Saturday, November 10, 2012

Lingering Items-Bye Week Edition



When I was younger and more foolish, I looked forward more to the springing forward of the time change in April then the falling back of the time change in October (now November). As I grew older and less foolish, I realized that gaining that extra hour on a Sunday in the fall was one of life’s greatest and most underrated gifts. The greatest of course is the NFL bye week, particularly if you’re a fan of the Cleveland Browns.

The bye week represents the steadying notion that come Monday there won’t be another in an endless string of competitive losses to bitch about. There’s no coaching mistake to debate. No open receivers will have been missed, no passes will have been dropped. It’s as soothing to the psyche as a down comforter is to the body on a cold winter night.

But as it always is, there’s context to a Browns’ bye week. With head coach Pat Shurmur consistently wetting the bed each week and then scurrying home to pull the sheets out of the laundry, he’s lost support more quickly then Mitt Romney with Latinos after his self-deportation remark (or, really, 47% of the electorate after his freeloaders remark). The bye week gives teams contemplating major midseason course corrections the perfect cover. If a team is thinking of dumping its latest failure and slapping the interim tag on an aging coordinator who once worked as a head coach but got fired, this is the time.

New owner Jimmy Haslam tried to stop that fire from lighting by saying even before he was officially approved as the owner that there would be no significant changes until season’s end. Of course within minutes of the approval club president Mike Holmgren effectively stepped down, signing his own exit papers from a bunker somewhere in Seattle. The only conclusion to draw from Holmgren’s exit is that Haslam didn't see this as a significant change, and it would be hard to disagree. Holmgren slept walked his way through his tenure in Cleveland, waking up long enough to cash checks and criticize the media but mostly ignoring every little detail thrown his way such as the composition of the current roster.

Haslam has kept his promise otherwise and this bye week has been eerily quiet except for an exclusive interview Joe Banner gave to two different newspapers and the early week press conference by Shurmur in which he tried to disabuse any one that they truly know what’s in his heart while giving quarterback Brandon Weeden a vote of confidence, which Banner didn't exactly parrot in his interview with the PD. Meanwhile, Haslam talked to the good folks at Crain’s Cleveland Business and gave them a preview of how he believes more marketing of the team can and should be done in the Columbus area. He also said that he’ll sell the naming rights to Cleveland Browns Stadium but that there will be others more interested than his company in acquiring those rights. That means that the Pilot Flying J’s board chairman, one Jimmy Haslam III, doesn’t see throwing any more good money after bad. Ok then.

Since neither Banner nor Haslam were particularly forthcoming, let's get back to Shurmur. Irrespective of how quiet the week has been, there’s no chance that Shurmur is standing on the sidelines at the newly-named TravelCenters Stadium next season unless it’s with a press pass from Fox Sports. Once Holmgren grabbed the first United flight out of town, Shurmur’s career in Cleveland effectively ended. Tom Heckert may be the general manager and generally the general manager generally manages the hirings of head coaches and such, but Shurmur was always Holmgren’s hire.

With his wingman gone, there’s simply no way that Haslam or new president (or whatever title he ascends or descends to) Joe Banner starts their tenure by hanging on the gloriously ineffective Shurmur. You could argue that two seasons may not be a fair test for any coach to turn around a team or franchise this woeful, but it was quite clear after one year that Eric Mangini wasn’t ever going to be effective just as it was clear after one season that Jim Harbaugh was.

So assuming he’s gone anyway, this season becomes yet another wasted effort. That said, replacing Shurmur now with Brad Childress or Dick Jauron wearing an interim tag and the clueless look of former head coaches who likewise failed wouldn’t suddenly make this season more meaningful. There are interesting little stories to follow for the rest of the year, including whether Banner believes Weeden is his quarterback (hmmm) but there’s no overarching narrative any more. The Browns will end up with another early first round pick and probably blow it, but that’s about it.

The real interest will start when the clock turns 00:00 in the season’s last game. That’s when Haslam and Banner will kick into the public phase of their efforts to find a suitable replacement for Shurmur. Haslam will want to make a splash but that doesn’t dictate a splashy hire. As a successful business type, Haslam will approach the hire in a way that never occurred to a ne’er do well like Randy Lerner. A detailed profile will be prepared that will yield someone that shares the cultures, values and goals that Haslam brings to the table. Or Banner will return a favor to a former mentor and hire his son or nephew as head coach. Either way, it will yield plenty of words.

**

There was a funny little item contained within the agate type of the Transactions column of the local newspaper this week. It said, under the banner “Kansas City Chiefs” that head coach Romeo Crennel had “relieved himself of the duties of defensive coordinator” which is another way of saying that Crennel the head coach fired Crennel the defensive coordinator. If that had happened in Cleveland, Lerner would probably have given Crennel the defensive coordinator a generous settlement to assuage his guilt and allow himself to sleep at night.

With the Chiefs alternatively imploding and exploding under Crennel’s watch, you get the feeling that general manager Scott Pioli must have forced Crennel’s hand in the most delicious way possible by keeping his own powder dry and making Crennel do his own dirty work. It’s totally in character for Pioli to do that and it’s totally in character for Crennel, ex-military, to obey orders. When a team is struggling, manners is the first victim.

The reason I bring any of this up is to provide contrast with the level of dysfunction in Cleveland that revealed itself this week when Shurmur said that he and Childress will need to streamline the play calling because apparently 40 seconds is just not enough time to decide on exactly which lousy 3rd and 1 play to call. “Let’s do the dump off to Owen Marecic.” “No, how about the one where Weeden rolls right and throws across his body to Greg Little slanting left.” “Or how about…shit, is the play clock down to 3 already? Somebody call time out.”

For further context to why there even needs to be streamlining, let’s not forget that Shurmur, a first year head coach, served as his own offensive coordinator last year. The Browns offense couldn’t even be called a work in progress. It was mostly a disorganized mess that put punter Reggie Hodges on the field so much that he blew out his knee. Shurmur had no Crennel moment and thought to fire himself mid-season. He limped through it with a look of self-defeat and resignation, like Rick Perry trying to explain anything, and then listened while Holmgren or, probably, Heckert doing Holmgren’s dirty work, forcefully explained the need to hire another coach.

Shurmur wasn’t keen on giving up the dual roles. It was never clear if it was an ego thing or he simply didn’t think anyone out there shared his same vibe or genius, but he certainly was a reluctant warrior. He brought in Childress as the offensive coordinator but almost from the moment the hiring occurred Shurmur basically said he would retain play calling duties.

So Childress got kicked upstairs into a booth and has been forced all season to “collaborate” with Shurmur on play calls which seems like a fairly demeaning task if you have the coordinator title but apparently is acceptable if you are an ex head coach unwilling to give up the NFL lifestyle. That collaboration has created the visible mess that fans see each week, manifesting itself in all manner of delayed play calling, wrong personnel groups, wrong calls at wrong moments and abuse of the allocated time outs.

Perhaps the biggest problem with Shurmur is that in his quest to succeed he’s become a micromanager unconvinced of and/or uncomfortable with the general competence of the coaches on his staff, particularly those on the offensive side of the ball.

If you want to understand why some are comfortable with being “the guy” and others aren’t, it usually boils down to trust. Having succeeded to the point where he could grab a head coaching position, Shurmur took ultimate control, confusing it with ultimate responsibility. When your trust level runs from A to B, there’s almost no chance to succeed. The NFL is far more complicated then it has to be, but having since made itself so complicated, it begs for the head coach to get comfortable quickly with those on his staff being richly paid to execute his vision.

Shurmur is so bad at decision making these days that he’ll probably streamline the play calling by shutting off Childress’ headset. That should quicken the calls as well as his own demise.

**

It was very revealing how much Weeden’s play has been influenced by Shurmur’s loss aversion. When Shurmur was pressed as to why not one single pass play for the end zone was called during any of the Browns’ 5 count’em 5 trips to the red zone last Sunday, Shurmur said that he could have probably been more heroic in the play calling but the team was on the edge of field goal range and didn’t want to suffer a sack or, God forbid, another Weeden interception. A day later, after essentially saying that he had no confidence in Weeden’s ability as a quarterback to avoid a sack or throw the ball out of bounds, Shurmur gave his quarterback a vote of confidence as the starter. Shurmur must really hate Colt McCoy.

Anyway, that same next day Weeden pretty much said the same thing as Shurmur, saying that he could have tried to squeeze a pass in but didn’t want to take that kind of chance. He was waiting, he said, for a receiver to be wide open because, as we know, that happens all the time when you’re in the opponent’s red zone. When no receiver was able to free himself of the 10-yard cushion Weeden apparently needs before Shurmur will allow him to throw into an opponent’s end zone, he dumped it off to a receiver that had no chance of sniffing a touchdown or else ran the draw play that the Lennon and McCartney of play calling, Shurmur and Childress, decided would work sufficiently enough not to screw up a field goal attempt.

If Shurmur really does have confidence in Weeden, then let him throw the friggin’ ball downfield and not just when the Browns are sitting on their own 35-yard line and a long pass intercepted serves the same purpose as a punt. The truth is that Shurmur doesn’t have any more confidence in Weeden then he had in Sam Bradford when Bradford was a rookie and seemed to set the all time record for the lowest yards per catch ratio in NFL history.

Indeed, Shurmur doesn’t show much confidence in anything and that’s why this team so often plays like a tentative mess, well that and the fact that it is a team with a poorly constructed, mistake-prone, youthful roster for which Heckert alone (apparently) is to blame. The lack of confidence is evident in matters large and small and while the team is ostensibly competitive losers, they’re losers nonetheless and for that Shurmur will pay the ultimate price when both Shurmur the head coach and Shurmur the offensive coordinator is relieved of his duties.

**
Josh Cribbs says that he’s tired of the constant turnover and that it’s not good for team morale or performance. How true. But consistency for consistency’s sake isn’t the answer. Look no further than Cincinnati to see how that plays out. Marvin Lewis has been there for a decade and hasn’t much moved the needle.

Here’s how Lewis’ biography reads on the Bengals’ official web site: “Marvin Lewis is in his 10th season as the Bengals head coach, having posted the most wins (69) in franchise history. He has led the team to the postseason in two of the last three seasons.” That’s it. Shorter than Mitt Romney’s concession speech.

Lewis keeps on adding to his franchise record as his 3-5 record this year now gives him 72 wins. That keeps Lewis muddling along at a 47% win clip, which means he’s averaging about 7.5 wins per season. That’s about a game better than the previous 10 years.

All this means is that Haslam could honor Cribbs’ wish for consistency as long as he’s willing to sacrifice, I don’t know, a winning record. The Bengals are models of consistency but all that’s done is entrench their mediocrity. There is a better way and while this franchise continues to take a step back in a quest to move forward, sometimes the illusion of movement is enough to satiate a bored and apathetic fan base.

**

With Shumur now part of the Walking Dead, this week’s question to ponder: Does Heckert face a similar fate?

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