Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why the Long Face?

When it comes to the Cleveland Browns of recent vintage, by which I mean at least the last 10 years, I’m used to a fair amount of debate about what they need to do in order to finally win a game. What will take some getting used to is the fair amount of debate about what they need to do to improve the quality of their wins.

Scanning the internets and listening to various talking heads around and about town, one would think that the Browns were 0-3 and headed for another season of abject futility. Ok, so the jury is still out on whether this season will end up in abject futility. But for now why the long faces?

All of this whining just proves the point that the two worse things in life are not getting what you want and getting what you want.

Fans have been pining for a team with both an identity and a chance. Both are clearly emerging and yet all many of them can think to do is curse their fate.

I understand that all the various folks covering this team have air time to fill and column inches to write. But if I see another column like Beacon Journal reporter Nate Ulrich’s weekly Browns Report Card, my head, as Rob Lowe’s character on Parks and Recreation might say, will literally explode.

This incessant need to grade things is what’s come to pass for real analysis these days, as if the subtlety and nuance of football (or any complex activity, actually) could be reduced to one or two pithy paragraphs.

What’s so funny about Ulrich’s report card (and the dozens like it) is that the Browns graded out to about a C in his book. Apparently there’s no extra credit given for winning the friggin’ game.

Maybe it’s because winning isn’t experienced much in these parts so we tend to forge that professional sports especially is a bottom line business and the fact remains that a Browns win, even if it looked like a loss, is still far better for the franchise then another Browns’ loss that looked like a win.

In this town there is no longer any upside to being a fan unless it’s always been your goal to be miserable. Maybe we come by the perpetual dark cloud hanging over us honestly, but it’s no longer sufficient to simply recall the bad ol’ days, it’s now mandatory that they inform even the smallest of points of success.

There’s no question that the Browns’ offense looked like crap on Sunday. As amateurs we’d like to believe that teams play one game a week so it’s not too much to ask for that team to play with sufficient emotion and effort. But it’s never as easy as it seems from the comfort of our comfortable chairs.

Maybe it was the absence of Peyton Hillis that knocked Colt McCoy off his moorings, but I doubt it. Lost in all of this is that McCoy was starting just his 9th pro game and just his third under this latest offensive system. For the most part, last season was a total waste of everyone’s time, including McCoy’s, and thus his progress (or lack thereof) must be judged in the context of all that’s taken place in his short career.

I’m not going to dwell on McCoy’s feeling that the Eric Mangini/Brian Daboll offensive dynamo machine treated him like a non-person. That was just Mangini’s way of letting high priced athletes understand that indeed their shit does stink. And I’m not going to dwell on how most of this is Mike Holmgren’s fault because, well, I just devoted an entire column to that very subject.

Instead I’ll just dwell on the more objective observation that neither Tom Brady nor Peyton Manning were Tom Brady or Peyton Manning after 9 starts. That’s not to compare McCoy to those two now but it is to compare McCoy to those two then because, like those two, McCoy was a pretty fair college quarterback.

So McCoy is playing unevenly in the way that newbie NFL quarterbacks tend to play. It’s one thing to know how to read a defense but reading it in the context of the NFL is far different. The players across the board are better. It’s as if the quarterback is facing a college all star team each and every week.

So it’s not a surprise that a young quarterback will have up and down weeks. There will be times when he looks great and other times when he looks like Derek Anderson and much of it has to do with the subtle changes and differences he faces by each week’s opponent.

But when it mattered most, McCoy stepped forward and led the team on a career-defining drive. McCoy was poised, found the right receivers at the right moment and made the throws he had to in order to put the team in a position to win.

Maybe it’s fair to complain about an offense playing new schemes that has been together for only 3 actual games. It’s what they get paid to do. But to micro-analyze each play while forgetting its most important function, which is to score touchdowns, is a fool’s game. You’ll never lose money taking the team that finds a way to win over the team that looks good losing.

There’s been some grumbling, too, about the defense. To me it looked like the Browns’ defensive line was getting manhandled most of the game by the Dolphins’ offensive line, but the statistics would indicate otherwise. Reggie Bush was mostly a non-factor, but Daniel Thomas did have 95 yards. Yet, quarterback Chad Henne was sacked 5 times. Yet when the Dolphins needed 1 or two yards, their offensive line gave them the push they needed, consistently and that seemed rather troubling, until it didn’t.

The fact is that no defense is going to hold any offense in the NFL to three-and-out consistently. Offenses have the benefit of knowing the play. Defenses can just guess. Things happen and teams move the ball (except those few years when the Browns would go weeks without scoring on offense).

What is far more important is how the team responds when it’s tested and on that the Browns’ defense on Sunday accorded itself well.

I’m not really referring to the lack of touchdowns by the Dolphins’ offense when it approached the red zone. It’s pretty clear after three Dolphins games that Dolphins’ offensive coordinator Brian Daboll loses his nerve when he needs it most. The Dolphins don’t score touchdowns because they don’t take chances, more concerned with preserving any scoring opportunity then they are with maximizing those opportunities.

What I am referring to is that final drive by the Dolphins. Based on the ebb and flow of the game, there was no reason to think that the Dolphins wouldn’t move the ball into reasonable field goal territory. Chad Henne had been incredibly efficient and despite the 5 sacks, which were due more to coverage than pressure, the offensive line was protecting him.

But that was precisely the point when the defensive line stepped forward and put enough pressure on Henne to force him to throw more quickly then he had been used to the entire game. Three incomplete passes and an interception later, the game was sealed and, not coincidentally, the complaining began.

There isn’t any real question that this Browns team needs to continue getting better in order to be an actual force in the NFL, but the key word in that sentence is “continue” and not “better.” It’s already a better team.

The step between better and good can be huge but that’s no reason to bemoan the process it takes to make it. There is a point at which it makes more sense to admire the forest and ignore the trees. This is one of those times.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Just In Time

The official reason the Cleveland Browns are now 2-1 instead of 1-2 is because defensive back Mike Adams intercepted a crucial 4th and 10 pass from Miami Dolphins quarterback Chad Henne with 21 seconds remaining as the Dolphins were attempting to angle their way into field goal range to kick a game winner. But the real reason the Cleveland Browns are now 2-1 instead of 1-2 is because it was the Browns quarterback, Colt McCoy, who made plays when plays had to be made, tossing a game winning 14 yard pass to an acrobatic Mohamed Massaquoi that helped push the Browns to a 17-16 victory.

It's not like any aspect of the win was easy, but let's just start where it ended. McCoy, struggling most of the day under the pressure of the Dolphins' defensive line, put together a career-defining 65-yard drive that culminated with the pass to Massaquoi. With the Browns trailing by 6 with 3:23 remaining and appearing mostly stagnant all day, McCoy pulled it all back together at just the right moment.

Starting from the team's 20-yard line after a Dan Carpenter 38-yard field goal had extended the Dolphins lead to 16-10, McCoy started first by finding Greg Little who turned what should have been short passes into longer gains to keep the team moving forward. By the time the two-minute warning was given, the Browns were on their own 46-yard line and sitting with two time outs.

Little then turned another short pass into a first down and, for good measure, stopped the clock by going out of bounds. Then came the first real gut check moment. McCoy threw incomplete to Brian Robiskie (suspend the disbelief). A pass to tight end Ben Watson yielded 6 yards but a comebacker to Watson fell incomplete. With 4th and 4 at the Dolphins' 37-yard line, McCoy found Montario Hardesty wide open in the flat and Hardesty turned it into a crucial 10-yard gain and first down.

McCoy then threw incomplete twice to tight end Alex Smith. On third down, an aging Jason Taylor tried to get a jump on Browns' left tackle Joe Thomas and went offsides. It nullified an incomplete pass to Josh Cribbs that would have been another pucker-inducing moment. McCoy used the opportunity to find tight end Evan Moore for 8 yards and another first down. Then, with 45 seconds remaining, McCoy found Massaquoi in the corner of the end zone. Massaquoi leaped and, like Cribbs on an earlier touchdown pass from McCoy, caught the ball, got two feet in and fell to the ground. Dawson added the extra point to give the Browns their margin of victory.

Here's where things got strange. As bad as the Browns' offense struggled all day, especially on offense, the officiating crew struggled more. They called personal fouls on both sides of the ball that demonstrated that they were watching the game about as closely as Don Criqui. (Let me stop progress for a moment to tell you one of the great unintended but funniest lines I've heard in awhile. Criqui referred to Dolphins' guard Robert Incognito as underrated. What else could he be with a name like that?)

But here is where the officiating crew's foibles almost cost the Browns. After Massaquoi caught the ball, he fell to the ground, by himself, exhausted but exhilarated. Watson, by himself, came over to the prone Massaquoi and congratulated him. The officials threw a flag claiming that this was essentially an impermissible group celebration. Television replays demonstrated just how poor of a call it really was.

It was a 15-yard penalty that forced Dawson to kick off from the Browns' 20-yard line, assuring the Dolphins an opportunity for a decent return. To make matters worse, Dmitri Patterson was then flagged for a horse collar tackle on the return (a questionable call as well as it appeared that Patterson had kick returner Clyde Gates by the left shoulder pad and not the back) giving the Dolphins the ball at the Cleveland 47-yard line.

But Henne, who was efficient early but not when it counted, threw incomplete three straight times and then threw it into the arms of a waiting Adams to send the Dolphins and their beleaguered head coach Tony Sparano to an 0-3 loss.

Had Henne been able to move the Dolphins into field goal position and win the game, you could almost count the seconds it would take for the league office to issue an apology to the Browns because they were victimized but such an awful call. Now it will probably be dealt with behind the scenes.

Where it all went wrong for the Dolphins is both simple and complex. The Dolphins aren't really a very good team. They have some skill players but lack the ability to put it all together in a cohesive manner. Henne runs hot and cold but even when he's hot he's just very average anyway. Brandon Marshall is a good receiver but is mentally weak and easily distracted, particularly when the ball isn't coming his way. Reggie Bush is a change of pace back masquerading as a feature back and Brian Daboll, who's charged with coordinating all this mess, is probably going to be out of work at the end of the season. He's not very good at what he does and I'm being nice here.

And yet the Dolphins for the most part controlled the game, which says something as well about the Browns. Games are supposedly won in the trenches but this one was not. The Dolphins controlled those trenches on both sides of the ball. Their offensive line mostly had its way with the Browns' defensive line despite giving up 5 sacks. Most of those were on Henne who tends to alternately hold on to the ball too long or scramble around just enough to get sacked.

Meanwhile the Dolphins' offense was dictating the pace of the game. Henne, stepping outside himself early, completed pass after pass, helped tremendously by a lack of pressure, and seemed to move the ball almost at will. Couple that with a poor tackling day by the defense generally and it's difficult to explain exactly why the Dolphins only came away with 16 points. They just did and heads will roll in Miami. Good.

It's not all that hard though to explain why the Browns only had 17 points. Perhaps they were undone just a bit from the outset by the inability of Peyton Hillis to play due to strep throat. Hardesty though showed some of the same flashes both as a runner and as a receiver. He had 14 carries for 67 yards and 3 receptions for 19 yards.

Mostly though McCoy was just off on his throws. He missed open receivers and through to the wrong sides of others. He tried repeatedly to squeeze in passes that looked ill advised. He was only 19-39 for 210 yards. As a result the West Coast offense was mostly a Dead End offense except on three drives, the most important of which was the last.

Before that, it wasn't until the Browns' fourth drive of the game that they looked like they were even all that much interested in playing the game. On that drive, McCoy hit Watson for 13 yards on a 3rd and 12 play for only the second first down of the game. Two plays later, McCoy, rolling to his right, threw the ball purposely high to the back of the end zone and in the direction of Cribbs. Either Cribbs was going to jump and get it or it would fall incomplete. Cribbs jumped and got it and the Browns pulled to a 7-7 tie. It more than made up for a bad drop Cribbs had on an earlier drive. In total it showed why Cribbs is still a work in progress as a receiver and also why patience when it comes to Cribbs is a good thing.

The Browns offense wouldn't get going again until its opening drive of the second half. Looking fresh after the 15 minutes rest, the Browns moved from their own 20 to the Dolphins' 20-yard line. But then Watson had a false start penalty, pushing the Browns into a 1st and 15. Watson got 13 of those yards back on the next play on a toss from McCoy but then a Hardesty run gained nothing and McCoy threw incomplete to Watson, setting up a 30-yard Dawson field goal that tied the game at 10-10.

From that point forward, which was, sadly, the 10:37 mark of the 3rd quarter, the Browns defense went back to sleep. Fortunately they woke up just in time, with 3:23 remaining, and it made all the difference in the game.

It's a measure of progress in some ways that fans can now complain about how a win was more difficult than it had to be. There was certainly a time (and if you have the time I'll be glad to recount it again in excruciating detail. Didn't think so.) when any Browns win was a reason to overturn cars and set couches on fire. Now we're being just a tad picky, which is definitely a more fun place to be.

Though this wasn't a beauty, it was certainly all right. Besides, it's not like there wasn't something substantial accomplished. For all the missteps in the game, McCoy demonstrated what comes of hard work and study. When the Browns and head coach Pat Shurmur needed McCoy most, the product of that hard work and study was at hand.

McCoy wasn't improvising at the end so much as he was running an accelerated version of what he well understood the offense to be. There wasn't panic and there wasn't confusion. It was mostly methodical, which is what these things are supposed to be.

It may be awhile before the value of McCoy's clutch performance will be properly appreciated, but rest assured that time will come. The next time the Browns and McCoy face a similar situation, and in the NFL that's an almost weekly occurrence, they won't do so with their hands on their hips and a defeatist “here we go again” thought running through their heads. The Dolphins won't be able to say the same thing and that's why the Browns are now 2-1 and the Dolphins are 0-3.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Holmgren's Massive Miscalculation

It wasn’t too long ago that the conventional wisdom of the NFL know-it-alls was that rookie quarterbacks of any stripe or pedigree had to sit a few years before entering the harsh reality of professional football.

That’s the wisdom certainly the Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren employed when he drafted University of Texas wunderkind Colt McCoy in the third round last season. Holmgren made no secret of his plan to build McCoy’s skills by essentially having him watch a washed-up Jake Delhomme muddle his way through the season.

Well that didn’t work out quite as planned and McCoy was forced into starting the team’s last six games because Delhomme was injured and ineffective and so too was his primary back up, Seneca Wallace.

But a funny thing happened in those six games. McCoy showed enough promise that Holmgren didn’t just accelerate the learning curve for him a bit. Instead he anointed McCoy the starter going into the 2011 season, a position McCoy occupies right now.

The way this situation has ultimately played out makes me question the wisdom behind Holmgren’s initial plan. It also leaves me hoping that more than anything else, the person who learned the most last season wasn’t McCoy but Holmgren.

In sum and substance, the 2010 season was the product of a major miscalculation on Holmgren’s part. Whatever conventional wisdom that Holmgren used in deciding to sit McCoy was more in the nature of theory borne out of Holmgren’s old school ways then it was an example of more contemporary thinking. As a quarterbacks coach first and foremost, Holmgren tends to respect the demands of the position a tad too much. Perhaps Holmgren was spending too much time ensconced in the grind of coaching Seattle to notice that young quarterbacks entering the NFL these days are light years ahead of their counterparts a generation ago when Holmgren first started coaching.

McCoy, for example, is a coach’s son. But more than that, McCoy went through all manner of formalized training, from all the various camps he attended during his high school years to the even more formalized undertakings as a college athlete. McCoy and many like him specialized early and were schooled accordingly because, frankly, that’s how young athletes are taught these days. Add to that the amount of games McCoy played while at a major college and you start to understand that McCoy wasn’t just a wet behind the ears kind of kid when he came to the NFL.

And McCoy is just the local example. Sam Bradford in St. Louis played every snap for the Rams during his rookie season. Joe Flacco essentially did the same thing in Baltimore. The same is true for Matt Ryan in Atlanta. The list goes on and on. Cam Newton, perhaps the least experienced of this entire bunch, is probably putting the final nails in the coffin of old school conventional wisdom when it comes to playing rookie quarterbacks.

All of this is a long way of saying that for as much good as Holmgren has done and has brought to the Browns’ franchise, he blew it when it came to McCoy and the team has suffered because of it.

Holmgren was hired in 2009 during the midst of another franchise meltdown as the result of an impetuous and ill-informed decision by owner Randy Lerner to hire Eric Mangini just days after being fired by the New York Jets.

Mangini got off on the wrong foot and then proceeded to double down repeatedly on his tendencies to lose friends and alienate associates so quickly and forcefully in his first season that it actually seemed like he wouldn’t make it through 16 games. He did make it though it was obvious that the Holmgren hiring meant a limited run for the Mangini regime.

It was never really clear why Holmgren decided to give Mangini a second season. Even if he thought Mangini might improve, it would never have been enough. The two are philosophical opposites when it comes to how the game is played and coached and as consistent with his stubborn nature Mangini had no interest in altering his own views in order to conform to those of his boss.

Thus brought the completely lost season of 2010. Nothing substantive was accomplished and nothing substantive was carried over into this season.

This is why I bristle every time I hear that the Browns were impacted the most by the lockout. It didn’t have to be that way. It was clear well before the 2010 season even started that there would be a lockout following it just as it was clear well before the 2010 season that Holmgren’s lasting mark on the franchise would be to convert it to something more fitting to his style.

If Holmgren wasn’t prepared to coach in 2010 then he should have found Pat Shurmur a year earlier (who easily would have taken the Browns’ gig over an offensive coordinator position in 2010) and really used the season as a springboard for this one. Had Shurmur been in Cleveland in 2010, I have every confidence that he could have prevailed on Holmgren to relinquish his antiquated thinking about rookie quarterbacks and fans would have seen McCoy and the West Coast offense from the first game forward.

Instead, because of Holmgren’s dithering, the Browns lost any chance to enter 2011 with anything resembling momentum and were forced instead to use a truncated preseason to make the major changes fans are just now starting to see on the field. The stutter steps of the first two games offensively are as sure a sign as any that the nuances of the West Coast offense aren’t easily mastered.

This isn’t to suggest that Holmgren has been a disaster in Cleveland because that is clearly not the case. Holmgren has brought a level of professionalism to this franchise that it hasn’t had in two decades. Lerner, left to his own devices, would have kept hiring and firing indiscriminately based on the last person who happened to have his ear. With Holmgren around, Lerner can go back to do whatever it is that rich unemployed guys like him do with their time and we’re all the better for it.

And while I’m a fan of Holmgren generally and believe that the overall talent on this team has improved dramatically in his short time, I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that whatever progress the Browns in 2011 might make, it won’t be nearly as much as they could have if Holmgren hadn’t been asleep at the switch from outset.

I understand that Holmgren wanted to walk around with kid gloves and not upset the apple cart from day one. It was in marked contrast of course to how Mangini came in, ham-handed and almost deliberately going out of his way to find apple carts to upset. But it still doesn’t explain precisely why Holmgren let this franchise lose an entire season just so that he could implement what he planned to implement anyway on the day he was hired.

There’s no way of knowing what kind of shelf life McCoy will have as a quarterback in this league. But he does possess not just the requisite physical skills but also the requisite intangibles to be successful. Injuries more than anything else will dictate his future.

And for every game like McCoy played against Cincinnati, there will be a counterbalance represented by the kind of game he played against Indianapolis. That’s what learning actually looks like in 3-D. It’s just that by this point both the Browns and McCoy could be through most of these hard lessons had Holmgren been more assertive or progressive in his thinking. It’s become the cliché by which Cleveland sports fans live their lives, but it looks like it will be another year until the Browns actually start producing real results.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Almost Closer

It's far too early to call anyone on the Cleveland Browns “the Closer,” but if and when that time comes, running back Peyton Hillis will be the most likely candidate. Eschewing a trend where his team couldn't seem to close out games with 4th quarter leads, Hillis took matters into his own hands. With 4 minutes remaining and the Browns nursing a precarious 5 point lead, Hillis turned a simple off tackle run into a 24-yard scamper that helped push the Browns to a 27-19 win over the (wait for it) winless Indianapolis Colts.

A late Phil Dawson followed by the Colts' first touchdown in two games provided the final margin of victory.

For much of the game, it looked as if NFL films had used some technical wizardry to run a loop of last week's Browns-Bengals match up, colorizing the Bengals to look like the Colts. The Browns' defense looked flat-footed as the Bengals moved the ball twice early, giving the writers in the press box all sorts of really clever ideas about how they could say that the Browns looked to be as stuck in the mud as their charter plane was on the Hopkins airport runway.

But the Colts, like the Bengals the week before, had to settle for field goals when they really needed touchdowns allowing the Browns once again to stay close in a game that could have gotten out of hand early.

And while the Browns' offense wasn't exactly dynamic, it wasn't stuck in neutral either. Behind a far more efficient Colt McCoy, the Browns used the second quarter once again to great effect with two touchdowns to run out to a 14-9 half time lead which had to give some in the crowd a sort of “uh oh” moment.

This time the Browns' defense didn't get caught napping, Colts quarterback Kerry Collins couldn't channel Bruce Gradkowski, and the Browns were able to secure for Pat Shurmur his first win of his career with 13 fourth quarter points that sent Colts fans home miserable and scratching themselves.

But let's be honest with each other for a moment. It's not like this victory came easy, especially in contrast with the Houston Texans' beat down of this same, pitiful Colts team a week before. But the Browns needed a victory, especially one in which they demonstrated they can hold on to late leads, and it matters little whether it was frustrating or folly.

For any Browns fan watching the game (and gosh is it painful at times to listen to Marv Albert and Rich Gannon), the cameras panning a despondent Colts' crowd had to look familiar.

We know that look, don't we? It's the elbows on the knees, the chin resting on the hands feeling of resignation as your team runs one futile series after another. But no one in this neck of the woods is going to feel sorry for the Colts. Football tends to show no mercy and the Colts are being punished for building both an offense and a defense around Peyton Manning, who may not play again this season.

Collins, of course, is a big part of the problem. He's always just been good enough to stay in the league but never good enough to be a consistent threat. I'd say he looked like an aging Joe Bauserman (my second straight Browns' game story reference to Bauserman, by the way) but I actually think Bauserman might be older. In any case, Collins' inability to have anything resembling a grasp of the Colts' offense allowed the Browns' defense to mostly contain the Colts until the last gasp end of the game touchdown.

While the Colts these days aren't particularly stout opposition, let's at least acknowledge some progress for the Browns. As noted, McCoy was far more efficient. He was 22-32 for 211 yards and 1 touchdown, a nice 16-yard pass that McCoy squeezed into tight end Evan Moore in the back of the Colts' end zone. (Not to pick nits or anything, but in truth McCoy picked the tougher of the two throws on that play. Moore was open, but so too was Hillis near the goal line with no one near him. A simple pitch to Hillis would have resulted in a score as well.)

But perhaps the biggest improvement on offense anyway came in the simple fact that third down was not the enemy this week. The Browns were 8-16 on third down, a significant step forward from last week's rather Buckeyes' like 4-15. And it wasn't necessarily due to the Browns consistently being in short yardage situations on 3rd down although that helped. It was more due to good decision making by McCoy, some slippery running by receivers who caught the ball short and turned it into first downs and, occasionally some good inside running by Hillis.

The other thing that's trending for this Browns' offense is the emergence of both Cribbs and Greg Little as its two main receivers with Mohamed Massaquoi the third option. Brian Robiskie, though he did start the game, doesn't appear as though he'll ever figure out the pro game as he becomes increasingly irrelevant. Indeed if Robiskie sticks around and stays active for every game this season it will be solely because the receiving corps generally is among the thinnest groups on the roster.

It's sad, really, that Roskie isn't any sort of threat. He runs good routes and he has good hands. But there is no elusiveness in his game, he can't break out of a route to help his quarterback and he simply rarely is open. Oh well, that's fodder for another column. Let's stick to the main themes.

Heading into the game, the conventional wisdom was that the Browns would work the run and try to be opportunistic with the pass. And while they did work extremely hard to try and establish the run, the Colts were mostly ready for it. Look at it this way. Hillis had 26 carries for 70 yards and 1 carry for 24 yards.

Unquestionably Hillis is the Browns' best runner, but it will be interesting to understand the thinking of Shurmur, who, after all, serves as his own offensive coordinator, as to why Montario Hardesty only got three carries. Perhaps even more interesting will be why, when the Browns had the ball inside the Colts' 5-yard line early in the 4th quarter and the first real chance to put the game away, Shurmur had Hillis out of the game in favor of Hardesty. Two Hardesty runs that went for naught and then an incomplete pass on third down forced a Phil Dawson field goal that made it 17-12. A 21-12 lead at that moment would have been huge.

The Browns' defense, still themselves learning new schemes and likewise in need of more practice time, were in their usual bend but don't quite break mode. Of Adam Vinitieri's 4 field goals, three were from the 21-yard line or less and each followed drives of at least 9 plays. That's a testament both to the Colts, with Collins behind center, not being able to finish drives and the Browns' defense tightening at just the right time.

The Colts did have some success in the running game. Joseph Addai had 14 carries for 64 yards and Copley's Delone Carter had 11 carries for 46 yards,. But with Collins unable to connect with his receivers until garbage time late, the running game became mostly an interesting diversion.

The Browns' defensive line got decent pressure on Collins throughout the game. He was sacked twice, once each by Jabaal Sheard and Ahtyba Rubin, and pressured into fumbling deep in Colts' territory. That fumble, recovered by Sheard, led to a 23-yard field goal by Dawson with just over three minutes remaining. In fact, as much as young players like Joe Haden and T.J. Ward get most of the love from the press on defense, Sheard and Phil Taylor might be more talented. With Rubin in the middle, the Browns' defensive line is something other teams will have to scheme against. The Colts certainly did.

If there was one thing more than anything that was troubling was that the Browns fumbled four times, though they lost only one. That would be the fumble by Hillis at the Colts' 40-yard line on the Browns' first drive of the third quarter. It led to a Vinitiari field goal when, again, a Collins-led touchdown was needed.

Bad teams may not be able to overcome mistakes, but when one bad team plays another and they're both making those kinds of mistakes (Collins had a fumble and an interception) someone is going to overcome it. It's a measure really of the state of the Colts at the moment that it would be the Browns.

There is an adage in the NFL that the biggest leap teams make is from the first game to the second. For the Browns it wasn't so much a leap as it was a puddle jump. On the other hand, they didn't go backward and for the first time since 2007 they have won at least one game before losing at least three. That should keep the locals chomping for another week as an average Miami comes to town giving the Browns a real chance to have their first winning record after three games since 2002.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Abolish the NCAA

I don’t know Bobby DiGeronimo or his company, Independence Excavating. But I do know that Bobby DiGeronimo is now in the crosshairs of both The Ohio State University and the NCAA and for all the wrong reasons.

According to a story in Thursday’s Plain Dealer, splashed as it was on the front page above a story on something far more significant, the re-drawing of Ohio’s congressional districts, DiGeronimo takes the blame for getting three Ohio State Buckeyes football players suspended for the first two games of the season. The positioning of the story isn’t an accident. Far more people care about whether Jordan Hall can play Saturday then whether the Republicans in Ohio’s state house rigged the districts to strengthen their own hand.

DiGeronimo claims that he facilitated payments of $200 to three different players to cover their expenses for participating in a charity event last winter. He essentially claims he knew better but violated NCAA and Ohio State rules for two fundamental reasons, one philosophical the other practical. He said that he thinks it’s shameful that these kids can’t even get their expenses covered for going out of their way to help a charity. That’s not entirely true but that’s beside the point. He also said that this would never have come up if not for all the other problems that followed the Buckeyes this winter related to the free tattoo hubbub. It’s kind of a “everybody’s doing it” sort of rationale that is probably true.

There was a time that it would be very easy to take DiGeronimo to task for his activities but that time, if indeed it ever did exist, has long since passed. Let’s quit acting surprised by the near daily revelations, be they about Ohio State, Miami, Auburn, Alabama, ad nauseum in finitum.

DiGeronimo may have known he was doing something wrong but that only measures his actions by a rather arbitrary set of rules that aren’t just antiquated but have a far different purpose then most believe.

The NCAA would like everyone to think that DiGeronimo and the three athletes deserve punishment as the byproduct of running afoul of rules meant to preserve the athletes’ amateur status. It’s a false premise. The rules aren’t meant to preserve anything more than the total submission of the athletes to the unbending and unrelenting thumb of an increasingly obvious illegal cartel called the NCAA.

If the NCAA really cared about its athletes, the biggest favor it could do for them and the common good is to go out of business, now. As a institution and as a concept, the NCAA is so irretrievably broken, there isn’t enough glue in the universe to fix it.

In an absolutely brilliant piece of reporting that should be read by anyone and everyone with even a glancing interest in the subject of college and athletics, Taylor Branch, writing for The Atlantic, shatters any last thought about the supposedly quaint objectives of the NCAA (see article here. Warning, it's long). In convincing fashion, Branch dispels the notion that the NCAA exists to help athletes. Instead, the NCAA exists merely to exploit their labors for the benefit of the NCAA itself and its member universities.

How does it do this? Let’s start with the concept of “student-athlete.” The NCAA uses this moniker to further the myth that all college athletes are students first and foremost. It’s hogwash. Simply, as Branch details, it’s a designation the NCAA invented as a way to fend off lawsuits filed by athletes and their survivors who wanted workers’ compensation benefits for the often debilitating or deadly injuries suffered while playing. It’s a creature of a nefarious fiction not as a shield to protect the athletes but as a sword to ward off any inroads by interlopers like the athletes or their survivors who might want to otherwise rightfully claim a piece of the financial pie.

Now calling them student-athletes and denying them simple workers’ compensation benefits that might seem like a reasonable position for the NCAA to take except when you consider, for example, how colleges must provide workers compensation benefits for the student working part time in the union who happens to slip and fall while working. The benefits are provided because the college can’t deny the existence of an employer/employee relationship. It’s clear cut. But when an athlete like Tyler Gentry became forever paralyzed from a hit while catching a football during a Buckeyes practice in 2006, the NCAA is quick to deny any such employer-employee relationship under the guise of “student-athlete.” It’s a sad and disgusting distinction that more than anything else exposes the NCAA as the heartless, shameless, depraved entity it has grown to become.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The NCAA is a creation of and supposedly serves at the direction of its member colleges. But in its early days it had very little funding or power to do much of anything. Eventually, under Walter Byers, it seized control of virtually every aspect of college athletics through the implementation of almost Gestapo-like tactics financed by the riches generated off those athletics.

It started first with football. The NCAA was initially suspicious of the medium and took great pains to control all television access and contracts. When a few colleges balked, the NCAA sought to throw them out of the system completely and essentially succeeded. Over time, as networks paid more and more for the rights to televise football, the NCAA grew richer and dribbled out the money to the institutions at will and very unevenly. Eventually enough colleges rebelled and actually sued the NCAA to gain control over those riches and won. When that happened, the NCAA’s very existence was threatened.

But undeterred, the NCAA then brokered the massive March Madness basketball tournament and has turned it into a moneymaker beyond all bounds of reason. That tournament, not coincidentally, is completely controlled by the NCAA and serves now as its major source of funding.

Now it’s fair to ask why colleges took on the NCAA over televising football but then have left the NCAA to broker March Madness. Simple. The NCAA learned its lesson and like a drug dealer, doled out enough riches to enough schools to keep them from complaining. College presidents, hooked on the cash like a junkie hooked on coke, have lost the will power to get themselves clean. So they live with the Draconian measures and inherent unfairness within which the NCAA operates in order to preserve their next fix.

I’m like Don Corleone when it comes to most of this. It really doesn’t matter much to me how someone wants to go about making money. But the line gets drawn once you recognize that what the NCAA really does is prey on the weak and vulnerable, many of whom are African-American athletes from impoverished backgrounds, to create its wealth. It cares little for the blood, sweat and bones that are shed or broken in order to enhance that wealth. Indeed the NCAA puts these athletes in almost untenable positions on a daily basis, exploits their accomplishments, their images and their very welfare, and doesn’t have even the common courtesy to give them a decent reach around.

In short, the NCAA treats the athletes not so much as pieces of meat but serfs who must work the lands and survive on whatever crumbs the feudal lord deigns to throw their way. It’s not good enough to say, “well at least they aren’t starving,” as an excuse for ignoring the reality, especially when you consider how fat everyone above them really is getting.

The NCAA plays the role of a supposedly benevolent dictator who better knows what these athletes want and need because they have no minds of their own. It’s an acceptable parental point of view, assuming your comfortable with parents named Hitler and Mussolini. The NCAA works in secret, denies athletes even a modicum of due process during any investigation, and punishes them harshly if they don’t walk whatever straight and narrow line the NCAA decides to draw this day.

Amazingly, it’s not just the athletes that are treated shabbily but the member schools upon whom the NCAA’s very existence relies. There are numerous examples of proscriptive rules that force these schools to bow to the NCAA’s will and forces them to knuckle under at the slightest hint of dissent. And finally there are those individuals who have run afoul of the NCAA, whether it’s Bruce Pearl or the dozens of lesser knowns that have had their livelihoods indiscriminately ripped away from them, that the NCAA makes examples of in order to force compliance.

In any other context, these kinds of actions would cause rioting in the streets. In this context, too many just shrug their shoulders, grab another beer and hope their team doesn’t drop in the rankings.

The NCAA is a scandal of untold proportions that are just now coming to light. If there’s any real justice then Branch’s article will be the catalyst that finally brings down the NCAA. But I won’t count on it. Far more likely to bring about the rightful end to an increasingly illegal enterprise will be the myriad of lawsuits the NCAA is facing at the moment, any one of which can and should destroy its very underpinnings.

One of the key lawsuits is a class action brought by Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball player. He’s wondering, correctly, why the NCAA continues to make money off his likeness and his accomplishments through video games and the like long after O’Bannon left college. He’s not alone. Oscar Robertson is another.

The NCAA’s defense is as contradictory as its very existence. It claims on the one hand that permission to use what otherwise belongs to these players, the rights to their own likeness for example, was surrendered as a condition of playing in NCAA-sanctioned events. It’s an acknowledgement by the NCAA that the players have a valuable property right and a statement that those rights were relinquished in service of the master. On the other hand, the NCAA justifies denying these same athletes any of the basic protections anyone else with similar property rights might have, such as compensation for when those rights are violated, because their pursuit of athletics was not the exercise of any right but merely a by-product of the student experience. It’s a Through-the-Looking-Glass defense that will one day be torn to shreds by a federal judge. But that outcome awaits another day.

Besides, the NCAA may fall by the wayside, as Branch points out, long before then under the crushing weight of all the instability in college football. One thing college presidents have shown in the past is that no amount is too small to fight over when it’s theirs. If that means taking on the NCAA as a means of unlocking all the riches that a super football conference with only powerhouse programs can bring, then that’s what they’ll do. The constant shuffling of the conferences, the destruction of old rivalries, the re-positioning of various schools are not merely a sign but the brightest of red flags. It’s coming. It’s just a matter of time.

All this gets us eventually back to a small timer like DeGeronimo and his lousy $200 payments to three Buckeyes. There was a time when I would have excoriated DeGeronimo for putting the Buckeyes program in jeopardy but not anymore. All he was trying to do was right an inherent wrong, clumsily perhaps, but certainly well intentioned. And even if it wasn’t, so what? There is literally nothing DeGeronimo could do that would make him or his actions play within the same solar system as the kind of corruption the NCAA doesn’t just sanction but participates in on a daily basis.

The high-minded numbskulls that still cling to an era of athletics that never really existed (you want proof? Read the Branch story) will decry any effort to properly compensate college athletes. Paying athletes didn’t destroy the Olympics and it won’t destroy college athletics. By bringing the payments above board, think of all the time and money saved by not having to hunt down wannabes like DeGeronimo.

The enemy of college athletics is not the DeGeronimos of the world that get some sort of vicarious thrill by acting like a big fish in a small pond, but the NCAA itself. Through rules that run counter to the very liberties that every day folk wouldn’t tolerate in any other setting, the NCAA has created a corrupt, unmanageable mess that preys on the vulnerable at the expense of the rich.

DeGeronimo invoked the name of charity to explain his actions. It was all for such a worthy cause. Maybe so, but if it turns out that this incident and the thousands upon thousands just like it end up exposing the fraud that is the NCAA and bringing about its death, then a far worthier cause will have been served.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

At Least Someone Is Celebrating

The ghost of Bud Carson can pop the champagne corks one more time. Continuing an ignominious streak that dates back to the '80s, current Cleveland Browns head coach Pat Shurmur started his career like so many before him, with a loss.

And it wasn't just any old loss. It was the kind of dispiriting loss that tells you that this team still is so far away from being good that a third straight yearn of 5-11 looks like the most likely outcome for this season.

Two late Cincinnati Bengals touchdowns, premised as they were by complete defensive breakdowns, allowed the Bengals to first take the lead and then seal a 27-17 victory. In some ways the game was closer then it looked, but mostly it wasn't.

The arc of the game was that of a team that looked unprepared at the start, found its bearings, but ultimately confirmed the initial impression that indeed it was unprepared. Boy did it show.

The Browns started the game with one of the most miserable first quarters to begin any season ever. It featured almost every kind of penalty imaginable, including an improbable interference call on some Browns' assistant coach who got too close to a side judge and tripped him up. This series of mistakes allowed the Bengals to race, sort of, to a 13-0 lead, and they seemed in control of the game in the same way that Notre Dame seemed to be in control of Michigan on Saturday night.

In need of someone, anyone, to step up, Joshua Cribbs, the team's one true play maker did so as if on cue by getting his hands on a Mike Nugent kick off and running it back 51 yards. To that point, it was an almost nauseating series of Browns' offensive ineptness followed by special teams ineptness followed by Bengals scores followed by Nugent touch backs. It made one wonder if there are NFL-branded barf bags out there. (Note to self: create some.)

It was only the Bengals' inability to punch it in twice, once from deep in Cleveland territory, that forced them to kick field goals and keep the game far closer than it should have been at that point at 13-0. But following the Cribbs kick off return, the entire team seemed energized, no one more so than quarterback Colt McCoy, as the team ripped off two quick touchdowns, the first a 34-yard pass from McCoy to tight end Ben Watson and the second a two yard pass from McCoy to a slanting tight end Evan Moore.

It gave the Browns a 14-13 lead and more importantly the momentum the team needed to overcome enough mistakes to make you wonder whether the team even bothered to practice during the pre-season. Phil Dawson added a 20-yard field goal on the Browns' second series in the third quarter to make it a 17-13 lead.

While a 4-point lead certainly isn't safe in the NFL, it was one of the safer 4-point leads you might see as the Bengals were forced to bring in backup quarterback Bruce Gradkowski for starter Andy Dalton who was injured just before the first half ended. Gradkowski looked like he had taken perhaps 12 reps during his pre-season as he consistently overshot receivers and couldn't seem to quite figure out the Browns' pass rush.

And that's maybe where the game might have ended, with each team moving the ball almost imperceptibly for one boring series after another. But with just over 4 minutes remaining and the Bengals seemingly stuck in neutral and looking at a 3rd and 11 from the Cleveland 41-yard line, Gradkowski caught the entire Browns team napping.

And let me just stop there for a moment because napping doesn't quite do justice to what really took place. The CBS third-string announcer squad of the week, in the form of Solomon Wilcots and Kevin Harlan, said that Gradkowski quick-snapped the ball. Not true.

Gradkowksi brought the Bengals up to the line of scrimmage as he had done for the last 20 previous plays, sporting the kind of look that seemed to confirm that he knew the play called might yield, at most, 5 yards and force his team to punt once again. But as his team got set, and I mean, set as in they methodically each took their positions and looked in while Gradkowski signaled the calls, a funny thing happened.

The Browns defense inexplicably was still in its huddle. Whether they were talking about post-game dinner plans or what sort of clever tweets they might send after the game, isn't known. What is known is that Gradkowski simply said “hut”, rookie receiver A.J. Green took off with absolutely no one covering him and it was an easy throw and catch for any quarterback outside of Joe Bauserman. Green could have hopped on one foot into the end zone and still arrived well before anyone on the Browns bothered to show up. The 41-yard touchdown gave the Bengals a stunning 20-17 lead.

The closest pursuer was Browns' cornerback Joe Haden who, to that point, had turned in a devastating performance, knocking down one pass after another and frustrating his former college rival Green all day. But Haden was one of the more guilty parties staying in that huddle too long and by the time he realized it Green was already 20 yards down field. Game Basically Over.

Haden went to the bench shaking his head. He knew he blew it. Hell, everyone knew he blew it. There was no place he could possibly hide anyway.

Now this being the Bengals it's fair to suggest that the game shouldn't have been over at that point. After all there were still over 4 minutes remaining. If McCoy was going to show he had progressed, this would have been as good a time as any to demonstrate just that.

I would opine that the series McCoy ran at that moment was his worst of the game but sadly that wasn't true. The worst series was the next time the Browns got the ball. But let's take them sequentially.

One the first play of the series, McCoy dumped off to Peyton Hillis for a 11-yard gain and a first down. What a tease. McCoy then threw to Watson underneath but Watson couldn't hold on. McCoy threw to rookie receiver Greg Little and he couldn't hold on in traffic, either. The McCoy threw mostly wildly to Mohamed Massaquoi and the ball fell innocently away.

Now this being the Bengals, Shurmur made the right call and punted. And the Bengals dutifully complied with an exceptionally quick 3-and-out. The highlight occurred when the Browns defense whiffed on a tackle of running back Cedric Benson in the backfield only to then have Benson step out of bounds instead and stop the clock and preserve a Cleveland time out.

It should have been a sign to the Bengals. It wasn't because then came the actual worst series of the game that McCoy would run. With plenty of time (there was still over two minutes remaining) and decent field position (the Cleveland 44-yard line), McCoy looked hurried and harried as he repeatedly tried to move the ball through the clever use of the 1-yard pass. Each time said pass was dutifully dropped. On 4th down, McCoy was under severe pressure and threw (seriously) to center Alex Mack. The Bengals took over on downs.

Showing all the professionalism of Browns' teams past, the defense essentially mailed it in on the Bengals' next possession as Benson took a harmless hand off designed to run out the clock and turned it into a barely touched 39-yard touchdown run to give the Bengals their final score of the game.

With only 46 seconds remaining Shurmur should have just had McCoy take a knee and admit to himself, the team and the fans what was painfully obvious—a winnable game had been instead handed to a very mediocre team by a woefully unprepared team. But these plucky Browns fought all the way until the inevitable late interception that basically ended the game.

It really isn't worth running through the stats at this point to demonstrate exactly why the Browns lost. But what is worth running through are all the little things that should make fans more concerned then they should be after the first game of a long season.

First of course were the penalties. Say what you want about Eric Mangini, but his teams didn't commit many penalties. The Browns had 11 official penalties, most of them in the first half and most of those in the first quarter. There were actually at least 3 more penalties that the Bengals declined. Then was the fact that there was no rushing game to speak of or, more accurately, no firm commitment to a rushing game to speak of. Then, of course was the usual ineptness in the form of the Browns being a miserable 4-15 on third down. And finally the only good thing to be said about punter Richmond McGee is that he didn't have a punt blocked. If Shurmur isn't auditioning punters come Monday morning then I'll be surprised.

But the real story all of this tells is that this team, for whatever reason, simply was not ready to play on Sunday. Sure there were spurts where you thought “this team may actually be improved” but mostly it was the same turgid team that fans have seen for the last several years.

If Shurmur didn't realize it at about noon Sunday, he certainly knew by 4:30 p.m. He has his work cut out for him and perhaps the hardest sell job will be to an impatient fan base that is sick of seeing its teams consistently out coached and out played. Turn it around and quickly and this game is easily forgotten. If it turns into a marker of more to come then the ghost of Bud Carson might have to wait only another year or two before popping open the champagne again as the next head coach of the Browns inevitably loses his first game as well.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Land of the Living

As we approach another sad anniversary of 9/11, it is surely a moment to put aside whatever partisan beliefs you may have and come together, for however briefly, to remember the real heroes of this country, the firefighters, police officers and other first responders of that tragic day.

Here's a tribute to 9/11 as sung by Lucy Kaplansky, called "The Land of the Living":

Here's another great tribute, Bruce Springsteen's The Rising:

And finally, a prayer to our fallen brothers and sisters:

Do something nice for someone today.

Monday, September 05, 2011

Fixing College Football

Never underestimate the power of victory to push the demons away.

Ohio State's win over Akron may have righted the ship for its fans just as each win by Miami, Oregon, USC, Auburn and the like will buoy their fans.

But no single win itself is going to do much to right the ship of college football generally. College football is in very serious trouble. It's not the kind of trouble that can be easily fixed and even if it could, there's no will to do so at the moment. But it's foolish to ignore the red flags flying over the sport and wish its problems away. Ignorance is not bliss.

At what point, for example, do we all stop citing to every instance involving every school caught doing something and then try to make the rather pathetic case that these are a series of isolated incidents? And if we're using the words “series” to explain away what we'd like to believe are isolated incidents then aren't we just being our own worst enemies by not admitting that all of it is really a rather disturbing trend.

Maybe the situation in Miami will be the flashpoint for college football, but I doubt it. It's just the latest egregious example. Oregon is wrestling with its own shady behavior as is Boise State. Auburn's resurgence brought with it the predictable NCAA scrutiny and the stink over how exactly Cam Newton got there is never going to quite leave the program. There's also a convincing argument that the flashpoint really should have been USC bringing in Lane Kiffin to fix their problems. Kiffin is nothing if not the poster child for college football opportunism as he left a Tennessee program in shambles and cleaning up its own NCAA mess that he caused as he headed to USC.

And these are only the situations that the average fan is familiar with. Less known are all the literally hundreds of issues that come each week in nearly every program around the country. The NCAA rule book and the method in which it is (must?) be interpreted has become nearly impossible for professional compliance officers. The NCAA would love to upgrade its technology and replace its antiquated fax machine but they never get a chance. It hums with compliance reports 24/7/365.

So, yea, compliance with the rules is an issue but it isn't the problem. The rules are just the NCAA's way of trying to treat a disease, the billions of dollars that have infected college football, that has no cure.

The money grab at the college level is the tsunami that is destroying the very essence of the game itself. With public college budgets strained by state legislatures with their own budget problems is it any wonder why college presidents look at the money generated by big time football and rub their hands in glee like they're Nucky Thompson in Boardwalk Empire?

Football, as practiced at the highest levels, throws of money like Angelina Jolie throws off pheromones. Ohio State and Texas and a handful of others are the tease for all the other schools looking to cash in. The money becomes the siren song that lures otherwise decent thinking and acting human beings to do some pretty ridiculous things. Just saying no is hardly a viable option when there's a whole in the budget the size of Montana.

All this money of course is the byproduct of an amoral media machine that needs these games for its own survival. And of course the machine wouldn't have all these millions to toss about so indiscriminately if not for the various advertisers who just have to get their product in front of all those eyeballs watching all those games.

Leading the pack of course is an increasingly more corrupt ESPN whose organization is so rife with conflicts of interest and self-dealing but likely will escape any real government scrutiny because of a misguided tea-party sentiment that rules and regulations are for suckers and socialists. But ESPN is most certainly helping to bring about the ruination of the sport that right now is a substantial revenue item on its balance sheet. ESPN gets in bed with Texas on the Longhorn Network. It gets in bed with the SEC on its network. And then it spends its time talking down any other team that could possibly overshadow, not to mention devalue, the investments its made in those other teams and conferences. How else to explain Mark May?

With the significant help of outfits like ESPN, college football hasn't just become a cesspool. It's become an untreatable cancer. The funny thing is, everyone associated with college football knows it has the disease but believes the best cure is simply not to go to the doctor.

When you stop to consider college football below the current Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS), where championships are actually decided on the field and television money is nearly non existent, you start to more fully understand how thoroughly corrupted the FBS has become from the money.

At schools not worried about winning some mythical jerry-rigged BCS championship, there is a certain retained purity about the sport. The time devoted by the athletes to their sport at those levels isn't quite all consuming, mainly because the participants enter college knowing that there path to later success will be laid not by their ability to punt, pass or kick, but by their performance in the classroom.

No one should have faith in the NCAA's ability to legislate away its problems, either. More rules on what can be served at a players' only pre-game breakfast is surely not the answer. Besides, the NCAA is merely a feel-good creation of and beholden to the member institutions that can, at any time, throttle back its influence.

Real reform will come only when the presidents of the top universities take the problem by the scruff of its neck and demand a real solution in the form of ridding the sport of the corrupting influence of money. And the only way to do that is to stop giving individual schools a financially-based incentive to get a leg up on any other school.

If the key college presidents want to something positive for the sport, something that will really bring about reform, here's a modest but very workable solution.

First, establish one “super” conference of schools willing to pay a five million dollar entry fee each year. That will force every college to decide whether or not it's worth the price. Many won't pay and it will be better off for it. So will their budgets and by proxy their students. They can go back to lower divisions that won't have an entry fee.

For every school willing to pay the entry fee, make them then live with a fixed football budget, a “salary cap” of sorts. Every school would have the same budget. To support it, each team in the super conference will share equally all revenue generated by their sport (and I mean all revenue, without exception). Finally, abolish the BCS in favor of a legitimate playoff system. This will provide the performance incentive that every school that remains in the super conference to want to compete at the highest level.

Under this construct, the NCAA rule book would necessarily get skinnier and the compliance process would be simplified, although it would never disappear completely. Let's face it, being declared “national champions” is still a powerful incentive for some schools/individuals to cheat. Human nature can never be fully anticipated or controlled.

That still leaves one issue to deal with and that's the athletes. Right now they are the fuel that powers the engine and while there is no question that a fully paid education is a pretty decent payment, they should share in more. Grad students are paid a stipend to help teach. Athletes should get a stipend to play and it should be equal across all of the super conference.

Of course this idea won't work because it would require the dismantling of the current system. But the truth is that the current system is being dismantled piece by piece and isn't worth saving anyway. It's just a choice over whether the college presidents want to do it in a proactive way as a means of coming up with something better or want to have it simply tumble down around them when it's too late to rebuild.

Maybe big time college football is not fixable at this point or maybe it's not even worth trying. But left to its own devises, it will implode and that's guaranteed. And when that happens, the right question will not be “how did this happen” but instead “how did this not happen even sooner?”

Thursday, September 01, 2011

Born Again, Again

With the Cleveland Browns on the verge of yet another re-birth, I’ve started to appreciate exactly how the Octomom must have felt after she had already popped out about 4 or 5 of those babies: again?

This is hardly the road less traveled for this Browns' franchise and its fans. Truth be told, this franchise and its fans have traveled down every conceivable road, boulevard, passageway, path and patch in search of some sort of Holy Grail only to find themselves, like a kid playing Chutes and Ladders, always climbing right back to the beginning square. To say the Browns have been going in circles is to say that Congress and the President have been in gridlock, pick an administration.

So in that respect, I’m worn out before another season even starts from having to figure out if this time owner Randy Lerner has gotten it right. I sense that this latest combination of president, general manager and head coach meshes far better than last year’s oddly misfit group where Eric Mangini tried as best he knew how to suppress his more assholish instincts for the better part of the season in order to hang on to a job that he lost about two minutes after Lerner put in that first call to Mike Holmgren.

But really, given the past there is far more reason to believe that this group, too, will flame out like every other group before it dating back to Bill Belichick’s first turn as a head coach, or perhaps Bud Carson’s than there is that it will be successful. It’s not that the Browns are cursed, but it may be that the Lerner family is.

Nonetheless, the one aspect of Lerner’s ownership I’ve liked has been his willingness to spend money, often foolishly. He’s far lower profile certainly then an abject goof like Dan Snyder in Washington, but I’ll bet if you ran the figures in how many millions Lerner has paid out (and probably still is) to coaches and other front office types who no longer work for the Browns and compare it to the many millions Snyder has blown on ridiculous player acquisitions, the numbers would be closer than most people suspect.

Still it’s great fun to watch the rich spend carelessly. It actually is a powerful incentive to work hard just to get in the position where the biggest criticism leveled against you is that you wasted several million of your billions.

What I haven’t like about Lerner’s ownership though is that he doesn’t seem all that interested in eliminating the raging naïveté he has about how the business of the NFL is conducted. He’s made a good pick in someone like Holmgren who understands the various ins and outs. But because Lerner is so much like Arthur (the Dudley Moore version and not the Russell Brand version, mainly because I didn’t see the Russell Brand version because I just knew it would suck) while most of the rest of the owners are rich white guys with actual track records of running successful businesses, it makes me nervous. Jerry Jones is a good check and balance against whatever coach he has in there this week because Jerry has always been successful. In Cleveland there is no check and balance against Holmgren’s basic instincts, even if those instincts are generally the right ones, because to date Lerner’s biggest success was winning a lawsuit against the guy who blew millions of Lerner’s dollars in an investment scheme a few years back.

To this point I think Tom Heckert’s moves as general manager have all been the right ones. None of the players he let go will be missed. More of the players he’s drafted have legitimate futures then those of his predecessors. He hasn’t rushed into free agency as a quick fix, preferring first to build from within. It’s a subtle recognition, really, that this team isn’t one or two players away from a Super Bowl. That strikes me as healthy.

I’m also coming around pretty well on Pat Shurmur as head coach if for no other reason then he isn’t constantly trying to convince everyone that, gosh, c'mon guys, he really is the head coach. Mangini always had a bit of an inferiority complex mixed in with a healthy amount of little man’s syndrome that ended up poisoning the masses and sabotaging his career. In both New York and Cleveland, Maningi had locker rooms full of discontented malcontents willing to tear down the coach at every turn to whomever might be listening, be it other players or the media. Sure, some of these misanthropes weren’t ever going to get with anyone’s program but their own, but yet there was much about the way Mangini conducted himself that created an almost perfect environment for these seeds of discontent to germinate.

The real first test for Shurmur isn’t when the Browns play a rivalry game but when there is the first losing streak and everyone associated with the franchise starts walking around Berea with a longer face than Jimmy Stewart’s. Shurmur will have to turn those frowns upside down in a genuine way that convinces the players that there’s a reason to follow his lead. Having never quite been tested that way in the NFL, there’s no way to know at the moment how he’ll respond. Yet the trends seem good if for no other reason then he doesn't seem like the kind of guy who would panic.

The other thing is that as I sift my way through the preseason with absolutely no deference or respect given to the game against Chicago, which should be required viewing only for prisoners on death row, it’s hard not to like the direction of the offense.

First, it’s not risk averse but risk mitigation. Perhaps the Browns’ most frustrating year was Derek Anderson’s second as a starter. The sum total of the offense was run off tackle, throw long, throw longer, punt. It had the creativity level of another Jenna Elfman sitcom. It wasn’t an accident that the Browns scored less than a copier salesman at BW-3.

Last season’s offense was a horse of a far different hue but not any more successful. It wasn’t so much coordinated as it was orchestrated to produce the occasional element of surprise. But the gimmicks ran out about the 3rd game of the season and only some smoke and mirrors plays by rookie Colt McCoy kept the Browns competitive later in the season.

Now we have an actual scheme that even the fans can embrace. I’ve always liked the flow of the West Coast offense because the typical NFL game has always placed a much greater emphasis on ball control than the college version. Well executed, the West Coast offense tends to be the best combination of forward movement and clock eater. Like any other system it helps if you have great players, like Joe Montana or Steve Young, manning the controls, but its success doesn’t necessarily require that high of a level of competence.

There’s every reason to believe, for example, that a highly successful college player whose stock in trade is accuracy like Colt McCoy will be successful running this offense. It’s how he made his bones in the first place. You need a good running game, but not necessarily a great one. The Browns have that covered with a competent running back in Peyton Hillis to keep things honest though for the Browns to keep Hillis healthy someone else who can do something more than gain ½ yard on second down will have to emerge.

The receivers too don’t have to be spectacular so I’m not at the same threat level midnight about the lack of a big name in the ranks as many other fans. In my way of thinking, the only major question mark about the receiving corps in the context of this offensive scheme is Josh Cribbs. I’m just not sure yet he has anywhere near the polish to run effective routes consistently. Of slightly less importance is whether or not there is enough razz in the offense to satisfy the big ideas of a receiver like Greg Little. We’ll see. I do think that Brian Robiskie is a perfect fit, finally, and that Mohamed Massaquoi showed enough last season for us to believe he too can run effective and successful routes in this offense, that is if his foot ever heals properly.

The downside ultimately to this team is its incredible lack of depth on both sides of the ball, a circumstance brought on by the serial incompetence of 10+ seasons of misfit management. This is the Achilles’ heal that will tend to mask whatever real progress is being made.

So yea, it’s another re-birth, another child to support but it’s the Browns and this is what we do. Let’s just hope we have at least a fighting chance to watch this child grow a bit older before we ever have to think about having another one again.