Monday, January 31, 2011

The Way the Stern Wind Blows

The Cleveland Cavaliers continue to reach lower and lower lows and yet everyone associated with it, players, management, fans, are all collectively Charlie Sheen: unable to admit that there is no place left to go because rock bottom has long since been reached.

But even if they could, it probably wouldn’t matter anyway. Whereas knowing when you’ve bottomed out with the bottle may be the first step toward recovering, knowing when you’ve bottomed out in the NBA is irrelevant. The deck is stacked against you institutionally and short of a fortuitous ping pong ball or a warm weather climate with a vibrant night life, NBA riches will remain elusive.

The Cavs may not win again this season and that’s the least snarky comment that can be made about this team right now. This team had its courage, its will, its fight removed a few months back when LeBron James visited the Q and took with him all that remained of the Cavs team he once helped take to the NBA finals.

But even without that dispiriting loss, the only place the Cavs were going was to the lottery anyway. What then to do with the rest of the basketball season? Is it time for an insurrection? Is it time to reconsider our thoughts on the relatively bankrupt operations that the Browns and the Indians have become in light of how the Cavs are operating at the moment? Or should we just do what we do in Cleveland and bend over, take another swat to the ass from Niedermeyer and then say “thank you, sir, may have another?”

Honestly, is there really anything else to do? If we want to go down the usual Elisabeth Kubler-Ross steps of the grieving process, we’re long past denial. The franchise as fans knew it from the last 7 years is indeed dead. Dozens of mind-numbing double digit losses this season have driven that point home.

That takes us to the blame portion of the program. But where to start or, more appropriately, where to focus? There’s no real reason to blame Silent Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers owner, who mostly expresses his thoughts these days in 140 characters or less via Twitter. Gilbert understandably went all in on James so it’s not a surprise the Cavs would have regressed. You play no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em and put everything at stake hoping to draw to an inside straight, it’s going to cost you more times than not. Casinos are built on suckers who play those odds.

Besides, Gilbert’s sin at the moment stems from his lack of leadership during the biggest crisis facing the franchise, not the fact that he made the bet that everyone asked him to make. Move on.

There’s also no real reason to blame head coach Byron Scott, although he’s been nothing short of a disaster as a head coach. His coaching is random. He admitted to testing his players during a crucial moment in a recent game the Cavs were competitive in late with a play they hadn’t run since training camp. No one knew what the heck he was talking about. Not surprisingly, that infuriated the mercurial Scott without him ever realizing how bizarre his rant actually made him sound.

Still, Phil Jackson couldn’t make this Cavs team competitive apparently, not with all the middling talent on this roster. Injured or healthy, nothing much would change its fortunes in the short term. Again, move on.

If we’re going to stay mired in the blame game for now then let’s be fair and honest about where it really lies and that’s with the NBA and its benevolent dictator David Stern. It’s not that Stern let James pull the rug out from under the Cavs feet that’s the problem. He couldn’t have stopped it because it was already too late anyway. Rather the crux of the issue is that Stern, for all his grand visions for the future and the brand, couldn’t see the problems staring him in the face before it came to fruition to the detriment of Cleveland.

If there is one truism in running a for-profit enterprise it is this: you can never get yourself in a position where the inmates run the asylum. Any business of any sort that gets itself in a position where an individual’s presence or absence can send it into complete irrelevance overnight usually gets what it deserves in the end.

Scour the NBA at the moment and it’s very clear that Stern’s vision of the game has put the league in a position where the value of a franchise can plummet faster than the stock market after a terrorist attack. It’s really rather simple. The owners are the pawns and the players control all. It’s a Through-the Looking-Glass existence that puts the power in the hands of players (and their agents) to manipulate the lengths of their contracts in order to expire together at more desirable locations where the weather suits their fancy. You wouldn’t run the local deli this way but the NBA has allowed itself to turn basic business principles on its ear so that James, Wades and Boshes of the world can hold a franchise hostage as each of them did with their teams this summer and as Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard are doing now.

It’s the byproduct, really, of Stern’s view that the league prospers best when it has superstars to market. Perhaps it does if the goal is to sell jerseys to the Chinese, but as it’s playing out in real time it’s probably the worst business plan imaginable.

Maybe it’s fun to see billionaire owners squirm like pre-school girls eyeing a dead bird on the playground, but the reality is that by catering more to the egos of the superstars the NBA and Stern have left the owners, you know, the guys footing all the bills, holding the bag when those player egos naturally grow out of control.

The Cavs are a franchise that despite Gilbert’s hubris are not going to recover from this for years and then only when a superstar happens to fall into their laps again through the luck of the ping pong balls. How is Minnesota doing these days without Kevin Garnett? How about Indiana since the departure of Reggie Miller? How about Milwaukee, since, well, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar left? You get the point.

When the superstar escapes by whatever means from the team that was lucky enough to be in a position to draft him, the franchise just doesn’t recover until the next superstar comes along. It really is that simple.

Cleveland, if you want your future, it’s already been played out, a short plane ride away, in Chicago. In the 1997-98 season, the Chicago Bulls won 62 games and a NBA title. It was also Michael Jordan’s and Scottie Pippen’s last season with the team. It took the Bulls nearly four full seasons to win 62 more games total. They didn’t have a winning record until 7 years after Jordan left. In the 6 seasons after that they had only two winning seasons and three seasons where they finished a .500. Only since Derek Rose fell in their laps have the Bulls had a chance to start climbing from the abyss. Gee, it only took 12 years for that to happen.

If David Stern doesn’t see this as the issue holding back the NBA and make it the centerpiece of their upcoming negotiations, then he is in far deeper denial than is Gilbert about what it will take to rebuild the Cavs. Right now the players and the agents have pushed the league into a system that is working counter to the greater good of the league in favor of the greater good of a handful of players and a handful of franchises.

Either Stern takes this issue on now or abdicates it forever. It starts with a hard salary cap and a NFL-like way to put tags on certain players in order to keep them with their current teams. It ends with the notion that overnight no franchise can see its value plunge 35%, like the Cavs this season, just because one player leaves town. If that scenario remains viable, less and less owners will be willing to lay their money down.

To this point there hasn’t been much talk either way on what Stern really thinks. But if you’re watching in Cleveland, just know that the difference between losing for the next generation or so depends on which way the Stern wind decides to blow.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Spoiling for a Fight

When it comes to professional sports, there is almost no circumstance where a person says “it’s not about the money” and means it. Yet here goes the latest pretender to that throne, DeMaurice Smith, doing just that.

Smith, you see, is the leader of the NFL Players Association, the players’ union. Having been recently elected to that post on a platform of being a fighter who won’t sell out the players like prior leadership supposedly did, he has been meeting with newly elected player representatives from each team and telling them that the mostly stalled negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement really isn’t about the money, but respect. That’s the first but hardly only clue that Smith’s game plan is to use bravado to mask his incredible naïveté.

None of this would matter much except that with Smith at the helm, there will be a labor disruption of some sort that threatens some or all of the next NFL season. For Browns fans that might seem like the least of their concerns. But it is a far more important issue to the progress of this team than it might otherwise appear. With a new coaching staff just on board, a strike or lockout will just set the organization back that much further.

According to a story in Sunday’s New York Times, Smith has been using most of his time since being elected to let the players know they are “at war” (they aren’t) and lobbying members of Congress on the plight of the beleaguered players whose paltry million dollar average salaries make them America’s most misunderstood underclass.

That Smith is in over his head is probably obvious to everybody but the players that elected him. But then again the NFL Players union isn’t exactly the brightest or strongest union going. In fact, what distinguishes it most is its willingness to inflict damage on its own members before eventually caving to the demands of the owners.

That gets us back to the money part. Smith is downplaying the money issues (which are substantial) by trying to convince the players that the owners’ motives really are about driving the union out of business. It’s an old saw, really. Every new union leader trots out the union-busting rhetoric every time things get a little bit tough. On the list of goals the owners probably have for these negotiations, busting the union probably comes in 40, slots lower than the amount of meal money paid during training camp.

The irony, actually, is that it is Smith who seems to want to bust his own union. He’s been constantly floating the idea of having the NFL Players Association decertify as a means toward gaining leverage against the owners in negotiation.

Here’s how that would work: So long as there is a labor union in place that’s been certified by the National Labor Relations Board, which the NFLPA is, the owners can legally bargain with them as a group without violating anti-trust laws. If there is no certified union, then the owners can’t collectively act against the players without running afoul of anti-trust laws. This is important because Smith surmises that the owners’ strategy is to lockout the players on March 3, 2011, the date when the current labor contract terminates. Lockouts are legal and are designed to put pressure on the union at the bargaining table in the same way that a strike by the union puts pressure on the owners. Smith has vowed that his union won’t strike. Thus, to keep the owners from continuing a lockout once imposed, Smith would have the union file a petition with the NLRB to decertify. Once decertified, it would be illegal for all the owners to work together and keep the players locked out. That would preserve football, I suppose, but under what terms and conditions aren’t exactly clear and that’s the rub.

Smith’s grand scheme is a strategy without an end game. Once the union decertifies, it loses the ability to represent the players. That means there is no bargaining that could legally take place unless the union re-certifies. And if it re-certifies it risks another lockout and the parties end up in a vicious circle where nothing actually gets accomplished.

Moreover, Smith’s strategy lacks for an overarching, more practical reason. His members ultimately are never going to be strong or united enough to see such a radical strategy through even if there were some logical conclusion to it. The NFLPA has always been a weak union. The members, meaning the players, understand that their shelf life in professional football is very limited. There also is the fact that they have no other viable professional football options. Mix in the fact that a fan base still struggling with far more serious economic realities of their own will feel very little sympathy toward them and you have the makings of what ultimately is a failed strategy.

I suspect Smith is actually smart enough to understand all that on some level. But right now it would essentially be career suicide to admit as much. That’s why the posturing, the fiery rhetoric and the hobnobbing with legislators. To Smith it makes him look like he’s doing something of value despite the absolutely vacuous nature of each and every gesture.

If Smith really wants to be a union leader to be reckoned with, his best strategy is to actually sit down with the owners and negotiate a new contract. That’s the far harder work of course and carries with it the smell of defeat, particularly this time around.

According to the New York Times article, the amount in play right now is around $1 billion. That’s the difference between the current revenue 60/40 revenue split which favors the union and the new, unstated split the owners envision. So yea, it’s about money, a whole lot of money.

There are other issues as well. The owners want to make the pie bigger and see an 18-game schedule as the key. They claim, somewhat disingenuously, that going to an 18-game schedule doesn’t really change anything because all that’s really occurring is that the preseason gets cut down to 2 games. Thus the number of games played remains the same it’s just that more count.

Not quite. Veteran players spend very little time playing in the preseason. Those games tend to be populated by players trying to make the squad. Moreover, those games are run at about half the speed of a regular season game. Injuries still occur, certainly, but the chance of any particular veteran getting injured is significantly less.

Then there are the usual other smaller issues, like health care coverage, compensation for off season workouts, pension and the like. These are important, certainly, but they aren’t driving the negotiations.

I can understand why Smith doesn’t want to take on the issues at the table directly. They probably seem overwhelming given his almost complete lack of training or experience in labor matters. His prior work was mostly as a prosecutor which gives him a leg up with all the criminal problems the players get embroiled in but doesn’t necessarily do him much good on billion dollar business issues.

Moreover, these kinds of negotiations are mostly unwinnable from the union’s standpoint, assuming the goal is to win, which it is not. Whenever a new contract is reached, and at some point there will be a new contract, you can count on the players getting less of a percentage of the revenue (but probably more overall) and compromising more on safety issues like the length of the season. The NFL owners are far more equipped to withstand whatever pressure the union can bring to bear and will mostly get their way because the economics and the future of the sport mostly depend on it.

Eventually Smith will come to understand that the real path forward starts at the bargaining table and not in the hallways of Congress. But right now he seems more hell-bent on establishing his own reputation as one tough S.O.B. and sacrificing a season if necessary to accomplish that. It’s’s too bad of course because all that means is that in the interim his members and the fans that support them will be the ones that are S.O.L.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The Hiring Process

As the Cleveland Browns go about the real work of putting together a football team, the hand wringing already has begun. Some fans and some in the local media are getting breathless with worry over the coordinators the Browns haven’t been able to hire.

In Thursday’s Plain Dealer for example Mary Kay Cabot implied that the Browns already are working on what amounts to their third choice as the offensive coordinator after Mike McCoy opted to stay with Denver and Bill Musgrave opted to take a job with the Minnesota Vikings. In that way Cabot already sets up new head coach Pat Shurmur and club president Mike Holmgren for failure because, after all, how good can anyone’s third choice for an open position really be?

Well, to answer that question is to buy into a premise based on anecdotal evidence disguised as fact.

Three weeks ago neither Cabot nor fans who are kvetching could pick McCoy or Musgrave out of a lineup. They wouldn’t have been able to hazard a guess about their offensive philosophies, their coaching histories (without consulting Wikipedia) or whether or not they are even good coaches. That either or both would be considered superior choices to anyone else would have been unfathomable. So it seems rather meaningless to bracket the discussion in the context that these two were somehow among the top coordinators in the league and the Browns have missed out and will suffer for it.

Next, there is absolutely no evidence that either McCoy or Musgrave were their number one and two choices or that, indeed, either one actually turned down the Browns. McCoy was under contract with Denver already and the new head coach, John Fox, opted to keep McCoy mainly because of his long association with him from his days in Carolina. There is a devil you know factor at work for anyone contemplating a job change.

As for Musgrave, we know he was interviewed but we don’t know whether or not he was ever offered the job. If anything there is more reason to believe that he wasn’t offered the job than there is that he was and that he spurned the Browns for the Vikings.

When hiring for this type of job there is a built in assumption that the person being interviewed already is qualified. Professional sports teams, like virtually any other employer, doesn’t waste time conducting fishing expeditions for high level hires. These aren’t mail order hires. Instead, the focus of these interviews is culture. What the interviewer is trying to discern is how well he and the prospect can work together. In this case do they share a similar vision on offensive approach? Do they have similar views on how various situations are handled?

It could very well be that in the course of their interviews it became clear to Shurmur and/or Musgrave that they were on different pages. That doesn’t mean one is right and one is wrong. It just means that the fit didn’t seem right to one or both of them. Far better to realize that now than 14 games into next season.

Another element in the search in this case is the simple fact that Shurmur was hired because of his own offensive expertise and thus what he might be requiring of an offensive coordinator is likely to be much different than what a more defensive minded head coach, like Leslie Frazier in Minnesota, might want. Shurmur isn’t trying to find someone to flesh out a vague sense of how he feels an offense should work. Shurmur’s trying to find a coordinator who can bring some additional value to the approach he’s already adopted.

Shurmur already has said that he intends to call the offensive plays. That right there is a limiting factor to many prospective coordinator candidates and likely was to someone like Musgrave and maybe even McCoy. Calling the plays is considered the glamour part of the coordinator job and to know going in that you won’t be in charge of that would certainly be seen as a negative by many candidates.

Again, that doesn’t mean either Shurmur or Musgrave is wrong. It’s just that they are going in different directions.

Let’s also throw out the notion that underlying the intense focus at the moment on the hiring of offensive and defensive coordinators is the overemphasis by the fans on these coaches’ roles. Brian Daboll, the Browns’ former offensive coordinator, was hired for that same role in Miami. That had to qualify as a mini-shock to most Browns’ fans but it actually just illustrates the point that the role of the coordinator is often misunderstood.

What Browns fans won’t know until they watch Daboll work in Miami is how hamstrung Daboll might have been in Cleveland by the views of his boss, Eric Mangini, and the limited talent the Browns had at the skill positions. I don’t know that Lindy Infante could have done any better given the tools that Daboll had to work with or the approach that Mangini espoused.

The other thing about the Daboll/Mangini dynamic was the overriding sense you got each week that the two were never really on the same page. It wasn’t any one thing that either of them said but more a collection of statements and gestures over time. One of the abiding mysteries of this last season was why, after all the preseason talk, you rarely saw Seneca Wallace and Josh Cribbs on the field at the same time.

It’s pretty likely that Daboll was fostering that kind of talk. Frankly, that’s the kind of thing any offensive coordinator dreams of, the next great innovation. It’s also pretty likely that it was Mangini that ultimately shut it down. Mangini may like the occasional gimmick, but he’s vanilla in his overall approach which is why the Browns’ offense ended up being vanilla in its approach. Hold on to the ball as long as possible and get whatever points might be there. Take as few chances as possible and take the points. Always take the points.

In a different setting Daboll may very well thrive. If he’s more attuned to his head coach and has the talent to execute his schemes he’ll justify the confidence the Dolphins have in him. That won’t make the case that the Browns should have kept him but it will make the case that the best coordinator for any team is one who works well with the head coach.

Thus all we really know is that whoever is hired as offensive coordinator won’t necessarily have been Shurmur’s third or fourth choice but the person who engendered the best vibe for the rookie head coach.

The far more interesting hire for Shurmur will be on the defensive side of the ball. Other than a general notion that he prefers the 4-3 defense, Shurmur is mostly putting the fate of the defense in the hands of his coordinator. That’s why it’s not surprise that he’s looking for deep experience on that side of the ball, far more than he’s looking for in an offensive coordinator.

There’s no question that the assistants Shurmur hires will have a significant impact on the success or failure of this team. But that success or failure won’t be the result of Shurmur having hired a suddenly “hot” assistant. The real trick and the real measure of whether Shurmur will be successful will come if he hires assistants that share his vision. It seems like such a simple task but so much of the Browns’ failures for so long as been the abject inability to execute on just this task.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Silent Dan

It used to be easy to a Dan Gilbert fan. How could it not be? The owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers was a do-something person with a history of success. Besides, compared to the owners of the other two professional teams in town, Gilbert is number one almost by default.

Gilbert got an undeserved reputation early on in his career as a NBA owner as being meddlesome. To the contrary, he came across as a committed owner willing to approach his franchise not like a toy but like another critical business in his empire. He recognized that his main job was to find competent people to run the basketball operations on a day to day basis and once that was accomplished he would sit back and enjoy the view from the preferred seats.

In fact that’s what Gilbert did. It helped tremendously when the ping pong balls allowed LeBron James to fall into their laps. But Gilbert then did everything he could to capitalize on that fortune. That the Cavaliers fell short wasn’t for his lack of trying.

Lately, though, Gilbert is trying the patience of even his staunchest supporters mostly because he’s no longer the Gilbert that the fans were growing to trust. At a time when the franchise is struggling to find an identity, a face, Gilbert has adopted a bunker mentality as his team embarrasses its way through the 2010-11 season.

Since the whole James fiasco, in fact, Gilbert has changed and not for the better. The same goes for the front office. Instead of being out front, it comes across as left behind. The lack of noise is deafening. Meanwhile the fans are screaming as the team is in the midst of foisting upon its fans all the history it thought had been erased once Ted Stepien sold the team to the Gund Brothers.

Maybe there isn’t much Gilbert could do anyway, but right now the Cavs are coming across as an organization that simply doesn’t care. There is no evidence at the moment that anyone is in charge. Games appear on the schedules at regular intervals and losses pile up like the snow in Chardon. You don’t even get the sense that anyone inside the Cavs front office notices, let alone sympathizes with what the fans that have to endure this disaster. If they do, they’re doing a great job at hiding their empathy.

No one expected the Cavs to compete for a NBA title this season. Indeed, the playoffs always seemed like a bit of a long shot. But right now, 15 wins doesn’t even look possible.

Injuries are hurting this team, certainly, but so too is the lack of leadership. James was every bit the straw that stirred the drink when he was in town but it’s nothing short of amazing how small his supporting cast now looks with him gone. There isn’t a leader among them, not one player willing to step forward in a meaningful way.

It would be nice to think that head coach Byron Scott could demonstrate that leadership but frankly he looks just as lost as his players. Besides, it’s not as if the players even look like their craving leadership. What they look like most, at least the ones who are suiting up, are a collection of NBA bit players trying half-heartedly to keep their skills from dulling too much before they move on to a real team as a bit part in that team’s run up to the playoffs.

There was a column in Tuesday's Plain Dealer that suggested that a Cavs rebuild is at least 10 years in the making, if teams like Chicago are any indication. Without any sort of superstar to fill their void, the Bulls post-Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were the same sort of directionless mass.

Some of that was due to the team never being truly bad enough for long enough to stockpile lottery picks. The other part of it though was due to a front office that seemed paralyzed about what direction to take. Maybe that’s the natural course of things when you’ve had the greatest basketball player in the history of the game suiting it up for you every night.

Right now a 10-year turnaround for the Cavs seems wildly optimistic and that’s why it falls to Gilbert to explain why that won't be the case. Gilbert may not realize it. He may be preoccupied with casino gambling. He may think that if he could endure the mortgage meltdown over the last few years he can endure anything. Well, welcome to Cleveland, pal. There is a malaise enshrouding this franchise and it is taking hold like a toxic mold in the basement, creeping up the walls. Cavs fans have been down this road. They know the way in their sleep.

Putting better players on the court right now isn’t going to be possible. The NBA operates under a salary structure of loosey goosey rules and exceptions that no one much understands except that the only thing really worth knowing is that teams with superstars end up being able to exploit the rules in ways that defy reason or logic while the also rans are left hamstrung by the process.

And while that will help explain the dismal product on the court at the moment, what it doesn’t explain at all is why the Cavs seem like a franchise lying back and taking it as if they have no other choice.

Every franchise is going to go through rough patches, although in Cleveland rough patches is the standard while stretches of success are the exception. The franchises that survive best are those that find ways to engage the fans as they work diligently behind the scenes to fix the problem.

I used to think of Gilbert as being that guy. I couldn’t fathom a scenario where he’d allow this asset to wallow. Instead he’s become the Dolans and Randy Lerner but with a twitter account.

For the life of me I can’t figure out why anyone these days would attend a Cavs game, even the ones that Gilbert cajoled into paying for season tickets before they knew that James would skip town. The games aren’t even competitive. The only selling point, really, is that they’re over quickly.

Next season, though, will be even worse. The season ticket base will dwindle to nothing and it wouldn’t’ surprise if the Cavs take to using curtains to shrink the size of the Q in order to make it look more crowded.

It doesn’t necessarily have to be this way but Gilbert’s lack of action and attention are going to have devastating consequences to this franchise unless he wakes up. There are probably worse head coaches he could have selected than Scott but it’s hard to imagine he could have picked a worse public communicator than Scott. Rarely engaging, he’s vacillates between testy and aloof. General manager Chris Grant executes his position as if he still thinks he’s just the assistant. Maybe he is.

That leaves it in Gilbert’s lap to be the face of the franchise. Instead, Gilbert has mostly disappeared from the scene and left the team and its fans to struggle to identify why exactly anyone at the moment should care. Not surprisingly, they’ve both groups have come to the same conclusion; nobody does, so why should they?

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Holmgren Sure on Shurmur

The Cleveland Browns today named Pat Shurmur as its new head coach, ending a search that wasn’t necessarily as comprehensive as team president Mike Holmgren promised but was probably comprehensive enough. The task now falls to Shurmur to build on whatever it was that former head coach Eric Mangini was building in his two years with the club and to do it in a way that keeps the Browns from having to endure another coaching search two years hence.

Shurmur certainly meets the profile of the kinds of hires most clubs make these days. He’s a “hot” assistant coaching prospect on the heels of a successful year in making St. Louis Rams rookie quarterback Sam Bradford a legitimate NFL talent and in the process helping make the Rams relevant again.

He also meets the profile of the kind of coach the Browns really need at the moment. He works well with quarterbacks and the Browns have an promising prospect at the moment that could benefit from some polish. He also has a clear vision of what a successful offense looks like. That alone will be a welcome change to a team that’s struggled for the last decade to establish an offensive identity, or any identity for that matter.

Ultimately, what’s being asked of Shurmur now is pretty much to replicate his success in St. Louis, but with a broader platform. His charge is to make Colt McCoy a legitimate NFL talent and also make the Browns relevant again. Of those two main goals, the former is going to be far easier than the latter.

Browns fans, a dwindling but passionate bunch though they may be, already know their team isn’t relevant at the moment. It’s not the laughing stock franchise that the Cavs and the Indians have become but it is a team that most others look at as one of the wins on their schedule when it gets released. That’s the mountain Shurmur will have to climb as he steps over the bodies of those who have tried and failed already.

Shurmur enters the franchise at one of the more interesting times of its existence. Before former owner Art Modell stuck a shiv into the collective backs of the community, the Browns were one of those teams that were as up and down as the mental health of its owner. Yet it had seen enough success over its storied past and had a committed fan base that required other teams to take it seriously. Sure, coaches came and went, but that was mostly because Modell had an emotional hair trigger in how he ran the operations.

The team that returned has always been a shadow of its former self. It had the name and colors and the record book. It just never had a guiding light. Al Lerner was certainly a Browns fan and a successful businessman but he had absolutely no clue how to run a football team. To his credit, though, he never claimed he did.

When Lerner died somewhat unexpectedly, his reluctant son Randy took over and basically carried on in the same fashion, but with one glaring exception. Randy was a Browns fan, certainly, but he was and still is far more interested in the European version of football. He mostly knew what he didn’t know but was fairly clueless in how to change that paradigm.

But the one thing that Lerner finally did get right was hiring Holmgren. It’s not that Holmgren is some sort of football deity; it’s just that in him the Browns actually have someone who knows everything one needs to know about running a team. That doesn’t mean that Holmgren will get every decision right, it’s just that his decisions come with a presupposed level of confidence and respect.

To this point Holmgren has made three significant decisions and it would be hard to mount an argument against any of them. First, he hired Tom Heckert as his general manager. While it’s a low bar, Heckert is already the best general manager the Browns have had since their return and probably for years before that.

Second, he fired Mangini. I’ve heard all the arguments for the progress Mangini was making and it’s not that those arguments are wrong. But there has been nothing Mangini demonstrated in New York or Cleveland to suggest that he’s anything special either. In other words, holding on to Mangini for the sake of continuity would have been the rough equivalent of keeping the television tuned to the same channel because you’re too lazy to get up and find the remote.

Third, he hired Shurmur. At the moment there’s no way to tell whether Shurmur will effectively make the transition from able assistant to successful head coach but to look at it that way is to look at it like we always look at things in Cleveland. In truth, there’s no reason to think that Shurmur can’t make the transition to successful head coach. He’s built the kind of resume that is prototypical of most NFL head coaches these days and from all accounts he’s been very successful at each step along the way.

Stated differently, there’s no reason to think this hire won’t work out, though I expect that small but vocal group of Mangini fans to continue to take the position contra and judge every step Shurmur makes in the context of what Mangini would have done.

There will be fans who are disappointed that someone of a higher profile, like Jon Gruden or John Fox, weren’t interviewed. Gruden, though, was never a viable option. He’s proven over the last two off-seasons that he’s just as satisfied to have his name bandied about. It strokes his ego while requiring little work in return. As for Fox, that one is more of a puzzle but the book on him is well known. Sometimes a new direction needs a fresh face.

Over the coming days Shurmur will make the rounds as he gets acquainted with his new environs. In that he’ll find a skeptical media, certainly, and a fan base that will be cautious but ultimately hopeful. He’ll say all the right things and come across as a man of confidence. But those are the easy tasks. More daunting will be commanding the respect of the players still standing. It won’t be easy but that more than anything else will tell us quickly enough whether or not this guy is the keeper we’re led to believe he is.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Making the Right Hire

It’s hard to tell whether the Cleveland Browns’ search for a new head coach is winding down or gearing up. Candidates have come and gone. Interviews have been held and cancelled. Others never got scheduled. But the consensus seems to be emerging that St. Louis Rams’ offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur is the front runner for the job. Mind you it’s a media consensus, so take that for what you will. The people charged with making the decision haven’t given any such clues.

Still it wouldn’t surprise if Shurmur is indeed the choice. He fits the typical new hire profile for a NFL head coach.

Selecting a head coach is probably one of the most difficult tasks an owner or a general manager or, at the college level, an athletic director, is ever going to have. A head coach has to be part public relations expert, babysitter, arbitrator, facilitator, father figure, tough uncle, schematic genius, quick thinker, drill sergeant and chief motivator. Those aren’t traits that are in ready supply and head coach is not a job that can be done well if you fall short in any of those skills.

The new hire doesn’t have to have all those skills immediately. Often time you’re projecting development and growth. Ultimately, though, whatever shortcomings that new head coach has coming in have to be developed quickly. The time frame to demonstrate your abilities gets a tad shorter each year because these days most fans have the patience and attention spans of puppies.

In college finding a new head coach tends to be easier because there is a pecking order to college programs. Urban Meyer, for example, followed the formula perfectly. He started small, worked hard and had success at each stop along the way. When he landed at Florida he was a fully-formed coach with an undeniable track record. It wasn’t a surprise when he succeeded there as well.

And yet the science is far from perfect. Rich Rodriguez certainly seemed to have a similar resume as Meyer and yet crashed and burned in spectacular fashion in Michigan. It just highlights that even when all the stars seemed to be aligned nothing is guaranteed.

The NFL is harder. It doesn’t have the kind of pecking order that college does. A coach doesn’t start with one franchise, gain some success, and then move on to another presumably higher profile franchise. Thus an owner or a general manager has before him essentially two pools of candidates: former head coaches who have been fired and up and coming assistants. Occasionally an owner or general manager, usually from Cleveland, will pick from a third pool, assistants who have been passed over for years. Take it on faith: those hires never work out. There are also owners that occasionally dip into the college ranks but the success rate there is even worse than it is for former NFL head coaches. That’s why it’s rarely done.

So assuming that Holmgren really is looking at the two basic pools, there is little doubt he’ll end up selecting someone from the up-and-comers lot.

Hiring a coach that’s been fired elsewhere is always going to be a tough sell to a fan base. Consider, for example, Marty Mornhinweg, someone who had been floated earlier as a candidate for the Browns’ job. He would have faced nearly insurmountable head winds. How would Holmgren explain replacing a guy who won 5 games in each of two seasons with a guy who won 5 games total in two seasons?

Any other former head coach faces the same kind of scrutiny. Mike Mularkey is an easier sell than Mornhinweg, but again his resume isn’t really any different than Eric Mangini’s. Mularkey had one winning season but it came on the heels of a 6-game winning streak to end the season. The Bills then fell back to 5-11 the following year. In that context it would seem so much like treading water to simply replace Mangini with Mularkey, at least to the fans.

But that’s what you get when you dip into the former coaches pool in the first place. There are very few Bill Belichicks swimming around. If you want to avoid that kind of scrutiny or the long odds of hooking the right candidate then the only other choice is to find someone from the up-and-coming assistants pool.

Every off season there are always a few in that pool whose heads rise above the others. Shurmur is one, Perry Fewell from the New York Giants is another. But there’s no guarantee that a great assistant will be able to translate that success to the next level. Josh McDaniels washed out in Denver and now finds himself swimming with the Mularkeys and Mornhinwegs of the world. The same is true for Mangini.

But there are a number of current head coaches who came directly from that pool and have had great success. Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers comes immediately to mind. So, too, does Jeff Fisher of the Tennessee Titans and Andy Reid with Philadelphia.

Indeed, with very few exceptions, every NFL coach came up through that route. Some of the more recent hires, like John Harbaugh and Todd Haley, are meeting with some success. Others, like Brad Childress and Ken Whisenhut, are struggling. Most of the rest are somewhere in between.

Exactly where someone like Shurmur would fall on that spectrum is simply a guess. But if Holmgren’s hedging his bets on making the right guess, then he’ll find some things he really likes about Shurmur that likely will convince him that he’ll be closer to Harbaugh, Haley and Tomlin than Childress and Whisenhut.

There is no right age when it comes to taking on a head coaching job, but if there were Shurmur fits. Born in 1965, he’ll be 46 this year. That alone assures that he’ll have at least a half generation on the players he’d be coaching. Wisdom doesn’t always come with age, certainly, but there is at least something to be said for the experience that age brings.

But more than age comes Shurmur’s particular brand of experience. To an old quarterbacks coach like Mike Holmgren, Shurmur must seem like a hand-in-glove fit. He worked for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2008 as their quarterbacks coach, a time that coincides with Donovan McNabb’s most productive years. From there Shurmur went on to St. Louis where he became offensive coordinator. It’s not a stretch to say that Shurmur was most responsible for the development of rookie quarterback Sam Bradford. That development made the Rams one of the league’s surprise teams of the year with a 7-9 record (the same as the Seattle Seahawks) after finishing 1-15 the year before.

That doesn’t make Shurmur any kind of savior but it at least demonstrates some level of accomplishment that will be important to Holmgren when making his selection.

If Shurmur, or even Fewell, is the selection all the fans can do is take it on a leap of faith that the person making the decision, in this case, Holmgren, knows it when he sees it. The angst though comes thereafter because if either ends up not being the right person, then it will be 2 or 3 more years wasted and 4 or 5 years longer before this Browns’ team gives the fans something real to cheer about.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

The Media Made Me Do It

There's a theory floating around out there that applies equally to deposed Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini and deposed Michigan Wolverines coach Rich Rodriguez. It was the media, in the back, with a word processor.

Neither Mangini nor Rodriguez were particularly successful in their most recent jobs, mind you. Both had showed some progress but in an era where the average person gets frustrated when his email goes unanswered for more than 5 minutes, progress is now measured in weeks and not years. Yet apparently there is a vocal minority out there, including several columnists, that are trying to advance the theory that the firings of each were media inflicted..

If this were 30 years ago there’s every reason to believe that both Mangini and Rodriguez would have been retained for another year. The pressure management in each case felt from a disgruntled fan base would have been far less. People got their news at 6 and 11 and read one newspaper a day. But information and speculation these days is instantaneous and it takes almost no effort to inform and incite a fan base.

That’s not to say, though, as the vocal minority still pining for the halcyon days of Mangini and Rodriguez are suggesting, that either was fired as the result of a lynch mob banging at the doors of each entity’s athletic facilities. But it is to suggest that a large part of the downfall in each case was media related, just not media inflicted.

Remember this. The local media serves as the proxy for the fans. Treat them poorly and it’s as if you’re treating the fans poorly. Treat them well, take the time to get to know them and work with them and you’ll be viewed in a far different light.

You don’t need to take that as a leap of faith. Consider Mangini’s interview published in Friday’s Cleveland Plain Dealer where he admitted that one of his major shortcomings was the fact that he didn’t take the time to explain his vision or the process he’d go about to achieve that vision.

Well, duh. If that’s Mangini’s mea culpa for treating the media with contempt, then we’ll accept the apology and hope that if he ever gets the chance again he’ll do better in that regard. But there can be no doubt that this was in fact a major shortcoming and one that significantly handicapped his ability to connect with the fan base that Mangini claims to love.

It’s puzzling, actually, why Mangini chose to be so truculent with the media instead of using it to enhance his status. If he’s really the engaging person that others claim him to be, then the task would have been rather easy. Bill Belichick was an ass (and mostly still is) to the local media in his tenure here and Mangini was on hand to witness it and the attendant fall out. Belichick’s relationship alienated the fans from the team they loved and to this day it still informs how the locals feel about Belichick despite his success elsewhere. It’s fair to suggest that this widening gulf was at least partly responsible for the Browns moving in the first place. The fans were that fed up.
In much the same way that will be Mangini’s legacy as well and for that he only has himself to blame but at least he recognizes it.

In Michigan, Rodriguez will eventually come to the same conclusion. By all accounts he wasn’t a Mangini-level jerk to the local press, but neither was he forthcoming with them about all the various issues surrounding him and the program. But where Rodriguez fell short was in failing to better manage the perceptions about him. That would have required a level of maturity he doesn’t appear to possess, but it was still something within his grasp to control.

Sure, there are those that are at least trying to put a positive spin on Rodriguez’s time in Ann Arbor. But it’s mostly being done by minimizing his missteps and focusing on barely discernible progress, much the same as it is with Mangini.

But just as with Mangini, there’s no reason to be revisionist. It’s been theorized that Rodriguez didn’t connect with Michigan fans because he wasn’t a “Michigan Man.” Well, either was Bo Schembechler, who played at Miami University and first coached at Ohio State. But a career of doing the right things in the right ways turned him into a Michigan man, even if he never did win a national championship. The same easily could have held true for Rodriguez.

The reason Rodriguez didn’t connect with Michigan fans had everything to do with the way Rodriguez came in, a carpetbagger mentality intact, and his continuing inability to appreciate that Michigan wasn’t a weigh station to the next job but the end of the rainbow.

Rodriguez didn’t just engage in missteps. He made major errors. First of all, he absolutely stiffed the administration and the players at West Virginia, his alma mater in bolting for Michigan. He had just agreed to a new contract with a hefty multi-million dollar buyout and then tried to wiggle out of paying that exit fee by claiming that it was West Virginia that actually breached its agreement with him. Talk about not managing your image.

It was a thin, lawyer-concocted argument that didn’t wash and ultimately forced Michigan to step up and pay the buyout. But of course there was more.

Next was the classless way Rodriguez left in the first place. His first words weren’t to the players he had recruited to West Virginia that he was now abandoning. It was to Terrelle Pryor, then the hottest recruit in the country and someone Rodriguez was first trying to lure to West Virginia and then, of course, to Michigan. That worked out when Pryor chose Ohio State instead.

Then, like a petulant child, Rodriguez couldn’t just say bygones and move on. Instead he destroyed all of the records of his current players at West Virginia, making it tougher on the next coach, a former assistant of Rodriguez's, who then had to create the records from scratch.

There was the shady real estate venture that Rodriguez got himself roped into that caused another distraction, but that was minor stuff compared to the first institutional violations in Michigan football history. Michigan apologists like to call these much ado about nothing but they were major violations mainly because they were committed with the intent to give Michigan a competitive advantage.

Throw in all of the defections and recruiting mishaps and Rodriguez pretty much demonstrated in virtually every step he made as Michigan’s coach that his hiring met every definition of a mistake that there is.

So before we start getting all weepy for Rodriguez or Mangini, let’s not forget that most of their mistakes were self-inflicted. The on-the-field record was certainly important, but far more detrimental to their job security was the image they conveyed to a media sitting there to record every painful second along the way.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Continuity 101

If there is anything about the recent firing of Cleveland Browns’ head coach Eric Mangini that is surprising it is the number of people who feel that club president Mike Holmgren made the worst decision possible. Other than perhaps the Mrs., no one was much complaining when Romeo Crennel was fired and it’s hard to see how the situations are all that much different.

Both boil down to the same thing: neither had the ability to get this team to a satisfactory level.

Right now those that are complaining are doing so in the context of a moribund franchise left for dead that appeared after all these years to have a few breaths of life in it. Mangini was responsible for that, no doubt. But let’s face it; the franchise is still barely breathing and Mangini, like Crennel, lacked the skills necessary to get it fully upright and moving in the direction of a Super Bowl title, which is the only criterion fans should be settling for at the moment.

It’s all well and good that Mangini cleaned up some messes, got the players to like him and had them playing far more competitively than Crennel did (except for the year when Crennel went 10-6 and didn’t make the playoffs). But plucking every piece of fruit lying on or close to the ground doesn’t automatically qualify one to climb to the highest branches.

Holmgren, who does know a thing or two about the game, felt that Mangini wasn’t that kind of coach and made the change. Why is that a problem? Why do the Mangini defenders assume their curbside views fashioned from a life outside of football make them automatically more qualified than Holmgren, informed by a life inside of football, to reach that conclusion?

There are a number of arguments that Mangini’s staunchest defenders advance and most of them are as thin as Mangini’s resume. But the one argument worth considering is that the lack of continuity is what is hurting this franchise the most and if for no other reason that’s why Holmgren should have stuck it out with Mangini.

If there is one thing that Browns fans have learned the hard way is that the lack of continuity in this franchise has made it nearly impossible to be successful. With two notable exceptions, a unifying figure in the front office and/or on the field is the one thread weaving through every successful franchise and the lack of that figure is the one thread weaving through every moribund franchise.

The notable exceptions though demonstrate the pitfalls of continuity for continuity’s sake.

Consider the Cincinnati Bengals. Marvin Lewis just re-signed with the Bengals and will now be entering into his 9th season with the team, making him the longest tenured coach in Bengals’ history.

Per the wire service reports owner Mike Brown said "we are close to being the kind of team we can be. I think continuity will give us the best shot at becoming that team. We have a good relationship, Marvin and I. We work well together. It isn't an easy relationship, but it's a good one."

What’s interesting about Brown’s striking a blow for continuity is that Lewis hasn’t been a particularly good or particularly successful head coach. He’s 9 games under .500 for his career and has just two winning season, both of which resulted in short-lived playoff appearances.

Lewis comes from the Romeo Crennel school of discipline as Lewis’ tenure has been defined in large part by the number of miscreants on his rosters. No other coach in the league has had as many players get arrested as Lewis. It may not have been Lewis’ idea to bring in those kinds of players, but he never took a public stand against them, either. The late Chris Henry should have never been allowed back in the league but Lewis took on the problem anyway.

But it’s more than that. The Bengals may have been among the most talented teams in the NFL this year, at least on paper. They were certainly far more talented, again on paper, than the Browns. And yet Lewis managed to squeeze a 4-12 record out of them with a franchise record 10-game losing streak.

Consider, too, Carson Palmer’s startling lack of development. Palmer certainly has his moments and he’s also had injury problems, but he is not the player he should be at this point in his career.

The bottom line on Lewis is that same as Mangini. For whatever else their merits might be, neither is going to get a team to the league’s highest levels. Keeping Lewis in Cincinnati may be good for continuity but it won’t do anything for improving their win total significantly.

The other example is the Oakland Raiders. There is no personality in the league larger than owner Al Davis or who has been around longer. He’s as hands on as any owner in the history of the game. Others may have held the title but there is no question that Davis serves as the general manager of his club. Davis certainly has a vision of the Raider way and certainly understands what he’s trying to build.
The problem, of course, is that the Raiders have been unstable for the last two decades. They’ve had only 7 winning seasons in the last 22 years and Davis has hired and fired 11 coaches in that time period.

But are they unstable because Davis doesn’t understand the value of continuity? Doubtful. He had John Madden as his head coach for 9 season and Tom Flores for 9 more after that. The Raiders have been unstable because Davis hasn’t landed on a coach he can live with. You can argue that perhaps some of the firings were a mistake, like Jon Gruden. But that’s not the point. What matters for this purpose is to understand that continuity makes sense but only when there is a reason for it.
No one will much argue that firing coaches like Norv Turner (struggling as usual in San Diego), Joe Bugle, Mike White, Art Shell or Tom Cable were a mistake. None of them were ever going to lead that franchise to the Super Bowl. Even Bill Callahan, who did lead the team to the Super Bowl, has more than proven since that he is not an elite head coach.

The point is that there are two franchises (a third if you count San Diego and their dogged insistence on marching Turner out there week after week), Cincinnati and Oakland, that understand the value of continuity but haven’t been able to make it work for them and won’t until there is a compelling reason to adhere to that principle.

That gets us back to Mangini. The real question on his continued status in my mind came down to whether or not there was a legitimate reason to believe that he was a “franchise” coach, someone who would lead this team to the Promised Land. A franchise coach can come in any form but he has to have a certain “it” factor that Mangini just doesn’t possess.

There’s no bigger jerk in the NFL than Belichick but to deny he has the “it” factor is to deny science. This isn’t to say that Mangini isn’t a credible head coach or that he’s without merit. But it is to say that Mangini is a mostly generic coach, easily replaced by someone who could accomplish the same things as he’s accomplished.

What Holmgren needs to do is find that franchise coach and he knows it. They are out there but they aren’t easy to find and even when you can find them it doesn’t mean they want to be part of what your team is all about. And while the odds are always going to be stacked against finding the needle amongst all that hay, it’s far more palatable for Holmgren to go on that search then to just throw up his hands to the God of Continuity and continue and experiment with Mangini that he already was convinced would fail.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Moving On--Again

Cleveland Browns president Mike Holgrem today reached the only decision he could regarding Eric Mangini. He made the second year coach a two-time former head coach, saying, essentially, that improvement was fine but Mangini wasn’t building a program Holmgren felt could compete for championships.

Given that the Browns were 5-11 for the last two seasons, it’s hard to argue that point.

The case for firing Mangini was made a little more difficult this past season because in many, many ways the team improved. Unquestionably the players stayed competitive until Mangin’s status was a fait accompli, which meant the Pittsburgh game.

But playing competitive football, even if it is the first step of the process, was never going to be good enough for Holmgren. He’s used to winning and that’s exactly what this team didn’t do. And if the Browns were on an upswing following four improbable victories at season’s end last year, the franchise is on as big of downswing following four rather predictable losses at season’s end this year. There’s a lot of mess that needs to get cleaned up, again.

Making the case for keeping Mangini was always going to be hard except for the hard core deniers who refused to see any flaw despite how much those flaws stuck out like cuts on the chin from a dull razor. The offense was turgid. The clock management was often horrendous. Game time decisions often made little sense and on and on and on. But to the hard core those were minor blips on what they thought was a gilded road to franchise salvation.

Maybe they’ll have to find another franchise to support as protest but if past is prologue, they’ll be back in the fold soon enough. That’s just how this dysfunctional Cleveland Browns family that we all love operates.

Exactly where it all fell apart for Mangini is not actually hard to pinpoint. In the first instance, he never should have been hired. Owner Randy Lerner, knowing as much about the operations of professional football as a typical casual fan, took it upon himself to conduct the search for the successor of Romeo Crennel. Lerner had one criterion and only one criterion: the new hire had to have head coaching experience.

When the New York Jets fired Mangini after three very mediocre years, Lerner saw opportunity where others only saw flaws. No doubt Mangini wowed Lerner with his football knowledge. Nobody ever accused Mangini of being a football dimwit. And with no other due diligence except that interview, Lerner hired Mangini for the Cleveland gig before Mangini had even a spare moment to consider why he failed in New York in the first place.

To Mangini, that abrupt hiring served only to validate that he was on the right road for the Jets. He failed to internalize any of his own failings and brought heavy baggage with him to Cleveland. He came in and expected to be treated by the media, the fans and the players as if he had already won 3 Super Bowls. His missteps in that department are well chronicled.

That hubris led to an absolutely miserable 1-11 start that nearly got him fired before the season ended. It did get him a new boss in Holmgren. If Mangini’s tenure wasn’t doomed from the moment he was hired or even from the attitude he copped or even the draft he bungled, then it was certainly doomed from the moment Holmgren was hired because, as Lerner said, he needed a credible voice in the organization. Ouch.

From there it really is worth wondering whether Holmgren ever saw Mangini as a long term solution anyway. There was never any loud or public display of confidence in his coach. Instead there were mostly cryptic signs, like Holmgren’s midseason musings about just what the hell the offense was trying to do and his stated desire to get back into coaching.

It may be true that Holmgren had a sincere desire to see Mangini succeed but I doubt it. More probably Holmgren just couldn’t see himself pulling the plug on Mangini’s star crossed career so soon after he was hired by Lerner to fix this mess.

In that context, it’s doubtful that anything short of the playoffs would have brought Mangini back anyway. As it was all those four victories did at the end of last season was delay for still another season the real development of this franchise or the development that Holmgren envisions anyway.

Imagine then how anyone who bought a ticket for this past season must feel knowing that in large measure it was all just a waste of everyone’s time. The Browns weren’t building toward anything meaningful and instead were just in their usual state of arrested development. Maybe the Browns will consider giving anyone who bought a ticket their money back, with interest, but I doubt it.

With Mangini heading to wherever the next opportunity takes him and the Browns further burdening a shrinking revenue pool by paying off still another former head coach, all eyes will turn to the question of whether Holmgren sees himself as the worthy successor to a tradition that has been nearly forgotten. There was a time when the Browns were a proud franchise that stood for everything that was right about the NFL. At the moment and for at least the last generation, the Browns are the NFL’s equivalent of the Los Angeles Clippers; a laughing stock franchise with a curious owner and a revolving door leading into the head coach’s office.

There will be the inevitable press conference in which Holmgren will take on all questions, thank Mangini for his service (as he did in the press release) and then tease us about his plans for the next coach. For once, though, it would be nice to see someone associated with this franchise actually take a moment to think about the next move. As we saw with Mangini, haste indeed makes waste.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

A Stirring Testimonial Indeed

If this is how the Cleveland Browns' players show their support for an embattled head coach, then it's scary to think of how they might have played if they didn't like Eric Mangini. Needing a win or at least a really good effort to show club president Mike Holmgren that they have made great progress under Mangini, the players instead delivered a stirring testimonial to incompetence as they all but laid down to absorb a merciless beating at the hands of the Pittsburgh Steelers 41-9.

It was the Browns' fourth straight loss and it's now absolutely fair to suggest that if four straight wins to close out last season saved Mangini's job for another year then four straight and particularly ugly losses to close out this season should put the nail in his coffin as a NFL head coach. The Browns finished a season that at times looked promising exactly where they ended the last, 5-11 and left their fans again wondering whether the black cloud hanging over this franchise will ever leave. The answer, Virginia, is not any time soon.

The nightmare started quickly and then the avalanche came as the Steelers scored on each of their possessions in the first half, four touchdowns and a field goal, that gave them a 31-3 halftime lead. It marked the first time the Browns' defense had given up more than 30 points all season and also marked the first time this season that the Browns didn't hold a lead at some point in a game.

Consider it a sign. On the game's second play, McCoy's pass to tight end Ben Watson was knocked up in the air by Watson and intercepted by the Pittsburgh Steelers' version of Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu. (Maybe Reed is Baltimore's Polamalu. It makes little difference. They both destroy Cleveland offenses) On the next play, which means the Steelers' first play from scrimmage in the game, Steelers' quarterback Ben Roethlisberger hit Mike Wallace, who had sprinted past cornerback Joe Haden, for a 56-yard touchdown. The extra point gave the Steelers a quick 7-0 lead and they never looked back.

Wallace figured prominently in the Steelers' next touchdown, which came on their next possession. On 3rd and 3 from the Pittsburgh 47 yard line, Roethlisberger hit Wallace on a short crossing route that he turned into a 41 yard gain. Rashard Mendenhall finished off the drive with a 1-yard touchdown run putting the Steelers up 14-0.

Give McCoy credit, though. With an offensive line that struggled from the outset with Pittsburgh's pass rush and absolutely no running game to speak of, McCoy hung in and kept several plays alive with his scrambling ability, at least early. By the time the game was out of reach, even a scrambling McCoy was of no use.

With the first quarter winding down, the Browns mounted a credible threat that caught life when McCoy hit Mohamed Massaquoi for a 31-yard pass, much of which was the result of Massaquoi slipping tackles, and got the ball to the Pittsburgh 5-yard line. But as has been their problem of late, the Browns' offense couldn't finish the task and because there was absolutely nothing to play for, including apparently his job, Mangini bravely settled for the 19-yard field goal to close the gap just a bit at 14-3.

It may have sounded as if a chorus of boos rained down on Mangini when he sent Phil Dawson onto the field for the chip shot field goal at the end of the 14 play drive that consumed 77 yards and over 7 minutes. But it was more like a light mist mainly because off all the fans disguised as orange seats that sat silently.

The Steelers' offense made Mangini's oddly conservative decision look even more ridiculous when they came right back on their next drive, moving with an ease that made it pretty clear that this was a game this day of men vs. boys. A screen pass to Mendenhall that he turned into a 24-yard gain may have been the drive's signature play. The drive eventually ended where the Steelers though it would, with one of their players in the end zone with the ball. Indeed it did. It was Mendenhall with a 1-yard run that helped extend the Steelers' lead to 21-3.

Maybe the onslaught was the result of bad karma created by Browns' defensive coordinator Rob Ryan after he took great pains last week in his press conference to talk about the wonderful season his defense has had except for all those late game collapses. There would be no late game collapse this day. It wouldn't be needed.

It's not that things got any worse for the Browns on their next drive because they were about as bad as it could be already. But for the record, things didn't get any better either as McCoy then threw his second interception, a ball overthrown in the direction of Massaquoi that was caught by a diving Ryan Clark instead. Mangini challenged the catch but as the kids might say, this was so not his day. The challenge was denied.

Three plays later the Steelers had their fourth touchdown in four possessions as Roethlisberger hit tight end Heath Miller with a 4-yard touchdown pass. The extra point made it 28-3 and had pretty much anyone still watching wondering whether the NFL has a little known codicil in its bylaws that called for a mercy rule in effect for the season's last game.

The Steelers got the ball back once again on McCoy's third interception of the day. The defense this time held the Steelers to a 41-yard Shaun Suisman field goal. It gave the Browns one last chance before the half, a chance they could do little with. On the plus side, there were no interceptions.

Like a Ginsu knife through a ripe tomato, the Steelers' offense went right through the Browns' offense to start the second half, extending their lead to 38 -3 with a 14-play 77-yard drive that was like sand in the eyes to the entire Browns' organization when receiver Antwan Randel El took the pitch from Roethlisberger on 3rd and goal from the Browns' 3-yard line and hit Hines Ward in the end zone. The trick play was unnecessary, certainly, but for all the times the Browns have used similar methods to score this season it was almost poetic in its irony. It was also the Steelers' sixth straight scoring possession and it cemented the fact that only two things could stop them from the perfunctory resistance being offered: the clock or themselves.

The Steelers opted for themselves as they pulled their starters. At least it let the Browns and Holmgren know that they are competitive with the Steelers' second string, which is as depressing as it sounds. Using that battle as the barometer, the Browns “won” 6-3. Suisham had a 24-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter and McCoy hit Robiskie for a 20-yard touchdown pass late in the quarter. The two-point conversion attempt failed, naturally.

A word, though, about the touchdown. It wasn't a particularly pretty drive, certainly, but at least McCoy was doing his level best to retain some self-respect after the abuse he had been taking all day from the Pittsburgh defense. The key play on the drive was a 31-yard pass to Josh Cribbs with a face mask penalty tacked on that got the ball to the Pittsburgh 22-yard line. Another first down and then a delay of game penalty put the ball at the Pittsburgh 17. On second down McCoy looked like he had hit tight end Robert Royal for a touchdown but Royal was ruled to not have secured the ball in bounds. A Mangini challenge predicatably failed. Then McCoy hit Robiskie for the touchdown on the next play but it originally was ruled incomplete. Out of challenges, Mangini could only look on helplessly. But a particularly benevolent official came to help out the back judge who initially ruled it incomplete, pointing out that Robiskie indeed had possession in bounds. The original call was overruled and Robiskie given the touchdown.

Other than these mild diversions, the second half was mostly about playing out the string. For the Browns, they just wanted the beating to end. For the Steelers, they just wanted the playoffs to begin.

That the Browns lost wasn't a surprise and, frankly, it wasn't much of a surprise that they were blown out. There was nothing to play for, including a coach the players figured wouldn't be back to hassle them anyway about their lack of effort. But if this particular loss emphasized anything it's that for whatever progress may have been made this season statistically, it was mostly meaningless. The team is neither talented nor well coached and it ultimately showed up where those things always do show up, in the standings. Only a more pathetic Cincinnati Bengals team, a team that beat the Browns a few weeks ago, by the way, kept the Browns from finishing at the bottom of their division.

The Steelers' victory on the other hand gave them 14 of their last 15 and 20 of 22 overall since the Browns returned. It provides the best evidence really of the vast difference between the two teams, their respective coaching staffs and, for that matter, the two franchises.

From here the Browns' franchise will likely start over once again, perhaps as soon as Monday. If that's the course, and it sure looks like it should be, it won't be a hard transition since the Browns haves done this with annoying frequency. If it does happen, at least we know that the difference this time is that the decision on who will coach this team finally will come from someone far better equipped than someone with the last name Lerner to make it. The only real question at the moment is whether Holmgren will try to find his leader in someone that represents a disciple of his or whether Holmgren will take a long deep breath as he looks in the mirror and decides that the best candidate to raise this franchise out of its generation-long malaise is the man staring back at him.