Thursday, August 28, 2014

Save the Sympathy For Someone More Deserving

Everyone is for drug testing until they are against it.  And they’re usually against it when the outcome effects them in a personal way.
That is the only explanation I can muster as to why so many are sympathetic to Josh Gordon at the moment.  The mercurial Cleveland Browns receiver received confirmation this week of the fate that was inevitable once he struck out swinging at the NFL’s drug policy, a year long suspension.  The thought that this putrid Cleveland Browns team could be deprived of its only playmaker for the season suddenly turned soft the noggins of fans and media types alike.
Without belaboring to state the obvious, this team has more than proven that it’s a perennial 4-5 game winner, even with Gordon.  Things aren’t going to change in the near future for this team’s fortunes for reasons well beyond the control of Gordon.
But as for what’s in the control of Gordon, that’s actually hard to say.  From all the evidence presented, he appears to be a drug addict.  He’s now tested positive at least 6 times for illegal drugs, in college and the pros.  This is not about second chances.  It’s about seventh chances.  He’s more than worn out the patience of those continuing to enable his demons.
One could argue forcefully that the only group effected personally by the positive drug test result of Josh Gordon is Gordon himself and his family.  But the way the media and fans are reacting it’s as if they’ve been kicked in the gut as well.  Hardly.
Gordon is no one’s cross to die on.  We all should simply ignore the embarrassing and tone deaf second hand smoke defense that his legal team offered. The outcome of the arbitration hearing was hardly in question.  Well before he tested positive this time, Gordon knew the tightrope he was walking and the consequence for tripping.  Like any headstrong, immature, pampered egomaniac, he thought he could beat the system.  He couldn’t and he didn’t.  The punishment he got he deserved.
Bill Livingston, a columnist for the Plain Dealer (assuming the name hasn’t been auctioned off by the Northeast Ohio Media Group in order to buy more servers for their digital strategy), has taken up Gordon’s cause as a fan proxy by questioning the strictness of Gordon’s penalty given what are the rumored “facts” of this case, meaning the relative levels of marijuana in Gordon’s system and how other leagues use other levels.
It’s hard to avoid the most obvious pun by calling this line of argument a smokescreen.  But Livingston’s been in a fog for most of his career anyway.  The league and the union have a collectively bargained drug policy and protocol.  This is what the parties voluntarily agreed to and the rules under which Gordon and his co-workers operate. 
The purpose of this argument about the relative levels is to somehow give credence to the ridiculous defense that somehow this serial drug user ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time and was victimized by exposure to second hand smoke. 
Gordon is no victim.
There’s a far more plausible and simple explanation.  Gordon is lying.  Indeed why would he even deserve the benefit of anyone’s doubt?  He has the most to gain or lose in offering up an argument that isn’t even correct medically, let alone practically.  Gordon has been caught smoking dope numerous times in college and the pros but suddenly he’s reformed and just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time?  Why would any logical thinking person think that’s more likely than the far more likely scenario that Gordon once again smoked dope and didn’t think he’d get caught?  Obviously Harold Henderson, the arbitrator in this case didn’t buy it and neither should anyone else.
Indeed what’s most offensive in this case is Gordon’s abject unwillingness to own his own misbehavior and mislead the team and it’s fans into thinking that this time he didn’t do anything wrong.  The reason guy’s like Gordon don’t seem to ever learn is because they are surrounded by enablers, including gullible media types and lawyers, willing to further a bullshit narrative in order to avoid the real life consequences of bad actions. 
The Cleveland Browns are a worse team without Josh Gordon but the only person responsible for that statement is Josh Gordon.  The unwillingness of the arbitrator to buy into Gordon’s “defense” doesn’t make the arbitrator the bad guy here.  Neither is the league nor the union to blame for the outcome.  Gordon simply can’t learn the simple lesson of what it would take to stay in the league and for that he now finds himself on the outside looking in.
It’s almost comical really how twisted the thought process of others has become.  Livingston, for example but hardly the only example, goes down the path of noting the supposed number of drug tests that Gordon passed already as, what, proof that he’s reformed?  I don’t think we even need to stretch as far as the Lance Armstrong fraud to talk about how ludicrous it is to make the argument about how previous positive tests portends compliance.  The reason Gordon was subjected to such long term testing was precisely because he has a history and eventually if a person hasn’t reformed he’ll get caught again.  Gordon hasn’t reformed.  He got caught again.
Gordon put together an amazing, record-setting season last year while dancing on the head of a pin.  Where opposing defenses couldn’t trip him up, where a parade of mediocre at best quarterbacks throwing to him couldn’t slow down his accomplishments, all it took for Gordon to regress was an off season filled with more time then he knew what to do with.
The decriminalization of marijuana may be your issue, have at it.  But that has nothing at the moment to do with Gordon’s status as a multi violator of league rules.  Gordon’s job, his life, is in jeopardy because Gordon lacks the self control to change the course.  Given his history, there’s no reason to think that even this suspension will move his needle.
I think it’s dangerous to take up the cause of someone like Gordon in order to further the larger debate about the relative dangers of marijuana.  It matters not at all whether marijuana is legal in a few states and otherwise available by prescription in most others.  The same can be said for most performance enhancing drugs as well.  The point, again, is that the league and its union voluntarily put in place a set of rules on what substances are prohibited, what the testing protocol for those substances should be, and what penalties would be assessed for violations.  It’s up to those parties to decide if and when they want to change their rules. 
Of course the other thing that’s getting people twisted up in their shorts is the severity of Gordon’s penalty in the context of the league’s kid glove treatment of Ray Rice for beating his then girlfriend and dragging her out of an elevator in an Atlantic City casino.  One of the local television stations even ran a “fan poll” asking if the Gordon penalty was too severe compared to Rice’s. I’m guessing they didn’t consult an expert in polling as the question answers itself nor should they be surprised by the results.  Of course a year-long suspension is more severe than a two game suspension. Duh.
Rice ran afoul of the league’s personal conduct rules.  His actions reflected poorly on the league and that’s what put him in the crosshairs of the commissioner.  There are no prescribed penalties for domestic violence.  It is case by case.  Roger Goodell may have done a lousy job in exercising that discretion but it was his to exercise.
There was no discretion to be exercised in Gordon’s case.  His previous violations put him down a path of progressive discipline with the next violation resulting in a season long suspension.  There was no dispute that Gordon had dope in his system.  Case over.  The only real mystery is why the arbitrator waited so long to issue the opinion.  Perhaps he was on vacation.
I have no sympathy for Gordon and neither should anyone else, at least in the context of the punishment meted out.  My sympathy for Gordon extends to him personally with the hope that he gets help for the problems that he clearly has.  But if he never plays another game for the Browns or in professional football, it won’t impact anyone’s life but his own and those for whom he’s supporting.
The next step is his.  What would make this story better is if Gordon really uses his time away to make positive changes in his life.  Everyone likes a resurrection story.  With Gordon, though, there’s reason to worry.  He’s still in hard denial about his actions this time and he didn’t learn any lesson from the previous five (at least) positive drug tests.  There’s no reason to think he’ll learn anything meaningful from the sixth.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

He's Not Number One

Cleveland Browns head coach Mike Pettine on Wednesday confirmed what was obvious to the entire nation on Monday night.  Johnny Manziel should not and will not be opening the season as a starting NFL quarterback, even for a team as woeful and as quarterback-challenged as the Browns.
Manziel was never going to open the 2014 season as the Cleveland Browns’ starting quarterback anyway.  Never, ever, ever was it going to happen.  Manziel should probably publicly thank Pettine for saving him from another embarrassing chapter of the tragicomedy that is slowing developing in Berea with Manziel as chief protagonist.
To say the least, Manziel needs seasoning.  To say the most, he needs to grow up.
Pettine will never admit that Manziel flipping the bird at the Washington bench on Monday night in the second half of a preseason game for goodness sakes tipped the scales.  And it probably didn’t, but only because it wasn’t as if the scales were otherwise in balance.  What Manziel’s act did do was highlight exactly the problem with him at the moment.  He lacks both the maturity and the mental makeup to take on the role of starter.
It’s actually pretty comical when you think about how Manziel responded to the taunting from an opposing bench in a meaningless game.  Lacking any wit or sense of subtlety he gave the typical 14 year-old R-rated non-verbal version of “oh yea?”   Clever stuff, Johnny.  I’d have more respect for him if he had made a joke about their mothers.
More to the point, though, is it demonstrated exactly how easily it is to get inside the head of Manziel.  That shouldn’t be such a surprise.  It’s clear there’s ample room if only, but not only, because Manziel didn’t exactly spend the filling it with anything remotely work related.
This little comeuppance for Manziel, as inevitable as it was expected, puts him at a crossroads now, perhaps the first time he’s actually faced one in his life.  What he does next, which path he chooses, could very well determine if he becomes just another wasted first round pick by the Browns or the one true player around whom this beleaguered team can finally rally.
The one thing working in Manziel’s favor on this score is that he does seem to understand how vast his shortcomings clearly are at the moment. In his interview with Jon Gruden broadcast on ESPN Manziel candidly pointed out how little grooming he really had at Texas A&M for the pro game.  His college team didn’t huddle.  He never took a snap behind the center.  The playbook consisted of plays whose proper execution relied mostly of Manziel running around long enough to either find someone, anyone who might be open or taking off himself.  That amazing lack of precision to the college game just doesn’t translate to the uber-scripted world of the NFL and Manziel knows it or at least he does now.

In his comments earlier Wednesday, Manziel was similarly candid, saying he didn't do enough well on the field to earn the nod.  Indeed he admitted he probably wasn't ready to be a starter.
What makes all this so curious then is why Manziel used his offseason so frivolously.  He seemingly knew how big of a learning curve he had to overcome and instead of spending as much time as possible to make that leap he spent most of his time dicking around various nightclubs around the country.  It’s the kind of approach that someone who feels overwhelmed by what he faces tends to take.  Gravitate toward what you’re comfortable with while avoiding what you aren’t.  And if anything about Manziel is crystal clear he’s comfortable at a party.

He also made that point in his remarks Wednesday and in typical fashion he zagged when he should have zigged.  He was definitive, if not a bit defiant, in defending his offseason conduct, claiming it made no difference in the outcome and didn't impact him at all.  Indeed he said he wouldn't change a thing and vowed to essentially spend next offseason doing the same thing.
It's difficult at times to harmonize the candid, contrite Manziel with the defiant borderline idiotic version.  He knows what to say except when he doesn't.  Immaturity, perhaps, but it's more than that.  It's the reason actually scouts were so mixed about him in the first place.

But let's get back to facts.  It’s not that Manziel didn’t put in work during the offseason.  It’s that he didn’t put in nearly enough, irrespective of what he says now.  No one expected Manziel to display veteran poise at this point.  But neither should fans have expected Manziel to look as lost as a guy off the street on Monday night.  There’s a reason Pettine used the middle of August to name Hoyer as the starter.  There was no effective other choice and given how far Hoyer still needs to come the time to stop taking away reps from his was now.
Nothing about the way Manziel has performed thus far suggests he’s even close to being a credible NFL quarterback anytime soon.    That’s not to say it couldn’t happen but short of an injury it won’t or at least shouldn’t happen soon.  The one thing Manziel doesn’t need now (not to mention Hoyer) is any sense from Pettine that the move to Hoyer is less than permanent.  If past is prologue, though, more time will be spent soothing Manziel’s rather fragile ego than giving the tough love he actually needs.
Look, the red flags are everywhere with this guy and rather than treating him like a savior he needs to be put in his place.  Pettine, general manager Ray Farmer, even embattled owner Jimmy Haslam, did an awful job this offseason reigning him in almost going to great pains to sanction the behavior as appropriately aged-based.  The behind the scenes story is that none of them were pleased with his antics and yet they waited until Manziel arrived for training camp, partied out and ill prepared, to tell him that.
Similarly, there is the issue of Manziel’s missing of a team meeting last week, reminiscent of his missing an early meeting at the Manning quarterback camp last summer and, of course, the middle finger incident.  In short, nothing about Manziel screams leader including his statement Wednesday that his partying ways would continue.
I’m sure Pettine would say that these matters have been handled internally but there’s nothing publicly to suggest that Manziel has gotten the message.  Besides, there’s nothing wrong with a coach taking a calculated approach to calling out a player publicly, particularly a player who is supposed to be leading by example instead of acting like one of the bad asses in the back of the bus throwing spit balls when the coach isn’t looking.  It worked well for Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick to publicly challenge a few players from time to time.
Manziel needs to see this moment for what it is and get on the right path, publicly and privately.  Outwardly he doesn't.  He needs to come out and candidly admit he didn’t work hard enough and just as candidly re-dedicate himself to living up to the trust and faith that has been placed in him.  He didn't.  

A bit of advice for the rookie.  The fans, particularly in Cleveland, are a forgiving bunch unless you’re a dick.  It’s why they still stick with Bernie Kosar through all his problems and still can’t stand Braylon Edwards.