Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Human Stain

Whenever a societal hot button issue such as racism, sexism, gay rights, pick a similar topic, arises in the world of professional sports, confusion reigns.  Empty grandiose words flow easily from mouths and keyboards for a few days and then the conversation shifts once again.  Meaningful change isn’t discussed much mainly because most of the participants, from the players to the folks who cover them and the fans that watch them can’t reconcile the depth of the issue in the context of the frivolity of sports.

It’s why, really, when the Jonathan Martin story broke that so many knuckleheaded opinions got bandied about.  The incongruity of a physically big Martin playing in the most brutal of sports becoming overwhelmed by verbal taunting was hard to process for many.

Martin, a second year tackle for the Miami Dolphins, walked away from the team and potentially a lucrative career.  That he was willing to do so spoke volumes about the seriousness of the situation and yet many still tended to trivialize the conduct or Martin or Richie Incognito or, worse, compartmentalize the story in the safe, weird corner that is sports as if it had no larger implications.

NFL Commission Roger Goodell hired lawyer Ted Wells and his law firm to conduct an independent investigation and report the results publicly.  Goodell understood at least at a basic level the implications of the situation and its impact on the brand he was hired to protect.  Hiring Wells and commissioning him to publish a public report on his findings turned out to be a brilliant stroke, irrespective of Goodell’s motives. 

Wells’ report came out last week and as I picked through the ugliness of all the investigation revealed, I wondered first about the comments of some of Martin’s teammates like Brian Hartline, the Dolphins’ receiver, who came down hard and against Martin in the immediate aftermath of Martin’s departure.  He was hardly alone. 

I also wondered about the legislators at the local, state and national levels that have repeatedly opposed laws against discrimination as some sort of unnecessary burden on job creators.  And then I wondered about the job creators themselves, the ones who don’t want the administrative burdens of eradicating discrimination in their work place because they don’t see any relationship between human interaction and productivity and thus are all too willing to support politicians who will keep the political correctness police at bay.

The Wells report is much more than a simple report about an unfortunate situation taking place on one NFL team.  It’s a cultural touchstone, a reminder that there are real world consequences to the rhetoric that too many still accept as mainstream, both within and outside the workplace.

For me, I can’t help but see the Wells report and the conduct he uncovered as informed in part by the harsh words from those Republicans who strenuously and vocally oppose immigration reform that’s based on a principle that accepts the basic human dignity of those who entered this country illegally and are just looking for a path forward to rectify that wrong.  I also can’t help but see the Wells report and the conduct uncovered as informed by the ugly words of homophobics who use ginned up religious justifications for denying basic human rights to gays.  And I can’t help but see the Wells report and the conduct uncovered in the context of those who would claim they aren’t racist but are more than willing to have a laugh and pass along emails on a daily basis that make fun of the President of our country because of the color of his skin.

This country has a shameful and embarrassing history of discrimination that still courses through the veins of the mainstream.  Just last week, the legislature in Tennessee undertook consideration of a bill that would allow public servants (including police and fire) to refuse providing service to someone who offends their religious sensibilities.  That means, for example, that if you’re gay and getting beat up on the streets of Knoxville, a police officer can refuse to protect you because he, too, is offended by your gayness.  It won’t likely become law but the fact that it was introduced speaks volumes.

The state of Georgia recently and once again approved the issuance of specialty license plates that feature the Confederate flag, justifying it as a tribute to their southern heritage without even acknowledging the racially-charged and offensive aspects of that southern heritage.

The U.S. Senate, with bi-partisan support, passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act that would make workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity illegal but the Republican controlled House of Representatives won’t even bring it up for a vote.  They have their reasons but all roads go back to the same place—they value the interests of shop owners over the seemingly trivial concerns of a wide swath of the people these shop owners need to get the work done.

University of Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam declared his sexuality openly in hopes of eliminating the whisper campaign that undoubtedly would have devalued his draft status.  And of course the minute he did there were NFL officials who privately surmised that indeed his draft status would be impacted not because his skills suddenly lessened but because someone providing “those kind” of locker room distractions apparently deserved to be paid less.

I don’t need to get into all the miscreants who play professional sports, from the drug addled to the wife beaters, which are welcomed back into the fold to make my point.  The fact that even one NFL executive would privately assume that a gay athlete would be a distraction explains exactly how the Dolphins’ situation could deteriorate to the point that it did.

The essence of prejudice is misguided assumptions and as a society we allow those assumptions to repeatedly guide us down the wrong historical paths.  This is a country after all that fought a war over the existence of slavery.  This is a country that denied blacks and women the right to vote.  This is a country that prohibited interracial marriage.  This is a country that still won’t recognize the workplace rights of gays and transgenders, let alone their familial rights.

The prejudices in this country, whether or not openly and unabashedly practiced, are insidious.  It’s a narrow-mindedness, sure, but it’s not isolated.  It’s open, it’s common and too often it’s accepted.  We should literally be screaming from the mountains at all the Bible thumpers who oppose gay rights but we don’t because we’re either just secretly like them or don’t want to defend those rights for fear we’ll be ostracized as well.  God forbid.

I see Hartline and the other Dolphins who defended Incognito at the outset (and now suddenly silent) as a marker for what ails this country most.  They’d be the first to claim that they don’t condone racism, just ask them.  But they were completely blind to the simple fact that words matter and actions matter even more.  Consumed by their own worlds, they lacked the empathy necessary to understand the private torment of their own teammate.  They heard the language in the locker room, they may have even repeated it.  They just didn’t think anything of it and they certainly never bothered to look below the surface because it never occurred to them that there was anything below the surface to see.

Eradication of racism, sexism, prejudice requires much more than a drive-by interest.  You can’t declare that you have gay friends as proof that you aren’t homophobic.  There has to be more.  For the Hartlines of the world to become not just team leaders but fully realized members of the larger society they’ll have to stick their necks out once in a while.  You can’t criticize Martin for not standing up to an insecure bully like Incognitio when you weren’t willing to do that either.

It is important to be completely invested in the experiences of others.  This isn’t about lopping guilt on the white bread existence of people like Hartline.  Instead it’s about getting them to recognize that the world of others is often much different

What the Wells report underscores more than anything else is the complexity of these kinds of situations and the extreme difficulties inherent in eliminating them.  The Dolphins fired two assistants and a bunch of players will undergo sensitivity and diversity training.  It won’t be enough.

Martin was tormented by his teammates and no one bothered to rally to him.  It wasn’t just the racist language, although that was part of it.  It was the constant and graphic sexual taunts about Martin’s sister and mother that ate at Martin.  The words were tough enough.  But they also fed into a deteriorating self image that Martin had of himself, an image of someone not strong enough to defend the honor of the two most important women in his life.

Martin’s upbringing, he theorized in particularly heartbreaking texts to his mother, left him soft when it came to street smarts.  In high school he felt bullied despite his size and it never got better for him.   That should sound familiar because it’s literally happening this moment still in every high school in this country.  There’s a black, a gay, a lesbian, a transgender, a nerd, a geek, a kid who’s too short, too tall, a girl who’s not pretty, someone who’s overweight, being picked on for being different and while we profess a willingness to stop it, while we pass anti bullying statutes and write rules, the truth is that we don’t stop it because we don’t really see it as the problem for what it is, a human stain on a society that isn’t so great. 

Heck, the Dolphins had well written anti-discrimination policies that Incognito and the rest of the players signed.  You can surmise that they didn’t take them seriously.  What’s more horrific to contemplate is that it never really occurred to them, to Hartline, to quarterback Ryan Tannehill, to head coach Joe Philbin, to the rest of the coaching staff, to most of the rest of the league and the people that cover it, that Incognito’s behavior on a daily basis for two seasons (and likely far longer) was violating every last principle behind those rules.

Some can handle taunts that way, others can’t.  But to celebrate those who can implies that the weaker among us deserve what they get.  Those who advocated, and there were plenty of them in the media and among current and former players, that Martin should have just punched Incognito in order to end the abuse see naked power as the answer.  It doesn’t occur to them that by standing by silently, they made Incognito who he was in the first place.  And if it occurred to them, then they just didn’t care enough to put an end to it for fear of upsetting some other delicate balance of a mediocre team.

Discrimination isn’t an individual problem.  It’s a shared problem over which all of us bear responsibility.

You can trivialize the Wells report or confine it to the context of professional sports, but that would be a mistake.  Human dignity is at the core of our principles as Americans and to suggest that the loss of it is more or less acceptable in some situations, because for example the participants make a lot of money or are bigger than others or don’t share what others consider to be mainstream beliefs, demeans us all.

Martin is today’s victim.  Tomorrow’s victim might be your brother, your sister, your nephew.  Maybe the best way to make sense of the Wells report is to remember the words of the poem by German pastor Martin Niemoller who was critical of the German intellectuals that didn’t rise up against Hitler.  They’re just as valid today:

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me




Thursday, February 13, 2014

And Now The Other Shoe Drops...

About the only thing you can really conclude about the disaster that is the Cleveland Browns is that even when they make the right moves they still look like amateurs. 
Details spilling out from the inside pen of Monday Morning Quarterback’s Peter King aren’t particularly flattering or reassuring.  Despite all the prevarication from deposed CEO Joe Banner on the comprehensive nature of the Browns’ head coaching search, it appears as though it was that very process, ill conceived in designed and then poorly executed, that did in Banner and the apparition known as Mike Lombardi.
King writes, for example, that when Banner interviewed former Arizona Cardinals head coach Ken Whisenhut once again for the Browns’ opening, Whisenhut asked Banner at the outset why the Browns simply didn’t hire him last year, the implication of course being that had they there would be no need for another “process” this year.
Banner was his usual smug self, telling Whisenhut it was because he didn’t think Whisenhut was going to be able to put together a championship caliber coaching staff.  That’s laughable for a couple of reasons. 
First, while former head coach Rob Chudzinski apparently was able to do just that, it still wasn’t good enough to allow him to keep his job anyway.  So much for focusing on the wrong subjects.  Second, assembling a champion caliber staff wasn’t a barrier in hiring new head coach Mike Pettine.   You won’t find anyone in the league who believes that Pettine’s staff meets the criteria of being championship caliber.  Jim O’Neil, the defensive coordinator, has never held that job.  Kyle Shanahan has had a mixed career thus far but nothing about it screams “outstanding" let alone championship caliber.  Below them it doesn’t get any better, either.
King also writes that both Bill Belichick and Urban Meyer called Banner directly to strongly recommend Greg Schiano for the opening.  Belichick in fact called him twice.  Had it been up to Banner he wouldn’t have even bothered to acknowledge either call.  Owner Jimmy Haslam decided to at least follow up on the recommendations and he and Banner flew to Florida to interview Schiano.  Per King, Banner was his usual smug self (does he have any other demeanor?) but Haslam was intrigued.  Nonetheless Banner won out and Schiano wasn’t seriously considered.
I’m not sure Schiano was the right fit anyway given his problems in Tampa.  Indeed that hiring would likely have hit fans in about the same way as Randy Lerner’s hiring of Eric Mangini.  Still, Banner’s conduct speaks volumes about his vaunted “process.”  We know though it did have an impact, a pretty unfavorable one, on Haslam.
This is really the telling point because more than anything else it completely discredits Haslam’s claim that the franchise’s reputation as toxic and radioactive is a media creation.  No, sorry.  The reputation is being spread by those inside the league who know that the dysfunction was a Banner creation borne out of his need to look important.  Maybe Banner didn’t get enough love as a child.
It also speaks to exactly what happens whenever the Browns are in the mix.  Nothing, but nothing can go right.  Banner was thrust on Haslam by the league but Haslam disclaims that it was a shotgun marriage.  He told King he could have declined to hire Banner but felt Banner was the right fit, much the same way that Lerner felt Mike Holmgren was the right fit.
Then of course is the story that was circulating earlier and not in the King column regarding former offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s impassioned and noisy departure.  Turner reportedly gave Haslam and Banner who likely was listening as he played Flappy Birds on his iPhone) a blistering assessment of the team's problems including that the treatment of Chudzinski was unfair and that he and the entire coaching staff did exactly as Banner had ordered and now were being fired for doing the job they were told to do.  Haslam had to love hearing that from someone with far deeper NFL experience than Haslam or Banner will ever gain.
The larger question that King’s column and the Turner story raises is exactly why Haslam didn’t jump sooner to kill the beast that he’d allowed to live.  Taken together it was pretty clear during the interview process that Banner was out of his element, Donny.  Unquestionably Haslam had his reservations, too, but treated them like a nagging pain in his gut that he couldn’t quite identify. 
Haslam waited until Pettine, nobody’s choice for anything but a defensive coordinator’s role in Buffalo, was under contract as the Browns new head coach before coming to the conclusion that Banner had to go.  Haslam had to support Pettine at the press conference because he had no choice.  That said, and despite suggestions to the contrary from others, Pettine can’t feel comfortable about how this has all gone down given what’s now come out.  If Pettine can’t grasp the essence and import of the issue, that Haslam is now questioning ALL of Banner’s decisions, then Pettine, too, is out of his element, Donny.
So in a sense, Haslam wasn’t quite impetuous enough.  Had he really followed his instincts and dumped Banner far earlier, it’s highly doubtful that Pettine would be the coach today.  More likely the Browns would have ended up with Josh McDaniels, Adam Gase or Dan Quinn.  That doesn’t mean that Pettine won’t succeed.  He might, particularly given the changes that Haslam belatedly made.  But his resume in comparison to the others available who wouldn’t come near the job with Banner in charge suggests that once again the Browns and their fans were shortchanged.
But hey, this is what you get when your franchise is a league laughingstock.  Things don’t go the way they should precisely because it is run, if not by idiots, then incompetents.  The sad truth in all of this is that Haslam is still trying to figure out exactly how much he doesn’t know but charging fans premium prices as he goes through his own learning curve.
Meanwhile, the Browns are sitting on some truly valuable NFL assets in the form of draft picks and cash and have probably the most inexperienced staff in the NFL guarding them.  Ray Farmer comes highly recommended but he hasn’t made a draft pick in his life and his first foray will be under the white hot lights of local and national scrutiny, the likes of which he’s never faced before. 
Farmer could very well be up to the task but why is it that Cleveland fans always have to be the lab rats for every bizarre experiment?  I’m glad Haslam rid the franchise of the evil Banner and the inscrutable Lombardi but that doesn’t directly equate to having faith that the rookies now in charge will be up to the task.
Haslam’s biggest risk in all of this is not that he jettisoned two discredited bumpkins.  It’s that he turned around and he gave the keys to his Ferrari to a kid with a learner’s permit.  I guess the good in all of that is that even if Farmer chokes it doesn’t make the franchise worse.  That, friends, would be impossible.  All it really does is lengthen the timeline to achieving the very modest goal of making this franchise respectable.  But heck, fans here are used to that anyway.  They’ve waited 15 years now, what’s another 15 among friends?

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of It All, Again--Bold Moves Edition

The temptation is to say, much as I did a week ago, that another week begets another firing in Cleveland professional sports.  But firings are for folks like Rob Chudzinski, the Cleveland Browns’ former head coach.  When the two individuals higher up the food chain and most responsible for the mess that is the Cleveland Browns get canned, the talk is more polite. 

Joe Banner, the team’s CEO is stepping down.  Mike Lombardi is departing.  The words are irrelevant.  They’re both out.  Owner Jimmy Haslam is clearly sick and tired of running the worst franchise in the NFL and decided to do something about it so he broke up the band.  The Three Stooges are no more.

In their place, Haslam promoted Ray Farmer to general manager, kept Alec Schreiner as the team’s president and the person in charge of the business side of operations and, surprisingly, didn’t start over again by firing the recently hired head coach, Mike Pettine.  That may sound ludicrous, the firing of Pettine.  But no more so than anything else, particularly considering that Banner, not Farmer, was most instrumental in hiring Pettine after anyone else of note had long dropped out of consideration.

Haslam then decided to have all three, Farmer, Schreiner and Pettine, reporting directly to him.  In a sense it’s streamlined.  In another sense it’s weird though not unprecedented.  Typically the head coach would report to the general manager.  Farmer has control over the 53 man roster and Pettine has control of the players on the field.  When differences develop as they inevitably will between the two it will rest on Haslam, perhaps the least experienced owner in the NFL, to resolve the conflict.  By placing his impetuous self in the middle of the general manager and the head coach, Haslam effectively has given himself the role of final arbiter.  That should work well given how level headed Haslam has been so far.

It’s great that Farmer, the team’s assistant general manager, has become the league’s second African American general manager.   It would have been far better had Farmer been given the full range of what goes with that job—the chance to hire and manage the head coach.  Alas that wasn’t in Haslam’s plan.  Having watched impatiently and angrily from the sidelines last season as his team played like past versions when he wasn’t owner, Haslam wants to be front and center at turning around this franchise in his image, whether he’s qualified to be or not.  At least now there won’t be any questions over the real throat to choke when things go predictably wrong.

Haslam’s moves were bold, so we’ll give him credit for that.  So was the timing.  And for all those like me who clamored for the removal of those responsible for the processes that led first to Rob Chudzinski’s hiring and then his quick firing, our wish has been granted.  But let’s not pretend for a minute that this immediately solves any of the lingering questions hanging over this franchise like the dark clouds perpetually over the Cleveland skyline.

The biggest question it begs is why now or, more appropriately, why not before he let the team he just fired choose his new head coach?  Haslam got that question and a variety of others that essentially boiled down to “what the hell?” during his press conference on Tuesday by an emboldened press corps not particularly concerned about being polite.  They peppered Haslam with questions that were often tough or at least uncomfortable.  He didn’t necessarily back away from them but that doesn’t mean he answered them either.  Haslam wants to look forward folks, not dwell on the past even if that past is only a few weeks old.

It’s not hard to imagine that a Browns front office under this week’s design might have been more attractive to potential head coaching candidates but that didn’t seem to concern Haslam as he’s fully vested in his own version of reality as to the state of his franchise in the court of public opinion.  Nonetheless, the trepidation many of those potential coaches probably felt having to work for Joe Banner and with Mike Lombardi was a drawback given how poorly it worked out for Chudzinski. 

If there was anything noteworthy other than the timing coming out of the press conference it was that Haslam still is convinced that the perception of the Browns as a radioactive franchise is a media creation.   How he can honestly or at least earnestly come to that conclusion given the turmoil of the last six weeks is confounding. Frankly, Haslam’s words don’t resonate anyway.  His actions do and the remake of his franchise in just the last 14 months is astounding. 

Haslam was in full throated southern drawl sincerity for his press conference.  He wouldn’t concede, let alone dwell, on Lombardi’s shortcomings in picking personnel or Banner’s shortcomings in just about everything else.  Give him credit for understanding how criticism of those two only makes him look worse not better. 

But it was very clear at the least that Haslam felt that not just the structure but the people he had in place were not going to be able to move this franchise forward despite all the prior praise he had heaped on this same individuals.  Perhaps Haslam was most candid at admitting that being a NFL owner is a bigger learning curve then he thought.  That was a bow at least to the legitimacy of the criticism the moves he’s previously made have received.  Given these moves, that criticism won’t dissipate any time soon.
The Browns are or at least were a mess, assuming one sees Tuesday’s announcements as some sort of final sweep of the place.  Still, context matters.  The Browns’ quixotic search for a head coach was, charitably, bizarre and this final outcome, with Banner and Lombardi off to find paychecks elsewhere, doesn’t make it less so.

If fans are scratching their heads it’s because the slow drip water torture that this franchise visits upon them makes it difficult to absorb all that’s taken place.  Yet here’s where we’re at, though stay tuned, another week is just around the corner.

Pettine is the new head coach and an unknown commodity, a rookie head coach who, if the Browns were being completely honest to their fans, wasn’t on theirs or any team’s original short list of candidates.  His staff is mostly just as inexperienced.  Farmer is just as inexperienced as a general manager but at least he was far closer to the top job in his field than Pettine was at the time he was promoted. Scheiner is the guy behind the scenes, a neophyte also charged with making sure the checks get out on time and the bills get paid.

Whatever merits these moves may have now and in the long term, the timing is still mystifying but explainable because this is the Browns and everything always seems to be ass backward in its approach.

But as the smoke clears at least even the most jaded among us would have to concede that the Browns actually have in place a new team that isn’t just the perpetuation of failed regimes elsewhere, for whatever that’s worth.  All 3 of Haslam’s direct reports are of the hotshot up and comer variety, not retreads.  It doesn’t mean the Browns won’t be terrible next season.  They probably will be.  But at least there is the semblance of a real, legitimate new team in place.  It’s up to Haslam to now rest his trigger finger for a few years and give this bouillabaisse time to simmer.  

In the meantime all Farmer has to do is correct the mistakes of Lombardi and all the others that have gone before him.  He’s got enough draft picks and cap cash to do something dramatic.  Whether he’s capable is a question to which all fans are once again awaiting an answer.  All Pettine has to do is figure out how to be a head coach and then coach up the players he’s handed and hope against hope that none of the key ones get injured.  It’s felled everyone else that’s come before him.  As for Schreiner, he’s charged with putting lipstick on this pig and selling more season tickets. 

In other words, it’s going to be the longest year of each of the three’s lives.  

Thursday, February 06, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of it All, Again--Another Day, Another Firing Edition

Another month, another firing in Cleveland professional sports.  Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert today fired general manager Chris Grant amidst one of the most dismal seasons by a team not named “the Browns.”  Unlike his counterpart with the Browns, no one is much questioning Gilbert’s sanity.  If anything fans are wondering what took Gilbert so long to figure out that Grant was Isiah Thomas without the name recognition.

A firing like Grant’s is littered with mistakes large and small.  But the two that bubble to the top first in this cesspool of despair are the drafting of Anthony Bennett and the re-hiring of Mike Brown.  There’s still time for Bennett to develop into, perhaps, a serviceable piece or part.  It’s hard to imagine though that he’ll ever be seen as anything less than one of the biggest draft busts in recent history.

As for Brown, his act is far more developed.  It’s hard to imagine how he survives losing the guy that stuck his neck out to rehire him.  Brown may survive the season, he may not.  Either way Gilbert has to be near suicidal for having been talked into giving Brown a 5-year contract.

Brown was hired because the Cavs had no interest in playing defense last season.  It’s Brown’s calling card. What’s been lost in translation though is that the team assembled by Grant still has no interest in playing defense and seem to be rebelling against Brown as if to emphasize the point.  It’s as if the players deliberately used Grant’s goofy press conference criticizing the players’ effort as a stepping off point.
The season is near half over and the transition to Brown’s approach seems to be getting worse not better.  It’s a hard sell and Gilbert knows it will be hard to convince fans that it’s always darkest before dawn.  No one will ever buy that the Cavs are near the dawn of their existence.  They are on permanent midnight at the moment.

Here’s what happens in any organization when there is a major change: players/employees inevitably fall into one of three buckets.  At one end of the spectrum are those that immediately get on board with the change and are anxious to follow the new lead.  Those are your keepers.  At the other end are those that won’t get on board ever.  They hate change and can’t fathom on any level that they’re wrong about anything.  They should be dumped immediately.  In the middle are those who can understand why the change was made and understand the need to change themselves.  Nonetheless they struggle with change.  Their efforts are earnest but uneven.  Eventually that group will trend to one of the other two buckets over the weeks and months following the change.

Life being the bell curve that it is, the first and second buckets are small at the outset.  The larger bucket is the third, those that understand but earnestly struggle with the change.

You can do your own math but at best there are maybe two players on the current team that got on board immediately with the Brown hiring.  Similarly there are maybe two at the other end of the spectrum.  That would put about 8 players in the middle.  Given the nature of this team it really doesn’t matter which bucket any player but Kyrie Irving occupies.  Based on recent results, even if Irving was in the struggling middle at one time he clearly was trending in the wrong direction.  His almost complete lack of effort against the Lakers on Wednesday evening was the most telling sign, even to Brown who sat him the entire fourth quarter.

The reason Irving matters most is that he’s the putative leader, the most recognizable face of the franchise.  His reputation league wide has always exceeded his actual accomplishments but he’s been given a large benefit of the doubt due to the state of the Cavs organization.  His fellow players see it much the same way and so if they see him bucking the system they’ll follow suit because they’ll think he’s right.

If Brown has any hope of surviving it will hinge almost entirely on his ability to turn Irving around and get him to buy into what he’s selling.  It may be an impossible task.   Irving already is making Gilbert nervous by whispering strategically about a future that doesn’t include the Cavs.  Grant leaving but Brown staying doesn’t much change that.  Alienating him further with a coach he doesn’t like won’t help the situation. Besides, Gilbert has a track record when it comes to placating stars at the expense of coaches.

Had Gilbert simply retained Brown in the first place once LeBron James left it’s far more likely that the Cavs would be closer to his dream of making the playoffs this season.  But he didn’t do that and is now paying dearly by fielding a collection of players at the expense of a team.  His team is as far from the playoffs as it ever was.

Gilbert has always had a mixed reputation among the fans and the mess that his franchise is in at the moment isn’t going to help it much.  Gilbert has never been the fussy tinkering owner in the model of the Washington Redskins’ Dan Snyder, but he is neither a particularly patient one either.  So it doesn’t surprise that on a seemingly random day he dumped Grant without a specific replacement in mind.  He knew at the very least that something, anything had to be done.

I suppose some credit should be given to Gilbert for trying to right the ship by attacking first the failings of the front office before taking on the coach whose hiring he just approved.  Players matter more than anything else and Grant simply was awful at assembling players.

But it’s more than fair to note that Gilbert probably waited too long to make the move.  That’s what comes when one is distracted.  In that Gilbert is not unlike Browns owner Jimmy Haslam whose distractions have literally thrown the entire franchise off kilter.  Only Gilbert really knows how much time he’s been spending on his burgeoning gambling empire at the expense of the Cavs but put it this way, it’s far more than before he started his quixotic quest to become a gambling mogul.

What the Grant firing really suggests more than anything is that Gilbert finally woke up to the disaster his Cavs asset had become.  It also suggests that sadly Gilbert hadn’t been paying close enough attention for too long.  There are other moves to make and other moves that will get made.  Gilbert might think that his first task is to find a general manager but it’s not.  His first task is to take a long look in the mirror and re-assess his own commitment to this team.    Like Haslam is finding out the hard way and now too is Gilbert, it really does start at the top.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of it All, Again--Reading the Room Edition

The Cleveland Browns are now a few weeks or so into the Mike Pettine regime.  Most of the ancillary hiring is complete.  In short, the Browns are far down the road in their latest reboot.  How do you like it so far?

Entering the 2013 season, the Browns had a rookie head coach in Rob Chudzinski and two experienced, respected coordinators to back him up.  Entering the 2014 season the Browns again have a rookie had coach and back him up with a rookie defensive coordinator who won’t be allowed to call defensive signals and an experienced offensive coordinator who had been fired this past season for fighting with the team’s quarterback.  It certainly makes you want to place an order for season tickets right now, doesn’t it?

I guess owner Jimmy Haslam was right.  The Browns are a desirable place to coach, just look who they attracted.  It’s the media creating these perception problems.

Clearly Haslam and Banner felt Chudzinski wasn’t very good as a head coach.  He didn’t bring enough of something to the mix, though Haslam and Banner haven’t quite specified what.  We just know that the team that Banner by design deprived of key talent in an effort to go all in for 2014 didn’t completely respond to Chudzinski.  The end of beginning was likely the dispiriting loss to the New England Patriots.  The beginning of the end was the loss to the New York Jets.  The end was the zombie-like performance against the Cincinnati Bengals and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Whether that team was capable of responding to anyone, from Bill Belichick to Vince Lombardi, is the fairest of all questions but one that doesn’t matter at this point.  Haslam and Banner decided they had a big enough sample to conclude that Chudzinski did not and would never measure up to being a successful head coach in this league and made a change.  And with that baby pretty much all the bath water went as well.
The only significant body remaining is that inhabited by Chris Tabor, the special teams coordinator.  At this point he must feel like a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay, not charged with a crime but still not eligible for release.  He’s now on his third head coach in three years and yet his career still hasn’t advanced and either has the special teams.  But hey, consistency.

Where the real difference comes is measuring the loss of offensive and defensive coaching talent.  Whatever else one thinks about Chudzinski as a head coach, he at least had a solid supporting cast.  Norv Turner, for his part, was a very average head coach but no one doubts his abilities as an offensive coordinator.  Paired with Chudzinski, it was easy to see the possibilities of their offense when guided by a quarterback who was at least competent. 

Brian Hoyer seemed to grasp quickly what Chudzinski and Turner wanted and implemented it effectively.  The offense that had previously put the “more” in “moribund” suddenly was able to score points and win games.  Then Hoyer got hurt and the combined efforts of Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell set about proving that systems matter but players matter even more.

Kyle Shanahan, as if by default, is the new offensive coordinator.  Charitably, he comes with a mixed reputation.  Two former quarterbacks, Robert Griffin III and Donovan McNabb aren’t exactly on Facebook friend status with him.  On the other hand no less than Sage Rosenfelds, one of the 643 quarterbacks who have been on the Browns’ roster the last decade, came to his defense in Tuesday’s Akron Beacon Journal.  Rosenfels likes Shanahan’s approach with quarterbacks.  It’s certainly worked out for Rosenfels.

The other thing about Shanahan is that the Browns ended up being the third place he applied this off season.  The Ravens and Dolphins took a pass leaving Cleveland as the difference between working in the NFL or watching it from his easy chair for the 2014 season proving once again how prescient Haslam was.  Cleveland is a desirable place to work as a coach, particularly when unemployment is the next best alternative.

On defense, Ray Horton was someone with a great reputation throughout the league at least on par with that of Pettine.  If the Browns had merely swapped out Horton for Pettine it would have been viewed as a wash, perhaps a slight upgrade given how Horton’s defense faded over the last two months or, more precisely, exactly when he opened his mouth to tell everyone just how great it was playing statistically if not on the field.

The addition of O’Brien adds nothing significant to the mix other than a body to fill a title, the duties of which are really being handled by Pettine.  In either case improvement hinges on personnel not schemes.

The point is that despite the assurances of Haslam and Banner, it’s simply preposterous to assert that the coaching talent at the top of the Browns right now and heading into next season is better than last season. 

 It’s the same to slightly worse.  It also begs another question I hadn’t really thought of until I considered the impact not so much of the loss of Turner and Horton but their loss as measured against their replacements: why didn’t Haslam and Banner just elevate Turner as the head coach? The answer lies in the simple fact that it actually doesn’t matter.

Haslam can wish it away but the Browns really are a radioactive franchise and will remain so until there is stability at the top that is measured in years instead of months.  There’s no other conclusion to be drawn.

The Browns were the first team with an opening this off season and the last to fill it.  When it finally was filled, it was by someone whom the Browns could have hired that first week.  Instead they spent the next several either being avoided or getting turned down by top tier candidates.  In the end they turned to someone they could have hired within hours after firing Chudzinski because, frankly, he was the last man standing.  The story is that he wowed Banner and Haslam with his approach not to defense but to offense as well.  He wants a team that looks to score and not shorten the game. It’s as if that never occurred to them.  With that kind of novel approach it is fascinating to ponder who the Browns would have turned to next had they overplayed their hand with Pettine, which they almost did.

The assistant coaches on this team are a further reflection of the poison that envelops this franchise.  O’Brien wasn’t being elevated to Pettine’s former job in Buffalo so he had effectively two options, stay as the linebackers coach in Buffalo or take the promotion in Cleveland.  No other coordinator jobs were available.

The O’Briens and Pettines of the world are mercenaries.  They move around because teams unwilling to change the head coach still want to impress their fans with the illusion of action by changing out what are essentially very interchangeable parts.  Buffalo is essentially Cleveland, in geography and accomplishment.  Taking the promotion was a no-brainer.

As for Shanahan, hiring him is like hiring Jon Gruden’s son.  Maybe he can build an identity away from his dad, but it won’t be easy and it hasn’t quite happened yet.  With no healthy credible quarterback on the Cleveland roster just yet, it’s going to be difficult for anyone to do anything different than Turner did and achieve materially better results.  As for what it will do for Shanahan, let’s just say that given the 3-year contract the Browns signed him to (why?  Was he in demand? By whom?) the odds are staggeringly high that he’ll not be around to see it through and it won’t be because he’s been elevated to a head coach somewhere.  The chances of him leveraging his current job in Cleveland into something bigger approaches those faced by the President in getting Congress to adopt immigration reform.

This could all work out well for Haslam and Banner and if it does then we’ll praise them as evil geniuses.  But for now they look like their predecessors: rank amateurs without any ability to read the room.