I doubt that, too. Holmgren may have been impressed enough with Mangini's coaching acumen, if not results, to give him another year but everything both Holmgren and Heckert have done since arriving screams that they didn't think much of Mangini's personnel decisions or acquisitions.

All of which means, of course, that the Browns probably are on a quest for a young quarterback at some point soon. With the options that their stockpiled draft picks gives them this year, maybe the Browns have targeted someone like Dan LeFevour from Central Michigan or even Cincinnati's Tony Pike as a second or third rounder. If that's the case, the Delhomme signing makes even more sense.

But how the Delhomme signing actually fits into the longer range plan won't become completely clear until the draft. Meanwhile, Quinn, finds his career once again overshadowed with uncertainty as he heads to Denver. It's been that way since draft day in 2007.

At various points Quinn was projected as the number 1 overall pick in the 2007 draft. But with the Oakland Raiders sitting at the top spot that year nothing was certain and they proved that by making Jamarcus Russell the top pick instead, a mistake they're still paying for.

After the Raiders' drafted there were two other teams that really needed quarterbacks, Cleveland and Miami. But former general manager Phil Savage smartly targeted left tackle Joe Thomas with the third pick instead. It was the Dolphins that threw Quinn the real curve ball. While most thought they'd go after Quinn, they instead made Ted Ginn, Jr. their top pick. That allowed Quinn to free fall further until he literally was rescued by Savage, who made a trade in order to get Quinn with the 22nd pick.

It ended an agonizing day for Quinn but little could he have foreseen that his troubles were just beginning. The next part, really, was self-inflicted. Quinn stupidly listened to his agent as he tried to wrangle top 10 money out of the Browns. He wasn't successful and the 10-day hold out essentially cost him any chance to start that year.

That misstep opened the door for Derek Anderson who then went on to have a Pro Bowl season while Quinn watched from the sidelines with a clipboard. When Savage decided to re-sign Anderson after the 2007 season instead of parlaying it into more draft picks, that too cost Quinn valuable development time. With Anderson in the fold for 2008, Quinn would once again be relegated to backup status. Former head coach Romeo Crennel really had no other choice.

Quinn was able to get playing time late in the season as Anderson first faltered and then was injured, but then Quinn himself got injured. He showed enough promise, or maybe it was just that Anderson was so awful, that Crennel in his own waning days actually named Quinn the starter for 2009. But as with everything else to that point in Quinn's career, it wasn't to be. Crennel was fired and Mangini came in and declared an open competition between Quinn and Anderson for 2009.

Mangini's handling of the quarterback situation was ill-conceived from the outset as his open competition only assured that neither Quinn nor Anderson would be adequately prepared for the 2009 season. Quinn “won” that competition though it was mostly be default. Quinn outplayed Anderson during the preseason but that's niggling. Neither played well.

With another new offense to learn and limited talent available at the skill positions, it wasn't a surprise that Quinn struggled at the outset. Then Mangini panicked, benched Quinn and inserted Anderson. Of course Anderson fared no better. In fact he was actually worse and then Mangini once again went back to Quinn, telling the fans that Quinn had actually improved while watching from the sidelines. Whatever.

Quinn once again got hurt and finished the season on the injured list. During his second starting stint, though, Quinn began to show some flashes that he belonged in the league. It wasn't enough, apparently, to sway Holmgren or Heckert and so he's off to Denver and in return the Browns get another fullback, Peyton Hillis, a 6th round pick in 2011 and a conditional pick in 2012. The only real surprise is that it took Heckert nearly 24 hours to consummate the trade after signing Delhomme.

It will be interesting to see what the future does indeed hold for Quinn. The recent past hasn't been so kind. Maybe Denver will be that right situation and he'll flourish. More likely his career will be forever shrouded by bad timing as he competes against Kyle Orton, a Derek Anderson clone with less of an arm. Once a player develops a reputation in the NFL, it's hard to shake it. Quinn will forever be known as the guy that dropped like a rock on draft day and then couldn't beat out Anderson in Cleveland. And if that wasn't enough, he's got a weak arm, just ask anyone.

Whether or not any of that is unfair is beside the point. As Holmgren himself said the other day, the NFL is a big boy league. Players that spend too much time wallowing in self pity may as well move on to another profession. Quinn's not that guy, of course, and so he will move on to Denver where his potential will intrigue another fan base. But you can't help wondering if, 10 years from now, when the NFL paragraphs of Quinn's Wikipedia entry are complete, if the only thing people ask is whether or not he was that guy that used to play for Notre Dame.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Lingering Items--Buffoon Edition

As the NFL gets into high gear during its free agency period, an iceberg lies directly in its path. The tip of that iceberg is this season’s lack of salary cap. Lying just below the surface are far bigger, more fundamental labor problems.

Teams believing they can easily navigate around the lack of salary cap risk getting capsized by the what may come in the form of a new labor contract that eventually gets negotiated. Will there be a new salary cap imposed? Likely. Will that cap require them to make major changes based on the moves they made during the uncapped year? Perhaps.

The bigger unknown, though, is whether or not there will be an all out war with the NFL players association. It’s been years since the last which means it’s probably about time.

But remain calm. All is well. There’s hope on the horizon because David Modell has just the solution. He thinks the NFL should make him the czar of a special committee to deal with the problem according to an item in the Wall Street Journal.

David Modell. Why does that name sound familiar? Oh yea, he’s the idiot stepson of disgraced former Cleveland Browns owner Art Modell. In part the story of Modell’s leaving Cleveland was his underlying motivation to preserve the franchise for his son to take over.

That of course didn’t work out so well. Even in the waning days of his existence in Cleveland, Art was turning over more and more responsibilities to David as a way of preparing him for his eventual coronation. On more than one occasion Art commented what a great owner David would be someday.

It was just another one of Art’s great fibs, the kind of wild overstatement that only he could make. Most everyone would let Art get away with this kind of outrageousness because, well, that was just Art being Art.

For David, someday never came of course. When he arrived in Baltimore he did so with a beautiful wife and several kids. A short time later that wife left him and took the kids back to Cleveland because of an intriguing personal scandal involving David and a Ravens cheerleader. None of that deterred Art from installing David as president of the Ravens.

Maybe everything that followed is just one of life’s little coincidences but even after the sweetheart deal of all sweetheart deals that the city of Baltimore and the state of Maryland gave Art to get him to relocate the Browns’ franchise, Art and David went about squandering the cash anyway. As a result the NFL imposed a deadline on Art to find an additional investor or risk having the NFL sell the franchise for him.

That’s where Steve Bisciotti came in. He rescued Art by infusing the franchise with cash and taking a partial ownership interest with the option to buy out the rest. After Bisciotti exercised the option one of the first things he did was tell David that his services as club president would no longer be needed. Hard to see that one coming.

Since then David has more or less been living off the riches that Bisciotti gave him while engaging in all sorts of vanity projects for himself and his “visual artist” new wife that don’t have a snowball’s chance of succeeding. What does continue to succeed, however, is David’s unique brand of hubris and cluelessness.

Based solely on his professional credentials I can’t think of anyone more ill-equipped to deal with a business problem of any sort than David Modell. In fact, in the history of the entire world there may not be any one less qualified than David Modell. I wouldn’t trust him to run a paper route let alone solve a complicated labor issue for the NFL.

Fortunately, the NFL surely feels the same way. I’m sure they’ll receive David’s suggestion with all the enthusiasm it deserves. Then they’ll pat him on the head and send him back to the children’s table to play with his toys and leave the hard work, once again, for the grown ups.


When Browns’ president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert sent Derek Anderson packing this past week, it was the most visible sign that they are reworking the roster in ways that head coach Eric Mangini couldn’t even imagine let alone execute.

The more subtle signs came in the form of the release of Hank Fraley and Rex Hadnot and the signings of linebacker Scott Fujita and lineman Tony Pashos. Somewhere in the middle of those extremes is the Browns’ signing on Thursday night of tight end Ben Watson to a 3-year contract worth $12 million, a little more than half of which is guaranteed. By my count that makes Watson the 5th tight end on the current roster.

The signing of Watson probably meant a quick end for Steven Heiden and may mean a similar fate for Robert Royal, a tight end signed by Eric Mangini last season. Royal’s signing was necessitated after Mangini traded Kellen Winslow.

Royal, to a certain extent, was really a poor man’s Watson, a pass catching tight end whose stats don’t quite match Watson’s to this point. Royal’s 2009 season was mostly injury plagued and unproductive, a metaphor really for the rest of the team as well. Watson, meanwhile, caught 29 passes last season for a New England Patriots team in transition.

Assuming Watson stays healthy, an assumption no one should dare make when it comes to the Browns, he’s an upgrade to the position, which is like saying that Charmin is an upgrade from generic toilet paper.

As with every free agent signing, there’s always something to fret about. In this case it’s simply the fact that the Patriots let Watson leave without having a viable starter at the moment to replace him. That either means that the Patriots see themselves de-emphasizing the tight end in their offense and/or they feel they can get similar production at a cheaper rate. Given how Bill Belichick operates, it’s likely the latter which means that perhaps the Browns overpaid for Watson. But as a bottom-feeding team, the only way the Browns are going to attract better players here initially is by overpaying them.

If Royal and Heiden are indeed gone, there are still 3 other tight ends to complement Watson: Evan Moore, Greg Estandia and Michael Gaines. The Browns don’t need to keep 4 tight ends certainly, so sorting out who else is gone will be an intriguing little process.

Of the remaining 3, Gaines is the elder statesman with but 5 years of experience. Both Gaines and Estandia are more known as blockers than receivers so one of them likely will stay. My guess would be Estandia, although Gaines demonstrated in limited duty that he can catch the ball as well. Moore, on the other hand, had an interesting season. After spending most of it on the practice squad, he was promoted to the regular roster in early December. All he did after that was come in and catch virtually everything thrown his way, leading most to wonder why he had spent so much time on the practice roster even as Royal was proving to be mostly a bust.

Of all the Browns’ free agent signings thus far, Watson looks to make the biggest impact. And with the back ups on the roster, that along with left tackle and kick returner means there are at least three positions settled going into 2010. Only 19 or so more to go.


During a recent New York Yankees exhibition game, former Indians pitcher CC Sabathia was rocked hard. It happens. What was interesting, though, was his quote afterward. I’ll quote it exactly as written in the USA Today: “Terrible. Location was bad. Collapsing on the backside. Still struggling with my delivery. I guess it’s going to take awhile. Just try to get better.”

Nothing particularly revealing in the quote itself except the stilted rhythm of the language that Sabathia used. It’s almost as if he’s now taken to speaking as if he’s leaving a post on Twitter. Economy of words. Economy of insight. Welcome to the new world order.


Outlook Columbus, an alternative publication targeting the gay and lesbian community in Columbus, had a recent interview with Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel. Nothing Tressel said was in the least controversial. A few sportswriters gave Tressel credit for his willingness not to discriminate against media outlets.

It all should have ended right there except that Geoff Decker of The Big Lead found it necessary to use this as convenient excuse to oddly criticize Tressel but not for anything he did or said but because of something he may be thinking but hasn’t articulated.

Decker surmises that Tressel is religious and conservative and thus, like Tony Dungy, probably feels the same way about same-sex marriage as Dungy. Dungy, as you may recall, publicly came out against it a few years ago.

It would all be so laughable if Decker wasn’t so serious. He says that while it may be unfair to put words in Tressel’s mouth, “it’s hard not to deduce that Tressel, a known religious conservative, likely shares some form of these views. At the root of these views is the belief homosexuality is a choice and it is something that can be ‘treated.’” Decker then amazingly concludes that while he really doesn’t know if Tressel feels this way there was nothing he said in the interview with Outlook Columbus that suggests he doesn’t. Of course, there was nothing in the interview that suggested he does, either, but that inconvenient fact didn’t further Decker’s narrative.

I’d chalk it up to simple irresponsibility and leave it at that, but the fact that he wanted to further his cause, the rights of openly gay athletes, at the expense of Tressel is simply unfair and actually diminished the far more important point he was trying to make about those rights in the first place. But then again that’s what happens when you have children playing adult games.

I understand that there are those outside the Ohio State bubble that don’t much care for Tressel. Most of it is simple jealousy couched in the cynical belief that no one can be that decent of a human being. But Tressel isn’t the bad guy here. It’s the people with small minds on all sides of the equation.

The item about CC Sabathia leads to this week’s question to ponder: Why does the NFL call them “preseason games” and Major League Baseball calls them “exhibition games?” And a bonus question: Does it have anything to do with the prices charged for admission?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A Bitter Goodbye

Talk about a noisy withdrawal.

Former Cleveland Browns quarterback Derek Anderson was sent packing by the team on Tuesday and he let the door hit him in the ass on the way out. In an email to the Lake County News-Herald, Anderson unloaded a few years worth of frustration by dumping not on the team that won’t be paying him nearly $10 million for the 2010 season but the fans who suffered through one awful performance after another for the last two seasons.

Anderson has since apologized, more or less. He claims he was just frustated. I'd call it bitterness. Either way it's a minor debate. His statement though stems from his supposedly getting cheered when he was injured in a November 2008 game against Indianapolis. Give the guy this, he can throw verbal zingers as hard as he throws a football. Unfortunately, though, it comes with pretty much the same completion rate.

Since Anderson has no appreciation for context I’ll set it. It was a home game on the last Sunday in November. The season was already mostly lost as the Browns entered the game with a 4-7 record. Brady Quinn, who had been starting after head coach Romeo Crennel had finally, mercifully had pulled the plug on Anderson, had been injured. Nonetheless, Crennel had anointed Quinn his starter and said it would remain that way for the upcoming 2009 season.

But with Quinn now injured, Anderson had still another opportunity to change Crennel’s mind. The Colts were a good team, but not necessarily great that seasons and the Browns were playing them close on this particular Sunday, mainly because Peyton Manning was very average, at best, on this day He had thrown two interceptions and fumbled twice. The Colts were gifting the game to the Browns and yet Anderson, in what became a very disturbing pattern, couldn’t get the offense in a position to capitalize.

There were 10 minutes remaining and the Browns were nonetheless clinging to a 6-3 lead, a lead that shoulda coulda been much larger. Anderson dropped back to pass and lost his grip on the ball. Colts defensive end Robert Mathis picked it up and, in the words of Chris Berman, rumbled, bumbled and stumbled 37 yards for the game’s only touchdown.

It was an exquisite metaphor for all of the team’s and Anderson’s struggles that season. The Browns lost the game, their second straight and the second straight in which they couldn’t score a touchdown. The fans were frustrated. They had a right to be.

When Anderson then went down near the end of the game with an injury, some fans cheered. But what Anderson still apparently fails to appreciate is that the smattering of cheers wasn’t for his injury but because that appeared to be the only way Crennel would make still another quarterback change. The fans had watched Anderson fall all over himself for nearly two straight games, playing one ineffective series after another, and had seen enough.

Maybe Anderson has blocked all of that context out of his mind, but the fans haven’t. A season that promised so much had spiraled out of control on the wings of a selfish, undisciplined receiver in Braylon Edwards who figured if he just showed up he’d be great; the worst free agent signing ever in the form of Donte Stallworth who milked a quadriceps injury for most of the season; and, a quarterback in Anderson who simply couldn’t perform under the weight of the expectations created by his 2007 season.

There were more culprits responsible for that lost season, of course, like Crennel. But Anderson was as much to blame as anyone when he couldn’t marshal the leadership skills his position requires to help right a ship that was drifting aimlessly from almost the first pre-season game forward.

It’s interesting that Anderson in his email blast admitted that “at times I wasn’t great” but he’d have been far more honest with himself if he would have eliminated the words “at times” from his email. Anderson’s cause wasn’t helped much by the loads surrounding him like Edwards and Stallworth, but Anderson also struggled mightily with both his decision making and his accuracy, particularly on short passes.

No one will ever be able to take from Anderson the one great season he’s had in the NFL. For Browns fans, it was a season for the ages and, in truth, one of the greatest seasons ever by a Browns’ quarterback. And while performing at that level is difficult enough, the harder work comes in following it up. Anderson, like Edwards, simply couldn’t do it and, like Edwards, that’s on him.

It’s refreshing to hear (or read, in this case) a player speak his mind, even if he is misguided. Fans and media clamor for it after being fed a near non-stop diet of pabulum by athletes who have been taught to make inane and safe statements. But if an athlete is going to expose himself like that, he at least ought to get the key facts right.

It’s interesting that Anderson spared from his wrath the massive mismanagement by the Browns, from the owner to the coaches, for the impact that may have had on his career. On the other hand, it makes perfect sense. The team enriched him well beyond what his talent deserved. When former general manager Phil Savage picked Anderson off the Baltimore scrap heap and brought him to Cleveland, it literally made the guy’s career.

Indeed, but for Savage deciding sometime around the first series of the first game of the 2007 season that Charlie Frye wasn’t a viable NFL starter Anderson would have found himself carrying a clip board until the inevitable injury to Frye gave him an opportunity halfway through another lost season. Then, at season’s end, the Browns would have simply cast Anderson adrift as an unrestricted free agent after drafting Quinn.

Anderson, to his credit, took advantage of the opportunities 2007 presented and was able to then parlay his impending free agency into a multi-million dollar contract. Good for him. But the down side of his club friendly contract was the deferral of a bonus of a nearly $2 million bonus until 2010. Clauses like that always serve as off ramps for teams to get out of relationships that just aren’t working out. This one clearly wasn’t.

It’s understandable that Anderson might be a tad angry about missing out on that $2 million bonus, not to mention the nearly $8 million salary he would have been paid for 2010. But he’d garner much more respect if he instead had simply acknowledge that he didn’t come close to earning either payment.

Now Anderson finds himself looking for another team and there will be one for him. Anderson is the near perfect backup, like Kelly Holcomb. In small doses and when expectations are slight, he occasionally can perform. He crumbles when the stakes are raised and as a result he’s just not anyone’s solution as a long-term starter.

At the rate that starting quarterbacks get injured, a viable backup is essential. As long as Anderson recognizes that this is his destiny, he’ll make decent money from a variety of teams over the next several years. If he thinks he still deserves to start then he’s likely to carry an unhealthy grudge for the rest of what will end up being a much shorter career.

The real pity in all of this is what it’s done to the Browns’ quarterback situation. Anderson’s 2007 season certainly presented the Browns with a dilemma since they had just drafted Quinn as the starter-in-waiting. Savage’s sin in all of this was not the contract he gave Anderson (it was club friendly) but the fact that he didn’t parlay Anderson’s season or Quinn’s lofty draft status into a decent trade opportunity. That set the team back as much as anything.

Instead Savage dithered and it ultimately led to where the Browns are now seriously considering Seneca Wallace, eh gads, as their starter.

As for Anderson, I wonder when reality will set in. As he said in his email exit “I hope and pray I’m playing when my team comes to town and roll them.” That could happen of course but if he’s playing, then his team is in trouble because it will already be down one key starter.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Sanford and Son, NFL-style

It’s early March on the NFL calendar which can only mean one thing: the world’s costliest flea market is open for business, limited time only.

Every year beginning in late February, just after the NFL combine closes and general managers and coaches have had their fill of poking, prodding and testing the new meat, each NFL team heads to the fair grounds and sets up a swap meet of sorts to poke, prod and test the old meat.

Each booth features a team’s cast offs in the form of restricted and unrestricted free agents just looking for a new buyer. And as these teams are arranging their slightly-worn trinkets just so, they’re also gazing out at what’s going on in the other booths. Sure, I don’t need this lamp shaped like a bowling pin anymore but that picture of dogs playing cards over in the next booth would look great in the den.

Welcome to Sanford and Son, NFL-style.

The Cleveland Browns aren’t any different than any other team. After carefully setting out their white elephants like Rex Hadnot, Hank Fraley, Brodney Pool, Jerome Harrison, among others, they’ve gone shopping for someone else’s gently-worn gems in the form of unrestricted free agent linebacker Scott Fujita and offensive lineman Tony Pashos. And they may not be done shopping, given the relative lack of furniture in their house.

This isn’t a knock on either Fujita or Pashos. Indeed both are upgrades for this team in the way that a full size mattress is an upgrade from a twin. But isn’t it just fascinating to watch year after year teams tire of players and cast them adrift only to see other teams become absolutely giddy at the chance to sign them?

In one sense, this can be attributable to teams using free agency to either rebalance or paper over the sins of the past. If a team has too many linebackers and not enough defensive backs, free agency gives it a chance to correct the disparity. If a team consistently drafts poorly in the second round and finds itself with gaping holes in key spots, free agency affords a chance to catch up with the pack.

But more often than not, free agency is far more about teams not wanting to overpay their current players so that they can overpay someone else’s.

Fujita is a good example. From a personal standpoint, he’s a class act, a pillar of the New Orleans community, the kind of guy any team should want on its roster. From a player perspective, he’s 31 years old in a league where players usually have a shelf life of about 5 good years and making too much money, at least from the Saints’ perspective. In other words, speaking strictly from a production standpoint, the Saints feel they have younger players making less money that can produce a roughly the same level. They’d rather use his money to potentially overpay someone else, such as a draft pick who’s yet to prove himself.

The Browns, on the other hand, aren’t so lucky. Sure, they have younger players. But stacked end to end these players can’t produce at roughly the same level Fujita projects for the next few seasons. Indeed, even though the young linebackers on this team chew up less salary than Fujita will be making, the drop off in production is too dramatic. Hence Fujita becomes a member of the Browns and general manager Tom Heckert can sing the praises of how a linebacker whose been productive in the 4-3 defense can suddenly be that missing inside presence in the Browns’ 3-4 scheme.

Pashos is in exactly the same spot except that he leaves a team in the San Francisco 49ers with nearly as many problems as the Browns. Indeed, if you follow Pashos’ career, he’s come from mostly marginally productive offenses in both Baltimore and Jacksonville as well.

This is the part of free agency that actually worries me. When a team like the Browns signs a player from a team with as many issues, I’m suspicious. I don’t need to look at the stats to know that the 49ers can’t possibly have a plethora of offensive linemen that can easily replace Pashos unless they are of the “can’t be any worse” variety. When I look at the stats, I become truly convinced.

The 49ers weren’t a rushing team last year, averaging just 23 attempts per game as compared to Cleveland’s 31. With similar yards/carry averages, the number of attempts accounts for the fact that the Browns averaged 30 more rushing yards per game than the 49ers.

When I look at the 49ers passing statistics, they were a fourth quartile team, just like the Browns. Sure, the Browns were at the bottom of the league when it came to passing, but the 49ers weren’t lighting it up, either.

All of this is a circuitous way of getting to the point that the 49ers themselves could use help on the offensive line, just like the Browns, and they don’t see Pashos as part of that process. They may be lacking in skill players, such as at quarterback and receiver, just like the Browns, but as we’ve seen in Cleveland when the offensive line plays well even Derek Anderson can be a Pro Bowler.

This makes me even more suspicious about Pashos except that I remember that the Browns still have Floyd Womack and John St. Clair anchoring, as it were, the right side of the offensive line and can’t help but think that Pashos has to be an upgrade, he just has to be.

The missing variable in all of this Pashos’ contract with the Browns. Unlike Fujita’s $16 million/3 year/$8 million guaranteed contract, I haven’t seen much said about Pashos’ contract. That means it’s either bigger than it has to be, which would be embarrassing to the Browns, or smaller than Pashos and his agent would like it known.

But this is the minor stuff. The real splash at the swap meet will be coming in the form of a new quarterback. Team president Mike Holmgren has said he’s still evaluating both Anderson and Brady Quinn but he’s also been quite candid in saying that he’s also looking elsewhere. That elsewhere will take up one of two forms: a veteran to help mentor Quinn or an up and comer to take over the team.

When I heard the Browns were interested in David Carr, the veteran-as-mentor concept seemed clear. Among the many problems with having both Anderson and Quinn on the roster is that both are still learning the position and are backed up by someone even more green in the form of Brett Ratliff. Having someone with significant NFL experience on the sidelines to back up someone still learning the position has always made more sense.

But then the Browns traded for Seneca Wallace, the back up in Seattle. That just muddles the situation even further but probably means Quinn will be traded along with Anderson and the Browns will then still be searching for a veteran quarterback to serve as a back up.

I can’t quite determine why the Browns would want Wallace. He’s a 29-year old, 5’11” career backup. Think Troy Smith without the Heisman. Five years in the league, he has exactly 12 starts under his belt, or exactly 20 less than Holmgren says are necessary for a proper evaluation.

Having obtained Wallace it's reasonable to presume it's with the intent to give him those 20 additional starts because he’s certainly not at that stage of his career or his development where he can mentor anyone. It also tells you plenty about what the Seahawks think of Wallace's chances as a long-term starter, which is something to chew on as well.

Which takes us right back to where we started, scouring the flea market for a priceless or at least pricey antique masquerading as a piece to tchotchke.

As a long-term strategy, it’s flawed. Just as the Indians’ Mark Shapiro whose used the strategy for years to little effect. For now, hope that it’s being used here only because the options are so otherwise limited and not because it’s a case of “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

Friday, March 05, 2010

Lingering Items--Randon Cruelty Edition

To really appreciate the vagaries and cruelties of professional football, consider the 24-hour period that started midday on Thursday and carried over to midday on Friday. In that short span, the Cleveland Browns waived goodbye to Brodney Pool, told Jerome Harrison that records notwithstanding he’s worth only a 2nd round pick and re-worked the contract and significantly increased the pay of special teams ace Josh Cribbs.

In one sense or another, all of these moves and all of the others the Browns made, including the trading of Corey Williams to Detroit, are related and have one common denominator, money.

Cribbs and the Browns on Friday announced a new $20 million/3-year agreement that includes $7.5 million guaranteed. If he hits all of the incentives in it, he’ll be the highest paid special teams player in the game.

It brings an end to a soap opera that was starting to rival Mary Worth for its near daily dose of drama. Since early last season and continuing, basically, through this week the Browns and Cribbs have either been really close on a new deal or miles apart, depending on who’s talking.

Cribbs’ agent, J.R. Rickert, proved to be mostly a hack in handling these negotiations, combining illogical threats with bad timing while his client, as earnest as a player can get, wore his heart on his sleeve. In the end, the Browns lived up to the promises of both former general manager Phil Savage and owner Randy Lerner by acknowledging that in context Cribbs’ contract was a tad undervalued. Good for Cribbs.

Of course the fact that it was undervalued was the function of shrewd negotiations by Savage but this was an issue that needed to be addressed. Cribbs, along with Joe Thomas, represent the only two credible players on this team. Fans, abused by misanthropes like Braylon Edwards, at least could feel real pride toward these two.

The problem, though, with Cribbs is that determining his value has always been a problem. He’s easily one of the best special teams players in the league. A gifted kick returner, he’s also a key cog on covering kicks as well.

If that was the extent of his resume, then figuring his contract isn’t all that difficult and it’s probably close to what he already was being paid. But Cribbs’ instincts as a runner make him an intriguing play on offense. The problem, though, is that while he’s done well at times in spot duty, he’s not a particularly gifted receiver at this point and his presence all but signals the next play. It’s this aspect of his game though that makes figuring out his overall value so difficult.

Now Cribbs has his money and he’s happy. Brodney Pool, not so much.

You can’t really fault the Browns for not tendering a contract to Pool. He’s had four concussions already, which makes it all the more likely that if he does get back on the field again he’ll suffer another. The chance that he’ll ever be a major contributor to any team is extremely unlikely.

But Pool is absolutely one of the good guys of pro football. All he’s done is play as hard as he could for as long as he could. He’s a talented defensive back who toiled for a team and during a period in which his skills probably were never fully appreciated.

Any team that signs him, including the Browns, knows that doing so will likely result in “dead’ money when Pool inevitably ends up on injured reserve once again. It’s an outcome that Pool hardly deserves but is one that is replayed on virtually every team in the league and every year about this same time.

It would be nice to see Pool catch on somewhere, but I’m also conflicted. My greater hope is that someone, and that won’t be his agent, talks some sense into him and tells him it’s time to pursue another line of work. Four concussions is serious business. Whatever short term riches football brings at this point more than likely will come at the expense of his long-term health. It just isn’t worth it.

Meanwhile, Harrison once again finds himself in the position of having to prove himself all over again. Harrison reminds me of Doug Jones, the former relief pitcher for the Indians. Jones toiled in the Indians’ minor league system for years, compiling impressive stats, but had trouble getting a sniff at the major league level because his out pitch was a change-up and the speed of his fastball rivaled the speed at which the IRS processes refund checks.

Jones just never did fit the major league model except all he ever did was get people out. When he was finally brought up to the major leagues, almost by default, all he ever did here was get people out, too. Yet each and every year the Indians looked for reasons not to use him and all he ever did when he had a chance was perform.

Harrison is in that same category. The Browns, even under new management, continue to look for reasons not to make him their feature back. His lack of size (he’s only 5’ 9” and 195 pounds) makes coaches and general managers question his durability. Yet whenever he’s been called on to perform, he’s done well.

This past season, head coach Eric Mangini went to great lengths to move beyond Harrison. He barely made the team. Even when he performed well in limited opportunities, Mangini would put Harrison back in cold storage. When Mangini was forced to use him out of necessity, Harrison set two club records, including a gaudy 286 yards rushing against Kansas City. More importantly to the argument about durability, he was almost the only offensive option those last 4 games as Mangini and company essentially abandoned any attempt to pass with Derek Anderson at the controls.

The fact that Harrison was tendered is at least a recognition that the Browns want him back. That gives Harrison financial security for at least a year as he’s guaranteed almost $1.8 million in salary. But it’s not as if the Browns offered him a high tender, either. In other words, the like him, kind of.

I don’t know whether Harrison ultimately will be back but the chances are pretty good. There are bigger names available for teams looking. But a second round pick isn’t that big of a price to pay, either. The Browns have been throwing away second around picks for years and it hasn’t hurt them. Ok, bad example. But Harrison is only entering his 5th season and there isn’t all that much wear on his tires.

Group think tends to permeate the NFL and I suspect that other GMs will likely look at him like the Browns do, good for spot duty but not an every down back. That’s too bad for Harrison and the teams that take a pass. As far as gambles go, he’s pretty low risk.


On Thursday, Sports Illustrated online posted its rankings of baseball’s general managers. As the author, Tom Marchman, points out the rankings are hardly scientific and are highly subjective. Moreover, and this is the statistic that really surprised me, most of the general managers in the league are short timers, making it harder to truly judge their value. Indeed, Shapiro is, by this point, one of the old guard.

Nonetheless Marchman ranked Shapiro 22nd out of 30. I think that’s too high. Marchman points out that for all the platitudes the Indians’ organization gets for supposedly being so well run, Shapiro doesn’t have a whole lot to show for it. No kidding.

But Marchman didn’t go nearly deep enough. The problem isn’t so much the fact that the Indians always seem less than the sum of their parts, as Marchman notes, it’s that Shapiro has a complete inability to take a good team to the next level. Twice under his watch the Indians had playoff-caliber teams and the following off-season he did virtually nothing to get it to the next step. As a result, the team regressed as other teams maneuvered into position instead.

Since the last time the Indians were on the precipice, instead of building they destroyed. Over the last two seasons they’ve dumped two Cy Young winners and a homegrown All Star catcher. All this does is highlight how shaky the Indians’ finances really are and how much their business model depends on threading the eye of a really tiny needle in order to be successful.

Without the money to keep CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez for one final run the Indians were left with the only other alternative—a reset. In some ways this seems to be what Shapiro favors anyway, the high tech analytics that go into finding the real roughs in the baseball diamond.

But this leads to Shapiro’s other great failing, the draft. The only thing that has kept attention from gravitating to Shapiro and his front office’s abysmal drafting record during his tenure is the even worse drafting by the Cleveland Browns. But that’s like trying to decide which disease is worse, leukemia or lung cancer. Both will kill you, of course, just as consistently poor drafting is a recipe for organizational failure.

In truth, Shapiro’s only real virtue as a general manager has been his ability to understand baseball economics. But his worse sin as a general manager has been his inability to turn that foresight into any sort of competitive advantage.


Speaking of lunkheads, it was both amusing and sad to pour through the contents of golfer John Daly’s disciplinary record with the PGA Tour.

It probably doesn’t bear much of a mention on these pages except that with a record like Daly’s there’s bound to be a local connection. And so there is.

Interspersed among Daly’s multiple suspensions, fines, and rehabs was the details of his parking lot encounter 15 years ago at Firestone Country Club with the father of a club pro.

The year was 1994 and because of damage to the Firestone South greens, the World Series of Golf was being played on the club’s North Course. Daly, ever the impatient player particularly when he’s playing poorly, kept hitting into the group in front of him all day. On the short, driveable par 4 15th-hole, Daly did not let the group in front of him clear the green before pulling out his driver. The ball landed dangerously close to club pro Jeff Roth. It wasn’t the first time.

According to the report in the Florida Times-Union, Daly began lobbying profanities at Roth, Roth’s caddie and Roth’s mother, who was in the gallery following her son. After the round, Roth confronted Daly in the locker room and the argument continued. Finally, as the players spilled into the parking lot, Daly lobbed a few more profanities at Roth’s mother. This led to Roth’s father jumping Daly and the two scuffled briefly.

The incident cost Daly $20,000 and a suspension for the rest of the season.

What’s most interesting about the Daly file is the consistency of his misconduct. Not much has changed in his years on the PGA Tour except that the Tour has shown a remarkable amount of restraint in simply not permanently banishing him. His demons are, of course, alcohol and despite all the attempts at rehab, nothing’s taken hold. Remarkably, Daly, despite everything, hasn’t hit rock bottom, at least in his own mind.

Daly gets too much of a pass because he’s mostly viewed as a good ol’ country boy. He may be country, but he’s not good ol’. The trail of self-inflicted damage is too vast to ignore. He may complain these days about how not enough people are giving him a second chance, but at this point what he’s really asking for is his 6,346th second chance.

And lest you think Daly has much changed, just consider how he handled the fact that a reporter had the temerity to detail Daly’s record. Instead of owning it and being humbled by it, he took to Twitter and twice published the reporter’s cell phone number, urging his dwindling group of followers to flood the reporter’s cell phone with complaints. No one outside of the Golf Writers Association of America, took the time to even complain about this. For comparison’s sake consider what the reaction would have been if Tiger Woods, whose sins are far small from a golf perspective, hadn’t apologized but instead lashed out at the National Enquirer and gave the public directions to the publisher’s house and told his fans to set up a blockade.

I’d say that Daly’s latest misconduct would probably get him suspended by the Tour again but he has no playing status anyway and from the looks of things probably won’t ever have playing status again. We’re all better off for it.


One long column and nary a mention of the Cavs. Thus comes this week’s question to ponder: If you were Zydrunas Ilgauskas, would you re-sign with the Cavs?