Monday, November 28, 2011

Urban Architecture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Lingering Items--Turkey Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Improbably Probable Victory

Virtually every reason the Cleveland Browns are a bad team this year (and last year and the year before that and on and on) was on display in the waning minutes of Sunday's game against the Jacksonville Jaguars. There were special team screw ups, missed assignments, stupid penalties, you name it. And yet, through it all, the Browns were able to win 14-10, giving the hopeless hope if not for the season then maybe the long term. Maybe.

But that will be a real long term unless the Browns stop doing exactly what bad teams tend to do, find ways to lose. Of course the same could be said for the Jaguars who, too, had plenty of the same thing. So in a sense, someone had to win the game that neither team seemed good enough to accomplish and on this day that was the Browns. Something tells me, though, that few fans in either city feels too good about their team.

After a mostly uneventful first half that saw the teams take a 7-7 tie into halftime, things started to get interesting somewhere around the time the Browns looked like they might assert themselves and give its defense the few breaks they deserved. As it was, it will be the Jaguars who will find themselves in the same head scratching territory the Browns coaches, players and management have been in since almost the onset of the season. Of course, with a record of 3-6 entering the game it's not as if this is unfamiliar territory for the Jaguars, either.

Let's recount it all because it really was the story of the game and the season for both teams.

The Jaguars were forced to punt on the first possession of the second half, nothing surprising there. It was a re-run of what the first half looked like. But when the Browns took over on offense, they looked positively proactive, or as proactive as a team that avoids the red zone like I avoid stores on the Friday after Thanksgiving can be.

A few completions from quarterback Colt McCoy and some timely, decent running by Chris Ogbonnaya, pushed the Browns into Jaguars territory. Of course much of it couldn't have been accomplished without a compliant Jaguars' defense and special teams doing what the Browns have nearly perfected. For example, the Browns got a new set of downs early in the drive when Jaguars defensive back Drew Coleman was called for pass interference on Jordan Norwood a full five yards behind the line of scrimmage. Yes, the Browns kept the drive alive by losing five yards and being rewarded for it.

But when McCoy took a sack with the Browns at the Jacksonville 16 yard line, it wasn't much of a surprise. That's the nature of this team. Though Phil Dawson made the 40-yard field goal, the play was nullified by a leaping penalty on the Jaguars that put the ball on the Jaguars 11 yard line. Of course the Browns then gave 5 yards back immediately when Shaun Lavauo false started (the second of the drive).

Ogbonnaya then ran for 6 yards which was followed by a McCoy scramble that was close to giving the Browns another first down. But Joe Thomas was called for holding, pushing them back even further. Still, things looked good when McCoy hit Ogbonnaya for a 14 yard pass that got the ball to the Jacksonville 6 yard line.

That's when this clusterf**k of a drive mercifully and predictably ended, with McCoy throwing late over the middle in the direction of Ben Watson. It was picked off by Dawan Landry and the chance to take the lead squelched. The Browns didn't really deserve the points anyway.

The funny thing about this incredibly inept 7 minutes of football? It wasn't even the worst of it all. That would come a bit later.

First, though, let's note here that the Browns did recover from what looked like a drive scripted by Adam Sandler on their very next drive. Playing cleanly for one of the few times all season, the Browns' offense moved down the field methodically and without error and ended it happily when McCoy hit Josh Cribbs for a 3-yard touchdown pass to give the Browns a 14-7 lead, finally.

Then the fun really started.

On their next drive the Jaguars looked like quick learners and moved the ball back down the field in a way they probably hadn't done very often this season and certainly not this game. And yet, in a way that only a 3-6 team on a roll can, it failed to close the deal when Gabbert did something positively sublime on third down. First, he took a huge sack for 15 yards. To add on, he more or less threw the ball backwards in the process and was then credited with a fumble. The official scorers at NFL central may change the ruling but for now you have to love the notion that a quarterback could be sacked (which should end the play) and yet also credited with a fumble. Even if these two concepts normally can't exist, I think they should for teams this bad.

Anyway, that forced Jaguars head coach Jack Del Rio to have to try for the field goal though I'm sure his instincts were to try and convert the fourth and 23. The field goal was good and the Jaguars closed to within 14-10.

This was the exact moment where everyone knew the Browns would go into their prevent mode on offense and hope against hope that the defense would save the day. It ultimately ended up working out that way but, not surprisingly, not in the way they thought.

All good intentions were thrown out the window when Ogbonnaya ripped off a 40-yard run that put the ball into Jaguars' territory. But Browns' head coach Pat Shurmur is nothing if not consistent and despite all the criticism of a week ago did his level best to work the team into field goal range instead of a touchdown that would put the game out of reach. It had the same results of a week ago as well.

After McCoy took a sack on a play in which he really had no intention of passing anyway and it pushed the Browns back to the Jacksonville 23 yard line, Shurmur called for another off tackle to Ogbonnaya to set up the field goal that would give the Browns a 7 point lead. The snap was good this time and so too was the hold. The problem is that Dawson pushed the 38-yard attempt right and it went over the top of and not to the left of the upright, according to the officials.


That put the Jaguars in full scramble mode and the Browns defense gave them every chance to break their hearts. On a crucial 4th and 1 play defensive lineman Phil Taylor went offside and gave the Jaguars a first down at the Browns' 29 yard line. Then Gabbert missed on his next two throws and appeared to miss on the third as well but Joe Haden was called for pass interference at the 14 yard line.

A short pass to Chastin West got the ball to the Cleveland 5 yard line but Maurice Jones-Drew, a back that usually terrorizes the Browns and who had 87 yards on the day, couldn't push the ball any closer than the 2 yard line. With 8 seconds remaining, the Jaguars were able to get two plays off and while both throws were on target they were dropped, giving the Browns an improbably probable victory.

If these were any other teams playing on this day, it wouldn't be fair for either to claim the victory. But when you're fighting to not be labeled the NFL's worst team (and as long as Indianapolis is allowed to finish the season, that battle appears to be over anyway), any thing that even comes close to resembling a victory will do.

There isn't really much that the box score will tell you. McCoy was mostly accurate didn't have a lot of yards, had a really bad interception and a touchdown pass. Gabbert threw a lot more passes, had a few more completions and yards then McCoy, but otherwise wasn't anything more than a young quarterback looking to pay his dues.

The aforementioned Jones-Drew was mostly contained while Ogbonnaya actually had 115 yards on 21 carries and the Browns' first touchdown, a 1-yard run in the second quarter. Norwood had a really nice 51 yard catch and run and Greg Little added 5 receptions.

The Browns now find themselves at 4-6 on the season, which strangely doesn't sound as bad as their play seems. But they will still struggle to their third straight 5-11 season given that the remaining games all seem to be against either Baltimore or Pittsburgh. Of course, now that they have found some luck, maybe it won't be as bad as it seems. The Bengals are regressing, the Arizona Cardinals aren't that good so there is a chance, actually, that legitimate measurable progress can be charted come season's end. There's also a chance I might find myself in a store the Friday after Thanksgiving, but I doubt that, too.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The NBA's Nuclear Winter

I love labor disputes in professional sports. They are the best, most sublime form of entertainment available to the sports/legal geek hybrid.

Labor disputes in real industries where real people lose real money to feed their real families and pay their real bills aren’t any fun. They’re serious stuff with serious consequences. But labor disputes in professional sports? They’re silly stuff with silly consequences, except for the tangential businesses that rely on them.

The NBA owners and players are currently locked into the most ridiculous labor battle since the NHL players lost an entire season to their own admixture of hubris and stupidity. Unable to learn anything from the past, NBA players are in the midst of making the same mistakes as their other professional league predecessors.

What’s really driving the NBA and their players to their nuclear winter (a brilliantly timed turn of the phrase by Commissioner David Stern) isn’t merely hubris and stupidity, though each is playing its part. This time the lambs are being led to slaughter by those who supposedly are being paid to have their backs, their agents.

The NBA players union is ostensibly led by Billy Hunter, a mostly ineffective middling labor executive. Hunter has been around awhile and his only discernable accomplishments to date has been to avoid any significant labor dispute through almost complete capitulation to whatever Stern has wanted.

In fairness, though, Stern hasn’t wanted much until now. Now he wants plenty.

The owners, whom Stern represents, have been mostly transparent in their goal since the economy first turned in 2008. They want to change the economic equation that had long since gotten out of whack. Players were taking too big of a piece of the pie, revenues were not keeping up, and just about every aspect of their salary cap and its multitude of exceptions had made their business virtually unmanageable, at least according to them.

As unprepared as only professional players can be, the NBA players, like NFL players, like NHL players, never really did develop any goal outside of holding on to as much as they could. Not understanding at all what success could look like at the bargaining table there really was no chance that they could strike a deal that they’d ever consider fair.

And that is the nub of the problem. By not developing any concrete goals or otherwise defining victory for themselves, they left themselves open to back channel manipulation and those pulling the strings now are the agents who were supposed to be representing their interests.

A little back story first. There’s a group of 5 or 6 of the biggest agents in the NBA who got together early in this process in order to try and manipulate the outcome. What drove them together was their lack of unity during negotiations for the last contract. That’s the one where the union agreed to a couple of key items that have mostly hurt their agents: a rookie salary scale and maximum contracts for veterans. In each case there isn’t much to negotiate for an agent representing either a rookie or a veteran and hence there isn’t much of a fee that can get generated.

The other thing these agents understand is that the league’s current economic structure is such a mess and the competitive balance so skewed that only a radical refiguring could straighten it out. Surmising correctly, the agents believed that this radical refiguring would in essence again further their ability to generate a fee.

So they’ve been working behind the scenes, convincing their gullible and uninformed clients that they were getting screwed by Hunter and the union and the owners. The rejection by the players of the owners’ last, best and final offer wasn’t a surprise in that context. It really didn’t matter what was in that proposal anyway. It was never going to be accepted.

What this group of agents has been gunning for mostly is to change the leverage proposition in these negotiations. The agents know that the Hunter-led union has never been a match at the bargaining table to Stern and his committee. Thus their goal has been to keep the union from striking a deal of any sort by offering litigation as a viable alternative to bargaining.

At first, they were the minority voice in the room. Hunter was able to keep the group together. Eventually he was not.

The problem with the agents’ thinking is the same as the problem with the NFL players’ thinking on this issue. There is no end game to this strategy. The only thing a court could eventually do, assuming that their legal strategy is sound, which it’s not, is to force the parties to continue to negotiate. No court anywhere can force the NBA to moderate their proposals to the union or put in place any new deal.

What the agents have sold their players on is the likelihood of a court declaring that the lockout amounts to illegal concerted activity on behalf of all the owners and putting in place the status quo, meaning the old contract, until a new one is negotiated.

Certainly if that strategy was sound, it would force the owners to be more moderate, meaning more opportunities for the agents to preserve their fees. But that’s a big “if.” As we learned during the NFL strike, federal labor law provides an exemption to an antitrust claim during a labor dispute. There can be no question that there is a labor dispute in this case.

For the strategy to work, individual players need to file the antitrust lawsuit (which they have, in two courts) and make the difficult claim that a labor dispute no longer exists because they are no longer, in fact, represented by a union.

It didn’t work for the NFL players and there’s no reason to think it’s going to work any better this time, either. David Boies, a superstar antitrust lawyer representing the players, seems to think that his clients have the upper hand this time because the owners have given the players their final offer.

It’s a nice theory but it isn’t likely to hold up. The owners are perfectly within their legal rights to bargain hard and to give a last, best and final offer and to lock out the players. The players are within their legal rights to not accept that offer just as they have the right to strike. At some point, if nothing changes the economic pressures on each will increase to the point that one or both are likely to moderate their positions and strike a new deal.

That’s the worse case scenario for the agents of course which is why they’ve been pushing the litigation strategy. If I had more respect for Hunter’s abilities as a union leader, I would say that he let the litigation hawks pursue this avenue to prove that it won’t work. More likely Hunter just gave up, like he has so many times before.

At this point there’s no reason to expect any NBA games this season. Depending on your level of interest in the game, it might make no difference to you. Heck, I just realized a few months ago that the NHL was no longer on strike.

But even if you’re the biggest NBA fan ever you still have to laugh at how ridiculous all this really is. The issues are, in large measure, idiotic. The inability of adults to figure out in an orderly, professional manner how to divide a discretionary pie this big is such a colossal failure that it ought to at least make you re-think exactly why you’re a fan in the first place.

I’ve rethought it and yet remain. Why? For the laughs. For the laughs.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Losing His Inner Winner

There probably is some place in Hell especially reserved for the Cleveland Browns these days or, more particularly, their fans. The cruelness with which each game unfolds to their very eyes isn’t just dispiriting, it’s numbing in the same way that watching Dancing with the Stars is numbing.

Staring blankly, they’ve lost the will to live.

The Browns’ loss to the St. Louis Rams is only consequential if you thought the team had higher aspirations for the season. Since no sane person did, then it’s just a loss among many. The way it ended and the pain inflicted was certainly something special but on a macro level, so what?

Well, plenty, but I’ll get to that in a moment.

One of the great pleasures of writing about the Browns is the ability to step away from it from time to time in the same way that one of the great pleasures of banging your head against a wall is how good it feels when you stop. So it was that I stepped away from Sunday’s game to regroup from all the bad football that’s been played in the name of the Browns for so many years, particularly all the years I’ve been doing this for this web site.

Ok, so I lied just a tad. I didn’t step away from Sunday’s game in order to regroup. I had better plans for the day; plans that didn’t include anything to do with Cleveland Browns’ football. But the fact that I could so easily step away for the day and not give it a second thought was a far bigger surprise then the fact that the Browns found a new and dumber way to lose one of the only remaining winnable games on their schedule.

It wasn’t always this easy.

I was a long-time season ticket holder at the old Cleveland Stadium. When Art Modell, morally and fiscally bankrupt as he was, decided to take a blowtorch to his reputation and move the team to Baltimore, I was as pissed as any die hard. I work in business and understand the dynamics and can fully appreciate the fact that difficult and unpleasant decisions must get made. But the larger point for me when it came to the Browns and Modell was the simple fact that despite all the incredible built in advantages that comes with owning a NFL team, he was still managing to lose money. That was a marker for his inept ownership and the real reason the team never went to the Super Bowl. Modell was a bumbling, incompetent fool of the first order who had no discernable skill other than to charm people with the same quips over the years.

When the Browns returned, it wasn’t quite the same and anyone who pretends otherwise is not being truthful with him or herself. It’s not just that the new Cleveland Browns Stadium had none of the character (or the plumbing problems) of the old Stadium, though that was part of it. It was simply that whatever compact existed between fan and team was ripped to shreds when Modell took his team and left town with the tacit permission of the rest of the NFL.

In the intervening years, the Browns have attempted to rebuild that bond and have done about as bad a job as possible in that regard. The moneyed ownership has been aloof. The decision-making process has been almost universally circumspect. The product on the field has been consistently awful. If they ever need another case study at the Harvard Business School on how not to build a brand or how to destroy customer loyalty, then someone ought to be documenting the Browns more carefully for future generations.

Stepping away from a meaningless game and stepping away completely are two different things and thus I return to contemplate the game I didn’t see. As this Football Monday beckoned, the day after when all the analysis and all the paralysis that accompanies each game, I find myself in a far different frame of mind. Not having watched the game and actually still not having seen any highlights (which, in a 13-12 loss, how could there be any?) I have a sobering sense anyway that I’ve seen this game before, mainly because I have, for years.

Honestly, was there anything about the Browns’ offensive ineptitude on Sunday that surprised anyone outside of maybe Chris Ogbonnaya going all Boyce Green for a game and gaining 90 yards?

Ok, maybe there was one surprise. It’s that head coach Pat Shurmur was so desperate for any kind of win that he completely buttoned up the offense when it was inside the 10 yard line late in the game, purposely playing for the field goal that never came.

He can explain his tepid thinking all he wants but the bottom line is that Shurmur has confidence in only one player, Phil Dawson. That is how far things have fallen.

It wasn’t even that Shurmur didn’t trust the offense to score a touchdown, although given how rarely that occurs that might have been part of his thinking. It was more so that he didn’t trust the offense to hold on to the ball in order to give Dawson an opportunity to kick the winning field goal, which is a far more damning assessment.

That is a bad message on a fair number of levels. The first, of course, was the lack of confidence Shurmur showed in his quarterback, Colt McCoy, as well as the lousy receivers on this team. That may be understandable as well as the fact that Shurmur wanted the Rams to burn time outs by keeping the ball on the ground. Fair enough, but who in the name of Woody Hayes in his prime calls for a handoff to a tight end who hasn’t had one carry the entire year? Or to a tight end at all? It would have been far more sublime if Josh Cribbs hadn’t recovered the fumble.

This is where my world and their world perfectly collided yesterday. I didn’t have to witness it first hand and hallelujah for that. As I sit here now I savor how uplifting it really was not to have watched that highly ironic series of plays. Had I been watching I’m sure I would again have gained a deeper appreciation as to why Elvis used to keep a loaded hand gun nearby when watching television. When you have that kind of money, sometimes the only real answer to your frustrations is to shoot out the screen.

On another level Shurmur’s play calling speaks very poorly of his hand-picked offensive coordinator, Pat Shurmur. I can’t even imagine the internal dialogue he had to come up with to call a play that was either too cute or too stupid by half, take your pick. Maybe he felt the site of McCoy handing off to Alex Smith would leave the Rams so gobsmacked that Smith would waltz into the end zone untouched. Maybe he just wasn’t convinced that a fumblerooskie would work. Maybe he had a bigger brain freeze than Ryan Pontribriand. Yea, let’s go with that.

Shurmur is learning and so a few rookie mistakes are to be expected. But the moment he lost his guts to try and force the Rams to win the game with under two minutes by scoring a touchdown instead of field goal, what happened next on the botched field goal was as inevitable as Ted McGinley joining a dying sitcom.

You can’t instill winning in a team that hasn’t won if you aren’t a winner yourself. I’m not suggesting that Shurmur isn’t a winner but I am suggesting that unless he can keep his nut sack in tact during a game’s more crucial moments, to the extent that a game against the Rams can have any crucial moments, he’ll never be a winner and neither will his team.

Shurmur hasn’t lost the team yet but as sure as Kim Kardashian finding another athlete to exploit he will lose this team if he doesn’t find his inner winner and fast. If Shurmur doesn’t understand that the reason his team and its fans are emotionally devastated yet again is not the loss itself but the pathetic way in which he made it transpire through his own timidness, then he might as well simplify his life and go back to being a lifelong assistant coach.

Shurmur had the game in his hands and panicked, like LeBron James. Predictably, the results were the same, both on and off the field.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Paterno State University

Last night, the Paterno State University Board of Trustees fired Joe Paterno. Not surprisingly, he was shocked by the decision, thus confirming what we've known for years. You don't have to be much of a cynic to wonder whether the Board's action came after Paterno (with their implicit approval) floated the trial balloon of a year-end retirement only to see the adverse reaction to it. Unable to sustain an unsustainable position, the Board had to take the action that Paterno was reluctant to take himself. Two points. First, let's not ever try to pain Paterno as a sympathetic figure. This scandal doesn't erase all the other good in his life but neither does that good erase his morally bankrupt conduct in this case. If there is even one additional abuse victim once Paterno knew about Sandusky's alleged conduct (and by all accounts there were), then Paterno and many others are complicit in that abuse and should pay a heavy price. Second, at some point soon you can bet that the Big Ten Commission Jim Delaney and the NCAA will add some unintentional humor into this by announcing that neither Paterno nor Penn State violated any NCAA rules. That will be the final confirmation, really, of the NCAA's irrelevance in really being a force for something positive in the lives of young men and women. And if that brings about the downfall of the NCAA as well, then so much the better.

Original column starts now...

Whether Penn State football head coach Joe Paterno wins or loses against Nebraska on Saturday, the last home game he’ll apparently ever coach, won’t matter. The scoreboard when it’s over will still read, “Paterno State University 1, Abuse Victims 0.”

In what can only be described as the most tone deaf answer yet to the burgeoning child abuse scandal that is rocking not just the Penn State football program but also the entire university, Paterno is being given the opportunity to retire at season’s end. If the Penn State administration or Board of Trustees understood how depraved this situation really is and how absolutely vile they have been in their reaction to it, Paterno’s retirement would have started this past Monday.

As it is, Paterno will be given the opportunity to say goodbye to the fans, the students and all of the Penn State sympathizers. In the process more then a few people will infer that Paterno too is a victim in all this. They’ll talk about his record, his good works and how all of that is being forgotten in another rush to judgment. Don’t believe it for a moment. Paterno as victim surely turns this tragic tale on its head.

If the latest reports are true, there are at least 20 victims of the most horrific child abuse imaginable, any number of whom could potentially have escaped the abuse if Paterno had acted with any sort of moral center, who now will never escape their own personal hells. Paterno on the other hand can retire quietly, richly, and with the gratitude of a fan base that will wonder why he had to be forced out.

Paterno State University 1, Abuse Victims 0.

That’s the real scoreboard by which Paterno has chosen to be remembered. The same lack of compassion that caused Paterno to make a perfunctory, late report to a campus administrator about something “inappropriate” (his unfortunate words) involving former defensive coordinator and lifelong Paterno friend, Jerry Sandusky, is the same lack of compassion being exhibited by Paterno now. It’s sad, really, where we as a society cannot fully embrace the real victims of abuse and yet will give a pass to Paterno’s own despicable conduct in this whole thing.

Make no mistake about it. Allowing Paterno, the 84-year old coach whose contract expires at the end of the season anyway, to retire at season’s end rather then cutting ties now is only slightly less of a despicable reaction then if Paterno had been allowed to coach still another year. Yes, it’s that bad.

You can’t expect drunken college students to understand the human tragedy of this situation, which is why they showed up en masse at Paterno’s house on Tuesday evening to cheer him on. But we all should have expected better from Paterno then and now and yet again he’s failed to do the right thing.

If Paterno really did have a moral compass that he could consult, it would have immediately told him that the only response was an immediate resignation and a pledge to never stop raising funds for those innocent victims of Sandusky’s conduct. But hey the Nittany Lions are 12th ranked at the moment and have 3 games left in a season that could result in them playing in the first ever Big Ten Championship. There are priorities and when the season ends they'll still be abuse victims so what's the rush to start the healing?

He did give a minor shout out of sorts to the abuse victims when his student supporters visited him Tuesday evening, but most of his words were reserved for himself and assuring his supporters that he is indeed doing fine. Nice to know. I wonder how that poor child who allegedly was being sodomized in 2002 was feeling right about the time he discovered that students were clapping out their support for the man that did little to stop the abuser from striking again or paying a price.

I’d like to think that at some point soon Paterno will come to his senses and realize that a year end resignation is such a worthless and disrespectful response that he’ll change his mind and turn over the reigns immediately. But I won’t hold my breath.

Paterno couldn’t do the right thing in 2002, when he wasn’t nearly as senile as he apparently is now, so why should we expect him to act in a more dignified manner now? He couldn’t comprehend then how truly despicable the allegations against his buddy Sandusky were then so why should he understand how awful it is for him to remain in his current position is now?

A year end resignation and the eternal gratitude of Penn State Nation seems just a little too good for what Paterno really deserves. If the there was any justice, Paterno’s statute on the campus would be taken down, his office cleaned out, and he be shipped off to wherever codgers like him go to contemplate why they ultimately did little to prevent more kids from becoming Sandusky victims.

The only real hope for righting this ship is for the Penn State Board of Trustees to step in the breach at this moment and say, “not so fast, Joe.” But they are no more in charge of the university then the worthless figurehead who calls himself president at the moment. It’s Paterno’s college and he’s going to be allowed to do any damn thing he wants. Besides they were likely complicit in arranging this soft landing for Paterno, viewing it as a win/win situation for everyone; everyone that is within the Penn State family.

Paterno State University 1, Abuse Victims 0.

The scandal at Penn State, both the actual tragedy and the unbelievably awful reaction by the adults in charge, then and now, makes this far and away the biggest scandal in NCAA football, ever. It’s the worst kind of reality show and the issues it highlights go so far beyond what takes place between the lines on Saturday that it’s almost unfair to think of it as merely a football scandal. Indeed it’s a human tragedy made all the worse, if that's even possible, because it took place at an institution of higher learning and moral upbringing and was facilitated by trusted figures who, when push came to shove, chose the wrong priority to serve.

Reading the grand jury transcripts and the charges levied against Sandusky are stunning in their import. Whether you have children or not, only the absolute worst among us cannot help but be struck for how awful all of this must been for the victims. If the allegations are true, then Sandusky was worse than a garden variety sick bastard child pornographer. Sandusky’s alleged crimes involve unthinkable pedophilia of a kind so depraved that it’s actually hard to believe that it could exist in a civilized society.

What is it about the human condition that brings people to such unspeakable acts? And what of the underlying psychology of it all?

You don’t have to be a psychologist to understand that the abuse Sandusky allegedly heaped on some of his victims, taking place as it did in public places, was not so much a brazen act of defiance as it was a sign that Sandusky wanted to be caught. And he was, at least twice from what the reports indicate. Yet, it was to no avail and by all accounts the abuse continued because those trusted to do the right thing, like Paterno, didn’t.

Maybe Paterno couldn’t comprehend the human tragedy, either, and that’s why he made only the slightest of gestures to stop it all. In one sense it’s easy to understand how that can happen. But in the larger sense, if someone in Paterno’s role doesn’t do the right thing, who would? That’s why this whole thing is where it’s at today.

Paterno has hung around the Penn State program probably decades past his expiration date from a purely coaching standpoint. But the fact that he did hang around for so long doesn’t just suggest but demands that he go to greater lengths then anyone at Penn State to ensure that its moral compass never get questioned.

Well, surprise, surprise. Paterno didn’t do the right thing then and didn’t do the right thing now. At least he’s consistent. I guess stress does bring out the true character of a person.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Eat Less, Exercise More

There will come a point where Cleveland Browns fans will let a makeover take hold, mainly because they’ll realize that they have no choice. Whether it's this none the next one or the one after that is the only real question.

If the last three years, indeed the last 12 years have taught us anything, it's that there is no quick fix in the offing for this franchise. The other thing the last 12 years has taught us is that this franchise is in danger of becoming the Los Angeles Clippers of the NFL unless some time is finally given to let a plan take hold.

The theme of head coach Pat Schurmur's weekly press conference on Tuesday was, well, there wasn't a theme. Just like the weeks that preceded this there was a numbing, frustrating sameness about it.

But that's the point. The numbing, frustrating sameness is borne from an overall lack of talent on this team that at this point makes every play and every drive and eventually every game look exactly the same.

Schurmur may have sounded almost Belichik-like (or even, shudder, Mangini-like) when he said that the team just needs to keep working. He likened it to the diet advice that no one wants to take: eat less and exercise more. Everyone is waiting for a doctor somewhere to invent a magic pill. Well guess what? So is every fan of every miserable team in every sport. It ain’t happening in either case.

Maybe Schurmur was being truculent, and who could blame him, but he was speaking an inconvenient truth that no one seems to have the time and patience for. Everything about this franchise has to get better and the only way that's going to happen is through hard work coupled with patience. The franchise didn’t get this bad over night and it isn’t going to get significantly better over night, either. It's not a message that sells tickets today, but properly executed will sell tickets in the long run.

I don't think the wheels have fallen off this version of the franchise’s latest grand plan despite the team's performance in the last few weeks in particular. To believe that they have would require the assumption of facts clearly not in evidence, like the presence of a run gain, the presence of a credible receiving corps, the stoutness of an offensive line.

What's really happening is that the Browns are performing exactly as a team in this state (and also in this state) should perform. To do anything better would be a story probably more surprising then one with a headline “Kim Kardashian Quits Reality TV Forever.”

There is nothing wrong with the Browns' schemes (though you can certainly question several individual plays) on either side of the ball. The team's struggles aren't a reflection of poor coaching. This team simply lacks enough talent in every phase (except kicker) to perform on anything resembling a high level for any sustained period of time.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t building blocks in place. There are. But as the inevitable injury bug has hit this team like it hits every NFL team at this point of the season, you really start to gain an appreciation of how important depth really is right about the time it becomes clear your team has none.

If the Browns were a new house under construction, the foundation has been built, a frame erected and the roof under cover but that’s about it. Meanwhile the fans are like the impatient homeowners demanding to move in now. In fact they have moved in against all better judgment and are bitching because it’s so cold at night and because the builders seem to make so much noise during the day and yet never seem to quite finish.

There’s plenty of blame to throw around, I suppose, but how you want to dole it out very much depends on whether you look at it from a micro or a macro level and that, ultimately, is the two camps in which fans tend to fall these days.

Those operating on a micro level are hurling bricks at Colt McCoy and Shurmur at the moment, along with whatever is left over at Peyton Hillis. It’s energy wasted. Those operating on a higher plane can see that little about what’s happening on the field this season, good or bad, is on Shurmur, though you could put a bit more on team president Mike Holmgren and general manager Tom Heckert.

What of Holmgren? Has he really been around long enough to have made much of an impact? To a certain extent, yes. He came in halfway through Eric Mangini’s first season, liked little of what he saw of Mangini then, but kept him around for another fruitless year anyway. It was the equivalent of saying “I’ll start my diet a year from now.” Meanwhile the patient just got fatter and clogged a few more arteries in the meantime.

For Holmgren, then, blame him for a lost season in 2010 when virtually no progress was made on any front in terms of putting in place whatever grand scheme he was conjuring.

In that context, exactly what was Heckert to do? Pretty much exactly what he did do, which was to work counter of purpose to Mangini by starting to accumulate 4-3 defensive talent and West Coast Offense type players despite the fact that neither system was in place yet.

But it’s not like measurable progress was made. There are just so many holes to fill that Heckert’s been like a battle field medic triaging a unit that’s been decimated as it sits low in the valley with snipers around the entire perimeter. Mistakes are going to get made. The only real issue at the moment is whether or not he's been directionally correct. I think he has.

The players that Heckert has drafted tend to be among the better performing players on this team, despite their relative inexperience. Notwithstanding the Houston game, Phil Taylor and Jabaal Sheard are the kind of players that virtually any team in the league would want. The same can be said about Joe Haden and T.J. Ward. Less certain are the long term prospects of players like Tony Pashos and Greg Little, but in those cases you can understand the thinking because neither has been awful, just raw.

I also understand the thinking about not trying to use the free agent market as a quick fix in any one area, but I don’t understand it when it came to his essential obstinance in refusing to introduce any veteran presence to the receiving corps. This young and less than stellar unit could certainly benefit from the wisdom of someone with a track record, and enough of those types were available in the offseason that it makes his lack of action on this count puzzling.

The key, though, is that at this point Heckert isn’t failing in obvious and dramatic fashion. It’s just that the successes are hard to see given all the carnage that needs to be sifted through first. Like any significant project, it just takes time.

Perhaps the most obvious question that ought to get asked, the one hardest to answer, is why counsel patience now and not, say, when Mangini came on board? It’s a fair question because all Mangini ever did was counsel the same thing Shurmur is doing now. The difference, I suppose, is that Mangini was a failed quantity with little man’s syndrome and mostly just pissed people off. He was as collaborative in approach as most dictators tend to be.

In this case, the chances for success following patience seem to be more likely. There is a collaborative approach and theme in place from the team president down through the handpicked coaching staff. Unless you’re completely convinced that Holmgren, Heckert and Shurmur are just never going to make it, then the only choice is patience.

This is surely not the answer most want to hear just like they don’t want to hear the real prescription for losing weight. There just is no substitute at the moment so best now to accept the fact that we just need to eat less and exercise more and take solace in the notion that it’s proven time and again that given time and dedication the approach will work.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Bullied, Again

The Houston Texans are pretty good football team, but no one is confusing them with the Green Bay Packers at the moment. Nonetheless, treating the Cleveland Browns like they were trying to purposely violate some anti-bullying law, the Texans punched the Browns early, often, stole their lunch money and a good amount of their self-respect and pride along with it in a 30-12 dismembering that ultimately was still so much of the same old same old.

There were too many small moments in the game indicative of the bigger picture to truly single out any one as the most representative of the ass-whipping the Browns endured, so I'll just go with my favorite. The Browns, opening the second half of the game with the ball, ran a pitch to running back Chris Ogbonnaya and he lost three yards. And that was a major improvement in how they started the first half of the game, with Ogbonnaya running up the middle and then immediately fumbling the ball to the Texans just seconds after the Texans opened the game with an 82-yard drive for a touchdown.

It was the second straight week that the Browns lost a fumble on their first play of the game and while both lost fumbles effectively ended any chance for the Browns in either game, I nominate this week's fumble as worse if only because the Texans had already scored. At least they were only down 7-0 a week ago.

But back to the bullying for the moment. The Texans are tied with the most scoring points in first quarters this season. That means they're a fast starter. The Browns are at the bottom of that stat. The Texans lived up to their billing, so did the Browns.

Starting their opening drive at their 18-yard line, quarterback Matt Schaub opened the game with four laser-like pass completions. All that did was loosen up a defense that was geared toward trying to stop the best two-back running combination in the league since Kevin Mack and Earnest Byner shared a Browns' backfield a generation or so ago The Texans combo of Ben Tate and Arian Foster came into the game with over 500 yards each and finished Sunday's game both with over 600 yards each, well on their way to each having well in excess of 1,000 yard seasons.

After Schaub completed the four passes, Foster started first, running for a mere 11 yards on his first three carries. Then Tate cleaned up with a 6 yard run and then a 27 yarder for the touchdown. If the Browns defense fashioned themselves as an elite unit, it's top 5 ranking feeding that ego, they shouldn't any longer. Tate's two runs were so easy it was as if the defensive line had failed to report in for the series.

After the Ogbonnaya fumble, which gave the Texans the ball right back on the Cleveland 28 yard line, Foster gashed his way to even more yards before setting up a way-too-easy quarterback draw by Schaub that immediately put the Texans up 14-0.

The Browns, as usual, were resigned to more of the same sort of offense. No red zone penetration until the game long since over, the Texans protecting their side of the field as if contained the best playground equipment, the Browns were reduced to their usual mode of scoring, Phil Dawson 50+ yard field goals, of which he had two, until the late meaningless touchdown.

The Texans next touchdown was a model of everything the Browns' offense wants to be when it grows up, assuming they want to build a credible running game. Tate had runs of 24 and 9 yards on the drive and Foster finished it off with a 19 yard run directly up the middle and he wasn't even touched. Consider how improbably that should be. He went through Ahtyba Rubin, Jabaal Sheard, Phil Taylor, D'Qwell Jackson and Scott Fujita and then Mike Adams. None of them were even close to laying so much as a glove on Foster.

Now before going any further with dissecting this mess, let's say a word or two about Lawrence Vickers and his impact on the game. It was huge. Vickers was either extracting revenge against a Browns regime he barely knew or just continuing to re-assert himself as the league's best blocking back, which he surely is. I predict many will suggest it's the former when in truth it really was the latter.

It really should give fans pause to consider exactly why general manager Tom Heckert let Vickers get away so easily. Sure, rookie Owen Marecic came into the league with a good reputation, a young man's Vickers if you will. So that means the decision the Browns' management made was financial, banking on the theory that Marecic was simply a cheaper version of Vickers.

Well, he is a cheaper version of Vickers, no denying that. He's also an inferior version of Vickers. Marecic has done little to help spring a moribund Browns' running attack. Vickers was blowing holes through the Browns like he was wielding machetes. It's very fair to suggest that the Browns' running game would be much better with Vickers than Marecic. Not great, certainly, but far better. Which means that the Browns offense would be much better with Vickers than Marecic. Again, not great, but far better.

Sorry, back to the game. The Texans looked as if they might completely blow the game open when Jacoby Jones returned a punt 50 yards to the Cleveland 40 late in the first half. But Schaub was picked off by Jackson on the next play. Then it got interesting.

With the ball sitting on their own 42-yard line, Colt McCoy and the Browns offense put together one of those great drives we've all come to love. No gain. Incomplete. False start. Decent run. No gain. Another false start. Sack. McCoy running for his life, throwing the ball up for grabs and having it intercepted. This one was by Quintin Demps who looked like he would return it for a touchdown. But with only the kind of luck the Browns have these days, McCoy was able to force Demps out of bounds with two seconds remaining, just enough time for Neil Rackers to kick a field goal to give the Texans a 24-3 lead.

The second half was mostly an exercise in playing out the string with the Browns again reduced to putting together a drive in the fourth quarter that gave the score a measure of respectability their play didn't otherwise merit. Taking over at their own 36 yard line, McCoy was able to effectively move the team down field and in position where he was able to find Josh Cribbs on a 2-yard pass for a touchdown. But let's be fair to the Texans. Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips had stopped blitzing perhaps out of a measure of respect for the fact that McCoy's family was in attendance and to that point McCoy had been beaten like a bass drum in a Memorial Day parade.

For those interested at all in the statistical battle, all you really need to know that it was as lopsided as you would expect. McCoy threw for 146 yards, most of which came near the end of the game, as usual. He was also sacked 4 times and generally knocked around like a bowling pin, also as usual. Ogbonnaya and his practice squad buddy Thomas Clayton averaged all of two yards per carry. In total, the Browns had under 200 yards total offense.

The Texans had nearly 400 yards. Foster and Tate were responsible for most of it as each ran for well in excess of 100 yards and that was pretty much the story of the game.

Still, as bad as it was, and brother it was bad, there still was a nice little play made by defensive lineman Phil Taylor on a play that wasn't. With just over two minutes remaining, it appeared initially as if linebacker Chris Gocong had successfully stripped the ball from third string running back Derrick Ward. The ball was picked up by Taylor who wasn't so much running as looking to deliver a forearm shiv to anyone who wanted to get in his way, which he did. Of course he lost the ball in the process and while the Browns recovered it didn't matter because the call was reversed anyway.

Besides the Taylor play, the other redeeming feature of the game is that it did manage to answer some lingering questions. As we established at the outset, not all fumbles on your first offensive play of the game are created equal, though they all have the same effect when they're committed by the Browns. We also have established what a mistake it was not to sign Vickers. We now firmly know that it really doesn't matter who the Browns play. Their offense will invariably look the same. Finally, we're starting to realize that for the third straight season 4 wins could very well be this team's high water mark, which means another high draft pick just not high enough to garner Andrew Luck.

The Browns do have a chance, a real honest to gosh legitimate chance, to find that high water mark when they take on head coach Pat Shurmur's old team, the St. Louis Rams, next Sunday at home. They then have Jacksonville at home the following week, so that's another chance as well. And they better take advantage of one of those two teams, and preferably both, because the second half of the schedule has all the makings of a disaster with two games each against Pittsburgh and Baltimore still to come. If you cringe at what you witnessed against the 49ers and Texans, you may want to just avert your eyes all together when the remaining games are played starting later this month.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Lingering Items--Letting Go Edition

Since it’s rare (it’s happened once) for a NFL team to go undefeated and win it all, it’s fascinating at times to gauge fan reactions to individual losses. There are always reactions as if no game should ever have been lost. There are players to blame, certainly, but mostly fans blame the coaches.

As an overall approach, that makes sense. The plays that don’t get made are, to most thinking, the best evidence of bad coaching. We tend to think, for example, that if a player is wearing a brown and orange uniform, he’s just as competent as anyone else wearing a uniform to execute the play that’s been called so all things being equal, the coach screwed up.

Of course that can’t possibly be true as a decade or so of incompetence in Cleveland can attest. We’ve had all manner of coaches and techniques and yet the performance has remained amazingly consistently bad. No coach could have won with these players.

The problems being experienced by the Browns at the moment are in many ways the same as those being experienced by the Ohio State offense. New schemes and raw players counsel patience. There’s just no substitute for the passage of time and all the repetitions that brings. Bitch all you want about Colt McCoy but if you’ve ever listened to the Beatles live in Hamburg recordings, you can get a better sense that development just takes time.

But that’s not to suggest that coaching hasn’t played a role in what’s transpired to date. It has, in both a good and bad way.

Pat Shurmur, like Colt McCoy, is new to this gig. He’s spent plenty of time prepping for his opportunity but heavy does lay the crown once you’re given it to wear.

Evaluating McCoy to this point is all about what you want to make of it but it’s far easier to do then evaluating Shurmur. We know the record, 3-4, but how much of that is really due to coaching? That is far harder to discern.

Since Shurmur serves as his own offensive coordinator you can certainly look at that aspect of his performance and make some conclusions. The reason Shurmur needs an offensive coordinator has less to do with plays called or schemes designed and has more to do with simply having another voice to bounce ideas off. There’s nothing worse then being the only person in the office with your particular expertise. You can talk to others about unique issues but mostly they can just nod in sympathy, clueless as to what the hell you’re actually talking about.

So it is with Shurmur, particularly on game days. What’s been evident in several games is that his offensive coordinator instincts have overtaken and in some cases inhibited the development of his head coaching instincts. What a particular game may be dictating to an offensive coordinator can be wholly different then what it may be dictating to a head coach who has to balance both sides of the balls.

For example, it probably made sense to the offensive coordinator in Shurmur to have McCoy keep huddling up and slinging the ball in abject futility during several games because he felt like a spark was needed. But to the head coach Shurmur, an even more frenetic approach, such as a no huddle, two-minute drill type tempo early in the game, with the knowledge that if it’s not working your defense is mostly good enough might be more appropriate.

But without any healthy discussion during game day except between the left side and right side of Shumur’s brain, Shurmur is rendering himself less effective. Thus it wasn’t a surprise when team president Mike Holmgren indicated that there would be an offensive coordinator hired next season.

Another area to judge Shurmur is in attention to detail. Whether a new coaching staff or a shortened training camp or both are to blame, the Browns are not nearly as disciplined as they should be. There hasn’t been a game yet this season when there haven’t been multiple false start penalties on the offensive line. There hasn’t been a game this season where there haven’t been multiple personal fouls committed. The Browns haven’t turned into the Oakland Raiders but they’ve certainly regressed in this area as compared to the two seasons under Eric Mangini.

These seem like the simplest of fixes and yet it continues to be a nagging problem with this team. Given its lack of overall talent, it’s simply not good enough to consistently or even predominately overcome these mistakes. If Shumur wants to placate the fans and take some heat off his team, rapid improvement in this area would be the easiest way. 1st and 10 is challenge enough right now. 1st and 15 might as well be 1st and 50.

Another more difficult area to judge Shurmur is in his use of personnel. He talks often about getting the ball in the hands of playmakers but he still has never adequately answered why he deliberately kept the ball out of Peyton Hillis’ hands early in the season. He’s likewise devised no gimmicks to get the ball to Josh Cribbs in the open field. As a receiver, Cribbs is very limited. But that shouldn’t stop Shurmur from trying to find him other opportunities. You can tell Cribbs is frustrated but he’s too polite to take it completely off the reservation.

None of this is to suggest that Shurmur won’t make it as a head coach. But too often someone new to the role tries to do too much with it and as a result fails miserably. Even Bill Belichick needed to fail in order to eventually succeed. Yet that’s the last thing this organization can withstand.

The Browns aren’t poorly coached at the moment but neither is this coaching staff extracting more value out of the team then its talent would otherwise dictate. Patience with Shurmur is just as necessary as it is with McCoy but in truth if Holmgren is going to have any lasting impact on this team it will be to teach Shurmur exactly how to be a head coach.


The Brian Robiskie era, such as it was, is officially over. It’s not a surprise. The writing has been on the walls for weeks and in skywriting last Sunday when Jordan Norton came in as the third receiver instead of Robiskie once Mohammed Massaquoi was injured and Greg Little and Cribbs stepped up in grade.

I’ve written about Robiskie before and mentioned how precarious his role on the team really was. A good route runner, he nonetheless had almost no ability to get himself open. His approach was too slow-footed and mechanical to be taken seriously by the defensive backs in the NFL.

My guess is that Robiskie will get a look from one or two other teams and may even stick around for a few more seasons. That will mostly be related to pedigree and draft status. But there’s also the not so small fact that if a team as deficient in receivers is nonetheless cutting one, how good could that receiver be? Not very.

Robiskie is the quintessential good guy. He was an excellent college receiver. He’s studious and well liked. He won’t struggle in a post-football career. There comes a time when, as the coaches like to say, it’s time to get on with your life’s work. For Robiskie it just came sooner then either he, or Mangini, expected.

Of even higher visibility in the letting go department was the Indians parting ways with Grady Sizemore by not picking up his $9 million option for next season.

The conventional wisdom is that the Indians’ small market status figured in the decision but I don’t think it really had all that much to do with it. Instead it was Sizemore’s agent that drove the decision.

There may have been a few teams in baseball that would have picked up Sizemore’s option, but very few. His health issues and his lack of productivity during those periods in between are hardly suggestive of a $9 million/year player and that’s true whatever size market your favorite team plays in. The only one not to realize it at the moment is his agent.

According to Chris Antonetti, the Indians’ general manager, Sizemore was disappointed because he wanted to remain an Indian. Well, Sizemore could have controlled that by getting better control of his agent who insisted that the contract would not be re-negotiated. That was a mistake because there’s usually no team that likes you more and willing to overpay you more then your current one.

Maybe Sizemore’s agent thinks a better long-term deal is in the offing from some other team and maybe he’s right, but it will be a struggle. I think several teams will make incentive-laden short term offers to Sizemore, with the Indians being one of them. But it will be a shock of major proportions if anyone is willing to give him a guarantee in any contract year of $9 million unless it vests three seasons from now following three seasons of significantly improved numbers.

Sizemore’s career has been mercurial, to say the least. It’s hard to say how much the injuries really impacted him though obviously they did. Yet his batting eye never really improved all that much. He struck out way too much and that never changed and he didn’t walk enough to be an effective leadoff hitter, his preferred spot in the order.

Ultimately, Sizemore has had plenty of time in baseball to live up to the potential he showed but his development stopped, because of injuries mostly but also perhaps because he didn’t work hard enough on the gifts he had.

The Sizemore story isn’t over yet and perhaps there’s still a chapter to be written in Cleveland, but no complaints here about the move the Indians made. We’ve all seen what a millstone contract can do to a team as Travis Hafner’s ridiculous contract continues to inhibit the financial flexibility of the Indians.


With the NBA lockout still holding strong and actual games now being missed, no one seems to be in much of a hurry to resolve the dispute. The NBA owners are saving money as the players are being led to slaughter. All this leads to this week’s question to ponder: Did NBA players really think there’d be a groundswell of support for their cause?