Friday, March 27, 2015

Reining In The Religious Bigots

It’s time to let the free market have its say and the ones to do the talking are among the biggest players on the block, the NFL and the NCAA.

Earlier this week Indiana governor Mike Pence signed into law a so-called religious freedom bill that would specifically allow businesses in that state to openly, purposely and insidiously discriminate against gays so long as they assert sincerely held religious beliefs that require them to reject doing business with homosexuals, bisexuals and transgenders
The NFL, the NCAA and the sponsors of both have substantial business interests in Indiana.  Not only does the state have an NFL franchise, it also holds the annual circus known as the combine for several days each March in Indianapolis.  The NCAA has its corporate headquarters in Indianapolis.  One of its conferences, the Big Ten, holds its annual championship in Indianapolis.  Together these activities probably yield hundreds of millions of dollars annually in economic benefits for the state. 

The other thing tying these organizations and their sponsors together is that they both serve the LGBT community.  Both the NCAA and the NFL have a smattering of openly gay players with several more closeted ones sprinkled throughout.  The companies that shower millions on them for the right to be associated with them have gay employees.  In short, none can afford to be viewed as homophobic because of the attendant economic consequences that would bring.
Yet unless all of them stand up to the religious bullies and far right nut jobs running the government in Indiana, they risk being branded as complicit in the bigotry the state of Indiana recently institutionalized.

Let’s be clear on this point.  Indiana may be the first to get this law passed and signed by a weak-willed governor more concerned with checking off the boxes on his far right bona fides in case he should run for President some day than he is with the rights of all his citizens, but left unchecked these vile laws will spread like anthrax. 

Certainly the U.S. Supreme Court, perhaps unwittingly, gave birth to these kinds of laws when it found that Hobby Lobby, as a company, could assert religious claims against contraception as a basis for refusing to follow the Affordable Care Act’s mandate that contraception must be a covered benefit under its health plans.  And it will likely take the U.S. Supreme Court to step in, much like it did in Brown v. The Board of Education, to ultimately put a stop to this latest form of bigotry.   But until then, it falls to those who have a vested interest in not looking like they sanction discrimination to effectively stop this in its tracks.

Believe me, if the NFL and the NCAA take a stand in Indiana, it will give pause to every other state currently considering these ridiculous laws.

If there’s one thing these religious zealots believe in more than shunning homosexuals, it’s the power of the free market as the solution to all of society’s problems.  So those that can should unleash that power by refusing to do business of any kind in a state that institutionalizes bigotry against any segment of society.

Tech companies, a few organizations and a couple of small businesses have said they won’t do business in Indiana.  The Republican mayor of Indianapolis came out against the law.  That’s a nice start but it’s not the kind of tsunami that would get unleashed if the NCAA and the NFL and their sponsors take on the cause.

The NCAA issued a helpful statement, indicating that it’s concerned about the impact of the law on its employees and that it wants to ensure that those attending next week’s Final Four are not negatively impacted.  It also left dangling the implication that there could be more direct action taken as it further considers its options.  But I’m disappointed anyway.

The Indiana legislature has been considering this law for the last few months.  The governor has repeatedly expressed his support for it.  What the NCAA should have done was threaten to move this year’s Final Four, even with all the logistical challenges that would create, unless either the legislature voted the bill down or the governor refused to sign it.  By not speaking up it, the law got passed and by virtue of its existence, its employees and everyone attending the Final Four are negatively impacted.  It’s simply unrealistic at this late moment to expect every employee of the NCAA, every participant in the tournament and every fan to boycott the state at this late date.  

Instead they have to do business in what is certainly now one of this nation’s most odious states.
The NFL had threatened Arizona with the withdrawal of a Super Bowl when it was considering a similar law.  It worked.  But here the NFL has remained silent, at least so far.  That’s puzzling but perhaps not.  The NFL has a very troubled history of moving too slowly on issues of social significance and it usually takes a few missteps and a public outcry before it gets it right.

This isn’t that hard for the NFL.  Just come out now and tell the state that the combine won’t take place in Indianapolis again and until the law is changed.  Maybe they have contracts that would have to get broken.  So be it.  The NFL has twice as much money as the God these legislators claim to worship.  It can take the short term loss for the long term gain.  So could have the NCAA.

Undoubtedly demanding action by the NCAA and the NFL will surely inflame the religious fruitcakes who think these kind of Jim Crow 2.0 laws are just dandy.  The argument Spence articulated on behalf of them is that the law is not about discrimination, it’s about religious freedom.  What Spence can’t rightly answer, and the most salient question he avoided, is exactly how religious freedom is supposedly under attack in this country.  It’s not, that’s a fallacy perpetrated by far right religious lobbying groups in order to further its far right Christian agenda.  When Spence references religion, it’s code for Christianity.  And it’s not all of Christianity, just the far right branch that believes cats will start playing with dogs and cows will rain from the heavens if gays are allowed to marry.

The real nub of the issue is that a few far right religious lobbying groups worked the state like TV evangelists work their flocks.  They convinced them that a few mom and pop shops who ran afoul of public accommodation laws by refusing to serve gays was a wrong that needed to be righted in the name of a God whom, a character in the movie Hannah and Her Sisters once said, if he returned and saw all that was being done in his name would be so appalled he’d never stop throwing up.

There’s no inherent wrong that needed to be righted unless it’s telling those loudmouth bigots that they are wrong, morally, religiously and economically.  If Spence and the Indiana legislature wants to stand up for religious freedom then they ought to be the first to stand in front of the line and protect the next group of Muslims who get threatened for wanting to build a mosque next to a synagogue.   
Gay marriage is legal in 36 states at the moment.  The country hasn’t collapsed onto itself.  Indeed things pretty much seem the same.  The Cleveland Browns still suck.  The Republicans still hate the President.  Girls still remains one of the most over-rated shows in television history.  

The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to legalize gay marriage across the country.  But that won’t dissuade the bigots any more than the decision in Brown v. The Board of Education when bigoted businesses were told that they had to integrate or risk breaking the law.  When George Wallace refused to abide by the decision and tried to stop the University of Alabama from integrating, when he tried to stop elementary schools from integrating, he was shut down by the federal courts and federal marshals.  He had plenty of supporters, certainly, but time and history haven’t been kind to either of them.

That will ultimately be the same result for Pence and every legislator in Indiana who passed this law, just as it will be for every legislator across the country considering similar laws, just as it will be for every governor in every state and every other attorney general in every other state (including John Kasich and Mike DeWine in Ohio) still fighting the wrong fight on taxpayer money.

There’s no reason though to wait for history to render its judgment.  That judgment can and should be rendered contemporaneously by those with the economic power to do it.  And if the NCAA and the NFL don’t get this right, then it’s time to reconsider our support for anything they sponsor. 

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Shrugging It All Off

Joe Paterno hated end zone celebrations.  He told his players to hand the ball to the official and to act like they’ve been there before.  Cleveland Browns fans don’t need to act like they’ve been there before.  They have.

How else can one otherwise act when considering the various moves of the Cleveland Browns as it goes about its latest offseason marked as it is by the usual overpromising and under delivering.  Maybe the better reaction is the Joey Bosa shrug. 

To focus on but two recent examples:

The Browns unveiled their new branding initiatives that amounted to nothing more than keeping the same logo but with a more vibrant shade of orange on the helmet and a more foreboding shade of black on the faceguard. 

There was a bunch of accompanying talk about how these new designs somehow are more reflective of Cleveland today than in the past.  Mostly though this great unveil was a microcosm of the team itself: more hype than substance.

Then the Browns signed Josh McCown, 35-year old Josh McCown, as their next quarterback.  That makes McCown number 23 on a list with no end, no real beginning, and no real goal.  Such is the ignominious roster of Browns quarterbacks the last 15 years.

It probably means something that of the previous 22 quarterbacks to wear a Browns uniform the only one with a winning record, Brian Hoyer, is the latest one being replaced.  But it probably says even more that the Browns are still signing quarterbacks like McCown with the abiding belief that what this team needs, indeed what gets it from point A to point B, is a bridge to its true savior, also known as the quarterback that doesn’t exist.  Josh McCown, meet Luke McCown or Jack Delhomme or Brian Hoyer or, or, do I really need to go through the other 20?  Seriously, how long are the Browns going to try and recreate the Gary Danielson/Bernie Kosar experience?

No one could possibly much care that the Browns see McCown as a better option than Hoyer.  It’s like choosing Budget Car Rental over Alamo at the airport.  Neither is Hertz or Avis and what you get by being cheap is a pretty decent chance that the car you reserved won’t be available for another hour, please wait.

In the same way, no one much cares that the Browns grand strategists see the latest shade of orange as somehow more reflective (unless it’s actually, you know, reflective) of the city than the previous color.  It’s like choosing ecru over khaki when picking a shade of brown to paint the guest room.  To the person visiting the colors are as indistinguishable as they are uninteresting.

It really is hard to figure out what this team is doing or working on that ultimately will make it perform better on the field.  We know, for example, that if the team had better players it wouldn’t matter if they wore uniforms that were ultraviolet with grey accents just as we know if these same players wore the red, white and blue of the New England Patriots they’d still finish under .500 every season.

I’m not against branding or even updating the branding.  But let’s call it what it is: the last tool in the box of a diversionist. 

What this bit of news about re-branding really demonstrates above almost all else is that this is a franchise more consumed with fluff than substance.  I suppose that the only thing that would make this effort more clear if the team had decided to rename itself.  Isn’t that the last bastion of all failing brands?

The Browns have become the Value Jet of NFL franchises so it wouldn’t be a total surprise if they came up with a new name, like Value Jet did when it renamed itself JetBlue after a particularly horrific crash in a Florida swamp revealed that Value Jet was not a brand that anyone trusted.

For Value Jet, it mostly worked.  JetBlue was reborn and has been modestly successful as a budget airline flying limited routes while charging frugal-minded customers for bags and probably everything else, including arm rests and seat cushions.  The Browns’ rebranding efforts, I suspect, will meet with less success.

As long as owner Jimmy Haslam retains the team’s current name how much can really change?  Decades ago most fans understood that the team name honored its most famous coach, Paul Brown.  But Art Modell changed that calculus when he fired Brown (has there ever been a better example of foreshadowing?) but weirdly kept the name.  Now, however, the history has been long forgotten by most fans and now the name just sits there, wallowing as the logo does in its own bath of blandness.  Brown might be the least vibrant color on the spectrum matching the least vibrant team in the NFL.

And while this franchise has given its fans every reason to be cynical about anything it does, the question is still relevant: exactly what is the team trying to distract the fans from?

Oh yea, it’s the stuff going on inside of Berea. 

I’m not against signing McCown though again it’s worth pointing out that his signing comes at the expense of dropping the only quarterback the team has had since 1999 who has played more than ten games and had a winning record.  It’s just that his signing doesn’t move anyone’s needle.  McCown was terrible last season, played well in spots in previous seasons, and overall brings absolutely nothing to the mix assuming the goal was to stabilize the quarterback position.  He’s what Brandon Weeden would have been in a few years, when he turns 35, had the Browns kept him.

So why did the Browns sign McCown?  Good question and one the team hasn’t really ventured to answer.  But you can read into some of McCown’s comments, the most telling of which is that he both understands that he is not nor does he have any interest in being the team’s near, mid or long-term answer at quarterback.  He just wants to contribute, you know, do what’s asked.  That apparently conflicts with Hoyer’s perfectly understandable view that given his success with a team that otherwise lacks any, he both wants to start and be paid like one.

In other words, in signing McCown the Browns weren’t interested in a fierce competitor with his eye on the prize.  They wanted a caretaker, a guy willing to shut his pie hole and sit in the corner happy with a  contract that guarantees him a little over $6 million by the time he exits Cleveland, probably at the end of next season.  That narrative also fits well into the larger issue of branding, doesn’t it?

There is much else in Berea from which the Browns would want its fans distracted, like the disastrous general manager with the happy texting fingers.  Then there’s the news that the Browns nixed solid trade offers for Josh Gordon last season only to now find themselves clinging to a player with no market value on a team in desperate need of someone who can catch the ball.  The overhang, of course, is just the general specter of another draft, a passel full of draft picks, and a track record that says they’re more likely to blow every one of them than get any one of them right.
Yea, sure, now is exactly the right time to re-brand, just as it is the right time to sign McCown, and the right time shrug your shoulders at it all and move on, secure in the knowledge that no matter which way the Browns arrange the deck chairs the ship is still sinking.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A Steep Learning Curve Indeed

After about a week or so of letting the latest fire inside the Berea headquarters of the Cleveland Browns burn indiscriminately, owner Jimmy Haslam has spoken with the kind of earnestness that suggested a belief that his words would douse the flames while calming the masses. 
To lead with the positive, at least Haslam answered the questions posed. To point out the obvious, though, it didn’t help his case, the situation or the overarching narrative that the team remains where it’s been, in the gutter.
The biggest revelation, and taking a page from Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank’s book,  was Haslam trying to get ahead of the NFL’s imminent announcement that Ray Farmer, the team’s general manager, indeed brake league rules by texting coaches during games by announcing it himself.  Yes, apparently, Farmer did as alleged. 
Perhaps the bigger news though is that Haslam couldn’t care less.  Rather than offering up even an ounce of criticism that his chosen pick as general manager may be out of his element or, at the very least, not setting the right leadership example for others to follow, Haslam instead supported Farmer as if he had just pulled off the biggest coup since Kevin Costner procured Vontae Mack, Ray Jennings and Seattle’s top punt returner while still getting back the three first round picks he foolishly gave up to get the Johnny Manziel-like Bo Callahan.
In a story from Thursday’s Akron Beacon Journal, Haslam called Farmer “smart,” a description that’s hard to square with the stupidity of his misconduct.  He lavished praise about Farmer’s work ethic and his all around awesomeness.  Haslam even went to great pains to say that while he hates that his organization now looks like it’s run by dumbbells, he “hate[s] it more for Ray Farmer.  I can tell you it eats him up every day.”  Well, there is that.
It’s nice and good for team unity I suppose for Haslam to publicly support Farmer, even in such an over the top manner, but in many ways it’s done at the expense of slapping the fans across the face, hard. The NFL hasn’t yet announced the punishment the team will get but irrespective of whether it’s just a suspension of Farmer or something more serious, such as lost draft picks, is irrelevant.  The fans are left trying to justify for another whole off season exactly why they root for a team, let alone spend money to support it, that seems not just off message but off mission.
Then when you couple it with Haslam’s real intent, to rally the fans behind a guy who in just his first year of running the draft botched two first round picks and failed to secure any credible receivers despite knowing at the outset that Josh Gordon wasn’t going to be available to them, it makes you wonder whether Haslam even understands that he didn’t buy the team as a means to give goofs like Farmer a job, he bought it to supply entertainment to fans who just want the team to win once in a while.
 It’s all well and good that Haslam has such trust in Farmer.  The real question is why?
It’s as if that that question never occurred to Haslam.  Haslam responded to the question as to why Farmer shouldn’t be fired with the kind of praise one might reserve, say, for the general manager of the New England Patriots, not the beleaguered general manager who swung wildly and missed on two number one picks in the same draft.  Haslam said “I think you’ve got to look at [the] individual’s body of work, and we’re comfortable with Ray’s body of work.  We’re very comfortable.”  I’d love to know who the “we” is in that sentence.  Stated differently, that “we” certainly doesn’t include the fans.
In any event, it’s really quite fascinating stuff.  In the first place, Farmer’s body of work is pretty small, so even in that context “comfortable” wouldn’t seem to be an appropriate word. At best it would be “cautious.” For most it would be “scared.”  In the second place, what there is  of his body of work isn’t pretty.  He bungled the draft.  He knowingly broke NFL rules subjecting himself and his team to sanctions.  By all accounts he was at the center, if not the cause, of all the other dysfunction that resulted in the team virtually imploding once again by year’s end.  Maybe Haslam is satisfied because he’s comparing Farmer’s sins to those he’s presiding over at his own personal ATM, Pilot Flying J, and thinks, “at least Farmer wasn’t cooking the books.”
While his defense of Farmer is just downright puzzling, his defense of the way things are run generally in Berea call into question Haslam’s own judgment, if not his competence.  Responding to Jason Canfora’s widely reported story about the dysfunction in Berea Haslam  said “I don’t at all want people to think we think everything is great.  OK? We don’t.  What I want you to understand is we do work together.  It’s not dysfunctional….All I want to convey is we do get along, we do work well together and we’ve got a common goal.”
Concede that they do have a common goal and put that aside.  But even the most casual of fans can readily tell that this is a franchise that doesn’t work well together and hasn’t since Haslam and before Haslam.  In fact if there’s anything that’s been remarkably consistent it’s the inability of the front office to work well together irrespective of the people involved.
When a front office is working well together an offensive coordinator still under contract doesn’t put together a 32-point presentation on why he should be let out of his contract after one troubling year so he can go anywhere else.  A front office that’s working well together doesn’t dump still another quarterbacks coach in favor of someone even less accomplished than the guy they just let go.  A front office that works well together doesn’t pressure its rookie head coach into starting a quarterback who was no more ready for real NFL play than the fictional and aforementioned Bo Callahan.  A front office that’s working well together doesn’t ignore the red flags of the mercurial and controversial quarterback it drafted and then act surprised that said quarterback is now in rehab.  And for God’s sake, a front office that’s working well together doesn’t see the need to take a 3-day retreat immediately after the season in order to, as Haslam said, clarify roles, strategy, where it wants to go and how it’s going to get there.  If it really had been working well together, a retreat would have been the last thing it needed.
For all his cluelessness though, you can’t say that Haslam isn’t without humor, even if it was unintentional.  Talking about that recent retreat that Haslam and the front office took, he said “I actually felt that since our family bought the Browns, it’s the best week we’ve had.”  What about the fans?  When are they going to get their best week, which most as define as one that culminates in a Super Bowl title and a parade through Public Square. 
Haslam is a passionate owner, no doubt.  He is in the midst of a steep learning curve, as he admitted. What the interview revealed though is that Haslam is still pretty far down on that curve and that it’s getting steeper.  His faith in Farmer is misplaced if only because, although not certainly because, Farmer so embarrassed the organization at exactly the moment Haslam has been trying to project calmness and competence.  What ultimately will be Haslam’s undoing though as an owner is not this kind of misplaced faith disguised as loyalty, but his abiding miscalculation of the fan base he inherited.  The fans are fed up with the circus and don’t want to pay 30% more for the privilege of looking like fools and their money.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Rock Bottom, Again

It’s both hard to imagine but yet easy to reconcile that the Cleveland Browns, already at the bottom of the NFL’s pecking order of desirable franchises, has actually found a way to get even lower.  If this isn’t rock bottom then it better get here soon because that sucking sound being heard all over Northeast Ohio are Browns fans in a collective gasp over  the disaster that is their team of choice.
You know that show “Hoarders” where a borderline mentally ill individual can’t seem to navigate a clear path from kitchen to bathroom because of the accumulated clutter of years of neglect?  The Browns’ house is far worse.  Short of a league intervention, in the way a professional helps the hoarder, the Browns franchise is in real danger of suffocating to death among the piles of mess it’s created and can’t clean.
It’s enough to make you wonder what Jimmy Haslam really sees when he takes a look at the asset he’s devalued as he makes fans actually long for the relative salad days of Randy Lerner’s reign of ineptness.
In just the last week we’ve learned that it’s probably time to remove the word “functional” in front of the word “alcoholic” when it comes to describing quarterback Johnny Manziel.  We’ve learned that Josh Gordon indeed will be suspended for at least a year from the NFL.  And we’ve just learned that general manager Ray Farmer is likely about to get the team sanctioned and himself punished by the NFL for texting his grandiose thoughts on play calling to the coaching staff during games.  This latest just confirms that when it comes to personnel decisions Haslam has about the worst instincts possible.
Seriously, can it get any worse?  The sad truth is that indeed it can get worse.  Just because things are both bad and ridiculous now doesn’t mean that Haslam and his front office staff can’t find a way to make it even worse.  In his short time as the owner Haslam has made each offseason more disruptive than the previous.  With the mess the team is now in how exactly can it even hope to better its 7 win total of last season with a quarterback situation as big a mess as it’s ever been, and that just for starters?
You can say that the flameout of Manziel was expected, at least by anyone actually paying attention, so the only surprising thing when it comes to him is how quickly he devolved into a player needing inpatient rehab treatment.  And before we bestow bouquets upon his breast for the supposedly brave decision to volunteer to seek treatment, let’s remember all the problems he caused, all the red flags he ignored, all the enabling done by the front office and the coaching staff to dress this pig up as a rose.  Manziel was out of control long before he came to Cleveland.  His personal revelation, with his career certainly hanging in the balance, isn’t a stroke of bravery to be admired.  It is what it is, the last rope being grabbed by a desperate man finally realizing he’s drowning in a cesspool of his own creation.
You can say similar things about a nearly unrepentant jackass like Gordon, too.  His open letter to his critics was a passive-aggressive attempt in which he appeared to take responsibility for problems while offloading them to his own immaturity and rough upbringing.  It was what it was, a last ditch attempt to win back the fans who rightfully have turned their backs on him as he set fire to his career because of a raging ego unchecked by the prior punishments he endured.
But when it comes to Farmer, it is a little surprising I guess to find out that he’s mostly an intervening and insufferable prick afflicted by the seemingly contradictory maladies of delusions of grandeur and fears of inadequacy and incompetence.  You don’t have to be a big Kyle Shanahan fan to at least empathize with his need to exit Cleveland the moment the clock read 00:00 in the season’s final, miserable game.  Shanahan knew, unlike most of the coaching staff, that he had other more viable alternatives than wallowing in Cleveland’s mess any longer.  Why should he, why would he, endure that kind of behavior from the general manager during games, let alone between them?
Don’t forget, the hierarchy that Haslam created had the coaching staff, via head coach Mike Pettine, reporting directly to the owner, not the general manager.  Having created the structure it was up to Haslam to enforce it.  Instead he let problems develop and metastasize to the point where the franchise is once again on the precipice of completing falling apart.
If CBSSports’ Jason Canfora’s report is to be believed, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t, Farmer is far from the only problem child.  Alec Scheiner, the team president, is proving to be just as difficult to the point that despite operating solely on the business side he’s forced Pettine to sit with him and watch game film at 6 a.m. each Monday morning of the season. 
Scheiner, like Farmer, is supposed to be at the same level as Pettine yet in practice Pettine is the red-headed step child of a previous marriage.  That’s what comes with taking a job that no one else wanted or would otherwise touch without more millions that even Haslam could afford.  Pettine was desperate to become a head coach and it’s as if Scheiner and Farmer are relishing every opportunity to rub his nose in it.
Given this context, it’s actually hard now to muster much respect for Pettine.  He either lacks the wherewithal or the desire to compete with the sharp elbows of his counterparts on the business or player acquisition sides.  The result?  It lowers his stature in everyone’s eyes, including the players.  Put it this way, the players knew Manziel was both unprepared and too overmatched to actually start a game this season, let alone a game where the playoffs were theoretically on the line.  The players knew that Pettine knew it as well.  But when Pettine didn’t stand up to Farmer and/or Haslam and refuse to start Manziel, whatever respect there was for him in the locker room had to drop by half, or more.  It’s not just that  you can’t imagine Bill Belichick ever getting himself in that situation, it’s that you can’t imagine even Pat Shurmur getting in that kind of bind.
Indeed, I’d have more respect now for Pettine if he had just quit after one dysfunctional season, like Shanahan.  And I’d have more respect for Haslam if instead of keeping the circus intact and letting Shanahan go would have instead say goodbye to Pettine and installed Shanahan as the head coach.  That would have shown real vision on Haslam’s part not to mention a willingness to actually listen to the people running the games on a weekly basis.
What this team needs right now is exactly what they lost in Shanahan, someone willing to set ablaze his relationship with the owner in the name of doing what’s right instead of what’s expedient.  Instead fans are left with a team led by an owner all too willing to let his direct reports push each other around like kids on a playground as if the path to success is to be paved by whoever survives as the biggest bully.
Short of an indictment, which would have come by now if it was coming at all, Haslam isn’t selling this team.  That doesn’t bode well for as far as the eye of the Browns fan can see or his mind can dream.  Haslam wasted several days a few weeks ago by taking a retreat with his front office to figure out what went wrong.  He doesn’t need a retreat.  He needs some of that faux courage that his favorite son Manziel exercised, recognize that rock bottom has been reach and raise his hand and ask for some real help from the league.  It’s very clear at this point that Haslam can’t fix this mess by himself.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Price Of Failure

Apparently the Cleveland Browns got tired of waiting until they had a successful season. 
While not publicly announcing it, the Browns informed season ticket holders this past week that prices will be going up, somewhere between $6 and $15 depending on their seat location.  And rather than tout the usual reasons for raising prices, such as “it cost money to be this successful,” club president Alec Scheiner said that the market was telling the team it was time.
Just how was the market being so chatty with Scheiner? Well, he looked at the secondary market saw that people were selling tickets on occasion for more than twice the face value.  From there he extrapolated that fans, particularly the most loyal and not, say, the ones that frequent the secondary market for high demand games, were just itching to pay more.  And if this wasn’t enough of a message, Scheiner just figured it’s been 7 years since prices were increased, so what the heck?
As this was being “announced” in the usual way that bad news gets announced, I happened to be contemplating exactly why anyone continues to be a season ticket holder.  I’m not advocating against renewing season tickets or criticizing those who do.  To paraphrase Don Corleone, it doesn’t matter to me how a person wants to spend his money.  I’m just wondering exactly what possesses one to continually invest in a franchise that repeatedly squanders the money it has been given in ways that shake the head and puzzle the conscience.
It’s not just that the Browns haven’t been successful.  It’s more that they’ve relegated to high art all the ways large and small it takes to sustain failure for so many years.
The Browns didn’t fire their head coach this offseason, which qualifies as a high water mark for owner Jimmy Haslam.  But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been nearly as disruptive as if they would have.  The Browns have just hired another offensive coordinator and are finalizing their plans, at least I think they are, with respect to both a quarterbacks and receivers coaches.  So another year, another philosophy and another shakedown period.
Meanwhile the personnel on this team, particularly the ones these new coaches will have to instruct in the mystical ways of their magical offense, are just as much a mess.  Much of it started when general manager Ray Farmer curiously did not opt to draft any viable receivers in the offseason despite knowing that Josh Gordon wasn’t going to be available to them.  Instead he brought this franchise the biggest, bestest, hot mess the NFL has seen in years, one Johnny Manziel. 
Now with Gordon likely gone for a year and probably forever, quarterback Brian Hoyer likely off to test free agency, Manziel off to find the next party, a coaching staff in flux and untested, Haslam and Scheiner have to convince season ticketholders of two things in order to keep that pool from shrinking further.  First is that they know what the heck they’re doing.  Tall order.  Second, that there will be a payoff to this investment in something other than an offseason meet-and-greet with Hanford Dixon. Even taller order.
Perhaps the best way to judge the Browns’ current ability to move into a status of something other than also-ran is to place them in context with Sunday’s Super Bowl participants.  Top to bottom, side to side, the Browns are not competitive at nearly every position on the roster, including coaching, with either the Seattle Seahawks or the New England Patriots.  Stated differently, once I spot you Joe Thomas, name me another player on the Browns who would start for either team on Sunday.
It takes time, God does it take time, for a franchise to improve.  Yet, oddly, the one sport where teams can turn more quickly than any other, is the NFL.  There are examples every year where doormat teams the previous year are now playoff contenders, and vice versa.  The NFL’s system, from its draft structure to its salary cap, keep most teams relatively close to each other, meaning that success or failure can turn on one or two acquisitions.
Yet for the Browns things never seem that close.  They are the anti-Patriots, an outlier, a team that consistently foils the odds, except where the Patriots succeed year in and year out, the Browns fail.  They can’t get better, they won’t get better and believe me, this franchise has tried everything to get better.
So again I ask, I wonder, why does anyone continue to invest in this team as a season ticket holder?  Maybe the answer is that the question is rhetorical and as such isn’t subject to being answered, at least in the physical world.
Meanwhile, speaking of the aforementioned Gordon, he wrote an open letter, published on sports site The Cauldron that serves as both a mea culpa and a backhanded slap at folks like Charles Barkley, Cris Carter and Stephen A. Smith, all of whom opined on the state of Gordon’s affairs.
Gordon has a point, limited, but a point.  Barkley, Carter and Smith, as paid talking heads with time to fill, were full of empathy and tough love for Gordon when he tested positive again, this time for alcohol.  As Gordon notes, they don’t know him, never have spoken to him, and should thus refrain from making statements about him.
I guess, but then again don’t they, don’t we, know enough about Gordon to offer an opinion?  Isn’t that the job of the media?  We cover Gordon and lately that coverage is more about how he’s screwed up a promising career than that promising career.  So offering an opinion on the screwing up part is valid, having observed the circus for the last few years.
Gordon takes responsibility, mostly, for his screw ups, and claims he’s not a victim while also detailing exactly why he’s a victim: tough upbringing, lack of guidance, hanging out with the wrong people, being immature, etc.  But after reading the letter, I’m more convinced than ever of two overarching points: Gordon is complex in his immaturity and he’s still in very deep denial.
Let’s start with the latter and work our way to the former.  Gordon claims he hasn’t smoked marijuana since before he was drafted by the Browns in 2012.  Frankly, that’s hard to believe.  He tested positive for the substance last year but clings to the widely discredited defense of second hand smoke.
Here’s where the personal experiences come in to inform that opinion, in case Gordon wants to pen his next letter to me instead of Carter  In my other life, I’ve tried several drug cases dealing with the consequences that have flowed to individuals who have tested positive, often for marijuana.  The defense is almost always the same: “I was at a party where others were using and I must have inhaled the second hand smoke.”
That defense has never worked in any case I’ve tried, or in any case that I know of, and it didn’t work for Gordon, either.  The reason is simple.  According to virtually all toxicology experts, short of standing in a phone booth-sized room (for the younger among us, a room approximately the size of a typical basement broom closet) for 8 hours while 8 people in that same room smoked continuously, a person would not test positive at the thresholds typically used, including those used by the NFL.
Maybe Gordon’s party took place in just those circumstances, but that’s unlikely.  The truth he doesn’t seem to want to admit, at least publicly, is that he did use.  Maybe he’s so completely bought into the narrative advanced by his lawyer during his arbitration that he now doesn’t even know what is true.  But it remains that Gordon did test positive and of all the possibilities out there as to why, the absolute least likely is that he was a victim of second-hand smoke.
Moreover, let’s just assume he was.  What the heck was he doing putting himself in that situation given the precarious nature in which his career hung in the balance?  Is that immaturity or is it stupidity?  It’s probably both. 
Which gets to the first point.  Gordon is complex in his immaturity.  He shows remarkable insight into his shortcomings but is both unable and unwilling to completely change his tendencies.  He details his latest positive test coming as the result of drinking on a private plane after the final game, a game in which he was suspended for not showing up to work the day before the game. It was an essentially an “oh shit” moment when he landed and saw the message instructing him to report for testing within 4 hours.  He knew he wouldn’t pass and didn’t.
But in describing even this situation, he can’t bring himself to take full responsibility.  He knows he shouldn’t have been drinking but more or less shrugs it off by hinting at the defense he’ll offer in arbitration, claiming that the agreement to not drink wasn’t particularly fair anyway and besides he it was an agreement that applied only during the season and the Browns’ season had actually ended.  Of course the football season hadn’t ended as the good teams were on their way to the playoffs, which was the point of the agreement he made not to drink.  Gordon is used to offering up a bad defense.  This one won’t work either and I suspect he knows this.
I will give Gordon this.  He is incredibly immature.  His letter was a nice but incomplete start on the journey to manhood.  Unfortunately he lives in a bubble that retards growth, suppresses maturity and he’s just too damn comfortable in it to make the real changes in his life that could actually help him get his career back on track.  Maybe another year off will do the trick, but I doubt it.  Hopefully he’s just on leave from the car dealership and they are more tolerant of employees with his kind of immaturity.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Dysfunction Thy Name Is Cleveland

It’s a week with a day that ends in a “y” so of course there’s more dysfunction when it comes to the Cleveland Browns.
On Thursday the Browns and offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan parted ways while quarterbacks coach Dowell Loggains was shown the door, involuntarily.  For those keeping score at home, that makes six coordinators in six years.  You have to admire that level of consistency.
There are many ways to view these changes but like most things about the Browns these days using the prism of Johnny Manziel is the best place to start.  Fans will never officially learn who exactly was responsible for drafting Manziel and then putting him behind center with the playoffs still technically in the mix.  But we can pretty well surmise by now that it wasn’t Shanahan’s idea and that’s likely part of the overarching issue here.  Manziel was a non entity as a quarterback but as a coach killer, he’s proven to be pretty effective.
Starting Manziel was such a colossally stupid decision that it’s a little unfair to put head coach Mike Pettine in the crosshairs and force him and him alone to take all the bullets.  That decision emanated officially or otherwise from the owner’s box to the general manager’s chair to the head coach’s office as sure as Manziel is probably drinking champagne out of a Dixie cup at 10 a.m. on a random Thursday in January.
In fact, the level of stupid that was that decision makes me wonder why Pettine as well hasn’t taken the same train out of Cleveland that Shanahan’s now on. This job can’t be worth that level of embarrassment for if there’s one abiding truth in this franchise is that it’s so engulfed in dysfunction that it literally permeates the walls of Berea and seeps into the skin and other organs of the inhabitants within that it saps them of both pride and common sense.
Sure, why not?  Let’s run still another offense next season.  It wouldn’t be a Browns off season unless there was a major coaching change so Shanahan leaving continues the pattern where continuity becomes the enemy and change becomes the constant.  The Browns are led by a still green owner with more passion than sense and a general manager with more ambition than accomplishment.  The head coach is just grateful to have a job.
Meanwhile the fans are once again scratching their heads trying to figure out how a season of legitimate promise has instead degenerated into another offseason of confusion, disappointment and question.  Wasn’t this supposed to be an offseason where finally there would be some continuity?  It didn’t even last past the first week of the playoffs that the Browns once again missed.  Instead of using this down time to actually improve the Browns instead find themselves once again starting over on offense with hope as the abiding strategy.  Here’s a suggestion.  Quit running coaches out of the building and instead dump some of the players that are the ones undermining their authority.
Start with Manziel, who may or may not be a functional alcoholic but clearly has trouble when he mixes with alcohol. He’s back in the news, of course, because he had a celebratory New Year’s Eve and then some.  There were the usual drinks, the usual clubs and the usual trouble.  I’ve lost count.  Is this the second or third incident since his vow to the team and its fans that he would turn things around and stop looking like the public jackass he’s become?
Whoever steps in for Shanahan isn’t suddenly going to see in Manziel, particularly, or the quarterback situation in general, some sort of diamond in the rough.  Manziel is not a legitimate NFL quarterback and never will be.  He doesn’t just lack the size and body to be successful.  He lacks the intellect, discipline and work ethic as well.  There’s almost nothing there to work with except feint memories of broken plays that turned out well while he was in college.  Manziel isn’t likely to last even as long as Brady Quinn did in the league.
The suggestion out there is to trade him and if anyone is willing to part with a draft pick of any level the Farmer should jump at it.  Right now, though, general manager Ray Farmer seems rather unwilling to admit to the mistake that everyone else in the free world sees in Manziel, so it fell to Shanahan to step away from the fray if only to highlight the epic miss. 
If all Shanahan was doing was seeking out a head coaching gig, then there would be no issue. That’s the dream of every coordinator.  What is more troubling is that Shanahan appears willing to take even a lateral move just to extricate the stink of the Browns from his system.  That’s a red flag the size of Egypt but the one thing we know about Haslam is that he isn’t particularly good at seeing trouble even when it’s punching him in the face.
And why would Shanahan want out?  Because there’s no fun in the Browns’ dysfunction.  Being told that Manziel is still a viable NFL quarterback with whom you have to work while casting aside a true, but flawed professional in Brian Hoyer is enough to make any sane man batty.  In other words, if you’re Shanahan you’re staring straight into the business end of an offense whose only viable quarterback right now is Connor Shaw and whoever Farmer decides to try and resurrect from some other team’s scrap heap.  That’s not a particularly difficult situation from which to walk away.
But perhaps the real seeds of this departure lie in story of someone in the Browns’ front office literally texting Shanahan during games with their opinion about plays that should or should not be called.  The story sounds preposterous anywhere but Cleveland and hasn’t actually been officially confirmed but neither has it been denied.  In no case is it hard to believe.
This is the second straight off season of turmoil that Haslam has on his hands and once again he’s responsible for it.  It’s easy to look at each little tree and justify its existence or rationalize why it should be cut down.  But at some point you also have to realize that these aren’t just trees but a forest and your overriding mission is not just its maintenance but its long term viability.
Haslam created the management structure in place in Berea and it’s one that inherently breeds tension.  Having both the general manager and the head coach report to him was always going to spark a competitive tension between the two sides as they vie for the attention and approval of the man to whom they report.  That doesn’t make Haslam’s set up wrong by any means but it does demand that the structure and the boundaries be respected for what they are and tended to with some amount of care. 
When someone on the general manager’s side (or perhaps Farmer himself) starts interfering with the coaching side by texting ideas or complaints during the game, that’s a clear and irresponsible overreach.  Maybe Haslam shut it down or let it go.  We don’t know.  But the fact that it happened at all strongly suggests that Haslam doesn’t have firm control over the structure he created so that it never happened in the first place.
One of the reasons Shanahan is supposedly leaving is that the general manager’s side of the equation gave little or no credence to the input being offered by the coaching side.  It’s not hard to imagine what the input was.  Manziel wasn’t taking his job seriously and was ill prepared to ever play.  There weren’t credible receivers on the roster once Jordan Cameron got hurt and Josh Gordon got suspended.  Why wasn’t a credible back up signed once Alex Mack went down?  Need I go on?
There are good and legitimate reasons why the coaching side shouldn’t run the personnel side but the most functional organizations find a way to make it all work.  There are going to be disagreements in any work environment but for goodness sakes why is it that every disagreement inside the Browns simmers then boils then overflows and ruins the counters?
Just as Haslam was able to eventually find someone, anyone, to take the head coaching position with his team, Pettine will be able to find someone, anyone to become the next offensive coordinator.  If that new coordinator succeeds though it will be dumb luck.  This franchise is simply not constructed to succeed and won’t be until Haslam takes a hard look in the mirror and a step back and then pays more than lip service to his desire to bring continuity and calm to Cleveland.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Another December To Not Remember

The last time a Cleveland Browns head coach went 0 for December, he was fired.  The December before that was essentially the same thing.  Given owner Jimmy Haslam’s brief but clear history, both head coach Mike Pettine and general manager Ray Farmer had to be wondering their fates as the Browns closed the season in that most familiar way.
Haslam quickly removed any uncertainty about two of his three direct reports by stating after the loss to the Baltimore Ravens that Pettine and Farmer would be back.  Now if Haslam could find a way to remove all of the other uncertainty surrounding this franchise then maybe he’d really be on to something.
Keeping Pettine and Farmer is a way to build continuity, which is something this franchise hasn’t tried in years so why not give it a try?
On the one hand, arguably the hand that matters most, the Browns ended the season with 7 wins, not great, but the most this team has had in the last 8 years.  It’s a bottom line business so in that sense the Browns have taken a pretty big step forward from where they ended last season.   
But yet someone has to be accountable for some pretty big issues pressing against the windows of Berea, to wit:
1.       The team completely unraveled offensively once Alex Mack went out for the season.

2.       First round draft pick Justin Gilbert was a complete bust who demonstrated little work ethic and virtually no feel for playing the position for which he was so highly touted.

3.       Ditto for first round draft pick Johnny Manziel whose lack of work ethic and discipline fully exposed Pettine to ridicule when he marched him out to start in place of struggling Brian Hoyer with the playoffs still technically in the picture.

4.       Josh Gordon still not entirely getting with the program despite spending most of the year away from it.
This is some pretty high level dysfunction, even for a franchise that has been so lost and confused it makes the New York Jets look like the New England Patriots.
Figuring out how to solve these and a myriad of other minor matters is further complicated by the way the organization is structured, with Haslam not just as its titular head but the one with the knife wielding power and little experience in how to use it except recklessly.
When Haslam took out Joe Banner and his Sicilian messenger boy, Mike Lombardi, last season, he didn’t quite elevate Ray Farmer to Banner’s former role.  He gave Farmer the title of general manager and control over the personnel but not of the coach.  Instead Pettine likewise reports to Haslam, putting Haslam in the unenviable position of arbitrating the question over whether Farmer’s lack of research on Gilbert and increasingly larger reach on Manziel and the inability to find an even faintly credible replacement for Mack is what doomed the team or it was Pettine’s abject inexperience at running a team on a day to day basis?
I know this, for all his square-jawed clear-eyed talk to the media, Pettine obviously wasn’t able to reach either Manziel or Gilbert in a way that resonated. Same with Gordon, though Pettine hardly had the chance.  I also know that offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who reports to Pettine, couldn’t figure out how to overcome the loss of a decent center but certainly not Jim Otto in his prime.  Once Mack went down, the running game fell apart and opposing defenses exploited all the reasons Hoyer was a backup in the first place.
What’s difficult to figure in that truth though is where exactly does all the responsibility lie.  Pettine and Shanahan can make a rather forceful claim that they didn’t populate the team with two rookie running backs, including another work-ethic challenged player in Terrence West, and a free agent, Ben Tate, who wasn’t worth even a third of what they paid him.  Of course, Farmer could argue that in the context of hindsight perhaps Tate was just another player, like Manziel, like Gilbert, like Gordon, that Pettine couldn’t reach.
That all could be true and a big part of the problem, but then Farmer can’t so easily explain away the rest of the receiving corps.  This wasn’t a failure of schemes, but of talent.  Outside of Jordan Cameron, who was injured most of the season anyway, there wasn’t a credible receiver on the field until Gordon returned from his suspension.  Farmer claimed early on that the receivers he did sign (when he could have drafted some but stubbornly didn’t) were good, just unknown.  At season’s end, they’re still just unknowns.  Farmer also signed Miles Austin, as he did Tate, and it ended up being just more wasted money. 
The case for Farmer doesn’t get any better when you look on the defensive side of the ball.  Gilbert showed no work ethic from day one and carried it with him until season’s end, which ended not on Sunday but Saturday when he failed for the eleventymillionth time to make a meeting on time.  That’s a failure of research.  Somewhere in the 6 or 7 notebooks the team compiled on potential first round picks had to be a mention that Gilbert was a lazy, entitled n’er do well with no work ethic.  But maybe Farmer missed all that as he maneuvered around the draft, securing picks for 2015 while doing every other general manager in the league a favor by taking on Manziel.
Speaking of Manziel, his failures from an organizational standpoint are shared.  From a personal standpoint they’re his own.  Farmer knew Manziel was a high risk.  So did Pettine and yet all Pettine did from the first day of the offseason when Manziel eschewed any work in favor of every party was coddle Manziel in a way that even the casual fan knew wouldn’t end up well.  He constantly made excuses for why Manziel wasn’t working when he should have been and more or less gave him a public pass for being a public douche, with Manziel’s only fine known publicly is the one just issued for being late to treatment Saturday morning because of his hard partying Friday night, a party that kept many of his co-workers from being on time on Saturday as well.  This must be the new Johnny that Manziel spoke about earlier in the week.
Unless Haslam publicly admits that he ordered Pettine to start Manziel late in the season, the decision to do that is all Pettine’s and, again in the context of hindsight, was perhaps the single dumbest decision any head coach at any level has made.
It looked at the time, and I wrote at the time, that the decision made itself given Hoyer’s play.  That remains true.  But the wild card in all that is that only Pettine truly knew if Manziel was ready, or at least ready enough, to get behind center in an actual game.  We can only assume Pettine believed Manziel was ready and in the end that was such a colossal misjudgment that most coaches never get a second chance to make it.
It’s not just that Manziel was overwhelmed by the task.  That can come from a simple lack of appreciation of the gravity of the moment.  Manziel wasn’t even just overmatched.  That can be a talent gap.  Manziel couldn’t have looked any more lost than if Pettine had simply plucked a fan from the crowd and positioned him in the shotgun.  For an earlier generation, starting Manziel looked to be the equivalent of the literary joke that writer George Plimpton tried to play on the rest of the world when he suited up as a quarterback for the Detroit Lions in a preseason game for the book Paper Lion.
When Manziel scanned the defensive coverage he had the same looks of abject confusion and fear as does a father when he takes his teenage daughters to buy undergarments at Victoria’s Secret.  When the ball was snapped, Manziel acted as if he didn’t know where to look first or next.  And when he ran it was in the same way a scared Alfalfa ran in that Little Rascals episode where Alfalfa claimed to be a football hero he was not.
Whether Pettine couldn’t or didn’t see any of that coming is irrelevant.  He’s accountable either way.  Maybe because Pettine understands defense more he could see all of Gilbert’s shortcomings more clearly and benched him earlier.  Pettine should have seen the same thing with Manziel but didn’t and that is pretty damning when it comes to defending his cause.
So as another miserable season at the Factory of Sadness closes, the Browns look to be in pretty much the same place they started and not really any closer to being a credible playoff threat.  The owner remains impetuous and inexperienced, the head coach overmatched, the general manager isn’t as good as he thinks he is and there is almost no skill at any of the skill positions.   But rather than dwell on just those pesky negatives let’s just pause and take pity at least on the one true professional in the entire organization, Joe Thomas.  As good a player at his position as there’s ever been and yet destined to never play a meaningful game in December.