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.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Johnny Fizzle

In the category of finding something positive to say about an absolutely dismal day at Cleveland Browns Stadium Sunday, there’s this:  Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel at least faced the media afterwards and answered their questions, owning the dismal moment.  After that, there’s nothing whatsoever that anyone anywhere could take from the pitiful display the Manziel and the Browns put on at home, losing 30-0 to a very average Cincinnati Bengals team.
Head coach Mike Pettine doesn’t much mince words and so we go again to him to succinctly summarize what fans saw on Sunday.  “Looked like a rookie, played like a rookie,” Pettine said.  Exactly.
The glass half full folks will acknowledge that it’s not as if Manziel went into the game with a fully loaded arsenal.  As just a small example, his pass to Andrew Hawkins that could have and should have been a first down on the Browns’ second series was on the money and inexplicably dropped.  Maybe a catch there would have sent a better tone but truthfully the glass half full folks are right.  Sending a rookie out with that kind of supporting cast in the NFL is going to be difficult for any quarterback.
As the season winds to a close, the same things that have plagued the Browns for 15 years now still plagues them.  There is no depth on this team.  When center Alex Mack went down, the offense essentially fell apart.   The running game stopped working and Brian Hoyer went from flash to flash in the pan.  It’s really confounding to ponder how important Mack is to this team.  And here I thought the Browns overpaid him in the offseason.  They didn’t pay him enough.

It’s not just Mack going down, either.  There’s no depth anywhere else, from receiver to tight end to the rest of the slots on the offensive line.  The NFL season is always an exercise in attrition and that’s never a contest this team with its holes can ever win. 
With due deference to ESPN blowhard Merrill Hoge, General manager Ray Farmer seems to be a relatively good judge of talent so perhaps he just needs a few more drafts and free agent signings to plug additional holes.  But right now, just as in seasons past, the Browns are not built to overcome any adversity.  A late season swoon isn’t a surprise.  It’s expected when the bulk of your starters would be back-ups nearly everywhere else.

But there is more, much more when talking about Sunday’s game.  Manziel, to no one’s surprise, looked woefully unprepared.  Sure, Manziel has been roaming the sidelines for 13 games with barely a whiff of playing time.  But that isn’t an excuse for his looking so lost.  The fear with Manziel and his casual approach to his craft is that if or when he was needed he wouldn’t be ready.  Manziel was needed.  He wasn’t ready.  Neither was the rest of the team.

You want evidence?  How about the fact that the Ryan Seymour, playing center, center for god’s sake, had a false start.  I’m actually uncertain how that’s even possible, yet it happened Sunday.  I’d say that was the low point but it felt more like a microcosm.
I suspect what’s really afoot is that Manziel’s game is so different and so undisciplined that it confounds not just coaches and fans and personnel directors, but the guys having to execute his half commands.  Consider not just the false start by Seymour but the litany of other false starts along with being flagged twice for having illegal receivers down field.  A third time the fullback, Ray Agnew, technically eligible was blocking downfield because he thought Manziel was going to run.  He didn’t.  The penalty was offensive pass interference but the infraction was the same as what caused the other illegal receivers downfield flags.

It wasn’t just a game where a team, otherwise prepared, simply came out flat.  It was a team that wasn’t prepared on any level, offense, defense or special teams.  Manziel looked out of place, despite his claim that he wasn’t overwhelmed, and his line looked confused.  The receivers were simply lost, unsure exactly what Manziel was going to do at any moment and lacking any semblance of concentration when balls did come their way.
But why just bury the offense?  The defense played its worst game of the season.  From the opening series to the “I quit” touchdown they gave up at the end of the game, the defense likewise looked unprepared.  It’s surprising, too, considering how it dominated the Bengals’ offense last time around.  Yet they had almost no answer for running back Jeremy Hill.  It wasn’t helped of course by the rather casual, arm only approach the defense took toward trying to bring him down.  But the larger point is that given how poorly Dalton performed the last time around, the Bengals best hope was a running attack and it’s as if nobody on the Browns’ side of the ball considered the possibility.

About the only thing that kept this game from being far worse, on the scoreboard anyway, was Bengals’ quarterback Andy Dalton.  Bengals fans are understandably worried about its team’s ability to do advance in the playoffs with Dalton leading the charge. In years past you could at least argue that Dalton was a decent regular season quarterback.  Now he’s not even that. 
But on this day, his play was almost an afterthought anyway.   All he really did was keep 30 points from being 45.  Big deal, the Browns’ offense only crossed the 50 yard line once and that ended with an interception in the end zone.

So now what?  Well, the playoffs are not in the picture, no matter how tightly fans cling to the thinnest threads, so the usual calculus of deciding which quarterback gives the team the best chance to win isn’t necessary.  Pettine said after the game, to the surprise of exactly no one, that Manziel is your starter next week (and the last, undoubtedly) and then heading into next year’s training camp, unless still another quarterback is signed or drafted.
The long view though is still the same as it was before the game on Sunday was even played.  Can Manziel be a viable NFL starter?  He can’t overcome his lack of height, but he can overcome his lack of work.  Manziel’s future in the league is completely tied to his willingness to learn certain truths about the NFL.

First, it’s the ultimate football stage.  Manziel could hide his weaknesses in college because the caliber of competition was so uneven. In the NFL, whatever your weaknesses are will be exposed, sooner rather than later.  If you don’t prepare, games like Sunday’s are the result.
Second, an undisciplined player is an unemployed player.  Manziel’s approach in college thrived on a lack of discipline.  What made him exciting was the fact that no one ever knew what he was going to do next.  That can and obviously did further his abbreviated college career.  The NFL is about precision.  Even its chaos is orchestrated.  Consider Manziel’s first interception.  It was the inevitable result of what happens when a quarterback throws late over the middle.  In college a defensive back with no chance of a pro career likely would have broken coverage by then.  It simply doesn’t happen that way in the NFL.

Third, these are grown men and not, as the Bengals’ Domato Peko said “little college kids.”  Raw talent isn’t enough.  Good coaching helps but the difference maker is the individual.  I hate to invoke the ghost of Mike Phipps here, but he floundered in the NFL, despite incredible talent, because he was lazy and undisciplined in his work habits.
The good news, again for the glass half full folks, is that this was only one game.  Manziel can take temporary comfort in the knowledge the most other rookie quarterbacks struggled early as well.  But if you really want to see the glass half full then maybe the best thing that happened was the abject disaster that was Manziel’s debut.  If it served as a wake up call or a little comeuppance for Johnny Fizzle, then the Browns and their fans will be well served in the long run.  In other words, for a season which will represent the high water mark for wins in the last several years, Browns fans are still left wondering when exactly it will be their turn to actually enjoy a season from start to finish.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Next Man Up, Again

One of the more spirited debates among NFL fans and within the NFL circle is whether or not a team needs a franchise quarterback or can be successful, indeed prosper, with a quarterback that is merely adequate.  So much of where you land in that debate depends on how you define franchise quarterback in the first place.
Except in Cleveland. 
In Cleveland, we land exactly where you’d think we would: confused but hopeful.  It’s not even that the Browns would settle for adequate.  Adequate is how a franchise quarterback is defined.
On Tuesday, the Cleveland Browns back-channeled an announcement and then front-channeled it with a quote from head coach Mike Pettine that Johnny Manziel, the new heir apparent savior, will start against the Cincinnati Bengals this week while Brian Hoyer licks the wounds of one head scratching interception after another.

Pettine’s quote didn’t make a lot of sense, but then again it’s not like he actually uttered the phrases.  When Pettine said in the team’s press release that the decision wasn’t about either Hoyer or Manziel, that didn’t make a whole lot of sense.  It came off exactly what it was, which was someone on the public relations staff trying to put a spin on the story that, what, would otherwise have been less frustrating, less maddening to Browns fans if they had known the truth?
The decision is all about both Hoyer and Manziel.  Hoyer has played like the career backup whose been left in the game too long.  He’s been amazingly consistent in the last few weeks in his inability to move the offense or complete passes to guys wearing the same jersey.  Maybe he went south when center Alex Mack went down.  Irrespective, he went south and one more start would only land him, finally, in the location where he’d been trending, Tierra Del Fuego.

Nobody, whether employed by the Browns or among those contributing to their salaries, needed to get any closer to that bottom.  The decision to start Manziel wasn’t controversial and didn’t need to be spun.  We all could go by what we saw.  So no need to spin.  Let the chips fall where they will.
With that, one of the larger questions now revolves around what really are or should be the expectations when it comes to Manziel.  Does he need to be a franchise quarterback or just merely adequate?  Is there really a difference?

Fran Tarkenton, in an interview with Jenny Vrentas of The Monday Morning Quarterback, noted the dual phenomenon of teams always seeking “the guy” but watching other teams, like Arizona, succeeding with “workman-like” quarterbacks.  Of course, Tarkenton defines a franchise quarterback narrowly, referencing the obvious examples of Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.  But the point is well considered.  There are few franchise quarterbacks anyway.  Teams can be successful with journeymen, as defined in the best sense of that word, and a really good defense.  After all, the playoffs feature 16 teams and as sure as anything else in the NFL, there aren’t 16 franchise quarterbacks in the league.
Which brings us back to the numbing sameness of the Browns and the never-ending odyssey to find a quarterback that, frankly, just fits in a category above mediocre.

Manziel isn’t just the next man up; he’s the 21st next man up for the Browns 2.0.  I’ll do the math for you.  That means the Browns have averaged 1.4 starting quarterbacks for each of the last 15 years, a number that’s already outrageous but is actually skewed by the fact that Tim Couch, the franchise poster child for mediocrity, started 59 games.  So yea, your eyes aren’t deceiving you.  Every year you can plan it, like the buzzards returning to Hinckley, that the Browns will have 2 and possibly more starting quarterbacks within the season.
So wither on to your next stop, Mr.Hoyer.  Thanks for signing the guest register and we hope you enjoyed your stay with your home town team.  There are some very lovely parting gifts for you on your way out of Berea for there’s no chance now that your next contract will be countersigned by some other team looking for a serviceable backup. 

Let’s pause, though, to appreciate Hoyer for a moment.  He truly does represent the grit of the city and its fans.  What he lacked in talent he made up for in work ethic.  A true pro, a real mensch.  But the league will expose your weaknesses much more quickly than your strengths and it’s as clear as anything that Hoyer’s weaknesses have been exposed.
Sure Hoyer could return before season’s end but it will be because of an injury to Manziel and not because there’s any point flipflopping him with Manziel.  Hoyer’s time here is over and with his contract expiring there’s no chance the Browns will bring him back unless it is clearly understood to be in a backup role, again, and at far less than he and his agent anticipated just a month ago.

The transition to Manziel is similar really to the one the Browns made more than a generation ago with Gary Danielson and Bernie Kosar.  It wasn’t questioned.  The time had arrived.
Whether Manziel can even follow the trajectory of Kosar, remains very uncertain.  The questions surrounding Manziel are the same when he entered the draft and the same as they were just a week ago.  Does he have the drive, the work ethic, the intellect, the commitment to be something special in a league that will tolerate almost anything except on field success?

It won’t take all that long to answer the questions.  To this point we’ve seen very little of Manziel.  We’ve heard plenty and virtually none of it surrounds the key issues that translate to on field success.   Manziel has tantalized, certainly, in the limited action he’s seen but you’d be foolish to go all in on him at the moment.
It would surprise exactly no one if Manziel put zero thought into starting, let alone any work in on Tuesday because it was Manziel’s day off.  Just a week ago he demonstrated that hanging with the bros is higher on his list of things to do on Tuesdays, even when your immediate future may be about to change.  Indeed, Manziel, from all appearances looks to possess the work ethic of a 14-year old.  There’s a reason why an old hand like left tackle Joe Thomas was very definitive with Pettine last week about starting Hoyer over Manziel.  Hoyer wasn’t playing well, everyone could see that.  But he was putting in the work, trying to get better and had a track record.  Clearly Thomas felt Manziel’s work ethic wasn’t quite the same and so recommended Hoyer to start that one last game because the team was still trying to make the playoffs.  Now, not so much.

I’d like to think that Manziel got the message from his blind side protector, but I doubt it mainly because no matter how many times the team has sent Manziel public messages (which probably pale in comparison to the number of private ones they’ve sent), Manziel has been obstinate in response.  He’s completely committed to the brand and persona of Johnny Football.  Whether that extends to actual performance is the great unknown.
Manziel actually can be what his talent suggests but he will not survive in the NFL on talent alone.  Few do.  Tom Brady only became Tom Brady through exceptionally hard work, year after year.  Same with Peyton Manning.  The problem for a guy like Manziel is that it doesn’t appear as if he’s ever known hard work.

It’s not just that he grew up with mostly a silver spoon from which to eat his Maypo but that’s part of it.  The bigger part though is the fact that he’s got such innate talent in the first place.  The gifted can be prone to falling back on that ability rather than work to develop it further.  The habits they develop in the interim don’t serve them well when talent is simply not enough.  Eventually they get bypassed by the less gifted but harder working.
Even at a big school like Texas A&M, or really any big time college program, it’s still true that the overwhelming majority of the players do not go on to any sort of professional career.  The truly talented can still outshine most everyone else.  In the NFL, that’s simply not the case.  Everyone in the league is comparably talented.  The difference maker is often the work that’s put in to rise above.

Will Manziel make that commitment?  Put it this way, the league is highly skeptical.  Otherwise Manziel doesn’t drop to the bottom of the draft the way he did.  To date Manziel’s response has been display of arrogance and indifference to the perceptions and opinions of anyone, not just the fans and the critics.  He carries himself with an attitude that smacks of immaturity, a sort of “he doesn’t yet even know what he doesn’t know. “
Come Sunday, that equation will start to change.  He’ll get an inkling of how little he knows as Bengals players just waiting to baptize him take their shots on his slight stature.  How he responds will be very telling, not just on Sunday but over the next few weeks and for the rest of his career.  And if past is prologue, and let’s hope not, sometime next September it will be time for the 22nd next man up.