Monday, October 29, 2012

The Things We Know--Week 8

The Cleveland Browns’ win over the San Diego Chargers on Sunday didn’t necessarily teach fans anything new with the possible exception that a tedious win is always better than a competitive loss.

Until Sunday, the Browns had a knack, honed over several years, of teasing their fans with all manner of competitive losses, the kind of “if only the defense/offense/special teams had done this or that” that inevitably caused fans to try to find a reason to keep watching the team.

Sunday’s victory couldn’t possibly have won over any converts. It’s not as if the Browns had just hammered the New York Giants by clicking in all 3 phases. The win was against a reeling Chargers team coached by Marvin Lewis West Coast Edition that looked and played like it wanted to be anywhere but Cleveland on a cold, rainy Sunday.

But for once it’s not necessary to pick through the bones of a loss that could have been a win. Instead fans can turn fate on its head by picking through the bones of a win that could have been a loss. Now there’s hope and change that fans can embrace.

Even if one were to pick through the bones there wouldn’t be much meat available anyway. The Browns put together exactly one good drive and it was the first one of the day. That drive was kept alive because either the elements scared the beejeezus out of head coach Pat Shurmur or because he finally is beginning to understand that when you’re the head coach of a team that wins about as frequently as members of Congress agree on something substantive (or even insubstantial) there’s no reason to play it cautiously.

At the Chargers’ 26-yard line and facing a 4th and what looked to be mere inches, Shurmur decided to roll the dice and have the 6 foot 3 inch Brandon Weeden try to find the inch that Al Pacino screams about in “Any Given Sunday.” It wasn’t Shurmur’s boldest call of the season but it was out of character. In far more crucial situations he’s foregone the attempt. Here, the first possession of the game, he decides that maybe now’s the time to grow a pair which is what you might think actually happened until you remember that faced with another 4th down call later in the game, Shurmur reverted to form.

Anyway, given that it really was just a few inches, it wasn’t that gutsy of a call and the first down was easily secured. It worked out well because it set up Trent Richardson’s 26-yard touchdown run that, along with Phil Dawson’s extra point, gave the Browns a lead they never relinquished. (I honestly can’t remember the last time I wrote a sentence like that applied to the Browns and something they did early in a game. Maybe never.)

From there the game was a mind numbing array of offensive ineptitude from both teams. The Browns punted the ball on 9 straight possessions. Fortunately, though, they weren’t all 3-and-outs. There was enough of a running game, thanks mostly to Richardson, to keep the clock moving mercifully for the brave few that thought sitting outside at Cleveland Stadium on a raw, rainy day was preferable to just about anything else that one could find to do on a raw, rainy day.

For their part, the Chargers moved the ball a little and got a couple of field goals. They also arguably threatened near the end of the game, but not really. There’s was a game plan that seemed to center around trying to get the ball to Antonio Gates and why not? He was being covered by Buster Skrine most of the day, which generally means trouble for the Browns.

But in one of the abiding mysteries that is football, a game like Sunday can turn previous goats into almost heroes. While it’s not time to completely reconsider Skrine, let’s reconsider him briefly.

Skrine put together a game that made him not just resemble but play like a legitimate NFL defensive back. Skrine’s biggest play was the pass deflection near the end of the game that ended the last Charger threat. It was a good play, unquestionably. It also was the kind of play that usually doesn’t get made by the Browns, which is why they have so many competitive losses. The knack for just missing on a play that turns the game has been a specialty of Browns 2.0.

But on this particular Sunday, all of the elements combined not just for the beginnings of a tropical storm of historic proportions but for Skrine as well. He made Gates a non-factor. That’s not a small accomplishment.

Before anyone rewrites the Buster Skrine narrative, let’s not lose perspective. Skrine still makes Brandon McDonald look like Darrelle Reavis and until Skrine can string together a few more games like Sunday, and particularly against quarterbacks with more confidence than Phillip Rivers, he still remains on the suspect list. He just gets a reprieve for the week. Good show, Buster. Spend some time with Lucille or a Loose Seal. You choose.

The other goat turned near hero was punter Reggie Hodges or maybe that goes to Shurmur for keeping Hodges. But before getting to Hodges, let’s examine a little of the context that adds still more color to an incredibly colorless game.

The Browns had 10 possessions on Sunday. Lacking the vast resources, servers and unpaid interns residing in Bristol, Connecticut, I have no idea how many times a team has had 10 possessions in a game, punted on the last 9 of them and still won the game. It can’t have happened very often, right? If you score on only one possession you can only get, at most, 8 points, usually 7, sometimes 6, sometimes 3. So right there a team rarely if ever wins scoring 8 or fewer points.

In the last two years, there have been only 4 games, including Sunday's, in which a team has scored less than 10 points and won the game and Cleveland and Kansas City were involved in two of them, which makes sense because both teams have been pretty crappy and scoring challenged.

Earlier this season Baltimore beat Kansas City 9-6. But in that game, Baltimore had 3 drives in which they scored, although on field goals only. In week 17 last year the Chiefs beat the Denver Broncos 7-3. On the surface, it looks similar to Sunday’s game but f beauty is only skin deep so too is ugly. It featured only one touchdown by the Chiefs but they had two other possessions that didn’t result in punts. The first was a missed field goal. The second was a turnover. (Denver, with the overrated Tim Tebow was even more inept but still had more than one scoring opportunity all day. It’s just that they only scored on one of their opportunities. The other was a missed field goal. And by the way, interesting fact, the two punters who got a work out that day are brothers.)

The third game was when the Browns beat the Seahawks last October 6-3. The six points were the result of two Dawson field goals, meaning that the Browns at least scored on two possessions. In fact, the Browns had four scoring opportunities in that game. Dawson also missed two field goals (the ones he made were from 53 and 52 yards, so what does that tell you about how poorly the Browns moved the ball in that game?)

What made Sunday’s game unique was simply that but for the one drive they couldn’t even get close enough again for a Dawson field goal attempt nor did they turn it over or even turn it over on downs (which isn't a surprise because Shurmur just can't stand 4th and short). To keep the Chargers at bay, Hodges was called on repeatedly and delivered, repeatedly. He had four kicks inside the 20 yard line. As bad as Hodges was a week before was as good as he was on Sunday. Kudos to Shurmur. I thought he should have at least put Hodges on the hot seat by auditioning other punters. Shurmur, as is his wont, didn’t do anything and in the end and for another week Shurmur was right for not overreacting to Hodges’ disaster against Indianapolis.

At that, there was precious little left to inform about Sunday’s game, including precious little about Greg “Precious” Little. Browns receivers did little because Weeden couldn’t figure out the wind and Shurmur stuck to what was working. Rivers couldn't do anything either, flagging confidence, tricky winds and general indifference the main culprits. It all was enough for a Cleveland win and in a town starved for wins, it’s really all that matters.


I noted Shurmur’s decision to try to convert 4th and inches early in the game as being out of character, which it was. What’s not out of character is the confounding decision- making that tends to dominate Shurmur’s coaching style, if you want to call it that.

Shurmur let another 4th down conversion go by the way side, which was expected. I’ll let that one slide because it wasn’t a particularly critical moment of the game and because the Browns were winning and the Chargers were not doing anything particularly effectively.

But a word or two about the challenge flag Shurmur threw on the Chargers’ very next play after the Richardson touchdown. After the Dawson kickoff, the Chargers started from their own 18 yard line. Rivers completed a short pass to Robert Meachem for all of 6 yards. The fans screamed their objection because it didn’t look to be a clean catch. Shurmur through the challenge flag and a few minutes later the call was overturned. Yea, fans. Shut up next time.

The challenge was correct but to what end and at what cost? It was still the first quarter so it wasn’t as if Shurmur had any legitimate reason to think the Richardson touchdown would be the last one of the day by either team. Meanwhile, a coach only gets 2 challenges per game. If he’s right on both challenges, then he gets a third. That’s why coaches generally make sure that they use their challenges when they matter most. Wasting a challenge early when the situation doesn’t dictate means that the challenge may not be there when needed. Moreover, historically the success rate of a challenge is about 50%, making Shurmur’s decision even more puzzling that early in the game.

There are plenty of plays that could be challenged but that doesn’t mean they all should be. Deciding to challenge is not just a function of whether you think you’re correct but the ramifications either way of not challenging and/or being wrong.

In this case, the best that could be said was that Shurmur was trying to keep the Chargers’ pinned in, something that did in fact happen when the Chargers were unable to get a first down. That doesn’t justify the poor decision making. The likelihood that there would be more pivotal moments to challenge in a game that still had over 50 minutes of time remaining were pretty high. But I guess when you know your job is hanging by a thread nothing it's better to look good then be good.


Indulge me for a moment, will you? Even though the Browns’ victory didn’t generate much knowledge, there were Browns-related items of interest to ponder from Sunday. My favorite, though, revolves around the Chiefs in general and their head coach, Romeo Crennel, in particular.

I’ve been covering and writing about the Browns for over 6 years now, 6 mind numbing, infuriating, frustrating years. One of my earliest columns was entitled, simply, “Romeo Crennel Must Go.” The Browns were nearly two years into the Crennel experiment and it wasn’t going very well. What prompted the column was an embarrassing loss against Cincinnati in which Braylon Edwards went after Charlie Frye on the sidelines for some perceived grievance or another while Crennel looked the other way, perhaps eyeing up cheesesteak concessionaire, I’m not sure.

It was clear at that point that Crennel had lost the team and it was out of control. The Browns won only 4 games that season but stuck with Crennel anyway. The next season, with an easy schedule to manage, the Crennel-coached Browns went 10-6 but didn’t make the playoffs. If you think a 9 punt game in which your team still wins is rare, research how many 10 win teams haven’t made the playoffs. Only in Cleveland. Of course the Browns regressed to their norm the following season and won 4 games. That’s when Randy Lerner finally fired Crennel.

Personally, I always liked Crennel. He’s genial. He’s a gentleman. He cares about his players and coaches. He’s a good defensive coordinator. But the one thing he’s not is a head coach. He lacks the organizational skills necessary to pull together an entire franchise. Fans who think Shurmur looks clueless on game days must have short memories because Shurmur looks like Dick Vermeil compared to Crennel. I bring all this up because of what’s happening n Kansas City right now.

As the Chiefs stumbled through another loss on Sunday, Crennel was asked why, with Brady Quinn as their quarterback, they didn’t simply hand the ball off to Jamaal Charles, their only offensive threat, more than 5 times. Crennel, honest as a politician isn’t, shrugged and said he didn’t know. What’s great about that answer is that it just shows how little Crennel has changed.

When he handed over the reigns of the Cleveland offense to Maurice Carthon, Crennel was asked almost weekly why the Browns did this or that on offense when the more obvious call would have been that and this. Crennel then, just as now, shrugged and said he didn’t know. He meant it then and means it now. He really doesn’t know what’s going on with his team, particularly if it's happening on offense. Once a defensive coordinator, always a defensive coordinator I guess.

The other great thing about the Chiefs is a stat that says that despite their one win this season, they’ve not lead once in regulation all year. I’d say that’s a surprising stat, indeed, a rare stat, but I just got done writing about the Browns punting on the last 9 possessions of a game in which they had 10 possessions total and still won.

Meanwhile, all of this just goes to show why general managers get fired. Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli let himself get sucked into thinking that the Browns of the Crennel-era were better than their 24-40 record would indicate. They weren’t. It’s a decision Pioli will regret because when Crennel is fired, perhaps before season’s end, Pioli will be likewise looking for work. Maybe he’ll find it in Cleveland.


The Browns play the Ravens next week and it’s a chance to pick up their second straight win against a AFC North rival. The Ravens are rested but beat up and aren’t as good as their record. Of course, either are the Browns. Maybe it will be sunny

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Lingering Items--Press Conference Edition

If there was a telling moment in the strange, if only because of timing, press conference that Mike Holmgren conducted earlier this week it was this. The outgoing president said he was hired to essentially be former owner Randy Lerner’s surrogate. Sure enough, that’s what he became, a reclusive, indecisive, hem-hawing mess of an executive in a job that seemed perfect in theory and a disaster in practice. You know, pretty much the working definition of Lerner’s tenure as the reluctant owner he was.

Ok, so there was another telling moment in the press conference as well and it was that the aging has-been still desires to coach. What’s so telling about that statement is that he had every opportunity to jump into that fray in Cleveland and perhaps actually start righting the ship but declined in favor of doing Pat Shurmur a solid by giving him his first head coaching job.

Nothing about Holmgren’s tenure as the president of the Browns makes much sense in retrospect. Holmgren was asked again about why he wasted a year by keeping Mangini in place and gave the same stock answer—he wanted to be fair to Mangini. That sounds fine except for the fact that his charge was broader than protecting a member of the coaching fraternity. Holmgren was charged with putting the pieces together of a franchise that’s been in shambles since that day it was established in its reconstituted from. It was supposed to be at times a difficult job that would probably result in some blood being spilled.

It was from that moment on where Holmgren essentially did a disservice to fans of the Cleveland Browns. Unfortunately it didn't get much better from there.

That the Browns have a new owner is meaningful only because until last Tuesday that Browns effectively functioned without an owner. Lerner wasn’t the worst owner in the history of professional sports. Once Ted Stepien thrust himself on the world the award for worst owner was permanently retired. But Lerner was a bad owner because he was so indifferent about his stake.

No one would have much cared if Lerner played the rich, indifferent bounder if he had been doing so AFTER hiring people who ran counter to his type. But Lerner’s dispassionate attitude permeated a culture in Berea that was quickly adopted by all who orbited around him. Ultimately the same reasons that Lerner was a lousy owner are the same reasons that Holmgren was a lousy president of the Browns.

I’m not sure if the role of president just didn’t fit Holmgren or that Holmgren worked to hard to fit into the role of Lerner surrogate, right down to the almost non-sensical rantings of alleged passion that were completely untethered to the reality of his conduct.

What Lerner never understood about his role is exactly the same thing Holmgren never stood about his role and what ultimately doomed them both. No one ever saw Lerner put in a lick of work toward improving this team and its prospects. Ditto for Holmgren. Both told us how hard they were working behind the scenes and asked the fans to essentially take the truth of those assertions on a leap of faith.

It’s a strange dynamic, certainly, but in the kind of high profile roles both Lerner and Holmgren occupied, it was incumbent upon them to actually show the fans that they were working hard, even if it was exactly that, a show.

Fans may not like the jobs that Tom Heckert and Shurmur are doing, but at least they can see them both working. Players come and go, sometimes on a daily basis, as the Browns fiddle with their roster. That’s the work of Heckert. Practices are conducted daily and the Browns play weekly. That’s the work of Shurmur. Irrespective of the results, there’s not question that each is putting in the time.

Holmgren and Lerner on the other hand had an aversion to working in public. Lerner gave a handful of interviews in the 10 years or so of his ownership but these were always after the season. Once in awhile he was forced to do something publicly, as when he had to chastise Phil Savage for, well, being an idiot by f-bombing a fan. The theory, and it was really only just that, a theory, about Lerner was that he was publicity shy. But a competing theory, equally valid as invalid, was that Lerner simply didn’t want to be discovered as a phony. There’s something about the camera that both reveals and defines character and from all outward appearances, the privately nice guy was nothing more than an empty sport coat.

That’s where Holmgren and Lerner departed. Holmgren wasn’t a phony, certainly. He was just an old football coach kicked upstairs as the pressures and anxieties of coaching grew beyond his ability to manage them. Sure he missed the limelight as he occasionally flirted with the idea of returning to the sidelines, including right before Shurmur was hired. And you get the sense, don’t you, that while Holmgren liked the idea of giving the job to Shurmur, he really couldn’t see anyone else occupying the only real job he ever wanted—head coach in the NFL.

I wrack my brain trying to find one accomplishment of note of the Holmgren era and can find none. Indeed it’s far easier to find the flaws of his approach, from the wasted year of Mangini to the testy, ill-conceived press conferences, to the decision to not go all in on Robert Griffin III. Argue all you want that the franchise is in better shape now then it was when Holmgren came in but you’ll have trouble finding objective proof to back it up.

I had high hopes for Holmgren because of his reputation. And while I still believe that Holmgren could have done great things here, what I didn’t anticipate was that Holmgren wouldn’t go “all in” on his new role, deliberately undermining the very goals he set for himself and the franchise.

I assumed Holmgren would embrace the role just as he said he would, made excuses early on when he claimed to be working behind the scenes from the comfy confines of his home in Arizona (or Seattle, but certainly not Cleveland), and then finally had my eyes opened wide when he admitted that he had no idea that half of this year’s roster was composed of freshmen and sophomores.

In the pantheon of disasters that have been owners/front office/coaches/managers in Cleveland sports history, Holmgren only cracks, maybe, the top 25. But as an allegedly transformational figure of the moment, his place in our community’s ever growing Hall of Shame should be preserved forever.


The press conference Joe Banner, the team’s new CEO (new person, new title) was numbing in its sameness. That’s not criticism of Banner, it’s just that you won’t find a sentence either Banner or Haslam uttered that fans haven’t heard before and before and before and before that, too. Every new face that travels through Berea says pretty much the same thing because, frankly, there’s nothing much else that can be said.

I’d say that Banner has his work cut out for himself but no more so than Holmgren had or Phil Savage or fill in the blank with whatever name you want. The Browns 2.0 was a hastily assembled franchise thanks to the NFL and its dithering over choosing the initial owner and it’s never really caught up.

If there was one thing that has even the slightest whiff of new from Banner it was his acknowledgement that this franchise doesn’t need another 5-year plan to turn itself around. I couldn’t agree more. Whatever else you might feel about the roster at this moment, the paradigm has shifted in the NFL. Player movement has never been greater. The draft is as important as ever but clever teams with good general managers can and do build depth much more quickly when the draft was the only way to fill out a team. With less rounds and hence more unsigned free agents and the significant number of mid-level type free agents available every off season, improving this roster isn’t nearly as hard as the fans have been told it is.

There’s a reason a team like the New England Patriots is a perennial contender despite turning over its roster each off season as much as any other team in the league. Sure, having Tom Brady, one of the greatest NFL quarterbacks ever, on your side is a huge draw for potential free agents. But more to the point is the simple fact that love him or hate him Bill Belichick’s real talent isn’t necessarily his game day coaching but his approach to roster building. He consistently finds undervalued players (from a salary cap perspective) signs them while simultaneously discarding higher marquee and often overvalued (again, from a salary cap perspective) players. Belichick’s brought the concept of WARP, the ultimate geek stat from baseball, to pro football and it’s worked.

If nothing else that’s where the Browns’ deep thinkers have consistently failed this franchise. They make lousy free agent acquisitions and I’m not just or even talking about brand names. I’m talking about all the integral pieces and parts that build the depth and make it palatable for a team to incur injuries to its starters. No team can win when its backup to a player like Joe Haden, a decent but certainly not elite defensive back, and plugs in Buster Skrine.

If you want further evidence as to how the paradigm has changed then look no further than the willingness of virtually every team to play a rookie quarterback right out of the gate. It’s an acknowledgement that today’s crop of quarterbacks, products of the increasing emphasis on skills building from middle school on up, are just better prepared for the pro game then their predecessors.

If Heckert and Holmgren can conclude after just one season that Colt McCoy isn’t going to cut it as a top tier quarterback, why is it that those kinds of decisions can’t be made at every spot on the roster? The answer is that of course they can and they should.

That’s where, I think, Banner’s assessment of Heckert will matter. I don’t know who ultimately lost his nerve in trying to pull off the trade for Robert Griffin III, but it’s that lack of foresight that actually permeates the thinking in Berea now and for all the previous years of Browns 2.0 as well. It manifests in the big ways like the failed trade to get the rights to draft Griffin, and in the small ways like talking themselves out of signing this free agent or that, you know the kind that build depth.


Is it just me or is Shurmur getting more and more testy with each passing day? We can only go by what we see, as an old coach used to tell the fans, and right now Shurmur is a guy working on the edge and for good reason.

You can dissect Sunday's game against the Colts in a hundred different ways but you're still left with an overarching feeling that the team just wasn't quite ready to play. The mistakes weren't confined to the rookies. Veterans like Ray Ventrone and Reggie Hodges were doing some pretty boneheaded things as well. One the mistakes multiply like they did on Sunday it tends to be evidence of a team that lack sufficient preparation.

Shurmur is under fire because he's a lousy game day coach. He's also going to find himself feeling even tighter in the shorts if his team keeps playing like a mistake-ridden mess. And if Shurmur is going to get prickly with the media types asking questions about what everyone can readily see, then Shurmur isn't long for this job. He'll need to fall back under the radar accorded a coordinator.
It was amusing to hear Shurmur say in his press conference Monday, in response to a question about the rather physical reaction Haslam had to the pass that Josh Gordon dropped, that Shurmur likes to keep his emotions in check. Yea, we noticed. It barely looks like he's breathing, as if he's using the tension and tug of game day to work on some far flung yoga breathing technique.

It also was amusing because it seemed to be a little backhanded at Haslam, a way of saying that Haslam too should keep his emotions in check. One of the abiding problems with this franchise is that it's been permeated by Type C personalities. It's kind of nice to see a Type A holding the keys to the castle at the moment.


Considering how tense Shurmur's been lately, this week's question to ponder: How long will it be before Shurmur has his Jim Mora moment?

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Things We Know--Week 7

Rookies make mistakes. So do veterans. But the story of the Cleveland Browns’ latest loss isn’t just about rookie and veteran mistakes. One of the great things we know about that loss is that it’s as much, if not more, about the story of head coach Pat Shurmur’s increasingly shaky grip on his current job than anything else. Shurmur demonstrated once again that for all the mistakes of the players he leads, it’s his own mistakes that hurt this team even more. The simple truth is that the fans shouldn’t expect the players to get better until the coach gets better.

The Browns 17-13 loss to the Colts has many parents. It was mistake-filled, from the botched hold by Reggie Hodges (who had a miserable day overall) on an extra point that put the Browns in a position where a field goal wouldn’t be enough to the two holding calls on veteran Ray Ventrone on two kick returns to even the Billy Winn offsides penalty and the various false starts that serve as drive killers. The cumulative weight of all these little indignities usually spells defeat, as they did Sunday, and yet it wasn’t as if the Indianapolis Colts were playing mistake-free. They were practically begging the Browns to win the game. I turned on the radio broadcast from the Colts near the end of the game and their announcers were almost apoplectic about how the Colts were surely handing the game to the lowly Browns; bold talk from a team that rightly should have lost all its games last season.

Sure you can put the blame on wide receiver Josh Gordon who dropped what would have been a potentially game winning touchdown for the ultimate loss. But that too would miss the larger point. Shurmur’s lack of nerve, his “let’s not seize the day” approach to decision making continues to reinforce among his charges that he doesn’t have their backs. So why would they have his?

There’s been plenty of written already about Shurmur once again eschewing a 4th and 1 late in the game in favor of Jim Tressel’s favorite play, the punt. But what the heck, let’s pile on as well. Shurmur’s lack of guts reveals a very bothersome and ultimately debilitating flaw in his makeup as a head coach. It deserves to be examined and re-examined.

We all know the scenario by now because, hell, it was the same scenario as a few weeks ago. It was late in the game, the Browns needing a score and Shurmur deciding that the best way to get a touchdown was to put the game in the hands of his shaky defense and, what, hope they recover a fumble?

Shurmur doesn’t get a chance to demonstrate his cowardly streak if Gordon catches that pass on what was a 3rd and 1 play. And some credit to Shurmur for trying to catch the Colts flatfooted by throwing long when the run looked like the safer play. But the second it’s time to give him credit, Shurmur invalidates that faith.

I don’t know exactly why the Browns’ offense couldn’t get their asses moving quickly enough to run a play before the time clock expired, I just know that they didn’t and when quarterback Brandon Weeden saw that only 3 seconds remained he panicked (rookie) and burned a very critical time out.

Let’s talk a little about that time out and how it fit into Shurmur’s warped thinking. First, it caused Shurmur to ignore what looked to be a gut instinct to go for the first down and try to win the game right there. That gut instinct would have been solidly backed up statistically. It’s been well chronicled by this point how head coaches, particularly in the NFL, often ignore the higher percentage play of fourth down out of loss aversion. But here, Shumur shouldn’t have even been suffering from loss aversion. The Browns never had this game won in the first place. They weren’t on the verge of losing anything because what’s another loss for a team that has cornered the market on competitive losses? Instead of recognizing that bit of circumstance Shurmur decided to make it that much more difficult to win the game, which was the last thing this team needed. If anything Shurmur suffers from win aversion.

Second, because the time out was stupidly burned, it actually made the decision to go for it on 4th down that much easier, or should have. The problem with the “pin ‘em back” strategy that Shurmur trusts more than his offense is that it also requires all of your time outs for it to work best. When you can’t stop the clock, opposing NFL teams are pretty good at bleeding it well. Why Shurmur saw this as a more compelling reason to punt and not less is perhaps the biggest mystery in trying to figure out how his brain works.

Now of course Shurmur defends the decision by noting the after-the-fact result. The defense did hold the Colts and the Browns did get the ball back. The key there though is that he’s relying on the after-the-fact outcome to justify a decision that had to be made when he didn’t have the benefit of hindsight, except of course the kind of hindsight that comes with having made the same decision previously with the same, predictable dispiriting result just two weeks ago.

What Shurmur can’t seem to grasp is what is becoming his fatal flaw. He simply can’t see how the lack of confidence he exhibits in his own decision making infuses the players with the same inevitable sense of doom and loss.

Let’s roll the tape further and see what really happened. Hodges punted 21 yards, which was nearly as big a disaster as when he botched the hold on the extra point early in the game. The inability of a punter at a crucial moment to put the ball inside the 10 yard line from the 50 yard line suggests that Shurmur and his staff should spend quality time this week auditioning new punters.

Then the defense did hold the Colts to a 3-and-out and forced the punt. But Holdges’ lousy punt ensured the Browns would start in worse position, which they did, about 30 yards worse, then they voluntarily gave up. If that weren’t enough, the Browns now had 2 ½ minutes less time and that much more yardage to get the touchdown it still needed. (And as an aside, why is it that Shurmur seems to have enough faith in his defense to force a 3-and-out with the Colts backed up further but not the same faith that this defense can perform that trick if the Colts are starting from their own 41-yard line, which is where they would have started from had the 4th down play not been successful? If you can figure that one out then congratulations, you’ve just been elected president of the Pat Shurmur fan club.)

But football is as much emotion as talent and at that point all things were not created equal. The offense that felt a little surge of confidence with a deep throw on 3rd and 1 that almost worked was now not even close to the offense now on the field. In the interim they had been publicly embarrassed by their own coach who concluded for the entire world to see (or at least those few small corners that cared) that he didn’t believe his offense was good enough just a few minutes earlier to get 1 yard. It begs the question, doesn’t it, as to how the hell it was now going to move most of the length of the field and grab a touchdown? Not surprisingly, they didn’t come close.

If the reaction of Jimmy Haslam III from the owners’ box is any indication, this telling sequence of the events was harder for him to digest then a 3-day old brat from a street cart vendor.

It makes me wonder too what Haslam would do if this week were a bye week. Would he live up to his promise not to make any changes midseason? I know the temptation would have to be to move beyond Shurmur now and at least send the message to the troops (fans included) that it’s no longer business as usual.

No one is suggesting that Shurmur needs to be an unnecessary risk taker just to prove his mettle. But in a business context he needs to understand what appropriate risks there are to take. The Browns are 1-6, the worst team in the NFL, and have offered precious little to their fans for years to suggest that now, finally, this team is on the right path. Shurmur doesn’t come across as a person who even understands context or risk, which makes him ill suited to coach a team run by a businessman who clearly understands both. Shurmur may not get fired midseason but there’s no doubt that after Sunday’s game, this will be his last season in Cleveland.


To go back to where we started, one of the things fans had to expect when they saw how general manager Tom Heckert put this roster together was that most games would be mistake-filled messes. The fact that it’s turned out that way shouldn’t surprise.

The Browns, by virtue of their mistake-plagued record, most certainly lead the league in competitive losses. Other than the manhandling at the hands of the New York Football Giants a week ago, the Browns have basically been competitive all season.

But let’s not use that as some sort of evidence that the ship is righted. The truth that was revealed again Sunday is that Browns 2.0, now in its 14th season, probably leads the league in competitive losses for the entirety of its existence. Eric Mangini managed to keep games close. So did Butch Davis and Romeo Crennel. And just like the competitive losses under prior head coaches didn’t end up translating into actual wins, there’s no reason to believe that the competitive losses like Sunday will magically translate into wins anytime soon either.

It’s a little jarring that Heckert hasn’t adequately explained, or really explained inadequately for that matter, why he put so many kids on the roster. Indeed, one of the reasons Mike Holmgren is enjoying retirement with Randy Lerner’s money stems from the disconnect between him and his general manager over this issue. Holmgren admitted he hadn’t realized that Heckert had constructed the roster as he did, thus demonstrating that if he had his hand on the pulse, it wasn’t the pulse of this team. Ouch.

The lack of communication from Browns’ management is a given and Heckert and his silence about this mess of a roster is in keeping with that grand tradition. So we’re left to surmise. At the very least, whether or not you agree with how the roster was put together, you can surmise credibly that Heckert doesn’t suffer from the same lack of confidence that plagues Shurmur. If nothing else, putting together a roster that almost certainly would be prone more to mistakes than wins was essentially a statement that Heckert was willing to stand behind his skills as a talent evaluator. Heckert obviously felt that the short term pain of the coming year would be worth it in the long run or even later in the season.

Well, a loss like Sunday’s is another reminder of just how much that pain can actually hurt. At 1-6 this Browns team is running out of games in which to put together an even respectable record, forget a winning record. At some point soon and well before next season, this team is going to have to turn these competitive losses into wins to justify the faith Heckert has in himself and some of the suspects he’s allowed on this roster.

Let’s be clear about one thing. Finding new or even more competitive ways to lose as the season comes to a close isn’t going to save Heckert’s job. Nothing short of actual winning will accomplish that. Yet there’s only so much the players can overcome and the one thing they can’t for now is the tentative nature of their head coach. Having gone all in on this roster the one thing Heckert apparently missed and what could ultimately undo his entire strategy is the weak link that Shurmur has become.


For as much attention he garners, one could be excused for thinking that as Greg Little goes so goes the entire team. That will never be the case.

It was nice to see Little finally hold on to the football but one game does not make a trend. Weeden clearly was not throwing much in Little’s direction the last few weeks, sending a message in the process. Maybe Precious Little got the message, if 6 catches Sunday means anything. Maybe he didn’t, if all the missed blocks mean anything.

Nonetheless, while blocking is a core competency for a wide receiver, Little needs to catch the ball to stay on the field and took a step in the right direction Sunday, even as the rest of the team was taking a step back.

Speaking of run blocking, the Browns looked clueless in their quest to establish a consistently feared running game. The New York Jets absolutely shredded the Colts run defense the week before and yet the Browns of Sunday looked like any other version of the Browns 2.0, you know the ones that would send Travis Prentice or James Jackson into a mass of humanity and then wonder why the run game never worked.

Trent Richardson was a bit confusing on his own health, saying both that he was fine and more hurt then he was letting on. What was true was that he was ineffective so sitting him down for the second half and trying to catch lightening in a bottle again with Montario Hardesty wasn’t among Shurmur’s worst ideas. That said, Shurmur decided not to actually use Hardesty all that much. Shurmur called the game as if the Browns were down by 20 and essentially needed to pass every play. They didn't.

In any event, let's be honest about Hardesty. He's only demonstrated that he’s a very average running back and Richardson demonstrated that it’s hard to be physical when your ribs are broken. Maybe that's why Hardesty acted as mostly a decoy. That put the game on Weeden’s shoulders. He delivered a credible performance. The pass that Gordon dropped was damn near as perfect of a pass as you’re likely to see. And he didn’t add to his league-high number of interceptions, either.

But putting any game solely on Weeden at this point isn’t among Shurmur’s better ideas. Weeden may resemble Randy Lerner facially but he has much more guile. Yet Weeden still doesn’t know everything he doesn’t know at this stage of his career. It falls on Weeden for calling that ill-advised time out. It’s his job to get the players in a position for the next play. That failing, as I noted above, gave Shurmur enough time to revisit a decision in the most unfortunate way.

Weeden has made dramatic improvement since week one and is playing as well as any rookie quarterback not named Robert Griffin III. Given that it is reasonable to expect that Weeden will someday be able to maintain calm while all others around him, including an overmatched coaching staff, are losing their heads. But that time is not just yet and Sunday more than proved that as well.


Next up is the San Diego Chargers, a mercurial team that perfectly matches the mercurial nature of their head coach, Norv Turner. Nonetheless, it will be another game where the road team is favored in Cleveland. If that doesn’t inform Haslam’s thinking about the team he just overpaid for, nothing will.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Things We Know--Week 6

Before anything else, we know now the Cleveland Browns will not go winless in 2012. That became a certainty around 3:50 PM EDT on Sunday when safety Sheldon Brown, whose has had trouble covering just about every receiver he’s faced this season, picked off Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and went in for a touchdown giving the Browns an insurmountable lead in their 34-24 victory.

We also know that the Browns will not go winless in their division in 2012. For all the reasons we already know, the Browns have had trouble with Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Cincinnati for the last few years. Actually more like the last 12 years. You’d think that dumb luck coupled with the fact that the Browns see each of these teams twice a year would account for more wins in their division then they’ve had. The Browns unfortunately have been mostly dumb at making their own luck and thus as satisfying as Sunday’s win was, it was more satisfying simply because it killed two Cyclops with one win, so there is that.

We also know that if quarterback Brandon Weeden could play against Cincinnati every week, he’d make the Pro Bowl this season. Weeden has a quarterback rating that is around 92 vs. the Bengals and around 52 vs. the rest of the league (a limited sample, to be sure). It’s an odd circumstance, but if you're going to own an opponent it might as well be one in your division.

The Bengals aren’t awful in the same sense that the Browns are awful, but the Browns don’t represent the best barometer against which to measure awful. You can't go nearly 11 months without a win without sinking to the bottom of pile. The Bengals live in the vicinity with a bunch of other teams, but they're closer neighbors to the Browns then they'd care to admit.

The Bengals have averaged a tidy 6.5 wins each year since 1999, the time period that parallels Browns 2.0. (If you want to go back further, the 10 years prior to that were even worse when they averaged 4.6 wins.) Given all the built in advantages of an incumbent team, the Bengals have squandered them like a barfly squanders brain cells on a Saturday night. It’s just that the Browns, residing in the same division, have been even worse so we don’t tend to notice the disquieting level of suck coming from the Queen City.

But if you were a member of the Brown family, I'm sure you'd see things differently, particularly if your primary goal is to run things as cheaply as possible. In a testament to frugalness that looks like patience to those who don’t know better, the Brown family, the cheapest owners since fictional Vegas showgirl Rachel Phelps inherited the fictional Cleveland Indians in the too-true-life movie Major League, changed course about 10 years ago. They had been going through their own series of incompetent head coaches with little to show for it except angina so they hit upon something else. They hired Marvin Lewis and have let him toil for the last 10 years despite his having more than proven that as a head coach he makes a nice coordinator.

But in a sense I see where they’re coming from. By sticking with Lewis they avoided having their capital structure infected by Lernerism, the malady by which an in-over-his-head-and-indifferent-about-it-anyway owner hires coach after coach as a way of placating fans and then pays them off on contracts they never deserved in the first place. By hanging on to Lewis, the Brown family has avoided the messy divorces that Lerner has gone through with everyone he's ever hired and as a bonus have seen their average win total creep up to just under 7 wins a season in those 10 years.

That kind of backdrop in some measure explains why a 29-year-old rookie quarterback can look so great against the Bengals. They have a habit of making boatloads of other quarterbacks look good, too.

But let’s not take the sheen off of Sunday’s victory just yet. That will come soon enough anyway. There’s 10 more games left in the season and plenty of opportunities to either build on or squander the good will generated by that win. You'd like to think the Browns have it in them to run counter to type but the last time a Cleveland team did something it wasn't supposed to was, well, 1964.

So say it again and be happy. The Browns won’t finish the season winless. With the victory, they’ve rejoined the ranks of the merely awful, matching the win totals thus far of 4 other teams. It’s officially a battle for next year’s number one draft choice.


Six games into the season, it’s probably safe to conclude that the Browns’ offense is better than last year’s mess to the tune of nearly an extra touchdown per game. Some of that is undoubtedly skewed by the simple fact that they have played the Bengals in fully one-third of those games. That’s actually worse news for the Bengals than the Browns.

The Bengals have given up the third most points in the AFC and fully one-third of those games have been against the Browns, a team with one of the worst offenses last season. (Not for nothing, but the Browns and Bengals have given up the same number of points so the Browns, too, are tied for third-worse in the AFC, which in turn skews the Bengals’ relatively lofty offensive stats as well).

Weeden continues to be an interception machine. His 10 lead the league but guess who’s right behind him? Yes, that Andy Dalton with 9. Weeden is 29th in the league with a 55.2% completion rate, yet he’s 9th in league in overall yards. If he were completing 60% of his passes, which is at the bottom of what is considered good, he’d be around 6th or 7th overall in the league in passing. Would that mean anything in the win column? Probably not, but Weeden isn't embarrassing himself out there, either.

What Weeden is doing is getting a good amount of yardage for his completions. The bomb to Josh Cooper on Sunday certainly helped, but it’s also clear that Weeden likes to throw downfield and Shurmur likes Weeden to throw downfield. It’s also why Weeden is an interception machine.

What’s somewhat stunning about Weeden’s numbers is the fact that, charitably, the Browns' receiving corps is in transition. To be more honest, it's a receiving corps that's made up of essentially 4 slot receivers, a speedy project, and a couple of minor talents at tight end. Cooper and the other Josh, Gordon, are relatively intriguing. It would be more useful, though, if one or the other was fast enough to legitimately play on the outside.

Greg Little was supposed to take a step forward this season and hasn’t. I’d say he’s regressed but that's only if you measure it against where you thought he'd be or where he should be given his draft status. In actuality, he’s pretty much the same butter fingered receiver as a year ago.

In Sunday’s game, as in last week’s loss, Little comes across as someone who’s entered the witness protection program and is trying to preserve his new identity. He remains, from a contribution perspective, Precious Little. He caught 3 quite harmless passes for a grand total of 18 yards.

But there is a glimmer of light. On Sunday Little seemed to take his blocking duties far more seriously than at any time this season. That perhaps is the best sign that a receiver understands he’s on the coach’s shit list and wants to get off it. No one seems willing to trust Little on what might be an important reception so they keep him interested for now by sending a few passes his way while watching to see if he pouts the rest of the time. For what it’s worth, Little doesn’t appear to be pouting.

We’ve picked on Little plenty because there’s been plenty to pick on. But perhaps there’s no player on the Browns’ current roster that is offering less right now than fullback Owen Marecic. Browns fans are used to management overpromising and under delivering, so the fact that Marecic is lousy when we were told he’d be good is of no moment. What is of the moment is how truly awful Marecic has been. The only one contributing less to the team right now is Mike Holmgren but another game like Sunday’s and Marecic will take over that spot as well.

Ostensibly a fullback, Marecic’s main job is to open holes for Trent Richardson. He’s been a spectacular failure. Time and again running plays get blown up because of a missed block by Marecic. On the surface it looks like Richardson is having a more difficult transition to the NFL than Weeden when the opposite should be the case. But one of the reasons Richardson is struggling is that he gets virtually no secondary blocks.

The offensive line is doing a credible enough job blocking to allow Richardson some room to maneauver but when teams stack 7 or 8 in the box there simply isn’t enough linemen to go around. That’s why it’s important for a player like Marecic to add some support by helping open the holes that Richardson is supposed to run through.

Watching Marecic block is like watching Alex Rodriguez bat in the post season. If he’s not outright whiffing at an opposing lineman or linebacker, he’s chipping at him in a way that's hardly noticed by the opposition. At most, when it comes to blocking Marecic's nickname should be Snafu because he causes only minor inconveniences to the opposition. Indeed you can make the argument that whatever success Richardson’s had thus far is more than he deserves.

Occasionally Marecic’s also called on to run the ball or be an outlet receiver. He had a grand total of 4 rushing attempts last season and has none this year. He’s been thrown to 5 times this year and has dropped every one of them, including two on Sunday. In other words, the only reason his failures aren’t felt on a grander level is simply because head coach Pat Shurmur has all but eliminated his chances to fail. Why he's ever given any chance remains a mystery.


Part of the reason Shurmur has felt his shorts getting a little tight in the seat has to do with his rather odd play calling in crucial situations. But if you want to maintain any credibility as a critic, you have to acknowledge when the calls go the right way as well.

In particular were the back to back plays midway through the 4th quarter that led to the Browns taking a 27-17 lead. The first play was a 3rd and 1 pass from the Cincinnati 26 yard line. It was a situation that screamed “run,” particularly given how well Montario Hardesty had been running. But Weeden faked the handoff and hit tight end Jordan Cameron for what became a 23 yard gain, down to the Cincinnati 3-yard line.

The Browns were then forced to call time out because, apparently, no one else on the offense could get set in time given how giddy they were over a gutsy call finally working. During the time out, Shurmur essentially called for the same play when a few runs into the line would have been far more expected. It worked again as Weeden found a wide open Ben Watson for the 3-yard touchdown. It was as fine a series of play calling as Shurmur has had since he's been in Cleveland.


I'd say it was an appropriate way for Randy Lerner to go out as majority owner, but for that to be true Lerner would have to actually show up at the game to experience it first hand. By all accounts Lerner disappeared the day the papers were signed and hasn't been seen in Berea since.

The fact that it was owner in waiting Jimmy Haslam III in the locker room after the game smiling and shaking hands tells you as much about the difference between Haslam and Lerner as does the fact that one is self-made and the other self-involved.

I believe Haslam when he says that he'll make no moves until the season is over, but his presence has already made a huge difference. He's not local but there's no question he's already embraced his ownership in a way that Lerner never could. I don't know whether or not he'll be a good owner and I would say it can't get any worse than it was under Lerner, but then I remember that I said the Browns couldn't get any worse once they hired Holmgren, Tom Heckert and Shurmur, but then that trio ripped off a tidy little 11-game winning streak (12 in the division). So yea, things can actually get worse.

That said, I don't look for it. Haslam is a successful working businessman. That doesn't always translate, of course, but it's always nice when the owner understands the value of a hard day's work. Lerner couldn't relate and never wanted to anyway. I look for Haslam to bring a business discipline to this franchise that it's lacked for years. That of course hasn't helped the fortunes of the Bengals for the last 20 or so years, but to paraphrase an old Bengal, they don't live in Cleveland. Our expectations have always been much higher.

Monday, October 08, 2012

The Things We Know--Week 5

“It’s easy to grin, when your ship comes in and you’ve got the stock market beat;
But the man worthwhile is the man that can smile when his shorts are too tight in the seat.”

Judge Smails, at the christening of the Flying Wasp.

There’s no easy grinning in Cleveland and no one’s ship is coming in. Pat Shurmur’s shorts are getting awfully tight in the seat, too, as he watches with increasing impatience as his quarterback makes stupid throws, his linebackers miss tackles, his defensive secondary leaves opposing receivers running free and the rest of his players walk around, hands on hips, wondering why they can’t be free agents at season’s end. And as Shurmur looks out over the horizon here’s what he really sees: 11 straight losses under his watch, an 0-5 mark this season, the very real possibility of this team going 0-16 and the increasingly greater chance that the first phase of his head coaching career will last as long as the second phase of Eric Managini’s head coaching career, if he’s lucky.

What we know definitively after an embarrassing loss to the New York Football Giants is that the Browns are the worst team in the NFL. We know that for simple reasons like the fact that they are the only team without a win this season. We also know it for the more complex reasons like the fact that the general manager figured it might be an interesting experiment to see how repurposing the roster to the equivalent of a minor league baseball team will work in the NFL. No credible franchise sends a team into a NFL season where most of the players have one year or less of experience. If you want to know why knowledgeable NFL types shake their heads at Cleveland, that is the reason.

I consistently hear fans who want to believe, just have to believe, that the Browns are working their way through the forest and that Heckert has put this team on the right track. But this team is demonstrably worse in so many ways than even last year’s miserable team that it’s getting harder and harder to defend Heckert.

He drafted Trent Richardson but that was because he failed to make the trade to secure Robert Griffin III, a player whose mere presence would have added legitimate hope to the team. Richardson is a nice player, makes some nice runs, but even Heckert has to have noticed that it’s far easier to get to an elite level in this league with a transformational quarterback than a big-time running back. Adrian Peterson wasn’t moving the needle that much for the Vikings, which is why they were so vested first in Brett Favre and now Christian Ponder (a younger Brandon Weeden).

I get on this rant after seeing a game like Sunday’s because as much as these losses seem to teach us the same lessons, it’s as if the Browns’ management can’t grasp the concepts.

Which is why Shurmur’s shorts are getting so tight. He knows this isn’t going well and that he and the team stand perilously close to their own fiscal cliff. A loss to the Bengals next week and it will be clear to everyone, including the new man in town, that Cleveland hasn’t seen a runaway train of this magnitude since the days of Chris Palmer.

Did you notice how Shurmur took on Weeden for that miserable game-turning interception near the end of the first half? Or maybe Shurmur was referring to Weeden’s other game-turning interception early in the fourth quarter when he said, essentially, that it’s time to stop using “Weeden is a rookie” as an excuse for not making good football decisions.

And I agree with Shurmur but then I also remember that Shurmur put Weeden in a position to fail, at least on that first interception. It was 3rd and 1 and Richardson was running effectively enough so naturally Shurmur decided that rather than go toe-to-toe with the Giants for two downs in order to get one yard he’d have Weeden throw the ball. If Shurmur didn’t see that interception coming then he was the only one. The 14-year-old son of my girlfriend, a kid who is a Giants fan and knows nothing about the Browns, said matter of factly before the play turned into a disaster, “I can’t believe they would throw here. It will probably get intercepted.” Uh, yea.

Shurmur’s rather prickly response to being questioned about another questionable game-day call “we have to either run or throw here so we threw” or something to that effect. He didn't back off that assessment a day later. Frankly, as long as he was giving up why not just take a knee and then have Phil Dawson kick a field goal? But more to the point, why not at least look like you’re going to maybe run by keeping Richardson in the game? When Richardson trotted off the field and Chris Ogbonnoya ran on to the field, the ball already was intercepted.

In context, Weeden isn’t playing like he’s the worst quarterback or even the worst rookie quarterback in the league. The interceptions, either one of them, were killers and they both resulted because Weeden made bad plays. But the reason the Browns are so lousy in the first place is that there is virtually no support system in place. The team lacks the kind of players that can help lift others up when it gets rough.

Let’s contrast for a moment, shall we, the Browns/Giants game against a nearly identical game taking place in Indianapolis. They were almost parallel games. The Packers were the best team last season and they were taking on last year’s worst team. The Giants, the Super Bowl champs, were doing similarly, taking on the second or third worst team from last year. Both were obvious mismatches. The Browns got off to the fast start they needed, took the MetLife Stadium crowd out of the game and then folded before the two-minute warning of the first half. There was no coming back. The Packers had an 18 point lead at halftime. There was every reason for the Colts to fold. They didn’t. And then when the Packers regained the lead, 27-22, with just over 4 minutes remaining in the game, there was every reason for the Colts to fold again. They didn’t. Instead Andrew Luck, with a major assist from Reggie Wayne, played like a player with a pedigree, led his team on a clock killing drive for the touchdown they needed (and the two-point conversion) that ultimately gave them the victory.

Why can a team like the Colts, so awful a year ago, rise up when the Browns fold as if they had just been deal a 3 of spades and a 4 of diamonds in a game of 5-card stud? A big reason is that the Colts and Luck can rely on someone like Reggie Wayne while the Browns and Weeden can rely on, exactly who? Greg Little? Josh Gordon? Trent Richardson? Ben Watson?

When people talk about the Browns’ lack of depth, that’s exactly what they’re talking about. For a team to win it has to be able to go to the well for someone who has been there, won’t panic and will carry the rookies through the tough spots. But when Heckert gutted the team the way he did, he also eliminated that possibility and that, more than anything, is why the Browns lost. They also lost because they suck.


If Greg Little thinks this past week was an anomaly in his developing career, he ought to think again. The Browns had two receivers out and Weeden still basically refused to throw a ball to Little. His role was to act as a decoy which was about the only job he’s capable of doing at this point.

I loved Weeden’s quote when he said that Little had a great week of practice and that not throwing to him was just how it worked out. Yea, it’s exactly how it worked out. Little has proven himself to be completely unreliable as a receiver and while Weeden needs help in his decision-making and badly needs a win, he’s at least mastered that part that says “just because a guy’s out there doesn’t mean I have to throw to him.”

Indeed, the best way for Weeden to master the art of going through the progression of receiver options on every play is for Shurmur to call more plays designed specifically for Little. It looked as though Weeden consistently looked off Little in order to throw it someplace else. Maybe there is hope.

Now the ball really is in Little’s court. He’ll see far less throws and the few he does see will be flavored with far more pressure for if he drops any of those, his next step will be to hire Braylon Edwards’ agent and find another team willing to take a flyer on a receiver that can’t catch.

Don’t feel bad for Little, though. There’s only so much energy a person has and Little has decided that allocating most of it to establishing an online persona via Twitter and creating self-aggrandizing post-catch celebrations is far better for his brand. That’s left precious little (which is actually a nice little ironic nickname for him) energy to devote to developing receiving skills.

I really don’t think Precious Little will ever amount to much in the NFL. He seems to lack sufficient self-awareness to realize that it’s time to develop the kind of work ethic needed to succeed in football or, really, in life. Precious Little is never the last person off the practice field but he should be. He doesn’t do one thing more than he’s told to do and it shows.

The lingering thought that I keep returning to about Sunday’s game was how competitive it really wasn’t. The Giants were far superior coming in to the game and the Browns, already a bad team when fully healthy, were missing several starters anyway. When your starting lineup would at best be back ups on most other teams, what does it say about your back ups?

Which brings us right back to Buster Skrine. He couldn’t cover a hole in a wall with a piece of plywood if you spotted him the hammer and the nails. It’s stunning that of all the out of work and practice squad defensive backs out there that there isn’t someone better than Skrine. Let me rephrase that: it’s stunning that of all the out of work and practice squad defensive backs out there, general manager Tom Heckert continues to keep Skrine on the roster.

This is one you can’t hang on Shurmur. He doesn’t have any authority over picking or maintaining the final roster and apparently lacks sufficient clout or credibility to force Heckert to do something about Skrine. The Giants didn’t exactly have the full complement of their receivers available to Eli Manning but it hardly mattered. I suspect Skrine could even make Precious Little look like Victor Cruz and that’s giving full credit to the 6 or 7 passes Little would drop on his way to a 200+ receiving day against Skrine.

Shumrur isn’t doing himself many favors with respect to coaching but he’s also being undone by an inside job. At this point he’d be better off ordering Dick Jauron to put an extra linebacker in coverage than continue to throw Skine at opposing receivers and watch as those opposing receivers laugh all the way to the end zone.


The final thing we know about Sunday’s game is that the rest of the season should be stress free. Not that there really ever were but certainly now there are no must-win games on the schedule. Indeed and no matter what Shurmur or anyone else associated with the Browns would tell you, this team really is better off now losing any or all of the rest of their games and ensuring themselves next year’s number one pick, which they can immediately use on a quarterback whose not already older than half the league.

I don’t know whether Geno Smith or Matt Barkley is the next Andrew Luck but if the Browns do end up with the number one pick, and for the life of me I don’t know how they’ll blow it but I just know they will, it will be a choice to make. And let’s hope that if Heckert is still around he doesn’t try to ransom the pick like the St. Louis Rams did by thinking that the Browns are set for the next 10 years at quarterback with Weeden.

While this team can always use picks, they need a franchise quarterback more than they need anything else. Fourteen years into Browns 2.0 and this team still has no identity. There hasn’t been on person from the owner on down who the fans could honestly say represents what this team is trying to accomplish.

Maybe Jimmy Haslam III can be that person. To this point the spot is wide open and there isn’t any line forming to fill that spot. Randy Lerner never wanted it. Team president Mike Holmgren isn’t up to that task and Heckert prefers the background. For now it falls to Shumur and he’s got his hands so full just trying to get the players dressed for Sunday that he’ll never find the time to take the spot. The vacuum remains and that as much as anything is why this team can’t pull itself out of its tailspin. No one wants to be the leader. They also can’t because they suck.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Lingering Items--Decisionmaking Edition

At least Chris Antonetti is polite. The Cleveland Indians general manager met with the media earlier in the week to give the typical GM mea culpea that usually follows a disaster of a season that resulted in someone other than the GM getting fired. Such is the state of affairs in Cleveland with the Indians where everything changes and yet remains remarkably the same.

There’s been no rush by anyone to defend former manager Manny Acta, meaning that no one much is questioning his firing. But as I recall no one much questioned his hiring even though he had flamed out in Washington while trying to guide a talentless roster through turbulent times. Why anyone except Antonetti and Mark Shapiro and The Dolans thought that Acta would be any different trying to guide this talentless roster through turbulent times really tells you pretty much all you need to know about why things do remain remarkably the same with the Indians having just experience ANOTHER 90+ loss season.

The players aren’t always the best guide in determining the effectiveness of their boss so taking their word on anything is always risky. Especially risky is giving any weight to anything Chris Perez has to say. I like the fact that he’s quotable and media friendly and I hope that as long as he remains in the game he stays exactly that way. But simply because he speaks his mind shouldn’t be confused in any sense that his comments are particularly well thought out. Most often they aren’t.

The Indians problems didn’t walk about the door once Manny Acta was told to gather his personal belongings and exit stage left, as Perez claimed. The Indians are being run by the Mad Magzine equivalent of the Usual Gang of Idiots and their problems really are rooted in incredibly poor decision-making at these higher levels. Acta had just failed in almost identical circumstances and here he was now being told to succeed. Just as Acta, barely breathing, couldn’t yell competence into players who weren’t, so couldn’t the Gang of Idiots running the team suddenly turn Acta into a successful manager.

The chain of command that is the Indians is responsible foremost for the utter disaster of a season. There’s nothing wrong with living life on a budget and the Oakland As again proved that good things can come when good decision making is the skill most valued on a team with limited financial resources.

So in that sense let’s get past the notion that the Dolans, simply because they lack enough financial wherewithal to be major league owners, are killing this team in and of itself through a small budget. More funds would help, but their far bigger sin given their finances is that they couple it with incredibly poor decision making.

Why, for example, they wouldn’t hold either Shapiro or Antonetti or, preferably, both responsible for the way the season went and simply sacrifice Acta is a question that hasn’t been answered and probably never will, at least adequately. The Dolans are the ones that promoted Shapiro even though nothing about the way he was running the team as general manager suggested that the promotion was deserved.

You can find individual situations that worked and even a season or two that went OK under Shapiro but the evidence against his overall tenure is far more damning. When Shapiro was promoted to club president the team was in worse shape from a talent perspective then when he became general manager. It wasn’t then poised to be competitive and still isn’t. Shapiro is respected because he’s been around, cleans up nice and is rapid fire with the kind of buzzwords that often mask actual ability, but he isn’t respected because he’s accomplished great things. Name one, just one.

Shapiro, having kept his job, continued to demonstrate his lack of competence by retaining Antonetti, who was a bad hire from the outset. Antonetti was basically in charge of the Indians’ drafting process before taking over as general manager and of all the weak links in the organization, player development has been the weakest.

There have been plenty of excuses for this such as the Indians deliberately avoiding players in the draft who had signed with certain agents because they knew they couldn’t meet the agent’s financial demands for the player. But those are just excuses. Over time, and under Antonetti’s specific direction, the Indians consistently made the wrong choices in the draft to the point that there were no viable players they could plug into this team this season when all the levees around the team failed at the same time. And let’s face it, the levees all failing at the same time wasn’t an accident but was the result of maintenance done on the cheap for years coalescing just as August beckoned.

In his role as general manager, Antonetti has shown an amazing level of consistency in perpetuating his bad decisions. I applauded then and still do the idea of the Ubaldo Jimenez trade because it was bold and the timing was right. This team needed some boldness. But big risk comes with either big rewards or big problems. This came with big problems because of massive misjudgments regarding the players involved in that trade. A major part of the reason Antonetti makes so much money is precisely because he is the one that has to take the fall for those decisions.

Then there were the free agent signings, if you can call them that, of this past season. Everyone except Antonetti apparently saw them as wrongheaded, at the very least and that’s what they turned out to be. It’s as if Antonetti was given $75 and told to buy a enough food to sustain his family for a week and instead spent $70 of it on lottery tickets and the other $5 on soda and potato chips. The lottery tickets were all losers and the soda and potato chips weren’t good for anything more than a snack and when it was over the fans, as usual, were starving.

This culture of decision making at the Indians is what is killing this franchise. Whoever the Indians hire as the next manager, be it Sandy Alomar or Terry Francona, will be fine in and of itself. Both are qualified, one more so than the other. But let’s not anyone pretend that it will make a difference. Antonetti will be making player acquisition and roster decisions and Shapiro will be doing whatever it is he does and the Dolans will do whatever it is they do. Until the top of this pyramid becomes better decision makers this team will continue to the same path as the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Kansas City Royals.

Speaking of decision making, new Cleveland Browns owner in waiting, Jimmy Haslam III, has let it be known that no major decisions will get made until after the year is over. That’s as it should be, of course.

It doesn’t mean that Mike Holmgren will stick around. He very well could leave of his own accord. But for those worried that Tom Heckert might leave mid year or those begging for Pat Shurmur to leave mid year, neither appears likely, except that I don’t know how even a new owner holds on to Shurmur if this team doesn’t win a game soon.

I wonder, though, whether Haslam has seen or will see NFL Films’ latest installment of A Football Life entitled “Cleveland ’95.” It’s a terrific history lesson on decision making, taking the long view and making sure an owner understands his place in the grand scheme of things.

The documentary on the Browns’ 1995 season was fascinating, at the very least. The narrator made the point early on that if you were there then you can’t forget. Actually, you can. The overall injustice lingers and should. The details though got lost to time.

The Browns were 11-5 in 1994 and won a playoff game under Bill Belichick. The 1994 season had been 3 years in the making. Art Modell, to his credit, gave Belichick enough freedom to overhaul the franchise the way he saw fit and Belichick, to his credit, work tirelessly toward that goal even if he acted like an asshole publicly while doing so.

The success wasn’t immediate though in context to Browns 2.0 wasn’t so bad. The team went 6-10 then 7-9 and 7-9 in Belichick’s first three seasons. But anyone remembering those seasons remembers them mostly for all of the competitive losses the team piled up, similar to how this current Browns team piles up competitive losses.

Then it all came together in 1994 and the Browns really did seem on the precipice. Indeed, the team was picked as a Super Bowl contender in 1995. After starting off 3-1, Modell then sabotaged the season by striking a deal with Baltimore to move the team. The players were every bit as dispirited as the fans. So were the coaches. And as Belichick says now, with every bit of sarcasm that only a Browns fan could love, he kept looking around for help from Modell but he wasn’t to be found. Modell was off in Baltimore, hiding.

When the wreckage of that season was completed, the Browns stood at 5-11. And everything that Belichick had built, and it was formidable, had been mostly wasted when Modell stupidly fired him.

Modell and his apologists can reinvent history all they want, but Modell was a terrible decision maker. He twice fired Hall of Fame coaches and though he ended up with one Super Bowl it was more the product of a system that Belichick built in Cleveland that, as Ozzie Newsome admitted in the documentary, he simply continued in Baltimore. Newsome has been successful in keeping the Ravens consistently in the contenders conversation but the team hasn’t nearly reached the heights that Belichick has with the New England Patriots, a team he rebuilt much like he was rebuilding the Browns.

The larger point though for Haslam is that these are lessons in decision making in the context of professional sports he needs to learn mostly from the way decisions turn out for those whose processes are flawed. Modell was emotional and impetuous. He lacked a both a moral center (obviously) and a fully developed business sense. On the one hand he would give Belichick the freedom to rebuild which shows a level of understanding on how it all works but on the other hand even though he could see the tangible results fired him anyway because Belichick couldn’t pump air into the balloon that Modell deliberately and irresponsibly deflated during that '95 season. Then there’s a revealing moment in the Cleveland ’95 documentary where Newsome recalls that Modell preferred the Ravens draft a quarterback instead of Jonathan Ogden. Maybe Modell finally got too tired for the fight but he let Newsome make the pick the team needed instead of the one Modell wanted and as a result Ogden stabilized the offensive line like only few others of that ilk can. Ogden's arrival made a Super Bowl quarterback out of Trent Dilfer.

Haslam could also learn plenty from how the Dolans dither over their team. Trust, when the only goal is stability, isn’t any better formula for success than constantly changing directions while the game is still being played. I don’t think that Holmgren and Heckert sink to the level of Shapiro and Antonetti, but if Haslam stays with them merely for stability and not for vision, then the mindless, endless wandering through the desert will continue.


With the Cavaliers grinding back to life, it’s fair to see this upcoming season as a referendum on Dan Gilbert’s decision making. When LeBron James left town (and, let’s face it, there was absolutely nothing Gilbert could have done to change that outcome, not a single thing) Gilbert discovered that the hole left behind was much larger than it should have been.

Enter Grant. Since taking over Grant has made a number of moves to try and fill in those gaps. Kyrie Irving isn’t James but he isn’t Bobby Sura either. The potential in the moves is promising and while this season isn’t make or break it will start to form the real foundation of whether the Cavs can get back to being a top level team in the NBA-mandated 8-10 years of penance that must be paid during any rebuilding process.

Gilbert is a bold decision maker who seems to put equal weight on both the process and the outcome. He’ll give Grant enough rope but he won’t Grant’s loyalty blind him to Grant’s failures should that be what develops. That’s probably how it should be.

This Cavs season will be interesting not from a win/loss standpoint but more from whether or not Grant can buck the trend of the other GMs in this town who have not been up to the challenges of their tasks and whether or not Gilbert will have the patience to even let us find this out. It’s not a sexy outlook and certainly not one that sells tickets this season but if they get the balance right, it will sell plenty of tickets eventually.

As long as we’re on the topic of both bad decision making and the Cleveland Indians, this week’s question to contemplate: Why would anyone renew a season ticket package at any level with the Indians?