Saturday, December 24, 2011

Making the Winnable Unwinnable

You can now add “spike the damn ball” and “stay on side” to the list of things that Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren now will attribute to another Browns' loss. This time, he might just be right.

Down 17-0 and the clock winding down near the end of the first half against the Baltimore Ravens, the Browns, specifically head coach Pat Shurmur and quarterback Seneca Wallace, squandered a golden opportunity with the ball on the Ravens' 3 yard line and the clock ticking away. With no time outs (the last had been inexplicably squandered with 57 seconds remaining) and confusion the order of the day, Wallace didn't spike the ball but instead handed off to Peyton Hillis. The run went for naught, the clock expired and the Browns walked into the locker room without any points.

It was the lost touchdown that ended up being the difference in a 20-14 loss to the Ravens.

Less egregious but still ridiculous was defensive lineman Phil Taylor biting on a hard count by Ravens' quarterback Joe Flacco with 2 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Flacco and the Ravens were slightly out of Shayne Graham's field goal range, sitting at 4th and 2 at the Cleveland 37-yard line, when Flacco decided to see if he could get the Browns to jump offside. He did and with that first down the Ravens were able to run out the clock and complete an undefeated season at home. Had he not, of course, the Browns would have likely had one final possession and one final attempt to win a game that started out unwinnable and ended up very winnable.

That this was the case so late in the game was attributable mostly to the level of confidence and indifference that overtook the Ravens, just as it has overtaken many Browns' opponents this season, after opening up a 20-0 lead against a team that really did look like it was going through the motions.

But Josh Cribbs finally broke free on a punt return and scampered 83 yards for a touchdown that on the scoreboard at least put the Browns back into the game at 20-7. It brought some needed life to the sidelines while the Ravens just yawned.

When the Ravens were forced to punt on their next possession, Wallace and the Browns put together one of the more impressive drives of the season that ended with Wallace hitting Evan Moore for a 6-yard touchdown that closed the gap to 20-14.

The Browns could get no closer, however. On what turned out to be their last possession of the game, the Browns were sitting 4th and 5 at their own 45 yard line with just over 4 minutes remaining. Having blown two of their time outs on the previous drive, Wallace and/or Shurmur picked that moment to use the last timeout. It didn't help.

The play as called was a simple screen that went for no yards and gave the Ravens the ball. That led directly to the Taylor offside penalty that ultimately allowed Flacco to take a knee to end the game and begin to ponder the playoffs in earnest.

The close loss was rewarding in a way that the game ended up being more competitive then it started out to be. Then again most of this season has been rewarding in that same way. Little moments where some sun peeks through the perpetual cloud that hangs over this franchise.

The problem is that there is never enough sun to allow anything to grow. Shurmur is just the latest coach to walk the sidelines with the same bewildered look that overcomes every Browns head coach at some point. At least Shurmur got a chance to ask the question that the fans have been asking for years just at the conclusion of that aforementioned squandered opportunity at the end of the first half.

Apparently thinking he told Wallace to spike the ball instead of handing off to Hillis, Shurmur for all the world to see, mouthed “what the hell is he doing?” I wish we knew.

That the question could apply to Wallace or Shurmur, or certainly Holmgren or Tom Heckert speaks volumes about where this team is at it puts the finishing touches on another wasted season. Fifteen losing seasons in their last 17 is more then a trend. It's a way of life.

The reason it's a way of life, of course, is that the Browns at no point in that 17 years could answer Shurmur's simple question. Think about it. How many times as a fan sitting there watching one mind numbing loss after another, one mind numbing season after another, have you asked that same question? You've asked it of Randy Lerner when he hired his next flavor of the month. You asked it of any number of general managers who made questionable draft choices or ridiculous free agent signings. You've asked it of any number of head coaches who have made one puzzling decision after another. And you've asked it of any number of players, and there have been plenty, who have made one bonehead play after another.

That the Browns sit there now, 16 weeks into a season and just as clueless as the day training camp opened, and can't even figure out how to conserve time at the end of the half in order to give themselves a chance to score would be astonishing if it wasn't so commonplace.

Ah, but I digress.

The Ravens raced out to a lead like so many before them. It was aided at the outset by an interception Wallace threw on the Browns' opening drive just as that drive was starting to get interesting. It was actually lucky that the interception by defensive back Ladairius Webb didn't go for a touchdown. Wallace telegraphed the throw from the second he took the snap. It was just a matter of time anyway.

On their first play from scrimmage, Flacco threw deep for Torrey Smith. Mike Adams, defending the play, was flagged for a questionable interference call that gave the Ravens the ball at the Browns' 5 yard line. Flacco then calmly hit Ed Dickson for the 5-yard touchdown pass and a way too easy 7-0 lead.

A Graham 48-yard field goal on the Ravens' next possession made it 10-0 and then on the Ravens' third possession Flacco led running back Ray Rice beautifully dropping in a pass in coverage that Rice turned into a 27-yard touchdown and a 17-0 lead.

When the Browns' finally got on track late in the first half, they blew the opportunity. Still as a measure of incompetence it's worth going through the sequence, especially if you didn't get a chance to see it live.

Following a Baltimore punt, the Browns took over at their own 16 yard line with 3:21 remaining in the half. A completion from Wallace to Greg Little on second down took the ball to the Baltimore 27 yard line. Two plays later Peyton Hillis picked up 14 more yards and just that quickly the Browns were at their own 41 yard line.

Where things got interesting is when defensive back Chris Carr was flagged for a 30-yard interference penalty of questionable origin on Cribbs. That put the ball on the Baltimore 29-yard line with 1:51 remaining. That's not a typo. There were nearly two full minutes remaining and 29 yards to cover. There were also two time outs remaining.

After two incomplete passes and the clock not running, Shurmur inexplicably burned the Browns' second time out. There was 1:42 remaining. It was not in vain, however, as Shurmur then had Chris Ogbonnaya line up wide left with Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis covering him. Wallace hit Ogbonnaya as Lewis backed off coverage. The gain covered 12 yards putting the ball on the Ravens 17 yard line with 1:15 left. In other words, there was plenty of time, even for your average CYO team.

After Wallace completed a 9-yard pass to Greg Little that put the ball on the Baltimore 8-yard line, Shurmur weirdly called for his last time out with 57 seconds remaining. It was a head scratching decision then and remains one now.

After the time out, Hillis ran up the middle for 3 yards, forcing the Browns to scramble to keep ahead of the clock. Wallace then through a short out patter to Evan Moore whose progress was stopped in bounds, thus keeping the clock running. This apparently flummoxed both Shurmur and Wallace and 20 more seconds went casually ticking off the clock. With 11 seconds remaining but Wallace not watching the clock, he ran a play instead of spiking the ball. The play? A handoff to Hillis that had no chance of getting into the end zone. With that the clock expired with Shurmur on the sidelines gesturing how to spike the ball and mouthing the words that still resonate throughout the land.

The loss wasn't embarrassing as so many have been this season. Indeed there were a few bright spots. Hillis, for example, had 112 yards on 24 carries, something that will probably ruin Ray Lewis' evening. The defense gave up just a field goal in the second half and Cribbs had the 83-yard punt return.

But as usual it wasn't nearly enough for a team that is simply out manned at nearly every position when they play against the better teams in the league.

With a week remaining and all the mystery sapped long ago from the season, the Browns still can give their fans a “if only” moment by beating what looks like will be a resting Pittsburgh Steelers team. And if the Browns do find a way to win it will give Holmgren even more ammunition for the specious argument he advanced last week that if only they could snap the damn ball, catch the damn ball, spike the damn ball or stay on the right side of the damn ball they'd be in the playoff hunt.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Lingering Items--Penalties Edition

Whether the sanctions levied against Ohio State were too harsh or too lenient may be a matter of perspective. That won’t stop nearly anyone from questioning athletic director Gene Smith’s competency, however.

The biggest surprise levied against the Buckeyes was the 2012 bowl ban. Otherwise it seems like things pretty much went down as expected. When Ohio State self-imposed a litany of sanctions against the program, all they really did was give the NCAA a little wriggle room to make a few additional tweaks in order to look like it wasn’t just simply taking the Buckeyes’ word on everything.

So the tweak they made was not the one that was expected mainly because Smith was emphatic time and again that a bowl ban wasn’t on the horizon. So sure was Smith, in fact, that he didn’t even contemplate pre-empting the NCAA on that count by making the 6-6 Buckeyes sit home this bowl season instead.

What fans have now is a meaningless Gator Bowl to soothe their feelings when what they really wanted was to hit like the hurricane new head coach Urban Meyer promised for next season, play for the Big Ten title and possibly a national championship.

Smith is taking more heat for this then perhaps he deserves, though he does deserve some. It’s difficult to take Smith to task for the underlying infraction given former head coach Jim Tressel’s conduct. And assuming the conspiracy theorists are just that and Tressel didn’t take a bullet for Smith (what would be his incentive for that?), Smith’s only real sin was not level setting his bosses or the fans of the program.

The feeling always has been that Smith is wired into the NCAA in ways that other athletic directors are not. Every time he spoke, in that semi-sincere, semi-arrogant way of his, it carried the imprimatur that he knew from where he spoke. It turns out he was just as clueless as nearly everyone else in this whole matter.

One of the cardinal sins you can make in any organization is to overpromise and under deliver, which is exactly what Smith did here. Had he kept his mouth shut and just said that he hopes that the university had done enough to satisfy the NCAA, I doubt anyone would have been surprised by the bowl ban. After all, the NCAA is a random, feckless, morally undisciplined enterprise rife with conflicts of interest and wholly incapable of governing a church picnic, let alone a multi-billion dollar enterprise.

But the one thing to remember is that the NCAA Committee of Infractions ultimately is a group of individuals with their own feelings and emotions and the last thing individuals with their own feelings and emotions want is someone who carries the imprimatur of authority, like Smith, telling them what they should or shouldn’t do.

In many ways, Smith’s constant proclamations that a bowl ban was not in the offing served almost as a dare to the NCAA. So where’s the surprise that they did knock the battery off of Smith’s shoulder only to watch him flinch?

I have very mixed feelings about the sanctions overall. Much of my trepidation is with how the NCAA treated Tressel, a very fine man and educator, who made a serious mistake. But a 5-year “show cause” finding is particularly harsh. It may be that Tressel wasn’t going to coach again in college anyway, but to basically be told that he can’t earn a living at his chosen profession for the next 5 years is an astounding penalty given his one indiscretion.

As for the bowl ban, that seems harsh if only because while the Buckeyes did play in last year’s Sugar Bowl, part of their sanctions was to forfeit the game and give back the money earned. Effectively, it’s as if they have been banned from two bowl games.

Yet the NCAA isn’t going to do much to explain its reasoning mainly because it doesn’t have to, which gets to the other side of my feelings about this. I understand that the conduct engaged in by the Buckeyes’ players broke a rule and I understand that Tressel covered it up deliberately. But the rule makes no sense in any context but one in which the NCAA doesn’t want anyone else earning money that could have instead lined their pockets. The fact that Tressel covered it up just proves the adage, though, that the cover up is often worse then the underlying breach.

I know that a lot of fans are calling for Smith to be fired and maybe he should be as part of the overall housecleaning. I’m not sure he could have ferreted out Tressel’s misconduct but some of the other activities that went unchecked are a failure that occurred under Smith’s watch. He should have had more robust systems in place.

Ultimately, though, the NCAA matters are now finally behind the Buckeyes. Sure they’ll linger because of the bowl ban and scholarship reductions, but the football program itself is on solid footing right now. Besides, it gives Meyer and the players the added chip on their shoulders for the 2012 season and should set them up well for 2013 and beyond. The hurricane may be delayed, but it’s still a good bet that it will hit ground and leave appropriate damage in its wake.

James Harrison, the NFL’s reigning and most clueless thug, seems to have reluctantly accepted the fact that his vicious hit on Colt McCoy was illegal. The revelation came to him apparently about the time he lost his appeal and the rest of his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates, while publicly supporting him, privately sate him down and told him that his brutish ways were actually hurting the team far more then helping. That it happened in the wake of a bad loss to the San Francisco 49ers is just a bonus.

But Harrison, as is his wont, doesn’t go down without a fight and thus surmised that the Browns as well should be fined or otherwise penalized for not properly attending to McCoy. So we have Harrison adamantly denying he did anything wrong for most of the last two weeks suddenly getting religion and becoming the voice of concern for McCoy?

Harrison is like the criminal who in the course of robbing a house gets bitten by the watch dog and then sues the homeowner. Lacking an ability to process either irony or context Harrison should just shut his mouth and play within the rules, assuming he can which actually may not be a safe assumption at all.

Meanwhile the Browns were indeed let off the hook for their malpractice when it came to safeguarding their starting quarterback but the rest of the NFL must now pay a price by staging so-called independent athletic trainers in the press box to oversee all the vicious hits and make suggestions to each team’s medical staff as to which players they may want to administer an exam to.

I’m happy whenever the NFL creates additional jobs, particularly for athletic trainers. I wonder, though, exactly why the NFL went macro on this instead of focusing specifically on the fact that the Browns medical and coaching staff screwed up. Indeed, the Browns’ medical staff for the last several years has a distinct history of putting its players in jeopardy but yea, it sounds like the NFL has an institutional problem.

It may very well be that the Browns and their medical staff needed some tough love in the form of some kind of penalty given their history but then again what we know most about the NFL is that they are very reticent to punish management and very pleased to punish the players.

The person to feel sorry for here is McCoy. He’s about to miss his second straight game and whatever grip he had on the Browns’ starting quarterback job. More than that, though, he very easily could have lost his life or at least suffered some permanent damage when he was sent back into the game seconds after getting his brains scrambled.

There was a teaching moment here just not the one the NFL focused on.

The Cleveland Indians continue to make their quiet offseason noise by signing any retread with a pulse that they can find. The latest contestant in this year’s version of “Who Can Fill the Shoes of David Dellucci?” is Andy “Don’t Call Me Either Adam or Dave” LaRoche.

This LaRoche, the son of former Tribe closer Dave LaRoche, a mediocre pitcher from the mid 1970s, brings a resume that includes a .247 average with 5 RBI in 40 games last season. But there’s more. LaRoche’s high water mark, batting average-wise, is .258.

If it makes you wonder why anyone would continue to sign LaRoche given his age (28) and the fact that he’s never done anything of note at any time for any major league team he played for, just follow the money. LaRoche, like so many that the Indians sign every offseason, is on a minor league contract. The team pays more in laundry bills then it would have to pay LaRoche.

If by chance he makes the big league team out of training camp, and if he does, look out, then he’ll make the major league minimum, which for 2012 is slightly more than $400,000. In other words, what LaRoche lacks in skills he more then makes up for in the fact that he works cheaply.

The one good thing to keep in mind in all of this is that Eric Wedge is no longer the team’s manager. LaRoche is just the kind of player that Wedge loved, mainly because LaRoche’s baseball skills approximate those that Wedge possessed as a player. That would have meant only one thing: a spring and early summer of screaming at the television every time LaRoche grounded out weakly with runners in scoring position.


The Cavs start their season in a few days, which leads to this week’s question to ponder: Will the Cavs take Jared Sullinger with the first pick in next year’s draft?

Happy Holidays, everyone.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Double Digit Failure

It’s that time of the year again, isn’t it? No, not the holiday season, though it’s that, too. It’s that time of year that the good folks and fans of the Cleveland Browns see every year, like potholes on the interstate.

Yes, I am talking about that time of the year when the Browns cement another double digit losing season.

That it was the Arizona Cardinals that administered the blow this season seems particularly cruel. The Cardinals, except for their one foray into the Super Bowl, have been perennially one of the worst franchises in the NFL. Now even they’re laughing at the Browns.

And while I don’t necessarily have a great desire to revisit one painful season after another as the Browns now careen toward their real favorite season—draft season—there are always those reminders of just why the Browns are who they are.
No matter how many times they do a reset on this franchise they just can’t get it right. Mike “The Big No Show” Holmgren is the latest architect and while he bitched and groused at the media a week ago not to report that it’s all just a bunch of “same old same old” with this team, he’s done absolutely nothing to provide any evidence to the contrary.

In his first full year at the helm, Holmgren decided that what the team and its fans needed most was to waste a season so he kept Eric Mangini as head coach despite the fact that Mangini and his approach to football and those who play it is at the extreme opposite of pretty much everything Holmgren stands for.

But Holmgren decided to assuage Mangini’s feelings rather than be a good steward for the people who pay his salary—the fans—and allowed Mangini to basically hang himself in the worst lame duck role ever invented.

The Big No Show essentially admitted that he wasted last season, but we already knew and wrote about it so why turn over that same shovel of dirt? Well, for the simple reason that it stands as a marker for why this franchise stumbles and bumbles its way into 10+ losses each and every season, that’s why.

To truly appreciate, though, the level of institutional failure just consider head coach Pat Shurmur’s coyness in his Tuesday press conference about the future of Colt McCoy as the Browns’ starter once he’s healthy.

For reasons that only Shurmur could discern, he refused to commit to McCoy as the team’s starting quarterback when healthy. It was an insidious, rookie mistake by Shurmur in a year of insidious, rookie mistakes by Shurmur.

All McCoy has done for him this year has gone out and run Shurmur’s crappy offense with no receivers, a porous right side of the line and no running attack and get his brains beat in for the trouble. James Harrison, the NFL’s biggest thug, rams his helmet through McCoy’s facemask and knocks him into some previous week. McCoy takes the lick, gets back into the game because the Browns’ medical staff is incompetent and then gets rewarded with a statement from his head coach that strongly suggests that perennial backup Seneca Wallace may very well have won the starting job.
And how did Wallace win that job? Well, he got the Browns into the end zone twice in one game which in Shurmur’s world is an achievement of great distinction apparently. Let’s give him the game ball.

Of course Wallace also abjectly failed nearly the entire second half of the game, including overtime, the Browns lost the game and Wallace ended up with a line that looked like every one McCoy has had this season (except all those games that Shurmur stupidly had McCoy throwing the ball 40 times). But yea, apparently to Shurmur, that’s the kind of progress this team has been looking for.

This is exactly why the Browns can’t progress as a franchise wrapped up in one neatly wrapped little holiday present. The team is run by boobs who are so oddly focused atn times on things that mean nothing while missing the far bigger picture that it’s a wonder they remember to tie their shoes in the morning. Maybe they wear slip-ons.

The saying goes that you are what your record says you are and while there may be times to quibble with that, this Browns’ season isn’t one of them. Frankly, none in the last 12 have been, either. Week in and week out they look like a 4-10 team because they’re run like a 4-10 team. The way in which they lost Sunday’s game at Arizona may have been a reminder of what could have been, as Holmgren views things. But it was also a near perfect display of why they are who their record says they are.

When a call needed to be made or a play needed to be executed, the Browns couldn’t quite make it, not just in overtime but from about halfway through the third quarter through the end of the game. There were flourishes of competence at times followed by too long stretches of futility and too few players willing to put an end to those flourishes to turn an inevitable loss into a win.

The Browns on the field played exactly like the front office, from Holmgren down to Shurmur, played.

Why is it, exactly, that the special teams folded just when it needed to stand up? I guess it’s the same reason they couldn’t snap the damn ball or catch it all season, either. The difference between good players and the mediocre ones that surround them has to do with the ability to consistently execute. The same holds for front office executives and head coaches.

In truth, virtually any player in the NFL is capable of doing something special on any given play. It’s why they’re in the NFL in the first place. But the reason Tom Brady makes so much money and Wallace so little, comparatively speaking, is the ability to consistently execute.

But none of this matters now because Holmgren sits and twiddles and Shurmur decides right now is the exact time not to commit, again, to a quarterback. Is it any wonder this franchise is a mess?

Frankly, I’m not sure why so many have seemed to have jumped off the McCoy bandwagon given how few competent people general manager Tom Heckert put on it to help McCoy get to his destination. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could do any better with what McCoy’s had to work with.

Maybe it’s just the idea that Wallace isn’t McCoy in the same way that McCoy wasn’t Jake Delhomme and Delhomme wasn’t Brady Quinn or Derek Anderson. The attention span and patience of Browns fans, particularly when it comes to quarterbacks, seems to run about 10 games before they’ve seen enough. And the best player is the one sitting on the bench, whoever that might be.

Sure, it’s all understandable except that it’s not. At some point the clowns that run this organization and the fans that worship it are going to have to give someone enough leeway to develop in some capacity. At some point fans are going to have to realize that the Browns are just a really awful team with really awful players at so many positions that there's little chance for anyone to develop as a quarterback because we run them off before giving them a real chance.

I’m not raging against Shurmur staying on as a coach anymore then I’m raging against Holmgren or Heckert sticking around. What I am raging against is the Browns machine they’ve inherited and have done little to alter. The machine is broken and needs a real overhaul and not the tinkering they seem to be engaging in.

Instead of actually doing something different, innovative and unique, they just keep making the same mistakes of all the other nincompoops who came before them and then complain that the media isn’t giving them a fair shake.

The Browns need Holmgren to act like a president, have the presence of a president and bring a calm, professional demeanor and approach as he goes about actually making meaningful change. And he needs to do it out front where people can see him working and not from the comfort of his Arizona home.

Holmgren in turn needs Shurmur to stop acting like a know-it-all who thinks he got into the job because he’s such a genius and start embracing the fact that he does have much to learn. Make him hire an offensive coordinator so that he stops acting like one. Make him commit to a actually developing a quarterback and designing a scheme around the players you have instead of the players you wish you had.
But maybe that’s too hard.

So sure, let’s change out the quarterback again because it carries the hint of making progress even if it ends up being the exact opposite of what actual progress looks like. Let’s keep pressing the reset button again and again because really that’s all it’s going to take to fix this mess. And while we’re at it, let’s get used to the painful drip, drip, drip of loss after loss because if there’s one thing we do know, the world doesn’t lack for the next set of goofs standing in line to take more of Randy Lerner’s wasted money.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Business As Usual

For a franchise that has known little else but embarrassment since it came back into the NFL 12 years ago, you’d think at some point the Cleveland Browns would finally reach rock bottom. Apparently there is no bottom.

Mike, the Big No Show, Holmgren finally made a media appearance on Tuesday to say in rather clinical if also defensive fashion that the franchise he now oversees did almost nothing right to protect the health of the quarterback that Holmgren believes is the future.

It was Holmgren’s first press conference in months and came, not coincidentally, the day that Bud Shaw of the Plain Dealer called out Holmgren for leaving Pat Shurmur to fend for himself on what was clearly a team issue that should have been addressed by Holmgren. (An aside. I thought Shaw’s column was excellent. That said, it was similar to what I wrote a few weeks ago about the mysterious no show by the team’s leaders to explain just what the hell is going on with the team this time. Oh well.)

But before anyone gets the idea that Holmgren came out to offer some sort of mea culpa or other overt act of leadership at another of the 650 million critical points in this franchise's recent history, think again. Instead Holmgren came out mostly to defend the team's complete bungling of Colt McCoy's head injury last Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers and then do his level best to convince the unconvinced that this team is not operating like every other incompetent regime that came before him.

But in trying to make the “this is not business as usual” case Holmgren actually did the opposite by devoting the first few minutes of the press conference to explaining why it's taken this long for anyone higher then Shurmur to address the McCoy concussion issue. In short, it was because he wanted to get his story straight with the NFL and the players' union before having to address the media. Given the passage of time, you'd have thought Holmgren could have done a better job. Put it this way, Gene Smith thinks Holmgren gave a lousy performance.

As to the concussion issue, which dominated the conference, Holmgren took the Phil Savage approach. He came out swinging and defensive, blamed others, accepted no blame himself for anything and essentially mocked anyone with the audacity to think differently.

In a startling but hardly unbelievable fashion Holmgren claimed that McCoy wasn’t administered any sort of concussion test before sending him back into the game against Pittsburgh, not even as a precautionary measure, for two reasons. First, the patient seemed lucid. Second, the medical staff was too busy attending to other injured players to see exactly how McCoy got assaulted by the biggest thug in the NFL, James Harrison

McCoy, who claims to not remember a damn thing about the hit or what happened immediately after, appeared coherent enough to the Browns’ crack medical staff to such an extent that a precautionary test for a concussion wasn’t necessary? Who exactly is leading that staff, Dr. Bombay or Dr. Vinnie Boom Botz? The guy from the Sprint commercials? Maybe there isn’t anyone with a medical degree at all but someone who happened to stay at a Holiday Inn Express the night before.

In defending the medical staff's approach to McCoy, Holmgren was quick to emphasize foremost not how important the health of the players is but how impressive the medical staff is, calling it's the best in the business. But by offering the reasons behind the rather perfunctory exam of McCoy on the sidelines in essence Holmgren just signaled to every player on the team, not to mention any player who might potentially play for the team, that the Browns’ medical staff is a bunch of incompetent boobs that can’t be trusted enough to make even the most obvious of exams. That’s got to be comforting not to mention a real selling point when trying to lure free agents. Makes one wonder how Holmgren sees this as different from the past, unless he meant it's now worse, or what the medical staff would have looked at if McCoy had come to the sidelines with his femur poking through his skin.

But let’s assume that the staff was too busy with all the other walking wounded on this team. It strikes me that Shurmur had a pretty good view of what was going on during the game. So too did many if not all his coaches, including those sitting in the press box with the luxury of replay. They all saw Harrison attempt to ram his skull through McCoy’s. Shouldn't it have occurred to Shurmur or anyone else at any point to run over to that overwrought, overworked medical staff and say something like “make sure you check McCoy for a concussion. He nearly had his head decapitated”?

A particularly rich exchange occurred when Holmgren offered up that the outcome of his meetings with the league and the union was that the league will likely tweak its concussion procedures going forward, which was a not so subtle suggestion that it was the league’s policies that failed McCoy and not the Browns.

The truth is that the Browns, from Holmgrem to Heckert to Shurmur to every member of Shurmur's staff, failed McCoy. But that in itself isn't unusual because McCoy is just another in a long line of players that have been mostly abandoned by this team in one form or another. It isn’t just all the medical issues that they’ve had, two of which have resulted in lawsuits by former players LeCharles Bentley and Joe Jurevicius. It’s all the other little ways that that this team fails the very players and fans it claims to value.

If Holmgen was the leader we thought he was, he would have taken the charge, made an apology and laid out exactly how things would be different going forward instead of claiming that things already are different. Instead he came across as weak by merely offering excuses, defending the bumbling antics of his medical staff and then refusoing, when asked, to back McCoy by acknowledging that they haven't given McCoy even a reasonable opportunity to be fairly evaluated.

But why focus on just McCoy. You can start with Tim Couch and wind your way through nearly every player that has strapped on a Browns’ uniform in the last decade and come to the conclusion that Cleveland has been a miserable place to earn a living as a football player because of rampant incompetency at every level of management, from the owner on down to every coach and front office goof that has been given a title and a paycheck.

What seemed to really bother Holmgren most during the entire press conference was the growing perception that Holmgren as a leader isn't any better or different from those who came before him and that it really is business as usual for the Browns. He should have saved the sanctimony.

I’m not ready to write off this current regime just yet but if Holmgren really doesn’t think this team is operating in a “business as usual” format then he did very little due diligence before taking the job. The Browns’ reaction to the McCoy hit was exactly how every other regime that’s had the keys to Berea would have handled it, which is to say poorly.

Holmgren implored the fans to trust him that this will all get fixed. That would be a whole lot easier if every visible sign this season, from the questionable signings to the bad fundamentals to the boring product on the field to the constant bungling of personnel and medical issues, didn't suggest that it's beyond his ability to fix.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Lingering Items--Evaluation Edition

Baylor University quarterback Robert Griffin III won the Heisman Trophy Saturday night and that is apparently enough to anoint him the next future quarterback for the Cleveland Browns. It's exactly that kind of patience that has gotten this franchise in trouble in the first place.

Maybe it's best to forgive the locals who see Griffin as another Cam Newton, someone who can come in and play well on a bad team. It's brought some excitement to a moribund Carolina Panthers franchise so perhaps there's some legitimacy in that view.

But as you ponder a future with Griffin, ask yourself whether quarterback is even close to being the biggest area of need on the Browns at the moment. For anyone who has already written off Colt McCoy, what is it exactly that you see in Griffin that would have made this Browns team any better this year?

Would Griffin's presence make Mohamed Massaquoi any faster? Would his presence make Josh Cribbs run a decent route or help Greg Little catch the ball? Would Griffin have healed Peyton Hillis or Montario Hardesty? Would Griffin have been able to turn anyone on the right side of the offensive line into a better run or pass blocker?

Griffin may be a game changer but with all his talent there are things he can't do and that starts with filling the prodigious holes in the Browns' offense. Personally the thought of the Browns investing all that cash into a first round pick like Griffin only to watch him get clobbered by the same things that are turning McCoy into a pinata is about as appealing as it was watching the Browns invest all that cash in Tim Couch only to watch him get clobbered into a premature end to his career.

Somewhere along about the time Pittsburgh's James Harrison was engaging in about his 12th dirty hit of the season by blasting into McCoy's facemask with the crown of his helmet, many fans and too many jugheads in the media decided McCoy wasn't the answer. And if that blow to the head didn't do it then it was the critical interception that McCoy threw a few plays later that sealed his fate, never mind that his brain was so scrambled by the play he probably couldn't even remember which team he was playing for.

This is why it is so difficult to be a Browns fan. Not only do you have to put up with an organization that redefines incompetence each season, you also have to deal with a fan base with the patience of a newborn.

I get that everyone's tired of all the excuses. So am I. But to condemn McCoy to the Island of Misfit Browns Quarterbacks right now given the putrid cast that general manager Tom Heckert surrounded him with this season makes as much sense as the BCS. If McCoy is to be evaluated in the context of this team, then why does anyone think that Griffin would fare any better or last any longer?

The same crappy front office that brought this mess of an offense, that decided that no moves needed to be made at wide receiver, that decided an injury prone Tony Pashos was the answer on the right side of the line, that put their faith in Montario Hardesty, is going to be the same crappy front office that drafts Griffin and then surrounds him with the same kind of second tier castoffs.

That's the nub of the problem. There isn't a quarterback in the entire NFL that could move the needle statistically for this offense. And there isn't a quarterback in college, especially a junior like Griffin or a senior like Andrew Luck, that could have done any better then McCoy.

This isn't to defend McCoy so much as it is to point the white hot glare of the spotlight on the reality of this Browns' offense. It's a mess in almost every way a team's offense can be a mess. Outside of Joe Thomas, there isn't a quality player lining up on that side of the ball at the moment. The few players that even pass for decent, like Hillis, have been hurt all season.

If this were Vegas, it would be as if the Browns' front office bankrolled McCoy at the blackjack table and then told him that the only time he could bet was when he was dealt a 8 and a 7. Winning 4 of every 16 hands sounds about right to me. And yet the fans seem puzzled by that lack of success.

I think McCoy has some ground to cover as a quarterback and perhaps he may never make it as a big time NFL quarterback. But anyone who thinks they can make that conclusion after this season with that supporting cast ought to quit their day job and apply for a job with the Browns as the next general manager. Sure things won't get any better, but on the plus side they probably won't get any worse.

Speaking of that thug James Harrison, if Roger Goodell and the NFL don't come down with at least a two game suspension on him for the hit on McCoy then it will be confirmation that they aren't really serious about eliminating concussions. And if I were representing the former and current players suing the NFL for its responses to the growing number of concussions I'd use the hit and the lack of effective action by the league for it as exhibit 1 that the NFL just doesn't get it.

Harrison by any measure is the dirtiest player in the league. Last year he was fined over $500,000 as the result of four vicious, unnecessary hits. Browns fans will recall that Harrison knocked both Josh Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi out of the same game with brutal, illegal hits.

That of course hasn't deterred Harrison one bit. In reaction to the fines, Harrison hasn't just shown no remorse. He more than double downed on his thug persona by slurring Goodell in an article entitled “Confessions of a Hit Man” that appeared in Men's Journal.

I like in particular how Harrison did his best to portray himself as an outlaw with a grudge, someone who is constantly fighting for some abstract notion of respect despite the huge salary and plush lifestyle he leads thanks to the generosity of the NFL and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The choice quote of that article is the one that hopefully Goodell reads right before he throws Harrison's ass out of the league for good: “But up until last year, there was no word of me being dirty—till Roger Goodell, who's a crook and a puppet, said I was the dirtiest player in the league. If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn't do it. I hate him and I will never respect him.” For good measure, he also called Goodell a “faggot.”

Three points about those quotes. First, Harrison's a liar. Goodell never called Harrison the league's dirtiest player, though he should have. Second, Harrison's reputation goes back further then a year ago. He's always been a thug who would rather lead with his helmet when making a tackle then take the easier and less riskier bath of tackling with his shoulder. Third, Harrison apologized in that passive aggressive way most people apologize. He's sorry if anyone was offended by his remarks. He's not sorry he made them. He's not saying he didn't mean them. He's just sorry if you're too much of a sensitive puke to hear them.

The Harrison apologists in Pittsburgh, which include the Steelers' owner and the head coach, will point out that this is Harrison's first personal foul of the season and that he is trying to conform despite his loud mouth bragging to the contrary. What these apologists fail to appreciate is that Harrison has no interest in learning his lesson. He sees himself as the protector of some ancient league ethic about the violence inherent in the sport and remains hell bent on upholding the image of the thug who posed for that article bare-chested and brandishing two guns. Besides, the lack of personal fouls is hardly a marker for better behavior. Harrison didn't draw a penalty on the Cribbs or Massaquoi hits either and they were clearly illegal.

There also is the theory that even the Plain Dealer's resident contrarian Bill Livingston advanced that somehow Harrison can't really be blamed because McCoy appeared to be a runner on the play. Well, McCoy was scrambling, true. He also threw the ball from behind the line of scrimmage, which makes him a quarterback. No one's complaining that Harrison should have held up hitting McCoy at all. Where Harrison crossed the line was lowering in lowering his head so that the crown of his helmet was aimed squarely at McCoy's chin. Harrison could have hit McCoy in the chest but that is a pussy move in Harrison's world. Far better to blast him in the face just so he and the rest of the league get the message.

The league sent Ndamukong Suh to the sideline for two games for stomping on a player during a nationally televised game. Suh's high schoolish move looked awful but caused far less damage. Suh's a repeat offender that has more than demonstrated that he has no predisposition to play by the rules. In that regard, though, he's just following the lead of players like Harrison. If the league really wants to send an effective message to the Suhs of the world, they have to start by sending Harrison to the sideline as well. And if they were really serious, Harrison's season would be over.

It looks like Cleveland Cavs owner Dan Gilbert is in hot water with some fans, including Cavs fans, for opening his mouth again and daring to speak the truth about the joke that the NBA has come at the expense of small market teams.

Gilbert was getting excoriated in some corners for being one of the more aggressive owners during the NBA's lockout. Gilbert's fight then and now was to level the playing field for a league that is tilting in favor of a few super teams and against everyone else.

If you had invested as much money as Gilbert has into this franchise and then watched as the league sat passively as that franchise's value was being significantly diminished by rules that should be designed to protect it, wouldn't you speak up just as loudly?

It's not worth getting into all the particulars of the Chris Paul trade and its ramifications on the entire league. What is worth getting into is all the various goofy rules and exceptions that can easily get manipulated by the league's high rolling clubs at the expense of everyone else.

Basketball is a winter sport and it's understandable that pampered players would rather play their 41 home games a year in a warmer climate. No one wants to go to Minnesota or Cleveland or a dozen other places in the winter. Hell, I hate being in Cleveland in the winter. But if the NBA is truly going to thrive it must protect the Minnesotas and Clevelands of the league even if it comes at the expense of nullifying trades that aren't in the sport's best interest.

Sure that's a slippery slope but on the other hand it's exactly why there is a commissioner in the first place. His most important duty is as a guardian of the entire league's best interest and not just the interest of a coddled few.

Cavs fans should be applauding Gilbert, not crucifying him. Gilbert's motives may be selfish—the protection of his own investment—but they have the byproduct of protecting the overall health of the league.

Personally I'd rather have Gilbert being the standard bearer for fairness then have owners like the Dolans who have been less vocal and far more compliant in fostering baseball's inherent economic unfairness.

It's a funny thing about fans. As much as they like to bitch about how the cards get stacked against them, particularly in Cleveland, they'll do little on their own accord, like stop supporting those who stacked those cards against them. Meanwhile when someone with some gravitas does step forward on their behalf their pride takes over and they complain that they don't need any help in their fight against the bully, even as they stand their bleeding from the beating they've been taking.

With the Cavs opening up training camp this past Friday and the talk now of waiving Baron Davis so that his salary won't count against the cap, this week's question to ponder: Doesn't it seem rather convenient that Davis has suddenly developed a bad back?

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Who's Minding the Gap?

There’s a concept in the business world called gap analysis. It works like this. Say you need to reorganize a business unit or redesign a business process because it's become a bloated, inefficient version of its former competitive self. You can just start trying different things to see if that will make it better. In football terms, that's called the Cleveland Browns Approach. Usually it doesn’t work. You could also take a more methodical, process-oriented approach. In football terms, that's called the Rest of the NFL Approach. That tends to work much better.

Assuming you follow the Rest of the NFL Approach, the first task is to do an “as is” analysis, which is exactly what the term suggests. During this phase you review, factually and unapologetically, the current state of what you’re doing. You make no value judgments. You just take an honest, sometimes brutal assessment of what you currently do.

The next step is the “to be” phase which also is exactly what the term suggests. Having decided that a change is necessary, you undertake an assessment of what you want the reorganized or redesigned business unit or process to look like. You do this by benchmarking against your competitors. You try to find best practices that others are using. In short you meticulously design exactly what it is your business unit will look like as a more nimble, capable competitor.

The final step is to undergo a “gap analysis.” This means you compare your “as is” work product with your “to be” ideas and figure out what are the gaps keeping you from getting where you are to where you want to be. If you’re at all honest about the process, it should lead to some sobering conclusions and daunting tasks. But if you perform those tasks correctly, the gaps will close.

To this point, the Cleveland Browns have mostly been shooting crooked in the dark. Not knowing where they really want to go, except in the most general of terms, they figure that any road will get them there. That's why there's been a series of coaches, personnel directors and players of all shapes, sizes and temperaments and yet as one season blends into another the franchise hasn't progressed in any discernible fashion.

I bring all this up because there’s been much talk the last few days about the gaps between the Cleveland Browns and the rest of the teams in the AFC North or, for that matter, the rest of the good teams in the NFL. Josh Cribbs, who else, spurred it on by declaring in this week’s post-game gripe that the gap between the Browns and the rest is huge.

Joe Thomas, on the other hand, took issue with the declaration, suggesting instead that it’s all a matter of execution.

This isn't exactly an argument over nature vs. nurture, Lodge. Instead it's an outward manifestation of all the little disconnects between what’s taking place in the front offices occupied by general manager Tom Heckert and club president Mike Holmgren and what’s filtering down to the players.

Besides, there’s no need to take sides between Cribbs and Thomas since they’re both in essential agreement. The ability to execute is what differentiates minor and major talents. So yes, the Browns have a huge talent gap. How do we know? The players they have lack the ability to execute.

Never was this more clear then the debacle that was the Ravens game this past Sunday. It was no secret that the Ravens wanted to run the ball with Ray Rice and Ricky Williams. Even if the Ravens had tried to disguise it, which they didn’t, the steady rain dictated that approach. And yet even knowing exactly what was coming and when, the Browns’ defense was rendered powerless to stop it.

This was the result of talent gap. The Ravens’ offensive line played bigger, stronger and faster. They executed their assignments with precision. The Browns’ front 7, to a man less talented then their counterparts, could only absorb the blocks and respond only after the play had mostly passed them by. It’s why the Ravens gained nearly 300 yards on the ground and why the Ravens could have gained 500 yards on the ground if that had been their wont.

When the Browns had the ball, it was the same situation, just in reverse. The Browns’ offensive line, particularly the right side where most plays seem to be run, played smaller, weaker and slower than the Ravens’ defensive line. They were often perfunctory in the execution of their assignments. Rarely were there even slivers of light through which Peyton Hillis could run.

When Colt McCoy had the ball, he was under near constant siege against a defensive line that was far better in its ability to apply pressure then the offensive line was in preventing it. And even when there was time, McCoy’s receivers failed to execute on their main job assignment, catching the ball.

According to Mary Kay Cabot in Tuesday’s Plain Dealer, the Browns’ receivers lead the league in dropped passes with a staggering 35 of them. And that’s without Braylon Edwards! If the offensive line isn’t opening holes and the receivers aren’t catching passes, then how exactly is a team supposed to score?

So what you had really on Sunday was an almost perfect visual documentation of a gap analysis with the Ravens representing a “to be” state, the Browns in the “as is” phase and all those very telling statistics, not to mention what you actually witnessed, separating the two.

It manifested itself in the plays the Ravens made routinely on both sides of the ball and the plays the Browns did not. It manifested itself in the visceral feel you got that the Ravens players seemed to just hit harder and cover better. It manifested itself in the records of two teams who only technically play in the same conference and league.

The fact that a gap exists is itself not the problem. There’s always a gap unless you’re the team at the top and even then there are all sorts of mini-gaps between various aspects of your operations and those other teams that do some tasks better then you.

The issue is exactly what it will take to close the gap and that is the question that various iterations of Browns deep thinkers supposedly have been trying to solve with virtually no success. Former general manager Phil Savage often spoke about it in terms of the number of quality players it takes to be competitive. Eric Mangini, a de facto general manager, talked about it in terms of a mystical process. In the end they were just throwing stuff against the wall and hoping it would stick.

What really bothers the average fan still is that they're tired of that approach and are starting to think, based on the results they see each week, that this regime is more of the same.

It would help if someone on this Browns staff laid out much of a realistic vision on how those gaps are going to be closed. But Holmgren speaks sparingly and Heckert not at all. You can't tell exactly what gaps they see and what plans they haveto close them. All your left to do is look for little clues and make assumptions that are probably wrong.

What I fear is that the Browns are reaching a critical mass with their fans, most of whom have proven they can take an incredible amount of abuse. What these fans need at the moment is a reason to believe that despite the numbing sameness each week there is a definite plan in place and it's being acted upon. Right now, that just doesn't appear to be the case.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Inevitability of it All

So much about the way the Cleveland Browns game against the Baltimore Ravens played out on Sunday seemed inevitable. Whether it was the inability to stop a good running attack, the inability to put points on the board, the untimely interception or even the early injury to quarterback Colt McCoy, it all seemed so predestined.

And the 24-10 final score in favor of the Ravens? Yea, that was inevitable, too.

There would be no surprises this week. No chance of the Ravens taking the Browns too lightly. No early Ravens turnovers to give the Browns unexpectedly good field position and a few quick scores. Instead, inevitably, just another butt kicking at the hands of team on a far different trajectory. At least the loss gave the Browns the rather dubious bragging rights of having been dominated by both Harbaugh brothers in one season. So there is that.

The game certainly carried the whiff of nearly every other loss that preceded it, right down to the deceiving final score.

Helping early on to keep the score closer than the game was a couple of factors. There was the rain, which kept the Ravens from throwing too much. Then there was Ravens head coach John Harbaugh eschewing a field goal early for an unsuccessful fourth down attempt and then Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missing two short field goals late in the second quarter. Had the Ravens piled on the points then, the score and the game being witnessed would have been perfectly in sync. That would come.

But before we get ahead of ourselves, let's focus for a moment on the things we knew were coming before the coin was even tossed.

First was Ravens running back Ray Rice, channeling a young Jamal Lewis and running through the Browns' defense like a deer darting cars on a country two-lane. On his first 6 carries he averaged 10 yards per. He couldn't keep up that pace but the pace he maintained was brisk enough. He was well over 100 yards rushing in the first half and only the presence of Ricky Williams, who took some carries from him, and slightly better play by the defensive line kept Rice from running for 300 yards.

That untimely interception? It came late in the first half, during a two-minute drill of sorts and followed two previous passes from McCoy that could have been intercepted. But more to the point it was then followed by what else, an inevitable pass interference call near the goal line. But in something that is becoming inevitable but on the good side is a successful goal line stand by the Browns' defense. That makes four in two games.

Still, after the defense held Cundiff made it a bit of an adventure but did finally convert a short field goal and gave the Ravens a 10-0 halftime lead.

So while the that score looked perfectly manageable, it really wasn't. It might as well have been 30-0, which it could have been considering how the Ravens otherwise seemed to be dominating the game, if you define dominating in terms of plays run (17 more than the Browns), time of possession (7 and a half minutes more), yards gained (170 more), you know, that sort of thing.

It was the kind of trends that tend to eventually pay dividends at just about the time you start to get heady and think you are really in the game.

And yet, there the Browns found themselves, midway through the third quarter and still within the same sort of striking distance and breathing anew. When Jabaal Sheard stripped Joe Flacco on a great individual effort and the ball was recovered by Jayme Mitchell, suddenly the Browns found themselves at midfield. The unexpected turnover!

It all looked so inevitable in the no-good-deed-goes-unpunished sort of way when McCoy took a sack on first down. But on second down, Peyton Hillis found himself all alone downfield and in the midst of a Ravens blown assignment on defense. McCoy saw it, hit Hillis and the play covered 51 yards down to the Ravens' 3 yard line.

But inevitability once again reared its ugly head as the offense couldn't find a way to put it over the goal line, a Hillis run stuffed at the line and two incomplete passes. In fairness to McCoy, though, tight end Evan Moore dropped a well thrown pass in the end zone and Greg Little looked to be interfered with on a third down pass. Phil Dawson converted the 21 yard field goal without incident and the Browns were back to within 7.

Now remember those things that tend to come back and haunt you? They did, just that quickly.

On the Ravens next play, Rice scampered for 67 yards, giving him 187 on the day with plenty of game still to play, and Ricky Williams cleaned up two plays later to push the lead to 17-3 and just like that it was back to reality. That meant lots more of Rice, lots more time of possession for the Ravens and the inevitable march to the inevitable Josh Cribbs post-game crabbing about his role, which was non-existent on this particular day.

Indeed, the fourth quarter more or less resembled a pre season intra squad scrimmage. Neither team looked to be doing anything more then trying to hone some new formations, keep the clock moving and get the hell out of the rain. But Ravens' punt returner Lardarius Webb threw a bit of a monkey wrench into that when he returned a Brad Maynard punt 68 yards that pushed the lead to 24-7.

As I said, inevitably the score and the game being witnessed would come back into sync.

That forced the Browns to do what they inevitably do in late games that are out of reach. Score a meaningless touchdown. This one was from McCoy to a wide open Moore, who held on this time probably because it mattered so little. I guess it showed that McCoy doesn't give up even when the game is over but maybe it just shows that by that point in the game the other team is just bored.

On a macro level, and irrespective how they got there, really there was nothing particularly knew or different here that gave you a sense that much had been learned by this Browns team from the several other iterations of this game that fans have already seen this year. But that's not a surprise. Lacking talent in most areas and also banged up pretty good, there's no reason to have expected anything different. That's why it all seemed so inevitable in the first place.

But let's not completely let that spoil the party. Let's go micro, briefly.

Here's one thing I am starting to like: Jordan Norwood. He can get open and catch. He only had 3 catches on the day for 29 yards, but he's one of the few players you can actually point to and say that there's been real progress this year.

Here's another thing I'm liking better each week: the play of Jabaal Sheard. It's hard to single out anyone on the defensive line on a day when Rice had 200+ yards rushing, but the play Sheard made in stripping the ball from Flacco was a thing of beauty. He was getting pressure but Flacco stepped up in the pocket. Sheard didn't give up on the play, closed quickly and knocked the ball loose from Flacco just as he was beginning his throwing motion.

On the other hand, here's something I'm really starting to hate: that play where McCoy takes a 5-step drop, pirouettes, takes three more steps back and then throws a screen pass to a running back with a linebacker draped on him like an oversized suit. The next time it's successful will be the first.

And here's something else I'm really starting to hate: the numbing sameness of each and every game. It matters little who the running back is, who the receivers are or even who is or isn't playing on defense. It matters little, really, who the opponent is.

Now the Browns find themselves on a short week having to face the Pittsburgh Steelers on Thursday night. Chances are it will go exactly the way you think it will so there's probably no reason for you to look so tired come Friday morning. You can be fast asleep by 10 knowing full well how it all turns out.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Lingering Items--Yapping and Snapping Edition

Another week, another loss and another Josh Cribbs flare up. Sensing a pattern, like a Ryan Pontbriand bad snap?

There is coming a point, perhaps quickly, perhaps not, where Cribbs is going to wear out his welcome with Pat Shurmur and the rest of the coaching staff. This is at least the fourth time this season where Cribbs has gone through his whole passive-aggressive approach to using the media post game under the guise of his passion for winning to bitch about not getting the damn ball.

By this point there are some very clear patterns to Cribbs and unfortunately they aren’t on the field in his role as a receiver. Cribbs views himself as one of the team’s few playmakers and gets aggravated when it doesn’t seem to be acknowledged in that week’s game plan.

The problem though is that while Cribbs is a playmaker of sorts, he’s not nearly as awesome as he believes and that’s just a fact. I’ll give him his due as a good open field runner. I’ll give him his due as the kind of player that doesn’t take a play off. When he’s in he gives you everything he’s got.

But let’s look a bit deeper.

The whole “good open field runner” thing? Almost any skill player in the NFL should be a good open field runner because it means that he isn’t wading through a phalanx of tacklers in order to grind out yards. So, yea, when Cribbs gets the ball in space he can perform like about 80 other players in the league. That alone doesn’t qualify him as a playmaker.

The real problem for Cribbs is that while he’s skilled as a return man, he’s not very skilled as a receiver nor is he a viable threat in the backfield. He has good but not great speed. He’s made some good catches this season but the real bread and butter of the position lies in the ability to run good, consistent patterns and fend off defensive backs. Cribbs is just average, at best, at those key skills and while he may get better, he’ll never get good enough to be anything more than the third receiver on a team that lacks depth at receiver.

Cribbs likewise doesn’t possess the requisite skills to run out of the backfield. Eric Mangini’s occasional dalliances with the wildcat formation more than showed that Cribbs isn’t that viable of a running threat. He doesn’t have a running back’s sixth sense to see an opening before it fully appears. His approach is more bull-in-a-china-shop then scat back, despite his size, mainly because he doesn’t seem to have been trained any other way.

This is all to say that Cribbs may be the kind of player you want on the team, he’s not the kind of player around which a coordinator designs an offense. At this juncture I’m not sure he understands that fundamental fact.

It’s actually getting tiring listening to Cribbs talk constantly about his passion for winning while believing its only path runs through his legs and desire. I understand that most professional athletes tend to be self-centered, but frankly Cribbs’ act is wearing thin.

The Browns certainly are better off with Cribbs on the team then not, but the more he complains the more he begins to tilt the balance of that equation in the wrong direction. Publicly Shurmur may be giving Cribbs a pass by saying that he wants a team full of players that want to win as badly as Cribbs, but privately Shurmur is probably seething.

When you’re trying to put together a winning culture, the first thing that has to be eradicated is the me-first attitude that players on losing teams tend to develop. Cribbs may not be there yet but he’s well down that road. Unless he decides to take another path, that road will eventually lead to an exit ramp out of Cleveland. Count on it.

If you’re still surprised that the Cleveland Browns cut long snapper Ryan Pontbriand on Tuesday, like so many of his former teammates seem to be, you shouldn’t. Pontbriand sealed his fate when he admitted he was in a snapping slump, whatever that means.

Pontbriand dribbling the ball to holder Brad Maynard last Sunday on a crucial field goal attempt against the Cincinnati Bengals was the last straw, of course. But even before that he had seemingly lost the ability to accurately do the one and only task for which he was being paid: snap the friggin’ ball.

In baseball they call this either Chuck Knoblauch’s Disease or Steve Sax Syndrome. In football it may very well become known as Pontbriand Panic. And irrespective of whatever accomplishments may have preceded the onset of the affliction, once you develop the yips you’d have an easier time convincing Child Services that Dina Lohan or Kris Jenner are mother of the year candidates then in correcting the problem.

When Johnny Miller and Ian-Baker Finch lost the ability to make 3 foot putts, they went to the broadcasting booth. It mattered little that their tee to green game was still solid. The money is won on the greens and Miller and Finch were so overcome by technique issues as they tried to work through the problem that it was literally painful to watch either putt.

It’s almost that way with Pontbriand, which is why he’s gone. A coach holding his breath just hoping the ball makes it back to its intended spot on a straight line isn’t a good sign and that’s exactly where Shurmur found himself with Pontbriand.

Pontbriand said that when he botched a snap earlier this season that helped contribute to another brutal Browns’ loss he went home and made 150 snaps just to get the bad feel off his hands. But those are the easy snaps to make. There’s no stout defensive lineman breathing down his neck; there’s no game on the line.

That Pontbriand did his job well for a number of years is actually pretty irrelevant. Professional sports has always been a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately business and by that measure, when it came to Pontbriand, the answer was “not much.”

It’s probably difficult for most fans to remember that while long snapping has always required special expertise it wasn’t always a specialty job. It used to be that almost anyone else on the team fulfilled the role of the person responsible for getting the ball to the punter or the holder. Sometimes it was a defensive player. Other times it was a back up lineman. Teams simply didn’t take up a roster spot for this one specialized skill and it all seemed to work out just fine for every great punter and place kicker in the history of the sport for quite a long time. But apparently there was room for improvement and thus begat the age of the long snapper as a commodity separate and distinct from any other position on the field.

According to Wikipedia, a source nearly as reputable as TMZ, Pontbriand held the distinction of being the highest drafted long snapper in the history of the NFL when he was picked by the Browns in the 5th round. Pontrbriand played in two Pro Bowls so it’s hard to say that it was a wasted pick and yet why is it hard to imagine, especially given the awful draft history of the re-born Browns that using any pick on a long snapper was simply a waste of time? Maybe the answer lies in the fact that it’s still hard to imagine, even in this day and age, that the Browns, particularly these Browns, a team that needs more and not less draft choices, would blow a choice on any long snapper when their needs have always been far more vast. Ah, another column for another day.

If you want to truly understand why the Browns cut Pontbriand rather then allow him to work through whatever mental block he was experiencing, you can point to two things.

First, even though this Browns squad never had any playoff aspirations, winning still is rather important to the overall psyche of the team and its fans. Pontbriand cost the team at least one win and probably two. In the grand scheme it doesn’t mean much but on a micro level both losses were incredibly deflating.

Second, the Browns are simply a team that can’t afford any mistakes if it ever has a hope of winning again. One bad snap can happen. Two raise a few eyebrows. Three is a trend and Pontbriand had entered trend territory at least three games ago.

So goodbye, Ryan Pontbriand. I’m sure you’ll find work again. Unfortunately, and sadly, I’m sure you’ll botch snaps again. Once the yips get in your blood, the only long term cure is to take up another sport.

So it looks like there will be a NBA season after all. That certainly was a very short nuclear winter.

Actually it’s not a surprise that the NBA and its players figured out a settlement to what ailed them. It’s exactly how collective bargaining is supposed to work. The beauty is that economic factors eventually come to bear on all the parties and it forces them to get more realistic.

NBA owners or most of them anyway have debt that needs serviced. It’s tough to do that without the income flowing that the debt was based on in the first place. NBA players or most of them anyway have their own type of debt to service as well which can be particularly difficult without an outsized paycheck coming their way.

And that, kids, is the real lesson of labor law. Disputes over new collective bargaining agreements, especially ones where the owner is trying to cut back on the largesse of the previous version, are common and difficult. But eventually they do get solved.

There’s a school of thought that suggests that the players’ lawsuits was the impetus. Perhaps but not because there was any legal merit to them. All that litigation promised was paydays for the lawyers and interminable delays to the resolution of the ultimate issues. Staring down the barrel of a gun being held by lawyers and judges tends to make parties skittish and so it was that the owners and the players finally found common ground.

Good for them.

Meanwhile and well under the radar, major league baseball owners and players entered into a new agreement without all the saber rattling that usually attends these things.

In each case, baseball and basketball, the issues the parties solved are important to them and mostly irrelevant to the average fan, with one exception—economic disparity.

On that front, it appears as though the NBA owners made a bit more headway in giving its smaller market teams the opportunity to compete on a level playing field than did baseball owners. For reasons that both confound and mystify, baseball owners continue to delude themselves into thinking that there economic structure is fundamentally sound. As if.

In basketball, the owners didn’t do as much to put in a hard salary cap as they could have given the leverage they had, but they have made it far more expensive for big market teams to spend freely at the expense of their partners in smaller markets. The real question is whether or not it works.

Statistics consistently bear it out that when a team loses its superstar, like Cleveland and LeBron James, like Chicago and Michael Jordan, it’s a 10 year death march back to respectability. There are several reasons that conspired to create that situation but it is a serious, serious problem.

The reason Dan Gilbert was such a vocal proponent of making a fundamental sea change in NBA economics was that he well understood all the impediments to his ability to get a good competitive team on the court in a short period of time. The question now is whether any inroads were made toward that goal with the new agreement. We won’t know that answer for at least a few more years or, stated differently, about 90-100 more losses by the Cavs.

Still, for fans of all sports, we now have that rare moment where there aren’t any dark clouds of labor unrest hanging over any major sport. Baseball, football and basketball are now in the midst of very long-term deals and hockey, well, let’s just say that there won’t be any problems any time soon there either. It will be a long while before the players feel chippy again having lost an entire season a few years ago.


Ohio State’s hiring of Urban Meyer with the expectation that it will turn things around immediately leads to this week’s question to ponder: If the Browns had hired Urban Meyer, would Browns’ fans have those same expectations? Bonus question: if they did, would they be justified?

Monday, November 28, 2011

Urban Architecture

How you feel about the Ohio State Buckeyes hiring Urban Meyer as its next football coach probably says a lot about how you feel about college football in general these days.

For Buckeyes fans, Meyer’s hiring, assuming he’s the Meyer of two national championships and not the burned out Dick Vermeil-type that left Florida in the lurch, this is the best possible outcome to the worst possible scenario.

No one outside of the drive-by moralistic hypocrites in the national media who simultaneously scream for an even bigger payday for a national championship while belittling the sordid side of what all that money brings with it wanted to see Jim Tressel leave the Buckeyes.

Tressel committed a serious infraction of NCAA rules. The system depends on honesty from those running programs and Tressel wasn’t. It’s highly debatable whether he deserved the equivalent of the death penalty for his single transgression, but that plane has flown and there won’t be a return trip.

Having Tressel be replaced by Meyer is almost scripted too perfectly for the locals, kind of like Al Lerner pushing his friend Art Modell to move the franchise to Baltimore and then buying the new one in Cleveland. It surely makes the nervous nellies think that Meyer in Columbus can’t possibly end well, even if he wins big.

Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Meyer has a consistent record of high achievement and the requisite Ohio State roots so there isn’t any reason to think that his success won’t continue. Yet for many fans, particularly those in Cleveland who understand that every silver lining in their sports world exists merely to deflect attention briefly from the dark clouds, they’ll watch with that same skeptical eye usually reserved for the Indians and the Browns.

For those solely focused on the Buckeyes, like the more pragmatic folks downstate, they tend to take their luck when they find it and don’t question its source. So Meyer as a Buckeye is the lucky penny with no downside and if he does fail there will be someone better to come along anyway.

Indeed there really isn’t a downside to the Meyer hiring. He’s the right age. He’s coming off a self-imposed sabbatical, which means his batteries are fully charged, and he seems poised to pounce like a dog at the ankle of the UPS guy. He says the right things. He does the right things.

Once we step outside of the parochial world of the Buckeyes program and its fans, though, all that the hiring of Meyer suggests is that for all the good talk about reigning in a sport that is careening out of control, no one’s serious. Not Gordon Gee. Not the NCAA and certainly not the media despite their constant moralizing.

It starts with the money that Meyer is being paid. We’ll know soon enough the exact terms because it will be a public record. But it’s multi-millions over multi-years. And yet in the context of the Buckeyes program it’s a blip. No non-revenue sports will get cut and overall it’s a cost that’s easily absorbed by a nine figure enterprise.

The fact that any college team, public or private, can afford to pay that kind of money to a football coach is really a rather shocking thing, isn’t it? Yet it’s common place, so much so in fact that complaining about the spiraling costs of high quality football coaches puts one in the “get off of my lawn” category.

But isn’t all this piling on of the cash what got programs like Ohio State, Auburn, Miami, Boise State, Michigan, and, of course, Penn State, in trouble in the first place?

Maybe that answer, too, depends on your perspective. Still it’s hard to not place the latest volley in the arms race that is big time coach hiring in the context of the larger picture about all that is wrong with college football.

There rarely is a week that goes by when one program or another has run afoul of the NCAA. Part of that stems from a rule book so draconian and yet so oblique that it’s hard sometimes to even find a thread of logic for the underlying rule. The other part of it stems from the fact that the pressure to win in college football is every bit as great as it is in the NFL because the money is too great to be ignored.

On the same day that Meyer was hired by Ohio State, 10 other coaches, at least, lost their jobs and all for the same essential reason, the negative impact those coaches were having on the athletic department’s bottom line. That includes big names like Rick Neuiheisel at UCLA and Ron Zook at Illinois to the next tier down like Turner Gill at Kansas to still another tier down like Ron Ianello at Akron.

The Ianello firing is instructive because even at the level at which the Zips play, winning and the money that follows winning, guide the decisions. Ianello won exactly two games in his two seasons so on the surface the firing shouldn’t even raise an eyebrow.

But in reaching the decision, Zips athletic director Tom Wistrcill had to notice the increasing abundance of open seats at their new stadium. Akron’s stadium is modest by Big 10 standards but keeping it mostly filled is still important to the overall health of the football program’s budget. So Akron will find a new coach, pay him about $400,000 and hope for the best, which means more butts in the seats.

Meanwhile Meyer’s top assistants will be pulling down at least that much to further ensure that a football program teetering at the moment doesn’t have an extended stay in the land of 6-6. Money doesn’t always guarantee success. But spending big money to make even bigger money should guarantee against extended failure.

Meanwhile it’s not hard to wonder what must go through the minds of all those players, particularly the likes of Dan Herron and Devier Posey who got smacked down so hard because of their desire to have even the faintest of taste of the big bills being thrown around like confetti after the BCS title game.

Surely they must shake their heads and wonder why the system conspired to hurt their brief careers so harshly over chump change while it greatly enriches those at the top of the pyramid. Consider just the example of how a failure like Rich Rodriguez ended up with a bigger salary from Arizona then he was pulling down from Michigan before he was fired. They’re hoping certainly that the Michigan experience was an anomaly and he’ll go back to being the Rodriguez of the more successful West Virgnia experience. Their budget depends on it.

It all just proves the point that no mistake is too big to overcome if there is even a slightest chance that it will bring more money to the program.

If it weren’t for the fact that nothing in the great State of Ohio is more beloved then Buckeyes football, given this kind of economic disparity underscored by the Meyer hiring you could almost see the roots of an Occupy Ohio State movement take hold. Almost.

I’m not going to begrudge the Buckeyes their glamor hire because I’m a Buckeyes fan like the rest of the sane citizens of this State. It’s important to me for reasons that are completely stupid in the grand scheme of life to see that the team succeeds. I happen to think Meyer is a fabulous hire and since I’m not directly paying for it, I couldn’t be happier. The real worst case scenario to me would have been hiring the next John Cooper. That’s not going to happen.

Yet I’m nonetheless perplexed at the insanity that has enveloped college football generally and keep batting around the question in my mind if the Meyer hiring is a further sign of the coming apocalypse or just another head shaking moment in a sport so corrupt that these things now seem perfectly acceptable.

There’s no question, though, that with all that the money has brought the sport, things like constant conference re-alignment, jerry-rigged national championships, low-life boosters, players and their “consultants” gaming the system, shady coaches who look the other way because they are just as scared as anyone as to what lies down that dark alley, a day of reckoning is coming. Let’s just hope it’s still a few years and another Buckeyes national championship away.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lingering Items--Turkey Edition

When all hell broke loose at Ohio State last Spring, it wasn’t surprising that eventually stories would get written that would be less than flattering of former head coach Jim Tressel, even if lightly sourced and highly speculative. He was fair game, after all, because he had admittedly failed to disclose potential violations of NCAA regulations to his boss, athletic director Gene Smith. When he signed an affidavit indicating he was unaware of any potential violations that pretty much made him a piece of raw meat to any writer with a grudge.

Those stories that did get written, like the Sports Illustrated hit job, were lightly sourced and highly speculative but mostly revealed nothing new nor did anything to cause people to re-assess all they ever thought about him. Tressel didn’t get a pass but his reputation didn’t take any more hits.

That won’t happen for Joe Paterno. The grievous nature of his misconduct is so insidious that in large measure it truly does undo a lifetime of other good work. It’s not just that Paterno failed at protecting innocent children from a creepy alleged pedophile, it’s also that Paterno actually used that lifetime of other good work as a club to bang over the heads of his bosses whenever they tried to rein him in.

The Wall Street Journal, in an article that appeared Tuesday, left no doubt as to exactly why Paterno did deserve to take the fall he did. Paterno may have had a supervisor but it was in name only. The story left no doubt that Paterno had an unrelenting grip on the administration at Penn State for years. It also left no doubt as to how exactly Paterno could become so blinded by the power that he yielded that he would look the other way when his friend and assistant, Jerry Sandusky, was engaging in very suspicious and odd behavior.

The best part of the story? It’s not lightly sourced or highly speculative. It is established not through whispery shadowy figures looking for their 15 minutes of fame but instead by the official records Penn State was forced to keep as a public institution.

A series of email exchanges and other incidents surrounding Paterno’s vaunted program tells the story very clearly of the man who really ruled Penn State and how in other contexts Paterno was willing to misuse his power to further not the interest of the school at large but those of his team and players and, ultimately, himself.

The WSJ article, written by Reed Albergotti, describes clashes that Paterno repeatedly had with the Penn State standards and conduct officer over the increasingly large number of disciplinary infractions committed by his players, things like campus fights and drunk driving, and how in each instance Paterno was able to keep his players from being subjected to the same standards as the general student population.

An old school type, Paterno was of the firm mind that athletes were different and could be dealt with separately and behind the closed doors of the locker room. He never did accept subjecting his players to the same rules as the rest of the student population.

In one particularly damning confrontation (though, frankly, it’s all pretty damning) Paterno forced the hand of university president Graham Spanier by giving him an ultimatum: fire the standards and conduct officer, Dr. Vicky Triponey, or forego any fund raising by Paterno. This was no idle threat. Paterno raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the university over his long tenure and he was telling Spanier that the spigot would stop unless Spanier fired another university employee that had dared to cross ol’ JoePa.

This ultimatum came out of an incident involving a player that Triponey had suspended, Dan Connor, for making harassing phone calls to a retired assistant coach. Despite the suspension, Paterno told Connor to suit up anyway. Triponey told Connor that if he did he faced expulsion. That’s when Paterno made his ultimatum, which prompted a visit from Spanier to Triponey at her home.

Spanier told Triponey that if forced to choose, he would choose Triponey over Paterno in the squabble but Spanier also made it quite clear to her that he didn’t want to be forced to make that choice. Given the not-so-subtle message, Triponey relented and significantly reduced Connor’s suspension.

That was somewhat of a prelude to another ugly confrontation, the one that ultimately pushed Triponey to quit her efforts to wade through the cesspool that Paterno created.

In 2007 6 players were charged with forcing their way into a campus apartment and beating up several students, one severely. Triponey’s department took over the inquiry and was thwarted in her efforts to investigate by the players who essentially refused to talk to her. When Triponey complained about the stonewalling to Paterno and suggested he have his players cooperate, Paterno refused, telling her that the players shouldn’t be expected to cooperate with the school’s disciplinary process because to do so would pit player against player thus impacting the team dynamic.

Stop and consider for a moment how seriously twisted Paterno’s thinking had to be to make that case. Publicly he espoused a “do the right thing” approach. That’s always easy when things are quiet. But “do the right thing” only works if you follow it when times are tough. Here, Paterno deliberately kept his players from cooperating in a university investigation into allegations that they beat up other university students.

Ultimately and not surprisingly the players suffered very little in the way of discipline for the ugly incident and Paterno cleared his conscience by imposing his own discipline—having the whole team pick up trash after football games. Very old school. Very stupid.

Once Paterno was able to rid the university of a pest like Triponey, her replacement was far more compliant, agreeing with Paterno and making a recommendation to the university that only Paterno should have the right to discipline his players.

In large measure, this all starts to answer the question of why Paterno, Spanier and the rest of the administration would be so tone deaf when it came to the accusations against Sandusky. In large measure it was because the university had long since abdicated any authority over anything Paterno touched. Is it really hard to imagine Paterno stonewalling a real investigation into Sandusky, especially when you consider that Paterno waited a day after he found out before he told his boss?

Meanwhile and despite all public statements to the contrary, it’s now more clear than ever that Paterno had little interest or regard for anything outside of his football program. His fundraising activities, while prolific and greatly benefiting the university generally, intentionally became the sword he’d use to cut down any resistance in his path. It’s kind of sick, kind of twisted but ultimately is why football programs like this get so out of whack.

Ultimately, for all the good that money brought, it was stained and what’s even more important, the university knew it. Spanier and the university’s board of trustees created a monster in Paterno and then recoiled at any attempts to control their creation. In truth they couldn’t anyway. His ego run amok and his values long since compromised, he was a runaway train for years and it was only a matter of time before he either died or crashed, the university administration apparently ambivalent as to which would occur first. Unfortunately, the well-being of several young boys became collateral damage.

So the Indians are on the verge of signing Grady Sizemore. Surprise, surprise. What I’m looking forward to is exactly how Sizemore and his agent spin the lack of interest Sizemore clearly failed to generate on the free agent market.

The anticipated incentive-laden one year deal is essentially the same kind of deal that the Indians have been giving the injured and lame for years on the if-come. It’s mostly little risk because if the player does perform the Indians benefit for a year and the player benefits by pricing himself out of a market the size of Cleveland. Rarely, though, do these actually work out.

The lack of interest in Sizemore isn’t surprising. He was good early, regressed and then has been hurt the last several years. His legacy will be of potential unfulfilled. The injuries mostly did him in but in truth even when healthy his skills were not improving.

Though Sizemore is more or less a fan favorite, the real problem with the impending deal is that it is simply a band-aid, a way of avoiding making decisions about the club’s future without Sizemore. By cutting him loose initially when he rejected a restructuring of his contract, the Indians more or less said that it was time to move on. Now they aren’t so sure.

It’s that kind of indecision that really keeps the franchise from fully progressing. There’s an argument of course that the team has other important decisions to make so avoiding one in the outfield for another year may make some sense. Perhaps. But the forceful counter is that every time they make a decision like this it keeps them from developing a longer term solution, which is what they ultimately will need.

In the long run the Indians would be far better off by being more definitive in their approach. Having decided that Sizemore’s talent no longer matched his financial ambitions, the Indians should have been content to merely move forward and stop inhibiting the progress of whoever it is they had tentatively decided would fill in the gap.

One of my favorite things to do after each Browns game is to listen to a couple of the radio call-in shows to gauge fan reaction where every loss is greeted with the gloom of a coming apocalypse and every victory is treated as one step closer to the playoffs.

For those not so inclined, let’s just say that there’s a fair amount of the fan base (assuming these callers represent the diversity of the fan base) that was already willing to pull the plug on Pat Shurmur after the loss to the Rams. While I expected similar irrationality after the Browns’ win over the Jaguars on Sunday, I was a bit surprised at its depth.

For many callers, the victory got them reassessing the Browns’ 4-6 record to the point where they concluded that this team really should be 6-4 if it had any breaks and in playoff contention. After all there was the 4th quarter melt down in the first loss. Then there was the heartbreaking loss to the Rams. And hey, when you think about it, there were only two games in which they really weren’t competitive—Tennessee and Houston.

Oy vey. Lest anyone get too excited, let’s concede for the moment that theoretically a few of their games could have gone a different way. Now let’s visit the reality as to why they didn’t.

Simply put, this team isn’t good enough to overcome even simple false start penalties. Even in those so-called tough losses, the Browns weren’t exactly lighting it up on offense nor were they losing to really good teams. This Browns team has struggled against every manner of competition in its fight for respectability. The fact that it only capitulated against two teams shouldn’t be used to deflect what your eyes are otherwise telling you.

If there is one positive about this team at this moment, it is in the simple fact that the basic structure of a real franchise is now in place. What’s missing of course is what makes the difference between bad and good teams—players. There just are too many people starting on the Browns that would be relegated to special teams almost anywhere else. When those starters get hurt they are replaced by players that would struggle to remain on most teams’ practice squads.

As much as we’d all like to believe it, this Browns team, as presently constructed, isn’t a good one just hoping to break out. It’s a bad one just hoping to hang on. There’s some reason for optimism for the future but let’s never delude ourselves into thinking that the playoffs are just one or two players away. It’s that kind of myopia that has for years put the franchise in the box from which it can’t seem to escape.


LeBron James and his other self-absorbed buddies are going on a 4-city basketball tour starting in Akron. Unless the tickets are free, it strikes me as a waste of time and money but it does lead to this week’s question to ponder: What’s a better value, LeBron’s Tour or the annual holiday visit of the Harlem Globetrotters?