Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Well, That Happened...

Early in Sunday’s dumpster fire of a loss to the lowly Oakland Raiders, it was hard to recognize the Cleveland Browns.  Oh the play on the field was very familiar.  That hasn’t changed.  What was out of whack was more visual and took more than a few seconds to pinpoint.  But there it was.  Stride for stride with every bad play was a team doing so in the ugliest uniforms in the entire league. 
There is nothing at all to recommend what the Browns now look like to the viewing public except in a Value Jet kind of way.  If the purpose of those uniforms is to distract the fans into thinking they’re actually rooting for a whole different franchise then, but only then, will the new uniforms be a success. Otherwise in practice it was the usual way the Browns do things, poorly and without much thought.
But why harp on what surely is the least of this team’s problems?  The Browns have played 3 league doormats in 3 consecutive weeks.  They’ve only been competitive once.  There are plenty of conclusions to drawn without having to sort through the visual mess as well.
The other thing that struck as I watched the crawler on the screen displaying scores from other games was the performance of  Tyrod Taylor of the Buffalo Bills had against another of the league’s many, many doormats, the Miami Dolphins.  It’s not that just that Taylor played well or that he played better Sunday (and all season) than anyone on the Browns’ roster It’s just that it’s hard to imagine a scenario wheere anyone in this Browns’ organization would have had any sense to even give Taylor the kind of shot he’s getting in Buffalo.
This really is the essence of what plagues the Browns and it’s the same as it’s been for years. The barest of strategies, the poorest of execution. Shoddy, clueless owners who choose incompetent “football men” to run what’s turned out to be the same old same old with the same old same old players expecting a different result and complaining that it’s just a matter of execution when the result is what it’s always been.
Entering the season the Browns had aging journeyman Josh McCown and the league’s biggest question mark, Johnny Manziel at quarterback.  Just as the Bills added Taylor for depth, the Browns could have done likewise but stood pat instead.  Taylor may have reached his peak and could regress.  The point though is that the Browns don’t think like other teams and that’s always to their disadvantage.
Let’s assume owner Jimmy Haslam is sincere and driven to bring a prideful, winning franchise to the shores of Lake Erie.  He sure has a funny way of showing it.  We all understand how he ended up with Mike Pettine as his head coach.  By the time his front office got done fiddling around with the longest search in NFL head coach search history, Pettine was essentially the only available candidate left and he was barely a candidate at that.  The more credible, the more qualified had long since found more stable environments and at this point even Syria is a more stable environment.
What is more difficult to understand is why Haslam has any remaining faith in Ray Farmer, the general manager he seems to trust all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.  It’s hard to imagine that Farmer, the guy who brought you, in no particular order, Josh McCown, Justin Gilbert, Johnny Manziel and the relatively expensive Dwayne Bowe, would remain employed by any other franchise.  Farmer literally has no track record of accomplishment and nothing he’s done in Cleveland has built his resume except in the most negative ways possible. He has no eye for talent and, more devastating, no understanding of how to construct a roster.  I wouldn’t spot him $200 on Draft Kings to run my fantasy team let alone run an actual team.
Sunday’s loss was like the opening day loss and completely illustrative of Farmer’s and Pettine’s shortcomings.  Let’s start with Pettine’s role first.
The team was once again an undisciplined mess and irrespective of the talent level there’s no excuse when it comes to either discipline or effort.  Completely misreading the vibe of his team, Pettine claimed that McCown gave the Browns the best chance to win on Sunday despite the fact that Manziel actually led the team to a victory, it’s only victory, the week before.  The offense seemed hungover by that decision and responded with a performance so reminiscent of week one it was as if you CBS was merely playing that week one tape.
Silly penalties, out of position players, bad blocking, worse tackling, awful coverage, momentum-killing special teams, this game had it all.  And more!  Pettine is trying to instill a tough-minded, old school attitude in a team that plays like the point of professional football is to have fun and not get hurt.  His teams consistently commit one silly penalty after another.  They often look lost and unmotivated.  Perhaps the worst indictment is that they play as if pride isn’t part of the equation.  In short, all the things that fall on the coaching staff went awry, every single one of them.  If you can tell me exactly what the game plan for the Browns was on either side of the ball, email me, enlighten me, defend Pettine.  I can’t.
But let’s also remember that Pettine is playing with a roster built by Farmer.  There, I’ve defended him.  That still is no excuse for all the mental mistakes but it does in large measure explain the lack of fundamental skills available to Pettine for executing his vision.
Pettine told the media that the theme of this year’s team is to put words into action, to not just talk about being the best this or the best that but go out and actually show it.  In truth, this team does not have the talent to be the best at anything except talking and that’s on Farmer, so let’s focus on him.
The offensive line, supposedly one of the best in the league, just ask them, was going to be even better this season with the return of center Alex Mack from injury.  It isn’t, proving only that Mack really wasn’t the lynchpin he appeared to be when he first got hurt.  Because so many on the line get beat by the defensive line it holds constantly.  It false starts even more often.  It hasn’t opened a legitimate hole for a running back since Gene Hickerson played and it hasn’t adequately protected a quarterback since, well, Gene Hickerson played.
Farmer supposedly built this team to be run-centric in order to minimize the constant shortcomings he and every general manager before him has in finding a competent quarterback.  Putting aside the incongruity of building a run-centric team in a pass happy league, if you’re going to be run oriented then you need a line that can block for a player that can run. The Browns have neither which is why almost any lead an opponent gets is safe.
On defense the Browns can’t stop anyone doing anything.  They are dead last in the run, again.  The defensive backfield is a mess, as usual.  Joe Haden continues to be the most overrated corner in the league and whoever is second is a distant second.  Haden seems to have cultivated his reputation on the backs of the kind of receivers that generally suit up for the Browns—slow, small, possession-type receivers.  Put a legitimate big-time receiver on him, say Brandon Marshall or Amari Cooper, and he turns into Buster Skrine.  You can’t be a great cover corner if you can’t cover the league’s better receivers.  We can talk about Justin Gilbert, number 1 pick Justin Gilbert, not contributing at all but those mounds of dirt have been turned over enough.  Farmer lays at the root of every roster problem on this team and right now it’s hard to see a path to 5 wins, let alone to 9.
The Browns put together a good game the previous week.  In many ways it was the polar opposite of the week before.  But just one week later it’s as if the win against Tennessee didn’t take place.  This team simply doesn’t progress and there’s nothing, from the owner’s box to the front office to the coaching staff to the roster that suggests, let alone gives any hope, that there’s progress to be made.
But hey, why talk about any of that.  The Browns have new uniforms and, as Carl Speckler would say, they have that going for them, which is nice.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Failure As High Art

If the competition was intended to measure the most dysfunctional franchise in the NFL, the Cleveland Browns would be a perennial contender, running neck and neck for the top of the heap with the likes of the Washington Redskins.  Unfortunately that’s pretty much the polar opposite of the competition the Browns ostensibly should be in which is why once again when the season ends Browns fans will be searching for a team to root for during the playoffs.
For what it’s worth, a disclaimer.  That lede was written before the disaster that was the franchise’s 11th straight opening day loss.  That loss, institutional failure as high art, couldn’t have been more timely or prescient or point proving.
Nonetheless, let’s soldier on.  And because this is Cleveland, where notoriety is treated like success, it takes a special kind of franchise dysfunction to beat out a team like Washington whose general manager is accused on Twitter, by his current wife no less, of sleeping with a reporter and then feeding her stories.  Yet these are your Cleveland Browns, a team who entered the season with someone at every level of the franchise suspended and an owner still living under the cloud of potential criminal activity.
Maybe it’s a close call.  It doesn’t matter.  It will be another long season in Cleveland.
Let’s face, it gets no more sublime or ridiculous when you pause to consider that the team’s best receiver, Josh Gordon, is suspended for the season, its general manager, Ray Farmer, the team’s second in command, is suspended for the first four games and its offensive line coach is on indefinite suspension allegedly for domestic abuse.
That trifecta ought to remove all doubt about why this team can’t progress on the field.  It is so busy doing stupid, petty, awful things away from the field (or, in Farmer’s case, tangential to the field) that it doesn’t have the time to fully focus on what really matters.
The Gordon suspension can be viewed through a variety of prisms but the bottom line is that Gordon was adequately warned to stay away from both drugs and alcohol and deliberately chose to act otherwise.  That’s the Browns way.  He claims not to be an addict, which actually makes what he did to get himself thrown out of the league for a year appear worse.  It’s easy to feel compassion for the addict whose initial deliberate act eventually spirals into a series of overwhelming physical and psychological cravings as to alter the ability to think deliberately.  But I’ll take Gordon at his word.  That’s not him.  He’s not an addict.  That makes him just a fool.  He ought to be on the cover of the team’s media guide.  Gordon is the face of the franchise.
But Farmer is fighting Gordon for that distinction and putting up a hell of a fight.  Where perhaps he has the edge is in age and hence perceived maturity.  A Duke graduate and former linebacker with the Eagles, Farmer should have the education and sense to know better.  He probably does.  Unfortunately he lacks the ability to use either.  His ego far outpaces actual accomplishment.
I’ve never understood frankly how Farmer held on to his job after the texting incident.  It’s an incredible embarrassment to the franchise in and of itself not to mention the hole it puts the team in during those critical first few weeks of the season when rosters are constantly shifting.  Now the cynic may be thankful for small favors when you consider Farmer’s abilities as a general manager.  His record is so poor on that front Tom Heckert and Phil Savage look like Ernie Accorsi in comparison.
No reason to completely re-litigate Farmer’s real calling card, the bizarre 4-game suspension for spending game days texting his vast football Xs and Os knowledge to the sideline from the cheap seats.  But what is worth mentioning in this whole affair is how counterproductive his conduct really was.  While Farmer was channeling the dream of every fantasy football owner or head coach wannabe, only with the actual access and the hierarchal structure to get people to at least look at his messages, his antics were completely distracting to those on the field actually trying to do their jobs.
This is exactly what it means to be dysfunctional. Farmer, sitting in his box acting like a big shot while the coaches on the field have to contend with filtering through his idiotic ramblings instead of concentrating on how to actually win a game in this town. This team needs to hit on all cylinders and he’s keeping it from hitting on any.
There may come a point where one of Farmer’s early round draft picks or free agent acquisitions will actually work out, but that doesn’t look to happen any time soon.  He’s mostly pitching a shut out when he ought to instead be hitting at about a .750 clip.  Farmer is quickly losing the excuse of previous administrations to justify the rancid performances like Sundays that increasingly less fans are witnessing.  There is not one area where this team is better because of him.  Not one.
Then of course there’s Andy Moeller. I’d say that this is what you get when you rely on Michigan men when running your business but I don’t want to feed into Braylon Edwards’ narrative that Cleveland fans never gave him a fair shake because he was from Michigan.  Moeller’s failings, like Edwards’ were both on field and character related and where each went to college is irrelevant.
Moeller has well documented issues with his ability to handle alcohol (like Edwards, actually) and by the latest accounts that led to his suspension, still does.  Moeller’s alleged actions, per the 911 call, are reprehensible for all the same reasons that have been detailed countless times about countless NFL players.
The biggest problem with Moeller is that he doesn’t learn.  He hasn’t learned from his past arrests for alcohol abuse and he hasn’t learned from all the other troubles players and some coaches have had with domestic abuse.  If head coach Mike Pettine brings Moeller back then Pettine’s tenure needs to be further evaluated.  Pettine brought this nit wit in but there’s no reason to continue to invest in that mistake.
What makes all this so relevant is actually the play on the field this past Sunday.  A collapse in the first game of the season at the hands of one of the worst teams in the league last season isn’t a fluke.  It’s the byproduct of a team out of sync at every level.  The team’s owner runs a hair trigger enterprise.  The front office isn’t competent in any aspect of its job.  The head coach is still raw.  The players, at least those who have been around for years like Joe Thomas, are mostly doing their professional best while knowing at every minute that there isn’t a chance in hell that this team can be successful. 
As for Pettine, Sunday’s fiasco only demonstrated that he isn’t up to the task of being able to overcome all the dysfunction around him.  Pettine’s team, in game one, was an undisciplined mess, committing one stupid, drive killing penalty after another.  And when it wasn’t doing that it was turning the ball over.  These are issues of discipline that must start with the head coach.  It’s one of the easiest things to fix, or certainly one of the first at least.  And yet Pettine’s team came out and played like the platoon from Stripes after Sgt. Hulka got blown up.
Let’s also not give Pettine a pass for the way the whole Terelle Pryor mess played itself out.  From this distance it looked like a palace coup initiated by Pettine once Farmer was off on his garden leave for the month.  Up until the moment he was cut Pryor was practicing and plays were being designed around his unique talents.  The excuse from Pettine was that the timing for Pryor wasn’t right, a more or less empty sentence that likely is papering over a schism that developed with Farmer signed Pryor in the first place.
Who knows if Pryor could ever be productive?  But isn’t it the point that it’s precisely guys like Pryor on whom moribund teams like the Browns should be taking chances?  And when ultimate journeyman Josh McCown decided to try and helicopter himself in the end zone on the team’s first drive on Sunday, how stupid did the Browns look by having only the shaky Johnny Manziel as the remaining quarterback on the roster?  If I’m guessing, and purely guessing, the New England Patriots will sign Pryor because of course.  That’s how good teams stay good.
Pettine may be relatively far down on the list of this team’s problems, but he is on the list.  And the fact that he’s on the list only speaks to the level of dysfunction that is keeping this franchise from being mediocre, let alone functional.  Fixing it starts at the very top and given what fans have seen thus far, that’s hardly the most comforting thought.