Are the sportswriters in this town merely idiots or are they just reflecting the collective angst of a downtrodden fan base. In Cleveland it's sometimes hard to tell.
Browns' president Mike Holmgren made his semi-regular pilgrimage to the podium in Berea on Thursday to talk about the state of the Browns as he sees them and for his candor he's rewarded with more questions about not just what the heck he said but why. The reason I suspect is that no one takes anyone at face value.
Responding to questions about the state of negotiations with Peyton Hillis, Holmgren said they are at a standstill, which was obvious to nearly anyone who remembered that Hillis hadn't signed on to any contract extension just yet. Holmgren didn't blame Hillis or his agent and he didn't suggest that the Browns had lost interest. It's a question of value, which it always is, during contract negotiations.
Holmgren was asked about first year coach Pat Shurmur and then said what was obvious to nearly anyone who remembered that Shurmur, hired by Holmgren, is barely 5 games into his first go-round as a head coach. Surprise, Holmgren still backs Shurmur.
So when is Holmgren going to make Shurmur hire an offensive coordinator? Well, that's up to Shurmur, or so said Holmgren.
And then there were the questions about Colt McCoy. Is he really “the man?” Holmgren said what was obvious to nearly anyone who remembered that McCoy is just 5 games into a new offensive scheme. Yes, McCoy is the quarterback for this year. Well then, what about next year? We'll see, won't we, or so said Holmgren. If he's not, then we'll keep looking until we find the right quarterback.
It really was that obvious and straightforward, so naturally the local writers, like Marla Ridenour at the Akron Beacon Journal, concluded that both Hillis and McCoy face uncertain futures in Cleveland. Welcome to the big leagues.
I suppose the Ridenours of the world should be forgiven for their superficial approach to a sport they probably don't quite understand. I'm talking about journalism and not football, by the way. If you're going to engage in analysis and put it out there, it helps to actually analyze and contextualize. It's easy to assume that everyone has an agenda, that things said aren't what is meant, as the way of putting a spin on what you wanted to conclude anyway, but seriously isn't the future just as uncertain for virtually any player on the Cleveland Browns? Why single out Hillis and McCoy?
Maybe Joe Thomas and Joe Haden are safe. You could probably count T.J. Ward in there as well. But take a stroll through this lineup and ask yourself who else really is safe for the next few years. And when you come to the end of that yellow brick road, maybe then you'll start to understand why a team that's been this crappy for about a hundred thousand reasons for the last 10 plus years stands just 2-3 at the moment.
The Browns' roster has improved because the drafting has improved. But the draft happens exactly once a year and unless the NFL and its other member clubs take pity on the Browns and let them choose the first 30 players in the draft in each of the next four years, the improvement in this roster to the point where the team is consistently competitive with the best teams in the league is going to be slow.
This isn't a question of counseling patience to a fan base with none. It's a reminder that what gets said has context, that's all. Is that too much to ask? Perspective.
If there could be any mild criticism of what Holmgren had to say, it stems from his naivete about the fragile state of the psyche of this town's fans. An entire generation fans has been borne and is now midway through college and hasn't seen anything resembling the kinds of teams that their parents experienced in the early 1980s. It's one thing to tell war stories but it doesn't always translate to a younger group of fans with the attention span of a puppy and no tolerance for lousy product.
So when Holmgren, in all candor, said that the Browns would be comfortable letting Hillis enter free agency and then try to sign him, alarms went off to the sportswriters ready to pounce. Doesn't Holmgren get what Hillis means to this town? Doesn't he know that Hillis was a Madden cover boy?
There is an absence of players that the fans can identify with which fully explains why they've sunk their hooks so deep into Hillis and Josh Cribbs. But until Hillis can prove he can stay healthy (which he hasn't), why should the Browns risk tying up significant long-term dollars in the context of a hard salary cap and why should Holmgren say otherwise?
But beyond not quite being fully tapped in to the sometimes misguided thinking of this fan base, there was nothing much said by Holmgren that couldn't have been easily imagined. The problem I guess is that he had the temerity to actually say it before the writers could and thus sent them scurrying to invent another angle.
Speaking of Cribbs, there wasn't anything much said by Holmgren on that subject, but plenty of kvetching anyway when Cribbs said earlier this week that he's not much of an option in the offense and that he'd rather contribute more on special teams.
Here's a note to Cribbs and the rest of the fans. At best Cribbs really is the third receiving option, even on a team strapped for guys that can get open and catch the ball. Cribbs wears the banner of a playmaker because he has good instincts when he gets the ball in the open field. He also is one of the most passionate players the Browns have ever had.
But having good open field instincts and passion doesn't necessarily make one a good receiver and that realization has dawned on Cribbs, just not as quickly as it did on Shurmur. Cribbs is not, as the Plain Dealer's Bud Shaw suggested earlier this week, going all Keyshawn and saying “just give me the damn ball.” He's just being honest. He's an afterthought.
That's because Cribbs just isn't a good receiver and may never be. Isolate on him when you can and you'll see that he doesn't run crisp routes. He isn't particularly elusive when it comes to getting open, either. In other words, even average defensive backs in the league don't fear Cribbs because he isn't all that hard to cover.
It's relatively easy to get Cribbs the ball on short crossing routes and hope that he can break a long run occasionally, but that isn't a system. It's just a small piece of a much larger puzzle of which Cribbs is never going to be a major piece.
It makes for easy writing to say that the Browns need to get Cribbs the ball, but then ask yourself exactly how that should be done and who should suffer at that expense. Should Cribbs take carries away from Hillis or Montario Hardesty? Should he take opportunities away from Greg Little? I suspect that if Cribbs was better then any of those players then those opportunities would come. He's just not.
Cribbs is valuable in spot duty but he's never going to approach the raw receiving talent of even a player like Little and Shurmur knows it and now so does Cribbs. Does that mean Cribbs doesn't have a role? Of course not, but it isn't going to be any more of a role then a third receiver typically gets on any team.
Cribbs' real value is on special teams and instead of trying to preserve him for an offense where he doesn't fit in, it is time that Cribbs return full time to covering special teams on both sides of the ball. That will make this team better and could have possibly saved the team the embarrassment of last week's special teams failures.
While Holmgren looked positively relaxed at his press conference, Shurmur was a slightly different story. He's wearing the stress of a season spent coaching new players and a new system that needs more practice then the collective bargaining agreement will allow.
It was refreshing though that Shurmur was willing to acknowledge that McCoy will get better when his fundamentals improve. Shurmur attributes the low completion percentage, for example, to simply a lack of consistent fundamentals.
The question really is what Shurmur and McCoy are doing right now to make that better. The answer is probably not much.
The Browns do ostensibly practice during the week but most of that is dedicated to refining their approach for the next game rather than working on things like footwork. That's what the offseason is for and that's where the lack of a formal offseason has hurt McCoy then probably most other players in the Browns' lineup.
What you do see from McCoy are the occasional flashes of brilliance and the many flashes of Derek Anderson. But there's been enough brilliance to justify the continued confidence the coaching staff has in McCoy but not enough to say that McCoy need not worry about a replacement for the next 10 years.
While there is no question that McCoy's fundamentals need to improve in several areas (and I've written about that plenty), I also get the sense that more is being asked of McCoy then is typically asked of a rookie quarterback.
Part of that is likely due to the fact that McCoy isn't actually a rookie but a big part of it is Shurmur's insistence of putting in the entire West Coast offense rather than roll it out over time. There's merit to either approach so it's not as if there's a right answer.
If you watch what the Carolina Panthers are doing with Cam Newton, it's really similar to how the Steelers approached the integration of Ben Roethlisberger. The offenses get simplified with the quarterback as a spoke and not the axle. Newton may be having some individual success but his team isn't much good and that's why it's losing. The Steelers were far more successful but that was mainly because their team, on both sides of the ball, was excellent.
But let's remember that McCoy has a far different background then either Newton or Roethlisberger. Newton is a great athlete with very limited experience. There's only so much he could handle anyway. Roethlisberger was a good talent with good experience in a lesser program. Likewise there was only so much he could handle.
McCoy was a four year starter for a much bigger program. He should be able to handle more. Moreover, there's no reason for the Browns not to use this season as a lengthy training camp for next season. That's tough for the fans to hear and even tougher to charge full price for but it is the truth. The Browns were never going to the playoffs this season but that doesn't mean that there isn't anything to accomplish.
As Holmgren noted, McCoy is getting kicked around pretty good. It's a good initiation really to see what comes out the other side. If he's still standing at season's end and the improvement's there, then the Browns will really know they have a quarterback. And if that turns out to be the case, then this season would hardly be a waste because better days will follow.
It may just be me, but the question I've been pondering this week, after learning that the Browns signed running back Chris Ogbonnaya and waived Armond Smith: What was it again that compelled Shurmur to pitch the ball to Smith on a crucial and unsuccessful 4th and 1 while the Browns were still in the game against Tennessee?