Monday, December 31, 2012

The Things We Know--Week 16 Makeover Edition




To the surprise of no one, including the principals, the Cleveland Browns today fired head coach Pat Shurmur and general manager Tom Heckert and launched their by now all too common biennial makeover. Shurmur was on board for two years and Heckert three but together they combined for less wins than there are games in one regular season.

These firings hardly qualify as news.  They are more in the nature of confirmations of the inevitable.  What I wonder though is who gets stuck with the bill to pay them off on the remainder of their contracts?  I suspect it's new owner Jimmy Haslam III which puts him squarely in the same company as Randy Lerner whose ownership was defined mostly by the millions he spent paying ex coaches and front office types.  It gets difficult spending money on things that matter when so much is tied up in paying off people who don't.

To say any of this relates in any way to what took place on Sunday in the 24-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers would be unfair.  As Heckert noted in an interview with the Plain Dealer, he knew he was gone the minute Haslam hired Joe Banner and gave him final say over everything including the final roster.  That was a power that Heckert had and wasn't interested in relinquishing.  So Heckert's gone not because he was lousy at judging talent (he wasn't but he also wasn't nearly as good as people are now claiming either) but because his ego wouldn't allow him to let someone else have control over the roster.  That's life in these United States I suppose.

But as we delve more into the latest decline of a franchise that always seems to find new depths to plunge, let's do so in the context of Sunday's loss even if the less said about it the better.  It's not that it was a particularly embarrassing loss.  Indeed there have been much worse at the hands of the Steelers, particularly in the season's last game.  It's more that the game wasn't particularly meaningful.  Nothing, and I mean absolutely nothing, was on the line.  The Steelers weren't jockeying for playoff position and the Browns weren't playing for their head coach's future.  That had long been decided.  You could argue rightfully that the game had even less on the line then a typical final preseason game.

The game was chippy at times but only in the way that a neighborhood annual Turrkey Bowl game between rival factions of the same family is chippy.  There was a surface level amount of tension but it had roughly the passion of a typical bimbo/mimbo hook up on The Bachelor.  And while the Steelers covered the 11-point spot by winning 24-10, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone, including the degenerate gamblers hanging around bowling alley bars that would have put a plug nickel on the game.  Even giving the points they'd feel guilty winning the bet and generally gamblers don't feel guilty about anything. 

The overhang to the game of course was the impending unemployment of Shurmur and Heckert.  It being their last game didn't seem to inspire much in the way of play by a roster ravaged with injuries these last few weeks.  It would be convenient, at least poetically, to say that Sunday's game was a microcosm of Shurmur's tenure in Cleveland but it wouldn't be true.  The Browns lost Sunday because even though the Steelers suck they are still better than a Browns team that was starting its practice squad quarterback and a defensive back named Buster Skrine.

In fact, let's talk about the Steelers for a second instead of the Browns if only to feel good about something.  In the Browns victory over them earlier in the season you got the sense that this wasn't a typical Steelers team.  Then in the weeks that followed when the Steelers were playing like every other 6-10 team in the league that sense grew stronger.  But it wasn't until Sunday when it became clear to me how bad the Steelers are this season.  The Browns have a far superior offensive line to the point that if the Steelers had the Browns offensive line they'd probably be in the playoffs.  And let's face it the Browns offensive line isn't great, just average to above average.

Then there is Ben Rothlisberger.  I suspect he now understands what it must have been like to be Bernie Kosar in the '80s.  Watching Ataya Rubin literally push his man into Roethlisberger's lap on nearly every pass play and then seeing Roeethlisberger take lick after lick thereafter probably means a premature end to Roethlisberger's career, just like Kosar's.  Ben is big but those hits hurt and they've clearly taken a toll this season.

The Steelers have a receiving corps that should make Browns fans feel good about the receivers on their team.  Would any GM outside of true idiots like former Jets' GM Mike Tannebaum trade the Browns' receivers even up for the Steelers? Sure the Steelers have tight end Heath Miller and the Browns have, who?, Jordan Cameron and Ben Watson.  But where does it go after that?  Josh Gordon and Greg Little offer far more promise than any other receiver currently on the Steeler's roster.  That is not something I could have imagined writing earlier in the season, particularly about Little.  But Little turned it around when he decided that it was better to play a good game than talk one.  It was one of the more dramatic positive turnarounds of a player wearing a Browns uniform since the advent of Browns 2.0.

The Browns are retooling or rebooting or whatever they end up calling this latest housecleaning but the Steelers have issues they ignore at their own peril. In fact, the same goes for the Baltimore Ravens.  The Browns are laggards in a bad division but it is a bad division which in a perverse was is as good of time as any to start anew again.

So let us not dwell on the existential meaningless of the Sunday loss and instead let's dwell generally.  Shurmur was brought in because of his offensive approach.  Heckert was hired for his ability to spot talent.  Of the two Heckert was more successful but let's not confuse that with abject success.  Only twice all season did the offense score the equivalent of 4 touchdowns.  In half their games they scored enough points to add up to two touchdowns or less.  Without Phil Dawson, and particularly his uncanny ability from beyond 50 yards, the offensive output would have been even worse.

Shurmur's schemes were too often either ill-conceived or too predictable.  He was saddled with a rookie quarterback, certainly, but Shurmur did little to adjust to that circumstance.  He often ignored the running game in a misguided attempt to accelerate Brandon Weeden's development.  And Weeden did little to convince anyone that the trial by fire made sense.

But maybe Shurmur knew something the fans didn't.  Trent Richardson showed flashes of promise but was in very large measure the average back that Jim Brown assessed during the preseason.  Want proof?  It's there in abundance from Richardson's very pedestrian yards per carry stat to the almost complete absence of any run of significance.  Put it this way.  The Browns' two longest runs from scrimmage this season were both 35 yards.  One was from receiver Travis Benjamin on a reverse in the season's first game.  The other was from defensive back Ray Ventrone on a fake punt in the season's last game.  It's not time yet to declare Richardson a bust but he performed worse than pretty much any other first round pick in last year's draft and that includes Weeden.

That's the context to this latest makeover which will certainly be accompanied by the usual hope and skepticism because the franchise doesn't seem any closer to figuring it out than at any other point in the last 13 years.  Sure there is a new owner and he's far more invested emotionally and far more successful profesionally than the jammy wearing ingrate that used to occupy the owners' suite.  There's also a new CEO or president or whatever title he's going by that has a better track record than anyone wearing that title previously with this franchise.  But this franchise is cursed.  It's a black hole of a franchise where smart people go to get stupid.  If we've learned anything over the last nearly decade and a half it's that the Browns are a franchise where good ideas go to die and good players go to get injured.

Don't at all take this as a defense of the status quo.  Consistency isn't a goal unto itself.  You stay consistent if there's something to stay consistent about and nothing about Shurmur screams "stay the course."  But if I'm being entirely fair and perhaps a bit melancholy Shurmur probably is my favorite bad coach of the Browns.  Think about it.  He wasn't as outwardly incompetent as, say, Romeo Crennel.  He wasn't as visibly overwhelmed as Chris Palmer.  He was more sincere than Butch Davis and lacked the evilness of Eric Mangini.  He wasn't any more successful than any of his predecessors, which is why he's gone, but there was a certain underlying integrity about him that was admirable.

The reason Shurmur is out of a job today isn't just that he didn't win.  It's more that he demonstrated through word and mostly deed that he isn't suited to be a NFL head coach.  I think he brings value in some ways and that's why he'll always find work as a high level assistant.  But there are certain personality types that aren't suited for the corner office and Shurmur's is one of them.  You almost get the sense that he never really aspired to the role he had and was probably surprised when Mike Holmgren chose him instead of taking the job himself.  Shurmur didn't have, as Springsteen once wrote, the passion that burned in his veins.  Fans could sense it and so could the players.  He's a decent and likeable sort but the players never seemed inspired to walk through hell in gasoline-soaked underwear for him.  Why would they?  There were times when it wasn't all that clear whether Shurmur even had a pulse. 

Meanwhile, though Sunday's game wasn't particularly revealing about the future, it was enough of a lesson about the state of the franchise to scare off even the most competitive minded of head coaches-to-be.  Whoever takes the reigns next, and believe me there will be someone to take the reins next, faces a daunting challenge.  There are some decent starters to work with but there is no depth.  More to the point though is that there is a culture to overcome.  Think about how D'qwell Jackson or Dawson or even Joe Thomas and Josh Cribbs will approach the next head coach.  They've been through this so often that they have to be completely jaded to the process.  The new head coach needs first to reach those four (unless Banner dispenses with Dawson and Cribbs)  and convince them that he has a better way, a right way, a way that will result in more than 4 or 5 wins every season.  It would be easier to face a nursery full of colicky babies after not having slept in 3 days then a lockerroom of Browns players at this point.  They'll listen because they have to, which is what Shurmur found, but they aren't going to follow unless they're convinced there's a damn good reason to and unless Jackson and Dawson and Thomas and Cribbs can embrace that reason there's no reason to think anyone else will either.

Generally after another loss the head coach says that the team just has to go back and work harder and get ready for the next opponent.  After Sunday's loss, that still remains true except that the next opponent they face is the same one they've been facing and getting hammered by for years--themselves.

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