Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Grades Are In

The grades are in and if you care to put any faith in them, then the Cleveland Browns didn’t have such a great draft after all.

So-called experts, from Tony Grossi at the Plain Dealer, and Jarrett Bell at USA Today, and nearly every other NFL writer with access to a laptop in between has offered up an opinion on the Browns’ draft and at best it’s drawing mediocre reviews.
Yet as I review the reviews I can’t find a unifying underlying reason for the collective shoulder shrugs.

By all measures, the Browns addressed their needs. No one has much negative to say about Joe Haden or T.J. Ward. There seems agreement, generally, that Colt McCoy could be a steal in the third round. At most it seems that the Browns’ are being downgraded because their draft wasn’t particularly glamorous, as if glamour equals great. If it did, Paris Hilton would have won an academy award by now.

If any of this worries you, it shouldn’t. Putting stock in the grades handed out by reporters who got nearly every pick wrong in their own mock drafts is like putting your faith in Jhonny Peralta to drive in a meaningful run. Do it at the risk of your own mental well being.

Let’s dispense with the context. The NFL draft is all about guessing which college players who have never played a NFL game in their lives will be able to make one of the most difficult transitions in professional sports. Grading the NFL draft is about guessing which teams made the best guesses without, you know, actually yet seeing the results on the field.
If you looked at the USA Today on Monday, Bell graded the Seattle Seahawks as an A+. Yet when you bother to read why, you find that it is based more on Bell’s man-love for Pete Carroll than anything else.

Carroll’s been on the job in Seattle for a few months now after getting out of southern California apparently one step ahead of the plodding justice meted out by the NCAA. Carroll was just following the lead of a few of his players, like Reggie Bush, that did likewise.

But Carroll is well liked. He’s accessible to the media. He’s rah rah. He’s also been a dismal failure in the NFL in two previous stints and until he actually proves otherwise in his latest job with the Seahawks, simply succeeding at USC isn’t going to erase that record.

In this past weekend’s draft, Carroll drafted a left tackle, a safety and a receiver. A left tackle, assuming it’s the correct left tackle, is always a good safe pick. NFL writers like to praise teams for taking left tackles while resisting more glamorous opportunities.

Joe Thomas was an excellent pick for the Cleveland Browns a few seasons ago as he immediately became an offensive line fixture and a Pro Bowler as well. But I don’t think anyone in retrospect would give Phil Savage an A+ for that draft now, especially as Brady Quinn tries to find himself in Denver.

The same thing ultimately will apply to the Seahawks’ pick of Russell Okung. The Seahawks may indeed have gotten the worthy successor to Walter Jones, who is retiring, but simply taking Okung at the moment hardly qualifies the Seahawks for such sweeping praise.

For the Seahawks, it will come down to how safety Earl Thomas and receiver Golden Tate perform in the years to come. If they and Okung become Pro Bowl fixtures then the draft will indeed have been an A+. But for now the grade seems a tad premature, doesn’t it?

You could pick apart Bells’ grades on every other team similarly.
Bell gave the Browns a C+ grade on their draft but there’s nothing in his write-up that actually suggests why. Indeed if you read it Bell makes it seem like the Browns did everything right.

Reading between the lines, the main criticism leveled by Bell and others who seem lukewarm toward the Browns has to do with the injury histories of a few of their draft picks.

The NFL is a rough sport and at some point in every player’s career an injury will occur. The question is whether T.J. Ward, for example, is more prone to injuries because of those he suffered in college. But is that true?

The best you can do, really, is trust that the guys making the decisions, general manager Tom Heckert and team president Mike Holmgren, have competent enough medical advisors who actually can make an educated guess about the issue.
Now if it turns out that Heckert and Holmgren defied the opinions of team doctors who examined Ward and looked at his medical past, that’s one thing. But for now there’s no reason to believe anything like that occurred so downgrading the Browns’ draft on that basis doesn’t make much sense.

The obvious truth is that there is absolutely no way to know how the draft will turn out for the Browns or any other team for that matter. But that won’t stop the grading game anyway.

What makes all this even more ludicrous is that it’s not as if those doing the grades have any superior knowledge on the topic.
Covering the NFL may give you a leg up on the average schmo in terms of understanding the pro game but it doesn’t exactly make you an expert on college football or its players. It’s like having a college professor grade your kid’s performance in middle school because he looked at one of his 8th grade mid-term reports on ancient Rome.

At this point, the only realistic grades worth offering for any team are of the pass/fail variety. The best way to do this is just to determine whether your team went wildly off the rails. Did it ignore its own needs in favor of fliers? Did it take a player no one has ever heard of?

It’s worth noting that under that measure the Browns drafts of seasons past got passing grades and yet in retrospect few if any of those drafts were particularly productive.

The Browns of this year similarly get a passing grade. The Browns had some obvious needs in the defensive secondary and addressed them. They have a gaping need at quarterback and addressed that. They were somewhat weak at running back and addressed that. In other words, the Browns went after the players you’d pretty much expect them to go after.
That doesn’t mean that every pick will turn out well. Indeed it’s highly unlikely that all 8 draft picks will even make the team.

The same, though, goes for every other team, mainly because there are less openings than applicants.
Which is the point anyway. It may make somebody in Seattle feel good to know that Bell gave the team an A+ in April, but the real test is whether two Aprils from now it will still look that way. Rarely they do.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Putting the Adults in Charge

If you want to know how to simultaneously raise and then lower expectations, just follow the lead of Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren.

Intimating that Colt McCoy was the second best quarterback in this year's college draft, Holmgren talked about how fortuitous it was the McCoy fell into the team's lap in the third round. Then Holmgren proceeded to tamp down any expectations about McCoy for the upcoming season by saying rather strongly that McCoy's assignment this year is to watch and learn.

It's nice to have adults finally running the franchise.

Holmgren as much as anyone knows the team he oversees isn't a Super Bowl contender at the moment. The running game still isn't what he wants to see even taking into account Jerome Harrison's 4-game breakout at the end of last season. The offensive line is decent, perhaps the strength of the team at the moment, but that simply isn't enough reason to unnecessarily start a rookie, particularly when your receiving corps is among the worst in the league.

With that kind of mixed bag and a couple of serviceable quarterbacks on the roster to help the team get through the season anyway Holmgren was merely reflecting reality in his statement, calmly, professionally.

Of course this is April and those kinds of things are easy to say. There are a lot of turns of the globe between then and now and probably a billion bumps and bruises to be administered, meaning all that can change for reasons no one wants to contemplate.

The perfect scenario for the Browns is that Jake Delhomme remains healthy all season but that isn't likely. The Browns do have a history and it suggests that not only will Delhomme get hurt but so too will Seneca Wallace when he backs him up.

Thus it isn't all that unlikely actually that McCoy sees action eventually this season. But for now it's good to have a high-profile quarterback on the roster almost completely unburdened by high expectations. It's the right way to nurture a career.

Fans in other cities have been somewhat spoiled in recent years as rookies have come in and played decently from the start. But that scenario usually involves a good team and a coaching staff that understands how to skinny down the playbook so that the rookie isn't required to win the game, just not lose it.

Brady Quinn, the latest deposed high-profile quarterback of the Browns never really got that kind of opportunity in Cleveland. There's enough blame to go around. Quinn shouldn't have foolishly held out. Derek Anderson became a one-year wonder. Phil Savage dithered on how to handle the situation. Injuries mounted. A new staff came in ill-equipped in the art of preparing a quarterback for the season.

Nonetheless it all amounts to the simple fact that another Browns can't-miss prospect missed, which is what eventually led the Browns to McCoy.

The other object lesson, of course, is Tim Couch, who presents a near perfect road map to the destination best to avoid. Playing behind an offensive line that would have made Dan Marino jittery, Couch was repeatedly beaten like an egg in a blender. He suffered injuries from which he never fully recovered and whatever promise he may have once held was permanently extinguished.

Holmgren understands full well the lessons of these two and sees it as his mission to avoid that with McCoy. This time it should be a lot easier.

The real trick in Holmgren's ability to effectively manage McCoy's career will be Holmgren's relationship with head coach Eric Mangini. For now, Mangini is Holmgren's coach. But even Mangini knows that it's a shaky existence given the events of last season.

Too often head coaches in football and managers in baseball are prone to short term decisions when they only see their careers in the short term. When you feel like your own career is hanging in the balance the tendency is to try and win now, irrespective of the cost down the road.

Thus Holmgren's task is to build confidence not only for his quarterback-in-waiting but his dangling head coach so that this kind of scenario doesn't develop. Mangini knows that the most popular player on the roster is the back-up quarterback and when things get tough and his relationship with the fans worsens it would be easy to pander by inserting McCoy. But if Mangini knows he's not dangling himself then he'll have no reason to pander.

There's no guarantee that any of this works out but you have to like the odds given the person running the show.

And assuming it all goes according to plan, that McCoy fell to the Browns in the 3rd round will end up being the story of this draft a few years from now. McCoy has an “it” factor that should serve him well in the NFL. You can look at the stats and discount them if you want because but for a handful of games among his 40+ starts, the Texas Longhorns were going to win those games even if Amos McCoy was starting at quarterback.

But that shouldn't diminish McCoy's accomplishments. Nor should the fact that he fell into the third round suggest that NFL-types aren't sold on his abilities. NFL executives are prone to group think and once a quarterback or any other high profile player starts to fall these same executives start questioning their own research thinking that maybe someone knows something they don't.

Perhaps feeding the group think is the simple fact that this just completed draft has such an uncertain labor situation as its overhang. Simply put, players in trenches are paid less than players at the so-called skill positions. The odd trajectory of this draft may be as much a factor of teams seeing a need to preserve cash as it was teams seeing the need to fill in critical spots on their offensive and defensive lines and defensive backfields.

Holmgren did talk about making a push to get the first pick in the draft in order to draft Sam Bradford. I'm not really sure if that means Holmgren is more worried about the quarterbacks he has on the roster or more impressed with Bradford's potential. It's probably some of both.

Yet I suspect that if Holmgren really wanted Bradford on this roster he would have found a way to make that trade. The only conclusion then that I can really draw about this aborted attempt was that getting Bradford on this roster wasn't as important as filling in the gaping holes in the secondary.

Whether it actually plays out that way will always be a question in the back of fans' minds, but it's hard to second-guess Holmgren at the moment. The most enduring image of the team on the field last season is of its defensive backs constantly chasing after opponents that had just blown past them. It may have only seemed like every game featured at least one long pass or run by an opponent, mostly because it did.

Concentrating the early part of the draft, and the somewhat limited movement in free agency, in the defensive backfield was the biggest no-brainer since the NFL schedule makers wisely decided that the Browns don't need to be featured on any of its Thursday, Sunday night or Monday night games. It's good for once to see the team not blow that lay-up.

The way this season is shaping up, it clearly will be one of transition. There is a real sense of reality permeating Berea at the moment and it's starting to filter to the fans. But for once, that sense of reality isn't as foreboding as the past. It's tinged with an optimism that finally the people in charge of the draft for this team actually know what they're doing. It's a nice, if foreign, feeling.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Let The Holdout Begin

At the moment, the most important thing to know about Joe Haden, whom the Cleveland Browns drafted with the 7th pick in this year’s NFL draft, is not his time in the 40-yard dash at the combine or how much man-love Tim Tebow might have for him. Nope. The most important thing to know is that Haden is that when summer rolls around he won’t be in training camp on time. In a world of uncertainty, this is as close to a lock cinch bet as you’ll ever find.

From there a predictable pattern will follow.

When training camp does open and Haden still isn’t signed, you’ll then read the usual quotes from the usual suspects. As the days drag on head coach Eric Mangini will get that hang dog expression of his and say something about how he can only coach the players that are there. Haden’s agent, following the script prepared at agent camp, will retort about how his client is anxious to get into camp as quickly as possible and meanwhile he’s working out on his own in Arizona or maybe Florida or maybe a local high school.

Browns president Mike Holmgren eventually will tire of the question about when Haden sill sign and will snap the neck of the next reporter that asks. The smart money is on Tony Grossi.

Somewhere around the second preseason game, maybe the third, the whole thing will get resolved.

That means of course another round of the usual quotes by the usual suspects.

Haden will say how he’s just glad this thing is over and he can’t wait to get on the practice field. His agent will talk about how difficult of a negotiation it was but in the end the parties compromised so that Haden could get on the field and show why the Browns took him with the 7th pick. The agent might even throw a few bon mots at whoever is negotiating the contract for the Browns, praising his or her professionalism.

Then either Holmgren or general manager Tom Heckert or both will talk about how they are glad this is behind them and how they hope that the league and the players union can find a solution to all of this at the bargaining table come season’s end.

I know all this as surely that I know that it will be a scenario that will be played out simultaneously in no less than 20 other NFL cities come July because that’s how the NFL likes to operate.

Here’s another thing I also know, the salary that Haden will get when that holdout eventually ends: $38.5 million over 5 years with $24 million of it guaranteed. In fact, I’m so sure about this that I’d be glad to bet both Haden and his agent on this. If he signs for anything within 5% of the above figures, then they pay me $100,000 for each day Hayden holds out. If they get more than 5% than this, I’ll give him my next 10 paychecks from The Cleveland Fan.

It’s not that I have any particular insider knowledge here. It’s just that I already know what last year’s 6th pick, Andre Smith, signed for and that’s the best marker for what this year’s 7th pick will sign for. It always has been.

This is hardly science. If you go over the NFL’s salary figures for the first round over the last several years, you’ll find a pretty consistent pattern. The contract of the player drafted one pick before you in the previous year more or less becomes your contract, give or take a few million dollars either way. That’s why Haden’s contract will look like Smith’s, just like Smith’s contract looked like Glenn Dorsey’s, with a slight kicker to adjust for inflation (as if that was a problem in 2009).

Every once in awhile the pattern doesn’t quite hold because quarterbacks drafted early tend to command a premium as if they were the first pick anyway. In 2008 Matt Ryan was drafted third and signed for 6 years, $72 million with $34 million guaranteed. This was higher than either of the two picks before him, one of which was Jake Long, the offensive tackle taken first. Long may get the bragging rights on draft position, but not on salary.

Thus, all you do is adjust for the quarterbacks and you’re back in business. Last year, Matt Stafford was the top pick and signed for 6 years and $72 million, just like Ryan, but this time with $41.7 million guaranteed. With Sam Bradford this year’s number one pick, his contract with St. Louis is likely to be eerily similar in terms of salary and length to Stafford’s but with about $49 million guaranteed. Count on it. His agent is.

The system isn’t foolproof but it is consistent enough to the point that there shouldn’t be any holdouts in any year. But NFL owners like to delude themselves into thinking that they’re really going to hold the line this year and agents like to delude themselves that this is the year they can break a nearly unbreakable mold. Thus a standoff of sorts occurs until eventually someone blinks. Then, let the slotting begins in earnest.

What makes all this interesting if not downright humorous is the fact that one of the key issues keeping the union and the owners apart at the moment is the implementation of a NBA-like rookie salary schedule. Owners want one because they say it will give them more money to allocate to veterans. The union doesn’t want one because they’re still stuck in the notion that higher rookie salaries beget higher veteran salaries.

They’re both full of crap and what’s more they both know it.

If the owners wanted to allocate more money to veterans, then why were so many teams millions below the salary cap in the last several years? Rather than cut a veteran whom they perceive as making too much in favor of an undrafted free agent making the minimum, why not just use a little more of that unused cap space? Wouldn’t that make the team better?

If the union on the other hand really thinks that higher rookie salaries are raising veteran salaries, then they need to get past Marvin Milleresque economic theory and start facing reality. The players that are squeezed time and again when an unproven player like Bradford is given a fortune up front is the long-term veteran with that supposedly raised salary. It’s nice when their veteran status got them that higher salary but not so nice when it ends up costing them their job.

If you’re looking for a dog to back in this fight, go with the owners. Irrespective of the disingenuous nature of their argument, lower operating costs tend to be to the benefit, if only slightly, of the fans. Moreover, getting every player into camp on time is the best way to ensure that the team you thought you were investing in when you bought your season tickets after the draft was conducted is the team you’re getting by the time that first regular season game actually is played.

The hidden issue in all this are the agents that really control the heart and mind of the union. It’s the agents more than anyone else that have the most vested interest in big rookie contracts because of the commissions they generate. Introduce a rookie salary schedule and the agent gets squeezed twice. The commission on his first round pick client goes down if not completely eliminated and the veteran client that doesn’t get cut as a result doesn’t in turn generate a potentially new commission when the agent has to negotiate a contract for him with a new team.

If the union wasn’t so beholden to the agents, this issue would probably be solved and rather quickly at that. Of course when it comes to the Browns, holdouts by rookies have hardly been their most pressing problem. Given their drafting history, too often it’s been to their advantage.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Monetize This...

Here is one time being a Time Warner customer is a benefit. No access to the NFL Network.

Because of an on-going pissing match with the NFL over the value of its in-house network, Time Warner cable customers have been spared any temptation to lose valuable minutes and hours that they’ll never get back by watching the NFL Network instead of doing almost anything else.

The problem isn’t the programming, per se. Rather the problem stems from the fact that the network’s very existence encourages the NFL to exploit any and every aspect of its operations. Meanwhile, the NFL’s other partners, like ESPN, feel the heat that an in-house network with a built-in advantage creates and respond accordingly. The outcome is a nearly incoherent yet endless bombardment of programming that provides plenty of analysis with little if any actual information.

Between ESPN and the NFL Network, more hours have been devoted to answering the question about Tim Tebow’s future than had been given to understanding the Apollo Moon Walk, the Nixon/Watergate scandal and the recent health care reform debate, combined.

Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but far less of one than half of those made by a growing phalanx of so-called analysts whose only qualification seems to have been their singular ability to retire from the NFL before suffering one too many concussions. As for Mel Kiper, Jr., about the only thing worth admiring is his singular ability to turn nerdism and bad hair into a full time, fairly lucrative vocation.

What these two networks, as well as their wannabe little brothers at networks like Sports Time Ohio, really have done is find a way to monetize conversations previously reserved for the local bars. And yet it’s almost the least offensive thing they do.

The most offensive would be, of course, the so-called NFL schedule show on ESPN Tuesday night. If it didn’t exist you’d think I was making it up. The NFL is too stately of an operation to merely release its schedule anymore like every other professional sports league. It needs a grand entrance complete with even more meaningless analysis.

Virtually any conclusion one might want to reach about their team’s schedule can’t be gleaned in late April. It is often less important who a team plays or where than it is when and when isn’t just a function of the time of year. Some teams are quick starters others take time to find their stride.

A few seasons ago the Cleveland Browns opened against the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys came out of training camp clicking and the Browns were absolutely no match for them. Yet several weeks later those same Cowboys were mostly a mess and much less formidable.

Then there’s always the difficulty in predicting the difficulty of next year’s schedule based on the previous season’s records of the teams you’ll be playing. Sure, you can pretty much conclude that the Browns will win maybe two of their 6 division games but that’s just an annoying constant. But will Kansas City again be the dregs of the league given the significant upgrades they’ve made in their personnel and coaching staff? Will New Orleans again play like they own the league?

Each season tends to take on its own personality and it often is far different from that of the previous season. All of this combines to tell me that irrespective of how much the NFL likes to exploit its product, the average fan would know just as much now if the league had simply released the schedule to the media like it used to do.

Falling somewhere between draft previews and schedule releases on the distraction schedule is the draft itself. In true NFL fashion, an event that was already more boring than a Browns preseason game against the Lions has been made even more so by dragging it out over three days instead of two.

You think there is dead time in the average hour of American Idol? Wait until the NFL draft is conducted over three days starting on Thursday. The first round, with the 15 minutes allotted to each team to make a decision they’ve been pondering for months, lasts twice as long as The English Patient, heretofore the benchmark of tedium.

It starts at 7:30 p.m. which means that somewhere around midnight the last of the first round will finish up. For those precious few that haven’t fallen asleep yet, both ESPN and the NFL Network promise to increase the dosage on their broadcast sleeping pills by spending all remaining moments until Friday evening analyzing the “winners” and “losers” of that first round, as if that were even possible.

Perhaps to garner more attention for the even less scintillating second and third rounds, ESPN is broadcasting them on Friday night. If you think watching your team draft a non-descript offensive tackle in the first round fails to quicken the pulse wait until your team spends the next two rounds finding hidden gems like Mohamad Massaquoi and Chaun Thompson.

Then, of course, its on to Saturday’s run-up to the real point of it all, finding Mr. Irrelevant a.k.a. the last player drafted. With just 7 rounds, Mr. Irrelevant isn’t nearly as Irrelevant as he used to be, yet his chances of sticking in the NFL are only slightly better than Jerry Rice’s chances of actually becoming a competitive professional golfer or, stated differently, exactly the same as Michael Jordan’s chances were of becoming a competitive professional baseball player.

What the NFL seems to have absolutely no concern over is the saturation of their product. There can never be too much of the NFL, according to commission Roger Goodell. That’s why we get made-for-TV events like the announcement of the schedule, not to mention “reality” shows like Hard Knocks on HBO, a really bizarre concept when you consider that professional sports has always been the ultimate reality show.

I’d like to think we’ve reached the outer limits of the NFL’s hubris and the public’s ability to fund it, but I know better. What I don’t know is where the NFL takes this next.

If the NFL wanted to have a show that went in depth on the finances of each team, that might be something actually worth watching. If the NFL could partner with MSNBC on weekends and follow the legal exploits of dirt bags like Ben Roethlisberger as they try to wriggle out of legal jams by throwing money at desperate college girls, that might be worth watching as well. Heck, it would be great programming if they filmed Goodell’s meetings with troubled players like Roethlisberger or Santonio Holmes.

I suspect, though, that none of that is forthcoming. Instead the logical extension of the NFL’s march toward world domination is a longer season featuring more teams and a Super Bowl that’s played at the end of March. That way the off-season would really be about 6-weeks long.

In a way, that would be a welcome change. Anything to limit further the broadcast time afforded to Mel Kiper, Jr. can only be a positive.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Finding a Pulse

When it comes to the Cleveland Browns, about the only question on anyone's mind is “who should they draft?” After pouring through all the various mock drafts and writings and ramblings of blowhards like Mel Kiper, Jr., I've come to one conclusion: anyone with a pulse would be a good start.

Browns' president Mike Holmgren, in his final pre-draft press conference last week didn't say much, but then again he is guarding nuclear launch codes. But yet he said just enough to make me realize that a little bit of candor sneaked into the organization when no one was looking.

Responding to a question of whether or not the Browns intend to focus more on defense than offense in the draft, Holmgren said “I think we were 31st on defense last year and I think we were 31st on offense. It’s like, I have two thumbs and there are five holes in the dike. How are we going to do this? That’s where you get into the discussion about not reaching for immediate help. Let’s get the best player. We know we are going to get a player that will help us be a better football team. Is there an area that needs more help or sooner help than others? Probably. As the board sets up now for us we have a chance to get a really fine football player on either side of the football.”

In other words, anyone with a pulse would be a good start.

What's a little disheartening about Holmgren's statement, though, is that some form of it has basically been true for this franchise since it returned to the NFL. Every year it's pretty much the same story: with needs this vast, almost any player should get you there.

And yet, that hasn't been true with this team thanks to a 10-year history too often dotted with players like Courtney Brown, Gerard Warren, William Green, Braylon Edwards and Kamerion Wimbley in the first rounds and Dennis Northcutt, Kevin Johnson, Chaun Thompson and Quincy Morgan in the second rounds. To paraphrase Homgren's words, this is a team with five holes in the dike and no fingers on its hands.

But enough about that. This is a whole new ball game, a whole new regime from completely different cities and a history of success. Thus this really is the year in which to best test the theory about whether or not the Browns have become the black hole of the NFL.

But irrespective of which way Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert go with this draft, one thing is for certain, there will be raging disagreement among the fans no matter who's selected. Mainly that's because the fans, like the general managers doing the picking, aren't really in any position to judge how college performance might translate into the pros.

There are just too many variables. You can draw some conclusions, for example, about a player like Sam Bradford or Jimmy Clausen but the one thing you won't be able to tell is what he's going to be like perched behind center on a Sunday afternoon with his team 6 points down with 3 minutes left to play.

Going into the 2000 draft, no one projected that Tom Brady, for example, would be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. You can give some credit to Bill Belichick for discovering Brady's hidden talent after being around him for a few seasons, but to say even Belichick understood what he had when he drafted him would be wildly inaccurate. If he did, he wouldn't have waited until the 6th round and used the second of his two 6th round picks at that to grab him.

Localized, look at a player like Josh Cribbs. He played for one of the consistently worst programs in the country, Kent State, and in a conference, the MAC, that produces some decent NFL talent but not otherwise highly competitive teams.

You can give former Browns' general manager Phil Savage some credit for at least giving Cribbs the opportunity when he signed him as an undrafted free agent, but so much of that signing smacked of a kind gesture to a local program. It turned out, of course, that Cribbs is in the conversation for best kick returners of all time. In fact, he's in the conversation for best special teams player of all time, so valuable is he to this team that the Browns likely didn't even consider for a moment grabbing Ted Ginn, Jr. when the Miami Dolphins dumped him a few days ago for a measly 5th round pick.

These two and plenty of others have a certain “it” factor that simply can't be measured at the NFL combine or the vaunted private workouts that teams conduct. When coupled with supposedly can't miss players like Gerard Warren or Tim Couch, you start to understand why NFL types are so reluctant to talk about their draft plans: it limits the criticism until after the decision already is made.

Part of the problem in trying to judge college talent has to do with the fact that the consistency of competition at the college level is lacking. Even in glamor conferences like the Big Ten, the SEC and the PAC-10, the competition is uneven, at best. Consequently general managers are constantly trying to draw multi-million dollar conclusions on the basis of a handful of games each year.

Once players get to the NFL, of course, it's far easier to figure things out. The difference between, say, the New Orleans Saints, at the moment, and a bottom feeder teams like Cleveland is far more narrow than the difference between Ohio State and Indiana, year in and year out. That's why a team like Miami bites the bullet on Ginn and gives him away. A different regime drafted him anyway and with the benefit of a little perspective the new group has decided that Ginn perhaps should never have converted from defensive back in college.

Meanwhile, in Cleveland, the Browns similarly dump Brady Quinn on the Denver Broncos. They got more for Quinn than the Dolphins got for Ginn, at least on paper. Whether it works out that way remains to be seen. Far more interesting, though, is the similar arcs to their careers.

Quinn probably doesn't end up in Cleveland if the Dolphins didn't surprise everyone by drafting Ginn instead of Quinn. It's still not clear why the Dolphins went after Ginn with a roster that featured quarterbacks Joey Harrington (another high profile bust) and Cleo Lemon on the roster. But when that happened, Quinn went on that infamous free-fall until saved by Savage and the Browns.

Yet consider what would have happened had Quinn been taken by the Dolphins. Whether he would have been successful is the great unknown but he certainly would have had far more opportunities to establish himself than he had in Cleveland. Ginn, meanwhile, would have probably slid into the second round somewhere else and perhaps been more successful with less burdensome expectations.

But given the vagaries of the NFL, both Quinn and Ginn now find themselves saddled with the same sort of “bust”-like baggage. And whether or not that moniker on either player is far from certain. The only thing certain, of course, is that to this point neither lived up to their draft status but given the situations each entered, that isn't a surprise.

All this points to exactly why it isn't worth spending a whole lot of time as a fan wringing your hands over whether or not the Browns go after Eric Berry or trade up or trade down. It's not that it doesn't matter it's more that you just never know whether it matters. Too much happens from the draft onward to let conclusions be definitvely drawn.

I still wonder, for example, exactly what head coach Eric Mangini was thinking when he took both Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi in the second round last year. I still wonder what Mangini was thinking when he buried Robiskie for most of the season as well. What I don't wonder about anymore is whether or not last season was a waste of a season for both. It was.

While Massaquoi played far more than Robiskie, the way Mangini handled the offensive side of the ball made it difficult for either player to succeed. First he diddled with the quarterback situation until he was absolutely certain that neither Quinn nor Anderson had any comfort behind center. Then he went into a Woody Hayes-like offense late in the season. All together, it wasn't just a wasted season for Massaquoi and Robiskie, but for any player that held the position of receiver, and this was on a team with almost no credible receivers on the roster going into the season.

Under a different head coach, either or both of Massaquoi and Robiskie might be much further along in their development and entering their second season with far less question marks. Instead, they are teetering as potential busts.

But this scenario, frankly, plays itself out all over the NFL. Teams make strange draft decisions and then do a lousy job on executing whatever strategy it was that drove them to make those draft decisions in the first place.

It's intriguing to think that this new regime has it all figured out and the old ways of doing business are now behind this franchise. But the draft isn't really much of a panacea particularly if the follow up is so poor. That's why it's not so much who the Browns draft but how they go about using the players they get. In other words, it really is true, anybody with a pulse is a good start.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Giant Sleeps

As the Cleveland Indians are finding out in rather painful fashion, decisions have consequences. When CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee were traded in consecutive years and fan favorite Victor Martinez was similarly dealt, a fan backlash erupted that is hitting Larry and Paul Dolan where they can least afford it, in their wallet.

According to an article in this week’s Crain’s Cleveland Business, the Indians have sold the equivalent of 8,000 season tickets for 2010. That’s accomplished through a series of full and partial game packages. It also represents nearly a 33% drop from the 2009 season and an approximately 45% drop from 2008.

Now you know why the Indians only off-season acquisition the Indians could afford was Russell Branyan. Indeed in that context his signing represents a near perfect metaphor for the state of the franchise.

Crain’s notes that by contrast the Philadelphia Phillies and the Minnesota Twins cut off season ticket sales at 24,000. The Twins, of course, just opened a new stadium so the enthusiasm there is understandable.

But what is less understandable is that right now the Indians are scraping near the bottom with teams like the Pittsburgh Pirates when it comes to season tickets. That should trouble the Dolans more than anything else. The Pirates have been awful for nearly two full decades. The Indians, on the other hand, at least have had some success in far more recent times.

The Crain’s story reaches the predictable conclusions by quoting the predictable experts: attendance is cyclical and will improve as the team improves. History certainly bears that out but this may be one time where past performance truly is not indicative of future results. The truth staring them in the face is that this may not be a cycle at all.

The Indians’ renaissance of the 1990s pivoted off of the opening of Jacobs Field. Until then the team was toiling in Pirates territory and without the new ballpark they’d probably still be. But the opening of Jacobs Field and the significant streams of revenue it opened up for Dick Jacobs gave the team the kind of money it needed to compete on equal footing with any other team.

As a result, it could and did buy good, solid and proven free agents to fill in the holes as the younger players developed. Management did its part, too, by hitting more often than missing on free agents and rookies.

But the shine of Jacobs Field has worn off. Now known as Progressive Field, it’s still one of the best facilities in baseball but it’s no longer an attraction in and of itself to the casual fan. The Indians of this year are either a team people will pay to see or won’t on its own merits and not because they play in a novel ballpark.

At this juncture, it doesn’t look like too many will be willing to pay. The season ticket base gives the Indians a Cleveland Municipal Stadium-like attendance base of just 648,000 fans. That means that even if they triple that amount in single game sales, they still won’t draw 2 million fans for the season.

And that’s just the folks in the stands. The Crain’s article doesn’t mention it but the Indians are similarly struggling in selling loges, another significant source of revenue. All told, even if the Indians could slash their payroll by trading Travis Hafner and Jake Westbrook, they’d still lose money at the end of the season.

And the really chilling reality in all of this is that there isn’t another attendance jolt like the opening of a new stadium lying in their immediate future, either. Consequently, the Indians ability to move the needle on attendance and hence revenue is more or less completely related to their ability to get better on the field.

That’s a tall order, particularly when you operate in a league where the only level playing field is the one between the foul poles.

For too many years now, the Indians front office has been swinging and missing on acquiring good young talent, the kind that comes cheaply. Their drafting record rivals that of the Browns, or maybe it just seems that way because every mistake in this atmosphere is bound to be magnified. Making matters worse is that the team has pretty much run out of high-priced talent to trade, meaning that the only prospects will be the ones they draft.

What you see on the field now is pretty much what you’re going to be seeing for awhile. There will be movement around the fringes, there always is. But unless this group suddenly gets good it’s going to be taking its lumps for awhile without any sense at the moment that it ever will be good enough and cheap enough to truly compete for a playoff spot.

Which gets you right back to the issue of attendance. If it tracks performance, and it usually does, the Dolans will be taking their lumps for awhile as well. But perhaps it’s not just performance related. While the economy certainly had some bearing on the drop in attendance, fan backlash is a major part of it as well. Crain’s quotes Bob DiBiasio, the Indian’s vice president of public relations and someone who’s been associated with the team for 31 years, as readily acknowledging that he’s never seen anger from fans on par with last summer’s.

The breadth of DiBiasio’s statement is sweeping but very explainable. In the ‘70s and ‘80s there wasn’t much anger because, frankly, there wasn’t much to get angry about. Fans understood the Indians had lousy ownership and a lousy ballpark. They had witnessed institutional incompetence for so long that they were numb to the fact that there was even a team in town. It’s pretty much what Pirates fans are like right now.

But if anger is driving Indians fans, and there is every reason to believe that it is, then even a few upticks in performance aren’t going to make much of a difference. Indians fans are angry now because they’ve been to the show. They know that this team and this town are capable of great things if given the right circumstances. They also know that this ownership really hasn’t followed through on its pledge to the community to deliver consistently competitive teams. Twice in the last 5 years the Dolans and their management team have been given that opportunity and twice they’ve deliberately squandered it by not taking the necessary next steps. In fact, each time they stood still which, in professional sports, is the equivalent of stepping backward.

The fans have also seen that general manager Mark Shapiro has been rewarded for his approach by being named club president, which more than anything else says that things aren’t likely to change. Mix all of this together and you more or less land on a spot that suggests the only path forward is of the sea change variety.

There was a point in the ‘80s where the Indians had Case Western Reserve University study the fan base. The study concluded that this attendance-starved team was really a sleeping giant and that all the fans needed to see was a little success and they’d turn out in droves. Not exactly a revelation, certainly, but it at least gave confirmation that there was a fan base ready to spring into action when given an actual reason to do so.

The chicken-and-egg nature of remedying the situation Tribe teams in the past experienced eventually was solved when Dick Jacobs bought the team and got Jacobs Field built. The added money begat better players begat better attendance. This time the team doesn’t look to be so lucky so for now whatever form of sleeping giant remains is locked into a deep and prolonged hibernation.

Monday, April 12, 2010

One for the Golf Gods

If this past week’s Masters tournament represented anything, it was the triumph of the sublime over the ridiculous.

Phil Mickelson’s implausible victory represented the intersection where outsized talent meets brashness. Tiger Woods’ presence represented the simple fact that the carnival-like atmosphere that now represents his life isn’t going away any time soon.

For anyone whose ever played golf more than a few times, the Mickelson win was proof that every once in awhile the golf gods get it right. So deserving was his victory in contrast to what otherwise could have been if Woods hadn’t become a victim of his own hubris, that it’s almost impossible to overstate its lasting relevance.

It wasn’t just Mickelson’s shot at the 13th hole on Sunday that was so enthralling, or that his eagle-eagle-near eagle/birdie stretch on Saturday was so captivating, it was more about the fact that golf is the ultimate character test and Woods so fittingly failed it.

Woods is clearly a work in progress at the moment. Whether or not you buy this whole “sex addiction” thing or not, it’s pretty clear that he’s wrestling with some serious demons at the moment and for once he’s not winning. Sure, he played well. In fact he played well enough that nearly any other golf pro in the world would be satisfied. But there was a reason he couldn’t find his swing when he needed it most.

Golf, singular to every other athletic pursuit, has an uncanny way of finding one’s weak spots at just the wrong moment. With Woods, it was only a matter of time.

For all of Woods’ so-called mental toughness, he did prove this week that he’s not an automaton. If he were he wouldn’t have yanked his opening drive on Sunday. The collective weight that all his transgressions brought upon him revealed themselves fully at that moment and whether he ever admits it or not, that was the single shot that told him not only that Sunday wouldn’t be his day but his rehabilitation will take a lot more than mere lip service about Buddhism and contriteness.

That’s the way it should be since it’s really the same for anyone else. When Woods’ life came crashing down that Thanksgiving night, the aftershocks felt by everyone else close to him were nearly insurmountable. It would be one thing if Woods had simply shamed himself. Far worse is what he did to his wife and children, forever making them the object of scorn and ridicule, and the business partners who relied on him for their own livelihood.

Woods can talk about repairing his relationship with his wife and maybe that will come to pass in time. But the mess he made will leave a lasting scar that no amount of forced sincerity could ever cover. Woods put his wife and his two young children into the forever position of carrying a cross that should be his to bear alone. For that he deserves much more than a self-imposed 144-day layoff and a return to the winner’s circle in the most compelling major as a feel good story for the ages.

The truth is that Woods will never be a feel-good story because the only odds he’ll ever overcome are the chances he took with the lives of others. The other truth is that Woods is still struggling with that truth.

In his contrived “public” apology and even in his press conference last Monday, Woods talked about respecting the game better, improving his on-course demeanor and essentially vowing to stop being the terse prick he’s been allowed to be since turning pro. That lasted about two rounds.

When things fell apart for him on Sunday, it was pretty clear that not much had changed in this regard. Woods continued to flip clubs in anger as he cursed loud enough for all the patrons, both on the course and at home, to hear. When he was interviewed on Sunday he was his usual ungracious self, focused far more on describing how bad he played in that backhand way he has of saying why someone else won instead of him.

That doesn’t mean Woods isn’t sincere about the changes he needs to make. It just means that he hasn’t come close to conquering them just yet and that at the first little sign of pressure he finds comfort in the old ways. The saying is that golf doesn’t build character but instead reveals it. Never was that more evident with Woods again on Sunday.

Mickelson, on the other hand, walks on far firmer ground. The knock on Mickelson has always been that his “aw shucks” image is contrived, that no one can be as nice as he seems. In retrospect it seems awfully ironic, doesn’t it?

I doubt that Mickelson is a saint. He’s always had a reckless streak on the course and it would surprise and amaze that if he hasn’t been a little reckless off of it as well. Yet because we tend toward cynicism so often, it’s convenient to think someone who smiles and is polite has to be Eddie Haskell even if we don’t exactly have proof of that fact.

After watching Mickelson all these years, I can’t recall even once where I’ve seen him throw a club or audibly curse on the course. On the other hand I can recall countless acts of generosity through the years starting with his willingness each year to sign each and every piece of paper put in front of him following a round.

He treats both the game and those who cover it with respect by never shying away from giving an interview while striving to give something more than a rote answer. He’s as gracious to those he’s bested in tournaments as well as praiseworthy to those who have gotten the best of him.

What Mickelson demonstrates most, particularly when contrasted with Woods, is that he more than Woods is the logical extension to players like Nicklaus, Watson and Palmer. Mickelson may not have Woods’ bank account but he’s within reasonable enough shouting difference to become just as jaded and standoffish if that was his nature. Instead he understands the game’s history and his duty to both respect and extend it. Somehow I just don’t ever see Mickelson cynically filming a commercial that attempts to use his personal problems as a vehicle for selling shoes or golf clubs as Woods did this past week.

But putting all of that aside, Mickelson is just far more fun to watch. Maybe because he’s found nearly as much bad as good on the golf course he can take whatever happens in stride better than most. Whatever it is, though, he’ll leave you shaking your head, one way or the other, in a thrill ride unparalleled in golf.

There is no question that the biggest recipient of Woods’ fall from grace has been Mickelson. It’s not just because Woods’ absence theoretically gives Mickelson a better chance on the course. It’s more because Woods’ deep character flaws reinforce all that’s good about Mickelson.

One of the lasting quotes coming out of this Masters belonged, naturally, to Mickelson. Asked to explain the difference between a great shot and a smart shot, Mickelson said, “a great shot is when you pull it off. A smart shot is when you don’t have the guts to try it.” He may have been talking specifically about the shot at 13 on Sunday, but more broadly he could have been talking about what it takes to live life the right way. Ironic isn’t it, that it’s the exact lesson that Woods need to learn far more than Mickelson?

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Another Tough Reminder

Maybe there’s no great significance to an opening day loss in baseball. With its interminably long 162-game schedule played on a near daily basis over the next 6 months, major league baseball appears to offer plenty of chances at redemption.

Still, there’s something rather depressing about losing the opening game as the Indians did on Monday, 6-0 to the Chicago White Sox.

For one thing, it means that there is no opportunity for the Indians to be wire-to-wire division champions. Of course, the Indians have almost no shot at winning the AL Central anyway, but that’s beside the point at the moment. The loss represents just another little goal left unachieved.

It also offers a reminder of how different the game of baseball becomes the moment the regular season starts. The Indians, in many respects, were the surprise of the spring. They went 19-9 with a handful of ties thrown in, which offered some fleeting hope that pre-season predictions might be wrong. Depending on what you’re trying to accomplish, though, spring training records can be wildly misleading.

Almost any team outside of the Washington Nationals can end spring training with the best record if that’s the goal. Just play all your starters all the time while every other team is experimenting with young players and different combinations.

The Indians didn’t necessarily follow that directive specifically but manager Manny Acta did make a point of saying how important it would be to play his anticipated starters the latter part of spring training as a way of building cohesion entering the regular season. Translated, Acta was really following the strong wishes of general manager Mark Shapiro who was sick and tired of all the slow April starts under former manager Eric Wedge.

For a team like Cleveland that relies so heavily on attendance in order to fund its operations, a slow April that quickly distances the team from contention is a near death sentence. Combined with April’s usually iffy weather, there’s nothing that puts Indians fans in a Browns or Cavs state of mind than the potentially miserable experience of watching another April loss when it’s 48 degrees with a light mist coming off the lake.

But even that alone doesn’t quite explain why an opening day loss in Cleveland and a handful of other cities is so much more meaningful these days. For that you’d have to look at the payroll data released by the USA Today on Monday, the same day when the Indians were being shut out in Chicago, a divisional rival with a payroll that’s almost 80% higher.

The Indians now have the lowest payroll in the AL Central at $61.2 million. That’s almost 15% LESS than the Kansas City Royals who are next at $71.4 million. It’s $200,000 less than the Washington Nationals. Thank goodness that the league still has the San Diego Padres and the Pittsburgh Pirates, with payrolls of $37.8 million and $34.9 million respectively. Otherwise there would be even more embarrassment for this once proud franchise.

While the Indians’ average salary is listed at $2.1 million, this is one time where it’s far more meaningful to look at the median salary of $427,500 instead. Of the Indians’ $61.2 million payroll, more than half of it is taken up by three players that enter the season with extremely low expectations: Westbrook, Travis Hafner, and Kerry Wood. All have major questions marks. Hafner is supposedly swinging well, whatever that means, Westbrook is trying to come back from major arm surgery and Wood is on the disabled list with either a bad back or an indifferent attitude, take your pick.

Three more players, Jhonny Peralta, Fausto Carmona and Grady Sizemore, take up another 25% of the payroll. Sizemore is trying to find his way back from injury, Carmona is trying to find his confidence and the strike zone and Peralta is just trying to find himself. Yet as a group they represent potentially far more production than Hafner, Westbrook and Wood.

With more than 75% of the payroll owed to just 6 players, it’s a pretty steep fall off from there. The Indians have 16 players on their opening day roster (which includes players on the disabled list) making less than $500,000 (the league minimum is $400,000). Only one team, the Oakland Athletics, has more, with a staggering 20. However, there’s a bit of a caveat with Oakland. Three of those players are on the disabled list and may be in the minors once they recover.

While this may be a statement about the nature of both the As and the Indians, what it really says is that these two teams are fielding essentially minor league caliber teams and doing so because they don’t have enough money to do otherwise. Indeed you can make the case that the same is true of a few other teams who have similarly filled out their rosters, like the Pirates (15), the Rangers (14), the Reds (13) and the Nationals (12).

Some of this is partially explained by the fact that there are some good young players around the league still making barely above the minimum, keeping some team’s payrolls lower. That’s in keeping with baseball’s grand tradition in sticking it to players who have no leverage.

The Indians periodically have tried to be more progressive in their thinking and that’s why players like Peralta, Carmona and Sizemore are making so much more than their counterparts at the moment. But that isn’t always the answer either as the relative lack of production from these three hardly seems to justify the extra $13 million or so in payroll they are eating up at the moment.

But the handful of good young players making league minimum only partially explains what’s really taking place anyway. The fact is that the major league baseball is broken somewhat neatly into teams in the payroll penthouse and teams in the payroll outhouse and it’s time to stop pretending that none of this matters. It’s simply delusional to think that teams with a majority of its players barely making the league minimum are going to be able to compete over the course of a season with teams that have only a handful of such players.

If you’re a fan of the Indians or the Pirates or the Reds or the Royals, this is just a cold hard fact. One loss on opening day may not be particularly meaningful except as the start of losses that will inevitably pile up over the course of a season in which they won’t be competitive almost by definition.

If baseball isn’t going to address this festering problem through economic parity then at least it should consider complete realignment in a way in which teams aren’t grouped by quaint notions of geography and tradition but instead by payroll. Instead of an American and National League, you could have the Haves and the Have Nots with only limited interleague play.

That would at least give fans in cities like Cleveland, Kansas City and Pittsburgh a reason to shrug off a loss more easily. As it is, though, the concept of redemption in baseball is more illusory now than it’s ever been because major league baseball prefers to have those teams running its marathon uphill in a headwind with 5-pound weights around each ankle against others who always get to have the wind at their backs.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Good Friday?

Depending on your perspective, it either was a Good Friday for the Cleveland Browns or not.

If you view it from the perspective of having to deal with the headache that Shaun Rogers delivered in the form of a loaded handgun in his carry-on bag at Hopkins Airport, it maybe wasn't so good. If you view it from the perspective of having just gained two starters and it all it cost you was an indifferent third-year player and a fourth and fifth round draft pick this year, then maybe it was very good.

Let's dispense first with the headache.

The Rogers incident isn't much of an issue unless you consider trying to bring a loaded gun on a domestic flight a big deal. Browns' general counsel Fred Nance must have loved getting that call from the local police. It probably didn't go over much better by the time that news reached club president Mike Holmgren, either.

Rogers pleaded not guilty Saturday morning to a concealed weapons charge but that's just a formality. He had the gun, it was loaded, and he tried to bring it through security at the airport. It's just a question of intent.

Doubtful Rogers intended to have the gun in his carry-on bag, certainly, and probably meant to put it instead inside whatever bag he was checking. But with the outrageous fees Continental charges these days to check your luggage maybe Rogers was trying to save himself a few bucks and carry it all on instead, which is how this whole thing ends up a crime in the first place. By the time this is over he'll wish he had just paid the baggage fees.

But maybe the better question is why he had a loaded gun with him at all.

There is something about the mentality of professional athletes (and, let's face it, a significant portion of the U.S. population) that feels a compelling need to have firearms nearby, preferably loaded. Maybe it's that sense of security that packing heat gives one, hard to say. But if Rogers needed to feel safe in Cleveland, I'd be surprised.

Sure, Cleveland like any other major city has its share of crime. And sure, the Browns were miserable last season. But it's hard to believe those two factors might somehow mix in a way that would make a guy like Rogers fear for his life while he was in town for off-season conditioning.

At least he now will have a criminal record to show for his efforts, giving him the street cred he'll need if intends to embark on a career in rap when his playing days are through. Good Friday? Hardly.

As for the rest of the defense, things got decidedly better on Friday. Trading linebacker Alex Hall and two draft picks for Philadelphia Eagles' cornerback Sheldon Brown and linebacker Chris Gocong constituted a crime of a different sort. Perhaps this is the next move that Holmgren promised when the team traded perpetually under-performing linebacker Kamerion Wimbley earlier this month..

Any time a team can trade a part-timer and two mid-round picks for two starters, it's a deal worth making. Now you can get all cynical and point out that almost any players the Browns pick up are likely starters because of the team's talent deficit. But this trade in particular opens up a number of possibilities and further increases the intrigue surrounding the upcoming draft, all in a good way.

Gocong represents the further efforts by Homgren and general manager Tom Heckert to completely remake the Browns linebacking corps. It needs it, desperately. Gocong, along with the free agent signing of Scott Fujita, represents a major upgrade.

Brown fills a gaping need at cornerback. If there is one thing that had to give both Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert the chills was the thought of entering into next season with Brandon McDonald once again in anything other than an extremely limited part time role.

McDonald was a Phil Savage project that just hasn't panned out. Wildly inconsistent, McDonald would often offset the occasional decent play with a whole lot of ugliness. He actually proved raw speed is hardly the most critical skill for a cornerback. Despite good speed the most lasting image of McDonald is that of him chasing after another team's receiver who had just passed him. His near total lack of technique and penchant for getting burned left the defense vulnerable to long gains.

The man slated to replace him, Brown, is far more accomplished. He's a former Pro Bowler who seems to still have something left in the tank. Moreover, he's durable. He hasn't missed a game since 2004. More importantly, his presence give the Browns the opportunity to either zig or zag in the upcoming draft.

It's easy to conclude, for example, that with cornerback temporarily handled the Browns can now focus on finishing off their defensive backfield by taking Tennessee safety Eric Berry with the 7th pick in the draft. There are a lot of fans enamored with Berry at the moment who all will be thrilled that picking up Brown makes the selection of Berry all the more likely.

But this trade also gives the Browns the opportunity to perhaps get very aggressive on the quarterback front. Having at least addressed the defense in a meaningful way already, there are plenty of fans that will think this is the time to reach up and try to grab Oklahoma's Sam Bradford, for example.

Both camps may actually be correct. This trade, along with everything else the Browns have done since Holmgren and Heckert arrived, gives this team far more flexibility than it looked to have when the season ended.

In the last several weeks, the Browns have obtained two new quarterbacks, two new linebackers, a new cornerback, a new offensive lineman and a new tight end. They've also re-signed their most valuable player in Josh Cribbs. All but the second quarterback, Seneca Wallace, will be starters. By any measure it's been an aggressive off season. But more than that it's been an off season of plugging as many holes as possible in what was a sinking ship without having to either overpay or part with much in the way of draft picks.

That isn't to say that Holmgren and Heckert have immediately turned the Browns into a playoff team. That still seems a long way off. But these kinds of moves do accelerate the pace.

The trade for Brown and Gocong also are interesting because of their connection with Heckert in Philadelphia. Like the trade for Wallace, this is another example of the new regime bringing in players they're comfortable with as a way of jump starting the team. Every new regime operates the same way. Head coach Eric Mangini did the same thing by bringing in a few loyal soldiers from his days with the New York Jets.

But where Holmgren and Heckert seem far more successful, at this point, than Mangini has been in their ability to bring in credible starters. Each of Mangini's refugees were either players just trying to hang on or projects. Each of Homgren's and Heckert's acquisitions are legitimate starters.

But let's not dwell on the negatives. With the draft beginning in less than 3 weeks, the Browns once again find themselves at the center of their own universe but for the right reasons. Rogers' arrest created a headache that nobody wanted or needed but at least the day wasn't a total loss. Instead it was just a distraction that was mostly forgotten when the trade was announced.

Good Friday? Mostly.