The Cleveland Browns front office appears about as active as the writers for Mad Men were during their 18 month hiatus between seasons, which is to say not much. A passive/aggressive internal dispute of sorts, a little progress on a few fringe players coming and going, a franchise tender signed with their kicker (and that speaks volumes about the lack of quality on this team overall, doesn’t it?) but mostly inactivity, at least publicly.
That doesn’t mean it is quiet behind the scenes. Just like a good advertising campaign is the culmination of a number of rejected ideas, so too is the rebuilding strategy of a NFL franchise. And if any NFL franchise has tried and failed at every manner of idea and concept, it’s the Browns. Maybe what it needs is a little help from Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce.
Indeed, if the Browns front office personnel had its counterparts at Sterling, Cooper, then club president Mike Holmgren would be Bert Cooper, walking around Berea in socks, sitting in conference rooms and waiting for meetings that won’t ever take place. Occasionally he’d bitch about the old days and talk about greatness. Meanwhile the ladder climbers like Pete Campbell, in the form of, say, Pat Shurmur, would be conducting meetings out of his sight. Then there’s Tom Heckert, hoping against hope that he can be this franchise’s Don Draper but resigned to being Peggy Olson, competent, ambitious in his own way but secretly contemplating his own worthiness as he looks for approval from his mentor.
So as Cleveland’s own version of Sterling, Cooper, Draper, Pryce try to take on the big guns like Young & Rubicam, or in this case the Pittsburgh Steelers as an example, they find themselves perpetually understaffed and often overmatched knowing that to be competitive they have to win by displaying more guile and a bit more cleverness, the occasional public silence belying the fevered pitch to get it right going on behind the scenes.
The problem with the Browns is that what they need most is what they lack most—Don Draper. They lack the office rogue with the speculative background and prickliness to keep everyone moving in the same direction. They lack that person who can reassure everyone inside their little club that it will work out because it usually does.
Heckert will never play the rogue but ultimately if he’s going to get close to being this team’s Don Draper, occasionally he’s going to have to actually pull a rabbit out of his hat at just the right time. The upcoming draft would be a good time for that.
Like Don Draper contemplating a new approach for Conrad Hilton, Heckert is undoubtedly contemplating the multitude of draft scenarios and is even hinting now that the Browns could trade down a bit in order to get even more draft choices. As a strategy that’s fine. This team needs more help then Roger Sterling after an afternoon of pounding down martinis with Lucky Strike. But this latest plot point coming on the heels of the failed pivot for Robert Griffin III does at time make one wonder if this team has lost control of its own narrative, like Richard Nixon in 1960.
All of this has left the fans frustrated and impatient, as if the Browns’ problems could actually be solved quickly, easily or cheaply. This team took years to perfect a business model that could consistently produce 3 or 4 wins a season. You think it’s easy to pivot off that into something that could even double that win total? Have you not been watching all these years?
I’m actually not bothered by Heckert’s unwillingness to chase demons and fakers at the moment just as I’m not bothered by the seeming lack of direction at the moment. There are good players out there, certainly, and when it comes to free agency all you’re really talking about is money. What I was more bothered by was the pursuit of RG III that would have gutted this team of draft choices and otherwise still left it grasping at ways to score.
As much buzz as this season’s premier of Mad Men generated is nearly exactly the opposite of the buzz the Browns are generating at any level.
The other reality of this free agency season, at least as it’s practiced in Cleveland, is that the Browns aren’t exactly a hot market at the moment. Money can and often does speak volumes and while most players will chase the last dollar, that doesn’t mean they’ll chase it in Cleveland.
Players are competitive by nature and really do want to win even as they’re collecting a paycheck. Right now, Cleveland doesn’t look like a place that’s poised to win anything substantial any time soon. The Browns had no interest in Peyton Manning because he had no interest in them. But he was hardly the only free agent to feel that way, which is another key reason why this off season has been so quiet. It does take two to dance and right now the Browns and a few other teams are like students in the chess club being ignored by all the really good looking girls from Camp Mohawk.
We could have a healthy debate as to what position is the most critical need on this team but we all can agree that receiver is in the top two. But it doesn’t help in the pursuit of free agent wide receivers when the club president and his general manager are out trying to swing a deal for a new quarterback and then come up short. If the front office isn’t publicly showing faith in Colt McCoy as the guy that can get this team in the end zone through the air on a consistent basis, why should a free agent feel any differently? And more to the point, why should these free agents compromise their own productivity and hence their chances the next time free agency rolls around? They won’t which is why they haven’t.
Whether or not a team, like an upstart Sterling, Cooper could be built through free agency isn’t a question that fans in Cleveland will have to ponder. The Browns simply don’t have that opportunity and it isn’t about the money. Right now it’s about reputation and the Browns don’t have one. It’s why they can’t get the big clients.
So it’s the draft or bust, which Heckert and Holmgren have long since concluded. It’s a slower process and no more or less certain than anything else. But it’s all we have at the moment and all we’ll get. In Cleveland patience isn’t a virtue so much as it’s the only choice.
Speaking of mad men, there are none madder then NFL commissioner Roger Goodell at the moment. So incensed was he by the New Orleans Saints’ team sponsored bounty pool and head coach Sean Payton’s pathetic cover up attempt that he pushed Payton aside for an entire year, suspended the general manager for half a season and doled out enough fines to make even a billionaire owner in Tom Benson take pause.
If nothing else Goddell’s actions affirmatively answer the question as to which scandal was more serious—Spygate or Bountygate. It was never much of a contest.
Professional football under the best of circumstances is violent at a level beyond which most others sports could ever contemplate. If you watched, for example, ESPN’s recent interview with Jim McMahon, you start to get the idea of the sacrifice these players make in the name of entertainment. Players talk tough when they’re young and paid to act like playing with pain is the ultimate badge of honor. But the price they actually do pay in terms of a life of creaky knees, bent fingers, achy backs, scattered brains is nothing much to either be proud of or to joke about.
McMahon seems to live in a nice home, the fruits of the wages he was paid, but I got the feeling he’d trade that in a moment for a day in which his body didn’t ache and he could remember an hour after it was over what he had for breakfast.
The ranks of NFL retirees are literally filled with similar stories, which is why the NFL is facing so many lawsuits by so many retirees. I don’t think there’s much merit to their lawsuits, but they do inform how Goodell must approach weasels like Payton.
The implications to the league are grave. Payton at best was deliberately ignorant of the bounty program that his defensive coordinator was running. But the larger point is that because it was sanctioned by the management of a NFL team it exposes that team and the rest of the league to significant legal liability.
I find it almost comical to listen to Drew Brees defend Payton while simultaneously railing against NFL management for not doing more to keep the players safe. I can’t tell whether Brees is clueless or stupid but it probably doesn’t matter. His own teammates set out on a course to deliberately hurt fellow union members and all Brees seems to be concerned about is Payton. That’s a fascinating turn of events in a very short period of time for such an allegedly staunch union advocate like Brees.
Another interesting aspect to the scandal is the near lack of publicity it’s gotten from ESPN in comparison to, say, the publicity the network gave to Ohio State’s tattoo problem. I haven’t checked today but I suspect ESPN probably has a tattoo-related scandal posted somewhere on its web site. Yet the implications to the NFL, its integrity and its players from Bountygate are far more reaching then anything involving tattoos.
So much about most college scandals derive from the collision between the NCAA’s antiquated and unfair treatment of so called student athletes and the billions that its sports generate. Ultimately though these are victimless crimes. But the scandal in New Orleans claimed plenty of victims, including players who got carted off the field because they suffered at the hands of deliberate intent. It’s not unfair to suggest, either, that the recent successes of the Saints, including their Super Bowl victory, are every bit as tainted, if not more so, then the successes realized by college teams caught in the NCAA’s nets.
But maybe are tolerance for scandal at this point is so high that we are no longer moved by much. If that’s the case, then there’s no question that it’s the seeds we’ve sown for becoming so emotionally involved in the fleeting triumphs and defeats to the teams and programs that we follow.
All this talk of Mad Men leads me to this week’s question to ponder: who is a worse mother, Betty Draper or Gloria James?