Sunday, December 28, 2014

Another December To Not Remember

The last time a Cleveland Browns head coach went 0 for December, he was fired.  The December before that was essentially the same thing.  Given owner Jimmy Haslam’s brief but clear history, both head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer had to be wondering their fates as the Browns closed the season in that most familiar way.
Haslam quickly removed any uncertainty about two of his three direct reports by stating after the loss to the Baltimore Ravens that Pettine and Farmer would be back.  Now if Haslam could find a way to remove all of the other uncertainty surrounding this franchise then maybe he’d really be on to something.
Keeping Pettine and Farmer is a way to build continuity, which is something this franchise hasn’t tried in years so why not give it a try?
On the one hand, arguably the hand that matters most, the Browns ended the season with 7 wins, not great, but the most this team has had in the last 8 years.  It’s a bottom line business so in that sense the Browns have taken a pretty big step forward from where they ended last season.   
But yet someone has to be accountable for some pretty big issues pressing against the windows of Berea, to wit:
1.       The team completely unraveled offensively once Alex Mack went out for the season.

2.       First round draft pick Justin Gilbert was a complete bust who demonstrated little work ethic and virtually no feel for playing the position for which he was so highly touted.

3.       Ditto for first round draft pick Johnny Manziel whose lack of work ethic and discipline fully exposed Pettine to ridicule when he marched him out to start in place of struggling Brian Hoyer with the playoffs still technically in the picture.

4.       Josh Gordon still not entirely getting with the program despite spending most of the year away from it.
This is some pretty high level dysfunction, even for a franchise that has been so lost and confused it makes the New York Jets look like the New England Patriots.
Figuring out how to solve these and a myriad of other minor matters is further complicated by the way the organization is structured, with Haslam not just as its titular head but the one with the knife wielding power and little experience in how to use it except recklessly.
When Haslam took out Joe Banner and his Sicilian messenger boy, Mike Lombardi, last season, he didn’t quite elevate Ray Farmer to Banner’s former role.  He gave Farmer the title of general manager and control over the personnel but not of the coach.  Instead Pettine likewise reports to Haslam, putting Haslam in the unenviable position of arbitrating the question over whether Farmer’s lack of research on Gilbert and increasingly larger reach on Manziel and the inability to find an even faintly credible replacement for Mack is what doomed the team or it was Pettine’s abject inexperience at running a team on a day to day basis?
I know this, for all his square-jawed clear-eyed talk to the media, Pettine obviously wasn’t able to reach either Manziel or Gilbert in a way that resonated. Same with Gordon, though Pettine hardly had the chance.  I also know that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who reports to Pettine, couldn’t figure out how to overcome the loss of a decent center but certainly not Jim Otto in his prime.  Once Mack went down, the running game fell apart and opposing defenses exploited all the reasons Hoyer was a backup in the first place.
What’s difficult to figure in that truth though is where exactly does all the responsibility lie.  Pettine and Shanahan can make a rather forceful claim that they didn’t populate the team with two rookie running backs, including another work-ethic challenged player in Terrence West, and a free agent, Ben Tate, who wasn’t worth even a third of what they paid him.  Of course, Farmer could argue that in the context of hindsight perhaps Tate was just another player, like Manziel, like Gilbert, like Gordon, that Pettine couldn’t reach.
That all could be true and a big part of the problem, but then Farmer can’t so easily explain away the rest of the receiving corps.  This wasn’t a failure of schemes, but of talent.  Outside of Jordan Cameron, who was injured most of the season anyway, there wasn’t a credible receiver on the field until Gordon returned from his suspension.  Farmer claimed early on that the receivers he did sign (when he could have drafted some but stubbornly didn’t) were good, just unknown.  At season’s end, they’re still just unknowns.  Farmer also signed Miles Austin, as he did Tate, and it ended up being just more wasted money. 
The case for Farmer doesn’t get any better when you look on the defensive side of the ball.  Gilbert showed no work ethic from day one and carried it with him until season’s end, which ended not on Sunday but Saturday when he failed for the eleventymillionth time to make a meeting on time.  That’s a failure of research.  Somewhere in the 6 or 7 notebooks the team compiled on potential first round picks had to be a mention that Gilbert was a lazy, entitled n’er do well with no work ethic.  But maybe Farmer missed all that as he maneuvered around the draft, securing picks for 2015 while doing every other general manager in the league a favor by taking on Manziel.
Speaking of Manziel, his failures from an organizational standpoint are shared.  From a personal standpoint they’re his own.  Farmer knew Manziel was a high risk.  So did Pettine and yet all Pettine did from the first day of the offseason when Manziel eschewed any work in favor of every party was coddle Manziel in a way that even the casual fan knew wouldn’t end up well.  He constantly made excuses for why Manziel wasn’t working when he should have been and more or less gave him a public pass for being a public douche, with Manziel’s only fine known publicly is the one just issued for being late to treatment Saturday morning because of his hard partying Friday night, a party that kept many of his co-workers from being on time on Saturday as well.  This must be the new Johnny that Manziel spoke about earlier in the week.
Unless Haslam publicly admits that he ordered Pettine to start Manziel late in the season, the decision to do that is all Pettine’s and, again in the context of hindsight, was perhaps the single dumbest decision any head coach at any level has made.
It looked at the time, and I wrote at the time, that the decision made itself given Hoyer’s play.  That remains true.  But the wild card in all that is that only Pettine truly knew if Manziel was ready, or at least ready enough, to get behind center in an actual game.  We can only assume Pettine believed Manziel was ready and in the end that was such a colossal misjudgment that most coaches never get a second chance to make it.
It’s not just that Manziel was overwhelmed by the task.  That can come from a simple lack of appreciation of the gravity of the moment.  Manziel wasn’t even just overmatched.  That can be a talent gap.  Manziel couldn’t have looked any more lost than if Pettine had simply plucked a fan from the crowd and positioned him in the shotgun.  For an earlier generation, starting Manziel looked to be the equivalent of the literary joke that writer George Plimpton tried to play on the rest of the world when he suited up as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions in a preseason game for the book Paper Lion.
When Manziel scanned the defensive coverage he had the same looks of abject confusion and fear as does a father when he takes his teenage daughters to buy undergarments at Victoria’s Secret.  When the ball was snapped, Manziel acted as if he didn’t know where to look first or next.  And when he ran it was in the same way a scared Alfalfa ran in that Little Rascals episode where Alfalfa claimed to be a football hero he was not.
Whether Pettine couldn’t or didn’t see any of that coming is irrelevant.  He’s accountable either way.  Maybe because Pettine understands defense more he could see all of Gilbert’s shortcomings more clearly and benched him earlier.  Pettine should have seen the same thing with Manziel but didn’t and that is pretty damning when it comes to defending his cause.
So as another miserable season at the Factory of Sadness closes, the Browns look to be in pretty much the same place they started and not really any closer to being a credible playoff threat.  The owner remains impetuous and inexperienced, the head coach overmatched, the general manager isn’t as good as he thinks he is and there is almost no skill at any of the skill positions.   But rather than dwell on just those pesky negatives let’s just pause and take pity at least on the one true professional in the entire organization, Joe Thomas.  As good a player at his position as there’s ever been and yet destined to never play a meaningful game in December.

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