Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Price Of Failure

Apparently the Cleveland Browns got tired of waiting until they had a successful season. 
While not publicly announcing it, the Browns informed season ticket holders this past week that prices will be going up, somewhere between $6 and $15 depending on their seat location.  And rather than tout the usual reasons for raising prices, such as “it cost money to be this successful,” club president Alec Scheiner said that the market was telling the team it was time.
Just how was the market being so chatty with Scheiner? Well, he looked at the secondary market saw that people were selling tickets on occasion for more than twice the face value.  From there he extrapolated that fans, particularly the most loyal and not, say, the ones that frequent the secondary market for high demand games, were just itching to pay more.  And if this wasn’t enough of a message, Scheiner just figured it’s been 7 years since prices were increased, so what the heck?
As this was being “announced” in the usual way that bad news gets announced, I happened to be contemplating exactly why anyone continues to be a season ticket holder.  I’m not advocating against renewing season tickets or criticizing those who do.  To paraphrase Don Corleone, it doesn’t matter to me how a person wants to spend his money.  I’m just wondering exactly what possesses one to continually invest in a franchise that repeatedly squanders the money it has been given in ways that shake the head and puzzle the conscience.
It’s not just that the Browns haven’t been successful.  It’s more that they’ve relegated to high art all the ways large and small it takes to sustain failure for so many years.
The Browns didn’t fire their head coach this offseason, which qualifies as a high water mark for owner Jimmy Haslam.  But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been nearly as disruptive as if they would have.  The Browns have just hired another offensive coordinator and are finalizing their plans, at least I think they are, with respect to both a quarterbacks and receivers coaches.  So another year, another philosophy and another shakedown period.
Meanwhile the personnel on this team, particularly the ones these new coaches will have to instruct in the mystical ways of their magical offense, are just as much a mess.  Much of it started when general manager Ray Farmer curiously did not opt to draft any viable receivers in the offseason despite knowing that Josh Gordon wasn’t going to be available to them.  Instead he brought this franchise the biggest, bestest, hot mess the NFL has seen in years, one Johnny Manziel. 
Now with Gordon likely gone for a year and probably forever, quarterback Brian Hoyer likely off to test free agency, Manziel off to find the next party, a coaching staff in flux and untested, Haslam and Scheiner have to convince season ticketholders of two things in order to keep that pool from shrinking further.  First is that they know what the heck they’re doing.  Tall order.  Second, that there will be a payoff to this investment in something other than an offseason meet-and-greet with Hanford Dixon. Even taller order.
Perhaps the best way to judge the Browns’ current ability to move into a status of something other than also-ran is to place them in context with Sunday’s Super Bowl participants.  Top to bottom, side to side, the Browns are not competitive at nearly every position on the roster, including coaching, with either the Seattle Seahawks or the New England Patriots.  Stated differently, once I spot you Joe Thomas, name me another player on the Browns who would start for either team on Sunday.
It takes time, God does it take time, for a franchise to improve.  Yet, oddly, the one sport where teams can turn more quickly than any other, is the NFL.  There are examples every year where doormat teams the previous year are now playoff contenders, and vice versa.  The NFL’s system, from its draft structure to its salary cap, keep most teams relatively close to each other, meaning that success or failure can turn on one or two acquisitions.
Yet for the Browns things never seem that close.  They are the anti-Patriots, an outlier, a team that consistently foils the odds, except where the Patriots succeed year in and year out, the Browns fail.  They can’t get better, they won’t get better and believe me, this franchise has tried everything to get better.
So again I ask, I wonder, why does anyone continue to invest in this team as a season ticket holder?  Maybe the answer is that the question is rhetorical and as such isn’t subject to being answered, at least in the physical world.
Meanwhile, speaking of the aforementioned Gordon, he wrote an open letter, published on sports site The Cauldron that serves as both a mea culpa and a backhanded slap at folks like Charles Barkley, Cris Carter and Stephen A. Smith, all of whom opined on the state of Gordon’s affairs.
Gordon has a point, limited, but a point.  Barkley, Carter and Smith, as paid talking heads with time to fill, were full of empathy and tough love for Gordon when he tested positive again, this time for alcohol.  As Gordon notes, they don’t know him, never have spoken to him, and should thus refrain from making statements about him.
I guess, but then again don’t they, don’t we, know enough about Gordon to offer an opinion?  Isn’t that the job of the media?  We cover Gordon and lately that coverage is more about how he’s screwed up a promising career than that promising career.  So offering an opinion on the screwing up part is valid, having observed the circus for the last few years.
Gordon takes responsibility, mostly, for his screw ups, and claims he’s not a victim while also detailing exactly why he’s a victim: tough upbringing, lack of guidance, hanging out with the wrong people, being immature, etc.  But after reading the letter, I’m more convinced than ever of two overarching points: Gordon is complex in his immaturity and he’s still in very deep denial.
Let’s start with the latter and work our way to the former.  Gordon claims he hasn’t smoked marijuana since before he was drafted by the Browns in 2012.  Frankly, that’s hard to believe.  He tested positive for the substance last year but clings to the widely discredited defense of second hand smoke.
Here’s where the personal experiences come in to inform that opinion, in case Gordon wants to pen his next letter to me instead of Carter  In my other life, I’ve tried several drug cases dealing with the consequences that have flowed to individuals who have tested positive, often for marijuana.  The defense is almost always the same: “I was at a party where others were using and I must have inhaled the second hand smoke.”
That defense has never worked in any case I’ve tried, or in any case that I know of, and it didn’t work for Gordon, either.  The reason is simple.  According to virtually all toxicology experts, short of standing in a phone booth-sized room (for the younger among us, a room approximately the size of a typical basement broom closet) for 8 hours while 8 people in that same room smoked continuously, a person would not test positive at the thresholds typically used, including those used by the NFL.
Maybe Gordon’s party took place in just those circumstances, but that’s unlikely.  The truth he doesn’t seem to want to admit, at least publicly, is that he did use.  Maybe he’s so completely bought into the narrative advanced by his lawyer during his arbitration that he now doesn’t even know what is true.  But it remains that Gordon did test positive and of all the possibilities out there as to why, the absolute least likely is that he was a victim of second-hand smoke.
Moreover, let’s just assume he was.  What the heck was he doing putting himself in that situation given the precarious nature in which his career hung in the balance?  Is that immaturity or is it stupidity?  It’s probably both. 
Which gets to the first point.  Gordon is complex in his immaturity.  He shows remarkable insight into his shortcomings but is both unable and unwilling to completely change his tendencies.  He details his latest positive test coming as the result of drinking on a private plane after the final game, a game in which he was suspended for not showing up to work the day before the game. It was an essentially an “oh shit” moment when he landed and saw the message instructing him to report for testing within 4 hours.  He knew he wouldn’t pass and didn’t.
But in describing even this situation, he can’t bring himself to take full responsibility.  He knows he shouldn’t have been drinking but more or less shrugs it off by hinting at the defense he’ll offer in arbitration, claiming that the agreement to not drink wasn’t particularly fair anyway and besides he it was an agreement that applied only during the season and the Browns’ season had actually ended.  Of course the football season hadn’t ended as the good teams were on their way to the playoffs, which was the point of the agreement he made not to drink.  Gordon is used to offering up a bad defense.  This one won’t work either and I suspect he knows this.
I will give Gordon this.  He is incredibly immature.  His letter was a nice but incomplete start on the journey to manhood.  Unfortunately he lives in a bubble that retards growth, suppresses maturity and he’s just too damn comfortable in it to make the real changes in his life that could actually help him get his career back on track.  Maybe another year off will do the trick, but I doubt it.  Hopefully he’s just on leave from the car dealership and they are more tolerant of employees with his kind of immaturity.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Dysfunction Thy Name Is Cleveland

It’s a week with a day that ends in a “y” so of course there’s more dysfunction when it comes to the Cleveland Browns.
On Thursday the Browns and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan parted ways while quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains was shown the door, involuntarily.  For those keeping score at home, that makes six coordinators in six years.  You have to admire that level of consistency.
There are many ways to view these changes but like most things about the Browns these days using the prism of Johnny Manziel is the best place to start.  Fans will never officially learn who exactly was responsible for drafting Manziel and then putting him behind center with the playoffs still technically in the mix.  But we can pretty well surmise by now that it wasn’t Shanahan’s idea and that’s likely part of the overarching issue here.  Manziel was a non entity as a quarterback but as a coach killer, he’s proven to be pretty effective.
Starting Manziel was such a colossally stupid decision that it’s a little unfair to put head coach Mike Pettine in the crosshairs and force him and him alone to take all the bullets.  That decision emanated officially or otherwise from the owner’s box to the general manager’s chair to the head coach’s office as sure as Manziel is probably drinking champagne out of a Dixie cup at 10 a.m. on a random Thursday in January.
In fact, the level of stupid that was that decision makes me wonder why Pettine as well hasn’t taken the same train out of Cleveland that Shanahan’s now on. This job can’t be worth that level of embarrassment for if there’s one abiding truth in this franchise is that it’s so engulfed in dysfunction that it literally permeates the walls of Berea and seeps into the skin and other organs of the inhabitants within that it saps them of both pride and common sense.
Sure, why not?  Let’s run still another offense next season.  It wouldn’t be a Browns off season unless there was a major coaching change so Shanahan leaving continues the pattern where continuity becomes the enemy and change becomes the constant.  The Browns are led by a still green owner with more passion than sense and a general manager with more ambition than accomplishment.  The head coach is just grateful to have a job.
Meanwhile the fans are once again scratching their heads trying to figure out how a season of legitimate promise has instead degenerated into another offseason of confusion, disappointment and question.  Wasn’t this supposed to be an offseason where finally there would be some continuity?  It didn’t even last past the first week of the playoffs that the Browns once again missed.  Instead of using this down time to actually improve the Browns instead find themselves once again starting over on offense with hope as the abiding strategy.  Here’s a suggestion.  Quit running coaches out of the building and instead dump some of the players that are the ones undermining their authority.
Start with Manziel, who may or may not be a functional alcoholic but clearly has trouble when he mixes with alcohol. He’s back in the news, of course, because he had a celebratory New Year’s Eve and then some.  There were the usual drinks, the usual clubs and the usual trouble.  I’ve lost count.  Is this the second or third incident since his vow to the team and its fans that he would turn things around and stop looking like the public jackass he’s become?
Whoever steps in for Shanahan isn’t suddenly going to see in Manziel, particularly, or the quarterback situation in general, some sort of diamond in the rough.  Manziel is not a legitimate NFL quarterback and never will be.  He doesn’t just lack the size and body to be successful.  He lacks the intellect, discipline and work ethic as well.  There’s almost nothing there to work with except feint memories of broken plays that turned out well while he was in college.  Manziel isn’t likely to last even as long as Brady Quinn did in the league.
The suggestion out there is to trade him and if anyone is willing to part with a draft pick of any level the Farmer should jump at it.  Right now, though, general manager Ray Farmer seems rather unwilling to admit to the mistake that everyone else in the free world sees in Manziel, so it fell to Shanahan to step away from the fray if only to highlight the epic miss. 
If all Shanahan was doing was seeking out a head coaching gig, then there would be no issue. That’s the dream of every coordinator.  What is more troubling is that Shanahan appears willing to take even a lateral move just to extricate the stink of the Browns from his system.  That’s a red flag the size of Egypt but the one thing we know about Haslam is that he isn’t particularly good at seeing trouble even when it’s punching him in the face.
And why would Shanahan want out?  Because there’s no fun in the Browns’ dysfunction.  Being told that Manziel is still a viable NFL quarterback with whom you have to work while casting aside a true, but flawed professional in Brian Hoyer is enough to make any sane man batty.  In other words, if you’re Shanahan you’re staring straight into the business end of an offense whose only viable quarterback right now is Connor Shaw and whoever Farmer decides to try and resurrect from some other team’s scrap heap.  That’s not a particularly difficult situation from which to walk away.
But perhaps the real seeds of this departure lie in story of someone in the Browns’ front office literally texting Shanahan during games with their opinion about plays that should or should not be called.  The story sounds preposterous anywhere but Cleveland and hasn’t actually been officially confirmed but neither has it been denied.  In no case is it hard to believe.
This is the second straight off season of turmoil that Haslam has on his hands and once again he’s responsible for it.  It’s easy to look at each little tree and justify its existence or rationalize why it should be cut down.  But at some point you also have to realize that these aren’t just trees but a forest and your overriding mission is not just its maintenance but its long term viability.
Haslam created the management structure in place in Berea and it’s one that inherently breeds tension.  Having both the general manager and the head coach report to him was always going to spark a competitive tension between the two sides as they vie for the attention and approval of the man to whom they report.  That doesn’t make Haslam’s set up wrong by any means but it does demand that the structure and the boundaries be respected for what they are and tended to with some amount of care. 
When someone on the general manager’s side (or perhaps Farmer himself) starts interfering with the coaching side by texting ideas or complaints during the game, that’s a clear and irresponsible overreach.  Maybe Haslam shut it down or let it go.  We don’t know.  But the fact that it happened at all strongly suggests that Haslam doesn’t have firm control over the structure he created so that it never happened in the first place.
One of the reasons Shanahan is supposedly leaving is that the general manager’s side of the equation gave little or no credence to the input being offered by the coaching side.  It’s not hard to imagine what the input was.  Manziel wasn’t taking his job seriously and was ill prepared to ever play.  There weren’t credible receivers on the roster once Jordan Cameron got hurt and Josh Gordon got suspended.  Why wasn’t a credible back up signed once Alex Mack went down?  Need I go on?
There are good and legitimate reasons why the coaching side shouldn’t run the personnel side but the most functional organizations find a way to make it all work.  There are going to be disagreements in any work environment but for goodness sakes why is it that every disagreement inside the Browns simmers then boils then overflows and ruins the counters?
Just as Haslam was able to eventually find someone, anyone, to take the head coaching position with his team, Pettine will be able to find someone, anyone to become the next offensive coordinator.  If that new coordinator succeeds though it will be dumb luck.  This franchise is simply not constructed to succeed and won’t be until Haslam takes a hard look in the mirror and a step back and then pays more than lip service to his desire to bring continuity and calm to Cleveland.