Monday, August 30, 2010

Still in the Oven

The NFL’s preseason plays out like a four-course meal, which each game building on the next. By the fourth game, the accomplished teams are serving desert and relaxing as coffee is served. The not-so-accomplished, on the other hand, have trouble just getting the various dishes to finish cooking at the same time. Through three games this preseason in the kitchen that is the Cleveland Browns, the offense appears to be arriving as scheduled while the defense remains half-baked.

The problem is that the same sorts of things that made this one of the worst defenses in the league last year are still there. The front three can't pressure the quarterback on its own. The linebackers are very average at covering running backs and tight ends. The defensive backfield too often seems in fire drill mode. The domino effect is that teams tend to chew up huge chunks of yardage far too often.

You can chalk up Detroit's first drive, a niftly little 3-play affair that covered 68 yards in just under a minute and a half that gave the Lions an early 7-3 lead, as an anomaly if you'd like, but I have the feeling the coaching staff isn't. First round pick Javid Best ran the Lions' opening play right up the heart of the defense for 51 yards, caught a short pass on the next play that he turned into another 10 yard gain and then watched as quarterback Matt Stafford through a 7-yard pass to Bryant Johnson for the touchdown. Particularly frustrating on that touchdown catch was how Johnson turned corner back Eric Wright inside out in the process.

This was the second straight week that an opposing offense went through the Browns' defense on the opening drive like Sherman through Atlanta.

The Browns held the Lions on their next two series and Wright got a measure of redemption when he recovered a Kevin Smith fumble and returned it 44 yards for the touchdown. But as is the attitude of most corner backs in the league, particularly after they’ve just been burned, Wright acted as if the Johnson touchdown over him didn't matter and pranced into the end zone with the fumble recovery as if he had invented the game. For good measure, he held a brief but elaborate touchdown celebration that looked as if he were simulating throwing craps.

Indeed, it was the perfect metaphor for the defense, not only on Saturday but in general. It's always a gamble with them but too often they look like sidewalk stooges in a game of three-card Monte. Too many times the defensive backs overplayed blitzes and allowed Stafford and the subs that followed easy completions. Too many times there was poor tackling that allowed minor gains to go for 4 or 5 yards.

The Lions are improved, certainly, but they are still a second tier team, just like the Browns. If the defense struggles with them, they'll struggle with any team.

It wasn't all a disaster certainly. Rookies Joe Haden and T.J. Ward played most of the game and gained, if nothing else, more experience. Haden more so than Ward is still struggling, which isn't much of a concern. He's overly aggressive at this point and the resulting interference penalties he's received aren't a surprise. But you can see the progress and the promise that he offers.

The main problem with the defense though starts with the line. As much as head coach Eric Mangini and defensive coordinator Rex Ryan talk up nose tackle Ahtyba Rubin, he's no where close to playing like the injured Shaun Rogers did in his prime or, about 40 pounds ago, take your pick. Maybe Rubin will get there, but he's not there yet. He lacks Rogers' technique mostly and struggles freeing himself from man-on-man blocks. Double teams usually aren’t even necessary.

Despite all that Rubin is the best lineman at the moment, which explains exactly why it struggles. The mixture of bodies like Robaire Smith and Brian Schaefering, for example, are just too inconsistent to be counted on.

That's putting too much pressure on the linebackers which in turn is putting too much pressure on the defensive backs. Until the defensive line improves dramatically, this defense will struggle irrespective of the various schemes Ryan runs to mask its inadequacies.

The offense, on the other hand, offers reason for hope. Too many times last season, and for the few seasons before that, when an opposing team got up by 10 points early, you just had the feeling the game was over. There just wasn't enough skill in the backfield, including quarterback, or at wide receiver to ever make you think that this team could go punch for punch with any other team.

But if quarterback Jake Delhomme continues to play like he has during the preseason, this team will score points. Of course, most thought that scoring runs would be the least of the Cleveland Indians' problems this season and it's turned into one of its biggest problems particularly lately, so you make such predictions cautiously.

Still, so much about the offense looks improved over last season that irrespective of the final scores, the games should be more fun to watch.

For one thing, tight ends Benjamin Watson and Evan Moore can both catch the ball. That seemingly simple skill was mostly absent last season. It made a rookie year even tougher on starting wide receivers Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi. But with reliable tight ends and running backs like Peyton Hillis that can catch out of the backfield, there is less pressure on Robiskie and Massaquoi to hit home runs.

Speaking of Hillis, all he does is impress. Like Josh Cribbs, Hillis brings a special passion to the game that's contagious. He runs harder than most and fights for each inch of turf even harder. He also doesn't put the ball on the ground, which will endear him to Mangini more than anything else.

His colleague, Jerome Harrison, on the other hand, is having a very forgettable preseason. Maybe he's just in start-up mode at the moment, but he doesn't look like he has the same burst as he had during the last four games of last season. More serious, though, is his concentration seems poor. He fumbled Saturday night, making it 3 fumbles in his last two weeks. For a player that always seems to be floating around the cut line, that isn't a good trend.

Second string quarterback Seneca Wallace wasn't anything special on Saturday night but he’s otherwise been the most pleasant surprise this preseason. He’s far less patient in the pocket than Delhomme, which is typical of running quarterbacks. When he becomes a passing quarterback who can run, he’ll be more dangerous.

What was interesting Saturday night, though, was how offensive coordinator Brian Daboll used Wallace during the Browns' first drive.

On first and 10 from the Detroit 10-yard line, Daboll inserted Wallace into the game for Delhomme, just to give the Lions a different look. But then Daboll had Wallace hand off to Hillis for a 3-yard game. On the next play, Wallace scrambled right and through the ball away. Delhomme returned for third down and didn't complete the pass to Massaquoi, forcing the Browns to settle for the Phil Dawson field goal.

There was nothing wrong with Daboll's strategy, just its execution. Wallace is in the game at that point because he's a threat to run while in passing formation. It's a dimension that Delhomme doesn't present. But Daboll outsmarted himself by figuring that the Lions would think the same way and thus tried to cross them up with the Hillis run. They weren't fooled. On the next play, Wallace did indeed scramble but from just 7 yards the bodies, both on offense and defense, tend to compress leaving much less running room for the quarterback. Wallace was pressured to the sideline and forced to throw the ball away.

But it's a sequence to remember, mainly because there will be more of it. But like any ingredient in a meal, it needs to be used in moderation. If not, then at the least teams will get used to it. At worst, it will eventually create a quarterback controversy of sorts. Remember the old adage, a team with two starting quarterbacks has no starting quarterback.

The Browns now stand at 1-2 in the preseason which in some sense is probably the most meaningless statistic of all. But it is helpful in one sense. It provides the appropriate caution to fans who saw that a new chef was in town and assumed that now every meal would turn out perfectly.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Lingering Items--Tradition Edition

There’s a cloud hanging over the NFL at the moment and it probably isn’t going away any time soon.

Commissioner Roger Goodell, after first making his rounds of various training camps, unveiled this week what he had been hinting at all along, that the league and its union are heading toward a labor showdown and aan 18-game regular season will be one of the key issues.

Goodell has made the 18-game regular season, as early as 2012, a key priority. In making his pitch, Goodell painted it as good for the fans because it will lessen an already meaningless preseason.

Whether it’s really a good thing is all a matter a perspective.

For the owners, it’s a potential cash bonanza. The networks broadcast preseason games out of obligation knowing that the ratings are similar to a rerun of “Sisters” on the Lifetime Network. Turn those preseason games into something far more meaningful and suddenly the networks will take notice, in the form of higher rights fees. In a struggling economy it’s never a bad thing to find new revenue streams, even for a cash cow like the NFL.

For the fans, the preseason is as meaningless as an Indians game in September. They get charged full price only to witness glorified scrimmages in which starters make token appearances and a slew of undrafted free agents vie for the last 10 or so remaining spots on the roster. All these games do is whet the appetite for the real season but otherwise they’re mostly ignored.

From a head coach’s perspective, the preseason isn’t nearly long enough. If a lot of good evaluation can be made in 4 games, just think how much better 6 or 8 games would be!

For the players, it’s a potential nightmare. The one constant in the NFL is that players get injured, far more frequently and far more severely than in any other sport. All an 18 game schedule does is increase the risk even further. Players may be just commodities but they are the most important commodity. With injuries as a given, championships are won or lost on depth at all the key positions and that is simply something most teams don’t have.

But don’t expect the NFL to balance these perspectives because the only thing that matters are the owners. To them it’s a priority and in the NFL’s game of cards, that is like holding the ace of trump. It's just a matter of what they'll give up to get it in the upcoming negotiations.

The NFL will sell it to the union as a way of dividing up an even bigger pie. That will certainly get the union's interest. But I suspect that won't be enough. If they hold out for an expanded for a slightly expanded roster, that may work.. More jobs means more union dues.

Both the NFL and the union are spoiling for a fight. It’s been too calm for too long. But I doubt that the 18 game season will be enough to completely solve what ails them. All it will do in the end is make an already season too long while simultaneously making an already too short career for most players shorter.


Scheduling has also been on the mind of the good folks running the Big Ten and the millions of people that support and follow that conference. The addition of Nebraska to the mix will force the conference into a divisional format and a conference championship game. But it's this consequence that threatens the very traditions that make college football so great in the first place.

The Big Ten has a whole slew of tradition-laden rivalries that must be preserved, not the least of which is Ohio State/Michigan. While the game itself doesn't appear to be in any sort of near-term jeopardy, some of the traditions surrounding it might.

The series began in 1897 and since 1935 Ohio State has played Michigan on the last game of the season. For all the reasons that fans of both teams know better than their kids' birthdays, it is essentially “The Game.” It matters little if anything more than pride is at stake. Beat the other team and your season's been a success.

It cannot possibly be overemphasized how intimately the tradition of this game being played at season's end is intertwined with the rivalry. Irrespective of the bowl game that follows weeks later, The Game is the pinnacle of each team's season. Fans, players and coaches alike (with the exception of John Cooper then and Rich Rodriguez now) see every game preceding it as a mere distraction. All roads lead to that last game in November.

But those same people who pushed for expanding the Big Ten's reach are now trying to minimize the importance of when the Ohio State/Michigan game is played as part of the overall selling point for why the expanded conference isn't about money it's about the fans. Remember, when they say it's not about the money, it's about the money.

The reason this is an issue at all stems from a desire to not have Michigan and Ohio State play in the same division of the Big Ten. In that circumstance, the deep thinkers would want to preserve an intra-division game as the last game of the season because of its importance on who ends up playing in the conference championship. Additionally, by not having any inter-division games on the last week of the regular season you avoid the chance that those same two teams could meet the following week in the conference championship game.

Fair enough, but it begs the question as to why Michigan and Ohio State have to be in separate divisions in the first place.

Ultimately, those making these decisions, which, technically are the various colleges' athletic directors as guided by the various colleges' presidents, have to lay out their priorities. Is the tradition of The Game more or less important than the potential of having those two teams play each other in consecutive weeks?

Framed that way, the answer seems so obvious that I'm afraid it will be missed. Preserving all of the traditions of the Ohio State/Michigan game should be paramount. The Game isn't just of interest to Big Ten fans. It's one of the most anticipated/most watched games of any season in all of college football. It's traditions put the Big Ten in the best possible light at the best possible time.

If Big Ten officials want Ohio State and Michigan in separate divisions, though I'm not sure why, then an exception needs to be made for those two teams in terms of preserving that last week of the regular season for intra-divisional games. Sure, that opens up the possibility that Ohio State and Michigan will meet the next week in a conference championship, but why is it assumed that would be a bad thing? If anything, that game just becomes bigger and, again, it's the Big Ten that's ultimately the winner.


Traditions have certainly been on the mind of Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren with his announcement on Thursday of the creation of a Browns' Ring of Honor and the first 16 inductees.

It's certainly about time that the rich traditions of this franchise have been celebrated in such a meaningful way. But of course no good deed goes unpunished and the greatest Cleveland Brown of all, Jim Brown, is positively in a snit.

For cost-cutting reasons, owner Randy Lerner eliminated Jim Brown's paid advisory role with the team. According to reports, the Browns also have eliminated or at least significantly reduced their support of Brown's Amer-I-Can program.

Rather than be grateful for all the past support, Brown instead has hinted very strongly that he is too busy to attend the Ring of Honor ceremony, what's that date again?

In an interview with a Syracuse radio station, Brown intimated that he feels disrespected by the new Browns regime. Remember, when they say it isn't about the money but respect, it's about the money. If Brown's paid advisory role hadn't been eliminated and/or the support for Amer-I-Can continued, Brown would be on the first plane, sitting in first class, courtesy of a paid ticket from the Browns.

The Ring of Honor ceremony will certainly miss Brown if he doesn't attend but I don't see any particular reason for the team to again bend over backward to satisfy his demands. Brown hasn't always been the most respectful person when it comes to this organization in the first place, starting with his sudden and unplanned retirement and moving forward. It is a two-way street.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Growth Spurt

Saturday night’s Cleveland Browns preseason game against the St. Louis Rams was the kind of mistake-filled mish-mash that Browns fans have seen too many times over the years. And yet, why is it that I feel better about this Browns team than I have about any Browns team in several years?

For starters, maybe it’s because this is no longer the Romeo Crennel era when mistakes like those seen on Saturday night, fumbles, penalties, bad routes, were essentially just part of an incoherent mix. In other words, the mess of Saturday night is far more likely to be an anomaly than a trend.

Beyond that, though, I think the best reason to feel better about this team than almost any other version of the Browns in the last 10 years is because there is a positive direction taking hold over this team and the positive changes in head coach Eric Mangini is a big reason why.

It would be silly not to acknowledge the real strides Mangini has made in just 12 months as the Browns’ head coach. His personal growth and this team’s progress aren’t coincidences. The two are inextricably linked.

For all the preaching that Mangini does to his players about existing within the team dynamic, he seemed slow to embrace that ethic himself. But that’s clearly changed. Maybe it was the forced shotgun marriage that he never expected or the organic process of maturity. It’s probably a little of both. But it is working and that’s a very positive sign for this franchise.

The back story on how club president Mike Holmgren got to Cleveland is well known by this point. It was a move that everyone else saw coming even if Mangini didn’t. Nonetheless, where Holmgren’s arrival could have and probably should have brought about the installation of an entirely new management team, Holmgren instead decided to stay the course.

His hope, really, was that Mangini could find a way to work within a system that wasn’t of his own choosing. After all, as refreshing as starting over sounds, in the short term it’s a major set back. Holmgren decided instead to keep Mangini and see how he would react. Hope isn’t the best strategy but in this case it appears to be paying off.

With the Browns’ preseason at the halfway point and training camp officially closed as preparations for the new season really begin in earnest, the lack of controversy surrounding this team has been the most remarkable turnaround. Last season played out like a Roseanne Roseannadanna monologue, it was always something.

This season is a veritable sea of tranquility. Holmgren’s presence helps, certainly, but he’s been mostly in the background. The day-to-day burden of maintaining control resides with Mangini and the contrast between this season and last is as dramatic as the contrast between Jake Delhomme and Derek Anderson.

The first thing you notice is that the perpetual cloud of dread hanging over this team has dissipated. That doesn’t mean there are endless sunny skies, but it does mean that each day seems brighter than the day before. Mangini seems far more relaxed even as he maintains his intensity. There doesn’t appear to be any of the carping and sniping that hung around the edge of Berea like a vulture waiting to pounce at the first opportunity.

Mangini is crisper about his thoughts in interviews and far more revealing as well. That wouldn’t be hard, of course, because he treated every question last season as a sort of game in which the object was to find new ways to act pained while saying absolutely nothing.

In his postgame interviews since the Rams game, Mangini spoke easily about exactly what was on his mind without interfusing much coachspeak in the process. Consider, for example, his remarks about his team’s inability to cope with the elements Saturday night, as reported in Mary Kay Cabot’s column in the Plain Dealer on Monday.

“For the time being, we could rent out the indoor facility for a car show, because we are not going in there any time soon. We need to be able to play in the weather…We are going to have snow, we are going to have wind, we are going to have all those things, and it affects the game. It affects the footing, it affects the ball handling, it affects the path of the ball and those are things that we need to be able to play through and be successful at playing through.”

Obvious? Yes, but last season Mangini would likely have channeled Bill Belichick and said something on the order of “you saw it like I did. We just have to get better at these things and we’re going to continue to work at it until we do.” Now, Mangini identifies the problem and publicly outlines the plan of attack. It’s enough to make your head spin, actually.

Fans not only look to connect with the players, the want to connect with the coaches as well. Last season a connection was formed with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. To fans his lack of filter was refreshing. It didn’t matter if you asked him about poor tackling or the season finale of American Idol. He was almost honest to a fault about how he felt and threw in a few f-bombs as casually as a Dawg Pound veteran does when ordering his 10th and 11th beers.

Mangini on the other hand spent too much time trying to be the anti-Ryan. His weekly press conferences were mostly perfunctory and the only time he really sat down to show a different side was when his job was in trouble late in the season and then with the national media and not the local reporters.

Maybe Mangini took note of how Ryan handled matters and saw that a little candor goes a long way. Mangini seems far more comfortable with the local press this year and it is showing in his willingness to talk plainly about both the team’s successes and its shortcomings.

As an assistant coach, Ryan will always be a fan favorite just like the second string quarterback. He can get away with a lot as a result. For the head coach, there are other issues, mostly political, to balance. Being well-liked by the fans is more of a perk than a prerequisite. Still this is football and it’s supposed to be fun and it finally looks like Mangini is finding a way to balance it all and have some fun in the process. If nothing else, he’s cracked more smiles this preseason then in all of last season.

Maybe it’s all just the natural process of maturing and growing into the role he coveted since his days as a ball boy in Berea, that is the basis for the real change in Mangini. When he became the Jets head coach at age 35, it was pretty heady stuff. Some early success got him a clever nickname, Mangenius, and a cameo role on The Sopranos.

But like an athlete who has been given too much too soon, think LeBron James here or Tiger Woods, it seemed like Mangini began to be impressed by his own press clippings. Suddenly the potential others saw in him was replaced by a coach who acted like he woke up on third base and assumed he hit a triple.

You can argue forcefully that it took Mangini too long to grow into his role and that a little more humility and a little less hubris along the way would have gained him more fans. But if all of that baggage is truly behind him then none of that will matter much going forward.

What Browns fans are seeing now is a far more functional, far more friendly, and perhaps a far more competent head coach of the Browns than they’ve seen in 10 years. Focusing solely on the Xs and Os of the game, which have always been Mangini’s strength anyway, Mangini seems to be thriving in his element.

This isn’t a playoff team yet. There are still several holes to fill. But there’s no longer reason to shake your head at those who feel good about the direction of this team as if they are stuck in some sort of mid-80s time warp. After all, I’m now one of them, too.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Stepping Sideways

Before Saturday night's preseason exhibition between the Cleveland Browns and the St. Louis Rams, club president Mike Holmgren did his best to level set Browns' fans by telling them to temper their enthusiasm. To coin a phrase, Mission Accomplished.

Saturday's 19-17 preseason loss to the woeful Rams wasn't the buzzkill slap in the face it could have been had this been the regular season. But it was a reminder, gentle at times bludgeoning at others, that this team remains a work in progress.

You could point to the 5 turnovers and other mistakes and jump to the conclusion that it looked like Romeo Crennel was back in charge of the team. You could also point to the rather easy time perennial journeyman quarterback A.J. Feeley and a bunch of guys who couldn't sell a jersey with their name on it to fans in St. Louis had in that first series against the defense and conclude that any of the dozen or so defensive coordinators that preceded Rob Ryan in the last 10 years were back in charge.

But even in all that mess you could still see what was most apparent: progress isn't always a step forward. Sometimes there are steps to the side, perhaps a half-step back. If the NFL didn't keep score in preseason games, it would probably be easier to see the positives in Saturday night's game.

But fans aren't so constrained by the quaint notions of meaningless final scores, neither are the writers covering this team. So, tossing aside the score like a Jerome Harrison fumble, the Browns still were able to make progress on Saturday night in ways that give hope that come the regular season they'll be able to overcome teams like the Rams with relative ease, relative being the absolute operative word.

Quarterback Jake Delhomme wasn't as sharp as his opening drive against Green Bay in the previous week but in some ways what he did Saturday night was more impressive. If Delhomme and the first team offense had had their way with the Rams defense from the opening bell, Mangini might have given Delhomme an early exit and fans might get the idea that this team is a playoff contender.

Instead Delhomme struggled a bit, from his own opening bobbled snaps, to a few missed throws. That will happen with any quarterback, including Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. But where Browns fans were used to seeing its quarterbacks struggle some, then struggle some more and then struggle for good, Delhomme was able to right the ship long enough to put together an impressive drive 77-yard drive to put the team back on track and keep the game from being the disaster it looked to be early on.

As he did last week, Delhomme used the various weapons he had at his disposal effectively in that drive to keep the Rams' defense, which, frankly, isn't very good, off balance. The drive featured the running of Peyton Hillis, throws to the tight ends and wide receivers and, finally, a good throw in the back of the end zone to tight end Ben Watson for the score. Watson's impressive catch was first ruled out of bounds but a challenge by Mangini overturned the initial call. It's preseason even for the officials.

Delhomme had a chance to actually put the Browns ahead on his next drive but overthrew receiver Brian Robiskie in the end zone. The drive ended without points when Hillis was stopped on 4th and 3 from the Rams' 17-yard line.

The call for Hillis up the middle, which immediately sounds far better than Metcalf up the middle ever did, may have been an ill-advised call but in the context of a preseason game it made sense. The Rams defense was having trouble wrapping Hillis to that point and the Browns already know that Phil Dawson can kick field goals. Mangini may take a gamble on 4th and 3 in the regular season as well, but probably not with a pedestrian off-tackle run. But this is the preseason and it's exactly the kind of experiment that should be run.

As for Hillis, if he continues to run like he did on Saturday night it's going to be tough to keep him off the field or, stated differently, it's going to be tough to get Montario Hardesty on the field. All Hillis does is run straight ahead and keep his legs moving. As simple as that sounds is as effective as it is.

Hillis isn't the kind of back that usually is felled by an arm tackle to the ankle. It might be a measure of the ineffectiveness of the Rams defense, hard to say, but it routinely took several players to finally stop Hillis, whether the ball had been handed off or thrown to him on a outlet pass. If Hillis can be that effective against other teams, the play action opportunities it creates are almost endless.

As good of a night as it was for Hillis, it may have been a better night for general manager Tom Heckert who traded Brady Quinn for Hillis. It's the kind of move that usually works out the opposite for the Browns. That's the real behind-the-scenes progress that this franchise needs more than anything else.

As for Hillis' running mate, Jerome Harrison, it was the kind of game that gives color to the reason that Harrison is the back the Browns always seem to want to replace. Harrison ran for only 13 yards on 5 carries but even more to his detriment were his fumbles. He actually put the ball on the ground on each of his first two carries but was only credited with one fumble. From there his night went downhill pretty quickly.

It's too soon to write Harrison off, mainly because he has the uncanny knack of being able to bounce back. But with Hillis, James Davis and Hardesty waiting in the wings, the Browns backfield suddenly seems crowded. Look for a trade.

But the Browns running game, based on the team's last four games of last season, was not the main worry on offense anyway. That would be the quarterback position and the receivers. Quarterback seems set. Thus it remains with the Browns' receivers as the group that will need to take the biggest step forward if the Browns' offense is ever going to become a unit that's universally respected around the league. On Saturday night, they didn't so much take a step backward as take a step sideways.

Mohamed Massaquoi sat out with a slight hamstring injury. This created opportunities for Robiskie and Chansi Stuckey and of the two, Stuckey was the more impressive, but only because he actually caught a few balls. Robiskie was a disappointing no-show, although he was open on the overthrown pass by Delhomme. Stuckey, who seems relegated to the third or fourth option, depending on how often Mangini and offensive coordinator Brian Daboll want to see Josh Cribbs on the field, had only 3 catches for 51 yards but he at least ran hard after his catches.

The wild card in this mix continues to be Cribbs. He had 5 catches for just 30 yards but one touchdown, a nice pass from backup quarterback Seneca Wallace. Whether he'll ever develop into a credible receiving threat still isn't clear. Getting the ball in his hands as much as possible is understandable, but forcing it into his hands is another matter. Cribbs doesn't run crisp routes and perhaps never will. That makes him much easier to cover for even average defensive backs. Yet it's hard to fault the Browns for continuing this experiment. His presence can be disruptive to defenses andCribbs never takes a play off, even in the preseason.

Like last week against the Green Bay, the defense is still far behind the offense. What's more apparent is that the problems they have aren't going to be remedied immediately, even if they are headed in the right direction. When Mangini gets done bitching to his team about its sloppy play, what will linger long after is the sight of Feeley literally having his way with the defense on that first drive.

Feeley is more Roy Rogers than Aaron Rodgers and yet there he was like Rodgers last week picking apart the defense with ease. On the Rams' first play Feeley tossed a short pass to tight end Billy Bajema that went for 16 yards. That was followed by an 11-yard Stephen Jackson run and then a series of dinks and dunks until 8 plays later when Feeley completed a 9-yard pass to tight end Daniel Fells for the touchdown and the early lead.

It was a dispiriting start for the defense and it may have continued had Feeley not been injured on that drive. Without Feeley, the Rams were forced to turn to rookie Sam Bradford and then a player from West Texas A&M and yet still found a way to eke out a victory with a couple of late drives that led to field goals.

Bradford is the Rams' latest savior, but it looks like the fans in St. Louis will have to wait some time before redemption day arrives. Bradford played like just what he is, someone playing in his second NFL game. There weren't any particular flashes of brilliance. Instead it was mostly wide-eyed looks by someone who is just trying to keep from being overwhelmed. In other words, he looked like Colt McCoy.

The game didn't end up being the feel-good experience that a beaten down fan base was waiting for but neither was it the colossal mess that fans were used to. Instead they got the mixed bag that a team in transition usually presents. In Cleveland, that actually qualifies as good news.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Lingering Items--Talking Heads Edition

Imagine if you can that you’re a 17-year old first baseman from the Dominican Republic. Playing every day since you were old enough to stand upright, you get good enough that a major league team, say the Houston Astros, signs you to a contract. You beat around the minor league level for several years but never get past Double A ball. It happens.

But you hang in because you want to coach. You eventually work your way up that ladder through various fits and starts, landing, amazingly at the major league level as a coach.

Your real goal, though, is to be a big league manager. You’d do almost anything to make that happen. So when a destitute franchise that had relocated to a new city just a few years prior wants to hire you, you jump at the opportunity even if it really isn’t a great one. You rationalize away the objectively lousy job opening by convincing yourself that succeeding there will prove you can succeed anywhere.

You eventually convince yourself that this really is the ideal situation. The team isn’t very good and so the pressure to win isn’t great. Your job is to help develop the young players and eventually get this team competitive.

It doesn’t go well. The players management has collected over the years are terrible. In your first season your team wins only 73 games and that becomes the high water mark. In your second season, the team wins just 59 games. It’s not your fault, you say. You can only coach the players they give you.

The general manager decides to bring you back for a third season, but about halfway through and the team is on pace to be even worse, so you’re let go. It’s time to move in a new direction, management tells the media.

It’s the first time in years that you’ve had most of your summer free. There’s no team to manage, no players to coach. You start thinking about your future and wonder whether professional baseball will even be a part of it. You could probably find a coaching gig somewhere, maybe latch on to a managerial job in the winter leagues. But you’ve had your shot as a big league manager and you wonder whether it will ever come again. You don’t think your firing was fair; the deck was stacked against you. But there’s no use complaining, no one’s listening anyway.

Then, another moribund franchise being run on the cheap has an opening for a manager just like you. Instead of putting your previous experience in perspective, you jump head first into exactly the same situation that didn’t work out the first time and just like that the cycle begins again.

That’s the story of Indians manager Manny Acta, a manager seemingly sentenced to a life of pounding his head against the wall, just because it feels so good when he stops.

Acta held a team meeting Thursday night to address the team’s most recent stretch of misery. He told them that this team wouldn’t always be rebuilding and that this was their opportunity to seize the day. If only. When you’re Manny Acta, that’s the only thing you can say even if, down deep, you know it isn’t true.

The Cleveland Indians, under this ownership and this management, will forever be building for a future that doesn’t exist except in the abstract. If by chance enough of the current crop of prospects gets good at the same time and before free agency beckons, a moderately successful season will emerge. But given the team’s financial underpinnings and a weak-willed commissioner leading an even weaker-willed group of owners, baseball in Cleveland isn’t going to materially change until new ownership emerges or the financial structure of baseball is fundamentally changed.

Acta needs to throw some hope into his young players, just like he needs to throw some hope into his own prospects, but let’s not kid anyone. Acta isn’t going to be around for the long-term and neither are these prospects.

To generate interest and a false sense of hope in the fans, whichever Mark Shapiro protégé that’s in charge at the time will eventually fire Acta in order to give this team a new voice, a different direction. Meanwhile, that same protégé will be trading good players on the cusp of free agency for the next group of prospects.

Acta is a good guy that probably deserves better, but he’s brought this all on himself. When his time is done in Cleveland, be it after next season or the season after that, he’ll find work somewhere, just probably not as a manger. That’s too bad but ultimately what happens when the desperation to fulfill your dream through any means possible runs head first into the desperation of an owner looking for just another in a series of cheap and fungible caretakers.


There’s a cloud hanging over the NFL at the moment and it probably isn’t going away any time soon.

Commissioner Roger Goodell earlier this month made his rounds of various training camps in a preemptory strike of sorts to win over the hearts and minds of the fans as the league heads toward a labor showdown with its union come season’s end.

Goodell has talked about head trauma issues and other very important safety related initiatives and yet in the same breath has positioned the extension of the regular season to 18 from 16 games as a key priority to be achieved in the upcoming negotiations. In making his pitch, Goodell painted it as good for the fans because it will lessen an already meaningless preseason.

Whether it’s really a good thing is all a matter a perspective.

For the owners, it’s a potential cash bonanza. The networks broadcast preseason games out of obligation knowing that the ratings are similar to a rerun of “Lockup: San Quentin” at 3 a.m. Saturday morning on CNBC. Turn those preseason games into something far more meaningful and suddenly the networks will take notice, in the form of higher rights fees. In a struggling economy it’s never a bad thing to find new revenue streams, even for a cash cow like the NFL.

For the fans, the preseason is as meaningless as an Indians game in September. They get charged full price only to witness glorified scrimmages in which starters make token appearances and a slew of undrafted free agents vie for the last 10 or so remaining spots on the roster. All these games do is whet the appetite for the real season but otherwise they’re mostly ignored.

From a head coach’s perspective, the preseason isn’t nearly long enough. If a lot of good evaluation can be made in 4 games, just think how much better 6 or 8 games would be!

For the players, it’s a potential nightmare. The one constant in the NFL is that players get injured, far more frequently and far more severely than in any other sport. All an 18 game schedule does is increase the risk even further. Players may be just commodities but they are the most important commodities. With injuries as a given, championships are won or lost on depth at all the key positions and that is simply something most teams don’t have.

But don’t expect the NFL to balance these perspectives because the only thing that matters are the owners. To them it’s a priority and in the NFL’s game of cards, that is like holding the ace of trump.

Teams like the Browns will suffer most initially because their depth is almost non-existent. And while I’m sure some of those games the last two weekends will be compelling, just as they are in a 16-game season or were in a 14-game season, there will also be plenty of games that are meaningless.

In other words, Goodell can try his best to sell an 18-game season as something good for the fans but in reality it will cost them most. Increases in rights fees eventually find their ways into the average fan’s wallet, either because his cable bill has increased or because ticket prices have. Usually both.


Has anyone outside of Tiger Woods ever done so much so quickly to hurt his image and brand than LeBron James?

The latest comes in the form of a mostly forgettable interview he did with a completely forgettable magazine, GQ. James is now in full third-person mode as if he’s separated in his mind real life from the character named LeBron James that plays basketball.

The problem is that most of us mere mortals can no longer tell the difference. To us, James just looks like another clueless, spoiled athlete completely lacking in self-awareness, on or off the court.

His take on Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is near priceless. Asked about Gilbert’s letter and its not so subtle criticism of James, LeBrand says that he was reminded by his mother that adversity brings out the real character of the person and that Gilbert never really cared about him anyway. James sees that letter as all the confirmation he needed that his decision was the right one.

Forget how Gilbert and the rest of the Cavs catered to every whim of James during his tenure. Just focus on the part where James says that adversity brings out the real character of the person. It was James who provoked the response from Gilbert in the first place by deliberately staying out of touch. It was James that decided to stab his team and his town in the back on national television.

Maybe The Letter wasn’t Gilbert’s proudest moment, but on the scale James established with LeDecision, it hardly creates a blip.

Phil Dawson is the only member of the Browns still with organization since it came back. That leads to this week’s question to ponder: Shouldn’t that fact alone qualify Dawson for the Hall of Fame?

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Lingering Items--Preseason Opener Edition

Generally speaking, the less said about preseason games, the better. It's easier to understand the underpinnings of the movie Inception than it is to draw conclusions about most preseason games.

So when the Cleveland Browns beat the Green Bay Packers on Saturday night 27-24 thanks to a quick start and the able leg of Phil Dawson, the knee jerk reaction of most fans likely fell into one of two themes: hmmm and start printing the playoff tickets.

It's early so let's just say that Saturday night was more of a hmmm.

What struck most was the opening series. When it was over it was a head slap moment that said "so that's what a real drive looks like."

Indeed it does. Who knows how much is left in quarterback Jake Delhomme's tank? But so long as there's something, you get the feeling that there will be more drives like this down the road.

For most of last season, the Browns offense looked like it did in Saturday night's second half. That's no knock on Colt McCoy. He's a rookie. But neither Derek Anderson nor Brady Quinn ever seemed like they could calmly go through their reads and then find the open receiver like Delhomme seemed to do so casually in his one series.

The contrast was that dramatic.

Meanwhile, Seneca Wallace looked like an interesting option should Delhomme get injured. Not exactly a run first quarterback, Wallace is still  clearly more comfortable using his scrambling ability and strong arm as his choice of weapons than he is dropping straight back.

Wallace's strong throw on the run to Brian Robiskie for the Browns' second touchdown was a thing of beauty. But in the NFL a quarterback has to learn when to restrain that kind of bravado.  Throw late over the middle too often and you'll find yourself on clipboard duty faster than you can say "Tim Couch."

Nonetheless watching Wallace gave good insight into exactly why head coach Eric Mangini suggested that Wallace will see game action even if Delhomme is healthy. Wallace is an excellent change of pace whose abilities should actually open up the running games as teams attempt to utilize extra defensive backs to counter his scrambling.  

McCoy, as mentioned, looked every bit the rookie as he played more than most fans anticipated. But if he does develop he'll actually be a nice blend between Delhomme and Wallace. Barring an injury in preseason, Brett Ratliff will be the odd man out.

It was actually fun to watch a professional quarterback like Delhomme in action. It gives fans hope that the days of one stuck in the mud drive after another will be a distant memory. That alone is reason to celebrate.  


The defense on the other hand looked to be still in fire drill mode, just like most of last season.

With Eric Wright out and two rookies, TJ Ward and Joe Haden, starting it looked unsettled. It was deja vu all over again.

Brandon McDonald showed once again that he's at best a minor talent, prone to occasional good play and long stretches of mediocrity. His future depends on injuries to others.

The best case scenario is for Haden to develop quickly so that McDonald at most can be relegated to nickel and dime situations. He just can't consistently cover a receiver and spends much more time than he should with his front facing the opposing end zone.

Haden didn't do much in his first game to either impress or disappoint but then it won't take much to break in the starting lineup. Meanwhile Ward could be one of the better draft picks in recent Browns' history. He's fast and plays physical. When he learns that running backs in the NFL need to be wrapped and not tapped, he'll be a force.

The linebacker and line play was just so so, which means not much has changed there either. Overall, about the only conclusion worth drawing Saturday night is that the offense is ahead of the defense, which actually might get people to pick up the phone and buy some tickets.

I really thought we were done with Braylon Edwards but he's the gift that keeps on giving.

His interview with the New York Times last week was like tossing a cup full of food into a pond full of carp. So I'll take the bait.

At the very least, the interview was one of the more fascinating reads you’re likely to come across when it comes to understanding the psyche of the professional athlete.

Running through Edwards’ mind, certainly, was that this interview would somehow further establish his brand and rehabilitate an image that to this point is more poser than accomplished. Instead, all he did was cement the notion that he’s a misanthrope with an ego that no matter what he may ultimately accomplish will always run 100 steps ahead.

I’m sure he felt comfortable trashing Cleveland given the hits its taken lately because of James. In that portion of his diatribe there wasn’t much new. There’s nowhere to have fun, the people are boring, blah, blah, blah. We’ve heard worse from better.

But the further insight surrounds Edwards’ need to build himself up by tearing others down. Not able to stand on his own very limited merits, he found a convenient straw man as if all that stands between him and worldwide acknowledgement of his awesomeness is to place his Cleveland years in the proper context.

Edwards has done this before, it’s just that he’s expanded his game a bit. It used to be that the people in Cleveland didn’t like him because he was from Michigan. That’s still there, according to Edwards, but it’s also because he had the audacity to show up to training camp in a Bentley! The gall of the fans to begrudge a young, successful athlete.

The only thing Edwards didn’t trot out to make his case is the race card. I suspect that will come with the next interview. But for now Edwards wants Cleveland to be viewed as a town that can’t handle a player with a New York attitude.

Actually, there may be something to that. Cities like Cleveland tend not to like loudmouth athletes, particularly loudmouth athletes that don’t perform. Basically Midwestern in its sensibilities, Cleveland and its kissing cousin cities like Pittsburgh, Buffalo, place a premium on results. That’s why players like Joe Thomas will always fit in and players like Edwards will not.

If I’m counting correctly, this is at least the 5th time that Edwards has tried to shape his brand and none to this point have worked and for reasons that aren’t all that complex: he simply can’t hold on to the damn ball. For all the introspection that Edwards feigns every time one of these profiles comes out, he still is remarkably clueless as to what he really needs to do in order to be successful.

Edwards can hang out in the clubs of New York where he feels most comfortable, though that doesn’t sound like it’s gone all that well for him, at least when it comes to trying to send champagne over to the Rihannas of the world. But until Edwards actually becomes a complete receiver, someone who blocks and someone who can be relied on to catch the ball, he’ll always be far less than the sum of his parts.


The Browns are clearly in upgrade mode, which leads to a question to ponder: Who will be cut first, McDonald or Ratliff?

Monday, August 09, 2010

Akron Karma

On the same weekend that LeBron James was trying to re-polish his image with his annual Bike-a-thon in Akron, Tiger Woods was in the same city trying to recapture a bit of his old image as well on the one course where redemption seemed most likely.

If you’re keeping score, James had a slightly better weekend than Woods, but in this case it’s like saying that the Kansas City Royals had a better weekend than the Cleveland Indians. In truth, both brands are forever sullied and while some redemption is possible, no one will ever look at James or Woods the same way again.

At his event, James seemed mostly relaxed if not a bit nervous when he took to the microphone to thank, sincerely but awkwardly, his fans in Cleveland. At the very least it demonstrated, in ways that Woods still hasn’t embraced, that James is not immune to the criticism that started with his decision to bolt for Miami and continued through his decision to take out a full page ad in the Akron Beacon Journal last week to thank his family and friends in Akron.

Ultimately, though, it isn’t going to matter much for James because his decision to leave the Cavaliers wasn’t just seen as abandonment. It was a decision that unloosened the underpinnings of an image that James had been carefully cultivating.

James is simply not the leader that everyone thought. There were, of course, so many obvious signs for so many years that it seems silly to have missed them all. James has always been praised for his passing game and willingness to get everyone on the team involved but in retrospect that was the most obvious marker of a player that never wanted to be the leader.

Go over it in your mind. It wasn’t just his approach to the game itself but how he conducted himself on the court. James always accepted the hard fouls that came his way but was never an enforcer himself. There were so many times that James was criticized for not hitting the winning shot in a game but it never much seemed to phase him either way. He actually seemed more comfortable being the decoy. It’s not that he shied away from his responsibilities; it’s just that he always seemed more driven by the need to fit in than stand out.

For reasons that are probably as much our fault as his, we all thought that James saw himself as “the man,” a successor to Michael Jordan not just in talent but in demeanor. We now know that James simply doesn’t have the gene to lead. That’s not a sin, certainly, but it’s been an earth shaking realization nonetheless.

In that context, James’ migration to Miami makes perfect sense. Dwyane Wade is a lesser talent with a far meaner streak. Having someone to lead him on the court is likely to make James an even better player but it will simultaneously reinforce the image that has since arisen that James isn’t good enough on his own to get the job done.

I have a feeling that isn’t going to change no matter how many bicycles he gives away in the summer or how many bags of groceries he gives away at Thanksgiving. James is a man-child for now and ever more.

Woods may never have been a man-child in that sense, but in other ways he did his level best as well to remain as far under the radar as the best golfer in the world possibly can. As public as his occupation can be, Woods was always near paranoid about maintaining his privacy, although in retrospect it’s easy to see why.

While it’s really not credible that no one in Woods’ inner circle was privy to his alley cat ways, it is credible when the rest of his fellow pros claim that ignorance. Woods was never a hale fellow well met and never will be.

It’s hard to know exactly where in the deconstruction phase Woods is at right now. He certainly was a mess, though, this past weekend in about every way a golfer can be a mess. His drives were as erratic as his personal life, sprayed randomly over Firestone’s tree-lined grounds. His chipping was about on the level of a 10-handicapper and he never once seemed to figure out the greens en route to shooting a stunning 18 over par.

To say that Woods was playing distracted doesn’t do justice to how completely unhinged he really is at the moment. Absent physical injury, his talent level is just too superior to ever shoot 18 over par for four tournaments cumulative let alone for four days in one tournament.

Just as there were with James at his event, Woods found plenty of fans alive and well at Firestone, too. Irrespective of what any unscientific popularity poll may tell you it’s very clear that Woods is trending in the wrong direction when it comes to appeal.

Like James, Woods just isn’t the leader. And like James, there were just so many obvious signs along the way that it’s embarrassing to have missed them all.

Woods never signed more than a few perfunctory autographs following a round was always one of the worst interviews, never offering the least little bit of insight into what he may have been thinking on the course. In team competitions like the Ryder Cup and the Presidents’ cup, Woods never seized the reigns and made any of those teams his own and his record in those events is a mediocre reflection of his indifference.

For reasons that are as much our fault as his, we all thought of Woods as the likely successor to Jack Nicklaus in both talent and demeanor. Woods has the talent, certainly, and he has a killer instinct on the course. But he never has had Nicklaus’ grace or humility. Those aren’t sins, but in a game that values honor more than any other, it is a stunning realization.

Woods’ meltdown didn’t start in Akron and James didn’t reveal itself in Akron. And yet on this one weekend, in an honest town with a straight up sensibility, their worlds collided in ways they probably never imagined. That seems far more like karma than coincidence.

In that context, their comeuppance makes sense. These are the guys Woods and James have been all along. We were just too busy wishing they were someone else to notice.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

A Fundamental Question

The spotlight has returned to the Cleveland Browns, almost by default, and with it comes the various emotions that accompany any new season. This season has a different feel for internal and external reasons. But beyond the metaphysics and existentialism of it all is a much more fundamental question, can Eric Mangini coach?

So much about Mangini is focused on how he might get along under a new regime that places him about third in the pecking order after a year at the top. But perhaps of greater importance is the simple issue of whether or not Mangini can actually be a good head coach.

Depending on how optimistically you view the Browns’ chances this season there probably are more important questions that need answering. Eventually, though, this will become a more pressing concern. The talent on this year’s team appears better than last year’s. Next year should be even better and so on until the point where the real difference between success and failure will be the head coach.

If Mangini can coach, then the Browns are probably set from a management perspective for the next several years. If Mangini can’t coach, then the team is in for still another reboot, another program and, God help us, another process.

Right now, getting an answer to the question about Mangini’s abilities as a head coach is as elusive as a straight answer from him about what time the next practice starts. His record doesn’t provide nearly the clues you might think.

He was an assistant coach in the NFL for 10 years, which is plenty of time to prepare, but he served only one year as a coordinator, the usual step before becoming a head coach. Until the Jets hired him four years ago to be their head coach, his overall experience was limited to the teachings of Bill Belichick and/or Bill Parcells. Both of them have proven themselves as head coaches in the NFL but it’s still a rather limited view. Surely Mangini could have benefited from a broader perspective.

The one thing you hear over and over again about Mangini is that he brings a unique passion to his work. That’s evident from his Horatio Alger ascent from a mere ball boy and public relations intern to eventually NFL head coach.

Mangini also appears to be well versed in the technical aspects of the game. You rarely her anyone question Mangini’s football acumen, for instance.

But none of this does much to answer the ultimate question about whether or not he can translate that passion and knowledge to become a successful head football coach at this level.

If fans are confused, they aren’t the only ones. When new club president Mike Holmgren took over, he didn’t exactly give Mangini a huge public vote of confidence. Instead, he took his time to announce that Mangini would be staying on. Understandable, perhaps, but also insightful.

The fact that Mangini’s status even lingered for more than a few moments after Holmgren was hired tells you that even Holmgren doesn’t yet know what he has in Mangini. Last season was a mixed bag of drama and insurrection, much of which was of Mangini’s own making. The team ended with 4 straight wins against other teams playing out the string, but that ended up amounting to adding whipped cream to a pile of cow dung.

But Holmgren is hardly the first person to wonder whether Mangini can ever be the right fit as a head coach. The thinness of this resume was certainly raised by those who questioned the Jets’ hiring of Mangini late in 2005. But that was mostly dismissed because of his prior associations with both Belichick and Parcells. It was a great theory.

According to ESPN, Woody Johnson, the Jets owner, emphasized Mangini’s pedigree first and his passion second as the main reasons for his hiring. In context, that’s not a surprise. There wasn’t much else to point to.

It seemed to help Mangini’s candidacy with the Jets that he was close to Mike Tannebaum, who was serving as the Jets’ assistant general manager at the time. Yet just three seasons later, when Tannebaum was fully in charge of the franchise, he fired Mangini.

You could make the case that Mangini’s termination in New York seemed to be a knee jerk reaction to a late season collapse that took the team from an 8-3 record to a 9-7 finish and out of the playoffs. But on the other hand, when stacked with the previous season’s 4-12 disaster, it became clear at least to Tannebaum that the Jets were neither progressing under Mangini nor headed in the right direction. It’s hard to argue otherwise.

The other disturbing aspect with Mangini is his polarizing personality. You could legitimately argue that saddled with being the youngest head coach in the NFL while he was with New York, Mangini overcompensated by becoming Belichick-light but without the resume. And yet in his first season with Cleveland, Mangini didn’t seem to have learned all that much. He still clashed with too many veterans and otherwise ran an organization that was far more dysfunctional than efficient.

But it goes just beyond his tendencies toward “little man’s syndrome.” He also has a knack of permanently alienating those that helped him get to where he’s at.

First there was Belichick, the person Mangini called his mentor, his teacher and “a close friend that I will have the rest of my life,” at the time of his Jets’ hiring, according to ESPN.

That dissolved within the next two years after Mangini blew the whistle on him about allegedly spying on the opposition.

Next came Tannebaum, the person who helped get Mangini the job in New York only to fire him. The “spygate” episode certainly made Belichick look bad but it didn’t do much for Mangini, either, inside or outside the Jets complex. Mangini looked small for throwing Belichick to the wolves and many felt he violated certain unwritten rules about dealing with your colleagues. For Tannenbaum, league relationships are critical to his job and Mangini’s behavior, which amounted to whining, was a problem he didn’t need.

Then came George Kokinis. Mangini, given the rather odd power to hire his own boss, he hired a close friend in Kokinis. When Kokinis wanted to be more than the figurehead that Mangini envisioned, the two clashed and Kokinis was out. Another friendship destroyed.

What this says, if anything, about Mangini’s abilities as a head coach depends on how important you think any of these events really are to a person’s ability to lead. Certainly Mangini has his share of positive relationships that he maintains so it’s not as if he’s an island. But yet his tendency to cast aside those who helped him along the way is disturbing.

At 39 years of age, Mangini certainly has enough experience as a NFL head coach to start producing some real, tangible results. This may not be a critical year for him but it’s important nonetheless. For him to succeed, he’s going to have to show the kind of tangible progress he couldn’t demonstrate in New York. He’ll have to prove that he can take a bunch of players on a path going nowhere to a team that’s on the path to somewhere. Mangini doesn’t lack for confidence even though there’s nothing in his track record yet that actually suggests that this kind of success is inevitable.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Closing Another Book

At least you can’t accuse Mark Shapiro of not cleaning up his messes.

With the completion of last week’s annual July garage sale, Shapiro essentially closed the book on his role as general manager of the Indians, a job he took over in late 2001, by sweeping out most of the last remaining vestiges of his tenure as the Cleveland Indians’ general manager. .

It was hardly a rousing success. When his 9th year is completed, he will have posted exactly two winning seasons in a career that ultimately will be known more for bungled opportunities, bad decisions and misspent millions than anything else.

The good news, though, is that for the next few years general manager-in-waiting Chris Antonetti won’t have to preside over his own annual auction. Pretty much anything not nailed down already has been sold by Shapiro and all that remains in the cupboard that Antonetti inherits is an essentially minor league team with a mostly minor league budget.

Shapiro’s sale didn’t create much of a windfall for the team this year, assuming you define windfall as legitimate prospects. The good stuff had been picked over the past few years anyway and all that remained in the cut out bins were the likes of a sore-armed Jake Westbrook, an injury-prone Kerry Wood and an attention-challenged Jhonny Peralta. Indeed, in a few cases the Indians actually had to help pay the salaries of the departed. For their trouble the Indians received a few low level prospects who you’ll most likely never hear from again.

Given the voodoo economics of baseball and the draconian way in which Shapiro had the Indians participate, it’s hard to argue about any of these trades. Indeed, you really can’t argue much with any of his previous trades, either. The Indians under Shapiro were mostly desperate sellers because of their own financial issues and pretty much had to take what’s offered in order to meet their more immediate goals of fiscal prudence.

Under Shapiro’s careful direction, hammered out at the insistence of owners Larry and Paul Dolans, the Indians are officially s shoestring operation again, much as they used to be, with no business charging major league prices.

Shapiro’s teams made two runs at a championship and twice Shapiro wasn’t able to get the team over the hump. But those teams look like anomalies at this point because they had top-level talent making major league dollars. But as decisions Shapiro made didn’t pan out and age and impending free agency caught up with the players he mostly inherited the Indians have been on a slow, painful march to the bottom as they look to pare their budget to an absolute minimum.

Whether you think the team under Shapiro was shrewd or simply mismanaged depends on what you think about the contracts of the three players they just dumped. Along with Travis Hafner and his contract, they are at the core of why the Indians are struggling so mightily financially.

Let’s start with Westbrook. He’s under .500 for his career with an ERA of 4.34. Until his injury, his best attribute was as an inning eater, pitching over 200 innings in each of 2004-06. Those seasons led the Indians to sign him to a contract that’s paid him over $10 million in each of the last 3 seasons alone. It’s hard to know if Westbrook’s contract was market price or if Shapiro set the market by overpaying him in the first place. Suffice it to say though that more than a few people questioned Shapiro’s decision at that time to give Westbrook that kind of contract given his rather modest accomplishments.

Peralta is even more of a mystery. He’s a lifetime .264 hitter whose one decent season in 2005 convinced Shapiro to label him a core player. That led to Shapiro signing Peralta to a long-term above market contract to buy out of his arbitration years. Peralta never duplicated that 2005 season, coming relatively close just once in 2008. Meanwhile he proved to be a player who seemed oddly indifferent to his craft.

The signing of Kerry Wood still mystifies. Wood had been a closer for only one season with the Cubs when he was signed by Shapiro. While he did save 34 games, the Cubs didn’t seem particularly interested in re-signing him. Meanwhile it was difficult to understand Shapiro’s thinking giving the context of the Indians at that time.

Remember, the 2007 Indians went 96-66 with Joe Borowski saving 45 games. They beat the Yankees in the divisional series and were up 3-1 against Boston before losing 4 straight. But Borowski was a high-wire act and a better general manager would have made the move for another closer then.

But Shapiro stood pat and the team regressed in more ways than just on the mound. CC Sabathia, the reigning Cy Young award winner was traded. Thus by the time Wood was signed for the 2009 season, the team was a shadow of its former self. The Indians had far more fundamental problems that needed addressing and signing a player like Wood for just two years at that kind of money reeked of stop-gap. It’s money could have been much better spent.

Now back to Travis Hafner for a moment. The reason he’s still standing in an Indians uniform has nothing to do with either sentimental attachment or production. It’s simple dollars. His current salary is $11.5 million and there are still two seasons, plus a club option in a third, at $13 million per. There’s also a $2.75 million buyout if that club option isn’t exercised.

At that price, he’d have to be producing Albert Pujols numbers to move him, which if he were I still believe he’d be traded. But that’s a rather worthless debate. He’s been out of the lineup recently with a sore shoulder, though in fairness it’s kind of hard to tell. In July he hit 1 home run and had 4 RBI. He also had 21 strike outs and had more games with multiple strikeouts than in any other month of the season.

His is the contract that just keeps giving and giving. While there’s no reason to think that Shapiro wouldn’t have traded Peralta, Westbrook and Wood just for sport, in truth those trades are as much directed at Hafner’s unmovable contract as they were to conclude the process Shapiro started when he and the Dolans determined that they could never sign Sabathia.

In a sense, then, these recent trades provide a fitting conclusion to Shapiro’s career as a general manager. He was never able to climb the mountain with this team because for all his bluster and easy-going ways, he wasn’t a particularly good judge of talent. In making his one real run to a championship he consistently bet on the wrong horses and those bets ended up costing this franchise millions in unrealized value while inhibiting the real growth of legitimate prospects.

From this point forward, the team now is in the hands of Antonetti, someone who has been trained directly by Shapiro and who will be supervised by, wait for it, Shapiro. That means there’s no reason to believe that much will change, from the business model built on a one-word strategy “hope” to an endless cycle of trades and prospects.

So come season’s end, when Antonetti takes over for good and reboots the server, in all likelihood, there’s little chance it’s going to clear the error codes.