Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of It All, Again--Another New Coach Edition

It looks like the combined pressures of running the NFL’s most inept franchise and conducting the NFL’s most inept head coaching search in history finally got the better of Cleveland Browns management as today they officially hired their 7th or 8th choice as their next head coach after sending contrary signals that they wouldn't make a decision until after the Super Bowl.

Mike Pettine, step on up.  You’re the next contestant on Sucker Showcase.  The first task?  Find a credible coaching staff from what’s left in the bottom of the coaching barrel.  At least you’ll be familiar with the inhabitants having been elevated from those same ranks to become the Browns 635th coach in the last 20 minutes.

That it was Pettine isn't much of a surprise. He’s exactly the kind of coach you get when you conduct a search like the Browns did on behalf of the kind of team the Browns are. It instead could have been some other similarly anonymous coordinator from another mediocre team desperate enough to cast his lot with this lot.  The NFL coaching ranks don’t lack for desperate coordinators.  In either case, the challenges will be the same and as insurmountable as ever.

The stunning ineptness of this particular iteration of a Browns coaching search is what was so fascinating, assuming you’re one who finds multi-car pileups fascinating.  It’s hard to imagine, actually, how the Browns could have gone about doing a worse job of finding a new head coach but then the Browns sapped me of imagination years ago.

The Browns job was always the least attractive of any of the openings, mainly because of owner Jimmy Haslam and his two most trusted Stooges, Joe Banner and the Shemp to his Moe, Mike Lombardi.  By firing Rob Chudzinski so unceremoniously and so precipitously, the Stooges sent a powerful message to every good coach looking to upgrade that the Browns franchise is as unstable as it ever was.

Believe if you choose all what you hear from Berea about a methodical search, but the reason the Browns were the last to fill their coaching slot was not because they have some secret recipe or better process but because it represented by far the worst posting on the NFL head coach wannabe job board.  Coming as it did today and not after the Super Bowl smacks of desperation, a team unwilling and unable to face the continued backlash of a fan base that had grown both suspicious and impatient with the utter lack of progress it had been seeing.

The Browns settled, and that isn't a knock on Pettine necessarily.  They had to settle just as they’ll have to settle for the lower tiered assistants a relative minor coach like Pettine will attract.  That was always going to be the case anyway.  

That’s why Pettine ended up in Cleveland.

Again, for emphasis, this isn't to criticize Pettine before he gets a chance to fail.  I don’t know much about Pettine and neither do most of the fans.  The same holds for most of the others that were on the Browns’ list.  My guess is that they're decent sorts who have managed to carve out some semblance of a coaching career.  And one of them could actually turn out to be a successful head coach somewhere.  But the chances of that happening at this time in Cleveland are roughly the same as the chances that Adam Sandler will make a funny movie again.

There simply isn't anything about the Browns that even suggests that a head coach can be successful here, whether it’s the number of coaches they've cycled through, the draft picks they've blown, or the free agents about whom they've been wrong.  Still, you have to admire the pluck of the press release announcing Pettine’s hire.

Haslam is “thrilled” but not with the hire necessarily but with the ability to “announce” the hire.  The heat must have been getting to him.  Haslam called Pettine “tough,” “aggressive,” and “innovative,”  “the epitome of what the Browns were looking for.”  He also pointed a zinger right in the direction of Chudzinski, saying that Pettine “has repeatedly shown the ability to lead his players to consistent improvement and success, clearly what we are striving for….”  That was a classy touch, using the hackneyed excuse for firing the last coach as the sine qua non for hiring the new one.

The more important question, though, is it true?  Has Pettine repeatedly shown the ability to lead his players to consistent improvement and success?  It depends how carefully you want to define success.

If the whole point of defense is not to give up points, Pettine's results were mixed, at best.  The Jets were the 15th best team in the league in 2008, the year before Pettine got there and in his first year they were the best team in the league.  From there though it was steady progress downward.  In his last two years, the Jets were 20th in the league in points yielded.  In his one year in Buffalo, his team was 20th in points yielded, which was an improvement from the previous year’s ranking of 26th.  In other words, some good years some not so much.  Still it would hard to call this consistent improvement and success.

Again, and again, let's not prejudge Pettine particularly since defensive ranking statistics can be wildly misleading, especially points yielded.  What this does illustrate though is how hard the Browns are working to make chicken salad out of the chicken shit they created..

Haslam also said that Pettine knows what it takes to beat the teams in the AFC North, apparently as the result of the 7 years he spent as a Baltimore Ravens assistant.  But heck, who doesn't know what it takes to beat the teams in the AFC North? Chudzinski knew.  Pat Schurmur knew.  Russ in the mail room knows, too.  It takes a team with better talent and until that happens Pettine’s inside knowledge, whatever it consists of, will be useless.

Banner’s words were even more carefully parsed and equally if not delightfully insidious.  He said the Browns “interviewed everyone they could.”  There were plenty they couldn't because they weren't interested.  Gase comes to mind.  Banner then said that of those interviewed Pettine was “the best individual for the job.”  By the end, though, it was a small group from which to glean such judgment as it didn't include those who, having interviewed, took themselves out of the running.

Pettine has been officially introduced to the media in the usual nondescript fashion.  He said about what you’d expect him to say and in the manner in which you’d expect him to say it.  He showed some sense.  He refused to predict a Super Bowl in the team’s future.

With that bit of business behind them, Banner and Lombardi can now go about ignoring Pettine as they get ready for the draft.  He’ll get about the same level of input as Chudzinski did and that’s the exact point at which he’ll realize that his future really isn't his to own.  That leaves Pettine to do what new coaches here typically do.  He’ll order some part of the Berea complex repainted and then will find a house in Westlake he can rent on a month to month basis. He’ll also talk about the importance of the upcoming minicamps.

Meanwhile the fans will get a feint whiff of excitement once again as they continue to put faith into “what if” scenarios.  And when it’s all said and another season is done, the Browns will once again be drafting at or near the top and Pettine, the poor sap, will be on the hot seat, one way or the other.

And that, friends, is the cycle in which this franchise is interminably caught and from which it cannot escape. It's insanity built upon doing the same things in the same ways and expecting a different result.

Welcome to Cleveland, Coach Pettine.  Enjoy your stay and don’t forget to get your security deposit back on that house in Westlake.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of It All, Again--The Letter

Give me a ticket for next year,
And a towel to dry my tears,
Losing days are done,
Time to go back home
The Owner, he wrote me a letter. 

I don’t care how much money he makes me spend,
Glad to do it, just say when
Losing days are done
Time to go back home,
The Owner, he wrote me a letter.

Well he wrote me a letter,
said it’s time to be patient again
Listen mister can’t you see
I’ve got to spend money on my team once again, 

Give me a ticket for next year,
And a towel to dry my tears
Losing days are done
Time to go back home,
The Owner, he wrote me a letter. 

Clearly Jimmy Haslam is distracted.   

The owner of the Cleveland Browns is throat deep into two significant messes and it’s causing him to act desperate.  Maybe he is desperate.

In a tone deaf letter to season ticket holders, Haslam counseled patience to Browns fans as he and The Stooges go about their supposedly methodical approach to finding a new coach. The implication is that fans shouldn’t grow nervous as every other team with an opening goes about getting it filled.  These are the Browns, dammit, and they do things on their own schedule and in their own way.  Remember when they hired Rob Chudzinski? 

It’s pretty clear that Haslam is feeling the heat from a dwindling season ticket base and felt the need to drop them a Kevin Baconish “remain calm, all is well” missive.  I doubt it accomplished much other than to highlight the pyramid of institutional incompetence on which he sits atop. 

It’s certainly plausible that the Browns targeted Denver offensive coordinator Adam Gase at the beginning of their search and are just waiting until the playoffs end before they can sit down with him.  But unless they have assurances from Gase’s camp that he actually does want to sit down with them after Denver’s season ends and that his interest is serious and substantial, then the Browns will undoubtedly be left holding the bag.  It doesn’t seem to make them nervous, either, that when Gase had the opportunity to sit down with them during the Denver bye week he declined.  It should.  

And what does it say about a methodical, patient search if the Browns targeted Gase from the outset and have simply been shuffling their collective feet since?  It says that that there was a predetermined outcome and the search was in fact a hoax, a diversion to unsuspecting customers.  Gee, where have I heard allegations like that before?  Let me think.  Let me think.

Haslam emphasized in his letter that the Browns remain an attractive option, a statement now dripping with irony given how there are no other openings at the moment.  

This is where the distractions from the federal investigation into his Pilot Flying J apparently have clouded his judgment.  If you’re a head coach wannabe, like Gase, the Browns are only an attractive option if you’re too impatient to see which better run franchises will have openings next year. 

Haslam is simply in denial if he doesn’t grasp how damaging it was to the prospects of attracting top talent when he signed off on Chudzinski’s firing.  He may bristle at the suggestion but in truth it looks like the team is indeed run by a bunch of stooges, with the inability to fill the head coaching slot the latest evidence. 

Haslam notes the team’s five Pro Bowlers (one of whom, he doesn’t note, is a free agent), its plethora of draft picks and the generous cap space that awaits a new coach.  It’s like he’s selling the fans real estate and highlighting the pool out back without mentioning the cracks in the foundation.  I can only imagine the sales pitch that Gase will get. 

The surprise that awaits the next head coach is that he’ll be subject to the same petty whims and bizarre personnel decisions of folks like Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi.  This contingent sold Chudzinski on a transition year in 2013 that would lead to a bonanza in 2014 and then sent him packing before he got used to the idea that he was ever really a part of their plans.  

If Gase is indeed the target, the choice he faces is simple.  With no other NFL head coaching jobs open at the moment he either jumps in with the Browns or wait another year when there will be several openings only because there always are several openings every year, including, probably, one in Cleveland. 

There’s no reason Gase needs to be desperate.  In fact, the Browns’ mismanagement of their search has shifted all the leverage to Gase and if he isn’t smart enough to exercise it appropriately then he isn’t smart enough to be a head coach in the first place. 

To choose the Browns’ job, Gase will have to be convinced that the Chudzinski situation was an anomaly.  The more money Haslam throws at Gase, the easier it will be to convince him, mainly because it softens the landing when it inevitably turns out not to be true. 

Depending on the outcome of Sunday’s game between Denver and New England, fans will know whether Gase is on board either next week or in early February.  If it’s not Gase though then the Browns have an even bigger problem of their own making.  By not actually being methodical, let alone expansive, the Browns have ended up putting themselves in the position of looking foolish once again.  I’d say even more foolish but, frankly, that’s impossible. 

If Gase turns the Browns down then it will be time for Plan X or Z or whatever they want to call the scramble that will come next.  Then Haslam and Banner will once again try to convince the media and the fans again that they guy who they took is the guy they wanted all along. 

Haslam’s letter to the season ticket holders carries with it an implied request to be trusted.  It’s a ballsy request given his record.  It’s also a request that he knows he didn’t need to make.  The fans, unlike Gase, don’t really have an effective choice.  In one form or another they are stuck with the Browns, even if they’ll never trust them again.

Wednesday, January 08, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of It All, Again--Lost Generation Edition

As the Cleveland Browns go about the business of finding still another new head coach, the lull this creates before the smoke billows from Berea indicating that a coach has been secured gives fans the distance they need to process their team’s latest misstep.

Distance isn’t making the heart grow fonder.

The best that can be said, the absolute best, is that if the Browns’ critical thinkers didn’t believe Rob Chudzinski could get this team to the playoffs, let alone the Super Bowl, then continuing to push that rock up that hill was a fool’s errand.

Of course that was just as true the day Chudzinski was fired and the argument in response is still just as relevant: did these critical thinkers, the one who hired Chudzinski less than 12 months prior, give him a fair or even fighting chance?

To this point no one in Berea is commenting for the record on this issue except in oblique terms and that’s the wound that still chafes.  It’s at the core, really, of the fans frustrations with the carpetbagging owner and the handpicked carpetbaggers he hired to supposedly turn things around.

This franchise is beset by a perpetual need to find the right person to lead it to the Promised Land, a person who can lead irrespective of the crude tools he’s given to accomplish the task.  It's as if this deity will arrive on horseback from some mystical land where winners are curated.  Fans have been sold so many versions of that right person that by this point it seems like there isn’t any one or any system or any approach that hasn’t been tried.  And yet, failure.  That either means that this franchise has institutionalized exactly how poor choices get made or it lacks the patience, commitment and ability to give any one of its messiahs a fighting chance.  It’s probably both.

To this point owner Jimmy Haslam along with CEO Joe Banner seem to be operating under the belief that winning cures all.  I suppose it might but this team is so far from achieving that objective that one can’t help but ponder all the interim steps it takes to achieve it.  That seems to be what Haslam and Banner are missing both for their own account and for the fans.

Haslam thinks that no one wants to win more than him.  I’m pretty sure that isn’t true.  While Haslam was dipping his ownership toe into the waters of Pittsburgh, these Browns fans were well into years of cycling through owners, coaches, systems and players with unparalleled frequency.  With each new start, fans were counseled to be patient by one pretender or another as the regime du jour looked earnestly into a camera and told fans that no one wanted to win more than them.

The level of failure by this franchise for so long is actually quite stunning.  Given how seriously the NFL takes its quest for parity among its teams, it takes a special effort to remain an outlier.  The New England Patriots are the right kind of outliers.  The Browns are the same statistical abnormality, just in the wrong direction.

The net effect of all this is that it has created a hardened cynicism among a dwindling fan base.  Haslam and Banner may think that winning will reignite the chastened fans and create a base that is as big as ever.  They’d do well to better understand their intended audience and the history they’ve endured before making such assumptions.

The last time that this franchise didn’t suffer a losing season for a sustained period of time was from 1985 through 1989.  A young fan coming of age in that period was brought to the game by a parent who themselves came of age in the ‘60s, when the team was much more successful on the field.  It was a fan base easily embraced by the next generation

But since then that fan has had to sit through 25 more seasons, including the 4 when there wasn’t even a team, without anything resembling success.   Now that same young fan is nearing 40 years of age and well into begetting the next generation.  He or she has gone through high school, maybe college, but in any case is well entrenched in a career, has a spouse and probably kids who are now about the same age he or she was when they first became a fan.

That fan, brought into the game by enthusiastic parents has systematically had that enthusiasm extracted from him since his youth.  How could he not?  The team has averaged a mere 6 wins a season and there have only been three winning seasons. For good measure it lost in usually the most ignominious and miserable fashion imaginable.

That fan’s parents on the other hand got to see teams that won with far more regularity, averaging a winning season every other year in those previous 25 seasons.  There were division titles, playoff games, actual excitement.  There also were only 4 coaches during those seasons.  There have been 4 coaches just during the last 6 years.

It doesn't surprise that those young fans of 25 years ago have stopped watching the Browns not just because there wasn’t a team for 4 years but because when the team returned it undertook to play almost as a mission project the most insidious brand of football imaginable.  Most years the team has been nearly unwatchable.  I suppose it would be one thing if the Browns for all these years had been an entertaining mess.  Mostly they’ve been boring.

That gave all of the other entertainment options and distractions a chance to take on a greater role because there was an actual void to fill.  It’s not that their kids had any less desire to be entertained.  It’s that the Browns stopped being entertaining and each wave of impressionable kids with parents who stopped caring had little reason to look to the Browns for anything.  Check out the demographics of fans attending games.  It’s as if you can count the number of kids on one hand.

This is the point that Haslam and Banner can’t seem to grasp.  Sure, they changed course quickly, but they did change course again.  That means new coaches, new systems, new players.  There are no overnight success stories in the NFL no matter what Banner tried to imply when tearing down the construction job he put up when he hired Chudzinski in the first place.  The fans understand that I suspect better than Haslam and Banner.  They know that success remains an ethereal concept, years away at best.  That means more losing and more reasons to stop watching all together.

The Browns’ critical thinkers believe they’re doing the right thing and maybe time will tell.  But what they’ve missed entirely is that whatever goodwill they entered into this relationship with has been eviscerated.  They haven’t just lost the fans’ interest.  They’ve lost their loyalty.  There's an entire generational fan base missing from the equation and by the time this team has even a sporting chance to be entertaining that lost fan base will span nearly a generation and a half.  Meanwhile what fans they have left just grow older and less engaged.

Winning may spark interest but it will take more than a winning season or two to capture a lost generation of fans let alone instill in that lost generation enough enthusiasm to pass it forward to their kids.

Haslam and Banner can dawdle and experiment like mad scientists trying to create the perfect coaching bot all they want.  At some point though if they ever bother to look up they'll likely notice that fewer and fewer people are even watching.