Monday, November 23, 2015

Meanwhile, Somewhere In Berea...

It’s Sunday of the Cleveland Browns merciful bye week.  The team, the players, the coaches, the owner and the fans welcome the break like Nordstom’s welcomes a bored housewife with a clutch full of credit cards.  But there’s still activity inside Berea. There’s always activity in side Berea. Let’s take a look:

Int. Head coach Mike Pettine’s office.  A desk, almost completely uncluttered except for an opened iPad, is centered in the room.  There are no pictures of his kids or wife.  The only picture in the entire office sits on an unused credenza.  It’s an autographed picture from Denis O’Leary who played the head coach of the Browns in the movie “Draft Day.”  It’s enscribed:  “Here’s hoping Brian Hoyer is your Brian Drew.”  The desk chair is pushed in as if it hadn’t been sat in for days, maybe weeks, maybe ever.   The walls have no permanent reminders or mementos of its current resident.  There are however boxes filled with various personal items from other stops Pettine has made along the way.  One box has a Buffalo Bills wool ski cap hanging half way out.  As the camera pans out, we see Pettine standing stoically looking out the lone window of his office onto the empty practice fields in the distance.  He is wearing sunglasses and a mid-weight jacket with the word “Browns” over the left breast.  His hands are in the jackets pockets.  He’s also wearing a headset though it doesn’t appear to be connected to anything.  The plug end trails behind him.  Pettine doesn’t move for what seems to be several minutes.

Ray Farmer, general manager, enters.  He’s wearing a tight, overly tight actually, Browns sweatshirt as if the point is to accentuate the biceps he cultivated during a mostly pedestrian career as an itinerant professional football player.  He’s sweating profusely and carrying a water bottle.  He’s wearing slacks, belying the impression that he just came back from a workout.  He’s a man in a hurry but painfully unsure of where he’s supposed to be next.

Farmer:  Hey, Pett, what’s up?  Got a minute?

Pettine:  The usual Ray.  Just working hard.  Trying to get some of our mistakes cleaned up. Penalties. Execution.  That kind of thing.  Just need to get it all cleaned up.  Working hard to get a W.  I’m pressed for time.  What do you need?

Farmer:  Not for nothing, Pett, but honestly it just looks like you’re staring out the window.  It doesn’t look like you’ve touched anything on your desk in weeks.  Do you even know how to turn on that iPad?  It has the playbook and game films right on it.  You just touch the Browns app and it’s all there.

Pettine:  I’m the head coach, Ray.  My job isn’t to be an electronics wiz.  It’s to be stoic and that’s what I am, stoic.  No panic.  Just keep working hard, getting things cleaned up.

Farmer:  Ok. Right.  Whatever.  Anyway, that’s not why I stopped by.  I want to run an idea by you.

Pettine:  Just a second. (Pettine continues staring out the window for several minutes.  He doesn’t appear to move a muscle.  Farmer, continuing to sweat as if he were wearing a parka on a 100 degree day, takes swig after swig from his water bottle as he watches Pettine.)

Pettine:  Did you say something, Ray?

Farmer:  Uh, yea.  I want to run an idea by you.  I’m thinking of making a few trades, thought I’d run them by you, not for sign-off of course.  I’m the decider here.  I have control over the roster.  But getting your opinion on something makes it look like we work together all the time.  You know, just like the Justin Gilbert pick.

Pettine:  Hasn’t the trade deadline passed? 

Farmer:  There’s a deadline? Damn.  Is that written anywhere?  You got some kind of memo on that?

(Pettine continues staring out the window.  Farmer continues drinking water, occasionally wiping his bald head with a handkerchief he pulls from his back pocket.  As Farmer ponders his response owner Jimmy Haslam walks in.  He’s wearing an expensive brown suit, white shirt with orange and brown tie.  He’s drinking coffee from a Pilot Flying J mug.)

Haslam:  Guys, glad you’re both in here.  I wanted to talk with you both.

Farmer:  What’s up, boss?  I can still call you boss, right?

Haslam:  Ray, I said no changes during the bye week.  No changes means no changes.  (Farmer looks visibly relieved though sweat continues to pour down him as if he were standing in a Miami rainshower in mid July.  Pettine remains stoic as he continues to stare, apparently aimlessly, out the window onto the practice fields.)  Look, I think we need to talk.  The media is all over us.  The fans are all over us.  We haven’t won a game in months.  In every conceivable way we’re regressing just from last year and let’s face it, last year wasn’t exactly my definition of success.

Farmer:  That’s an interesting point, boss.  How do you define success?  See, the reason I ask is that everyone has different definitions of success.  For me, growing up as I did, poor neighborhood, drug dealers on the corner, that kind of thing, I probably define success differently than you, coming from the nice background you came from and all.  I’m a pretty big deal in my neighborhood.  I have a nice house, nice car.  In my neighborhood, the guys I grew up with, they’d say I’m successful. But I’m open to the idea that I may be defining it differently than you, see, that’s my point.  How are we defining success here?

Haslam:  Well, let’s see, Ray.  This is professional football.  We exist in a league made up of other teams just like us.  We play 16 games against other teams in this league.  You either win those games or you lose them.  And then you tally up the wins and the losses and you compare that to those other teams.  The teams with more wins go the playoffs where they play each other to eventually figure out the championship.  Those teams are what we define as successful, Ray.  We need to be one of those teams with more wins than losses.  One of those teams that goes to the playoffs and maybe the championship.

Farmer:  I see where you’re going with that, boss.  That makes sense to me.  Glad we’re on the same page now.  So if that’s it then I’ve got to be heading back to my office. It’s bye week.  It gives me a chance to tweak my fantasy football rosters.  I’m in 4 leagues and frankly I’m not doing very well in any of them at the moment.

Haslam:  Not so fast, Ray.  The three of us need to talk, collectively, about how we fix this, what we’re going to do differently in order to be successful in this league.

Farmer:  That’s fine by me, boss. I got some time before lunch.   Whatever you want to do.  But remember, you’re the one that no changes, so now I’m a little confused because it sounds like you’re looking for changes.

Haslam:  When I said “no changes” I meant I wasn’t going to fire you or Pett.  Not now anyway.  That’s what I meant by no changes.  (Farmer again looks visibly relieved as he wipes even more sweat from his balding head.  Pettine continues to look off into the distance, unfazed by anything he’s just heard.  It’s not even clear he’s heard anything at all.)  (Seeing the relived Farmer) I said right now.  But unless we figure out how to get better players here, through the draft, through free agency, and unless we figure out how to better coach those players, I won’t be able to resist.  I’ll make changes faster than I change the bonus programs at Pilot Flying J.  We’re failing as a franchise. Right now the only guy on the team anyone cares about is the left tackle and you wanted to trade him.

Farmer:  Well, I understand your thinking on that, boss, about Joe Thomas I mean.  But hear me out. I was reading on some stats web site how left tackles aren’t as valuable as they once were so I figured maybe some of the other GMs in the league hadn’t read that web site yet and maybe were still thinking, you know old fashioned like, that you need a good left tackle to protect your quarterback in what’s become a predominately pass league and I could trick them into giving us a couple or three number 1 picks for Thomas.  According to our media guide Joe Thomas makes the Pro Bowl, like a lot.  So if I could get 3 number 1 picks for him, that would really set us up for the future.

Haslam:  (Exasperated and shaking his head).  This is going to be harder than I thought.  Ray, we’ve blown the last 4 number one picks.  What’s your plan for drafting better players?  I mean just look at this damn roster. Danny Shelton, Cameron Erving, Justin Gilbert, Johnny Manziel.  You want to go back further?  How about Barkevious Mingo?  How about Trent Richardson?  That’s six straight picks and every one has been a dud, one way or the other.

Farmer:  You can’t pin Richardson on me.

Haslam:  Ray, I’m just talking about trends here.  We have no foundation on this team and we aren’t going to get one if we can’t even get players in the first round who get on the field. Gilbert hasn’t played meaningful snaps since he was a senior at Alabama.  Manziel is a party boy who already is back drinking again.  Shelton and Erving at least start, but it’s not like those units are better for it.  In fact, they’re worse.

Farmer: I’m not sure I’m getting your point here, boss.  You know the culture I’m trying to get instilled here, the one where only the best players play each week?  If those guys you mentioned can’t get on the field or their duty is limited then they aren’t the best players.  The guys beating them out are better.  See how that works?  It’s logic.  It’s the way it should be and I’m proud of instilling that culture.

(Pettine doesn’t flinch)

Haslam:  But aren’t those four or five players, drafted number one as they were, supposed to beat out the other players on the team?  Isn’t that why we draft them number one? Aren’t they supposed to be no-brainer selections, guys who will be starting for years?

Farmer:  I mean, if you want to look at it like that, I guess you could.  But it doesn’t always work out that way. I just think the best players should play each week, doesn’t matter if they were number one picks or undrafted guys we signed.  Everyone develops at a different rate.  Sometimes an undrafted free agent adapts more quickly than a number one pick.  That kind of thing’s just going to happen. 

Haslam:  It doesn’t happen that way in New England.  It doesn’t happen that way in Pittsburgh.  The only place that seems to happen every year is Cleveland.  Ray, you do understand your job, right?

Farmer: Of course, boss.  And thanks for sticking with me like this.  I don’t know what kind of culture they got going on in New England or Pittsburgh.  They do seem to win, though, so maybe their best guys are winning the battles during the week.  Just like we’re trying to do.  I’ll keep drafting guys and Pett will play the guys he thinks are best.  It’s a long process.  Progress, slow and steady. We’re on our way.  I really believe that.

Haslam: Ray, are you insane?  You do know that we’re regressing, don’t you?  And we weren’t very good to begin with.  I want to hear your specific plan on how you’re going to start utilizing the number one draft picks we keep earning to actually find players that can get on the field.

Farmer:  I’m not sure I understand what you’re saying. The best players are getting on the field.  That’s the culture I’ve instilled with Pett.

Haslam:  The hell with the culture.  We need better players, lots more of them. Jesus Christ, Ray, you signed Dwayne Bowe to a multi-million dollar contract and he can’t get on the field. Do we really want to walk down that road we want to get this fixed?

Farmer:  I think it’s on the coaches to coach up Justin and Dwayne.  That’s on them, not that I’m trying to blame anyone. I think Pett’s doing a helluva job with the players he’s got.  But like I was saying, it’s not on me that Gilbert can’t get on the field.  He’s obviously not one of the best guys.  That’s the way these things go.

(Pettine pulls back the right ear phone as he begins to listen.  Still stoic, he offers up some quick observations)

Pettine:  Justin needs to trust his technique better.  He had some sloppy habits he developed in college and we’re trying to break him of them.  He’s been good in the meeting room, though.  He’s trying.  We just got to get him consistent. (Pettine then puts the right ear phone back into place and resumes staring out the window, as stoic as ever.)

Haslam:  Something’s missing.  We aren’t doing a good job of evaluating players and we aren’t doing a good job of coaching up the guys we have.  (Pettine raises his left eyebrow as his right one lowers, as if he’s skeptical of what he just heard.  Nonetheless he continues to look out the window, stoically.)  We need to look at all that and we will and by “we” I mean my wife and me and maybe Alec, not sure yet on that.  But right now I’m trying to figure out how we’re making decisions around here.  Every other team, even the Oakland Raiders for Christ’s sake, seem to be getting better.  Maybe we should have drafted David Carr.  We need to look at the process because I’m not even sure we have one at this point and if we do it’s more broken than my reputation with the trucking community.  We’re defying the odds. (Haslam takes a swig from his coffee cup and purses his lips suggesting that there’s something other than coffee inside)

Farmer:   That can be a good thing, defying the odds.  It shows that we’re outside the box.  Now it’s just a matter of getting outside the box on the right thing.  That’s another piece of the culture I’m trying to instill, you know what I mean?

Haslam:  What about you, Pett?  Pett?  Pett? (Pettine continues looking out the window.  Haslam taps him on the shoulder to get his attention). Pett?

Pettine:  What’s up, Jimmy?

Haslam:  Haven’t you been listening at all?  I’m here to talk about how we get better week.  Are you even listening?

Pettine:  I think we all know that Rome wasn’t built in a day, that nothing good comes easy, and it’s a marathon, you know, not a sprint.

Haslam:  How come we can’t get Gilbert on the field?  Why did we start an injured Josh McCown instead of evaluating Manziel when it was clear the season was already lost?  How come Shelton never seems to make a tackle?  Why does all the pressure seem to come through Erving’s gap?  And why do we have almost as many penalty yards this season as rushing yards?

Pettine: (still looking out the window, intently): We’re just trying to win games here, playing the guys we think give us the best chance to win each week.   As I said, Justin needs to just trust his technique.  Johnny’s working hard.  He’s good in the quarterback room.  Much more alert than last season.  Shelt’s coming along but the transition from college is tough, like Justin’s.  Erving is working hard, we work with him every day.

Haslam:  Not my question.  How are we going to get better as a team, as a franchise?  How are we going to be successful and so that I’m clear on this point, a team that actually wins more than it loses, let’s start there.

Pettine:  We’re just going to keep working at it, cleaning things up.  Those penalties are frustrating and we just got to get that cleaned up.

Haslam:  So are you saying we have the right players here?

Pettine:  Jimmy, that’s not my job to say.  Ray’s got final say over the 40 man roster.  I was just happy to get this job.  It’s not my place to push boundaries here.  I’m just happy to have the job.

Haslam:  (Clearly talking to himself at this point) This isn’t getting me anywhere.  Maybe I just need to get this management group restructured again, maybe rejigger the uniforms again.  I’m thinking brown helmets, maybe a logo. I wonder if Alec’s in his office.  (Haslam exits, head bowed.  Tears in his eyes, his face expressing the kind of frustration and realization that comes with having squandered a multi-million dollar investment.)

Farmer:  (to Pettine, who remains staring out the window, earphones over both ears.) Well, that was weird.  Nice guy, that Jimmy, but doesn’t seem to know much about football, that’s for sure.  Don’t you agree, Pett?  (Pettine says nothing, the expression on his face as determined and blank as ever.)
Fade out.  Again.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Culture Matters.

After the Cleveland Browns once again embarrassed themselves and their fans with a performance as pitiful as any in the 2.0 era, I cleansed the palate by heading to the movies to see Steve Jobs.  It’s an excellent movie but what it tells you about the Browns is probably more useful than the latest iOS update.
The point of Jobs was more or less made late in the movie when Jobs and his former partner, Steve Wozniak, were engaged in a heated discussion prior to the launch of the iMac.  With Apple in transition following Jobs’ return and on the verge of laying off hundreds of workers, Wozniak wanted Jobs to acknowledge at the iMac launch the contributions that the team that created Apple’s initial signature computer, the Apple II. Wozniak wanted it as a gift to those being laid off, letting them know, and by proxy the remaining employees, that all contributions are valued.  Jobs refused because, in many ways, Jobs was an abrasive prick who valued virtually no one’s input or contributions but his own.  In disgust Wozniak leaves the auditorium as he tells Jobs that life isn’t binary.  You can be both a decent human being and a genius at the same time.
That pretty much sums up the frustration I think most Browns fans have with this franchise.  It is only binary.  It’s either one thing or the other but never all it ought to be at the same time.  And until it figures out that it needs to be all it can be at the same time, there really is no meaningful path forward, just more meandering.
The other thing that struck me about Jobs was the fact that the company ultimately became wildly successful despite the toxic culture that emanated from the top.  Jobs was an unrelenting asshole most of the time.  He wasn’t demanding but fair.  He was unreasonably demanding and often unfair.  Undoubtedly that culture had to permeate the organization.  Subordinates do follow the leader.
But the strength of Apple’s products and Jobs’ vision overcame all the cultural headwinds he deliberately inflicted on that company although it’s also fair to note that Apple failed miserably and was on the verge of shutting down because of Jobs as well.  It was only after the products, not only the iMac but more importantly, the iPhone were introduced and literally ushered in one of the single biggest technological advances that the products could overtake whatever toxic culture had otherwise existed.
For the Browns, however, there is literally no chance of a similar change on the horizon.  In the first place, there is absolutely no geniuses anywhere in the organization or otherworldly players whose skills and abilities can transcend an otherwise toxic environment.  There are, however, various shades and colors of fools.  That wouldn’t be so bad if those fools were otherwise functional and creating an environment where the organization could otherwise thrive.  They aren’t and that combination is how you end up with what amounted to a legal mugging in St. Louis on Sunday.
Culture usually matters.  Most companies spend countless hours and dollars on building and maintaining a good corporate culture because in life some things simply don’t change.  The only real way to get a behemoth of any sort moving in the right direction, be it a billion dollar corporation or a NFL team is teamwork.  Every oar has to be moving in rhythm with the other and in the same direction.
Executives get training on leadership and culture.  These are learned skills and they and, perhaps outside of the most recent iteration of Apple, among the most critical to an enterprise’s success.
Jimmy Haslam owns the Browns and perhaps the best you can say about him is that he’s still learning to be an owner.  He hasn’t yet corralled all the things he still doesn’t know.  On any given day and perhaps on most days he discovers something new about the hobby he undertook that spins him in still another direction.
But even as he’s trying to figure this all out, there is considerable question as to whether or not he’s setting the right tone at the top.  In his short tenure as the team’s owner, he’s been impetuous and often knee-jerk in his approach.  He’s already had two of everything and he’s likely to be on his third set of managers very soon.  The legal problems related to his main business still aren’t fully behind him and, ultimately, are his responsibility.  Those dog both him and this team.  Haslam may be able to credibly argue that he neither knew or actively participated in the fraud that enveloped Pilot Flying J, but he cannot credibly argue that there was something about his leadership, about the expectations he laid out and the demands he placed on others that didn’t in whole or part foster a culture where others felt that engaging in the fraud they did was an acceptable means of servicing his demands and expectations.
It’s similar to what happened in New Jersey with Chris Christie and the George Washington Bridge.  He may not have directly told any of his minions to close the toll booths in Fort Lee in order to snarl traffic as punishment to that town’s mayor who wouldn’t endorse him, but he most surely created the culture that gave others the idea to do just that.  Anyone who has spent any time in New Jersey knows that Christie is a vindictive blowhard with significant inadequacy issues.  When he doesn't get his way, he bullies the perceived offender by leveraging his position to delay all sorts of government services.   So when Christie wasn’t getting his way from the Mayor of Fort Lee it wasn’t much of a leap for his top advisors to concoct an inelegant and dangerous scheme in retribution.  Christie may have had plausible deniability on the underlying act but the culture he created is as culpable for what happened as anything else.
In the same way, the University of Louisville is confronting issues of culture when it comes to head basketball coach Rick Pitino.  It’s hard to imagine that Pitino would ever directly approve having an assistant coach essentially run a strip joint out of one of the dorms in order to entice top level recruits to matriculate at Louisville.  It’s just as hard to imagine that he would not have immediately shut it down had he direct knowledge of what was taking place.
And yet Pitino’s continued service with the university should still be in question because the most salient question that has to be answered when it comes to him is whether he fostered a culture that directly contributed to what ultimately did take place.  Did Pitino’s intense desire to secure the best recruits and keep them from arch rival Kentucky so that he could win National Championships give his assistants the kind of green light where they thought that unethical and/or illegal conduct was an appropriate way to achieve those goals?  Time will tell.  That investigation continues.
These are lessons, some very hard, on the same point.  Culture matters and the Browns do not have a winning culture.  You could cite chapter and verse about why that is, particularly when you consider the last decade plus of history.  Wrong hires.  Bad draft choices.  Disaffected owners.  The point remains: every new Browns regime talks a good game about creating a winning culture.  None have had anything resembling the ability to get that done.  It still isn’t.
Haslam can fairly be viewed as a guy running a business where key employees have been definitively found to have played fast and loose with not just the rules but the law.  Ray Farmer, his handpicked general manager, is fairly viewed by those who work for him directly (his staff) and indirectly (the players) as having an ego that far exceeds his accomplishments and as being someone who likewise doesn’t’ mind playing fast and loose with the rules, which led to his suspension.  Then of course he’s also someone who is objectively lousy at his job. Head coach Mike Pettine is a well-intentioned but ultimately raw and inexperienced head coach who is fairly viewed as being completing inept at corralling the team’s most outsized personality, Johnny Manziel.
When you combine that level of dysfunction with a team with the worst culture in the NFL before they arrive and then you sprinkle in the marginal talents on the field, results like Sunday’s inevitable beat down are, well, inevitable.
Haslam will reboot again come season’s end.  He’ll have no choice.  But that reboot will be no more successful than his last two because what he never addresses is what he must address first, culture.  It does matter.

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.