Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Shrugging It All Off

Joe Paterno hated end zone celebrations.  He told his players to hand the ball to the official and to act like they’ve been there before.  Cleveland Browns fans don’t need to act like they’ve been there before.  They have.

How else can one otherwise act when considering the various moves of the Cleveland Browns as it goes about its latest offseason marked as it is by the usual overpromising and under delivering.  Maybe the better reaction is the Joey Bosa shrug. 

To focus on but two recent examples:

The Browns unveiled their new branding initiatives that amounted to nothing more than keeping the same logo but with a more vibrant shade of orange on the helmet and a more foreboding shade of black on the faceguard. 

There was a bunch of accompanying talk about how these new designs somehow are more reflective of Cleveland today than in the past.  Mostly though this great unveil was a microcosm of the team itself: more hype than substance.

Then the Browns signed Josh McCown, 35-year old Josh McCown, as their next quarterback.  That makes McCown number 23 on a list with no end, no real beginning, and no real goal.  Such is the ignominious roster of Browns quarterbacks the last 15 years.

It probably means something that of the previous 22 quarterbacks to wear a Browns uniform the only one with a winning record, Brian Hoyer, is the latest one being replaced.  But it probably says even more that the Browns are still signing quarterbacks like McCown with the abiding belief that what this team needs, indeed what gets it from point A to point B, is a bridge to its true savior, also known as the quarterback that doesn’t exist.  Josh McCown, meet Luke McCown or Jack Delhomme or Brian Hoyer or, or, do I really need to go through the other 20?  Seriously, how long are the Browns going to try and recreate the Gary Danielson/Bernie Kosar experience?

No one could possibly much care that the Browns see McCown as a better option than Hoyer.  It’s like choosing Budget Car Rental over Alamo at the airport.  Neither is Hertz or Avis and what you get by being cheap is a pretty decent chance that the car you reserved won’t be available for another hour, please wait.

In the same way, no one much cares that the Browns grand strategists see the latest shade of orange as somehow more reflective (unless it’s actually, you know, reflective) of the city than the previous color.  It’s like choosing ecru over khaki when picking a shade of brown to paint the guest room.  To the person visiting the colors are as indistinguishable as they are uninteresting.

It really is hard to figure out what this team is doing or working on that ultimately will make it perform better on the field.  We know, for example, that if the team had better players it wouldn’t matter if they wore uniforms that were ultraviolet with grey accents just as we know if these same players wore the red, white and blue of the New England Patriots they’d still finish under .500 every season.

I’m not against branding or even updating the branding.  But let’s call it what it is: the last tool in the box of a diversionist. 

What this bit of news about re-branding really demonstrates above almost all else is that this is a franchise more consumed with fluff than substance.  I suppose that the only thing that would make this effort more clear if the team had decided to rename itself.  Isn’t that the last bastion of all failing brands?

The Browns have become the Value Jet of NFL franchises so it wouldn’t be a total surprise if they came up with a new name, like Value Jet did when it renamed itself JetBlue after a particularly horrific crash in a Florida swamp revealed that Value Jet was not a brand that anyone trusted.

For Value Jet, it mostly worked.  JetBlue was reborn and has been modestly successful as a budget airline flying limited routes while charging frugal-minded customers for bags and probably everything else, including arm rests and seat cushions.  The Browns’ rebranding efforts, I suspect, will meet with less success.

As long as owner Jimmy Haslam retains the team’s current name how much can really change?  Decades ago most fans understood that the team name honored its most famous coach, Paul Brown.  But Art Modell changed that calculus when he fired Brown (has there ever been a better example of foreshadowing?) but weirdly kept the name.  Now, however, the history has been long forgotten by most fans and now the name just sits there, wallowing as the logo does in its own bath of blandness.  Brown might be the least vibrant color on the spectrum matching the least vibrant team in the NFL.

And while this franchise has given its fans every reason to be cynical about anything it does, the question is still relevant: exactly what is the team trying to distract the fans from?

Oh yea, it’s the stuff going on inside of Berea. 

I’m not against signing McCown though again it’s worth pointing out that his signing comes at the expense of dropping the only quarterback the team has had since 1999 who has played more than ten games and had a winning record.  It’s just that his signing doesn’t move anyone’s needle.  McCown was terrible last season, played well in spots in previous seasons, and overall brings absolutely nothing to the mix assuming the goal was to stabilize the quarterback position.  He’s what Brandon Weeden would have been in a few years, when he turns 35, had the Browns kept him.

So why did the Browns sign McCown?  Good question and one the team hasn’t really ventured to answer.  But you can read into some of McCown’s comments, the most telling of which is that he both understands that he is not nor does he have any interest in being the team’s near, mid or long-term answer at quarterback.  He just wants to contribute, you know, do what’s asked.  That apparently conflicts with Hoyer’s perfectly understandable view that given his success with a team that otherwise lacks any, he both wants to start and be paid like one.

In other words, in signing McCown the Browns weren’t interested in a fierce competitor with his eye on the prize.  They wanted a caretaker, a guy willing to shut his pie hole and sit in the corner happy with a  contract that guarantees him a little over $6 million by the time he exits Cleveland, probably at the end of next season.  That narrative also fits well into the larger issue of branding, doesn’t it?

There is much else in Berea from which the Browns would want its fans distracted, like the disastrous general manager with the happy texting fingers.  Then there’s the news that the Browns nixed solid trade offers for Josh Gordon last season only to now find themselves clinging to a player with no market value on a team in desperate need of someone who can catch the ball.  The overhang, of course, is just the general specter of another draft, a passel full of draft picks, and a track record that says they’re more likely to blow every one of them than get any one of them right.
Yea, sure, now is exactly the right time to re-brand, just as it is the right time to sign McCown, and the right time shrug your shoulders at it all and move on, secure in the knowledge that no matter which way the Browns arrange the deck chairs the ship is still sinking.

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