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.