Tuesday, October 28, 2014

No Such Thing As a Bad Win

Sports in general and professional sports in particular are the ultimate bottom line businesses.  Success is measured week by week and chronicled daily in a million or so outlets.  While it is definitely true that a team that consistently wins more than it loses can be considered a success in the same way that a team that consistently loses more than it wins can be considered a failure, on a micro basis there are truths to be learned in both the wins and losses irrespective of a team’s record.
This past weekend, both the Cleveland Browns and the Ohio State Buckeyes walked away with wins. And while that should be good enough to all the bottom liners, of course it was not because the wins were not impressive in their crafting against ostensibly lesser competition.
In the case of the Buckeyes, I guess what this means is that unless 50 or more points are scored and 500 or more yards are compiled on offense, the win might as well have been a loss.  In the case of the Browns, I’m not even sure what it means.  Given the Browns rather consistent pattern of losing at least twice as many games as it wins, season after season and that just the previous week it actually lost to a winless team, the Oakland Raiders came into the game winless and left the same way and that is somehow unsatisfactory. 
I understand the frustration of Buckeye fans.  The preseason seemed to hold realistic hope of the team getting to the first ever national championship playoffs. But the injury to Braxton Miller, coupled with very inexperienced back up, altered both the perceptions and the reality.  Couple that with a home loss to what is, at best, a very average Virginia Tech, and this season seemed like it wouldn’t take any flight.
But since that game the Buckeyes have completely turned the season on its head.  Quarterback J.T. Barrett, playing for the first time in two years, seemed to have the light go on immediately and suddenly, against weak competition, the Buckeyes’ offense turned into a juggernaut.
Well, that juggernaut got slowed on Saturday night against Penn State, a supposedly vastly inferior team and that got everyone all upset.  Rather than acknowledge the growing pains of a team that has been far better than most imagined when Miller first went down, fans and most of the media instead chastised the Buckeyes for apparently not destroying Penn State at their home field at night in front of the national media and a drunk and crazed fan base making it almost impossible to call out any signals.

There was plenty to critique in the Buckeyes’ win, but let’s keep that critique in perspective and acknowledge what is likely to be one of the more important wins this team will have in the next few seasons.

Probably the biggest issue in the entire game was the play calling.  This isn’t the first time, just the most recent, when Urban Meyer went ultra conservative in a big game.  Meyer has a fascination with letting his quarterbacks carry the entire running load even when his running backs have more than proven capable.  Michigan State last year late in the Big Ten championship game was another prime example.  Meyer seems to lose faith mostly in himself.  Stated differently, he goes into small ball protection mode too quickly at the first sign of trouble.
But let’s also remember that the Buckeyes mostly dominated Penn State even if the score didn’t reflect it.  The only Penn State touchdown in regulation came on a very well thrown pass into very tight coverage.  Sometimes the other team is going to win a battle.  It happens.
The far larger point though was the manner in which the Buckeyes reversed a huge momentum swing and found a way to win.  In thinking about the Ohio State win on Saturday and fan and media reaction to it, it was best to recall the words of LeBron James last week when talking about what it takes sometimes to build a team, according to the Plain Dealer:
 “You got to go through something in order to create a bond, and that means for the worse. You've got to lose ball games that we think we should have won. We got to get in an argument here and there every now and then just to test each other out. It has to happen. It's going to happen. I know it's going to happen. A lot of guys don't see it but I see it. That's the only way we're going to be able to grow.”
That’s exactly what Saturday night’s victory ended up being, an opportunity for this team to get tested, to bond, to grow.  If this is a team with big aspirations, whether by a confluence of events this year or a more defined approach next season, this Penn State victory will be the fulcrum on which those aspirations pivoted.  We’ll see soon enough as the Buckeyes go into hostile territory in a few weeks against Michigan State.
As for the Browns, it simply is a case of confusing progress with success.  The two concepts can intersect and sometimes they can be almost the same thing.  But for now, for this Browns team, they are at best 2nd or 3rd cousins.
What most of the dissection of the Browns’ win has been is to highlight the team’s faults without acknowledging some emerging strengths.  The Raiders, easily one of the worst if not the worst team in the league, is horrible in every phase of the game, including stopping the run.  Yet the Browns couldn’t find a way to run the ball because, again, Alex Mack is apparently the most important player on this team.
And yet, despite the numerous 3-and-outs, the bad passes, the lousy routes, the blown blocking assignments, this team found a way to pull together late and overcome whatever adversity it faced, much of which was arguably self-inflicted.
For all that went wrong on Sunday, plenty went right, starting with the defense.  Joe Haden, of whom I’ve been a frequent critic, played one of the best games of his entire career.  Sure he was in the right place at the right moment to field an oddly errant mid-air fumble, but his coverage was at an elite status the entire game.  Late in the game on a sideline route deep with a receiver seeming to have a step on him, Haden close fast and made a textbook deflection.  It was the kind of play that coaches from other teams at all levels will use to demonstrate proper technique.
Let’s also mention Paul Krueger who is fulfilling this year much of what was expected of him last year.  Maybe it’s head coach Mike Pettine’s defensive schemes that appeal more to Krueger’s sensibilities or it’s a case of just being more in sync with this coaching staff.  Whatever it is, Krueger played well Sunday as he has this whole season.  Even poor Justin Gilbert, who has mostly appeared overmatched since the first preseason game, looked better. 
There is still plenty of improvement this team needs.  Buster Skrine is still, well, Buster Skrine and the Browns might be the worst team I’ve ever seen at any level fielding and returning punts.  But this team is already at four wins for the season and it’s a season that’s only 7 games old!
Just as with the Buckeyes, the Browns have gone through the kind of adversity now that tends to bond teams together.  Indeed, the little battles it fought in other games is largely responsible for the team’s ability to respond late this past Sunday.  In almost every other year in the last 12 other Browns teams have crumbled under like circumstances.  The fact that this team didn’t and the fact this it won should be celebrated for what it was, not the Super Bowl, but a gritty win.
I’ve been part of the fabric of this town’s crappy sports teams for more than 50 years now so I understand the manner in which all performance gets filtered.  But that doesn’t make it any less irritating for the same tired narrative of pulling defeat from the jaws of victory every time it doesn’t go to some ill-informed predetermined script.
Winning games at any level, be it Division I college football or the NFL, is hard enough.  Let’s not make it harder on ourselves by constructing impossibly high standards just so we can satisfy our inner insecurities that our teams will never be good enough to win something meaningful. And if that task is too hard then keep it simple and just remember that while you often can make the case for a good loss, you can never make the case for a bad win.

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