Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Draft Day--Where Fantasy and Reality Collide

It’s nearly Draft Day for the Cleveland Browns and it’s funny how the movies and real life can collide, especially when it is serio-comic and especially when it involves the Browns.
In Draft Day, the movie, a beleaguered fictional Cleveland Browns general manager working for an unrealistic owner feels pressure to change the course of the team with its early first round pick in order to restore respectability to what was once one of the league’s great franchise. In Cleveland, the reality, it’s much the same except that it’s hard now to remember a time when the Browns were once one of the league’s great franchises.
Actually, the real difference between the movie plot and what’s taking place in Berea is that the Browns’ real general manager, Ray Farmer, isn’t beleaguered so much as inexperienced, significantly inexperience.  He’s 39 years old and is in his first stint as a general manager anywhere and is responsible for the first time ever for finalizing a roster that has more holes in it than the plot of a typical Kevin Costner movie.  (Short movie review: I actually thoroughly enjoyed Draft Day.  You think it’s easy to wring drama out of a movie dedicated to picking college football players? Jennifer Gardner helped plus Costner is at his best when he’s in a sports-themed movie.  The pictures of Cleveland were nice, too.)
Here’s where the movie and reality differ.  The Browns of Draft Day, despite a series of lousy records, were far less dysfunctional.  The biggest cock up, as the British like to say, was that Costner’s character had fired his father, who had been a somewhat revered head coach of the Browns. He did it at his mother’s request.  That’s about the only thing that hasn’t yet happened to the real Browns.  Give them time. 
Consider:  The management clowns in charge at this time last season tanked last year’s draft, sacrificed the present for a not too distant future to bring forth a portfolio bursting with plenty of draft picks for 2014.  And then those same management clowns, confident that the draft picks would be valuable because they constructed a team destined to lose became suddenly fearful that the rookie head coach and a pesky local product second/third string quarterback could accidentally turn things around, started gutting the team as if they were really channeling the plot of Major League to make sure their not too distant future plan bore fruit.
They needn’t have worried. 
So next Thursday was to represent the coronation of the accelerated plan for respectability concocted by Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi.  It was the day the Browns and their fans would finally get their most fervent wish; a franchise quarterback who didn’t fling the ball underhand into opposing players arms when pressured; a running back who could hit the slim gaps in the line more than once a season, a defensive backfield that didn’t spent most of every game with its back toward its own line and maybe a linebacker or two that could cover a tight end.
Then a funny thing happened on the way to executing the grand strategy.  Club President-For-Life Banner and Talent Evaluator Extraordinaire Lombardi revealed themselves to be the snakes we all thought they were as they conspired to rid themselves of the next great head coach they said they had just hired less than a year prior.  As the fans revolted for, like, the thousandth time in the last 6 years and federal agents set up shop in the Tennessee headquarters of Pilot Flying J, Browns’ owner Jimmy Haslam started seeing conspiracies and hearing voices and quieted the din by starting over not at Pilot Flying J but with the Browns.
Haslam sent Banner back to whatever rock he crawled out from under, Lombardi likewise and suddenly the Browns had themselves another new administration, securing forever the simultaneous records for number of organizational colon cleanses in a decade and the number of ex-employees still drawing a paycheck they didn’t deserve in the first place.
The problem of course is that while Haslam has a flair for the dramatic, he lacks the internal clock necessary to accurately gauge timing.  He dismissed Lombardi and Banner after they had alienated any potential head coaching candidate with a modicum of experience and then had to settle for a guy that wasn’t on the short, medium or long term list of any of the 12 other franchises seeking a new head coach this offseason.  To make matters worse, he then elevated a rookie into his first job as general manager.  Their mission: faithfully and successfully execute the Most Important Draft Day Ever.
It’s this backdrop that informs what the Browns do next and if it hadn’t happened in real life you’d never buy it in the movies. 
Farmer and his two months of prep could surprise. But let’s be clear.  Prep does count.  No one needs the amount of time the NFL actually allocates to the draft.  Indeed, the whirr and spin of all that takes place in the two weeks prior to the draft is essentially nonsense or nonsense2 this year as the league actually pushed the draft out two weeks this year.  But most teams, most people would agree that a team needs more than 2 months to prepare for the draft.
With the draft on the doorstep Farmer gave the obligatory press conference that general manager’s give, the kind where nothing is said but everyone tries to read between the lines anyway.  The only difference this year to year’s past is that it was a far more pleasant experience.
Farmer is young and inexperienced, meaning he hasn’t been around long enough to become a douche.  Or maybe he’s just a decent guy that the Browns lucked into for once.  But at least Farmer didn’t act as if he was having his back molars removed through his alimentary canal every time someone asked him the equivalent of when the ground war was scheduled to start.
NFL teams treat draft information as if it were nuclear launch codes so there was no chance that any useful information could be gleaned from his press conference.  There was no truth to discern either from what he said or what he didn’t say. 
Farmer talked about what a great football player Johnny Manziel is and how his goofy, immature off the field antics don’t change that assessment.  That means that Farmer either is going to draft Manziel or he wants someone above him to so he doesn’t have to.  That’s the point. 
Opinions differ on who the Browns should take in this draft, and that’s probably just speaking for those in the draft room.  Nonetheless expect the Browns to be conservative because that’s how rookies in the front office act—conservative.
Remember that scene in Draft Day when Kevin Costner fleeced a rookie GM in Atlanta?  It happened because the Atlanta GM in the movie was new and afraid of making a mistake.  Expect Farmer to not necessarily get fleeced by another GM but to tread lightly nonetheless, afraid of making a mistake.
Draft days can be and often are unpredictable, particularly in a year where there is no strong consensus number one pick.  Guys who looked like they’d be high on draft boards could drop, further complicating the calculus for Farmer who, all things being equal, would probably like to take an offensive lineman and then see what falls his way late in the first round.  All things being really equal, don’t be surprised if Farmer kicks the can down the road for even more draft picks in 2015.  At least then he’ll have had about 14 months of preparation, assuming of course that the voices in Haslam’s head of quieted a bit.
It will be fun.  It will be interesting.  I doubt it will be game changing.  Remember, this team has a track record.  It didn’t get to this level of dysfunction quickly.  It’s built up over the years and once it takes root it is near impossible to completely eliminate it.  Still, if you want a prediction then you’re always safe quoting Clubber Lange when asked what awaited Apollo Creed in his next fight: “pain.”


Anonymous said...

Love reading your articles that are always insightful and informative..only complaint I have is the black background that makes reading it very difficult...any way you can change the color to a more neutral one?

Thomas Watson said...

It was aiming for "Moneyball" territory and fell short. It was still good.