Monday, August 29, 2016

What Sky? What Falling?

If Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson doesn’t think that the sky is falling in after Friday night’s preseason debacle against the Tampa Bay Bucaneers it’s only because he knows the sky fell in long before he got here.  Indeed, if you’re a big picture person you could say the sky collapsed the very first game of the Browns 2.0 reboot, a 43-0 loss to Pittsburgh, and the ensuing 17 years have been about trying to find a way to prop it back up.

Don’t look for Jackson and the latest excavation crew he’s leading to add many support beams this season.  Either the Browns are the least talented team I’ve ever seen or the least prepared.  It doesn’t matter, really, just as it doesn’t matter if it’s really a combination of both.  This is a team that went 3-13 in 1999, went 3-13 last season, and will struggle to get to that record this season.  This version of the Browns, as woeful as any in franchise history, will not be favored in any game this season, of course.  But perusing their schedule I can’t find a game where they’re likely to be less than a 7-point underdog.  I’m sure that’s happened in the NFL at some other point, probably this same franchise in 1999.

What’s most intriguing though is that despite this franchise consistently offering its fans zero reasons to remain invested in their fortunes, interest is far higher in the Browns right now that the Indians who enter the last month of the season with a 4 ½ game lead in their division.  Not that local sports talk radio is any sort of accurate barometer, but Browns fans and questions seem to run at least 2-1 vs. Indians fans and questions.  Attendance on the other hand is a more accurate barometer and the Browns outdrew the Indians and it had nothing to do with the larger capacity at FirstEnergy Stadium.
But this isn’t a screed about misplaced fan priorities.  It’s not even a screed of any sort.  It’s just the resignation that once again the fans with all their misplaced priorities are going to be misused, abused and told that despite what their eyes can see this is a team with a future.

At some point this might actually be a team with a future.  But that future can’t ever arrive if the team doesn’t ever draft one.  This preseason has been about purging the team of the previous regime’s awful draft choices, creating openings for this regime’s shaky draft choices.  And while it is well too early to judge whether Corey Coleman or any of the 13 others drafted will be able to meaningfully contribute not just this season but ever, the trend is clear making the chances slim.

But because almost every draft pick from a previous regime has been sent packing, along with most of their free agent signings, this is a team that lacks not just depth but any semblance of depth.  After Joe Haden and Joe Thomas and Josh Gordon if or when he actually can suit up in a regular season game, you’d be hard pressed to find a player on this team who would start on any other team in the league.  What that says about how this team’s been run is plenty, but the larger point for now is that the overwhelming majority of this team’s starters would be back ups elsewhere.  Backing up the Browns’ starters, then, are players that might not even be in the league.

Without any depth anywhere, the team is doomed before it takes the field.  Injuries will take their toll, as they do on every team.  The next person up for the Browns is most likely a person who’d be scrounging for work in the Arena League.

Jackson is a good coach and thus far his attitude is appropriate.  He knows exactly what a shit storm he walked into and seems realistic enough to lower the expectations of not just the fans but the players remaining.  In some sense this entire season will play out like an extended preseason schedule.  Players will rotate in and out.  Combinations will be tried.  Some things will work, most won’t.  But when the season’s done if there has been measurable growth, if more than a handful of this year’s draft choices remain and are contributing, then from Jackson’s standpoint he’ll likely label the season a success even if there aren’t any wins to celebrate.

The problem from the fans’ standpoint, at least those willing to buy tickets, is that they’re being asked to invest full price to witness the continuing sins of bad ownership and lousy front offices.  From their perspective they, too, may see some measurable growth but what will remain abundantly clear is that even at that trajectory the Browns remain several years away from being truly competitive, and that’s assuming that this regime, top to bottom, bucks history and stays intact for more than a season or two.  Who wants to take that bet at even odds?

Jackson said after Friday’s game that he wasn’t overwhelmed by the task in front of him even after witnessing his untalented and ill prepared team fail in every possible way.  Who knows whether he’s even being truthful with himself.  What we do know is that the enormity of the task has swallowed up every owner, general manager and head coach who’s come before him in the last 16 years.  What will really be worth watching then is Jackson’s body language as the season wears on and especially after the inevitable beat down at the hands of the Steelers in game 16.  If Jackson can keep that spring in his step, then he will be a coach worth watching, at least until the front office fails him in next year’s draft.

So what we’re all really left with once again is a team that will not just be hard to watch, but almost impossible, particularly in the second half of most early games and both halves of the latter part of the season.  We’re also left once again scraping for any hope or even glimmer of hope, a long TD pass from Robert Griffin III to Corey Coleman, a breakout season for Terrelle Pryor, another Joe Thomas Pro Bowl, so that at some point all this time, money and passion will be rewarded.  That’s not the best way to start off the Monday leading into the last preseason game, but it’s really all Browns fans have, again.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Free Agent Follies--Browns Town Edition

   So ESPN’s Adam Schefter is mocking the Cleveland Browns because they lost four players almost as soon as the bell rung to start the free agent season?  

Welcome to the party, Adam.  Just know you’re a late arrival and all the good slams have long since been taken.

That the Browns lost 4 players to free agency doesn’t much qualify as news let alone as an indictment of the worst franchise in football and likely in all of professional sports.  The Browns already have so many indictments hanging over their heads that adding one to the mix doesn’t even move the needle, not even a little, not even at all.

For this to even be a concern someone, including Schefter, would have to tell me why losing any four players on this team could possibly be impactful to the Browns.  With these players the team has kept its yearly win average at around 4, an average that’s been as rock solid as anything can be when it comes to sports.  Are fans worried this team will actually take a step back?  I’ve got news for Schefter and the others who agree with him.  There are no steps back to take.  The Browns are at the very bottom, whether judged by culture or results.  There’s no place to which to sink and the loss of any 4 players isn’t going to change that one iota.

I guess the best argument one could must is that these four—Alex Mack, Mitchell Swartz, Travis Benjamin, Tashaun Gipson—are in some sense building blocks, players good enough to help the team take a meaningful step forward when surrounded by similar blocks.  A couple have been to the Pro Bowl, a couple are still relatively young.  All true, but so what?

Losing them does create new holes at a time when the latest regime is busy trying to plug the gaping ones that already existed nearly everywhere else on the team.  Nothing new in that, and besides, what’s a few more holes anyway?  Even with the latest escapees this team wasn’t going to be significantly, and perhaps not even modestly, better next year anyway.

Let’s try just once not to get overly involved in that grand Cleveland tradition of overvaluing the players on our perennially losing team.  At the price they played for last year the team was still awful.  It’s hard to imagine how giving them even more money will suddenly make the team better.

No one, including the teams these four signed with, are building teams around any of these free agents.  They’re nice haves, not have to haves.  Eating up cap space by overpaying your own free agents when there are probably cheaper alternatives with similar production is a better way to build a team in the long run anyway.  It’s just that in Cleveland fans have been so beaten down by institutional incompetence that they knee jerk their way to thinking that this team can’t sustain the loss of Mitchell Schwartz. Or Tashaun Gipson. Or Travis Benjamin. Or Alex Mack. 
Meanwhile had this happened in, say, New England, no one would be questioning Bill Belicheck’s wisdom.  And for what it’s worth, it’s pretty telling that none of these four signed with New England, to use but one example.

I’m still waiting for the argument that the Browns need to overpay average talent in order to prove themselves to their fans.  This organization needs to be rebuilt from the bottom up and if every player who donned a Browns uniform had been cut, I wouldn’t argue against that either.  At some point this team will get the total scrub down it really deserves and that doesn’t happen by holding on to the few flickers of talent it had, particularly at inflated prices.

It’s not that these aren’t nice players, but the league is filled with nice players.  Among the list of stupid things this franchise has done in the last 5 years alone, this doesn’t even make the top 20.
What’s of more interest is that the new regime absolutely added to the team and its culture through the subtraction of Johnny Manziel from this franchise.  Plenty of words have been written about this train wreck and I’ve written many of those myself commencing with the decision to draft him.  But never has a player in the history so deserved the fate that’s befallen him.

I have some empathy for Manziel because he’s an addict.  His ability to think often isn’t rational.  He got help last year and ultimately it wasn’t successful.  That’s not unusual.  Many addicts need multiple stints in rehab.  At this point though Manziel is his own worst enemy as he remains in complete denial about his problems, even as he spins further and further out of control.

To blame the Browns for not dumping Manziel as soon as the new league season started is odd.  At least they dumped him.  Professional sports, like most businesses, operates on the greater fool theory.  No matter how dumb a deal you’ve done there’s often a greater fool out there willing to bail you out of your problems.  When it came to Manziel, the Browns had to at least see if there was a greater fool willing to part with a draft choice, even one loaded with conditions.  That wasn’t to be.  Now they await to see if there’s a greater fool wiling to at least claim Manziel off waivers in order to get some cap relief on all the money they owe him.  That isn’t likely to be, either and Manziel will be left to scramble for a foolish team to take a chance on a player to this point who’s been poison.  That will happen.  Teams are always looking to catch lightning in a bottle, even if it’s a bottle of champagne being wielded by Manziel as he floats through a nightclub lagoon on a plastic swan.

Ultimately, real, sustainable improvement for the Browns is years away and that’s assuming the latest group of geniuses running the franchise can actually live up to that description.  That improvement is not going to come by over emphasizing the marginal value of newly expensive players, none of whom would be nearly as productive as they are right now by the time this team is really ready to compete.  And likewise it won’t happen by holding on to sociopaths like Manziel.  The Browns were neither good nor bad this past week.  In Cleveland that actually counts as improvement. 

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Why Worry?!

The Cleveland Browns have their fan worried, again.  Maybe the right word isn’t “again” but “still.”  And for once it’s not about the head coach or even the quarterback they still don’t have.  It’s about analytics.

Despite about every possible reason why they couldn’t do it, the Browns did go ahead and hire a credible head coach in Hue Jackson.  But the rejiggering of the front office in a way that doesn’t otherwise exist in the NFL is an understandable cause for concern.  Of the three people most responsible for setting next year’s roster, two of them have absolutely no experience at any level, CYO, middle school, high school, college, semi-pro, pro, flag, evaluating talent.  The other is 28 years old.  In a fit of inspiration, an algorithm will be the chief evaluator.  It can’t be worse.

I’m a proponent of analytics.  You should be, too.  It’s transformed baseball in a way that in large measure has dulled the impact of simply having the fattest wallet.  And while analytics will certainly improve decision making, the human element can’t be eliminated entirely, particularly in making player evaluations.

At the professional level, many talent decisions make themselves.  Anybody, including the person who sees one NBA game every decade can draft LeBron James first.  Where the far more difficult decisions came is in filling out roster behind him. The talent difference between players is often razor thin with the stats giving no clear winner.

The other thing, of course, is that analytic-driven decisions often seem to defy logic or at least conventional wisdom, which also makes people worry.  Look at what just happened with the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The firing of head coach David Blatt was driven in large part by analytics.  What worried Griffin was the statistic he quoted, that since 2000-01 season there have been 50 teams that have finished with a winning percentage of at least .700 but only 8 of those teams have won championships.  He feared the Cavs were once again on the same path, based on what he was seeing in the team’s advanced stats and what he was observing in the locker room.  As Griffin said, it seemed to be the least engaged winning team he’d ever been around.

That may very well be true and that’s the human element to all this.  As good as the Cavs are and have been, the losses to both San Antonio and particularly to the Golden State Warriors, while just two of the 82 regular season games the team will play, told you two things.  The first was that the Cavs still aren’t completely meshing.  The second, quite related and even more telling was that the Spurs and the Warriors have an “it” factor the Cavs do not.  There is something inherent in all great teams that just doesn’t lie.  Even when the sum of all parts is great, the great teams are still more than the sum of all those parts.  You saw it with the 2014 Ohio State Buckeyes and you see it now with the Warriors.  Call it chemistry or black magic.  What matters most in team sports is still the team concept and to Griffin’s eyes and stat sheet at least, the Cavs didn’t have it and weren’t getting it under Blatt.

The Cavs are all-in on analytics.  Now, too, are the Browns.  The difference of course is that the Cavs have the greatest player on the planet.  The Browns don’t have someone in the top 100 of the best players in the planet, maybe the top 200.  They need more than a good algorithm.  To paraphrase Roy Scheider’s Martin Brody, they’re gonna need a bigger computer.

And if analytics in the hands of really smart people with no football experience wasn’t enough to spook Browns fans, then owner Jimmy Haslam’s most recent comments about estranged quarterback Johnny Manziel should make them petrified because it defies all logic and analytics.

Manziel has mostly been AWOL from the Browns since before the last game of the season.  His bizarre trip to Las Vegas as his earnest but overmatched teammates played out the string, his brief visit to the facility afterward and then his party tour in Texas has been well documented.  So, too, has the fact that Manziel hasn’t reached out to his new head coach nor has the new head coach reached out to Manziel.

Yet at this week’s Senior Bowl Haslam talked as though the relationship with Manziel has simply hit a rough patch in the same way a marriage hits a rough patch, as if divorce is possible but reconciliation more likely.   Well, that rough patch just got rougher.  Manziel is again under investigation for domestic violence and irrespective of what the official police report ultimately concludes I suspect the NFL is going to take this one more seriously than the last time he got into a public argument with a girlfriend.

Mostly I attribute the talk to Haslam’s ill-conceived attempt to build value in a player where there is none as a prelude to some sort of trade.  But on the off chance that Haslam is serious that kind of thinking would qualify him as the biggest lunkhead to occupy an owner’s box since Ted Stepien.  Manziel is a person with a smattering of NFL skills who lacks both the maturity and the temperament to ever be anything more than a guy who used to be somebody in college.  And that’s giving him the benefit of the doubt.  More likely he’s an addict deep within the grips of drugs and booze for whom his first stint in rehab had no lasting impact. You don’t continue to have the kind of incidents that surround Manziel without drugs and/or alcohol being at the center
It doesn’t matter, at least to most fans.  The Browns aren’t running a social services agency.  The team has invested significant money and resources in Manziel and all it’s received in return is the attendant league-wide embarrassment that comes with having made such an awful choice in drafting him in the first place.  There is no set of circumstances, not one, where Manziel returning to the Browns for another disastrous season makes a lick of sense to anyone.  Stated differently, if Haslam is serious and ends up hanging on to Manziel it will be at the expense of undoing whatever good will Haslam’s cultivated this offseason.

That’s what has me most worried about the Browns’ new structure.  It’s not that there’s anything theoretically wrong with it.  It’s that the person making the key judgments in putting it together, Haslam, is the same guy who has botched every other decision he’s made up to this point regarding the fans.

Cleveland fans will always worry.  It’s a comfortable space.  They’ve known no real prosperity and when fleeting victories come they are just often preludes to bigger letdowns.  This franchise is finally trying something different for which there is no downside.  Having escaped the vicious cycle of their previous insanity, however, doesn’t put them on the right road.  It just puts them on a different road.  Where it leads is anyone’s guess but at least they’ll have a bunch of algorithms to explain why they got lost this time.

Monday, January 04, 2016

The Stopped Clock

Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam is the ultimate stopped clock.  He’s right twice a day or at least for one day, which happened to be this past Sunday.
Haslam was right about firing head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer.  He also was right about organizational structure.  It doesn’t matter if you have the right people all moving in the same direction.  Whether he’s right about much else remains, as usual, the dark cloud hanging over his franchise.

But like a broken clock, Haslam has gotten little else right in his two plus seasons as an owner.  He’s trusted the wrong people, made the wrong assessments.  He expresses supreme confidence in everyone he hires and abandons them quickly when people question his own competence.  He stands in the fire with his charges but only until it starts to get a little hot.  In short and of his own making, Haslam’s franchise is a mess, the biggest mess really in North American professional sports. 

But let’s suspend for the moment the need to pile on all his shortcomings and take a slightly longer view.  In that sense, there is a slight glimmer anyway that perhaps Haslam may ultimately be building a redemption story.  I said slight glimmer.  Don’t turn the pitchforks at me.

Focusing on the things he got right on Sunday night Pettine and Farmer were disasters of the first order.  Pettine was an odd hiring in the first place.  No one in the league thought he was ready to be a head coach, which is why he was not on anyone’s radar screen when Haslam suddenly promoted him from Buffalo Bills defensive coordinator to Cleveland Browns head coach.  Pettine wasn’t even a compromise hire.  He was a last resort hire.  All he did then over the course of two seasons is look stoic and act inexperienced. Haslam got in kind exactly what he hired.

Pettine’s teams may not have ever completely quit on him but neither did they go out of their way to make him look good, either.  Their record isn’t just a reflection on the dearth of talent.  It’s also a reflection on the lack of basic fundamentals and discipline a professional team needs to be competitive.  The Browns couldn’t steal few wins because they were often undone by the kinds of mistakes that plague players and teams without a sense of purpose.  Pettine never instilled any sense of purpose.  I’m not sure he had one himself.

Farmer was just an egocentric jerk with neither the pedigree nor the resume to justify his outsized sense of entitlement.  It wasn’t just that every decision he made turned out poorly.  It was far more that his process for making decisions was so flawed that the results were inevitable.  His arrogance masked a laziness that ultimately will have a far more damaging impact on the franchise then Pettine’s two years could ever have.  Farmer made poor draft decisions because he wouldn’t put the hard work into really determining the kind of players he was drafting.  It would be easy to go chapter and verse on Farmer but suffice it to say that the fact that the Browns’ secondary had virtually no starters and backups available on Sunday and yet Justin Gilbert could not get on the field.  Yes, Gilbert is that bad and the person that picked him is worse.

So again, cutting loose the two people that lost 18 of their last 21 games, the two people that couldn’t mount a running a game or a defense, seems like any easy decision.  Indeed it’s the kind of decisions that makes itself but give Haslam credit at least for not missing the layup.

What concerns fans right now is what else Haslam had to say at the press conference.  Haslam restructured his front office once again, putting the football operations under Sashi Brown but having the new head coach, whoever that may be, report directly to the owner.

It’s a bit of an odd structure, to be sure, but Haslam’s not wrong when he said that structure matters less than people.  Org structures are the kinds of things insecure people cling to in times of stress.  It’s a way to assert authority when respect hasn’t been otherwise rightfully earned.  The Browns’ prior structure is exactly what Farmer asserted as a way of pushing his own agenda instead of finding a way to work more closely with Pettine.

In some ways, the structure Haslam has now established is similar to what many baseball teams are going toward.  In Toronto, for example, Mark Shapiro was hired to run the baseball operations where he’ll have final say over the roster.  It was the reason that Toronto general manager Alex Anthopoulos left the team after Shapiro was hired.  As general manager pre-Shapiro, Anthepoulos wasn’t just acquiring talent, he had final say over the roster.  Post-Shapiro, Anthepolous had to yield final say on the roster.  In other words, he kept his title but otherwise have suffered a demotion.  He quit instead.

For the Browns, Sashi Brown will serve in the Shapiro role, at least when it comes to forming the roster.  The difference is that the head coach will not report to Brown.  He’ll report directly to Haslam, which is what Bill Belichick has in New England.  Haslam wants to model successful organizations, certainly, but having the new head coach report to him is a concession, really, to what would have otherwise been an entirely intolerable situation for any head coaching candidate of any substance, reporting to someone with literally no experience running the football operations of any team at any level.  With the head coach reporting to Haslam, that coach will have a bigger say in the organization, maybe a bigger say than most rookie coaches deserve, and a direct pipeline to the owner should he need to mediate the inevitable disputes that will arise.

That’s why hiring a head coach first is of no real consequence this time around.  He won’t report to the general manager anyway so it is not the same situation as when Randy Lerner let Eric Mangini hire his own boss.  If the general manager is in charge of talent acquisition and not the entire football operations, it actually makes a modicum of sense to have the head coach assist in his hiring.  It has to be a good fit, philosophically and culturally.

In short, others may have a problem with this structure, I don’t.  Where I do have a problem is trusting its execution to Haslam.  Brown may very well be an undiscovered talent, but why is it that the Browns are the ones that have to always do the experimenting?  Maybe that’s the outcome of a bankrupt franchise, but it needn’t be. No matter how bad things are in Cleveland, there's still only 32 NFL jobs and far more applicants than openings. This is a franchise deeply in trouble and it’s probably the exact wrong time to be taking a flyer on someone without a track record of any kind.  And what is it about Haslam that gives anyone any confidence that his assessment of Brown is correct?  Haslam hasn’t made an assessment on the football side of his business that was even in the same zip code as correct.  But Haslam did, once again, express his supreme confidence in Brown, just like he did in Farmer.  So there is that.

You also have to be just as nervous that Haslam has put himself front and center of the search committee for the new head coach.  The structure he created leaves him no other choice.  At some point you'd like to think Haslam has enough self awareness to question his own ability to get this decision right.  But self awareness is in short supply in Berea.  It's how things end up this way. Too bad the Browns aren’t a publicly traded stock.  The smart money would be shorting it all day long.

The Browns imploding and rebooting every two years used to be as predictable as the swallows returning to Capistrano every February.  But then a funny thing happened.  Some of the locals there, in their quest to improve the experience, created an inhospitable environment for the swallows and they stopped returning.  Now they're scrambling to get them back in much the same way as Haslam will have to scramble to reclaim the fans he's lost every time he's tried to improve the experience.  He's on the verge of improving it out of existence.

Every NFL owner has a built in constituency willing to suffer any level of abuse but it would be folly for Haslam to conclude that his actions and those of his predecessors haven’t done significant and in some cases irreversible damage.  Since the Browns left, an entire generation of fans have been lost, not having known anything close to resembling a competent, let alone a winning franchise.  The previous generations have been completely alienated.  Haslam can talk about working hard to get things right but all the fans keep getting are the toxic fumes of another tire fire being set by a franchise with a seemingly unending supply  of waste materials and no shortage of fuel or matches.  What doesn’t kill you may make you stronger but it doesn’t make you more engaged.  Haslam’s short tenure has continued the most disturbing trend of all.  In droves, what fans that remain have replaced their passion with their indifference, whether its about the results on the field or the latest travails of Johnny Disaster.  And that’s the worst indictment of all.