Wednesday, October 07, 2015

History Is Not On His Side

At this point it seems like a question of when and not if, as in when will Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam clean house once again?
There is simply  no way a knee-jerk owner like Haslam tolerates regression, right?  Well, that’s probably true.  Still the dilemma he faces is a tad challenging to resolve, assuming you’re willing to give Haslam some credit for not being a total reactionary.
The mental gymnastics Haslam must be going through since watching this supposedly better version of the Browns get embarrassed nearly every week havsto be exhausting.  Haslam can’t like what he sees any more than any fans like what they see.  But the strong evidence tells him and you that the key to long term success in the NFL (and most businesses, actually) is stability, particularly at the top.
So does he stay the course out of the need to create stability within the league’s most unstable franchise or does he once again turn over the apple cart in the name of finding something or someone who can turn it back upright and get it going in the right direction?  With great money comes great responsibility.  The only thing worth gambling on is that whatever decision he makes will be wrong because, Cleveland.
The NFL out of necessity and union rules, treats most players as fungible commodities, a balance that takes into account absolute value, value about or below the potential replacement and salary cap impacts when deciding in any given season which players stay and which go.  Indeed teams turn over 25-30% of their rosters each year. 
The team’s that can perform the evaluation tasks well do so with good management that stays in place from year to year.  The New England Patriots are the gold standard.  The teams that perform those tasks poorly often are unstable franchises who hire poor talent evaluators and mediocre coaches.  The Browns are that gold standard.
While Haslam should prize stability but that only matters when you have the right folks in place at the top.  The Browns don’t and never do.  Let’s look at the last 15 years for the clues.
 Randy Lerner seemed to face a housecleaning dilemma every year and history has more than proven that in every case he actually fostered regression by hanging on to coaches and general managers who clearly were not suited for the job.  His biggest fault was that he couldn’t tell the difference between a Cadillac and a Camry.  As long as he had someone driving him around I guess it didn’t matter.
Since the Browns returned in 1999 only one fired head coach of the Browns went on to be a head coach again.  That would be Romeo Crennel who, incidentally, still has the longest tenure as a Browns head coach in the 2.0 ERA.  Crennel was an awful head coach overseeing typically awful Browns personnel.  He won 6 games his first season, 4 his next.  He should have been fired then as it led to what came next.  Perhaps his major accomplishment was to win 10 games in his third season, which made it look like Lerner was a genius even though the Browns are one of the few teams in NFL history to have won 10 games and not make the playoffs.  More to the point though is that while the NFL is a bottom line league, those 10 wins were soft.  Fans and history will recall that the Browns had a historically easy schedule that entire season, a point that was proven the following season when a Browns team supposedly on the come sank back to Crennel’s set point of 4 wins.  He was fired and instead of being two years into a new regime and direction the Browns were set back by those same two years.
And while Crennel did find a head coaching job again, that shouldn’t alter Haslam’s view.  After getting fired by the Browns Crennel ended up in Kansas City as a defensive coordinator, a job for which he was uniquely qualified and successful.  He became head coach when the Chiefs fired Todd Haley.  Crennel continued into the next season as well, his only full year as a head coach the second time around.  He promptly won 4 games with a Kansas City team many also thought was on the come and was fired. (Indeed that Chiefs team was on the come.  Andy Reid stepped in the next year and promptly won 11 games with essentially the same personnel.)
After that you have Butch Davis who never got another head coaching gig in the NFL but did land in college at North Carolina and was fired as part of the stench of an extensive academic cheating scandal that led to the Browns ultimately drafting Greg Little, but that’s another failed story for another day.
Then there are the various general managers all with the same awful track record and not a one of them hired thereafter as a general manager anywhere else.  That list includes Dwight Clark, Butch Davis (served as his own GM), Phil Savage, George Kokinis (although he was a mere puppet for the subordinate that hired him, Eric Mangini, who also hasn’t worked again as a head coach), Tom Heckert, Mike Lombardi and now Ray Farmer.
The point here is that these aren’t just trends to be interpreted.  The Browns have an unblemished record of hiring awful general managers and head coaches and every time they held on to one or the other longer than they should have it set the franchise back even further.  Crennel is an obvious example but no bigger than Mike Holmgren holding on to Eric Mangini despite the fact that he literally couldn’t stand him.
So as Halsam finds himself on the precipice of having to figure out when housecleaning should commence, the history he need rely on is not that of the wonderfully ethereal concept of stability but that of a franchise he owns that has been 100% wrong for 16 straight years.
I’ve already and repeatedly chronicled general manager Ray Farmer’s shortcomings.  His talent evaluation skills and philosophies are so misguided and inept, the results on the field can fairly be said to be inevitable.  Holding on to him is worse than holding on to Phil Savage and on par with holding on to Dwight Clark.   And yet to place all the blame on Farmer is to ignore Pettine’s massive shortcomings as a head coach. Those, too, are becoming more pronounced as the weeks roll by and here the parallels with Crennel are eerie.
In a sense, the first four games of the season, played against teams of similar caliber, provided a nice experiment where you can control certain variables to determine where the problems really exist. The debacle against the Jets, for example, highlighted the difference a coach can make on a bad team.  The Jets were a mess last season, similar to the Browns.  Yet week one the Jets, without any significant upgrades in personnel, came out well prepared and more than ready to play.  The Browns looked like they had just entered the second week of training camp and were essentially pushed around the field.  The game set a tone for both teams.  You wouldn’t be wrong to note that one of the hallmarks of Crennel’s teams each week were their lack of preparation.  There seemed to be little sense of a game plan or even a general direction.  To lose the number of games Crennel has consistently lost in his head coaching career takes the near perfect convergence of awful talent and coaching.
Switch over to Sunday’s loss to the middling San Diego Chargers.  So much of that loss stems from exactly what Pettine doesn’t bring to this team.  If Pettine is really as hard-nosed as we’ve been told, then his biggest failing comes from not instilling a similar mindset in his team.  That’s not his biggest failing.
As a side note “hard-nosed” is one of those grand football euphemisms, like “blue collar,” that’s supposed to conjure up an image of a team that relies less on smarts and more on brawn and work ethic to get the task of winning accomplished.  It’s a meaningless euphemism.  Less talented teams can and sometimes do succeed by the sheer force of their work ethic and tenacity.  But that’s rarely true in the NFL where personnel is remarkably similar team to team.  Put it this way and maybe exclude Cleveland in this sentence but if players at that level weren’t supremely talented, mentally, physically and emotionally, they would have never made it to the NFL in the first place.
Now what isn’t a euphemism at all and where teams often do reflect their head coach is in discipline and attention to detail.  One of the reasons Crennel took so long to become a head coach and then failed was his inability to bring the necessary attention and detail to the big picture.  Strong-willed miscreants like Braylon Edwards ran all over Crennel and it spilled onto the playing field in the form of one dismal penalty-laden performance after another.  The Browns’ failures in Crennel’s last season can most fairly be said to stem directly from Crennel’s loose grip on the reins of his team.
Pettine’s teams lack the kind of discipline those supposedly connote the hard-nosed team.  In Pettine’s year and a half tenure his teams have ranked near the top in the number of penalties per game, according to the website  This ranking doesn’t even factor in penalties committed, only those accepted by the opposition. 
After 4 games the Browns are averaging nearly 9 penalties a game.   What’s as interesting is that the Browns also have one of the highest ratio of pre-snap penalties to overall penalties in the league under Pettine (and, frankly, basically every other coach before Pettine in the Browns 2.0 era).  That speaks to a revolving door of quarterbacks certainly and differing pre snap cadences.  But it also speaks to a lack of talent as its often overmatched offensive linemen seek to get a jump on their defensive counterparts.
Laying all of this at Pettine’s feet probably isn’t fair.  Much blame goes to the guy who employs him and supplied him with the players, and that would be Farmer. His handiwork was well on display against the Raiders a few weeks back.  That game showed the value of good drafting.  Amari Cooper and Derek Carr were excellent draft picks, particularly when compared to Johnny Manziel and Justin Gilbert.  The Browns could have had either or both and chose neither.  Farmer didn’t like Carr and seemingly hates all receivers.  That’s in essence why the Browns are still the Browns.
Pettine and Farmer are on borrowed time as it is.  Haslam may very well have already decided to clean house and now is just wrestling with whether it should be in season or the day after the season ends. Timing is tricky and keep in mind that midseason replacements kind of feel good for a minute but also tend to piss off season ticket holders who, in Cleveland anyway, like to hold on to the illusion that these games matter at least until the 9th or 10th game of the season.
It’s also possible that Haslam really is wrestling with another kind of dilemma.  He knows that if he holds on to Farmer and Pettine he’ll be trying to defy history that is absolute.  On the other hand, if he respects that history he runs head first into another absolute: he has no chance of getting the next decisions right, either. Ultimately, that’s probably what’s keeping him up most nights, the notion that buying the Browns may have been the dumbest idea he’s had since he set up a bonus program for the sales force at Pilot Flying J.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Well, That Happened...

Early in Sunday’s dumpster fire of a loss to the lowly Oakland Raiders, it was hard to recognize the Cleveland Browns.  Oh the play on the field was very familiar.  That hasn’t changed.  What was out of whack was more visual and took more than a few seconds to pinpoint.  But there it was.  Stride for stride with every bad play was a team doing so in the ugliest uniforms in the entire league. 
There is nothing at all to recommend what the Browns now look like to the viewing public except in a Value Jet kind of way.  If the purpose of those uniforms is to distract the fans into thinking they’re actually rooting for a whole different franchise then, but only then, will the new uniforms be a success. Otherwise in practice it was the usual way the Browns do things, poorly and without much thought.
But why harp on what surely is the least of this team’s problems?  The Browns have played 3 league doormats in 3 consecutive weeks.  They’ve only been competitive once.  There are plenty of conclusions to drawn without having to sort through the visual mess as well.
The other thing that struck as I watched the crawler on the screen displaying scores from other games was the performance of  Tyrod Taylor of the Buffalo Bills had against another of the league’s many, many doormats, the Miami Dolphins.  It’s not that just that Taylor played well or that he played better Sunday (and all season) than anyone on the Browns’ roster It’s just that it’s hard to imagine a scenario wheere anyone in this Browns’ organization would have had any sense to even give Taylor the kind of shot he’s getting in Buffalo.
This really is the essence of what plagues the Browns and it’s the same as it’s been for years. The barest of strategies, the poorest of execution. Shoddy, clueless owners who choose incompetent “football men” to run what’s turned out to be the same old same old with the same old same old players expecting a different result and complaining that it’s just a matter of execution when the result is what it’s always been.
Entering the season the Browns had aging journeyman Josh McCown and the league’s biggest question mark, Johnny Manziel at quarterback.  Just as the Bills added Taylor for depth, the Browns could have done likewise but stood pat instead.  Taylor may have reached his peak and could regress.  The point though is that the Browns don’t think like other teams and that’s always to their disadvantage.
Let’s assume owner Jimmy Haslam is sincere and driven to bring a prideful, winning franchise to the shores of Lake Erie.  He sure has a funny way of showing it.  We all understand how he ended up with Mike Pettine as his head coach.  By the time his front office got done fiddling around with the longest search in NFL head coach search history, Pettine was essentially the only available candidate left and he was barely a candidate at that.  The more credible, the more qualified had long since found more stable environments and at this point even Syria is a more stable environment.
What is more difficult to understand is why Haslam has any remaining faith in Ray Farmer, the general manager he seems to trust all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.  It’s hard to imagine that Farmer, the guy who brought you, in no particular order, Josh McCown, Justin Gilbert, Johnny Manziel and the relatively expensive Dwayne Bowe, would remain employed by any other franchise.  Farmer literally has no track record of accomplishment and nothing he’s done in Cleveland has built his resume except in the most negative ways possible. He has no eye for talent and, more devastating, no understanding of how to construct a roster.  I wouldn’t spot him $200 on Draft Kings to run my fantasy team let alone run an actual team.
Sunday’s loss was like the opening day loss and completely illustrative of Farmer’s and Pettine’s shortcomings.  Let’s start with Pettine’s role first.
The team was once again an undisciplined mess and irrespective of the talent level there’s no excuse when it comes to either discipline or effort.  Completely misreading the vibe of his team, Pettine claimed that McCown gave the Browns the best chance to win on Sunday despite the fact that Manziel actually led the team to a victory, it’s only victory, the week before.  The offense seemed hungover by that decision and responded with a performance so reminiscent of week one it was as if you CBS was merely playing that week one tape.
Silly penalties, out of position players, bad blocking, worse tackling, awful coverage, momentum-killing special teams, this game had it all.  And more!  Pettine is trying to instill a tough-minded, old school attitude in a team that plays like the point of professional football is to have fun and not get hurt.  His teams consistently commit one silly penalty after another.  They often look lost and unmotivated.  Perhaps the worst indictment is that they play as if pride isn’t part of the equation.  In short, all the things that fall on the coaching staff went awry, every single one of them.  If you can tell me exactly what the game plan for the Browns was on either side of the ball, email me, enlighten me, defend Pettine.  I can’t.
But let’s also remember that Pettine is playing with a roster built by Farmer.  There, I’ve defended him.  That still is no excuse for all the mental mistakes but it does in large measure explain the lack of fundamental skills available to Pettine for executing his vision.
Pettine told the media that the theme of this year’s team is to put words into action, to not just talk about being the best this or the best that but go out and actually show it.  In truth, this team does not have the talent to be the best at anything except talking and that’s on Farmer, so let’s focus on him.
The offensive line, supposedly one of the best in the league, just ask them, was going to be even better this season with the return of center Alex Mack from injury.  It isn’t, proving only that Mack really wasn’t the lynchpin he appeared to be when he first got hurt.  Because so many on the line get beat by the defensive line it holds constantly.  It false starts even more often.  It hasn’t opened a legitimate hole for a running back since Gene Hickerson played and it hasn’t adequately protected a quarterback since, well, Gene Hickerson played.
Farmer supposedly built this team to be run-centric in order to minimize the constant shortcomings he and every general manager before him has in finding a competent quarterback.  Putting aside the incongruity of building a run-centric team in a pass happy league, if you’re going to be run oriented then you need a line that can block for a player that can run. The Browns have neither which is why almost any lead an opponent gets is safe.
On defense the Browns can’t stop anyone doing anything.  They are dead last in the run, again.  The defensive backfield is a mess, as usual.  Joe Haden continues to be the most overrated corner in the league and whoever is second is a distant second.  Haden seems to have cultivated his reputation on the backs of the kind of receivers that generally suit up for the Browns—slow, small, possession-type receivers.  Put a legitimate big-time receiver on him, say Brandon Marshall or Amari Cooper, and he turns into Buster Skrine.  You can’t be a great cover corner if you can’t cover the league’s better receivers.  We can talk about Justin Gilbert, number 1 pick Justin Gilbert, not contributing at all but those mounds of dirt have been turned over enough.  Farmer lays at the root of every roster problem on this team and right now it’s hard to see a path to 5 wins, let alone to 9.
The Browns put together a good game the previous week.  In many ways it was the polar opposite of the week before.  But just one week later it’s as if the win against Tennessee didn’t take place.  This team simply doesn’t progress and there’s nothing, from the owner’s box to the front office to the coaching staff to the roster that suggests, let alone gives any hope, that there’s progress to be made.
But hey, why talk about any of that.  The Browns have new uniforms and, as Carl Speckler would say, they have that going for them, which is nice.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Failure As High Art

If the competition was intended to measure the most dysfunctional franchise in the NFL, the Cleveland Browns would be a perennial contender, running neck and neck for the top of the heap with the likes of the Washington Redskins.  Unfortunately that’s pretty much the polar opposite of the competition the Browns ostensibly should be in which is why once again when the season ends Browns fans will be searching for a team to root for during the playoffs.
For what it’s worth, a disclaimer.  That lede was written before the disaster that was the franchise’s 11th straight opening day loss.  That loss, institutional failure as high art, couldn’t have been more timely or prescient or point proving.
Nonetheless, let’s soldier on.  And because this is Cleveland, where notoriety is treated like success, it takes a special kind of franchise dysfunction to beat out a team like Washington whose general manager is accused on Twitter, by his current wife no less, of sleeping with a reporter and then feeding her stories.  Yet these are your Cleveland Browns, a team who entered the season with someone at every level of the franchise suspended and an owner still living under the cloud of potential criminal activity.
Maybe it’s a close call.  It doesn’t matter.  It will be another long season in Cleveland.
Let’s face, it gets no more sublime or ridiculous when you pause to consider that the team’s best receiver, Josh Gordon, is suspended for the season, its general manager, Ray Farmer, the team’s second in command, is suspended for the first four games and its offensive line coach is on indefinite suspension allegedly for domestic abuse.
That trifecta ought to remove all doubt about why this team can’t progress on the field.  It is so busy doing stupid, petty, awful things away from the field (or, in Farmer’s case, tangential to the field) that it doesn’t have the time to fully focus on what really matters.
The Gordon suspension can be viewed through a variety of prisms but the bottom line is that Gordon was adequately warned to stay away from both drugs and alcohol and deliberately chose to act otherwise.  That’s the Browns way.  He claims not to be an addict, which actually makes what he did to get himself thrown out of the league for a year appear worse.  It’s easy to feel compassion for the addict whose initial deliberate act eventually spirals into a series of overwhelming physical and psychological cravings as to alter the ability to think deliberately.  But I’ll take Gordon at his word.  That’s not him.  He’s not an addict.  That makes him just a fool.  He ought to be on the cover of the team’s media guide.  Gordon is the face of the franchise.
But Farmer is fighting Gordon for that distinction and putting up a hell of a fight.  Where perhaps he has the edge is in age and hence perceived maturity.  A Duke graduate and former linebacker with the Eagles, Farmer should have the education and sense to know better.  He probably does.  Unfortunately he lacks the ability to use either.  His ego far outpaces actual accomplishment.
I’ve never understood frankly how Farmer held on to his job after the texting incident.  It’s an incredible embarrassment to the franchise in and of itself not to mention the hole it puts the team in during those critical first few weeks of the season when rosters are constantly shifting.  Now the cynic may be thankful for small favors when you consider Farmer’s abilities as a general manager.  His record is so poor on that front Tom Heckert and Phil Savage look like Ernie Accorsi in comparison.
No reason to completely re-litigate Farmer’s real calling card, the bizarre 4-game suspension for spending game days texting his vast football Xs and Os knowledge to the sideline from the cheap seats.  But what is worth mentioning in this whole affair is how counterproductive his conduct really was.  While Farmer was channeling the dream of every fantasy football owner or head coach wannabe, only with the actual access and the hierarchal structure to get people to at least look at his messages, his antics were completely distracting to those on the field actually trying to do their jobs.
This is exactly what it means to be dysfunctional. Farmer, sitting in his box acting like a big shot while the coaches on the field have to contend with filtering through his idiotic ramblings instead of concentrating on how to actually win a game in this town. This team needs to hit on all cylinders and he’s keeping it from hitting on any.
There may come a point where one of Farmer’s early round draft picks or free agent acquisitions will actually work out, but that doesn’t look to happen any time soon.  He’s mostly pitching a shut out when he ought to instead be hitting at about a .750 clip.  Farmer is quickly losing the excuse of previous administrations to justify the rancid performances like Sundays that increasingly less fans are witnessing.  There is not one area where this team is better because of him.  Not one.
Then of course there’s Andy Moeller. I’d say that this is what you get when you rely on Michigan men when running your business but I don’t want to feed into Braylon Edwards’ narrative that Cleveland fans never gave him a fair shake because he was from Michigan.  Moeller’s failings, like Edwards’ were both on field and character related and where each went to college is irrelevant.
Moeller has well documented issues with his ability to handle alcohol (like Edwards, actually) and by the latest accounts that led to his suspension, still does.  Moeller’s alleged actions, per the 911 call, are reprehensible for all the same reasons that have been detailed countless times about countless NFL players.
The biggest problem with Moeller is that he doesn’t learn.  He hasn’t learned from his past arrests for alcohol abuse and he hasn’t learned from all the other troubles players and some coaches have had with domestic abuse.  If head coach Mike Pettine brings Moeller back then Pettine’s tenure needs to be further evaluated.  Pettine brought this nit wit in but there’s no reason to continue to invest in that mistake.
What makes all this so relevant is actually the play on the field this past Sunday.  A collapse in the first game of the season at the hands of one of the worst teams in the league last season isn’t a fluke.  It’s the byproduct of a team out of sync at every level.  The team’s owner runs a hair trigger enterprise.  The front office isn’t competent in any aspect of its job.  The head coach is still raw.  The players, at least those who have been around for years like Joe Thomas, are mostly doing their professional best while knowing at every minute that there isn’t a chance in hell that this team can be successful. 
As for Pettine, Sunday’s fiasco only demonstrated that he isn’t up to the task of being able to overcome all the dysfunction around him.  Pettine’s team, in game one, was an undisciplined mess, committing one stupid, drive killing penalty after another.  And when it wasn’t doing that it was turning the ball over.  These are issues of discipline that must start with the head coach.  It’s one of the easiest things to fix, or certainly one of the first at least.  And yet Pettine’s team came out and played like the platoon from Stripes after Sgt. Hulka got blown up.
Let’s also not give Pettine a pass for the way the whole Terelle Pryor mess played itself out.  From this distance it looked like a palace coup initiated by Pettine once Farmer was off on his garden leave for the month.  Up until the moment he was cut Pryor was practicing and plays were being designed around his unique talents.  The excuse from Pettine was that the timing for Pryor wasn’t right, a more or less empty sentence that likely is papering over a schism that developed with Farmer signed Pryor in the first place.
Who knows if Pryor could ever be productive?  But isn’t it the point that it’s precisely guys like Pryor on whom moribund teams like the Browns should be taking chances?  And when ultimate journeyman Josh McCown decided to try and helicopter himself in the end zone on the team’s first drive on Sunday, how stupid did the Browns look by having only the shaky Johnny Manziel as the remaining quarterback on the roster?  If I’m guessing, and purely guessing, the New England Patriots will sign Pryor because of course.  That’s how good teams stay good.
Pettine may be relatively far down on the list of this team’s problems, but he is on the list.  And the fact that he’s on the list only speaks to the level of dysfunction that is keeping this franchise from being mediocre, let alone functional.  Fixing it starts at the very top and given what fans have seen thus far, that’s hardly the most comforting thought.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Future Of the Indians...

It’s pretty significant to the future of the Cleveland Indians that Mark Shapiro, who’s been with the team longer than the Dolans have owned it, is packing his kit bag for the move north to Toronto and a similar role with the Blue Jays.  What is probably far more significant to that future of the team is the lesser told story that the Dolans are looking to sell about 30% of the franchise, at an inflated valuation of course, in order to fund the team at more appropriate levels.

According to a story in Monday’s Akron Beacon Journal, the Dolans have hired an investment advisor to market the team to moneyed owner wannabees looking to get into the game.  Now under normal circumstances a smart person might ask why anyone would want to give a quarter of a billion dollars to the Dolans without any meaningful chance to control the franchise’s fate.  But those kind of smart questions don’t really apply in the world of professional sports. Really smart investors generally stay out of sports so the usual math tends to be meaningless.

What the Dolans are looking for is a lifeline, someone to fund the team’s salary growth.  In return they’ll give up a seat in the owner’s box and a seat at the table at the winter meetings.  Implicit though is the motivating factor of that minority owner.  He or she, but likely he, will become a member of the owners’ club and thus be seen as a potentially viable buyer of a majority interest in a franchise down the road.

It’s a construct that tends to work, by the way Jimmy Haslam never becomes the owner of the Browns if he hadn’t started off owning a small piece of the Pittsburgh Steelers first.  It gave the rest of the owners a chance to get used to his glad handing ways.  Steve Biscotti followed a similar path in Baltimore though he struck a particularly favorable deal against a craven, bankrupt owner in Art Modell and essentially stole the franchise out from under the Modell family. And a grateful generation of Clevelanders thank him.

In the near term this is a bit of good news for Indians fans, assuming that the Dolans find the well-financed patsy that their plan requires.  It also demonstrates what I’ve said for years.  The Dolans simply do not have enough money to compete with most other owners in major league baseball.  The franchise doesn’t generate enough money and the Dolans don’t have the wherewithal to deficit spend the team back into the level of competitiveness that would significantly increase revenues.

This is where the story of Shapiro becomes most relevant.  For years Shapiro has guided the direction of this franchise and has had to do it somewhat under unfavorable battle conditions.  Always trying to scrape together enough money to make targeted investments without huge downsides has led the Indians to essentially buy out the arbitration years of its best prospects while setting the stage for those prospects to leave once free agency beckoned.  The history with CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee would be played out once again with the likes of Corey Kluber, Michael Brantley and Jason Kipnis eventually.  It was always just a matter of time and may still be. 

This is what Indians fans have been conditioned to expect and has been a factor, the degree of which one can debate, in the continued muted interest in this team, assuming one judges interest by such pedestrian metrics as attendance.

Shapiro has done his best to divert what’s happening with this left hand by keeping the right hand in constant motion.  The Indians, under Shapiro, have upgraded Progressive Field (mostly with Progressive Insurance’s stadium rights money) and have attempted nearly all manner of low cost distraction in the form of constant, and branded, giveaways.  Shapiro has been a whiz at using other people’s money (other than the Dolans, I mean) to cultivate an inviting fan experience even if the games tend to be boring and the team often on, at best, the fringes of competitiveness.

It hasn’t worked.  The Indians consistently rank near the bottom in major league attendance and there’s only so much for which one can continue to blame “the economy” before you come to the conclusion that winning matters and winning consistently matters even more.

You want to understand why Shapiro would leave for what amounts to the same job somewhere else?  That’s why.  It’s not just more money for him and his family but more money for him and his new team to play with.  The more puzzling question is why he stayed so long.

Presumably Shapiro is well respected in baseball circles.  He’s the quintessential company man.  No one speaks more lingo and knows more metrics.  He’s personable without being obnoxious.  He’s probably a really pleasant guy around the office and maybe even fun in the few unguarded moments when he has a chance to kick back with a beer.  He’s had enough of success to make him seem competent without being so competent as to be out of reach.  In short, the Toronto job couldn’t have been the first opportunity to have come his way in 23 years with Cleveland.

Maybe it’s as simple as Shapiro being the eternal optimist.  Maybe he always figured that at some point the purse strings would loosen and he’d have to stop soliciting virtually every business near and far to partner up on this promotion or that.  At some point, though, life has a way of turning the most idealistic among us into hard-bitten realists and if there is one reality that’s well known under this Indians’ ownership it’s that this team was never going to be funded at a level that would truly allow it to compete on a regular basis.

Shapiro’s timing is a little curious though given how the Dolans are shopping the team.  That seemingly represents the best chance to really infuse this team with money and would seem like the opportune time for Shapiro to stick around.  That’s what actually scares me most.  If Shapiro doesn’t see that as the best chance to right the team than what hope should the fans continue to cling to?

In some ways, Shapiro will be missed and in many ways he won’t.  Under his watch he did bring the franchise forward using analytics.  What will never be fully known are the decisions he was forced to make that ultimately put this franchise in a state of suspended animation.

Paul Dolan is taking over the reins as president, content to take on the role himself rather than look outside.  There’s nothing in that sentence or those fact that suggests, in and of itself, that fans can expect anything different.  That will occur, if ever, when the Dolans find that quarter billion they want for a third of their franchise.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Happy Independence Day

A bit of a throwback, particularly in hairstyle, but here it is.  Happy Independence Day:

Friday, May 29, 2015

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Minimizing Success

The Cleveland Browns had the kind of draft this past week that they should have had given the kind of team they have.  It was solid and unspectacular, built around the defensive and offensive lines.  In short it was the kind of draft that teams trying to rebuild should have.  

Too bad it’s taken them almost 15 years to put together a draft that probably shouldn’t have otherwise been necessary by this time.

Always chasing rainbows and coming up short, the Browns have languished for all the reasons that this particular draft highlighted.  Faulty draft strategies, raging egos, bad trades, major miscalculations all have conspired for years to keep this team firmly entrenched in the bottom tier of the league.  Browns teams for the last 15 years have lacked cohesive, strong offensive or defensive lines and had near zero depth at any position.  So even when a player with some skill somehow landed in their laps, the inevitable injury revealed the kind of gaping holes that are the hallmark of all bad teams.

Filling several holes shouldn’t have been this hard for this long.

Forget about the actual players the Browns drafted for a moment.  Few if any fans can comment intelligently on even Danny Shelton, let alone Charles Gaines or Hayes Pullard.  Focus instead on the configuration of the draft.  Notice the patterns.  This draft was constructed like most teams are supposed to be constructed.  It was built from the inside out.  That may be easy to do in a sense for a team like Cleveland that has so many overarching needs.  Yet it still takes some discipline to do the right thing when it’s oh so easy to do the flashy thing when the person calling the shots walks in loaded with draft picks and oozing ego.

Credit then should go to general manager Ray Farmer on that aspect of the draft.  Whether he chose the right players is not something that’s going to be known any time soon.  Given Farmer’s history, there’s every reason to question his player evaluations.  But at least you can’t complain about the approach.

And yet as the Browns enter next season, they’re forced to answer the same lingering question they’ve been forced to answer for most of its 2.0 existence: do they have a quarterback on whom the team can rely?  The answer is likely the same as it’s ever been.  Probably not.

What struck me about the post-draft press conference that Farmer and head coach Mike Pettine held was not what they had to say about who they drafted but what they had to say about who they didn’t.  Pettine, in one of the stranger answers I’ve ever heard, said that the team is actively working to “try to minimize the importance of the quarterback.”  Good luck with that.

That statement makes some sense in a Trent Dilfer kind of way and if I were Pettine I suppose I’d say the same thing.  It’s been shown to work that if the defense is stronger than any other in the league, the offense can afford to be merely serviceable.  That’s the formula the Baltimore Ravens used to ride Dilfer to and through a Super Bowl.  But it’s not easily replicated for the most obvious of reasons: you have to feature an intimidating and dominating defense.  

The Cleveland Browns aren’t close to being either.  One draft isn’t going to turn this Browns’ defense into the second-coming of the Ray Lewi-led Ravens defense and besides this offense isn’t even merely serviceable even if it was.

Josh McCown, who looks to be the Browns’ starter next season by default, if for no other reason, is the quintessential NFL journeyman.  When he starts for the Browns in September, it will be his 14th season.  He really has only been a starter for two of those seasons and neither one of those were particularly successful for his team.  Indeed he was available to be signed mainly because as Tampa Bay’s starter last season he went 1-10.

When Dilfer signed with the Ravens, he was in just his 7th season.  Although you can easily make the case that he too was a journeyman, that’s mostly informed by the back end of his career and not his career to that point.  In 5 of the seasons before he joined Baltimore, he was the team’s starter and had some measure of his success, certainly more than McCown can claim. 

So when the Ravens asked Dilfer to mostly not throw up on himself so that its defense could intimidate and dominate, there was every reason to think that it was a job Dilfer could handle.  And even if he couldn’t, he had a strong running game featuring Jamal Lewis in his prime and an up and coming Priest Holmes.  The only deep threat the Ravens had was Qadry Ismail, the kind of receiver that the Browns seems to feature these days, but they did have Shannon Sharpe, one of the top tight ends in the game.  Dilfer, a player with plenty of games already under his belt, was the near perfect player for a team trying to “minimize” the importance of the quarterback.

The same cannot be said for McCown.  He isn’t joining a team with a dominant defense and there simply isn’t enough on offense to allow the Browns to “minimize” all of McCown’s shortcomings. The team neither features a strong running game or even a serviceable passing game.  It lost its only decent tight end in the offseason and while Brian Hartline is a nice signing, that’s all he is.  The team didn’t suddenly get better because of Hartline.  His presence mostly allows Farmer to credibly claim that the team hasn’t regressed in its receiving game.

The Browns may be minimizing the importance of quarterback because it really has no other choice.  Pettine and Farmer can talk about how they like where they stand at that position but it rings even hollower than Brian Kelly’s claim that his quarterback situation at Notre Dame is superior to that of Ohio State’s.

What both Farmer and Pettine well know is that the NFL isn’t a league where a team can be successful minimizing the most important position on the team.  It’s like the body saying it’s going to minimize the importance of the heart.  If this year’s draft ends up being as successful as the Browns hope it is, it will highlight exactly the flaw in their current thinking.  The Browns could conceivably get to 8-8 and maybe even 9-7 with better defense and better offensive line play and depth, but it simply cannot make the leap into the upper tier of this league without a quarterback that causes opponents to worry or at least scheme against.

This team may not need Tom Brady but it sure as heck is going to need more than Josh McCown to be successful.  Perhaps though if the team can find a way to climb out of the hole it’s dug for itself with so many prior lousy drafts then perhaps they will be able to convince a quarterback of more merit and a receiver in his relative prime to join the team for the next phase of its journey.