Friday, May 29, 2015

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Minimizing Success

The Cleveland Browns had the kind of draft this past week that they should have had given the kind of team they have.  It was solid and unspectacular, built around the defensive and offensive lines.  In short it was the kind of draft that teams trying to rebuild should have.  

Too bad it’s taken them almost 15 years to put together a draft that probably shouldn’t have otherwise been necessary by this time.

Always chasing rainbows and coming up short, the Browns have languished for all the reasons that this particular draft highlighted.  Faulty draft strategies, raging egos, bad trades, major miscalculations all have conspired for years to keep this team firmly entrenched in the bottom tier of the league.  Browns teams for the last 15 years have lacked cohesive, strong offensive or defensive lines and had near zero depth at any position.  So even when a player with some skill somehow landed in their laps, the inevitable injury revealed the kind of gaping holes that are the hallmark of all bad teams.

Filling several holes shouldn’t have been this hard for this long.

Forget about the actual players the Browns drafted for a moment.  Few if any fans can comment intelligently on even Danny Shelton, let alone Charles Gaines or Hayes Pullard.  Focus instead on the configuration of the draft.  Notice the patterns.  This draft was constructed like most teams are supposed to be constructed.  It was built from the inside out.  That may be easy to do in a sense for a team like Cleveland that has so many overarching needs.  Yet it still takes some discipline to do the right thing when it’s oh so easy to do the flashy thing when the person calling the shots walks in loaded with draft picks and oozing ego.

Credit then should go to general manager Ray Farmer on that aspect of the draft.  Whether he chose the right players is not something that’s going to be known any time soon.  Given Farmer’s history, there’s every reason to question his player evaluations.  But at least you can’t complain about the approach.

And yet as the Browns enter next season, they’re forced to answer the same lingering question they’ve been forced to answer for most of its 2.0 existence: do they have a quarterback on whom the team can rely?  The answer is likely the same as it’s ever been.  Probably not.

What struck me about the post-draft press conference that Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine held was not what they had to say about who they drafted but what they had to say about who they didn’t.  Pettine, in one of the stranger answers I’ve ever heard, said that the team is actively working to “try to minimize the importance of the quarterback.”  Good luck with that.

That statement makes some sense in a Trent Dilfer kind of way and if I were Pettine I suppose I’d say the same thing.  It’s been shown to work that if the defense is stronger than any other in the league, the offense can afford to be merely serviceable.  That’s the formula the Baltimore Ravens used to ride Dilfer to and through a Super Bowl.  But it’s not easily replicated for the most obvious of reasons: you have to feature an intimidating and dominating defense.  

The Cleveland Browns aren’t close to being either.  One draft isn’t going to turn this Browns’ defense into the second-coming of the Ray Lewi-led Ravens defense and besides this offense isn’t even merely serviceable even if it was.

Josh McCown, who looks to be the Browns’ starter next season by default, if for no other reason, is the quintessential NFL journeyman.  When he starts for the Browns in September, it will be his 14th season.  He really has only been a starter for two of those seasons and neither one of those were particularly successful for his team.  Indeed he was available to be signed mainly because as Tampa Bay’s starter last season he went 1-10.

When Dilfer signed with the Ravens, he was in just his 7th season.  Although you can easily make the case that he too was a journeyman, that’s mostly informed by the back end of his career and not his career to that point.  In 5 of the seasons before he joined Baltimore, he was the team’s starter and had some measure of his success, certainly more than McCown can claim. 

So when the Ravens asked Dilfer to mostly not throw up on himself so that its defense could intimidate and dominate, there was every reason to think that it was a job Dilfer could handle.  And even if he couldn’t, he had a strong running game featuring Jamal Lewis in his prime and an up and coming Priest Holmes.  The only deep threat the Ravens had was Qadry Ismail, the kind of receiver that the Browns seems to feature these days, but they did have Shannon Sharpe, one of the top tight ends in the game.  Dilfer, a player with plenty of games already under his belt, was the near perfect player for a team trying to “minimize” the importance of the quarterback.

The same cannot be said for McCown.  He isn’t joining a team with a dominant defense and there simply isn’t enough on offense to allow the Browns to “minimize” all of McCown’s shortcomings. The team neither features a strong running game or even a serviceable passing game.  It lost its only decent tight end in the offseason and while Brian Hartline is a nice signing, that’s all he is.  The team didn’t suddenly get better because of Hartline.  His presence mostly allows Farmer to credibly claim that the team hasn’t regressed in its receiving game.

The Browns may be minimizing the importance of quarterback because it really has no other choice.  Pettine and Farmer can talk about how they like where they stand at that position but it rings even hollower than Brian Kelly’s claim that his quarterback situation at Notre Dame is superior to that of Ohio State’s.

What both Farmer and Pettine well know is that the NFL isn’t a league where a team can be successful minimizing the most important position on the team.  It’s like the body saying it’s going to minimize the importance of the heart.  If this year’s draft ends up being as successful as the Browns hope it is, it will highlight exactly the flaw in their current thinking.  The Browns could conceivably get to 8-8 and maybe even 9-7 with better defense and better offensive line play and depth, but it simply cannot make the leap into the upper tier of this league without a quarterback that causes opponents to worry or at least scheme against.

This team may not need Tom Brady but it sure as heck is going to need more than Josh McCown to be successful.  Perhaps though if the team can find a way to climb out of the hole it’s dug for itself with so many prior lousy drafts then perhaps they will be able to convince a quarterback of more merit and a receiver in his relative prime to join the team for the next phase of its journey.