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. 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.

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.