Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Lingering Items--Winter Doldrums Edition


 When the Super Bowl ends sometime around 10 p.m. EDT this Sunday it will mark not just the end of a very curious but interesting football season. It is also will mark the beginning of the dullest period of the sports season.

Fortunately, the dull times don’t last too long as it’s at most a few weeks until major league teams report to spring training. Until then, though, you have time to catch up on Mad Men before the next season starts in March or waste your time with meaningless games in whatever sport you follow.

The Ohio State Buckeyes men’s basketball team, talented and athletic and a real contender for a national championship, have a difficult schedule ahead over the last half of their regular season, but the presence of a Big Ten tournament and the knowledge that the Buckeyes will be in the NCAA tournament come March render these upcoming games mildly interesting and overwhelmingly irrelevant, like the Plain Dealer on a good day.

Far worse, though, is the NBA season and not just because the Cavaliers are still in the early stages of a major rebuild which, if history is any indication, is a minimum 8 year process. If there are any NHL fans in this area, and I suppose there probably are a few, nothing much interesting happens this time of year, either. Like the NBA, more teams make the playoffs then should and only a few teams really have a chance of taking the crown. That much was known months ago and not much has changed in the interim.

So what we’re left with for the next few weeks is to engage in postseason speculation when it comes to the Browns, preseason bitching when it comes to the Indians and in season indifference when it comes to the Cavs.
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Let’s start with the Cavs. With them, the current mostly boring debate surrounds whether or not the team should just continue on a losing path for the rest of the season in order to secure a better draft pick. Right now, the Cavs would make the playoffs and wouldn’t make the lottery. It’s a situation known as NBA purgatory. There are only a few teams with a legitimate chance to make the NBA Finals. There are a few others that are close to that level and thus would likely benefit from the seasoning that the NBA playoffs bring. The rest of the teams though are just spinning their wheels in the most unproductive manner possible in purgatory.

There is no good that could come from the Cavs making the playoffs this season. They are simply too far away to reap any tangible benefit from playing in the postseason. If/when the Cavs are able to cobble together enough pieces and parts to make a far more legitimate run, most of the players on the current team will be playing elsewhere. In other words, getting playoff experience under their belts, to the extent that matters, won’t benefit the Cavs anyway.

All that said, of course, it’s ridiculous to think about tanking an entire NBA season. Professional athletes for the most part are imbued with a strong sense of pride and competitiveness. They may know their team sucks, but when the whistle blows they still tend to play hard if only because they don’t want to be embarrassed.

There are notable exceptions to this of course. The Cavs, for example, have had rosters full of players that mailed it in for millions a year. But this Cavs roster isn’t of that ilk. They aren’t talented enough to compete at the highest levels but neither are they jaded enough to spend the rest of the season going through the motions.

I don’t think that fans need to worry anyway. Water finds its level and for this Cavs team, that’s somewhere far closer to the ceiling then the upper floors. The lottery looks secure for another season.

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The Indians, on the other hand, are about to embark on another gun fight once again wielding a dull knife. They spent another offseason gathering spare parts and broken hearts through barter while the key competition around them acquired assets with cash.

It’s to their detriment but not their fault that they didn’t acquire Prince Fielder and his expanding waist line. It was an ill advised move by the Detroit Tigers. But it does emphasize why the Indians will always fall short of filling the gaps they need. They are essentially playing in a different league when it comes to better financed teams.

The acquisition of Fielder by the Tigers is interesting because it somewhat dispels the notion of small market vs. big market teams. I don’t think of Detroit as a big market anymore although that tide could be turning along with the fortunes of the auto industry. They're just a small market with a big market thinking owner.

That said, I don’t recommend that any team, least of all the Indians, overpay someone like Fielder who looks like he took training tips from an online consortium run by CC Sabathia and Dinner Bell Mel Turpin. The contract the Tigers committed to for Fielder will be a bigger millstone around their neck then the Travis Hafner contract has been around the Indians’.

I fully expect that Fielder will have some good numbers for the next year or two and some of that will come at the expense of the Indians as they try to claw back into relevance. But come years 6, 7, 8 and 9, if not years 3, 4 and 5, someone in Detroit is going to lose his job for green lighting Project Fielder for $200+ million.

Meanwhile, back at the corner of Carnegie and Ontario, the Indians are putting on their usual offseason flourish designed to systematically lower expectations as part of their overriding goal each year to under promise and over deliver.

Indeed that’s why last season felt like such a revelation. With nothing promised, the Indians easily exceeded expectations. The problem is that with the limited bit of a success comes the implied obligation to further upgrade. Instead fans received the same warmed over players that can be had on the cheap as they rehab from injuries. About the only thing different from any number of seasons past is that the Indians applied that same criteria to one of their own, Grady Sizemore.

The key word in every Indians’ offseason is “if,” as in, “if Grady Sizemore can stay healthy” or “if Kevin Slowey can stay healthy” or, well, you get the picture. But as we know full well by not, most of the “ifs” become “buts” and the Indians, by virtue of their inaction, will again be scrambling to develop other revenue sources besides the more traditional route of good play-inspired attendance. And the circle goes unbroken.

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The Browns have underwhelmed thus far in the off season, but it’s early. They're is still time to massively disappoint. The only move of consequence was the addition of failed former head coach Brad Childress as the offensive coordinator.

But like most things that happen in Berea, it looks like it will come with the odd condition in the form of not allowing Childress to exercise the full benefits of his title by being the team’s play caller. But perhaps Childress was chosen exactly for that reason. As Andy Reid's offensive coordinator in Philadelphia, Childress didn't call plays then either.

Still, it smacks of a compromise reached between head coach Pat Shurmur and his boss, team president Mike Holmgren. Shurmur doesn’t appear to want to relinquish what little power he has and Holmgren needs to quell a fan insurrection over the awful state of the offense. Who better to step in and play the part of a well paid patsy then another client of both Shurmur’s and Holmgren’s and Tom Heckert's agent, Bob Lamonte, the out of work Childress?

Like most compromises of this nature, its structure suggests failure and not success. If the Browns need an offensive coordinator, and they do, then hire one and let him do the job. The last thing this team needs is another consultant, which is what Childress essentially has signed on for.

This is the kind of thing that really is starting to grate on the nerves of fans when it comes to Holmgren. Brought in to make tough decisions, he continuously backs away at the sign of any internal resistance. He kept Eric Mangini on for a year because Mangini literally pleaded to Holmgren to spare him the ax. It was nice for Mangini but awful for the fans and the progress of the franchise.

When he brought in Shurmur, who hadn’t been a head coach at any level, Holmgren allowed Shurmur to control the narrative by suggesting that he could handle both head coaching duties and the job of first assistant. It only sounds reasonable if the Browns were trying to cut costs on the number of assistants, but then when have the Browns ever been on that kind of austerity plan? They trend in the opposite direction, doling out money to meaningless coaches long since gone.

Armed with empirical proof that Shurmur (or any head coach) is ill suited to do the job of two coaches at once, Holmgren nonetheless again backed away from forcing Shurmur to relinquish some control. This can only mean more of the same for next year. If Childress lasts the entire season under this construct I’ll be amazed.

As for upgrading the roster, the first thing the Browns need to decide is which of their free agents they want to pursue. It would seem like D’Qwell Jackson and Phil Dawson are layups. More interesting is running back Peyton Hillis. Heckert is now leaking it to the media that the Browns do want Hillis back.

Hillis, when healthy, is exactly the kind of running back most teams need these days. While the presence of a running game is still important to the overall effectiveness of an offense, attitudes have changed on exactly what a presence means. There can be no doubt, for example, that a team does not need a Walter Peyton or a Barry Sanders to be successful. Quick, name me the starting running backs for the New England Patriots and the New York Giants.

Hillis is exactly the kind of effective no-name player that most teams look to have on board, as long as he doesn't cost too much. His problem is that he is injury-prone. He plays football like Grady Sizemore plays baseball and it leads to more injuries and less effectiveness.

The injuries have hurt Hillis’ bargaining power, but not in the same way they hurt Sizemore’s. Because there’s very little guaranteed money in the NFL, the chances are much better that a team would be willing to sign Hillis to a long-term contract. Sizemore couldn’t sniff anything more than the one-year deal the Indians offered him.

If Hillis is lost to free agency, it won’t be a major blow. I like his game, but he’s fungible with backs like Chris Ogbonnaya, a point that will become more evident when the Browns develop a better right side of the offensive line and employ credible receivers. At that point they’ll become far more pass oriented, like the rest of the league, with just a dash of running thrown in to keep teams honest.

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The other Browns story that remains in the background concerns the fate of former Plain Dealer beat reporter Tony Grossi. The PD’s public editor, Ted Diadiun, gave a rather farcical account of what he termed a painful but necessary decision to demote Grossi, as I anticipated in my earlier column on this subject.

Diadiun pulled out the old “standards” card and essentially suggested that it wasn’t Grossi’s views of Browns owner Randy Lerner that got him in trouble but the fact that he expressed them publicly. Apparently the Plain Dealer discourages its sports reporters from having opinions.

Diadiun is making a distinction without a difference. Irrespective of whether Grossi expressed the opinion publicly, the fact of the matter is that he didn’t respect Lerner and that didn’t seem to matter to the PD until Grossi said it out loud.

And for what it’s worth, I’m not buying the whole “inadvertent tweet” defense Grossi offered in order to save his job. Maybe Grossi did mean to respond only privately but the fact remains that he didn’t and it doesn’t matter anyway. Whether he made his views of Lerner known publicly or privately is irrelevant. He held the opinion and it did impact in some fashion on his coverage. That isn’t a sin because every reporter has an opinion on his subject matter and many times it isn’t favorable. So be it.

Indeed, I think it’s cowardly for Grossi to try and hide behind a defense that relies on the phrase “inadvertent tweet”, two words that shouldn’t ever be uttered consecutively, by the way. He feels that way, he said it, end of story. But even more cowardly is the journalistic yarn the PD is hiding behind in order to assuage the feelings of a pathetic and irrelevant billionaire and his ineffective and weak first lieutenant.

The Plain Dealer demonstrated, to the detriment of the rest of its staff, that when the going gets tough, the reporters get tossed.

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With the Super Bowl upcoming and Bill Belichick further affirming his status as one of the all time great head coaches in NFL history comes this week’s question to ponder: When Art Modell hired Belichick, he said it would be the last head coach he’d ever hire. If Modell has stuck to it, would he now be in the Hall of Fame?








Thursday, January 26, 2012

Pathetic and Irrelevant

When the obituary of the Cleveland Plain Dealer is written, and it will be sooner rather than later, don’t be surprised if the words “pathetic” and “irrelevant” appear somewhere in the first 10 words or so to describe the reasoning behind its demise.

Already a shadow of its former glorious self, the Plain Dealer will be done in by no shortage of irony and perhaps the tipping point will turn out to be their pathetic but hardly irrelevant response to the apparently former PD Browns beat reporter Tony Grossi's tweet about Browns owner Randy Lerner.

The back story here is that Lerner, who gives interviews about as often as the Browns have winning seasons, did grant one to the fawning, preening troll-like blowhard who occupies the afternoon drive-time slot for the Browns’ flag ship station, WTAM. As interviews go, it was, to borrow a few choice words, pathetic and irrelevant.

Lerner wasn’t asked anything remotely challenging or controversial and he complied spectacularly by not saying say much interesting, he never does. His tone was mostly flat-lined, matching note for note his stewardship of a franchise that, to borrow a few choice words, has been pathetic and irrelevant for more than a decade. In short, Lerner’s coming out was the non-event of this year's Berea social scene. So be it.

Grossi, likely frustrated that his status as the longest tenured Browns beat reporter didn’t give him the same access to Lerner and hence the opportunity to actually ask questions and demand answers, tweeted that Lerner is a “pathetic figure, the most irrelevant billionaire in the world.”

This, of course, probably angered someone inside of Berea, though I doubt Lerner much paid attention. My guess is that it was the public relations director. Maybe it was Mike Holmgren, who just weeks ago railed against the negative attitude of the media and essentially vowed to do something about it.

It doesn’t matter. Someone got the word back to the Plain Dealer about Grossi’s tweet and the editors there jumped into panic mode. Grossi was forced to remove the tweet, apologize to Lerner and await his fate like a petulant child who just spray painted the cat and was now waiting for dad to come home and mete out the punishment.

Well that punishment came in the form of his removal from the Browns’ beat, according to multiple sources. No one at the Plain Dealer is saying much about it, hiding for now behind the kind of “no comment” comment that they detest from others with something to hide. If/when they do say something, it will be along the lines of what they already said when they discovered the tweet, that his actions were inappropriate as they then utter vague references about compromised integrity or some other such horseshit.

There’s something very peculiar about newspapers, the so-called champions of free speech everywhere. For voracious First Amendment advocates, they have awfully thin skins. Maybe they’re just jittery about their business prospects.

It’s actually odd for me to take up the banner for Grossi because I never felt like he was all that good of a beat writer to begin with. At this point in his career, and perhaps jaded by years of watching, to borrow a few choice words, pathetic and irrelevant football being played on the lakefront, Grossi became satisfied with perfunctory analysis and lazy reporting. His editors and audience alike yawned their indifference.

He was repeatedly scooped, like many Plain Dealer sports writers tend to be, by harder working reporters at smaller newspapers or, God forbid, bloggers. Perhaps his biggest flaw, though, was that he never had much interesting to say. My sense always was that he had readers because of his platform and not because of his talent.

Any of those would have been good enough reasons to can Grossi and you wouldn’t have heard a peep out of me. But the Plain Dealer, having tolerated his mediocrity for years, has long since lost the argument that Grossi should be fired now because he was lousy at his job.

Instead, they took a much more interesting approach, claiming essentially that it was the freestyling ways of the internets and social media that made it impossible for Grossi to do his job effectively anymore. Why? Because he had the temerity to call it as he saw it when it came to Lerner? What happened to truth as a defense?

Lerner, frankly, is a pathetic figure and an irrelevant billionaire. Whether he’s the most irrelevant billionaire in the world can’t be measured empirically but let’s grant Grossi the latitude that Lerner is in the top 10. The point, though, is that none of this is news anyway, except maybe to the owners or editors of the Plain Dealer who apparently have been too busy trying to scour up advertisers and subscribers to pay attention to such small matters as the disintegration of a key economic driver of the city that the Browns are or at least should be.

Lerner’s ownership of the Browns has been a disaster. He’s treated the Browns like some sort of aquatic experiment where he keeps buying various kinds of exotic fish and throwing them in the tank together to see if they can survive together. About every two years or so, he’s forced to buy more fish when his last experiment didn't work. The next time he shows even a modicum of leadership of the franchise will be the first.

If this hurts his feelings, or if someone pointing this out hurts his feelings, then he should get out of the game. By holding on to the franchise he voluntarily put himself in a position to be criticized. Yet I really doubt that it did hurt his feelings. First of all, he’d have to demonstrate he has any. Secondly, he’d have to demonstrate that he even read Grossi’s tweet, which I doubt, or cared enough about Grossi's opinion to even voice his displeasure.

It’s important to the underpinnings of this story to harp on what a lousy owner Lerner has been because it completely eviscerates any argument the brass at the Plain Dealer could conger that Grossi’s integrity as a journalist was somehow compromised by a supposedly inappropriate tweet.

Are they mad that Grossi feels the way he does about Lerner or just the fact that he said it publicly? For these purposes, the answer doesn’t matter. If Grossi’s integrity was compromised it was done so long before he made the supposedly offending tweet and yet he’s remained on the beat for years.

But I doubt that Grossi’s integrity was compromised anyway. He’s been on the Browns beat since 1984 and has seen the same things we’ve all seen, but from a much better view. Lerner’s pathetic and irrelevant ownership of the Browns provides the significant context to why the team itself has been pathetic and irrelevant for so long. It’s part of each and every crappy coaching hire, each and every crappy draft and each and every crappy loss. It's the story that he was paid to write in the first place.

Let’s also not forget that this is sports and not politics, though the fossils that teach journalism on college campuses, assuming it’s even still offered as a curriculum, would argue that the standards are the same. Maybe they should be, but they most certainly are not. Sports reporters, particularly those covering the teams on a daily basis for any media outlet, have always been given a much wider berth by their editors to mix fact and opinion in a story then the reporter covering city hall. It’s only when those editors become embarrassed by the children they let run loose on the sports beat embarrass them at cocktail parties that they decide to act as if the same rules apply.

But it’s also a measure of what these same internets have brought us that the landscape of journalism has changed. There’s a reason that this web site, and many like it, get so many visitors each day. People are clamoring for a different, fresher perspective, one that isn’t afraid to mix fact and opinion or that is otherwise not bound by some of the conventions of an aging print media.

Grossi's little foray into Twitter, with the ongoing approval of his editors, was the equivalent of dipping a pinky toe in the Atlantic. If the Plain Dealer had been smart, they would have answered the call from whatever faceless Browns official complained and said “welcome to 2012. This is not your father's Plain Dealer.”

That doesn’t mean there aren’t standards, but it does mean those standards have evolved. The only ones that haven’t seemed to notice are the editors of the Plain Dealer, which they amply demonstrated here.

It’s funny. The Plain Dealer will survive the demotion of Grossi but they won’t survive overall. because they never could recognize that the same thought process that brought them to making the decision on Grossi is the same thought process that is making their newspaper increasingly more pathetic and irrelevant.


Monday, January 23, 2012

The Complications of Life


The death of former Penn State football head coach Joe Paterno is a reminder, if nothing else, of how complicated life really can be.

In most respects, Paterno lived a life worth emulating. In other ways, though, he became a tragic figure with the fatal flaw of not knowing exactly when to say when.

In a tribute broadcast by ESPN, Jeremy Schaap pulled out a revealing Paterno quote to explain why he hung on for as long as he did. Paterno said he wouldn’t retire because of Paul “Bear” Bryant, the long time head coach at Alabama. Mere weeks after retiring from Alabama, Bryant suffered a massive heart attack and died, having lost, apparently the will to live once his coaching days ended.

And so it was with Paterno. He stayed long past his sell date for the most understandably selfish reason of all: he feared his own death. Despite a loving and devoted family, including 5 children and 17 grandchildren; despite a legacy of accomplishment and philanthropy; despite, really, having squeezed as much life into his decaying frame as humanely possible, Paterno refused to retire because the loss of the one thing that sustained him above all others would kill him.

In the end, we’ll never know if that’s true though we certainly have every reason to believe that his firing and the loss of the only job he ever really knew, coupled with the awful circumstances surrounding it, sapped Paterno of any remaining fight left in his body. His advanced age and broken spirit prevented him from taking on the vestiges of a supposedly mild form of lung cancer, to which he succumbed mere weeks after its diagnosis.

The last interview that Paterno ever gave, with Sally Jenkins of the Washington Post, revealed a man who was seemingly at peace with the conflicts inherent in his legacy. He certainly did not come across as evil. But neither did he come across as any more aware of the truly awfulness of the situation at his beloved university and his role in allowing it to metastasize.

Paterno admitted he didn’t know how to handle the situation and that’s why he went to his bosses. It all sounded reasonable if not conveniently na├»ve. Paterno really had no bosses, only figureheads that had absolutely no power to control the institution within the institution that Paterno eventually became.

Paterno had long since stopped listening to his bosses anyway about how to handle problems within his football program. As the Sports Illustrated expose details, Paterno worked tirelessly to keep any misbehaving players from being punished within the context of the general university population. Having created a “we take care of our own” culture within the team, it was hardly a surprise really that Paterno’s bosses did nothing about the Jerry Sandusky allegations. If Paterno was punting, which he was, why wouldn’t they? It was, likely to their warped thinking, just a football team matter.

Now that he has passed on, there will be even further re-examining of this tragic situation in the context of the greater good that Paterno accomplished in his life. The construct of the argument advanced is whether one “incident” should wipe out nearly 5 decades of positive contributions.

It doesn’t but not because Paterno’s death demands a re-examination of the judgment rendered just a few months ago. It doesn't because the question as posed is a false one because the answer isn’t one or the other. Paterno, was every bit as complicated and conflicted as the rest of us. Iconic status and coaching achievements don’t give anyone a pass at the more difficult aspects of what we all face on a day to day basis and in the end they didn’t give Paterno a pass either, nor should they.

Running a major college football program, these days or any days, is not a task for the feint of heart or the weak of mind. Paterno could come across paternalistic in the best sense of the word but he also had enough guile to honor his Brooklyn roots well.

He didn’t want the university disciplining his players because that discipline could cost him a victory or two. Far better for him to have the players run laps or whatever other form of antiquated punishment Paterno could conger up then kick them off the team or out of the university. A coach that doesn’t win is an ex-coach.

Paterno saw football glory as a means to a better end for the university as a whole because the riches it brought did indeed enhance the overall educational experience for everyone on campus. And Paterno honored that goal with his time, his talents and his pocketbook.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that Paterno was using the ends to justify the means. He wasn’t a cheater, like the Jackie Sherills and the Barry Switzers of the world, both of whom Paterno despised. That doesn’t mean though that Paterno didn’t cut his share of corners or manipulate the circumstances with his well earned clout in order to serve some short term needs. He did. That’s life.

Paterno’s story, his rise, his fall from grace, the constant reexamination, is the same really that has played out with Ohio State’s Jim Tressel, if only on a lesser scale and without the tragic ending.

Like Paterno, Tressel had gained a healthy dose of clout within a major university setting as a result of nearly unprecedented success on the football field. That success raised the profile and the bank account of the university. It enabled Tressel to use that clout for much good but he was always more cagey then most wanted to acknowledge. Did Tressel use that clout to achieve some short term gains? Probably, but that shouldn’t surprise.

Tressel’s explanation for his lack of response to the tattoo situation was understandable only in the context of understanding Tressel as the same kind of complex figure as Paterno. He wanted to do right by his players and his program and the university and ultimately hoped it would all sort of work out without any real repercussions.

But Tressel, like Paterno, fell to the forces of convenient outrage that only want to see every issue as a black or white choice until, of course, those same forces are faced with their own complex challenges.

It was never a question whether Tressel was a good man or not. He was. His downfall, just like Paterno’s, was that his god-like image that he helped cultivate ultimately caused those around him to punish him more harshly for his transgressions then if he had just been more upfront about his sure humaneness.

Any sort of tragedy causes a bit of self reflection in everyone else. Ultimately, though, with Paterno as with Tressel, most doing the reflecting will struggle to see the real point. It’s not that either was actually less then the sum of their parts. It’s that both were fully the some of their parts. Life is never paint-by-numbers and it is possible, indeed entirely reasonable, that a person can be both good and bad at the same time.

It was true for Paterno, certainly, and true for Tressel as well. If we're being honest with ourselves, as situations like these call for, then let's all admit, too, that it's also true for the rest of us. And perhaps that is the best lesson for us all to learn.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Cleveland Hopes


With the Cleveland Browns running out of ideas to turn its franchise around, here’s one to consider:  rename the team and pick new colors.  Maybe it’s just time to retire the “Cleveland Browns” and the orange and brown once and for all.

We’re more than a decade into Browns 2.0 and virtually nothing that’s happened in that period of time has honored what the City of Cleveland fought so hard to retain.  At this point, the Browns are no longer a franchise with a great legacy but a franchise that’s a stumbling, bumbling mess.  It’s the soft spot on every team’s schedule.  And unlike, say, the Chicago Cubs, they aren’t even lovable losers, just losers.

I’m not sure it would make any difference substantively, but maybe it is time to simply rename this team, give it new colors and a clean record book.  At the very least, no matter what the team does next year it is bound to set franchise marks on both sides of the ball, for good and bad.  That would be well worth celebrating even in the midst of another 4-12 or maybe a 5-11 season.

When it comes to being a Browns’ fan, I have my bona fides so I don’t make this suggestion lightly.  I was a very long time season ticket holder who smartly didn’t re-up when the team returned.  Enron was a safer investment then a personal seat license.  I’ve seen dozens upon dozens of games in person and hundreds upon hundreds of games on television.  Each of my daughters wore Browns’ onesies in their cribs.  Everything about the Browns of my youth is a great memory, even the Forrest Gregg years.

But when Art Modell, a morally and fiscally bankrupt carpetbagger chasing a buck to preserve a lifestyle he never deserved moved the team to Baltimore the equation changed.  Modell’s stupidity destroyed the bond between the team and the town and no matter what anyone tells you, it’s not the same and never will be.

The NFL made the entire city dance like a catfish on a fishing line just to get the privilege of building a new stadium at its expense and charging its citizens more money just to keep what it had.  It dangled our name and our colors as the ultimate prize and continuously dropped the subtle suggestion that Cleveland would lose its status as a major league city if it didn’t knuckle under the ridiculous demands.

And we bought it the con like a desperate housewife buys a Thighmaster off of QVC without really questioning the underlying cynicism.  Undeniably having the NFL in our backyard is a boost to civic pride and brings needed money into the city.  That’s not really the issue of the moment anyway.  It’s just that we fought so hard to hold on to something we shouldn’t have lost anyway and 12 years later it’s getting harder and harder to remember why.

Look what it brought us.  We have a moneyed ownership that’s among the most incompetent in the history of professional sports.  We’ve had one coaching regime after another with nothing much to distinguish one from the other.  Losing is losing.

The new Cleveland Browns stadium has all the charm of every other generic stadium being built these days.  The so-called Dawg Pound is just that, so called.  It lacks the humor and the irony of its predecessor at the old Stadium.  It’s the kind of space that white-bread architects sitting in Kansas City perceive as edgy, but with better guard rails and step risers that better conform to building codes.

The loges that ring the stadium might as well be hermetically sealed.  Honestly, the only difference between sitting in a loge watching a game from a television monitor and sitting at home and watching a game from your television monitor is that the loge probably has better food.

The premium seating, such as it is with its own climate-controlled respite, represents in its own small way why the 99% are so pissed at the 1%.  They have a much better view and access to better bathrooms.

None of this, though, is meant as a paean to the old Cleveland Municipal Stadium.  It was a shit hole from the day it opened until the day the last girder was thrown to the bottom of Lake Erie.  The plumbing was pathetic, the site lines obscured and the seats were uncomfortable.  But in context to the team it housed, it worked.

As a fan you had to put up with a lot of crap to want to spend 4 or so hours at the Stadium on a late November Sunday.  The last thing you wanted was to put up with a lot of crap from your team as well.  And so in that sense, the players developed a sense of the fans and vice versa.  When it worked, it was a beautiful thing to behold.  When it didn’t, the bad times didn’t last long enough to matter.

Here’s a little something to chew on to make the case of retiring the “Browns.” Between 1960 and when the Browns were disbanded by Modell, the most consecutive seasons the Browns had losing records was four: 1990 through the 1993 season.  Other than that they only had two consecutive losing seasons twice: 1974 and 1975 and 1981-1982. And even in that, the 1982 season could be discounted because the record was 4-5 in that strike shortened season and besides, the Browns still made the playoffs.  In context, that’s a pretty amazing history, which is why the Browns are considered a storied franchise.

Since 1995, the Browns have had only two winning seasons total and, of course, they weren’t consecutive.  Stated differently, the Browns are mired in their third, yes third, four season losing record since 1995.  Nothing storied about that.

In every conceivable way, this iteration of the Browns has nothing to do with the legacy we worked so hard to preserve.  It’s been so dishonored as to become completely irrelevant.

Lest I be misunderstood, I’m not arguing for just chucking the franchise completely, though if Randy Lerner sold the team it wouldn’t break my heart as long as it was to Dan Gilbert or someone similarly committed to winning in this town.

What I am advocating, however, is that this town stop honoring the legacy of Paul Brown and find a brand new path with brand new colors.  The economic bump on jersey sales alone would help replenish the county coffers that have been systematically pillaged by various politicians over the last several decades.

But if we’re going to rename the team, let’s make sure we do so in a way that’s not generic.  No Gladiators or Crush or similarly silly name mean to to convey a sense of brute force.  Pick something more aspirational.

To get the ball rolling, here’s an idea.  Let’s honor one of Cleveland’s most famous former citizens, the comedian who actually helped close the old Stadium with the fitting “Thanks for the Memories.”  It also has the added benefit of reflecting what’s truly become the remaining thread on which this fan’s loyalty is still based.  Here’s to you, the Cleveland Hopes.  May it take you less years to make the playoffs from here then your namesake, Bob Hope, lived.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Lingering Items--Shakespeare Edition

Apparently the NFL has run out of head coach candidates. How else to explain the Kansas City Chiefs hiring Romeo Crennel as its next head coach?

Before answering that question, it’s probably worth asking why it’s even necessary for anyone in this corner of the world to contemplate the question.

It’s not except out of abject curiosity considering Crennel’s tenure in Cleveland. Crennel had one good year here.

It was 2007 and the Browns won 10 games. In typical Browns fashion, they didn’t make the playoffs, one of the few 10-win teams ever to not make the playoffs. That 2007 season was transcendent nonetheless. The Browns were riding high from the draft after grabbing Joe Thomas as an anchor left tackle and then seeing Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn fall to them late in the first round due to a weird confluence of events. At the time, Charlie Frye was the team’s starter and Derek Anderson was the back up, albeit a very tentative back up. He had a big arm but little experience and was floundering in the Ravens organization until general manager Phil Savage grabbed him on his way out of Baltimore.

The season opened in rather typical fashion, with the Browns getting thumped by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Frye had a season opening debut that was such a disaster that he was benched before halftime. Crennel took responsibility for that, as if he could avoid it. A few days later Savage traded Frye to Seattle for a 6th round pick. It suddenly elevated Anderson to starter, a position most fans also thought was simply a placeholder until Quinn found his sea legs. Indeed, had Quinn reported to camp on time instead of stupidly holding out, he almost certainly would have been the starter instead of Anderson and both Quinn's and Anderson's trajectories may have been forever changed. But missteps like that have defined Quinn’s mostly inert career.

Then a funny thing happened. Anderson caught fire in a way that was in many ways far more unreal then anything either Tim Tebow or Cam Newton have done this past season. Tebow and Newton were well known commodities. Anderson could have walked through any mall in Cleveland at noon on a Sunday in December and no one would have noticed. The Browns under Anderson didn’t go on a specific tear. Their longest win streak was 3 games. But Anderson was terrific, putting together a season of historical significance. And while the Browns tied the Steelers for the division lead, they lost the tie breaker as the Steelers, not surprisingly, swept the season series. Then the Browns lost out on a wild card when the Indianapolis Colts tanked the last game of the season against the Tennessee Titans. It was a large measure of satisfaction when the Titans lost to San Diego in the first round of the playoffs and the Colts, coming off a 13-3 season and with great Super Bowl hopes, also lost to the Chargers.

Things looked so good for Crennel at the moment and for Savage, the general manager who stoutly stood behind Crennel when the wheels were falling off in 2006, that owner Randy Lerner gave both new contracts.1  

1 If you want to know why a hold out inevitably follows a player’s first break out season, it’s because of owners like Lerner. Neither Crennel’s nor Savage’s contract was up. But buoyed by one year of success and disregarding one year of failure, Lerner acted like he had just won the lottery and decided to blow all the winnings on a flying car, which would have been a much better investment then giving either Crennel or Savage new, more lucrative and longer term deals that neither had quite yet earned. Lerner had to swallow both contracts after a disastrous 2008 season, thus continuing the pattern of throwing good money after bad when he Butch Davis quit and later perfected when he bought Aston Villa. He may be an idiot with money but wouldn’t you like to be one of his kids? Better still, someone he likes enough to hire?

But the 2007 season ended up being far more smoke and mirrors then substance. Those passes Anderson completed in 2007 became overthrown interceptions the next and Braylon Edwards, off of his one good season, became an intolerable pain in the ass in the locker room that Crennel simply couldn’t control. As other players watched Edwards do what he wanted without consequence (remember the trip to the Ohio State/Michigan game that caused Edwards to miss a team meeting on the night before a game?), other players acted similarly. Each week you could literally watch parts fall off the car as it careened down the highway with no one at the steering wheel.

The season ended at 4-12, just like Crennel’s first season, with the 10-6 season sandwiched in between. What characterized Crennel’s tenure most, though, was his massive disorganization. A lifelong assistant suddenly thrust into the spotlight, Crennel was gentle in his demeanor and approach, treating the players like visiting grandkids and he the goodtime grandpa. The problem was that the grandkids were an unruly mess and there were no parents to send them back to at the end of the day. The inmates were running the asylum and tried to keep the status quo by constantly praising the warden as the greatest guy around.

I’m surprised Crennel has gotten a second chance though in context, maybe not so much. He worked with Scott Pioli, Kansas City’s general manager, in New England. But this won’t end up any better for Crennel then it did in Cleveland. Crennel may have learned some lessons in the last few years, but he’s never going to be a successful head coach. His niche is as an assistant, someone that the players can occasionally confide in when they feel they’re being picked on by the head coach. He’s simply too good natured to draw firm lines with the various malcontents that populate NFL locker rooms from time to time. Stil, I envy Crennel a bit. Securing the Kansas City job is like winning the lottery but not because he’s a head coach again. More so because it will give him a chance in the next year or two to retire quietly on the contract that the Kansas City owner will have to eat for having greenlighted this hire in the first place.

**
Although many in the media have been writing the obituary of the Pittsburgh Steelers for years, this time they may be right. When the playoff season closes after this season, the award for the worst performance will undoubtedly be handed to those Steelers.

First of all, the Denver Broncos aren’t a very good team irrespective of what miracles Tim Tebow and Jesus are able to accomplish this year. The Broncos play in the worst division in the NFL at the moment and basically by finishing 8-8 won it by default. (Fascinating, though, isn’t it, that three teams in the division finished 8-8 and the fourth 7-9?

That’s the kind of mediocre parity that would have given Paul Tagliabue a chubby.) The Steelers on the other hand looked to be on the upswing. They finished 12-4, which was tied them with the Ravens for the second best record in the conference. But if there is such a thing as a soft 12-4, these Steelers accomplished it.

This past Sunday they were exposed for the aging mess that they’ve been building toward for several seasons. All it took was a few key injuries to the several octogenarians on the team to underscore this fact. Ben Roethlisberger will recover from the gimpy ankle he suffered against the Browns but he’s not the biggest problem anyway. The Steelers are old on offense and old on defense. Their best players all are on the back sides of their careers.

The bigger problem though is that the Steelers, who for years seemed to always find the right replacements, may have made a major miscalculation by letting this group get old together. Where they had been deft in cutting ties to players at just the right moment, this time they let it ride for a few more years and lost the opportunity to do what they had done nearly better then any other—draft well and work those players in quickly.

No one who watched the Steelers’ wretched offensive line on Monday came away thinking that they are poised for a quick rebound. Indeed, four of the front seven on the offensive line, indeed half the offense, are at least 29 years old. In NFL dog years, that’s old. The situation is even worse on defense where 7 of the starters are at least 32 years old. It’s now clear why James Harrison resorts to thug-like antics such as the cheap shot on Tebow Sunday. He’s 33 years old and that’s the only way he can make his presence felt. I don’t see the Steelers taking any sort of Browns-like nose dive to the bottom of the conference, but neither do I see them being an elite team in the near-term either. The great year they just had, from a record standpoint, will just serve to delay their repairs as they suffer the purgatory that’s created when you limp into the playoffs and then end up with only a lousy draft position to show for the effort.

**
I wonder if Reggie McKenzie, the new general manager for the Oakland Raiders, learned something from how poorly Mike Holmgren handled the Eric Mangini situation.

Emboldened by the death of Barnabas-in-a-turtleneck Al Davis and being the first person to hold the GM title for the Raiders, McKenzie decided that head coach Hue Jackson wasn’t his type of coach and canned him after only a year at the helm. It is either that McKenzie didn’t think Jackson had the right stuff to be a head coach or that he felt Jackson had bungled key personnel decisions, like acquiring Carson Palmer for a first and second round draft pick. Either would have been enough. Both sins put him squarely in the Mangini camp.

Whereas Holmgren kept Mangini and wasted an entire season in the process, something Holmgren now reluctantly admits in the same way that I reluctantly admit I watch the Cavs, McKenzie decided that would be a ridiculous approach and sent Jackson off to contemplate his next coaching job.

The move isn’t going to make McKenzie popular with the fraternity that is NFL head coaches past and present but it is the right thing, if the Browns are any example. But ultimately it’s the right thing for the Raiders. By almost every measure imaginable, the Browns latest facelift was delayed at least 12 months, and actually longer when you factor in the impact of the lockout, by Holmgren’s incessant need to look like a good guy to his coaching brethren. That’s why the Browns find themselves, at best, stuck in the lowest ring of purgatory now and for probably another season or two, and the Raiders will find themselves much closer to the playoffs next year.

**
With the playoffs in full bloom and this weekend representing the single best weekend in professional football, this week’s question to ponder: Why is it so difficult for the NFL to simply guarantee each team one possession in overtime?

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Staying the Course, Again

If you treat press conferences conducted by Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren as performance art, then his latest body of work, on display as it was Thursday, didn't quite measure up to the provocative performance of a few weeks back. Thursday he was calm, collected and all together non-specific. It’s the kind of performance anyone could have turned in.

It paled in comparison to the star turn he made the last time he took to the podium spitting, spewing and basically blaming the media for being nattering nabobs of negativism who won't be getting any extra Browns playoff tickets from him. Like any example of performance art, it made you think even if that thought was “what the f _ _ _?”

But if you treat a Holmgren press conference as an opportunity to learn when exactly the Browns will quit wandering through the NFL like they’re one of the Lost Tribes of Israel then it was a major disappointment. Holmgren took about 75 minutes to say what can be summed up in 3 words “stay the course.”

Actually, I have no great problem with Holmgren's message, mainly because he's right. It’s just that he’s not the first or only Cleveland Browns’ executive to espouse that view. Just the latest. Maybe I should consider renaming this blog to "Stay the Course, Again."

It’s rather defeating to reminisce about such an inglorious past, but if one of the great truths in the NFL is stay the course, then the other great truth is that those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.

In late November, 2006, with the Browns under the unsteady leadership of Romeo Crennel, a serial good guy but an undisciplined mess of a head coach, and reeling once again, general manager Phil Savage stepped to the podium to proclaim his faith in Crennel and to declare, wait for it, that the Browns would be staying the course.

Savage, like a country lawyer, made an impassioned argument for staying the course, pointing out that the really good teams and franchises got that way through stability. He then talked about Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech and how fans wanted him out after his first season and by staying the course things worked out well. He talked about Brian Billick at Baltimore and how fans wanted him out and yet he went on to win a Super Bowl before he, too, was fired. He then talked about Bill Cowher to presumably make the point about how good things happen when you stick with one horse.

When that 2006 season ended, the Browns sat where they sit today—4-12. And yet, in the short term, Savage was right. The next season the Browns won 10 games even though they didn’t make the playoffs, a very rare occurrence in the NFL for any 10-win team. The problem? They really weren’t on the right course.

The next season demonstrated that the previous was achieved mostly through smoke, mirrors, an easy schedule and one transcendent season by Derek Anderson, who then fell off the map. The Browns quickly regressed the next two seasons when their talent didn’t match the assessment they had made of it. Crennel was canned, so was Savage and it was time again for a new course.

That next course lasted about a half season after Lerner impulsively hired Eric Mangini and then watched him lay waste to the franchise in near record time. Lerner quickly brought in Holmgren to chart still another course, which is where the franchise finds itself today.

But the back story to why all that occurred lies in the course the Browns were staying under Savage. Four months after Savage’s impassioned “stay the course” plea Lerner visited various newsrooms around the state to essentially make the same pitch. It wasn’t so much that he was making the case to keep Savage and Crennel as he was that Crennel and Savage needed much more time to see their plan through because the cupboard was bare when they arrived.

Lerner talked about how a good NFL team needs about 35 core players and at that time, early 2007, the Browns only had 18. In other words, there was much work to be done and it could only get done by, wait for it, staying the course.

The problem was that when things all came crashing down it turned out that Lerner (and Savage, by proxy) had missed the mark badly on the state of the team. Not only did it not have 18 core players, not even close, but they hadn’t made any meaningful progress in adding to the mix.

Here is the list of players from 2007 that Lerner claimed were core to the Browns’ development as a upper tier franchise if only the course would be stayed: “I have (Joe) Jurevicius, (Orpheus) Roye, Kellen Winslow, Braylon Edwards, Kamerion Wimbley, Sean Jones, Brodney Pool, Eric [Steinbach], Jamal Lewis, Andra Davis, Charlie Frye, D'Qwell Jackson, Leigh Bodden, Josh Cribbs for special teams certainly if not other, Steve Heiden, and emerging players like Leon Williams, Lawrence Vickers, Jerome Harrison, Travis Wilson.”

Remember, that’s 2007, just 4 years ago. Only 3 current Browns’ players remain with the team: Steinbach (injured all season), Jackson and Cribbs. Arguably all 3 remain in the “core” category. But the rest of the list is mostly laughable, especially the inclusion of players like Jones, Lewis, Davis, Frye, Williams, Harrison and Wilson.

Yet that’s the course that Lerner wanted to stay, at least until he fired Savage. It illustrates mostly the disconnect between theory and reality. The Browns’ cupboard wasn’t bare. There was no cupboard in the first place. It was a team with a random assortment of players that couldn’t be counted on to accomplish much of anything, so it didn’t. Had the team actually been further along, as implied by Lerner, it would be paying dividends today and fans wouldn’t be getting another earful of stay the course messages from the latest architect.

So while I have no great quibble with Holmgren’s message, it really was delivered in a vacuous way and without any real understanding of why it tends to fall on deaf ears. Far better than Holmgren, Browns fans know their history. They know what they’ve been promised and they know when they’ve been let down.

It would have been would have been instructive to hear Holmgren’s or general manager Tom Heckert’s view on how many core players the Browns need, how many they currently have and who they are as the context for staying the course they’re on. But Holmgren was too busy dodging specifics for earnest eye-brow furling instead.

In truth, the Browns do have more core players now then they had in 2007, but the number is still south of 10 and that, ultimately, is the crux of the problem. I’m not sure that any NFL franchise can ever have or even needs 35 core players. But they certainly need at least 20 and can’t win more than a handful of games when it’s less then 10. When you consider that the Browns aren’t even in double digits at the moment, you start to appreciate the enormity of the task at hand.

So it all boils down to the most operative question: “what course?” To Holmgren and Heckert, that course is the one that sees them gathering draft choices like game tickets at Chucky Cheese and making them count. It means eschewing any sort of quick fix through free agency. It means giving the players on board, at least those that are worth the effort, the time to grow. That’s all well and good if they’re right about what they have at the moment. They may be but too much history suggest otherwise.

Still, if this is what fans are being force fed and Holmgren and Heckert are really committed to building methodically, then they are absolutely right about one thing: they can’t blow the upcoming draft. They have gathered together a number of picks and need to hit on nearly every one if this franchise is really going to take a significant, permanent step forward in the next few years.

If they don’t then it will be time for Lerner to hire his next genius and set his next course and time for the rest of us to once again find another team to root for in the playoffs.

Tuesday, January 03, 2012

All Giddy in Berea

For a team that just completed another year of abject futility, the Cleveland Browns seem awful giddy at the moment. Head coach Pat Shurmur had a real bounce about him at his year end press conference, in contrast to his usual dour demeanor. All the post-season stories being written focus solely on the great future this team has, according to players and staff alike. Of course, the post-season stories being written after the last several seasons said pretty much the same thing from a different but similarcrew, but why quibble?

If the Browns are happy with their direction, then why spoil the party? Would it really do any good at this point to talk about the 4 wins this season, which is one less then in either of Eric Mangini’s two miserable seasons? Is it really necessary at this juncture to talk about a team that scraped the bottom of the barrel once again on offense and approached scoring touchdowns like teenagers approach taking the SATs?

When it comes to the Browns, cynicism easily prevails. Fans have heard so many versions of the same warmed over rhetoric about new directions, building the foundation, patience, time, draft picks, development and the like that they’ve become jaded to any process.

Need proof? How many fans were at Cleveland Browns Stadium this past Sunday to watch their team play the hated Pittsburgh Steelers? Unless they were disguised as orange seats or decided to wear black and gold just to blend in, then not many.

I doubt that Randy Lerner noticed but perhaps Mike Holmgren did, but only if he has an attendance bonus clause attached to his contract. It was the most visible sign yet that the fans aren’t yet buying what he’s selling, perhaps because they still aren’t sure at this point exactly what he is selling except an amorphous concept of patience that thus far has resulted in Holmgren squandering one season in order to keep a coach he never wanted and allowing a rookie head coach to take on two jobs instead of concentrating on the one he’s never had.

As I sit here again dissecting another season, I still have no idea what this team stands for, and that's been true now for years. I understand that a new offense is still in its infancy and that there are a dearth of players on the current roster that could execute it anyway, but as practiced this season it all seemed like just such a big mess.

On defense, it’s a mixed bag. There was significant improvement when you consider the overall stats but yet this team still can’t stop even mediocre running backs from gaining huge chunks of yardage each and every game. The defense isn’t particularly physical as all the missed tackles each week will attest. And while the pass defense was fairly stout, particularly inside the red zone, they still allow way too many big plays to be considered an upper echelon unit.

But those are the details. What’s the bigger picture? What’s Mike Holmgren’s vision? What kind of team is he really looking for? What’s Pat Shurmur’s vision? What kind of team is he really looking for?

Those answers to those questions are just as mysterious today as they were the day Holmgren arrived and as near as anyone can tell, outwardly this team has made no progress in essentially two years of Holmgren’s leadership. I guess when you don't have a specific destination, any path will do.

All that said, though, perhaps we should take some solace in the words of defensive back Sheldon Brown who expounded at length Monday in a story written by the Plain Dealer’s Mary Kay Cabor on how close this team is to being significantly better. When his playing days are over, the front office should grab him if for nothing else then team spokesmen. He offered the most cogent and articulate explanation on the state of the team that I've heard in years.

Brown dispelled two related notions up front. First, this team is not a mere key draft pick or two from changing its fortunes. Second, using a first round draft pick on Heisman trophy winner Robert Griffin III with the thought that he’d be the team’s savior is “crazy.”

Brown’s right. Fans are rightly frustrated but that doesn’t mean they’re not crazy. There a fair number of them at the moment that have gone off the rails in trying to find the appropriate target(s) for their frustration. It may very well be that Colt McCoy isn’t a franchise quarterback, for whatever that means anymore, but anyone who suggests that this year provided enough evidence of that is as loopy as Michelle Bachman.

The Browns’ offensive line, particularly the entire right side, was as weak as any team in the league and perhaps the weakest of any team not the Chicago Bears. When Eric Steinbach went down, general manager Tom Heckert did an awful job of finding credible backups. Tony Pashos, as brittle as a porcelain tea cup, couldn’t block a cold at this point in his career. Shaun Lauvao? If he wasn’t false starting or holding, you wouldn’t have even noticed him on the field, except as the one with his hand on his hips as he looked at his man draped on top of a prone McCoy. As for their backups? I defy anyone to name them without looking at the Browns’ depth chart.

The weakness in the line manifested itself in poor pass protection and a poor running game, the two keys for any quarterback to be successful. And that’s before we even stop to consider that the number one receiver on the team didn’t even play his senior year in college, the number two receiver catches like Braylon Edwards and runs like Bob Golic, and the third receiver is a converted quarterback.

There isn’t a quarterback in the league, and I say that without any intent to exaggerate, who could have turned that chicken stuffing into chicken salad, not a one. So even if Andrew Luck somehow fell to the Browns (or they traded up), absent any other change on offense the only change you’d see next year is that the Browns would go from 30 to 32nd in the league in scoring and the team would once again be staring down the barrel of a four or five win season.

What the Browns need far more than a quarterback at the moment are receivers, offensive linemen and running backs, in that order, assuming Steinbach can play next season. If Steinbach cannot come back, then it’s a toss up between linemen and receivers as to where the need is the greatest.

Where Brown was particularly insightful, however, was in talking about the youth on the team and the need to let it mature rather than simply blow things up as the Browns tend to do every two years. Brown believes that the additional experience that the young players on defense have gotten this past year will pay huge dividends, assuming the players are willing to do what it takes to take the next step in their own development. That’s a big assumption, perhaps, but it is true that the biggest leap for most professional players is between their rookie and sophomore years.

Finally, Brown talked about Shurmur and had nothing but praise for him. It’s become popular of late to blast Shurmur, at least when fans have taken a break from blasting McCoy, for the ills of the Browns. It’s misplaced.

Shurmur, like McCoy, is very far down on the list of things that went wrong with the team this year. Mostly the top 20 spots of that list are populated by things such as a lack of credible players (blame the general manager) and the impact on the lockout on a rookie coach installing a new system.

Shurmur, like the young players on defense, has to step up his game, but to suggest that he can’t progress as a head coach or that he’s in over his head is to ignore all evidence to the contrary. As Brown noted, though he didn’t have to, the one thing you could definitely say about this team in a positive way is that it didn’t quit at any point during the season.

There were low points and blow outs but those weren’t sustained. Usually the team kept it close even as they were usually overmatched and often by a huge margin. Both Pittsburgh games provided the best example of that, particularly this past Sunday’s when it would have been far easier to have gone through the motions then to put any effort into it.

I don’t necessarily share Brown’s optimism that this team is close, mostly because it’s a mantra that I’ve heard before and partly because it’s exactly what you’d expect an aging player looking to hang on would say in order to stay in the good graces of a club he hopes will employ him again next season. I do admire his candor nonetheless.

And irrespective of whether I or anyone else share’s Brown’s optimism, it doesn’t mean he’s not speaking the truth. He is. The only way for this team to get good enough to make the playoffs on a regular basis is to pick a true course and stay it for more than a year or two.

But that’s not what the fans want to hear, mostly because they’re fed up with hearing the truth and don’t trust that anyone associated with the Browns has the ability to do anything meaningful about it anyway, as two decades of futility demonstrate.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Another Season on the Runaway Train

How you view the Cleveland Browns 13-9 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday depends mightily on the bar you set. As measured by the usual late-season poundings the Browns endure from the big brother that's probably getting tired of pushing them around, it was a success. As measured by the usual things the NFL tends to chronicle more meaningfully, like wins and losses, not so much.

The loss came in the same mind numbing way that most Browns losses have come this season. A solid defensive effort for most of the game kept it close but a dearth of playmakers on offense once again kept the Browns from entering the end zone when they had the opportunity and when they needed it most. Settling for field goals early and unable to capitalize on two Steelers' turnovers and a final shot at the end zone late, the Browns lost to the Steelers for what seems like the 183rd straight time.

It also completed the Browns' 8th losing season in their last 9, and 16th losing season since 1990. It also marked the 10th time since their return in 1999 that they've won 6 or fewer games in a season. There's simply no way to sugarcoat it. The Browns as a franchise really are a runaway train, as Chris Palmer so presciently noted over a decade ago.

But really in the grand scheme of all things Browns, this was as meaningless of a game that could possibly take place so getting exorcised at this point is a wasted energy. Disregard any notion from some of the players, such as Josh Cribbs, who called the game “their Super Bowl.” It's a rather hollow statement, like “moral victory.” The Steelers had something to play for, the Browns didn't. The Steelers took care of business, the Browns did what they've done 12 other times this season, play the victim.

The point, I guess, is that the backdrop to Sunday's game was about as irrelevant as a Browns' game can get, at least in terms of having any meaning locally. It's in that context, truly, that this game must be quickly viewed and easily forgotten.

If you're nevertheless trying to discern some meaning, then two things stood out. First, the Browns' shortcomings, so brilliantly displayed game after game, are as apparent as the backside of Kim Kardashian. Second, and to be more specific, what Sunday did so ably demonstrate is that the failures of this team don't start with the quarterback. Seneca Wallace, subbing again for Colt McCoy, looked exactly like McCoy has looked most of the season.

Maybe that's an indictment of McCoy or Wallace or both, I'm not sure anymore. What it is an indictment of is a porous right side of the line that can't sustain blocks in the passing game or open up holes in the running game and a lack of big time receivers that can consistently be counted on to scare an opposing defense.

Take the example of the Browns' two possessions in the fourth quarter following fumbles by Steelers' running back Isaac Redman and then the Browns' final possession of the game.

The first possession took place just as the fourth quarter started. Taking over at the Pittsburgh 43 yard line (after a face mask penalty on James Farrior on the Joe Haden recovery of the Stedman fumble) and trailing just 13-9, this was the place where a good team rises up and snatches the momentum.

Not the Browns. Wallace threw incomplete on first down and Montario Hardesty had no gain on second down. Wallace completed a rare pass to Mohamed Massaquoi, rare not because he wasn't throwing to Massaquoi but rare because Massaquoi actually held on, that gave the Browns a first down. But that's as far as it went. Hardesty lost two yards on the next play, Massaquoi dropped Wallace's next pass and then a short, underneath pass to Greg Little was incomplete. The Browns were forced to punt.

Given an almost identical second chance minutes later, the Browns reacted in almost identically futile fashion. After a completion for a first down to Cribbs, Wallace then missed on his next three passes and the Browns again were forced to punt with just over 4 minutes remaining in the game.

The Steelers had a chance to run out the clock and seemed well on their way to doing so but on 3rd and 2 with 2 minutes remaining, the Steelers decided not to trust Redman again, who was subbing for the injured Rashard Mendenhall, and instead forced a risky pass from Ben Roethlisberger that went incomplete.

It gave the Browns one final chance with 1:46 remaining and no time outs. With snowflakes the size of canned hams flying furiously, Wallace moved the ball into Pittsburgh territory with a series of out passes. But when Evan Moore couldn't get out of bounds on a catch at the Pittsburgh 24-yard line, Wallace, demonstrating he can learn something about clock management, spiked the ball with 5 seconds remaining. It gave the Browns one final opportunity that went for naught when a Wallace Hail Mary fell harmlessly in the end zone.

While any of those three possessions nicely summed up the season, it's not as if the rest of the game ran anything other than to script.

After a scoreless first quarter that saw the Steelers strangely forego a field goal attempt from the Browns' 32-yard line on their first possession, the Browns rode the game's first wave of momentum to take an early 3-0 lead on a Dawson 26-yard field goal.

The momentum was courtesy, first, of a Jabaal Sheard sack of Roethlisberger that turned what would have been a short Scott Suisham field goal try into a 45-yard attempt into the wind. It went wide right. That gave the Browns a certain bounce in their step that lasted nearly all the way to the Steelers' end zone. But on 1st and goal at the 4 yard line, Peyton Hillis, last year's touchdown machine, lost 4 yards. Two passes ostensibly intended for Massaquoi were incomplete and the Browns settled for the field goal.

The Browns took a 6-0 lead near the end of the first half on a Dawson 45-yard field goal, but Pittsburgh got on the board with a Suisham 19-yard field goal just as the half expired. That was a victory of sorts for the defense though as Roethlisberger had moved the Steelers down to the Browns' 1-yard line with just over a minute remaining. But lacking any timeouts, the Steelers were forced to throw and both Rothliberger passes were incomplete, forcing the short field goal.

The Steelers' tied it on their first possession of the second half with a Suisham 29-yard field goal (after a long drive stalled at the Browns' 11 yard line) and then took the lead for good on their next possession following an interception by Troy Polamalu of a Wallace pass at the Browns' 43-yard line. Redman, holding on to the ball, finished the last 7 yards of the drive with a nice run up the middle for the touchdown and the ultimate margin of victory.

Though the Browns had those 3 separate opportunities to potentially win the game in the fourth quarter,
it wasn't to be, again.

So let the evaluation begin, though how much is really necessary is an open question. The Browns were bad in every month of the season and for the identical reasons each time—lousy blocking, poor running, dropped passes, arm tackling, that sort of thing.

Nothing about what took place Sunday was particularly instructive either, although Cribbs had a career day receiving with 7 catches, many of them acrobatic and in traffic, for 91 yards. Hillis had only 10 carries for 30 yards before exiting with an apparent knee injury and Hardesty was a non-factor.

The one thing about this offseason that will be different is that the Browns won't be looking for a new head coach. Pat Shurmur's job is safe even though there is some sentiment brewing among fans that Shurmur is indeed a major part of the problem.

That's a tough call at this point, as difficult, really, as assessing McCoy's potential. Shurmur had nothing to do with filling out the roster. He was foreclosed by the lockout from conducting any sort of offseason program that would have familiarized the players with a new system. By the time the lockout ended, much of the preseason was lost, further frustrating any chance to fully install a new office.

The one thing that will be the same about this offseason? It's the realization once again of what the Browns really need—everything. It will be the third season of the Mike Holmgren regime and this time he would do well to bring a sense or urgency to a fan base whose patience has about run out, if all the orange seats around Cleveland Browns Stadium in a game against the team's most hated rival is any indication.

Because another 4 or 5 win season and the Browns will find themselves like the Cincinnati Bengals, practically begging fans to attend games that no one will much care about anymore.