Monday, April 30, 2012

Drafting Headscratchers

Whether or not it makes sense for the Cleveland Browns to have taken a 28-year old quarterback in the first round of the draft, a quarterback who, like another failed NFL quarterback, Drew Henson, played baseball first, the question remains: should the Browns trade Colt McCoy?

On the surface the question seems ridiculous. Brandon Weeden may very well be projected as a starter, but so was Henson and that didn't work out too well for the Texans. In fairness though, the comparison isn't quite apt because there was a long stretch of lonesome between baseball and a return to football for Henson. Weeden is fresh off his college football career. But even eschewing the baseball back to football angle, it's nonetheless true that projecting a “kid” that will be 29 come October as a NFL starter at the game's toughest position before he's ever taken a snap is a little premature, to say the least.

But even eschewing that large qualifier, trading away at worst a very useful backup is a dangerous proposition for any team, let alone a team like the Browns where depth at any position is a foreign commodity.

Yet a trade could happen. And if it does, you can blame Derek Anderson.

Maybe Brady Quinn never really did have what it takes to be a NFL starter but part of the reason his career never got started in Cleveland had everything to do with the fact that a project like Anderson suddenly had a career year at the wrong time for Quinn and it pushed back his development precipitously. It didn't help that Quinn listened to his agent and foolishly sat out of most of training camp his rookie season, essentially eliminating any chance he had to win the job out of training camp. But the fact remains that as Anderson emerged as the Browns drafted Quinn and it became uncomfortable in Cleveland for both players and the fans.

It is true that a team with two starting quarterbacks really has none, as the New York Jets will soon discover. So as long as McCoy is viewed as a starter, by himself or the other players in the locker room and not, say, as a capable backup, it will remain uncomfortable in Cleveland for the two players and the fans. The league is filled with backup quarterbacks and is short on starters. If Weeden is the guy, McCoy sadly has to move on and team president Mike Holmgren is well aware of that fact.

But the better question really is what in the name of Brady Quinn were the Browns doing picking Weeden in the first place? I understand the meaning of love. But why did the Browns fall in love? Is it his age? Is it his arm strength? It can't be his dominance in the Big 12 because that was McCoy's calling card.

I do know this. Holmgren must really love Weeden to have picked him this high. Usually Holmgren trolls in the middle rounds for a quarterback hoping to get lucky and thereby further cementing his reputation as a genius when it comes to that position. A first round pick carries with it a risk to that reputation.

Heck, it's only Cleveland. Holmgren hasn't ever seemed completely vested in his role here anyway and probably retires, forcibly or otherwise, soon enough anyway. So what if Weeden gets tossed on the 10 years and growing scrap heap of disposable Cleveland quarterbacks? It's not like Holmgren has to live with the aftermath. Leave that to a fan base that has been supporting this franchise beyond all reasonable sense for years.

But when Weeden takes the field, the Browns can now check off the box that asks whether they have a first rounder at that position like most of the rest of the league. It will be interesting to see how long that box stays checked for we do know this. Rarely does a team make it through the season with its quarterback unscathed, particularly in Cleveland.

The pick of Trent Richardson is a whole other matter. The debate is not Richardson's talent so much as the position he plays. He had an amazing college career, but so too did plenty of other running back studs who ultimately proved to be less capable then guys who were considered afterthoughts when drafted. The real issue with Richardson is not his talent, it's philosophy. Does the nature of the NFL game as it's played these days require a dominant running back?

The verdict right now is that it does not. It does, however, require a dominant quarterback, which Weeden might be, but it also requires guys that can catch the ball. That leads to perhaps the most compelling question of the Browns' draft after three rounds: what the hell, why no credible receivers?

I'm beginning to think, actually, the general manager Tom Heckert simply doesn't like receivers, or he doesn't like taking receivers early. He did draft Greg Little last year, but Little was a project mostly because he hadn't even played the past college season. Instead, Heckert mostly stood pat with Brian Robiskie and Mohammad Massaquoi and he never adequately explained why. He's not exactly completely forthcoming now why he made four picks in the first three rounds and doesn't have a receiver yet to show for it.

The Browns head into next season in much the same shape they ended last season in. No one who can consistently catch the ball and no one who can scare an opposing defensive quarterback.

No offense to Josh Cribbs, but he's not now and never will be a significant NFL receiver. He's improved, certainly, but that's on sheer athletic ability. Cribbs though doesn't get open consistently because he doesn't run patterns consistently and probably never will. And Cribbs is the highlight.

Little seemed to improve as the season went along but that means he's on his way to establishing himself as a number two receiver, at best. He doesn't have the kind of top end speed that keeps corners up at night. He has decent size but as a project with no one on the roster to teach him, Little will continue to play in fits and starts as he learns the position. Massaquoi is on his way to becoming an afterthought. He drops too many passes (so does Little) and simply lacks the speed and size to endure a full year of hits. And those, folks, are your starters. Behind them are the Jordan Norwoods of the world, any of whom can develop but none of whom are projected to be a number one receiver.

It was almost laughable to hear Holmgren and head coach Pat Shurmur defend the decision not to pursue receivers in a meaningful way in this draft. Shurmur, in almost a carbon copy of his speech last year, talked about how he already liked the receivers on this roster as if all the Browns have been waiting for is a quarterback who can throw the ball down field.

Holmgren took a slightly different tack. He said the real problem last season was all the dropped passes and that will be better this season, just like that. I'm not sure why he thinks guys that couldn't catch last season will ultimately develop that skill, because he didn't say. The eternal optimist in the face of all evidence to the contrary, Holmgren must believe all those dropped passes were bad luck that has to even out eventually.

If either Holmgren or Shurmur believe what they're saying saying, and I doubt it, then they're delusional. When Shurmur made his amazingly similar speech last season, he was looking squarely at a corps of players that featured Cribbs, Robiskie and Massaquoi and the potential of Little. When the season ended it was one of the worst groups of receivers in the NFL last season and it there's no reason to think it will suddenly improve with the passage of time. There wasn't a number one receiver in the lot then, there isn't one now. Shurmur better hope Richardson can stay healthy because the only shot the Browns offense has to get better is if teams really are forced to crowd the box and play the run.

If fans are upset about anything related to this draft it should be the counterculture way in which this front office views its talent. Existing in a league that places a premium on passing while getting by with running backs from the generic shelves, the Browns deliberately went the opposite way. They get themselves a premium running back and seem quite satisfied with interchangeable pieces of mediocrity at receiver. Honestly, it doesn't make any sense.

There's no end game outside of immediate gratification to fans that should know better for anyone to put a grade on this draft based solely on the players selected or the moves they made to get them. Truthfully, it matters little that the Browns may have theoretically given up too much to move from 4th to 3rd in the first round if Richardson becomes a Pro Bowl caliber running back. No one will debate where in the draft Weeden was selected if he turns into a credible starter.

Instead of focusing on the players, examine the philosophy. You can see all the holes the Browns had to fill and understand that only so much reclamation work can be undertaken at any one time. But the focus on running back and quarterbackat the expense of receiver will remain the ultimate head scratcher unless and until the Browns finally bite the bullet and upgrade the receiving corps. Let's just hope it's well before the shine of having Richardson and Weeden on this team wears off.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

James Reconsidered?

As another mostly lost Cleveland Cavaliers season comes to a close, I still can’t shake the thought that it will be at least another 5 years, minimum, before the Cavs become really competitive and hence interesting again. And that’s being aggressive about it. When a NBA team falls off the map, it’s usually a 10-year rebuild, just ask Chicago once they finally lost Michael Jordan.

The real problem with NBA history in this regard is that it is so maddeningly consistent. For reasons which the NBA has yet to fully address, the sport with the least number of players is paradoxically the hardest sport for a franchise to turn itself around. Blame it on a combination of a playoff system that's too large, a salary cap that's too exception-ridden and an abiding bias by players against cold weather cities, among other things.

That’s why, ultimately, fans still seethe about LeBron James. Had he not abandoned the Cavs, Dan Gilbert and the team he owns and loves would still be sitting in high cotton. Games would still be selling out and nobody would have to endure a game in which the locals field a team of D league refugees unless it was simply to rest the starters at the end of the regular season for another push to another championship.

James is likely to remain the mostly simplistically complex athlete of modern times. Appearing childlike so often, James can veer into business mogul mode when he deems it necessary and then ascribe “just business” motives to his sometimes confounding moves or ideas. He likes to play the big shot but behind the facade is just a kid playing dress up.

At this point we’ve all written enough James screeds to have become rather bored by the topic. But just as boring are the consistently occasional in depth pieces that attempts to paint James as mostly misunderstood, a kind of “let’s set the record straight” counterpoint to the local and national venom James has otherwise engendered since he skipped out on the Cavs prematurely. These pieces tend to infuriate the natives more than mollify them.

It was in that vein and with that attitude anyway that I viewed Lee Jenkins’ latest piece on James in this week’s Sports Illustrated. James and his handlers have a vested interest in trying to remake the James brand and have had more than enough willing proxies in the media. Think Brian Winthorst as an example.

Yet I couldn’t help thinking as I made my way through it that this time the counterpoint worked, that James deserves a chance to grow up and add shade, nuance and context to a legacy that’s far from completed. Jenkins makes a compelling case, mostly by letting James be James, the man-child in full recognition that he is and remains a man-child.

What struck me most is how self-aware James really can be. Most professional are not consumed by their failures, recognizing that failure is inevitable. You can’t make 100% of every shot taken. You can’t catch every ball thrown your way. You’re not going to hit the baseball every time. But James is a different breed. He doesn’t strive for perfection but he is consumed by his failures.

If he’s to be believed, James sat secluded in Florida following the loss to the Dallas Mavericks last year paralyzed by the loss in the finals and his own disappearing act. He let himself down because, he says, he let his teammates down. Rhetoric, perhaps, but the context of his life suggest otherwise.

Indeed, every bit of regret James seems to harbor about everything stems from the feeling that he is letting others down. A psychologist could get wealthy quickly just on James but you need not have even stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night to understand that James, raised by a single mother with her own issues, has longed to be part of a collective.

Humans, like dogs, are pack animals. A guy like James may want to be at the top of the pecking order within his pack but it’s clear that James doesn't desire a singular existence outside of it.

The other fascinating aspect to the article is how needy James really is. He wants to be liked and accepted and doesn’t thrive in an environment when he’s not. It’s likely part of that same pack psychology that he carries with him.

James talks very little about how he left Cleveland, perhaps because Jenkins chose not to dwell on it or even ask about it. But it’s not much of a leap to believe that James isn’t happy about his noisy exit. He’s certainly not happy with the aftermath either. People were angry with him and he in turn was angry with them. He tried to feed off the anger last season, to embrace the role of villain he thrust upon himself and instead was swallowed up by it. He didn’t like what he had become, not just in Dallas but in his remaining years in Cleveland, and has now started the slow process of returning to the guy he always thought he was—happy, grateful, lucky.

In some ways the story of James parallels that of Tiger Woods, maybe in most ways.

James was never in a scandal but the outcome of his missteps were every bit as damaging to him as the outcome of Woods’ self-inflicted problems were on Woods. What’s fascinating about both has been the aftermath.

Despite repeated public pledges to be a better person, Woods remains mostly a public douche. Nothing much about his demeanor has changed. He remains cold and aloof to a fan base that wishes he were neither. He remains in his own controlled environment ever cautious about letting anyone see that there's a human heart beating behind that impenetrable exterior. If Woods has any real friends in life it would be a surprise.

James seemed to initially run down the same path as Woods in response to his self-created flame out. But he has since recognized that it's not only no way to live but it's counterproductive to performing at a high level.

Every time Woods goes into crisis mode he changes his swing. He finds a new coach and goes on a quixotic search for a secret that will somehow improve on a record that no one outside of Jack Nicklaus has ever achieved anyway.

It's the stuff of paranoia, really, and makes Woods appear all that much more strange. He is.

When James hits crisis mode, which in his world has been the perennial flame out in the NBA finals, he doesn't try to reinvent himself so much as improve on the shortcomings that have held him back. It's the more human response which is why James is ultimately the far more sympathetic figure.

James may have a public relations motive for wanting the world to see that he’s a work in progress but that’s OK. He is a work in progress and an adoring fan base, wherever it may be located at the moment, is always willing to give him that space.

James’ story, in the context told, is more human, which makes him more forgivable. The story's real charm, though, is simply that James, for all his fame and wealth and accomplishments, suffers like anyone else. It may not yet be time to forgive but it’s probably time for perspective.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Lingering Items--Free Agent Edition

By the time the Cleveland Indians get around to putting Johnny Damon on the field, the Browns will be starting training camp, or so it seems anyway. Did he sign? Didn't he sign? Do you really care?

When the Indians were struggling to score runs at the season's outset, their front office sprung into action in the only way it ever does: slowly and desperately. But then the Indians went to Kansas City to face the Royals, the American League's version of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and found their hitting stroke, or so it seems anyway. So the slow and desperate chase of Damon grew slower though still on track, or so it seems anyway.

I don't have any particular problem with Johnny Damon. Indeed, just as Keith Hernandez became a poster boy of sorts for pathetic free agent signings of a previous era, Damon has a real chance to serve that purpose for today's more urbane fan. Indeed, by signing Damon, the Tribe’s front office ticks off nearly box on the their prospective free agent checklist: uneven history; vagabond; mercenary; no viable other options. If he were coming off major surgery, he'd be the first 5 tool free agent signee of the Mark Shapiro/Chris Antonetti era.

Again, though, I don't have any particular problem with Johnny Damon. Ok, I have one particular problem with the signing but it's not actually with Damon. It's the fact that the Indians are reportedly paying him well in excess of $1 million on the if-come. For a team that's as frugal at the Indians, they sure know how to throw around the small money, don't they?

The minimum salary for a major leaguer in 2012 is around $500,000. The Indians reportedly signed Damon for almost triple that amount. Given that Damon had no interest from any other clubs or, perhaps more accurately, no interest from any other club willing to pay him over $1 million, the Indians essentially bid against themselves for a player that had he not signed would be selling autographs at county fairs this summer just because he needed something to do.

If you want to understand what an awesome agent Scott Boras really is, don't consider the multi-year multi-million dollar contracts he gets for superstars. A 12-year old could negotiate those. Selling any major league team on Damon for almost triple the league minimum is an accomplishment of the first order. All I can think is that the sound of Boras' voice on the other end of the phone when Antonetti inquired about Damon's availability must have made Antonetti wet himself before getting out the checkbook and writing in whatever figure Boras told him to.

Supposedly the Damon contract contains an out clause so that Damon can leave Cleveland once Grady Sizemore is healthy, a phrase that’s turned into an oxymoron. Damon should probably unpack his bags. Sizemore is the very definition of unhealthy which is why, exactly, the Indians re-signed him in the first place.

There's some chance that Damon can help offensively. The only real question is whether he'll produce more runs then he'll cost since his defense, to use a nice baseball euphemism, is suspect. It's a nice way of saying that Shelly Duncan is a more reliable outfielder. Damon at this point is somewhat of a professional hitter and would slot in nicely as a designated hitter, assuming that slot was available. Alas it’s not. The Indians have an overpaid designated hitter that can't play the field in Travis Hafner, so on that level the signing of Damon makes perfect sense, assuming George Kostanza is your general manager.

I do give the Indians credit for making a move. I also give them credit for making it entertaining. Now if they could make it productive, that would be change we could all believe in.


The Browns, meanwhile, slide into a two-month off season workout program that's been tremendously altered by new rules that are part of last year's collective bargaining agreement.

The new rules limit contact and drills in favor of strength and conditioning. The intent is to enhance player safety by keeping the players' bodies from breaking down over such a long season. No doubt Browns' linebacker Scott Fujita is smiling at this accomplishment at the bargaining table as he defends himself in front of league officials for allegedly actively participating in the New Orleans Saints' bounty program designed to do the opposite.

The collective bargaining changes make sense because injuries are already too big a part of the NFL's season. We’ve seen that for years with the Browns because of a lack of depth. They can barely compete with a healthy starting lineup. Injuries from about the 8th game on is what tends to send them careening toward 4-win territory every year.

Don’t expect much news out of the conditioning portion of the offseason workout program unless a player gets a bit mouthy and decides not to show up because he’s pissed about something. A player that could have been in that category but is not is quarterback Colt McCoy.

With various Browns’ officials talking out of both sides of their mouths all offseason about whether or not McCoy is or isn’t the future quarterback of this team, McCoy had a right to at least question the direction of the team. McCoy, however, hasn’t embraced that fray and neither has head coach Pat Shurmur, who told the media that he didn’t seek out McCoy specifically to assuage any potentially hurt feelings.

There’s an argument that could be made for having Shurmur reach out to McCoy, as a matter of courtesy if nothing else. I’m also pretty sure more then a few conspiracy theorists will see Shurmur’s approach as evidence that the Browns are indeed pursuing a new franchise quarterback through the draft. Perhaps.

But then you have to remember that the only profession in America with less job security at the moment than professional athlete is Republican presidential candidate not named Mitt Romney. Coaches use the “you can be replaced anytime” line as their main source of motivating player performance. The churn in professional sports is tremendous because there’s always someone younger and cheaper willing to take your job.

That is the bargain these players buy into when they enter the profession and it does them no good to whine about it when they actually experience it. Besides, if McCoy's feelings are hurt, then that would say something about his ability to lead the team anyway.

I think McCoy has much more to show this team and will perform better when there are better players around him, mainly because that’s true of any quarterback. Whether McCoy is a transformative quarterback is less certain and thus pushing him by pursuing other alternatives isn’t a negative. Neither is failing to smooth any hurt feelings he might have as a result.

Browns’ general manager Tom Heckert held his annual pre-draft press conference, a ritual repeated in every NFL city at just this time of year. In some ways it’s my favorite press conference of the year because it represents the largest net difference between the excitement generated by it and the newsworthiness of it.

Let me save you the time of reading the transcript and just summarize it here: There are a lot of players the Browns like. They may trade down but may stay at number 4. They could go defense or perhaps offense. Every player they're considering is really good. They have no concern about any character issues of any players.

If within that summary you can find some news or even a clue as to what the Browns will do then you deserve a Pulitzer. Heckert is no more going to reveal anything of substance about the Browns’ draft plans then would you if you were in his shoes. There’s nothing good that can come from tipping your hand unless you have the number 1 pick in the draft.

My best guess, using past performance as a predictor of future events, is that even if he were so inclined, Heckert has nothing yet to reveal because he hasn’t yet decided what the Browns will do. So much depends on what teams around him want to do. Draft day tends to send panic through the veins of general managers, though the drawn out way it’s now conducted actually works counter to some of that drama. Still, without knowing until draft day how desperate a team can be (e.g. Atlanta last season) it does make it a tad difficult to plan for every contingency.

If the draft is clean, the Browns will stay at the fourth slot and pick an impact player on offense, probably a receiver. It’s such a glaring need that almost anything other than that would invite another fan insurrection. But if teams around the Browns begin to panic, I won’t fault Heckert if he uses it to the team’s advantage. The Browns don’t just have one need, they have at least 18. Almost anything Heckert does will serve the team eventually.

The only concern is if Heckert panics, though I don't see that happening and for much the same reason. The Browns' needs are vast and almost any direction they go outside of left tackle they can credibly say they drafted the best player at their most pressing need.


A few words about the Bruce Springsteen concert at Quicken Loans arena earlier in the week. It should have been required viewing for every player on every Cleveland sports team. They would have learned something about how to approach professional entertainment in a way that recaptures the passion and glory of their youth—you know, the reason they got into it in the first place.

Springsteen is 62 years of age and is as good now at his craft as he ever was. The secret, I believe, is the pure joy he gets from his chosen pursuit. It's never a job but a passion. He then takes that passion and translates it into an experience that makes every crowd in every city feel like they got a special, one of a kind performance. I've seen him perform well in excess of 100 times over the last 30+ years and can tell you definitively that he never mails in a performance. Never. Ever.

Every professional athlete on every Cleveland team could certainly take some lessons from Springsteen even if they don't care for his music. Keep yourself in shape (hear that, Chris Perez?). Approach each performance like it's the last one you may give. Respect your fans because they're the ones paying your salary. Don't play because you have to. Play because you want to. Don't be afraid to smile once in awhile.

The crowd at the Q on Tuesday night was electric, responding to Springsteen in ways unimaginable at any Cleveland sporting event. That's not a criticism of Cleveland sports fans, either. I've been to all the playoff games at all our local venues. Cleveland fans know how to make noise. Ultimately, though, they are no match for a Springsteen crowd in any city and they won't be until they have teams that approach their professions like Springsteen approaches his.

Another great show by the greatest rock and roll artist the world has ever known.

With the NFL draft approaching, a question to ponder: Is there any bigger waste of your time then reading someone's mock draft?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Extending the Cynicism

If anyone other than Cleveland Indians general manager Chris Antonetti and team president Mark Shapiro had made the decisions to “extend” the contracts of Carlos Santana and Asdrubal Cabrera, I’d buy into it easier. As it is, when these two conspire to sign younger players to what are being called contract extensions, fans would do well to look at little more closely, mainly because with these two it's rarely as it seems.

Shapiro is a disciple of John Hart. Antonetti in turn is a disciple of Shapiro. Behind Antonetti is no doubt so acolyte that will also be a lesser light. In the Indians’ general manager, where inbreeding of its executive think is preferred, the generations are getting progressively weaker not stronger.

When Hart took a flyer on signing younger players to contract extensions, it was innovative. With an eye for talent, Hart singled out good young players and actually did make a financial commitment to them in a way no one else was doing at the time but in the same way that the Jacobs-owned Indians actually made commitments to legitimate free agents.

As the money has dried up under the Dolans’ ownership, the challenges have been greater and Shapiro, a generation removed from Hart, has never quite been up to the task. The best that can charitably be said about his tenure as general manager is that it was uneven, from questionable trades to questionable extensions with a few outright successes to keep the fans guessing.

I could rail about how Shapiro has taken a gift for gab and clipped speech and turned it into a career without actually having accomplished anything too meaningful on the field, but why rail about that? Fans already know that the Indians won the division in 2007 with Shapiro ostensibly in charge and have been awful ever since as he tinkered and tortured his way to creating a machine that can smoothly deliver a crap sandwich season after season.

Now comes still another generation removed in the form of Antonetti. Until Santana and Cabrera were signed to their “extensions” the Indians looked suspiciously like a team that was deliberately avoiding putting players under anything other than a one-year contract.

I could rail about how Antonetti, armed with statistics, helped make a mess of the Indians player development process when he was Shapiro’s first lieutenant, but why rail about that, either? Fans can see the fruits of his efforts each night as they gnaw through the imaginary phone telephone cords of the landlines they once owned bemoaning Antonetti’s inability to a) grow any meaningful talent through the draft and b) find meaningful help through questionable trades or in the cutout section of the flea market he shops every off season.

So when the announcement came that the Indians had signed Santana to an “extension” similar to that given to Cabrera, I didn’t know whether to get cynical or skeptical but I knew it had to be one or the other. It turns out that either will do.

The cynic in me believes that Santana was signed to an extension mainly on the strength of his two home-run performance in the team’s only win this season and the fact that he’s beating the cover off the ball in comparison to rest of his teammates at the inglorious pace of a .250 average. But the skeptic in me knows better. When it comes to making decisions about players the Indians move roughly at the pace of a governmental agency so the chance that Santana’s “hot” start factored into current thinking is minimal.

Really, though, it doesn’t take a professional cynic or skeptic to see through the veneer of these extensions as less about a commitment to spending money to retain valuable assets and more about an opportunity for team and player to hedge their bets.

A player with at least three years of service is eligible for salary arbitration. He isn’t eligible for free agency until after his sixth year. In the cases of Santana and Cabrera, the contract extensions, such as they are, buy the Indians certainty through the arbitration years while providing the players a launching pad for their inevitable trade somewhere else in that last year of their contracts should their performance meet or exceed expectations.

Because if there's anything worse to the Indians then a player underperforming his contract, it's a player on the brink of free agency outperforming his contract.

This is the kind of transaction that garners Shapiro the admiration of his fellow team presidents at the off season meetings and earns knowing nods to Antonetti from his counterparts in opposing press boxes each night. But don’t believe for a moment that it represents a change in direction for the team or the ones paying the bills. These extensions add no clarity to finding the answer to the inevitably frustrating question of whether or not this team will ever be properly funded to be truly competitive.

Don’t take my word for it, just be a student of history. The Indians under Shapiro have been bloodless in trading away talented fan favorites during their free agent seasons rather than pursue them to what would be true contract extensions. Shapiro first and now Antonetti understand the financial limits of their bosses and thus have laid the groundwork where it’s now accepted orthodoxy that the Indians can’t outbid any other team for the services of a player they grew and nurtured.

In truth, it’s a choice the Indians have made not to pursue high priced talent and not an inevitability thrust upon them by the baseball Gods or the economy. The operations of the Detroit Tigers prove that point.

Nonetheless, I’ve long since reconciled myself to this method of operation as most fans have. What’s frustrating though is for the Indians to try to treat these fans as some sort of idiots who cannot see through the simple pretense of the frugal way in which they choose to operate a franchise designed not to win but to turn a decent profit for the owner irrespective of performance.

Knowing that they couldn’t lose Santana and Cabrera for most of the periods through which they’re now signed, these new contracts don’t represent extensions as much as they represent agreed upon financial hedges against the vagaries of the arbitration process.

The problem with the arbitration process for the Indians is that it represents disorder to the anal-retentive way in which they like to operate. It almost doesn’t matter what kind of year the player had because arbitration only enriches, it never cuts. So no matter how either Cabrera or Santana performs during one of their arbitration years, they know they’ll get a raise with the only question being how much.

Since Shapiro likes to plan his 5-year operating budget down to the number of light bulbs that will be needed in the overhanging lamp in his office, it’s unfathomable to him to not know what number to plug into his budget for Cabrera's or Santana's salary in those years, particularly should Cabrera or Santana actually put together a good season.

Now these so-called extensions give Shapiro and Antonetti real budget certainty on two of their better players, allowing them to focus elsewhere. This isn’t really a criticism because having budget certainty is pretty important to any multi-million dollar business.

But creating budget certainty is not a proxy for commitment and the Indians have no more or less of a commitment to either player today then they had for them before the extensions were signed.

What I'm less certain about is why Santana or Cabrera signed on. They would get their money anyway. At best these new contracts, particularly for that first free agency year, represent an insurance policy against injury or really bad performance. Since neither are pitchers, I'm not sure that trade off makes sense in either case and I suspect that the agents won't outlive these deals.

Perhaps that's the real talent of Shapiro and Antonetti. They took a good deal for them and convinced the agents that it was a good deal for their clients. Not bad, when you think about. Now if Shapiro and Antonetti could just find a way to exercise that talent in a way that actually improves the team, by say, signing a free agent that can actually hit.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

Lingering Items--Passing Over Easter Edition

A loss on opening day isn't the end of the world or even the end of the season. It's not even the end of the series.  In a season as long as major league baseball's one game can be pretty meaningless except when you miss a playoff spot by that same game.

But the Indians won't miss the playoffs by just one game anyway so Thursday's loss to the Toronto Blue Jays will just be one that ends up one one side or other of the .500 ledger that will define the season.  Still, why is it that the Indians can't just lose a game and move on like most teams?  Why do they have to do things in such a historic and miserable fashion? And, for that matter, why does every loss have to illustrate exactly why there aren't more wins?

Thursday's excruciatingly boring loss was actually the perfect metaphor for an excruciatingly boring spring training.  There was very little to keep one's interest and most of the team and its coaches seemed to be going through the motions. 

The team that took the field on Thursday was much like the variations of it that took the field throughout spring training.  It featured players of various ill pedigrees trying to catch lightening in a bottle of careers that just don't seem to be panning out.  Behind them is a front office fixated on mining stats for greater truth while the ownership accepts the reality of its financial fate without contemplating how to change the paradigm.

It's not as if there isn't some talent on the team.  There is.  But if that’s the glue, what exactly is it holding together?  You didn't just need a program to identify all the new faces.  You needed ready access to the internet and its various resources to figure out the lineage of the pieces and parts that general manager Chris Antonetti has cobbled together to supposedly make a run at the Detroit Tigers. That's not exactly the textbook way to build a championship team.

The good news in general and with respect to Thursday, which news stands out as much like a sore thumb as anything, was Justin Masterson.  Eight very strong innings on opening day is not to be so easily dismissed.  He could have and ahould have finished what he atarted  Maybe he was tiring and had to be taken out of the game.  And in retrospect the performance of most of the bullpen Thursday was such that it's really unfair to second guess manager Manny Acta's decision to turn the game over to that bullpen.  It's just that you can't help but feel bad for Masterson, whose career here has been mostly of the hard luck variety and will continue as long as the bullpen is anchored by Chris Perez.

Perez made a mess of the game, yes, but in the larger sense it's hardly a surprise.  Perez himself is an undisciplined mess and that stems not just from a truncated spring training spent mostly nursing an injury.  It also stems from the fact that Perez seems to care little about his own conditioning or even his station in life.  Perez is deliberately taking the anti-athlete approach to one of the more critical jobs in baseball and the Indians will suffer for it, just like they did Thursday. Is it any wonder that the injuries he does suffer are suspiciously similar to those of the weekend warriors who throw a ball around about once every six months?

I get the sense that Perez seems far more interested in courting an image as a character then actually going about preparing himself to pitch in the major leagues.  He's out of shape and that doesn't seem to bother anyone associated with the Indians, including Perez.  CC Sabathia wasn’t and still isn’t a picture of conditioning either so maybe that doesn’t much matter.  Still would it kill Perez to visit a salad bar once in awhile instead of Five Guys?

Perez stood up after the game, bloated, unkempt and took the blame for the loss like a pro is supposed to do but yet he seemed so casual about it, the regret about his performance dripping from his mouth with ease like excess barbecue sauce from a pulled pork sandwich, it made me wonder whether his pitching really bothered him.  I doubt it did.

A closer has to have a short memory because saves do get blown. So in that sense there's no problem with Perez immediately putting the game behind him. But the concern with Perez is that he doesn't seem to care about anything—his conditioning, his appearance, his performance, his teammates.  Just cash the checks for as long as they roll in and then figure the rest out later. 

As much of a problem as Perez appears to be, let's also not obscure the fact that with the Indians, Cleveland now has three professional sports teams that can't generate offense.

It's as if Antonetti rehired Eddie Murray to be the hitting coach when no one was looking.  Given how low key the whole spring training regimen was, it's likely that's exactly what happened and we just didn't notice.

All the hallmarks of a Murray-coached offense were there Thursday and throughout spring training however: the lack of approach, the lack of patience, the inability to move runners. 

The Indians played 16 innings on Thursday and scored in only one of them.  Sadder still, they didn't put themselves in a position very often in any of those other innings to score. When they did, they couldn't get it done mainly because of a lack of discipline.   In context there was no chance the Indians were going to score again during that game.  It was just a matter as to when the Blue Jays would and put everyone out of their misery.

Twice Indians' hitters came to the plate with a man on third and less than two outs and twice they failed miserably.  Asdrubal Cabrera's weak grounder with the bases loaded was everything you needed to know about why.  After Michael Brantley had walked on four straight pitches, Blue Jays manager John Ferrell decided to engage in a massive display of over-managing.  Either that or he knew that Cabrera would never hit the ball out of the infield anyway so why not load it up with as many players as could fit?

Ferrell was right.  Showing all the patience of a puppy, Cabrera didn't even wait to see if Blue Jays pitcher Luis Perez, who didn't sniff the strike zone with Brantley, could find his control.  Instead Cabrera offered at the first pitch, which he could barely get a bat on, and grounded into an inning-ending double play.  Honestly it was everything you needed to know about how poorly this team prepared for the regular season wrapped up in one nice little moment.

There's no telling how the Indians will finish this season.  They got rocked on opening day last year and recovered pretty nicely.  It is just one game.  But yet when it comes to this team, why does it never seem to be just one game?


About that Gregg Williams tape...

Roger Goodell finally had a smoking gun and the real question now is whether professional football can survive. It's not an abstract question

Let's start with a more obvious point first, however.  Gregg Williams will never coach in the NFL again.  He probably won't be able to get an assistant defensive line coaching job in a Pop Warner league either.  For vastly different reasons, Williams is every bit as untouchable as Jerry Sandusky.

There's also another obvious point as well.  Goodell really had no choice but to do what he did to the New Orleans Saints, head coach Sean Payton and Williams.  On tape and in the most specific way possible, Williams addressed his players on who to hurt and how.  If that was the only evidence Goodell had it would still be enough.  Even if there wasn't a boatload of lawsuits pending against the NFL, Goodell still had to do what he did.

Now here is where it gets tricky. 

I'm not fond of the whole “everyone else does it defense” as a way of excusing what the Saints did but you just know it's true in this case.  The broader question, the one that Goodell doesn't want to contemplate even as he has, is whether the attitude of Williams is so institutionalized in the sport that ridding it is a losing battle. If that is the case then football will eventually die because eventually the pool of people who want to be deliberately maimed for money will go dry.

The NFL has always had and will always have a certain element of miscreants within its midst.  There are simply players that find it perversely satisfying to try and deliberately hurt their opponents. Oddly they aren't the problem so long as they represent the exception.

The problem is that football has too long glorified these exceptions in order to build brand cache. Pittsburgh Steelers' resident thug James Harrison deliberately courts an image as a tough guy and goes about his business on the field proving it with all manner of cheap shots intended to injure. He's been rewarded handsomely for it, his cheap shots shown repeatedly and not just as a cautionary tale but as an illustration of the state of the game. 

It's not as if Harrison is the only one.  Some of the more storied players in NFL history got that way precisely because their violent tendencies are the stuff of legend.  Those legends aren't urban, either.  They are an institutionalized part of the NFL experience, extolled by coaches, rewarded by owners and celebrated by the media that vote them into the Hall of Fame.

The question on the table now that all of the concussion-related lawsuits ultimately will attempt to really answer is whether football can survive in any other way.  If you ask the majority of the players, they will say it cannot because any concession by a player about the violence of his sport is considered cowardly.  But it is this mostly silent majority of players that need to speak up now and defend Goodell and what he's trying to accomplish instead of hiding behind the increasingly reprehensible DeMaurice Smith and his misguided attempt to always blame management for an issue his members mostly control.

It's sickening when Hines Ward defends Harrison each time he deliberately cheap shots an opponent. It's sickening when Drew Brees defends his head coach while abandoning the union brothers like Frank Gore who were deliberately targeted by his coach. It's ridiculous to extol Scott Fujita as one of the NFL good guys most concerned about player safety when he actively participated in the bounty pool.

Players of stature, like Brees, Fujita and Ward should instead have been the most vocal on calling out their teammates for their damaging behavior. Every word and deed in support just furthered the institutionalization of the problem and made it that much more difficult to stop.

The union and its members are on the wrong side of the problem when they openly mock Goodell, as many have, for trying to take a safer route for such a great game. It’s simply not true that football can’t survive without all the cheap shoting. It can and has.  What football can no longer abide is a head in the sand approach to the life threatening nature of the way some players and coaches want to play it.  If it has to abide that because Goodell has failed or because he has been undermined by the very players he’s trying to protect, then that is what will kill the game.


Still fixated as I am on the Indians at the moment, this week’s question to ponder: What is the Indians’ back up plan if Chris Perez’s Thursday is a trend and not an anomaly?

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

A Little Draft History

If it’s April in Cleveland, there are only two questions on the minds of local sports fans: How will the Indians finish this season and who will the Browns take in the draft?

As to the former, we can only hope that the roster, dotted as it is with no name position players who can’t hit and suspect pitching prospects with arm troubles and velocity problems, will not replicate the miserable spring training record it compiled. Unfortunately, it looks like it just might.

As to who the Browns will take, we can only hope it doesn’t end up in another lost opportunity, or three. When former head coach Eric Mangini, acting essentially as his own general manager, maneuvered around the draft a few years ago like a copier salesman at a Ramada Inn bar sizing up the talent on a Tuesday night, it ended in near abject disaster for the franchise.

Alex Mack has been a serviceable center, but hardly a stalwart who couldn’t otherwise be easily replaced. And he was the highlight of that draft. Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi were drafted in the second round with the idea that they’d become the foundation of an improved receiving corps. Robiskie was cut last year and Massaquoi has shown himself to be like Mack, only more so. Massaquoi is the kind of 3rd or 4th receiver that most teams already have. The depth he adds is marginal since there isn’t much talent in the 1st and second slots. (In truth, the real problem with Cleveland’s receivers is the same problem most Indians teams have historically had—plenty of players at exactly the same second or third tier talent level.) He’ll probably survive training camp this season if only because the Browns’ options are still so few.

But why single out Mangini? It’s not like any of the previous drafts were any better. Indeed, there’s only one player on the current roster from the three pre-Mangini drafts and none before that. You could go back further and chart the average length any of the Browns’ draft picks who actually stayed in the league spent in the NFL (about 2 years) to make the further point, but why bother?

The Browns are lousy at drafting and have been lousy at drafting for as long as they’ve been back in the league. It’s why they’re so bad now. But for the moment, let’s not lament the Browns and instead illustrate a much larger point as we look at some other teams’ inglorious draft history. For all the supposed science and money and time and kvetching that goes into the NFL draft by the experts employed by the teams, not to mention the curbside experts employed by networks or sitting on bar stools at BW-3, it still remains mostly a game of chance.


Long before now, Ryan Leaf became less a person and more a punch line. One of the best known and biggest draft busts in the history of the NFL, Leaf embodied everything that could possibly go wrong with the NFL draft. Now he’s back wearing a number, only this time it’s attached to prison garb and not a uniform.

The story of his arrest last week, and another this week, for allegedly burglarizing at least two homes to steal prescription drugs were just the latest in a long list of epilogues that have been written about Leaf. And as sad as it all is, the Leaf story is also a cautionary tale, really, on how utterly useless all the run up to the NFL draft can be.

Experts were about evenly split on whether Leaf was the better choice as the number one draft pick in the 1998 NFL draft or whether that honor should go to Peyton Manning. Manning played with the more established program at Tennessee while Leaf toiled in relative obscurity at Washington State.

But in ways in which only the draft can whip up frenzied thinking not just among fans but those paid big money to make these decisions, the argument over Leaf vs. Manning went almost down to the wire. Leaf had the better arm. Manning was more mature.

As the debate raged on, Manning vs. Leaf, Leaf vs. Manning, the San Diego Chargers, sitting at number three in the draft knew one thing: they wanted one of the two and really didn’t care which. So they swapped picks with Arizona, threw in another first rounder, a second rounder and Eric Metcalf-up-the-middle, for that right.

If you’re sensing a feeling a of déjà vu all over again, right down to the involvement of the Indianapolis Colts, there’s probably good reason. Twelve years later with the Colts having wrung out all they felt they could from Manning are now on the precipice of almost the same decision, only this time in the form of Andrew Luck vs. Robert Griffin III. The Washington Redskins, desperate for a franchise quarterback, made a blockbuster trade to ensure they’d get one of the two.

The more things change… And for what it’s worth, this is exactly the scenario the Browns, and not the Redskins, would have been walking into had they instead made the ill-advised trade for the second pick in the draft.

Would they have fared better than San Diego? Probably, but how come whenever someone says Griffin’s name I can’t help but hear them say “JaMarcus Russell?” Maybe they’re really saying “Akili Smith.” That may be unfair.

While the parallels are almost scary between then and now, there are some differences. In the first place, by all accounts Griffin is more physically gifted then Leaf was (not to mention Russell or Smith). Part of the reason Leaf looked so good resulted from the relatively inferior competition he faced each week playing for Washington State in the then PAC-10. (Heck, the now PAC-12 is an awful conference still). It’s that simple fact—it’s difficult comparing players across conferences—that contributes to the voodoo nature of the NFL draft in the first place.

But more importantly, Griffin, by all accounts is far more mature then Leaf then or even now. Griffin shows up for his interviews with teams and answers in a straightforward fashion. Leaf always had an entitlement chip on his shoulder and stiffed the Colts on a pre-draft interview, thus likely sealing his fate as a #2 choice.

Let’s not forget, though, that both Russell and Smith were also supposedly mature beyond their years, although in both cases that proved not to be true. Russell, in particular, was highly touted by Phil Savage who, before he imploded in Cleveland, was one of the more respected scouts in the NFL. Savage raved about Russell in ways usually reserved by a father for his son. It sounded like pre-draft hype and perhaps it was but I did sense that Savage really meant what he said. He had a relationship with Russell that dated back several years and seemed thoroughly convinced that he would be a franchise quarterback for some lucky team. He wasn’t.

Still, the object lesson of Manning vs. Leaf is that when there’s a near sure bet on the table in the NFL draft, you take it and don’t look back. Manning, given his upbringing and maturity (the son of a NFL quarterback, a 4-year college starter) was a near lock to be a good NFL quarterback. It was only a question of how good. Leaf, Russell and Smith can with the label of having greater potential upside. Initially the only question was how quickly it could be realized. Ultimately it was a question of why wasn’t it ever realized.

Given this history, the Colts then just as the Colts now will take the bird in the hand and draft the son of former NFL quarterback and a 4-year college starter instead of the player with the potentially greater upside. Though the Colts haven’t made their plans public just yet, it would be a shock of seismic proportions if they didn’t draft Luck. They will.

The Redskins will take Griffin and hope that the thrill ride of potential doesn’t break down quickly like it did for the Chargers (Leaf), the Raiders (Russell) and the Bengals (Smith).

The Browns on the other hand may end up not doing what they need to with the 4th pick, filling in the massive gaps on this team on both sides of the ball, and instead fall prey to this week’s flavor of the day, Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill, because some unaccountable talking heads from ESPN were jazzed by Tannehill’s pro day work out. For what that’s worth, that means that Tannehill looked awfully good wearing shorts, throwing out patterns to friends while assistant coaches chased him with blocking dummies. Not exactly game conditions.

If the Browns make that move, they do so knowing it will be a reach and the fans should accept that fact. Tannehill is smart but he started for the Aggies for only a year and a half. It’s not exactly a tremendous body of work on which to judge, which means that you’re buying potential and not actual production. It’s something that so many teams do as they convince themselves they’re smarter then everyone else. Usually they end up looking dumber then everyone else a season or two later.


It would have been a nice story if Leaf or Russell or Smith had gone on to have decent NFL careers, but it was never meant to be. In each case, none were nearly as good as the pre-draft hype. The arms were big but there are plenty of guys tossing footballs through hoops at carnivals with big arms.

What they each lacked, ultimately, was the intelligence and maturity it takes to play one of the most difficult positions in professional sports. To succeed as a NFL quarterback you have to be able to make that throw across your body and across the field to an outlet receiver who’s broken loose in the secondary and you have to do it while 4 or 5 guys all weighing at least 300 pounds collapse the pocket or seal you off on the edges. You also have to know what every other receiver is doing at the exact same time and then you have to discern the true defensive formation being run and not the one that’s being shown. And for good measure, you have about 5 seconds to get all of this done and you have to be able to do this 20 some times game in and game out, year in and year out.

That neither Leaf, Russell or Smith made it hardly qualifies as tragedy. Indeed, that there’s anyone that can get all this done and done well is by far the exception and not the rule. It’s the reason teams like the Browns go through quarterbacks like toddlers go through Pampers.

This is all a way of saying that the next time you get it in your head that the Browns screwed up by not mortgaging the future for RGIII or buying into the hype surrounding Tannehill it’s worth remembering that when you take anything other than the sure path in the NFL, you end up hitting more pot holes then smooth surfaces.

For a team like the Browns that have broken down in every season for nearly a generation, it’s time to ignore the hype and find the sure paths. That means more Joe Thomases and less pretty much everything else they’ve tried.