Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Running Out of Paths Forward


  There are many ways to measure the depths to which the Cleveland Browns’ franchise has sunk as of December, 2017. You could count quarterbacks or head coaches, offensive coordinators or general managers.  You could even count owners.  Mostly though it’s just been the losses.  Losses and more losses and then more after that.  It used to be that this team could be counted on to win 3 games a year.  Now it can’t even win three games in two years. 

  Too many to count at this point have had a hand in creating the single worst franchise in all of professional sports.  Yet the alarming, almost inconceivable consistency in making the exact wrong decision every single fucking time is perhaps the best way to capture not just the ineptness that is the Browns but the serial incompetence that permeates each and every pore on each and every coach, player and front office worker, that has seeped into the brick and marble, wood and stone that hold together the Berea complex. 

  You’d think that simply going full tilt George Costanza and doing the opposite of what their instincts otherwise tell them is the right thing to do would be enough to at least make this franchise competitive.  But at its core those in charge, from owner Jimmy Haslam on down, lack even a modicum of Costanza’s fleeting self-awareness.  Not to be too impolite here, but they are just too stupid to recognize all that they don’t know. 

  That’s why it should concern the few remaining chuckleheads with an interest in this team’s success that newly hired general manager John Dorsey shut down any talk about head coach Hue Jackson being fired at season’s end.  Let me give you two data points. 

  In 2006, in this very same space, I wrote that Romeo Crennel, then head coach, had to be fired.  It was clear that Crennel had lost the team and that its trajectory was headed, again, in the wrong direction.  You don’t need to look it up.  Crennel won 6 games in 2005 and 4 in 2006.  He held on to his job anyway.  The next year he took the Browns to their Browns 2.0 high water mark by winning 10 games, a record grossly inflated by weird scheduling quirks that gave the team the easiest schedule in the NFL that season.  Still it was a real glimmer of hope even if the Browns didn’t make the playoffs that year.  But the flaws in the team were apparent when a 10-win season gave them a tougher schedule the following year.  Crennel and the Browns sunk back to 4 wins and he was fired for all the reasons that still existed two years later: he couldn’t control the team, he was disorganized.  In short he proved out exactly why after having such success as a defensive coordinator no team but Cleveland was willing to make him a head coach. 

  Meanwhile, by hanging on to Crennel, the Browns lost two more seasons to progress, two more seasons of choosing the wrong players for a system that wasn’t going to last anyway. 

  Fast forward, but just a little bit.  After Crennel was fired, then owner Randy Lerner jumped at the chance to hire Eric Mangini about 5 minutes after Mangini had been fired by the New York Jets.  Mangini flamed out in New York for much the same reason he can’t get another head coaching job today.  He’s arrogant to a fault without a scintilla of accomplishment to justify it.  Mangini came in and alienated players and fans before he even had a chance to rent a place to live. He was allowed to essentially hire his own boss as the general manager and then summarily fired him and acted as his own general manager instead.  A wave of poor personnel decisions inevitably followed.  His first season was a disaster and not just because he won only 5 games.  He was a dick to the players and the media which only served to create further separation between a struggling team and its way-to-loyal fan base. 

  Late in the season even Lerner could see that the wheels had fallen off and decided that this team needed a real “football” mind.  He brought in Mike Holmgren, not as the head coach, but as the team’s effective CEO.  Holmgren was a good concept poorly executed.  He had a chance to observe Mangini’s pettiness in action and while nearly everyone thought Holmgren would fire Mangini and replace him, Holmgren, in a fit of empathy as a former coach himself, decided Mangini should have another year to prove himself, never mind the smoldering embers of a franchise that already had been lit on fire once again. 

  All that did was delay, again, putting this franchise on better footing. 

  One of the lessons of these two episodes is that holding on to the wrong coach in the pursuit of continuity is as much a fool’s errand as turning over a team’s personnel department to a group that had never made a football decision in its life.  Stability, continuity, consistency, whatever you want to call it, is a laudable goal.  But it shouldn’t serve to obscure the fact that if things aren’t right they’re wrong. 

  The question now, of course, is whether Jackson should retain his job.  Those arguing for him point out the obvious: this team has the worst collection of players ever to grace any NFL roster ever.  Those calling for his firing point out the obvious:  Jackson has the worst record of any head coach ever.  It’s the most Cleveland of dilemmas, complicated, of course, by Haslam bringing on a general manager and yet giving him no authority to find a coach that can win a game. 

  Maybe Haslam is just tired of paying coaches no longer on the payroll.  Maybe Haslam is just being Haslam, meaning telling someone what he wants to hear in the moment.  But the most likely explanation is that Haslam meant it when he said it.  Which, as it usually does with Haslman, means that it may not be true the next moment.  He’s as impetuous as anything and everything associated with the Browns.  It would be useful if that could be counted on just one more time. 

  Jackson should be fired.  There’s no way to know definitively but I doubt that any other coach currently in the NFL would have ended up with only one win in two years.  The roster is as bad as it looks each week.  Outside of Joe Thomas there isn’t another player on this team who would be a sure starter on any other team in the league.  But not every loss has simply been an issue of talent. Jackson is overmatched. He’s not a good enough head coach even if he was just concentrating on being a head coach.  Acting as his own offensive coordinator has been a colossal failure but more to the point is that Jackson lacks the self-assessment skills to realize it.   

  You could literally cite any game in Jackson’s tenure to make the point but just look at Sunday’s loss to Baltimore.  Crowell had 1 carry in the first quarter that went for 59 yards.  He had 6 more carries the rest of the game.  Jackson may be calling plays but it can hardly be said that he’s coordinating the offense.  There is no theme, there is no approach.  It’s almost as if he doesn’t watch game film on the upcoming opponent to create a plan of attack.   

  There’s probably a more practical reason, however, that Jackson will get fired: attendance.  Losing so much for so long has deteriorated the base of this franchise.  There was a point where it looked as if nothing would keep Browns fans from the ‘80s from filling the Stadium no matter how bad the product got.  That’s not true.  Indeed what is true is that attendance has continued to deteriorate and the clip, just since Haslam arrived, has accelerated.   

  During Haslam’s tenure, this team has lost around 59,000 fans year over year.  To put that in perspective, the attendance at Sunday’s game against Baltimore, the last home game of the season, was a little over 57,000.  In other words, Haslam is losing the equivalent of another home game’s worth of attendance.  That’s not just money out of his pocket.  It’s costing other NFL owners as well.  Haslam must account for that to his brethren. Always a short term thinker anyway, expect Haslam to choose the quickest path in front of him and fire the coach.  It will create a year’s worth of enthusiasm if nothing else.   
  Fundamentally, though, the issues are more systemic.  Jackson’s firing will probably feel like a pardon to him and the fans who have no one else to complain about on a regular basis.  Jackson will survive in the league as an assistant somewhere and the Browns will once again find another coach, another system and another start.  But the fixes that need to get made are longer term in nature and start with Haslam.  He’s a terrible decision maker, at least when it comes to football, and he needs to embrace his own level of incompetence.  If he truly believes that John Dorsey is the right football person to run the team then, dammit, let him run the team.  Change the org chart.  Let him hire a legitimate head coach.  Make everyone report to Dorsey and Dorsey to Haslam. Then Haslam should sell the house in Bratenhal and commute every Sunday from Tennessee.  It really is the only hope.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Springsteen on Broadway


Sometimes it all just makes sense.  That’s the most dominant thought I’ve been contemplating for the last few days following the remarkable, stunning, beautiful show Bruce Springsteen performed at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theater on Saturday night.  There was clarity achieved, a state of mind deeply contrasted with the usual unsettled mind that had invaded nearly a year ago. 

I can’t tell you exactly how the pieces all fell into place, can’t tell you if they’ll stay there and can’t really say it wasn’t all just a dream.  I do know that for those two plus hours on Saturday night and for the many hours since, life made sense for all the reasons life doesn’t seem to make much sense most of the time these days.  You can fall wherever you want on the political spectrum, I tilt decidedly left, but you can’t help but acknowledge how unsettled each day seems to be.  A candidate who promised to disrupt the Washington D.C. status quo if elected has instead disrupted much of the status quo of the nation.  Nothing seems safe, nothing seems sacred and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to understand who we are, what we’ll do and what we won’t. 

Yet somewhere around 8:15 p.m. on Saturday night, life gelled again and the feeling carried over and into the next day and then the next, dissipating some but resilient enough to keep comfort still.  I imagine with time the mostly jumbled mess will return.  For now, though, I’ll enjoy. 

To say that Springsteen’s performance was a revelation is far too much of an understatement.  It’s probably not even the right word.  Springsteen is a known commodity after all.  But there is still the power to amaze, to educate and, yes, to reveal greater truths, to shake you out of the stupor and haze that envelops. 

I’ll admit, I’m an uber fan, unquestionably.  Another writer once chastised others who tried to establish street cred by tossing out the number of Springsteen shows attended, so I won’t.  Let’s just say that this is a carnival I’ve followed many, many times from the late 1970s.  And while I’ve borne witness to every kind of Springsteen show imaginable, nothing before it and yet everything before it set me up for what’s taking place 5 times a week on Broadway. 

It’s not a spoiler alert to say that Springsteen on Broadway is no rock concert or greatest hits show.  It owes far more to the tradition of great Broadway musicals than one might suspect and yet it’s bent and twisted that typical construct in ways that could influence musical theater for years to come. 

The show is Springsteen’s recent autobiography, Born to Run, come alive in wholly unanticipated ways. In almost linear fashion it follows Springsteen’s rise from a young misfit in Freehold, NJ, molded mostly by the dynamic of a late-in-life discovered mentally ill father and preternaturally cheerful and optimistic mother.  It’s not the usual celebrity biopic arc of a talented kid driven off course by drugs or booze or evil management only to rehabilitate and rise again.  It’s the story that’s far more typical to most everyone’s existence.  You get the sense as he tells the story that Springsteen is as much mystified by not just its roots but its outcome as anyone. 

Threaded through the various soliloquies are roughly 14 or so songs chosen, in the tradition of great musical theater, specifically to advance the larger narrative.  This is not a concert. It’s a drama, it’s a comedy, it’s life and it’s punctuated with the best soundtrack imaginable.  “Growin’ Up,” the lead single from his first album provides the overview of the story but throughout the music, familiar to the hardcore fans but perhaps much less known to the more casual fans, perfectly captured the essence of life that remains mostly a mystery to Springsteen.  There were songs of life, love, sex, hope, dread and daily living.  Playing either his guitar or seated at the piano and accompanied by his wife, Patty Scialfa for two songs, Springsteen coaxed deceptively ornate arrangements from the simplified acoustic set up. 

There wasn’t necessarily any one moment when your jaw just dropped because, frankly, the jaw dropped from the opening words to the closing chords of Born to Run and didn’t fully engage until hours later.  It was a Halley’s Comet kind of night.  You knew you were witnessing something that occurs maybe once in a lifetime and it’s almost impossible to place it into historical context except as an outlier. 

But what is very clear is that this really isn’t a show that Springsteen could have performed at any other time in his life.  Springsteen’s story isn’t completed, certainly.  But the life that’s been lived is full and rich enough to inform whatever chapters remain without disrupting the overarching themes.  The sheer bravery of the performance is likely what I’ll remember most.  Springsteen spent some time talking about the masks one wears in life as a suggestion for a philosophy he adopted long ago, trust the art not the artist.  But the ability to honestly connect requires equal measures of bravery and honesty.  So much of what it takes to be a master performer is the ability to create that credible fa├žade.  That ability is hard earned, indeed only earned, if you’re willing to lay your truth bare for others to see and contemplate for themselves. You wear the mask but sooner or later it just becomes your life. 

That Springsteen recognizes this inherent irony is evident from the outset.  Self-deprecating almost to a fault, he “jokes” at various points about being a person who has written extensively about the working man without ever having held an honest job; about writing about cars while not even having a driver’s license; about running and yearning to be free and now living about 10 minutes from where he grew up. 

The audience, of course, gets the joke while also giving him supreme credit for doing the incredibly hard work of being a gifted observer and journalist, finding the truth in every day life and communicating it in a way that resonates.  If his songs aren’t purely autobiographical, they are well informed by his life and the many that surround him.  To take the little truths and broaden them into something more universal for others to learn their own truths is every bit as honest and hard labor as those that dig the ditches. 

When it’s over, though, you’re left in the same place he is: contemplating the magic and mystery of life.  Why him and how?  Malcolm Gladwell, in his book “Blink,” writes about the ability to create seemingly out of thin air, about not letting your conscious self interfere too much with the internal computer that guides one’s ability to think, judge, and react.  It’s a difficult task for most but leaves you almost gasping for air when you see it in others.   

And that’s where it left me, two hours later, gasping for air.  There were any number of moments when I was left teary-eyed by not just the moment but the collection of moments from all the shows, all the music, all the time, really, that I had invested over the decades. It was life affirming and not because any greater truths were necessarily revealed but because all the truths on which I had relied were confirmed. 

In a particularly poignant moment in a night built on poignancy, Springsteen alludes to the current political strife without naming names.  While acknowledging how unsettling it all is, he sees it as just a dark chapter in a much larger book while then launching into perhaps both his greatest and most underrated song, “Long Walk Home.”  That was the moment I realized that it all made sense.  Days later, it still does.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Coming Back


If you’re going to come out of retirement, even briefly, it should be for a very good reason.  A year ago, almost to the day, I took a break.  The Cleveland Browns were setting themselves for historic failure, again, and the numbing sameness became too much.

 

The Cleveland Indians got themselves to the very edge of a World Series victory and that didn’t pull me back in, although the victory probably would have.  The Cleveland Cavaliers getting into the NBA Finals didn’t do it either.  And yet here we are a year later and I was pulled back in by this:  Today the Browns released beloved cornerback and all around good guy Joe Haden.  It’s not the loss of Haden so much as what it represents.  It’s the clearest signal that Browns finally are serious about improving.

 

This shouldn’t be a pitchfork moment for anyone.  Stripped of sentimentality Haden has been in decline for years. That decline accelerated most certainly because of injuries but the decline has been clear nonetheless.  It’s been a bit sad watching it because Haden was one of the few positive things about watching the Browns for many, many seasons.  But the game takes its toll on all players and Haden’s time has come. He wasn’t worth the $11 million he would have been paid for this year and he wasn’t willing to take a pay cut to a more reasonable number.

 

By releasing Haden now the Browns showed the cold heartedness best exhibited by Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots, the benchmark for the entire league.  It’s better to move on from a player just before he’s done then after.  Many consider Belichick the consummate prick because he is so willing to cast aside team and fan favorites in the pursuit of victory.  The list is long and distinguished but know this much: Belichick has rarely if ever been wrong.  The players he’s discarded have not gone on to prolonged glory anywhere else.  Either will Haden, despite all the nonguaranteed and less money showered on him by the Pittsburgh Steelers.

 

There’s little doubt that Haden would probably have contributed something to this year’s defense.  He’s a good player to have in the locker room and was a visible and positive influence in the community. There’s also little doubt that his contributions, whatever they may have been, wouldn’t have made a lick of difference in the won/loss column which, as Belichick knows, cures fans’ hurt feelings more quickly than anything else. The Browns may be improving, slowly, but having Haden simply doesn’t move the needle.  What his release does do, for once, is give the Browns an opportunity to find a replacement without the baggage and temptation to appease a complaining fan base to play a fan favorite at the expense of developing the future.

 

The other news the Browns made today was the dumping of a number one draft pick, offensive linemen Cameron Erving, to Kansas City for a 5th round pick.  That’s good value any way you slice it.  If/when the Chiefs have to play Erving they’ll find out something every Browns quarterback who lined up behind him did.  Don’t run any plays in his direction.  Design every quarterback rollout to go in the opposite direction.

 

Dumping Erving will make far less noise than when the team parted ways with Johnny Football but it’s no less noteworthy.  When it comes to offensive linemen, first round busts are hard to find.  They exist, certainly, and there’s little doubt that the Browns would be the one team to find one.  But they are hard to find.  Indeed it’s one of the easier positions to scout.  Cleveland.com posted the press conference when a leading candidate for worst general manager in Browns’ history, Ray Farmer, touted Ervin’s incredible versatility.  That video is revealing also for the shell-shocked look on former head coach Mike Pettine’s face as he tried in vain to support that thesis. 

 

That commentary aged about as well as a Trump tweet.  The only versatility Erving showed was that he was an unworthy first round pick at any position along the offensive line.  But know this.  Erving was every bit the bust as Manziel.  He simply went about being so in a much quieter fashion.

 

None of this means the Browns will necessarily show significant improvement this season.  The team does have an incredible number of upcoming draft picks though and while virtually every regime since the Browns 2.0 were launched has blown the vast majority of picks they’ve had, there still is hope.  Success in the NFL is a slow, steady climb.  It takes the kind of thinking that understands the value of draft picks, the need to not be ruled by sentimentality and the courage to correct mistakes quickly.  Let’s hope all of this doesn’t end up being an anomaly, you know like it’s been in the past.