Friday, February 25, 2011

Dead End Just Ahead

It came in the form of “breaking news” from the Cleveland Cavaliers management. The Cavs acquired Baron Davis and a 2011 1st round pick in a trade with the Los Angeles Clippers. There was no mention of which part or parts of the Cavs’ leaky ship were being discarded for Davis, but it didn’t matter.

Then came the next text where the Cavs acquired two “projects” from the Celtics in exchange for a relatively meaningless second round pick.

All this was followed up by the inevitable press conference by Cavs general manager Chris Grant where he explained the thinking, acted as if these latest deals substantially move the franchise forward, and then praised owner Dan Gilbert’s commitment to winning.

I’ve seen World B. Free play on bad Cavs teams so excuse me if it’s hard to get too excited by the acquisition of an aging but talented point guard with an attitude problem.

If these moves were supposed to engender excitement among the fans, they failed miserably. At best it gets a raised eyebrow and nothing more. Even with the first round pick and the fact that Davis gets to stay in Cleveland for another year at least and bitch and moan about it in the process, the Cavs aren’t incrementally closer to contending for a title now then they were on Monday.

It’s not even that I’m down on Cavaliers management in the sense that I feel like they’ll follow the Cleveland sports trend of squandering high draft picks. It’s just that despite all logic, the NBA remains the most difficult professional sport in which to rebuild into a contender. The statistics on this point are overwhelming.

Let’s face it. The only reason the Cavaliers even came close to sniffing a NBA title the last few years was that it had the league’s best player on its team. He’s gone and he’s never coming back. And unless and until the next LeBron James lands in Cleveland by dumb luck, the Cavaliers don’t have much of a chance to sniffing a title again.

I’d say the NBA is at a crossroads but that was actually several years ago when that crossroad was in front of them and David Stern and the owners walked down exactly the wrong path toward what is surely a dead end.

The NBA is a broken league and there are a myriad of factors why, from a bizarre and hole-ridden salary cap, to a playoff system that is too expansive, to a collective bargaining agreement that is completely indifferent to the so-called small market teams.

I’ve gone through this several times now and won’t turn over the same shovels of dirt once again. But give me a team outside of the gilded few and I’ll show you a team that is no closer to winning a NBA title today than it was a decade ago and the culprit won’t be as much franchise mismanagement as it is institutional failures.

With the NBA’s trading deadline having passed, the only thing of note to be gleaned is that there are now 4 cities that have been sold out by the outsized wants of superstar players who think they invented the game. Toronto lost Chris Bosh, although I still am four square in the camp that Bosh is about the 138th best player in the league. Days later the Cavs lost James. Denver was forced to trade Carmelo Anthony because Denver is too confining to his New York City state of mind and on the heels of that trade came Utah’s trade of Deron Williams. And I really don’t care if the Kremlin owns the Nets. If Williams doesn’t find New Jersey to his liking, and he won’t, no worries. He’s a free agent after next season and he’ll find his way to the Knicks. Count on it.

Next up, of course, is Chris Paul. He’ll leave New Orleans and find himself probably in New York as well so that the Knicks will have their own trio of semi-superstars to counteract the Miami Heat and their like-minded trio.

If the NBA is starting to look like a game of Risk it’s because that’s exactly what it’s become. Territories are being conquered, the number of continents is shrinking and soon the game will be dominated by two or three players on the verge of world domination.

The irony, of course, is that as the NBA’s reach effectively shrinks, the accomplishments of the remaining few legitimate teams become cheaper. Where’s the sport in the same few power teams buzzing through the regular season against permanently weakened franchises and then passing around among them the Davey O’Brien trophy every year?

Some might argue that Kevin Garnett started the trend when he escaped a frustrating situation in Minnesota. But Garnett’s escape was as much about the franchise wanting to repay Garnett for his 12 previous seasons of dedication than it was Garnett forcing management to accommodate his desire to go somewhere else where the winning would be easier.

Still, the Garnett situation may have set the table for what came next. It’s certainly not beyond the pale that James completely misread Garnett’s situation in Minnesota, projected it upon himself in Cleveland, and decided to move while still on the front end of his prime years rather than on the back end.

But that’s probably giving James too much credit. So much of what he did, from tanking the series against the Celtics to the process he went through last summer that was a fraud to the self-aggrandizing show he put on with the aid of a corrupt sports network, all seemed designed as part of an exit strategy formed years ago to better rig his own chances at becoming the transcendent sports figure he sees himself as.

It may still work out for James but his legacy will always be tarnished. Still, you can’t dismiss the impact it had on players like Chris Paul, Deron Williams and Carmelo Anthony, to name just a few. For reasons that still mystify, they look to someone like James as a leader despite all the evidence that all he’ll ever be capable of is being Ed McMahon to someone else’s Johnny Carson.

If you think these latest moves are a blip, then you haven’t been paying attention. The inmates are running the asylum and getting the keys back from their greedy little hands isn’t going to be easy.

Stepping back a moment from the shit storm that is the NBA at the moment to ponder the much bigger picture, it occurs to me that the NBA is actually in far worse shape than major league baseball, the other poster child for institutional messes.

Since 2000, 16 different teams have been in the World Series while only 10 different teams have been in the NBA Finals. If things continue on as they are in the NBA, 10 years from now you’ll be able to look back and there may have been only 4 or 5 different teams in the NBA Finals.

If that’s progress, then it would be fascinating to understand what the powers to be believe problems look like.

Baron Davis may work out just fine for the Cavs and the two projects they inherited from Boston may be serviceable players. But the best case scenario, without a fundamental shift in the business model of the NBA, is that all these players plus the two first round picks next year will make the Cavs just good enough to stay in NBA purgatory.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Labor Armageddon

If the NFL Players' Association, the bargaining arm for NFL players, is counting on public sympathy swinging their way as they take on the owners, they may want to think again.

For unions and their members, this isn’t exactly the best of times. The aggressive stance toward eliminating the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions taking place in the legislatures of Wisconsin and Ohio at the moment is to a great extent reflective of how little the public sympathizes at the moment with unions generally. That can't be good news for NFL players who may be counting on that public support in order to resist the owners' stated intention of redistributing the league's wealth more in their favor.

Don’t underestimate the importance of that public point of view. In ways large and small it will guide the outcome of the NFL negotiations and probably guide the upcoming negotiations in the NBA just as much as it will guide the outcome of the debates in Wisconsin and Ohio.

For reasons I’ve never quite understood, every time there is a strike in professional sports, there is a rush by the public to sympathize with the players because, apparently, the owners are really, really rich. But as Wisconsin is teaching us, class warfare of this nature is so 1992.

The ability of the governor of Wisconsin and the Republican-controlled legislature to effectively demonize the unions will no doubt have implications on how the NFL Players Union and their counterparts in the NBA choose to make their moves at their collective bargaining tables. It will force them to switch from combat to saving face mode.

Indeed, it may very well be that the public, influenced by the rather effective, but strident, marketing campaign of the governor of Wisconsin, will actively sympathize with the owners this time. If that’s the case, it will be a remarkable turnaround from where sympathies typically lie in any labor dispute.

At the moment, I don’t get the sense from fans that they will care all that much if the NFL or NBA owners invoke the nuclear option of shutting down their league until they get their way. There will be some blowback, to be sure. Fans sometimes are slow to return. But as we’ve seen in both baseball and hockey, they will return.

This isn't the place for a political debate. There are plenty of other outlets for that. But if public sympathies are indeed shifting because of Wisconsin then it’s important to understanding how the problems in the NFL will get solved to at least take a lesson from the Wisconsin experience.

The key lesson we’re learning from Wisconsin at the moment is that negotiation is neither necessary nor wanted. The governor brought into office on the wave of anti-incumbentism, feels that he has a mandate to not just take on the unions that he think are mostly responsible for busting his state's budget, but to actually eliminate them in practice if not in theory. He has a point. It's not as if the governor hid his agenda from the voters.

On an effectiveness scale, if it’s achieved it’s pretty effective. It probably won’t solve their budget problems, but that may not be the point anyway. The longer term desire appears to be to paint the unions as enemies of progress and fiscal responsibility. One has to wonder who future governors of Wisconsin and Ohio will then blame for their budget problems once the unions are gone, but that’s another issue for another day.

For our purposes though, it's enough to simply suggest that there isn't a whole lot of difference between the Wisconsin governor's view of unions then the approach that NFL owners are taking, though in fairness no one is suggesting that NFL owners are trying to break their unions. They are trying to eliminate their effectiveness, certainly, but eliminating them entirely doesn't appear to be on the agenda.

The problem, of course, is that all of this anti-union feelings are misplaced. What the Wisconsin governor and legislature are really fighting is the same thing the NFL owners are fighting, the past effectiveness of the unions on the other side. Whatever deals they currently have, whatever benefits the union members currently receive, are the result of a collective bargaining process in which the decision makers on the management side granted those benefits as a fair trade off for whatever it got out of that same deal.

Rather than deal with the issues at the bargaining table, where things like that tend to get done (or not), his method of solving the problem is to invoke Armageddon. In Wisconsin, that's defined as eliminating the unions entirely. In the NFL, it's defined as a long lockout and the cancellation of next season, if necessary, to force your will.

Just like in Wisconsin, the NFL and its owners are using the threat of Armageddon as a way of getting back what they previously gave away.

To simplify the stakes in the NFL, what the entire discussion comes down to is approximately $1 billion. That’s the hole that the owners see in their revenue pie, a hole by the way that opened because they gave it away the last time the parties sat down at the table.

What happened during the last NFL negotiations is that the owners, under the guidance of then commissioner Paul Tagliabue, favored labor peace at the expense of economics. That’s a fair trade. But of course there are a number of owners who soon thereafter had buyer’s remorse and have been spoiling to correct this perceived wrong ever since the ink dried on the last contract. It’s the reason the owners opted out of that agreement a year early and it’s the reason the owners have been rather straightforward in dangling the “lockout” word around. They want the union to understand in no uncertain terms that they mean business.

Indeed they do.

The billion dollar hole the owners see are the result of flat revenues from ticket sales, the sale of broadcast rights and the turning off of the public spigot that helped subsidize all those new stadiums of years past. What’s interesting is that the more strident owners didn’t like the deal cut the last time not because they foresaw flattening revenues but simply because they felt they deserved a bigger piece of the pie all along. As revenues did flatten, the view that the pie should be re-cut became mainstream.

The owners are offering the opportunity of growing revenues by adding two more regular season games. The point there is that more regular season games juices the revenue pie, meaning that although the union will get a smaller percentage, in real dollars their take should be roughly the same as it’s been.

The math on that is far from an exact science and is based mostly on projections, but at least it represents a legitimate starting point. What the union has to contend with is whether or not an expanded schedule and the heightened injury risk is worth chasing those extra dollars in order to essentially remain in the same place they’ve been.

It's a positive sign that the parties are in mediation, but short of union capitulation it probably won't be successful. And when it isn't, the ball is in the court for the owners to do what they feel they have to do, and they will.

So, yes, expect a lockout. And because the lockout has no real impact until September, look for it to last a good long while. This time, though, the difference may very well be that the sympathies lie with the owners and if that really does come to pass, the lockout will last up until the moment the union socializes that point among its members. And when that does happen, the owners will have gotten their way. But just like in Wisconsin, they'll leave for another day the question whether or not they actually ever did solve their problems n the long term. With history as the lesson, probably not

Friday, February 18, 2011

Someone Else with Money Problems

On the day that the Cleveland Indians announced the signing of 74-year old Orlando Cabrera to play, what? second base , came the item from Baseball Prospectus that it projects the Indians to finish at 72-90. The issues are completely related.

The Baseball Prospectus ratings are based on the rankings of each player on the team and their respective playing time in the major leagues. It then makes a projection on where that team will finish. While Cabrera being part of the Indians wasn’t part of that analysis, ask yourself whether it really matters.

I certainly wouldn’t begrudge the fine folks at Baseball Prospectus trying to introduce prediction theory to the masses. But in this case it’s wasted effort. Science isn’t really needed to predict that it will be another miserable Indians’ summer.

When the biggest headline in the off season is reserved for the signing of Cabrera you kind of just know this isn’t going to be your year. But if you needed more proof then you needn’t have looked any further than the interview Cabrera gave from Arizona in which he had an ace bandage wrapped around his right shoulder that was masking what looked to be a block of ice the size of a Buick LeSabre.

General manager Chris Antonetti could make it much easier on the team’s accounting department if he just has them hand over Cabrera’s an entire check now rather than in bi-weekly installments because the chance of Cabrera not coming down with a season ending injury during spring training is probably is far less than the chance that the Cavaliers could take the Lakers in a 7-game series.

I fully understand that spring training is all about optimism. It’s the time when dreamers can dream and we’re not supposed to utter the phrase “wait ‘til next year” for at least a few more months. But really, is there anything about the Indians at the moment that inspires optimism?

Actually, yes. For starters, when Cabrera comes up lame, it won’t cost the Indians all that much. Next, we could talk about the parcel of “prospects” that this team stockpiles like so many nickels and dimes, but doing so is to admit defeat in a sense. The prospects arrived via the usual route—the trade of a veteran on the verge of making more money than this ballclub is willing to pay.

But that actually gets us to the real point here and it’s the real reason to be optimistic. The Indians aren’t the St. Louis Cardinals.

Right now the Cardinals are dealing with a real Indians-type problem, a superstar who has dollar signs for eyeballs.

Albert Pujols is in his free agent season and when he and the Cardinals couldn’t reach a deal on the same day that the Indians signed Cabrera (oh, the irony), Pujols did what so many Indians players of the past have done—shut down negotiations until after the season. Cleveland fans know what that’s code for, don’t we?
Pujols, of course, left the door open that a deal could get done after the season. But that’s a game of chicken that usually doesn’t end well for the team. All this means of course is that the Cardinals face the unenviable choice of going all-in on this season by keeping Pujols around and trying to win it all or building for the ubiquitous future that never comes as a parade of Pujols-wannabes dot the roster for the next 10 or so years.

It’s actually refreshing in a way to see another team and its fan base go through the gut wrenching exercise where they curse short-sighted management and skinflint ownership for not tying a million ton millstone around its neck in the form of a contract that will eat up far more of the budget than any sane person would ever recommend.

That, really, is what St. Louis ownership is wrestling with at the moment. It’s almost ludicrous to imagine, but the sticking point in the negotiations is that the Cardinals feel like Pujols can scrape by on an average salary that puts him in the top 10 paid players in the league and Pujols and his agents feel like an average salary that puts him in the top 5 paid players in the league will better help him get through those pesky retirement years.

The Pujols problem, like the CC Sabathia problem, like the Cliff Lee problem, like the Manny Ramirez problem, like the Jim Thome problem, is really a major league baseball problem borne of the unbridled economic Wild West that it allows to exist.

It plays out almost perfectly when you consider the context of Pujols’ demands. According to the USA Today major league baseball salary database, the top 4 salaries belonged to, you guessed it, New York Yankees. The fifth highest salary belongs to a member of, you guessed it, the New York Mets.

But that only tells part of the story. The rest of the story is that what is skewing the numbers the most is the top major league salary of one Alex Rodriguez. His $33 million per season is $9 million more than the Yankees are paying Sabathia. If you eliminate Rodriguez’s salary from the mix, then the Cardinals and Pujols are, at best, a mere few million dollars per season off, irrespective of whether his salary is based on the average of the top 5 or the top 10 players.

The Yankees, in an insane race to overpay nearly anyone who can hit .290 or sport an ERA under 4.50, aren’t just driving the market for superstar salaries, they are the market. It is the reason that the Cardinals ultimately are likely to lose Pujols and for some reason commissioner Bud Selig, the worst commissioner of any sport ever, and the rest of the idiot owners in baseball don’t see anything wrong with it.

To drive home the point of how absolutely stupendously ridiculous this all is, it’s not like Pujols is exactly underpaid at the moment. This year he’s scheduled to make $16 million. Last year that would have put him in the top 20 overall. The difference between what the Cardinals want to pay Pujols and what Pujols wants amounts to about $3 million per season, which is the difference between the averages of the top 5 and the top 10 salaries even when you consider Rodriguez’s ridiculous salary. If you remove Rodriguez as some sort of outlier, then the two sides are really arguing about $1.5 million per year.

Now the devil can be in the details, meaning that the parties aren’t really talking about a one year contract. But according to sources, the number of years of an agreement isn’t the issue, just the yearly salary. Thus it really does boil down to a pittance, relatively speaking, in the difference between the sides.

Yet the Cardinals may very well lose their superstar over this and the Yankees or the Mets or perhaps the Red Sox will get fatter as a result. And in the process of course the salaries will be driven ever higher making it that much tougher for teams like St. Louis or Cleveland to ever compete on a level playing field.

So yes, again, there is reason for optimism in Cleveland. For once the fans don’t have to cope with the emotional toll of watching a homegrown superstar gut the team on his way out the door. But then again, that’s only because there aren’t any of those on the Cleveland roster at the moment and there don’t look to be any anytime soon. So there is that.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Hamsters on a Wheel

Every time I take a week off from the confined world that is Cleveland sports, I expect to come back to a changed landscape. Instead it’s a world that moves with all the speed of a Judge Parker or Mary Worth story line. In this town you could literally go weeks without much news and you’d come back and nothing much will have changed.

The Cleveland Browns continued to make baby steps on their 10+ year journey through the NFL desert. The Cleveland Indians are getting ready to kick off their spring training and as usual there are more questions than answers.

But one thing did change, though not my feelings about it. The Cleveland Cavaliers won a game. They beat the Los Angeles Clippers in a game with a tenth of the stakes and 100 times the drama of the Cavaliers-Celtics playoff series last spring. I happened to be in the Los Angeles area and in a bar watching the end of that game. When J.J. Hickson blocked the shot at the end of regulation virtually none of the locals seemed to much care whether or not it was goal tending, mainly because they were far more invested in their cocktails than the outcome of the game.

After it was all over and the worst losing streak in professional sports was over, the few locals who even bothered to offer an opinion merely said “typical Clippers,” which is exactly how I felt when the Cavaliers then lost to the Washington Wizards a few nights later.

That’s the kind of bi-coastal fan loyalty I’m sure the NBA marketing executives dream of as they scratch themselves with bemusement as to why their league is careening toward irrelevance even as its popularity soars overseas.

A few weeks ago, I wrote that the NBA, like the NFL, was facing its own labor problems on the horizon and that it probably represented the best opportunity for Commissioner David Stern to fix what ails his league. It doesn’t look promising.

In a profile of Stern published in the L.A. Times this past weekend, Stern was mostly dismissive of any suggestion that more and more owners are hawkish on fundamentally changing the league’s business model given that Forbes magazine estimates that more than half of all NBA teams lost money last year.

That’s probably posturing in the name of unity on Stern’s part but if NBA owners are hawkish only about re-dividing the league’s revenue pie without first taking on the league’s more fundamental problems, then all they will have accomplished is a way to grab more money from a pool that will eventually contract before it expands.

There is a fundamental difference between the dispute the NFL is having with its union and the conversation the NBA is having with its. The NFL has a business model that mostly works. The NBA does not. NFL owners want to re-cut a growing pie as a way of compensating themselves for the huge investments they make so that the league can thrive. Their requests aren’t unreasonable.

NBA owners, led by Donald Sterling of the Clippers, are focused similarly on re-cutting the pie but lack the underpinnings of a business that can continue to grow those revenues, at least organically. Put it this way, in the NFL virtually every team without the name “Cleveland” in its title can and has made the Super Bowl. In the NBA, the Finals are reserved for a select few teams while the rest of the league twiddles its thumbs, seemingly content on drafting off the revenues generated by others. Meanwhile the fans in those cities are sold the false premise of possibility.

Maybe it’s that those running the NBA don’t see their league on a downward spiral at all, which means that the league will once again have to hit rock bottom, as it did about 25-30 years ago when drugs and money dominated the storyline and fan interest waned accordingly, before working its way back into the collective conscience.

But until that happens, in this corner of the world and in most other corners of the NBA world nothing much will change. The Cavaliers and teams like them will spin their wheels for the better part of the next decade simply because the NBA runs counter to logic. It has the least number of players on its rosters of any professional sport and yet is the most difficult of all in which to build a champion.

The reason it runs in this direction has everything to do with its expansive playoff system and its byzantine salary structure. These combine to punish teams into mediocrity while the very few teams lucky enough to have a top player fall into their laps eventually find themselves at the top of the league.

When it comes to the playoffs, only the truly bad teams miss out each season and hence enter the NBA’s draft lottery. And yet these bottom feeders are actually the lucky ones. They at least have a chance at one of the first picks and the opportunity to perhaps get the next superstar around which to build. The teams stuck in the bottom seeds of the playoff system year after year end up having far more difficult time getting up to the next level.

As a good friend pointed out to me, consider the Cavaliers when Mike Fratello was the head coach. He was defensive-minded and a rather decent coach, actually. Not great, certainly, but credible. The problem was that as a coach his teams were just good enough to sneak into the playoffs each year but never really good enough to be a threat to win it all. All this did was hurt the Cavaliers’ drafting status each year, keeping them in the same place, like a hamster running on a wheel.

There’s certainly an argument there that the problem all along in Cleveland was ownership and front office related and that might have some merit except for the fact that this same kind of story plays out in city after city around the NBA.

Let’s stick with Fratello for a moment. He became the Hawks’ head coach in 1983 and lasted through the 1989-1990 season. In 7 of his 9 seasons, the Hawks made the playoffs. Usually that would be cause for rejoice except it really wasn’t. The Hawks, like the Cavaliers under Fratello, were always just good enough to get into the playoffs but never advanced very far. All that did was kept them from the draft lottery most years, which meant it kept them away from the best players in the draft.

Now this all could be an indictment of Fratello except its not. Lenny Wilkins, a Hall of Fame coach, came in and repeated the pattern for much the same reasons. They Hawks had some good players but never great players. Eventually those that they had got old or went elsewhere and left the Hawks’ roster looking pretty much like the Cavaliers’ roster does today. From 1999 through the 2007 season, the Hawks missed the playoffs.

Having a better draft status has eventually led the Hawks back to respectability, if respectability is defined by making the playoffs but not getting very deep into them. That could turn around this season, but I doubt it, which means that the Hawks aren’t likely to hang another championship banner any time soon to go along with the one they won in 1958!

You literally could go almost franchise by franchise and find similar stories. It’s quite fascinating, actually, how often the pattern repeats.

If the playoff system is the reason number 1 why teams can’t rebuild then the salary structure is reason 1A. It has more loopholes than the federal tax code and works as both a shield and sword. For teams like the Lakers, the Celtics, the Heat and even the San Antonio Spurs, it seems to stretch in almost unimaginable ways so that they can yield a roster that other teams could never afford. For others it is the sword the superstar wields to cut his departing franchise back down to size.

Why the NBA chooses to work in this fashion is hard to say. The owners aren’t exactly a group of visionaries, which is another thing that separates them from their brethren in the NFL.

I suspect that the NBA will take on its union just as the NFL will and that there will be a lockout in both sports. But when the dust settles, I fully expect the NFL to be in better shape while the NBA will still be fundamentally unsound and worse off for the fight. For the locals, that means that eventually if the Browns management can find a level of competence that nearly every other franchise has found, it will get to the Super Bowl. For the Cavaliers, the NBA Finals will remain a theory only just as it has for virtually the entire existence of the franchise.

Monday, February 07, 2011

Another Friggin' Super Bowl

One of the most beneficial uses of the Super Bowl each year is as a benchmark against which to judge, say, the Cleveland Browns. Call it a yearly reminder that the distance between Cleveland and the year’s winner is at least 10 times greater than what Google Maps would otherwise say.

The Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers sit as this year’s benchmark and based on their play on Sunday, and to paraphrase Bobby Jones talking about a young Jack Nicklaus, those teams play a game with which Cleveland fans aren’t familiar.

The NFL is made up of 16 different Sundays where anything can happen on any given one. But the grind of the season proves that nothing happens by accident. The Browns could beat the Packers or the Steelers in any particular game perhaps but they are so far removed from being able to withstand the kind of grind it takes to win enough games to play in a Super Bowl that it’s fair to wonder whether they really do play in the same league as those other teams. The gulf is that wide.

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers probably said it best in his post-game interview when he called the game a microcosm of the Packers’ entire season. The Packers had injuries to key players that they had to overcome. They found themselves at times almost completely clueless in how to advance the ball. And yet they eventually overcame all that was thrown at them to prevail against a really good Pittsburgh Steelers’ team whose sum was certainly greater than the parts.

The game also could have served as a microcosm of the Browns’ entire season but in counterpoint only. The Browns had their share of injuries. They had some pleasant surprises but more often than not looked clueless in how to advance the ball. Eventually they collapsed because their sum perfectly matched their parts.

Watching the Super Bowl can actually be quite depressing for Cleveland fans if you let it but it doesn’t have to be, particularly if you use it as a learning tool and a parlor game.

For example, rather than create the usual checkerboard of potential scores and selling chances, you could fill those squares in with the names of ex-Browns or players the Browns should have drafted had they not had Coco the Clown and Ellen from Accounting doing the drafting all these years. Then it’s a matter of seeing which player contributed the most to his team’s play each quarter and paying the person holding the winning square accordingly.

As a learning tool, though, it’s invaluable because it is a stark and constant reminder of why the Browns consistently fall short.

Let’s start with coaching. In increments of two or three years at a time, the Browns constantly toy with the notion that they have hired the kind of coach that could lead this team to a Super Bowl. Eric Mangini serves as the most recent and convenient example.

One only needs to watch either the Packers’ Mike McCarthy or the Steelers’ Mike Tomlin in action to realize that Mangini was never going to lead this team anywhere important.

Tomlin and Mangini are basically the same age so it’s a nice comparison. It may be great fodder for a theoretical debate because it has no answer, but that won’t keep me from proclaiming here and now that had the Steelers hired Mangini instead of Tomlin there is simply no way they play in either of the last two Super Bowls they’ve been in. The difference between the two is that striking.

Where Mangini is dictatorial and conservative, Tomlin is inclusive and emotional. Mangini has a process he follows come Hell or high water and Tomlin goes with what works.

Tomlin, like Mangini, made his mark as a defensive coach, working his way up to defensive coordinator with Minnesota before Pittsburgh hired him. Tomlin’s philosophy was honed through his work with Tampa Bay and its 4-3 and cover 2 approach. There is far less blitzing and much more reading and reacting.

Yet when Tomlin came to Pittsburgh, he decided to keep in place defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau whose approach is almost the polar opposite of Tomlin’s. Pittsburgh plays the 3-4 and the zone blitz. They aren’t called Blitzburgh simply because it’s a cute name.

Rather than try to have LeBeau adopt to Tomlin, or even drop LeBeau in favor of someone of his own choosing, the opposite occurred and two Super Bowl appearances are the result.

Why do I sense that had Mangini been hired instead of Tomlin, Pittsburgh would be running a 3-4 defense with a different coordinator? It’s because with Mangini he has an abiding, almost fatal flaw-like, belief in what he knows and an abject fear of what he doesn’t.

The larger point is that what makes Tomlin a special coach is an innate understanding of the rhythm of his team and what makes Mangini a twice-fired head coach is an almost tone deaf approach to everything and everyone. Rather than pick on Mangini, though, you could easily insert the name of any coach the Browns have hired since they came back into the last few paragraphs and the outcome is the same.

This, I think, is the going to be the key going forward with new head coach Pat Shurmur. Either he learns from why Tomlin is special or he falls into the trap of his own hubris. In Cleveland, the Browns have always gotten the latter. It’s now time to try the former.

But it’s not just coaching, either. It’s talent. Other than Joe Thomas, there isn’t a Browns player on either their starting offense or defense that would have started for either Pittsburgh or Green Bay. Surely the Steelers would have liked to have had Alex Mack as their back up center and I’m sure T.J. Ward and Joe Haden could find contributing roles in both teams’ defensive backfields and perhaps Peyton Hillis and Eric Steinbach would see spot duty as well, but that’s as far as it goes.

The reason the Packers could lose two defensive backs and their best receiver in the first half of the Super Bowl and still win the game has everything to do with the fact that they don’t just have better starters, they have better reserves than the Browns, too. Indeed, most of the Packers’ reserves and a good portion of the Steelers’ as well would start for the Browns.

At this point in the Browns’ existence, over a decade back from purgatory, there simply is no reason that this team should compare so unfavorably with the Super Bowl participants in talent level. Ok, there is a reason, the aforementioned Coco the Clown and Ellen from Accounting that were running the personnel department for the last 11 years.
But the Browns are long past excuses as to why in a league with a hard salary cap they can’t consistently compete with any upper tier team, let along Super Bowl teams.

Team president Mike Holmgren seems to understand the point but a lack of understanding has never been the problem anyway. It’s an inability to execute. And unless that changes another decade will have passed, 20 other teams will have played in Super Bowls and Browns fans will still won’t be any closer to watching the confetti rain down on their team.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Commence the Angry Mob

For all the Cleveland Browns fans grousing over the hiring of new head coach Pat Shurmur, here’s a suggestion. Let’s wait until the guy loses 22 games over two years before we officially run him out of town.

And yet there are a number of folks ready to do just that mainly because these bar stool geniuses in the local media and populating various fan forums have been unimpressed with the coaching staff he’s put together. As if.

To this point Shurmur hasn’t even had the chance to alienate key players on the team at a sports banquet, bus the rookies to a forced volunteering opportunity at his football camp in New England or create, as one of his first acts as dictator-in-charge, a chart detailing every finable infraction. He hasn’t yet held a press conference to send the message that the media’s questions aren’t welcome and he hasn’t swapped draft picks with his former team so they can draft a franchise quarterback and the Browns can draft a center, even if he was a third alternate Pro Bowler this season.

In fact, Shurmur’s done nothing yet except be Pat Shurmur for all the good and evil that entails. His resume as an assistant is impressive but I suppose it means less to the depressing mindset of a fan base with a Ph.D in misery than does the bitching of ungrateful St. Louis Rams fans that were unhappy that Shurmur’s supposedly conservative play calling and careful nurturing of a rookie quarterback allowed their team to win more games last season than it had in the three previous combined.

The truth is that Browns fans complaining about the hire of Shurmur weren’t going to be happy with any hire short of Bill Cowher. They might have taken Jon Gruden in a pinch and they would have settled for John Fox. And what about Jeff Fisher? If we had just waited several weeks to see if Bud Adams would have been random enough to fire Fisher, maybe we could have got him in Cleveland. This Shurmur guy, another assistant who hasn’t been a head coach, how good can he be?

Then of course is the whole matter that the Shurmur hire looked pre-ordained. Shurmur and team president Mike Holmgren share the same agent, Bob Lamonte, so the speculation of course is that Holmgren was essentially doing Lamonte a solid by finding one of his clients more lucrative work.

It’s the kind of conspiracy borne out of the internets combined with lazy reporting. It got little play that Holmgren denied even knowing that Shurmur was a client of Lamonte’s because, well, how believable is that? There’s no reason to deal in facts when conspiracy and speculation are so much more fun.

Shurmur may not be the right hire for this team but there’s no way to know that right now. Indeed it is far easier to conclude that hires like Fisher, Fox and Gruden would have been a disaster than it is to conclude that Shurmur isn’t ready for the next step.

Fox had worn out his welcome with Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson. It wasn’t that Fox was a bad head coach but more like ownership and management felt it was time to move on. If you want a baseball analogy think the Indians and Mike Hargrove.

Gruden would have been a far more mercurial hiring. Sure, he led the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a Super Bowl title in his first season with the team, but the chance of that repeating itself with the Browns was non-existent. His resume after that gets a bit sketchy. Sure it looks good compared to the third ring of Hell the Browns occupy but it was starting to look like Gruden did well with a team he inherited but couldn’t come close to replicating that success when he had to build one thereafter.

Besides, the harmonic convergence of Gruden and Cleveland passed two years ago, if it ever came about at all. Had owner Randy Lerner even the slightest patience when he fired Romeo Crennel, Gruden might very well be in Cleveland today. As it was, Lerner pounced on Eric Mangini without waiting to see if any one else might be available. In what was a mild surprise, Gruden was fired in mid-January, later than most coaches. Mangini was already under contract in Cleveland.

I think, too, that Gruden may never return to coaching. He seems to like sitting in the booth, collecting a decent paycheck and working far less hours than is required of a head coach. It may be that he returns eventually but the longer he’s out the less likely he is to come back.

As for that holy grail of coaches, Bill Cowher, he’s had at least two opportunities to come to Cleveland in the last two years and he hasn’t so much as batted an eye in this direction. He may return to coaching, but like Gruden each year he sits out it gets that much harder. Don’t underestimate the gig he has on CBS Sports. It’s fairly lucrative and requires a lot less work.

Given the coaches that don’t fit, exactly who then would the fans complaining about Shurmur have wished on this team instead? It’s hard to say because they don’t seem to have had a back up plan.

Other than the fact that Shurmur isn’t Gruden, Cowher or Fox, the other complaint seems to be that Shurmur is intent on calling his own plays. Some of this was fed by the fact that Shurmur doesn’t look to be hiring an offensive coordinator which already has sent Bud Shaw in a tizzy despite the lack of offensive production from this team for years when there were actual coordinators in place.

Well, as much as it would be fun to indulge that line of reasoning as sound, one need only look to the NFC Champion and Super Bowl participating Green Bay Packers to understand how ridiculous all that really is. McCarthy calls the plays in Green Bay and things seem to be working out just fine between him and the team.

And as long as we’re using McCarthy as a benchmark, let’s remember, too, that his resume looks suspiciously like that of Shurmur’s. Up until he became the Packers’ head coach he was an offensive assistant for Kansas City and then an offensive coordinator for New Orleans. Those are just some inconvenient facts for the lynch mob.

Of course, there’s always the chance that Shurmur could turn into Chris Palmer but why jump to that conclusion before he’s coached his first game? Has it really come to that?

Browns fans have a hard time accepting the fact that their team has very limited talent. They see players in uniforms lining up at each position and a certain level of competence is assumed. Unfortunately that’s rarely the case.

Every guru hired to come in and fix this mess seems to have left it in worse shape than when he got there. Phil Savage’s tenure at this point amounts to Joe Thomas. Mangini’s lasting legacy won’t be the 22 losses but the bungled 2009 draft. That could turn around, certainly, if Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi end up developing into the kind of credible front line receivers their draft status suggests, though nothing they’ve done thus far indicates either will grow beyond a decent third receiver. For now and for where it really mattered most, the Browns really didn’t take a step forward under Mangini’s two years.

More than anything else, Shurmur’s real fate will be determined by Tom Heckert and how well he does in the next few drafts. If Heckert swings and misses like each of his predecessors, then Shurmur will end up looking like a mistake as well. If Heckert is able to find some legitimate playmakers on both sides of the ball, Shurmur will be here for the long haul.

None of this is to suggest that coaching doesn’t make a difference. It does. But as with the Indians and Manny Acta and Byron Scott and the Cavs, when the quality of the product at the concession stands is higher than the talent on the field or the court, the head coach is the least of the problems.