Thursday, January 24, 2013
There are any number of ways to look at the upcoming Super Bowl and the local and national media won't tire of trying to tell you what that should be. But really if you're a Browns fan is there any other context than to look at the participants and use them as a benchmark for how far your team has to go? Didn't think so.
For in truth, the only point of the NFL, indeed all sports really, is to find a way to get to the top of the mountain. When you're a team like the Browns that can't ever seem to exit base camp, all you can do at this time of year is to watch the better climbers do what they do best and figure out how to be one of them when you grow up.
The Browns journey over the last decade plus has been quixotic, to say the least. To say the most it's been one big cluster after another and while we've dissected all the reasons why until we're as sick as sick can be, the fact remains that neither the patient nor those who care about it most (that's you, the fans) has gotten any better. This is the narrative that we all know so well, including now owner Jimmy Haslam and his right hand hatchet man Joe Banner.
Haslam has made no great missteps since he bought into the Billionaire Boys Club known as the NFL unless you count his almost blinding trust of Banner. This isn't a screed about Banner, however, just a cautionary note that while Haslam's methodology is sound it success still hinges on the execution by people. Banner has enough of a resume to warrant some level of trust but right now the fans are a little queasy placing their faith in the guy who just placed his fate in the combined talents of Rob Chudzinski and Mike Lombardi.
At first I was confused because I assumed that the Browns and Banner were thinking of the guy who played Mike Lombardi in the TV show Rescue Me as their new personnel guy. Sure that Lombardi was confused about his sexuality but he was a helluva fireman and always had Tommy's back. So that had to count for something. Then someone told me it wasn't that Mike Lombardi but the recycled nut job who helped run Bernie Kosar out of town. That didn't exactly clear things up until I remembered that this is Cleveland and nothing smells as fresh as a repainted house. So yea, it made as much sense as the Cavs blind faith in Byron Scott.
The trepidation about the actual Mike Lombardi (and Chudzinski) is well earned, sure, but at what point do the fans just sit back and let it all be? There have been seemingly far more competent hires in the Browns' recent past and yet not a single damn one of them worked out. I suppose then just on the basis of that rare combination of dumb luck and contrarian thinking there's every reason to hope that this can work.
I know more about why Chudzinski hasn't yet been a head coach (young, paying his dues) then the reasons why Lombardi's been on the sidelines for the last 5 years giving curbside opinions into open microphones instead of showering his brilliance on some other wanting franchise. Maybe the right situation didn't materialize. Maybe he liked the non pressured life of a pundit. Maybe no one until Banner trusted him enough to make personnel decisions for real. So Lombardi enters the fray here in Cleveland with a cloud hanging over him, which is nothing new for virtually and Cleveland sports hire, and an upcoming draft that will either make other teams look stupid for ignoring his acumen for so long or confirm Browns' fans worst fears.
But hell, let's give the guy the benefit of the doubt for now and treat it as if there's a choice. Let's remember that in most circles outside of Cleveland a recommendation, particularly a glowing one, by Bill Belichick, is highly valued. That doesn't have to be good enough here mainly because Browns fans would be nervous if Belichick up and quit the Patriots and came back to coach Cleveland instead. But there's really no way of knowing how Lombardi will perform until he does. Besides let's stop acting as if something terrible will happen if Lombardi does turn out to be the devil. This franchise through all its losing has proven to be remarkably resilient and the fans remarkably forgiving as it waits for some sort of oracle who probably never will arrive.
Are you finding the budding feud between Banner and his childhood buddy and former boss, Eagles owner Jeff Lurie delightfully perverse? I know I am. When Banner and Haslam escaped Arizona without doing something really stupid like making a flavor-of-the-month, always-chokes-when-the-pressure's-greatest, no NFL experience, getting-out-of-Dodge-before-the-NCAA-can-saddle-up guy like Chip Kelly the highest paid head coach in the NFL, they did so because Kelly was vascillating. An attention whore at heart but as decisive as a 6-year-old in Dylan's Candy Shop, Kelly wasn't coming across as all-in. While flirting with Haslam he also was making goo-goo eyes at Lurie and secretly texting his love to Phil Knight. So the Browns' contingent left and Kelly went back to Oregon, a classic case of overplaying a truly lucky hand.
But when the Eagles couldn't find a suitable date they called back Kelly and he proved he isn't always as stupid as he's been and jumped. A press conference was held and all sorts of cutesy pointed barbs were hurled toward banner by Lurie and the next thing you know a rivalry has taken hold. Gosh I hope not.
I'm all for circling the wagons around the locals and protecting them from the invaders but really, what's the point? Lurie is an idiot. He ran a perfectly successful coach out of town in favor of a perfectly enigmatic question mark. Maybe it works and maybe it doesn't but why get all grouchy about it? It's not as if the Browns and the Eagles are tethered by their division. They aren't even in the same conference. Chip Kelly could go on to be the next Bill Belichick and Rob Chudzinski could go on to become the next Chris Palmer and it still wouldn't make me question the decision to leave Kelly standing on the tarmac of Sky Harbor airport picking at his scabs. Kelly is a shady character and the Browns always will be better off without him.
On the other hand if Banner engages the fight by bringing in a washed up Michael Vick in order to try and prove a point, then I will start to worry mostly because what's business will have turned personal and that's just one more distraction this franchise doesn't need.
Norv Turner was officially introduced to the media by way of a press conference with his new boss earlier this week and all attention turned to the “Brandon Weeden Question.” Basically, is Weeden the guy or not?
The early verdict is that it’s too soon to tell. Chudzinski and Turner say they have to look at some more film, talk to Weeden, etc ad nauseum. But if Brandon Weeden doesn't fit the offense that,Chudzinski and Turner have in mind, well, doesn't that just figure? Weeden was a risk pick based on age alone. He needed to impress immediately because of his age and instead ended up as one of the worst quarterbacks in the league, a player who had some early downs, some mid season ups and some end of season disasters. He played like a typical rookie, assuming that rookie was 10 years younger.
Weren’t fans told that Weeden’s age was an advantage? Whatever extra maturity he brings didn’t particularly translate on the field and so now what Turner and Chudzinski face is a 30 year old second year quarterback.
Will Weeden develop isn't as much the question as will he develop in enough time? That's the question Turner, Chudzinski and Lombardi will debate in one form or another for the next several months. It's the most important personnel question they face and the one they can least afford to screw up.
That said what's the effective alternative? Is there someone coming out in this year's draft that makes the Weeden question a no-brainier? Hardly. Throw in Weeden's contract, a contract that reflects his actual draft position instead of where he was projected, and you immediately get the sense that no matter how many hours the Browns' current brain trust debates the matter, no matter how much film they watch, no matter how many times they take in vain the names of the previous Browns' brain trust who put them in this position, Weeden will be back under center or in the shotgun come next year's season opener. Call it the Travis Hafner syndrome—too much contract to dump.
In other words, pray that Banner and Lombardi do the right thing and resign Phil Dawson. I see lots of stalled out drives in the Browns’ future.
Getting back to Kelly, he's the subject of this week's question to ponder: What's the over/under on how long he'll stay in the NFL?
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
But I will concede that if Armstrong merely took the drugs and kept to himself, sort of like Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens, that would be bad enough but perhaps not world ending bad, especially these days. But Armstrong was about so much more, so much hideously more.
In pursuit of perpetuating his continuing fraud on the world Armstrong deliberately went about trying to destroy everyone who got in his path, men, women and children, without a second thought to the damage he was doing. Lives have been ruined by and because of Armstrong. And all for what? So he can go on Oprah Winfrey’s fledging, failing network, boost her profile and ratings, in what, some sort of redemption tour in a pathetic attempt to reclaim a competitive sports career? Lance Armstrong perjured himself when he testified under oath to that which he now says isn’t true. A statute of limitations on that crime may keep him from prosecution but the simple fact is that Lance Armstrong should be in jail.
The reaction thus far has been fairly interesting if not predictable to Armstrong’s confessional, particularly given how calculated it all was, though eventually I expect it will probably take the familiar arc that Armstrong is banking on: shock, disgust, forgiveness, celebration. Here’s hoping that this is one cycle that breaks.
Armstrong had the first opportunity not to go down the path of performance enhancing drugs. No one held a gun to his empty head and forced him to dope. In fact it was more the other way around. Armstrong held the careers and fates of others in his hands and pushed them to follow his illegal lead time and time again.
Having chosen to cheat, Armstrong then went at his craft fully vested in lying, cheating and stealing a thousand times over to his fans, his sponsors and anyone else with even a fleeting interest in bicycling. When someone broke ranks, Armstrong got insular and combative in the most destructive way possible. You could Google Armstrong’s reactions to the various claims made against him over the years by journalists, doping agencies and fellow riders and you’d end up with pages of denials. And they weren’t denials by deflection, the sort of “everyone just wants to see someone who is successful, who beat the odds, fail” denials that really act as hedges in case the truth is ever discovered. They were denials of absolute certainty built on taking the supposedly higher moral ground against those who would bear false witness to his greatness. Lance Armstrong is a true sociopath, a sociopath of such historic proportions that he should be immortalized in the same way that Charles Ponzi is immortalized. Now when athletes and their enablers cheat through drugs, deception, fraud, you name it, we should say they are pulling an Armstrong Scheme.
Ponzi may not even be the best comparator to the kind of long-term fraud that Armstrong engaged in. A better one is probably Bernie Madoff. The comparisons are eerily similar. Both built empires off of modest talent originally that could never sustain the outsized and unattainable dreams they had for themselves. So they both cut corners, small ones at first and then bigger ones along the way to keep the lie going and to keep the money flowing. It wasn’t enough for either to simply build a small fortune for themselves by defrauding others while remaining off the radar screen. They both had to live large, build bigger until eventually the energy and level of deception it took to maintain the fundamental lie collapsed by its own weight on their thick skulls and amoral souls.
But the American people are a gullible and forgiving sort. There will be columns like this one trying their best to remind people of the seriousness of Armstrong’s crimes. They won’t do much good. Armstrong will face a mountain of legal trouble as those he’s wronged line up against him to reclaim all they lost by daring to confront one of the biggest liars, cheats and frauds in American history. Yet as sure as I’m writing this is as sure as I am that eventually the pendulum will swing back in Armstrong’s direction. His calculating, devious mind is counting on it and there’s no reason to bet against him on that.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency did everyone a huge favor by spelling out in abject, crystal clear detail the extent of Armstrong’s cheating and yet it’s instructive to note how many people still came to Armstrong’s defense. The most flagrant has been Sally Jenkins, a Washington Post columnist and a rider on the Armstrong gravy train as the co-author of two Armstrong books of lies, particularly when she wrote a mystifying defense of Armstrong just about a month ago.
Styled as a thought piece meant to justify her own role in furthering Armstrong’s fraudulent narrative, Jenkins gave Armstrong a pass despite the mountains of evidence against him by hinting first of a hatchet job by the USADA in their pursuit of Armstrong (a high class way of parroting Armstrong’s charge that it was a witch hunt, proving as always that she and Iran’s Minister of Information had more in common than even she thought) as well as a more pointed indictment of the unfairness of drug testing in general (another favorite Armstrong target). It was clear from the column, just as it’s been clear for years, that Jenkins was too seduced by Armstrong and all his hollow, grandiose statements about competing to see the fraud for what he was. She was not a journalist in any sense of the word but a fan girl whose credibility and position was used by Armstrong to provide him the cover he needed to further his grand myth. To paraphrase Ms. Jenkins and her column, maybe I’m not mad at Sally Jenkins because I understand how even with all the professional advances a woman like Jenkins can make as a sports journalist a good looking man can usually get what he wants from her just by charming her with the words she wants to hear.
Jenkins and her school girl crush have forever ruined her credibility and for that she should be summarily fired by the Post. If she had a shred of dignity, she’d resign before they have to make that choice but I suspect she too is so steeped in denial that she doesn’t realize how shameless she became in order to protect a criminal. Jenkins won’t lose her job and she won’t resign but more to the point does anyone think that Armstrong cares about the fate of someone like Jenkins either way? Armstrong has already proven he doesn’t care about anyone but Lance Armstrong because he’s as fully entrenched now in controlling the uncontrollable damage his crimes have caused as he was in perpetrating those crimes in the first place.
Another acolyte was Buzz Bissinger, the opinionated loudmouth writer of Friday Night Lights who wrote a fawning piece about Armstrong this past August for Newsweek. Bissinger bought into the lies, something he now strongly regrets. Writing for the Daily Beast on Monday, Bissinger now says he was conned by Armstrong and that virtually nothing Armstrong says to Oprah or anyone else should be believed. Good for Bissinger for seeing the light.
There will be some handwringing certainly by Armstrong defenders as they try to contextualize him in much the same way that Joe Paterno defenders still fight tirelessly to contextualize him. Armstrong and his Lance Armstrong Foundation (recently renamed the LiveStrong Foundation in order to distance itself from such a world class creep) certainly did some good in the world for cancer victims. But let’s not forget that this good was furthered mostly by true believers in the Armstrong myth and not Armstrong himself. Every step he took, every breath he uttered was built on lies and even though those lies pushed others to do good in his name they can never be seen as justifying his underlying deceptions. Every action he took supposedly in the service of others was merely part of the scam, meant to deflect attention away from the shady, immoral and unethical way he built his narrative in the first place.
Armstrong gets a pass on nothing. He can and probably should ask God for forgiveness. He just shouldn’t ask or expect it from anyone else.
Sunday, January 13, 2013
Before he officially took over as the new owner of the Cleveland Browns, Jimmy Haslam III went on a tour to visit his soon-to-be partners in the money printing business better known as the NFL. With the hiring of Rob Chudzinski as the new head coach, it’s apparent what Haslam learned on that tour: it’s more important to hire a guy that looks like he has that new car smell then one who actually does.
It’s why, really, Chip Kelly did Haslam and team president (CEO? Czar? I forget his title) Joe Banner a favor by taking his fat butt back to Oregon. Kelly would have been an interloper to the ways of the NFL where stripes are better earned over the many miles traveled as a low paid assistant first. No one wants a repeat of the Lane Kiffin/Oakland Raiders experience, including Haslam.
All that said, Chudzinski may be a surprise of a hire and with a barely indistinguishable resume from the recently-fired Pat Shurmur but he does have a certain sort of “it” factor, if Susie Spanos is any sort of judge. Let me explain.
Shortly after Chudzinski was hired by the Browns in 2007 as the offensive coordinator, I was at a wedding in California for the daughter of a close friend. Also on the invite list was Dean Spanos, the owner of the San Diego Chargers, and his wife, Susie.
At the reception the father of the bride introduced me to Dean and his wife as “a close friend from Cleveland.” Dean seemed more interested in the nearby jumbo shrimp platter and made a beeline for it almost immediately. Susie stayed behind for a moment to chat.
She said “you must be a Browns fan” to which I nodded affirmatively, if not embarrassingly. Then she said “you got a good man in Chud. He’ll do a great job for you guys in Cleveland.” I told her that I hoped that was the case because the Browns then, as now, could use all the help they could get. She said Chud would certainly help and that the Chargers hated to lose him. Then as she turned to join her husband who looked to be into his 6th or 7th piece of shrimp by then she turned to me, smiled the toothy white-capped smile of the moneyed and gracious, and said “you watch. Someday Chud will be a head coach. Maybe in Cleveland.”
Brilliant woman. Maybe arrived on Thursday when the Browns confirmed Chudzinski’s hiring and I immediately thought back to that conversation with Susie Spanos. More outrageous predictions have been made but you have to give the woman credit. She was years ahead of the curve on this one. She probably should have said something to her husband. The Chargers are still looking for a head coach even as the Browns have theirs.
The fact that the Browns hired Chudzinski and the Chargers did not does beg the question as to why. The answer though lies probably in Chudzinski’s relationship with Norv Turner, the beleaguered and recently fired coach of those Chargers. According to the rumor, Chudzinski plans on bringing Turner to Cleveland as offensive coordinator. Even if that rumor isn’t true it says enough about the relationship between the two that Chudzinski’s hiring by the Chargers would have been impossible. Even in the re-tread warmed over world of the NFL, there isn’t enough snake oil to convince Chargers fans that Chudzinski would represent a new start.
That doesn’t mean that Chudzinski wouldn’t be a new start for the Browns. He is and actually brings with him a modicum of success both with the Browns and elsewhere. With Chudzinski as offensive coordinator for those two years, the Browns won 14 games which is just slightly below the two year totals of Eric Mangini and Pat Shurmur, combined. Chudzinski turned Derek Anderson into a one year phenom and that year still represents the Browns’ high water offensive mark since their return.
Chudzinski was fired after the next season when the promise of that 10 win season turned into a far more typical 4 win season the next. There are reasons, there always are, for that 4 win season, there always are: injuries, malcontents (Braylon Edwards anyone?) and the like. But ultimately the Browns failed for the reasons they usually fail, lousy leadership. Romeo Crennel was an African-American version of Norv Turner: a highly competent coordinator who Peter Principled to head coach. The Browns cleaned house after that season and with that through out everyone associated with it, including Chudzinski. Maybe they should have turned to Chudzinski then but Randy Lerner being Randy Lerner fell in love with Mangini quickly who then went about setting the franchise ablaze in a two year reign of terror. Lerner fell out of love later that season and in love with Mike Holmgren and you know the rest of that story.
If Chudzinski does bring in Turner it will at the very least be an interesting experiment to see if the Chargers simply had the formula wrong all along. It also tells you a key life lesson. Never burn bridges because you never know when you’ll find yourself on the other side
Anyway, to get back to the original point, Chudzinski is exactly the kind of hire you’d expect a new owner working tirelessly to fit in like an old owner would make. He is young enough to be considered on the front end of a potentially promising career but he has enough NFL experience and hence cred to be considered a safe hire. It’s the NFL way. There are plenty of Chudzinski’s kicking around the NFL. Shurmur was one of them. So was the recently fired Mike Mularkey. In fact you can go through the ranks of the NFL head coaches right now and most of them were Chudzinski’s at one time or another. You’ll find the occasional Jim Harbaugh in there and someone will take a chance on Bruce Arians like they the Browns and the Chiefs did on Romeo Crennel. Trends change. This year it’s the offensive mind that is in. Some years they’ll look for the up and comer on defense. Every once in awhile someone will fall in love with a loon like Chip Kelly. But essentially the NFL hiring process is a meritocracy where you start, like Bill Cowher, as a special teams coach and work your way forward.
There’s no way to know at the moment whether Chudzinski will be successful. I think Susie Spanos seeing a certain “it” factor in him is as good a barometer as any. He’ll be successful, as I wrote about whoever the next Browns’ head coach would be, if the support system around him is strong. That starts with Haslam, moves to Banner, and from there the general manager, the head coach and then the assistants.
The Browns find themselves in the relatively early stages of putting together that puzzle. They have the right owner in place, finally. Banner by all accounts is highly respected. There’s no general manager in place at the moment, which comes next. On a parallel track comes the next wave of assistants, then the draft and then training camp and then another season. That’s when we’ll really find out if the Browns are finally on a path forward or are just playing out the first year of their usual two year cycle.
Monday, January 07, 2013
First of all, Kelly is a guy that plays the in betweens. He may not be a complete scoundrel but he’s nobody’s idea of an altar boy, either. Kelly seems most comfortable when he can run his little black ops off the radar screen to the approving glance of Phil Knight at Nike. Kelly’s a tease of sorts having flirted with the NFL a year ago as well but that’s his least objectionable quality. In the end, he’s perhaps a bit higher on the scale than a two-bit hustler but not much.
I figured that Kelly was far more serious about the NFL this year having seen how well Pete Carroll could escape the slow moving clutches of a NCAA infractions committee posse and become the toast of the NFL. But either Kelly figures that NCAA still has its hands full with the Penn State mess and the pending litigation to get around to slapping down the Oregon program any time soon or his ego has overtaken his common sense. Either way, Kelly left the NFL once again at the precipice to stay with the Ducks and the history he’s forged of good offenses and almost accomplishments.
program has featured plenty of iffy players brought to campus by even iffier handlers. The NCAA has investigated and to this point it seems that the only conclusions to draw is that it needs better ways to regulate the shady characters employed by programs like Oregon to steer questionable student/athletes to campus under the guise of providing amorphous recruiting services. The NCAA may still come down more directly on Oregon though that outfit is so random that it really is anyone’s guess what it will do next. Oregon
But as to Kelly, is this the kind of guy you really want fronting your franchise? It's a cutthroat business and all and often times to get to the top you have to get awfully comfortable navigating the edge of a cliff, but in Kelly's short time in
the only thing he's really proven is that he can pirouette along that cliff's edge with the best of them. Oregon
The other sense you get is that he really has no particular interest in being a NFL head coach. He just wants the people of and around
to think he does. This is the second consecutive off season he's flirted with the NFL and the second consecutive off season he ended up right where he began except with a bigger contract. Kelly plays the game well but I'm guessing even the knuckleheads in Oregon will begin to discern the pattern. Indeed, for all the various markers out there demonstrating the absolute corruption in college football the courting of Kelly from those more interested in wins then integrity is among the most prominent. Oregon
Besides a reputation for running a fast-paced read option offense that could embarrass bad college defenses, what exactly does Kelly bring to the NFL party anyway? Even the worst defenses in the NFL are better by leaps and more leaps than the best college defense. Seattle and Washington are having some success with the read option at the moment but it requires a specific type of quarterback that most teams, including
, don't have on the roster and then puts that athlete constantly in harm's way. In a league with a salary cap where quarterbacks garner a disproportionate share of cap space, no coach with hopes for a long career can abide consistently putting their highest priced asset at risk. All you needed to do was see how much both Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III got bounced around in Sunday's Seattle-Washington playoff game to realize that no team will be able to run a steady diet of fast-paced read option. Cleveland
If anything, the injury
suffered Sunday served as a reminder on how precarious it is to run the type of offense that Kelly cultivates in the NFL. Griffin Griffin is a special athlete and Washington head coach Mike Shanahan exploited every inch of that specialness in riding to the playoffs. But Shanahan died by the same sword he lived by most of the season when Griffin went down with an apparently even more serious knee injury than he suffered earlier in the season. It’s an instructive knee injury in the sense that Griffin is a freak of a physical specimen. That said he’s not any more immune to injuries than any other player counted on to orchestrate every offensive snap in the most physically demanding sport on the planet. The NFL has flirted with running quarterbacks all throughout its history and keeps returning to a more balanced mix for a reason. Griffin
The reasons Browns fans seem apoplectic at the moment over losing Kelly is really because they got overheated in the thought of him coming to Cleveland in the first place coupled with a lazy and ineffective local media that used speculation and guess work rather than close in reporting with real sources to build false expectations in fans desperate for any good news. It’s actually mystifying to me why anyone would think that Kelly would be some sort of all healing balm to a franchise that has literally cornered the market on bad decision making. I’ve not used the restroom facilities inside the
complex but I’m betting that they don’t even flush properly. Berea
But again, if Browns fans stop and really consider the situation carefully they'll realize that Kelly offered no greater promise and arguably less than, say, Butch Davis and we know how that turned out.
A competent coaching staff will do wonders for this franchise but there are no magic bullets. Kelly struck me as someone who always fired blanks anyway so the fact that he's out of the picture is probably more a reason to celebrate than cry.
The question now turns to which sap gets to wear the banner of “1st runner up” in the retooled, renewed, rebooted search for the team’s second choice or, as the Browns’ public relations department will soon refer to him, “the guy we really wanted all along.”
It could be a recently fired retread but I’d be suspicious if only because of how well that all worked out with Eric Mangini. It could also be an up and coming assistant, you know, the next great offensive or defensive mind in the game. That kind of sounds like the search for a more legitimate version of Pat Shurmur, doesn’t it? Or, they could also go for the long time assistant who everyone acknowledges should have gotten his shot years ago but just didn’t, sort of like Romeo Crennel and Bud Carson.
When it gets right down to it, there aren’t any good options just debating points over the best of the worst options which is what Haslam probably realized about 15 minutes after Kelly called on Saturday to say that he’d be a little late to dinner.
Picking a successful head coach in the NFL trends far more to luck than anyone will admit. You could look at almost any of the Browns’ previous 648 head coaches since 1999 and make a case as to why he was a good hire, except for Mangini. That none of them worked out was more a team effort than a steady case of individual failures. If Haslam and Banner really want whoever is next in the barrel to be successful they better make sure he’s surrounded by utter competence throughout for it will be that support team more than anything else that will determine the fate of the pending intended.