Monday, October 20, 2014

The Sometimes Painful Path of Progress


If you were asked last Friday to list the 10 most important players on the Cleveland Browns, virtually no thought would have been given to putting Alex Mack anywhere on that list.  Ask it again in the aftermath of Sunday’s disaster against Jacksonville and if Mack is not at the top of your list he should be.
An offensive line that had been the early season strength of the team as it opened up holes for the running backs and gave quarterback Brian Hoyer enough time to work some magic with a crop of unknown receivers, looked instead like the weakest link on a team being held together by chewing gum anyway as the Browns lost in embarrassing and emphatic fashion to the Jacksonville Jaguars, 24-6.
But let’s add some perspective before anyone thinks that the best solution is to rip the gas pipe off the wall and breathe in heavily.  This Browns team, as improved as it might be, isn’t an elite team and that was true prior to the kickoff against Jacksonville.  It isn’t even a good team, assuming you define “good” as “playoff-bound.”  It’s a team that has made some decent strides, exorcised some demons, but still exists at the very early stages of learning how to play consistently and learning how to win.  It’s a team that’s mostly competitive and that alone constitutes significant progress.  Still, there will be days like Sunday because progress is rarely a straight line upward.
Now back to Mack.  Put aside the team’s talking points about the great Jacksonville defense and likewise brush aside the “any given Sunday” cliché.  Jacksonville was a lousy team on Sunday morning and it’s still a lousy team on Monday morning, albeit a lousy team with a win now under its belt.  It’s scary good defense was ranked 30th in the league prior to Sunday.  Under no legitimate circumstances could it qualify as the best defense this Browns team has faced this season or will face.  It’s ridiculous for the likes of Joe Thomas to even suggest, as he apparently did all week, that the Browns’ offense could have trouble with this scrappy little crew from Jacksonville.
It was a false narrative and still is.  The fact is that Thomas and his teammates were covering up for the fact that Mack’s injury actually weakened the line in two places—center and right guard.  That more than anything about the Jaguars’ defense is the reason the Browns’ offense looked miserable.
It was apparent from the first series on that this offensive line, remade by moving Greco over from right guard and inserting Paul McQuistan into Greco’s spot, had about as much cohesion as a group of four year olds jumping inside an inflatable castle at a birthday party.  Greco in particular seemed lost and with him so went the right side of the line.
The play that summed up the struggles was the too cute by half attempt in the fourth quarter to have the Jaguars burn a time out by first running the punt unit out on the field on 4th and 5 and then rushing the offense back out.  It had its intended effect, to create confusion, just on the wrong team.  Greco inexplicably snapped the ball to Hoyer when he was instead just supposed to wait to see if the Jaguars would call time.  And if time wasn’t called, the offense would simply take a delay penalty and then kick.  In other words, nowhere did the play call for Greco to actually snap the ball.  A surprised Hoyer now with the ball then pitched the ball to an equally surprised Ben Tate.  It ended though in no surprise.  The Browns lost 2 yards, turned the ball over on downs and snuffed out whatever little chance remained to mount a comeback.
As for Greco’s replacement, McQuistan, he just got beat up and down the field all day which is a problem when most teams tend to run in the area where McQuistan was supposed to be opening holes, the right side of the line.  Collectively Greco and McQuistan struggled as if both had walked into a calculus exam and prepared for it by studying history.
The almost complete collapse of the line in Mack’s wake accounted for the struggles of the running backs and Hoyer.  If a team can’t run and the quarterback can’t find even a modicum of time to throw, bad things typically happen.  On the day and particularly late when calculation was out the window and Hoyer was willing to try damn near anything, interceptions filled the air.
If Greco’s and McQuistan’s struggles were the most apparent, they weren’t the only ones observed.  Head coach Mike Pettine seemed almost nearly as lost.  Eschewing a field goal late in the first half, a field goal that if successful would have given the Browns a two possession lead, Pettine outsmarted himself by instead gong for the first down on what was fourth and one.
It was a poor decision for a couple of reasons.
First, given how the game was progressing to that point, it was an unnecessary risk.  The Jaguars’ offense was struggling every bit as much as the Browns, even as they were having some success running the ball.  There just didn’t seem to be any reason to try to extend the lead by an extra four points at that moment.  Just be satisfied with a 9 point lead instead of a potential 13 point lead and then go in the locker room and figure the rest of the game out.
Of course it turned out as bad as imagined because that little jolt of football caffeine pushed the Jaguars almost immediately down the field and into the end zone.  Instead of having a two possession lead to start the second half, the Browns found themselves actually down by a point.
Second, it seemed like it was a decision made in the heat of the moment and not one of calculation.  It’s one thing to try and seize the momentum by deciding on, say, first down, that your team is in four-down territory no matter what.  It’s quite another to make that decision on the fly, which is what Pettine clearly did and much to his detriment.  How else to explain the bizarre play calling? 
A team in four down territory would have used third down for a pass and fourth down as the time to try and move the defensive line the yard you need.  The Browns did the opposite. The fourth down call was particularly curious, a kind of weird mid-range sideline pass to Jordan Cameron instead of a quick slant or even a swing screen to a back.  The play developed slowly and there were 4 bodies in the area (two Jaguars defenders and two Browns receivers).  You can blame Hoyer for the pass or one of the two receivers for apparently running the wrong route and bringing two extra bodies into the mix but the better place to look is at the coach who called the play and the coach that let that coach call the play.
Then there was the aforementioned attempt to get the Jaguars to apparently burn a time out in the middle of the fourth quarter.  I’m still pondering why Pettine was so oddly focused on reducing the number of timeouts the Jaguars had remaining, particularly at that moment when his team was struggling so mightily with more fundamental issues like blocking and scoring points.  It smacked of a rookie coach who felt like he just had to do something at a moment when almost nothing was working.  It was the very embodiment of a bad decision poorly executed.
What Sunday’s game more than demonstrated was how silly all the talk was this past week about Hoyer’s contract status and what the Browns might do with Johnny Manziel.  Hoyer’s had a fine first quarter of the season and certainly better than most anticipated.  He is a gamer, the kind of guy you want to have around.   And given his make up there’s no reason to think he won’t bounce back.  But as I said last week, talking contract now for Hoyer as if he’s a late blooming Tom Brady seemed a tad premature.  These things tend to work themselves out and games like Sunday illustrate that point beautifully.
If Browns fans really want to focus on something worth their time, then the next few weeks provide ample opportunity to really discover if the first five games of the season were a mirage or a trend.  And on a related note, we’ll get a real measure of the kind of head coach Pettine can be.
The Browns are at a tipping point heading into week 7.  This is the place where, in seasons past, previous hot starting versions of otherwise miserable teams allowed one disastrous game to beget the next.  All those thatt came before Pettine proved utterly incapable of stopping the slide once it started.  The real measure of Pettine is if he can get that handful of veterans in the locker room, players like Thomas for example, to avoid channeling the inevitable dread of seasons past and see Sunday’s performance for what it hopefully represents—a miserable game that every team experiences every now and then.
If, instead, the game becomes both the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end, and the Browns careen to their usual four or five win season then, given owner Jimmy Haslam’s impetuousness, Pettine may wish he’d have rented that house in Cleveland instead of buying.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Only Thing Worse Than Losing...


The Cleveland Browns on Sunday did the football equivalent of passing a kidney stone in dominating the Pittsburgh Steelers 31-10. That stone, jagged and huge, had been stuck for over a decade.  Yet as it passed, the sweet relief lasted about as long as it took a reporter to finally discover that quarterback Brian Hoyer is a free agent after the season.
Now, instead of feeling satisfied for at least a few minutes, fans are fretting over the status of a quarterback who was mostly an afterthought just a few months ago and what it means for the high profile savior-in-waiting, Johnny Manziel.  In other words, this is exactly what it’s like to be a fan of Cleveland sports.
I suppose it won’t be long until another reporter starts asking general manager Ray Farmer, should the Browns continue winning, about the wisdom of stockpiling picks for next year’s draft if the Browns end up with a lower draft pick.  In Cleveland it seems the only thing worse than losing is winning.
It really is a testament to the unique paranoia in Cleveland that no good win goes unpunished.  The status of Hoyer’s contract on a team that sits at 3-2 and the bulk of its season still in front of them shouldn’t even register a blip on fans’ collective consciences at the moment.
The Browns are 5 games into the season and find themselves at 3-2.  That’s better than most predicted and with the next 3 games against teams with 1 combined win among them, there is some reason to think that 8 games into the season the Browns could find themselves with 6 wins.

But to get there would require a 5-game winning streak.  This is a team that hasn’t won 5 games in a season more than twice in a dozen years and has not won 5 in a row in 20 years!  The roster is young with some talent.  It’s also thin and getting thinner with two key injuries just this past week.  To think it can run the immediate table in front of them is dreaming.

In that context Hoyer’s contract status is hardly a story and his unwillingness to address it doesn’t make it a story.  The premise of the question, as essentially concocted in the head of a Bleacher Report reporter, is that Hoyer has let people know that he won’t sign long term in Cleveland if Johnny Manziel is still on the roster.
The question, as we say in the law business, assumes facts not in evidence.  The reporter never specifically attributes Hoyer’s alleged comments to anyone in particular, just people in general. That’s probably because the reporter just made it up in order to advance a point that isn’t yet ripe to be made but what the heck it creates anxiety and where there’s anxiety there’s also buzz.  So let’s give some credit.  The Bleacher Report got its click bait just as did Crain’s Cleveland, The Plain Dealer and The Beacon Journal, all of whom reported what was reported elsewhere, which is that this isn’t even something Hoyer has thought about.
The larger point though is that 5 games into the season it’s silly to even begin pondering the Browns’ quarterback situation next year.  The odds are high that Hoyer will get injured this year, not just because he got injured last year, but because that’s what happens to quarterbacks in the NFL.  But yea, it’s also because Hoyer had a serious knee injury last year and it would surprise exactly no one if the repaired knee can’t withstand the rigors of a full season.
The Browns more or less fell into Hoyer the same way they fell into their head coach, Mike Pettine.  It’s not as if anyone thought even last year that Hoyer had a viable career as a NFL starter just like Pettine wasn’t thought to be a viable head coaching candidate.  And yet each, given a chance, has shown that they may have been underestimated.
There is no question that Hoyer has a certain “it” factor about him that most if not all of the others that have come before him did not.   Where the Brandon Weedens of the world always seemed to be adding water to a grease fire, Hoyer doesn’t get nearly that rattled.  His ability to help keep his team in games, particularly the first Pittsburgh game and the comeback against Tennessee, speaks volumes about his ability to lead the offense. Players will follow whoever leads them.  Too often in Cleveland that’s been no one in particular.
Hoyer may very well be a long term solution for the Browns, though it’s a bit premature to render a verdict..  He’s 29 years old and for the benefit of Mike Holmgren it’s worth noting that he’s 2 years younger than Weeden.  So there is still plenty of runway left in Hoyer’s career should the Browns eventually reach a conclusion about his long term worth.

But it’s not as if NFL executives and fans haven’t been fooled by previous flashes in the pan.  Do the names Scott Mitchell and Kelly Holcomb mean anything to anyone?  How about Derek Anderson?

Indeed Anderson is a particularly recent example of why getting too excited too early can be dangerous.
In 2007 Anderson threw for nearly 3800 yards.  He threw for 29 touchdowns against 19 interceptions.  His 29 touchdowns were just 1 less than Brian Sipe’s franchise record of 30.  As Anderson was having the season of a lifetime, the savior-in-waiting was Brady Quinn, who had been the team’s number one pick entering the season.  As Anderson continued to pile up the wins and enhance his own stats, fans became less interested in Quinn and more interested in Anderson’s contract status since he could be a free agent at season’s end.  Is any of this sounding familiar?
We know how former general manager Phil Savage handled it.  He signed Anderson to a multi-year multi-million dollar, albeit relatively club friendly, deal.  At the time Savage’s move was viewed as savvy.  It gave him the option to then trade Anderson before the draft in order to recoup the draft pick he gave up to get Quinn initially.
But Savage dithered, as was his wont.  Despite teams needing a starter and despite both Anderson and Quinn being at the zenith of their trade value, Savage held on to both.  The Browns’ draft suffered, which itself isn’t unusual.  But then both Anderson and Quinn proved to be less than Savage had anticipated and the Browns were once again in search of a new quarterback once Anderson was cut, a search that hasn’t exactly concluded even with the emergence of Hoyer.
Right now the Browns have a good problem with a dozen ways to resolve it, none of which require action now.  Let the situation play itself out.  Let’s not have Farmer make a long term decision about Hoyer based on a relatively small sample and for God’s sake don’t make a long term decision about Manziel without any sample.
Hoyer has shown himself to be the glue holding the offense together, but the team’s early success isn’t the product of any one person.  At least as much credit, if not more, could go to Kyle Shanahan.  His approach has seemed to rejuvenate, for example, the offensive line.  His dogged insistence on establishing a running game in a passing league has proven that some adages remain just as true as ever: the run does set up the pass.  Credit also could go to receivers like Jordan Cameron, someone whose next contract should rightly be rich and lengthy.  And credit could go to Farmer for making some good decisions at running back, including the signing of Ben Tate.
As much as it’s true that Hoyer is playing well and as much of a great story he is at the moment, what this team really needs to do is keep the bigger picture in mind.  It really does appear that it’s building a team that can compete weekly.  Five games in that appears to be the case.  But it is only five games in. The one thing that could stop that progress is knee jerk decisions made in the heat of the moment.
Hoyer’s contract isn’t a story right now and may never be so relax.  The Browns are on a wild ride at the moment and for once it has more thrill than folly.  Enjoy it because as should be more than apparent to all, there’s no telling if or when it might come around again.

Monday, October 06, 2014

The Not So Numbing Sameness of It All!


Photo Courtesy of ClevelandBrowns.com
When a team has been on the same unending stretch of rough road for as long as the Cleveland Browns have, it would be easy to miss the subtle improvements that occur along that route, let alone the moment that a meaningful corner was turned.  And while fans have had to endure other false positives, perhaps the Browns really are a team on the come after overcoming a historic deficit on the road to beat a woeful Tennessee Titans team, 29-28.
There may have been no exact moment on Sunday where one could say that the road got smoother or an actual corner was definitively turned, but there are plenty of candidates for consideration.  The one that stood out though was the precise moment in the 4th quarter when Titans coach Ken Whisenhut channeled his inner Brady Hoke in an all-or-nothing call in which careers tend to be either made or broken.
With just over 3 minutes remaining in the game, Whisenhut decided that his defense could be trusted less than his offense and called for a quarterback sneak at the Titans’ 42-yard line on 4th and inches.  It wasn’t successful and it put the ball in the Browns’ hands and set them up for the go ahead touchdown that gave the team its first road win since, I think, LeBron James first left Cleveland for Miami, maybe longer.
Let’s pause on this particular moment because it really is what could be a key moment in the entire season.
Whisenhut was forced into making the call in the first place because tight end Delanie Walker caught a Charlie Whitehurst pass on 3rd and 6 and carried the ball on his right hip instead of his left as he went out of bounds.  The difference in inches from one hip to the other ended up being the difference between 1st down Tennessee and 1st down Cleveland.
Initially the referees signaled first down and in another small but pivotal moment a Browns assistant, secondary coach Jeff Hafley watching from the press box (in order to get the best view of the Browns awful secondary?),noticed that Walker’s body but not the ball had crossed the plane for a first down that could have allowed the Titans to likely run out the clock and win the game.  Hafley signaled to head coach Mike Pettine and the red flag was thrown.
It was probably the single best use of the challenge flag you’re likely to ever witness, at least by someone affiliated with the Browns.  It was only a half yard but as Al Pacino said in “Any Given Sunday” you have to fight for every inch at every moment.  Those were the most critical inches in the long death march that has mostly marked the Browns’ return to the NFL over a decade ago.  The first down call was overturned setting up Whisenhut for his make or break moment.
It was both a risky and curious call in the same way Michigan’s Hoke decided to try a two-point conversion to win the game against Ohio State last season instead of tying the game in regulation and moving on to overtime.
The risk was obvious.  But the reason it also was curious has to do with how Whisenhut viewed his own defense at the moment, similar to Hoke.  He didn’t trust them.  He didn’t think his defense could stop the Browns!  Roll that around in your head for a moment.  He decided at that moment that punting and putting the Browns’ offense deep in its own zone ultimately still held less chance for a Titans victory then gaining those few extra inches on a Whitehurst sneak and running out the clock.
Such are the decisions of head coaches who end up having to append the term “former” to the front of their title.  The objective of course is to win but going for the quick money and ignoring the long game is a sign of desperation and the Titans and Whisenhut were clearly desperate to win a game they seemed to have won have 30 minutes of play.  Whisenhut now has to face the rest of the season with players who already know their coach doesn’t trust them.
The Browns are only 2-2 at the moment and aren’t yet in anyone’s objective conversation about playoff teams.  But there are a fair number of positive signs.  For example, the Browns have a legitimate running game at the moment.  Ben Tate had 123 yards on 22 carries, demonstrating while he’s a starter.  Still the Browns already were establishing a running game with Tate’s rookie replacements Terrence West and Isaac Crowell.  Tate at the moment just makes it a little better.
It also looks like Brian Hoyer wasn’t just last year’s premature flash in the pan.  However else Hoyer looked in preseason, he is a gamer.  He’s a little gawky at times, his throws a little wobbly at times.  But he plays with poise and generally makes smart decisions.  In all candor, he’s the first Browns quarterback in the 2.0 era about whom you can say anything positive.  He’s kept the team moving forward and is certainly a key reason that it is clicking.  What all that says about Johnny Manziel in the near or far term is hard to say.  Just know that at some point Hoyer likely will get hurt and then we’ll see if Manziel can get to at least a similar level.
Then there are the receivers, perhaps everyone’s pick as the weakest link on the team.  General Manager Ray Farmer stood steadfast in his statement that the receivers on the roster were good and the fans and the media were counting them out just because they didn’t know anything about them.  There is something to be said for having players with established reputations on the roster, but at the moment Farmer seems to be more right than wrong.  Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan is making good use of the no-names on the roster and it has kept the Browns mostly moving in the right direction.
Speaking of Shanahan, he’s been another of those positive signs.  Play calling always looks better to the naked eye when the players are able to execute what’s called.  So to a certain extent even Pat Shurmur would have looked brilliant calling the plays had the players he had been able to execute.  But Shanahan also is demonstrating great patience. 
If you’re being honest you’ll admit to wanting to throw a shoe through the television midway and late in the fourth quarter when Shanahan kept calling for running plays with the Browns still more than a touchdown behind and the clock moving in the wrong direction. But because Shanahan had been able to establish the run earlier, sticking with it at the moment was the right call. The Browns needed to score but also manage the clock because, let’s face it, this defense can’t be trusted either.  Those runs allowed the Browns to do both because it kept the Titans from selling out on the pass.  Their linebackers and defensive backs had to stay closer to the box in order to prevent a long run and that ultimately loosened up the secondary.
Another positive is the man who hired Shanahan.  Mike Pettine may have dropped into the Browns’ laps reluctantly but at the moment it seems to be working well if only because Pettine has the exact right temperament for a head coach in this city.  He is no nonsense but self-deprecating.  Intense but with a sense of humor.  It also helps that physically he looks like about 75% of the guys who hang out at the tailgates before the game.  In other words, he may not have been born here but he looks and acts like he could have been for all the good and bad that means.
Pettine has done a nice job of both understanding the paradigm in which this franchise has operated and embodying the commitment it takes to really alter it.  The only way to change is to actually change.  Shut up and do something.  Sometimes having a rookie head coach has its advantages.
But before we enshrine Pettine, he needs to fix the defense.  There’s a reason why the Browns look better when they’re playing from behind.  It’s because opposing offenses in the NFL playing with a comfortable lead rarely go for the jugular.  Instead they’re usually content with managing the game from that point forward.  They stop taking chances and that feeds right into the strengths and weaknesses of the Browns’ defense.
Looking at both the Pittsburgh and Tennessee games, the similarities are fascinating.  Both teams have very average offenses.  Not great, certainly, but not New York Jets level bad either.  And both had their way with the Browns’ incredibly weak secondary in the first halves of those games.  Then both teams buttoned up in the second half, playing mostly not to lose.  That played into the relative strength of the Browns’ defense, its defensive line.  By short circuiting their own offenses prematurely, both Pittsburgh and Tennessee allowed the Browns’ offense to get into gear.
In the Pittsburgh game the Browns still lost because ultimately once the Browns did come back, the Steelers were forced to open the offense back up, sort of like putting the starters back into a game that had been a blowout but now was getting uncomfortably close.  The Steelers moved the ball well enough in that last moment to get into position to kick the game winning field goal.
Tennessee however couldn’t manage the clock nearly as well.  With less than a half a field and playing against a defense its own head coach didn’t believe in, all that was left for the Browns to do at that moment was use just enough clock to ensure that the Titans couldn’t get into field goal position to win the game.  It helped that Whitehurst was at quarterback as his lack of mobility and experience led to his being sacked on first down.  The clock ran out for good on a pass that couldn’t get to the sideline and the Browns had the most improbable comeback and win in the last dozen years, at least.
But what to make of the future?  While it holds promise the team won’t find the Promised Land with that secondary.  Joe Haden, the putative leader, isn’t the lock down corner he thinks he is.  Justin Gilbert is playing less and less each week.  He hasn’t adjusted to life in the NFL and that doesn’t look to change in the near term.  And Buster Skrine is Buster Skrine.
The secondary might be better if the defensive line could put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks when the game hangs in the balance.  But for a variety of reasons that isn’t happening under Pettine.  If anything, the defensive line has regressed in that regard from last season!  Still it is the least poisonous part of the defensive tree at the moment.
This team is far from a complete product.  Heck it’s not anything close to playoff ready.  But after four games it’s proved itself to be competitive and interesting, something no other Browns team has been in a very long time.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Taking Away The Shine


It’s getting more difficult literally by the moment to remain a fan of the NFL.  The league is in a clear free fall and seems almost like it is making things up on the fly. If a league ever needed a war time consigliore it is now.  Tom Hagen, where for art thou?
What’s frustrating about all of this is that for at least fans in Cleveland it’s taken a bit of a shine of its first home opener win since the Truman administration.  Which is too bad because if there is anything much to like about a bad team in a good city it’s the over-the-top euphoria felt when the team wins a game it’s supposed to lose.  The sun shines, the birds sing, and every coach and player is the best we’ve ever had.
That would pretty much sum up fan reaction to the Browns unlikely win against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday if the league wasn’t so dysfunctional at the moment.  Indeed I’m not really sure how appropriate it is to even discuss the Browns’ win except as an afterthought.
The blame for this falls squarely once again on Commission Roger Goodell.  I was pretty certain for a great number of years that Bud Selig was the worse commissioner in the history of organized sports.  But at the moment Goodell is making Selig look like David Stern by comparison.  Goodell is Nero, fiddling as the league burns.  Other than a handpicked interview he conducted with CBS News and then botched anyway, Goodell has been in hiding managing the crises he’s creating by his own dithering.
To get a true measure of Goodell’s incompetence all you need to know is that he so mishandled the Ray Rice situation that most observers now have been grudgingly forced to sympathize with Rice, not for his deeds but for the simple fact that he’s now been punished twice for the same offense.  The legal concept of double jeopardy doesn’t technically apply to a private entity like the NFL but that’s beside the point.  It doesn’t feel right when someone is punished twice for the same offense if no new facts have emerged between punishments.
But it’s not just the Rice situation.  Goodell’s complete inability to manage a crisis has allowed teams to flounder about as they manipulate their own morals to justify why their best players shouldn’t be punished for offenses they’ve clearly committed. 
Adrian Peterson’s name is now as notorious as Rice’s thanks to Peterson’s rather candid admission and attitude toward how one may properly punish a 4 year old child.  The Minnesota Vikings at first deactivated Peterson and there he should have remained.  Yet he didn’t for a number of reasons.  He’s the Vikings best player was one.  The league couldn’t figure out what more to do was another.  After reinstating him and then looking like fools for doing so, the Vikings again essentially deactivated him.
In Carolina, they were essentially shamed into doing something similar with Greg Hardy, who actually has been convicted of domestic violence and yet, strangely, remains unpunished by league.  He may not be active for the games but he is getting paid.  In San Francisco, where the owner and the head coach know no shame, let Ray McDonald play on.
All this is going on while Goodell remains holed up and lawyered up.  A cabal of idiots describes them best.
Every league is going to go through these moments.  Baseball has had at least two of them, both around widespread illegal drug use and survived.  The NFL, too, will survive this mess one way or another.  The game itself is simply too popular.  What is most fascinating though is that the league, a multi billion dollar enterprise with virtually every resource at its disposal, can’t manage a crisis.
I won’t pretend that these issues aren’t complicated.  We do live in a just society and we do want to see people accused of crimes be treated fairly.  But the issues also aren’t nearly as complicated as the NFL is making them out to be, either.
Rice was an easy call at the outset that Goodell proved incapable of handling.  It’s actually hard to fathom how anyone seeing just the first video would still only assess a two game suspension.  The Hardy call is just as easy.  He’s already been convicted and the testimony against him is damning.  The Peterson case is easy mainly because Peterson isn’t denying the conduct, just the label.  And the McDonald case isn’t difficult either given that there were plenty of teammates present who actually witnessed what took place. 
Yet it seems that the NFL wants to deal more in nuance instead of the obvious.  The crime some prosecutor decides to charge the player with isn’t the issue.  Prosecutors are politicians who do things as much for political reasons as practical ones.  The facts are what they are and it’s on those and not the actual charge on which the NFL should be making its decisions.
I’m not surprised that Goodell remains popular with the owners.  But all you need to know on that score is that one of his more vocal supporters is Dan Snyder.  And why Snyder?  Because Goodell decided that the racially offensive name of Snyder’s franchise was not a league matter but one for Snyder to decide.  It’s a mutual backscratching society which is why Goodell’s job is safe when it should be over.
When people think of the NFL these days it’s not about the games, it’s about the league itself and that is the essence of the problem.  In Cleveland, the Browns won last Sunday not because of some fluke or quirk but because they were the better team on a given day.  The fans are talking, yes, but talking much more about Rice and Hardy and Peterson than Brian Hoyer.
That’s too bad.  Right now this Browns team doesn’t stink, at least like virtually every previous iteration.  A team that averages 5.6 wins a season for the last 11 years (a number that’s actually skewed by an improbable 10-win season in 2007) is pretty much exactly what it means for a team to stink.  So right now, at 1-1, the Browns don’t stink.
And while I’m not here to throw cold water on a good win, let’s just say that we’ve seen this before. Last year’s team had a mini win streak of sorts early in the season and then regressed to the true level of its awfulness.  In fairness, in most other years no regression was needed.  The team started out bad and got worse.
Still, there was much to like about Sunday’s win but perhaps the biggest takeaway was its ability to carry over a relatively high level of play from one week to the next.  True the Browns looked like the 2012 Browns in the first half of the Steelers game two weeks ago.  But the second half was more productive and energetic even if it fell short.  To watch that productivity and energy get carried over was indeed rare in these parts.
It’s still too early to offer a fair assessment of head coach Mike Pettine and maybe, as owner Jimmy Haslam said in a flash of exuberance after Sunday’s win that the team got the right coach (a feeling he likely uttered last season about Rob Chudzinski as well as the Browns, under Brian Hoyer, won 3 straight early last season), let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Pettine does seem different.  He isn’t the wet blanket that was Pat Shurmur or the little dictator that was Eric Mangini or even the genial but befuddled grandfather that was Romeo Crennel.  He’s pretty much a square-jawed, look you in the eye kind of guy, akin in temperament to former head coach Marty Schottenheimer but without the soaring clichés and flowing tears.
What is going to take time is to assess whether Pettine truly has the make-up of a successful head coach.  A head coach sets the tone and in that regard Pettine has done a good job thus far.  But two games into the season where expectations were low anyway isn’t exactly trial by fire.  The measure of Pettine and hence this team will come in a million smaller ways but will boil down to his ability to keep this team together and competitive if/when the season, like virtually all others, starts circling the drain.
Soon, hopefully, fans can have exactly these kinds of discussions.  That’s what football is supposed to be about.  As long as Goodell remains in charge, as long as he continues to garner support from the owners with their own foibles to hide, the NFL will be less about the games and more about “the league.”  It’s not the welcome distraction that any one wants.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Moral Relativism and The NFL, Roger Goodell-Style


Do you feel a little dirty today?  I do.  Despite everything I knew and felt about the Ray Rice situation, despite everything I wrote about it previously, I still sat and watched Monday night football.  I watched it because I’m a fan of the New York Giants.  I watched it because I enjoy NFL football. 
That’s the essence of the conflict here.  The NFL has a product that I enjoy as a consumer to the point that I end up looking the other way at its moral relativism no matter how offended I otherwise might be.  That makes me complicit in the dirty business of a league that, first, only suspended Rice for two games and, now, keeps Roger Goodell employed.
That has to change and if it doesn’t, if we as users of their product don’t take a stand by not supporting the league, its games, its sponsors until the NFL decides to fundamentally change and stand for something other than its brand, then we too are as big a part of the problem as is Goodell.
Goodell should resign as commissioner and if he doesn’t he should be fired.  Goodell already said he won’t resign and the decrepit ownership of the league, many of whom have their own sordid problems, are so out of touch with what takes place on the streets of day to day life that they probably will award Goodell a bonus.
Goodell’s job is supposed to be about, above all else, the protection of the game.  The NFL is at its cultural nadir at the moment, even if its games remain popular, because Goodell failed at the most important job he had. It’s amazing, really, that he can’t or won’t see it.
As usual, Goodell took to a controlled setting to explain away how incredibly unfeeling he and the league are to victims of domestic abuse who suffer at the hands of the men the league employs.  He looked sincere even as he presented a strong face for the his and hence the league’s indifference to societal norms when he said, echoing the talking points that the Ravens clearly had been given a few days earlier, that seeing the video made all the difference.  I think Goodell is lying about not seeing the video previously mainly because it’s almost impossible to believe otherwise.  And while he gets no benefit of the doubt any more, let’s just assume he didn’t.  So what?  He knew what happened and it matters little that he felt misled by Rice and his attorney who suggested that Rice’s fiancée essentially had it coming to her because she was the aggressor that led Rice to half the further discussion with a well-placed punch.
What Goodell suggests, what John Harbaugh and Ravens owner Steve Biscotti suggest, as they were shamed into facing the almost incomprehensible wrongness of their prior actions is that they never really knew how horrific domestic violence was until they actually witnessed it.  More to the point, they expect the public to buy that explanation.  That’s how far out of touch the league really is and why Goodell has to go, now.
Goodell’s crimes go even deeper.  Foremost, he’s lost any hope of gaining the high ground on this issue.  He can announce a hundred new initiatives and it won’t matter because he’s doing it because it was forced on him and not because he wanted to. 
He could have taken a much more aggressive approach toward ridding the league of abusers in his CBS News interview and did not.  Indeed, right now and despite his letter to league owners about a change to its domestic violence policies, two players, Greg Hardy and Ray McDonald continue to play.  Hardy has actually been convicted by a judge of assault on a female.  He’s appealed so the league dithers as if it has no choice.  McDonald has been arrested and despite his head coach, Jim Harbaugh, proclaiming zero tolerance for domestic violence, McDonald continues to play.
Let’s not lose sight of that fact that no one understands the power of the NFL’s brand better than Goodell as he wields it constantly in order to leverage any and everything he can from anyone.  He doles out limited access to select journalists who will further the league’s narrative in order.  He puts players at risk constantly, first by participating in the cover up of the impact concussions were having on former and current players and still by allowing Thursday night games despite all the medical evidence against such quick turnaround.  Goodell uses his bully pulpit for one thing only, to further maximize the league’s financial windfall while ignoring the cultural slide it contributes to in that pursuit.
Goodell’s abject incompetence at recognizing the broader implications of his decisions isn’t without precedence.  The real reason situations like this continue to come up, particularly in football, has everything to do with the culture of the sport that has been set by the NFL for decades, a culture that values winning and the spoils that come from it far above anything else, a culture that has found its way to the bottom of the feeding pools.
It’s coincidental at least, perhaps ironic, that on the same day that the NFL was finally shaken to its foundations by its own hypocrisy, the NCAA shed the vestiges of its high minded pretension by publicly removing the remaining sanctions from Penn State’s program, sanctions levied because of that school’s institutional coddling of a pedophile because of its desire not to derail its lucrative football program.  I guess because there’s no evidence of new pedophilia among the Penn State coaching staff that it’s time to simply burnish the previous penalties and act as if the entire matter never happened.
There is a common thread. 
Players don’t enter the NFL and then abuse women.  It’s a learned behavior over the many years in which their status is exalted because of their ability to run faster, throw better and tackle harder than someone else.  It starts in high school, continues through college and by the time these players reach the NFL their perceptions of societal norms is so skewed that they end up rallying around a player like Rice as the Ravens players did when all that was known then was that Rice dragged his unconscious girlfriend out of an elevator and left her like a discarded cigarette butt after he had snuffed her out in a fit of pique.
There isn’t a high school or college program in America that hasn’t found a way around punishing its better players in order to avoid potentially disastrous results on the field in the next game.  Florida head coach Will Muschamp suspended 3 players for the team’s opening game against Idaho but that game lasted one play because of the weather and was cancelled.  Florida was scheduled to take on a slightly gamer team in Eastern Michigan the following week so Muschamp lifted the suspensions and lashed out at critics who questioned his hypocrisy.
Muschamp can make all the excuses he wants but he did it because he felt he needed the players on the field for a game against Eastern Michigan.  That says something about how far Florida has fallen, certainly, but it says more about how a situation like Rice’s happened in the first place.
Players are coddled and ultimately made to feel like the rules of proper society are bendable in extenuating circumstances, like a big game on Saturday or Sunday.  Rice had no real fear that losing his temper and knocking out his fiancée and the mother of his child would cause him to lose his job.  He had no such fear because it’s never happened in the NFL.
Last week Sports Illustrated had a profile of Louisville coach Bobby Petrino.  I suspect that it didn’t make Petrino happy nor his fans for it laid out in subtle but definitive ways the institutional hypocrisy that creates the cesspool that ultimately lets scum like Rice float to the top.
Petrino is a complicated figure with an incredibly ethically challenged record both personally and professionally.  One thing he does, though, is win and for that he’s been rewarded again with a top college job.  Indeed Louisville’s athletic director Tom Jurich did a clever slight of hand by turning the question outward as to why he’d bring back Petrino after all the damage he’d done previously to at least 3 different football programs, including Louisville’s.  He couched it in near religious terms by responding, rhetorically with his own question, “who am I to not forgive?”  In other words, we’re all servants of God and if God forgives, how can we not model that behavior?
It’s all bullshit and Jurich must know it and if he doesn’t he shouldn’t be in his position.  It isn’t a question of forgiveness it’s a question of winning and losing.  He calculated that Petrino gave the school the best shot at keeping its program at a high level and he took it figuring he could just shower the grime off later.
That’s why players don’t fear consequences.  There’s always someone else to pick up the pieces for a guy who can help a team win.  Whatever publicly the coaches or owners say, what they do speaks more loudly.  Think about the McDonald and Hardy cases. Both continue to play because their absence would hurt the team.  The tired yarn of letting the legal process play out is ridiculous, particularly in domestic violence cases.  It puts the onus on the victim to recant or refuse to testify in order to save her abuser’s job.  That’s what the Ravens did to Janey Palmer and it’s what the 49ers and the Panthers are doing to the victims in their cases.
But of course there are other options to letting the process play out as they say, they just don’t include letting Hardy and McDonald play in the games.  Their teams could have simply deactivated the players from the active roster on game days.  Sure they’d still get paid but it would leave no doubt about how team management felt about their actions.  But that apparently would clash with the Panthers’ and the 49ers’ nascent playoff hopes and thus clearly wasn’t considered.
More to the point, let’s not act like anyone in the NFL actually cares about a due diligence process or is even bound by one.  They just pull it out when it’s convenient to them as cover for far more nefarious motives.  The NFL, despite having the power and money of a medium sized country, isn’t subject to the Constitutional protections of due process.  Goodell has told us many times that he can take action at any time for the good of the game.  Yet he and the Panthers and the 49ers in concert saw no reason to take any action yet on Hardy or McDonald and still don’t even as the league burns around them for the inept handling of the Rice situation.
Look at the shameful way that everyone associated with the Ravens handled the Rice situation.  The owner left it in the hands of the football people who calculated that the team’s playoff chances were less without Rice.  So the team president Dick Cass, the team general manager Ozzie Newsome and the team head coach John Harbaugh wrapped their swaddling arms around Rice, furthered his despicable implication that it was Palmer’s fault all along, and treated him as if he had accidentally run the car into the neighbor’s hedges.  Grounding him for two games stung about as much as a paddling does to a 6 year old with about the same impact long term.
What all of these demonstrate is that apologists exist at the highest levels to excuse player behavior because what they do isn’t about building men or character but about winning games and bringing money into the school, the city, the franchise, the league.
As should Goodell, the Ravens should be made to purge the franchise of its owner, its president and its general manager and its head coach.  The franchise’s culture can’t be fixed as long as any of them remain.  The same goes for the Panthers and the 49ers and any other team coddling the miscreants on their teams.
It seems like the only people that don’t know that the league is at a major crossroads is the league itself and all those apologists.  Just keep on the same road and they won’t need anyone calling for their heads.  They’ll have made themselves so irrelevant that they’ll fade away of their own accord.  If that’s the way this goes, then good riddance.  Finding another diversion from pro football won’t be nearly as hard as they think.

Monday, September 08, 2014

The Numbing Sameness of It All, Again--Opening Game, Pick the Year


The outcome was as inevitable as it was confounding but the journey was more interesting than usual.  The Cleveland Browns are a league doormat for many reasons not the least of which is their inability to beat division rivals or win an opening game.  So in that sense, nothing changed as the result of the outcome of Sunday’s 30-27 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What made it more interesting than usual was the startling dichotomy behind a first half that unfolded as if the Browns would be on the business end of a 50+ point beat down and a second half that showed them to be a game if undermanned team.
Still, as head coach Mike Pettine noted, it’s a results oriented league that gives no points for moral victories and thus the Browns are, as usual, 0-1. 
This is a team, a franchise, a fan base, that needs something positive to happen.  It almost happened Sunday as the team improbably clawed its way back from a moribund 27-3 halftime deficit to tie it up late in the game.  Then of course it reverted to what it is because a team’s character shows most prominently during times of stress.  Needing a few first downs to at least get to overtime, the Browns offense instead buttoned back up, putting itself in bad positions with blown up plays that ultimately allowed Ben Roethlisberger to lead his team on one final drive that sent the Browns home with just another almost win and definite loss.
You could say that it was the defense that let this team down once again on that final drive, as it has some many times in the past.  But that only tells part of the story.  Looking as if it had no preseason in which to prepare when it yielded 27 first half points to the Steelers, the defense looked nearly formidable in the second half holding the Steelers to just those 3 critical points that ended the game.
It’s not really about dumping on this group of players for another loss because in many ways it’s not the players that failed but those above them and I don’t mean the coaching staff.  Sure Joe Haden once again demonstrated that he’s not nearly as good as he thinks he is and Justin Gilbert showed he is in desperate need of some film study.  But the defensive line, long touted as the strength of this team, showed up in the second half.  So did the linebackers.  Roethlisberger looked pretty damn ordinary for most of that second half as a result.
What continues to fail this team of course is its erstwhile and reckless approach to management.  Owner Jimmy Haslam can’t possibly think that the one and done he subjected former head coach Rob Chudzinski to had no impact on the direction of this franchise or even the outcome of this particular game.  It was monumental and not because Chudzinski was slated to be the next Bill Belichick.  It was because the impetuousness he demonstrated in first taking the words of Joe Banner and Mike Lombardi and then summarily firing them when they couldn’t deliver on any of their promises for the next coach showed the team and the world that Haslam, like Gilbert, needs plenty of seasoning.
It also put this team where it’s been too many times already—learning a new system, breaking in a new coach.  That’s some pretty high hurdles to take on in addition to the challenges that one of the league’s most stable franchises, Pittsburgh, perennially provides.
Marla Ridenour, writing in the Akron Beacon Journal on Sunday, talked about the cloud that hangs over the team because of the Chudzinski firing and she’s right.  There’s nothing to suggest at the moment that Haslam will be any less impetuousness with Pettine when things go wrong.  Indeed would anyone be really surprised if Haslam were to fire Pettine should the team find itself winless during its bye week?  Of course not.
But we do know one thing.  Pettine isn’t a particularly impatient man or at least a man coaching like he’s on the league’s shortest leash. With just about everything going wrong in the first half, the narrative, indeed the collected wisdom within the confines of what make up the “experts” on the NFL’s pregame shows was that after one failed half it was now Johnny Manziel time.  Ridiculous on many levels but let’s start with the most basic.
Pettine is a rookie head coach.  The quickest way to cement that status is showing impatience with the fragile psyches that are the NFL’s band of quarterbacks.  If he replaced Hoyer at the end of the first half, it would have been tantamount to replacing him forever, sort of how Chris Palmer went to Tim Couch when Ty Detmer failed in that embarrassing opening season loss to, who else?, Pittsburgh in 1999 or when Romeo Crennel benched Charlie Frye near the end of the first half in the 2007 season opener against, wait for it, Pittsburgh, and went to Derek Anderson.  In other words, there was exactly this precedent in recent Browns’ past for Pettine to have benched Hoyer.
It would have been so like someone associated with the Browns to draw conclusions after one half of football in the season’s first game that perhaps that’s really why everyone was calling for Manziel.  They just kind of figured a Browns head coach, understanding the terrible history of head coaches in this town and the dreadful opening game outcomes for more than a decade, especially against Pittsburgh, would fall right in that line.
For not giving into the inevitable temptation, Pettine as much as anyone gets a Star of the Game award.
And what to make of Hoyer.  Well, for one thing, he operates better in a no-huddle format than the plodding approach employed by all of the offensive coordinators past.  So stick with it from here on in if only because it plays to the strength of the one guy that you need most at the moment.
The reason you need him most is because General Manager Ray Farmer still harbors the belief that he did address the wide receiver situation by stockpiling this team with Division II players, small fries, and undrafted free agents (many of whom not coincidentally fill all 3 slots).  Farmer claims they’re talented receivers it’s just that fans don’t know their names.  Neither does the rest of the league.
Put it this way, though, it wasn’t by accident that Hoyer kept going to tight end Jordan Cameron early on.  He’s reliable.  The others clearly haven’t shown enough even in practice for Hoyer to rely on them.
This Browns team isn’t a talented bunch.  There were flourishes on Sunday, certainly.  But what holds this team back is what has always held this team back.  A franchise if not in turmoil then at least in dissonance.  It’s hard to know exactly how far this team is away from being a legitimate contender but there are clues.  For example, more than half the roster wasn’t even with the team last year.  Another example, it still sorely lacks depth at virtually every position, making it more vulnerable than most to injuries.
It’s not even fair yet to say that this team will be interesting to watch all season.  There were good signs on Sunday but that’s all there were.  Nothing definitive will be decided next Sunday either against New Orleans.  What this team needs now is simply to show progress.  It did on Sunday, as measured from one half to the next.  The real trick comes in showing it from one game to the next.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Save the Sympathy For Someone More Deserving


Everyone is for drug testing until they are against it.  And they’re usually against it when the outcome effects them in a personal way.
That is the only explanation I can muster as to why so many are sympathetic to Josh Gordon at the moment.  The mercurial Cleveland Browns receiver received confirmation this week of the fate that was inevitable once he struck out swinging at the NFL’s drug policy, a year long suspension.  The thought that this putrid Cleveland Browns team could be deprived of its only playmaker for the season suddenly turned soft the noggins of fans and media types alike.
Without belaboring to state the obvious, this team has more than proven that it’s a perennial 4-5 game winner, even with Gordon.  Things aren’t going to change in the near future for this team’s fortunes for reasons well beyond the control of Gordon.
But as for what’s in the control of Gordon, that’s actually hard to say.  From all the evidence presented, he appears to be a drug addict.  He’s now tested positive at least 6 times for illegal drugs, in college and the pros.  This is not about second chances.  It’s about seventh chances.  He’s more than worn out the patience of those continuing to enable his demons.
One could argue forcefully that the only group effected personally by the positive drug test result of Josh Gordon is Gordon himself and his family.  But the way the media and fans are reacting it’s as if they’ve been kicked in the gut as well.  Hardly.
Gordon is no one’s cross to die on.  We all should simply ignore the embarrassing and tone deaf second hand smoke defense that his legal team offered. The outcome of the arbitration hearing was hardly in question.  Well before he tested positive this time, Gordon knew the tightrope he was walking and the consequence for tripping.  Like any headstrong, immature, pampered egomaniac, he thought he could beat the system.  He couldn’t and he didn’t.  The punishment he got he deserved.
Bill Livingston, a columnist for the Plain Dealer (assuming the name hasn’t been auctioned off by the Northeast Ohio Media Group in order to buy more servers for their digital strategy), has taken up Gordon’s cause as a fan proxy by questioning the strictness of Gordon’s penalty given what are the rumored “facts” of this case, meaning the relative levels of marijuana in Gordon’s system and how other leagues use other levels.
It’s hard to avoid the most obvious pun by calling this line of argument a smokescreen.  But Livingston’s been in a fog for most of his career anyway.  The league and the union have a collectively bargained drug policy and protocol.  This is what the parties voluntarily agreed to and the rules under which Gordon and his co-workers operate. 
The purpose of this argument about the relative levels is to somehow give credence to the ridiculous defense that somehow this serial drug user ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time and was victimized by exposure to second hand smoke. 
Gordon is no victim.
There’s a far more plausible and simple explanation.  Gordon is lying.  Indeed why would he even deserve the benefit of anyone’s doubt?  He has the most to gain or lose in offering up an argument that isn’t even correct medically, let alone practically.  Gordon has been caught smoking dope numerous times in college and the pros but suddenly he’s reformed and just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time?  Why would any logical thinking person think that’s more likely than the far more likely scenario that Gordon once again smoked dope and didn’t think he’d get caught?  Obviously Harold Henderson, the arbitrator in this case didn’t buy it and neither should anyone else.
Indeed what’s most offensive in this case is Gordon’s abject unwillingness to own his own misbehavior and mislead the team and it’s fans into thinking that this time he didn’t do anything wrong.  The reason guy’s like Gordon don’t seem to ever learn is because they are surrounded by enablers, including gullible media types and lawyers, willing to further a bullshit narrative in order to avoid the real life consequences of bad actions. 
The Cleveland Browns are a worse team without Josh Gordon but the only person responsible for that statement is Josh Gordon.  The unwillingness of the arbitrator to buy into Gordon’s “defense” doesn’t make the arbitrator the bad guy here.  Neither is the league nor the union to blame for the outcome.  Gordon simply can’t learn the simple lesson of what it would take to stay in the league and for that he now finds himself on the outside looking in.
It’s almost comical really how twisted the thought process of others has become.  Livingston, for example but hardly the only example, goes down the path of noting the supposed number of drug tests that Gordon passed already as, what, proof that he’s reformed?  I don’t think we even need to stretch as far as the Lance Armstrong fraud to talk about how ludicrous it is to make the argument about how previous positive tests portends compliance.  The reason Gordon was subjected to such long term testing was precisely because he has a history and eventually if a person hasn’t reformed he’ll get caught again.  Gordon hasn’t reformed.  He got caught again.
Gordon put together an amazing, record-setting season last year while dancing on the head of a pin.  Where opposing defenses couldn’t trip him up, where a parade of mediocre at best quarterbacks throwing to him couldn’t slow down his accomplishments, all it took for Gordon to regress was an off season filled with more time then he knew what to do with.
The decriminalization of marijuana may be your issue, have at it.  But that has nothing at the moment to do with Gordon’s status as a multi violator of league rules.  Gordon’s job, his life, is in jeopardy because Gordon lacks the self control to change the course.  Given his history, there’s no reason to think that even this suspension will move his needle.
I think it’s dangerous to take up the cause of someone like Gordon in order to further the larger debate about the relative dangers of marijuana.  It matters not at all whether marijuana is legal in a few states and otherwise available by prescription in most others.  The same can be said for most performance enhancing drugs as well.  The point, again, is that the league and its union voluntarily put in place a set of rules on what substances are prohibited, what the testing protocol for those substances should be, and what penalties would be assessed for violations.  It’s up to those parties to decide if and when they want to change their rules. 
Of course the other thing that’s getting people twisted up in their shorts is the severity of Gordon’s penalty in the context of the league’s kid glove treatment of Ray Rice for beating his then girlfriend and dragging her out of an elevator in an Atlantic City casino.  One of the local television stations even ran a “fan poll” asking if the Gordon penalty was too severe compared to Rice’s. I’m guessing they didn’t consult an expert in polling as the question answers itself nor should they be surprised by the results.  Of course a year-long suspension is more severe than a two game suspension. Duh.
Rice ran afoul of the league’s personal conduct rules.  His actions reflected poorly on the league and that’s what put him in the crosshairs of the commissioner.  There are no prescribed penalties for domestic violence.  It is case by case.  Roger Goodell may have done a lousy job in exercising that discretion but it was his to exercise.
There was no discretion to be exercised in Gordon’s case.  His previous violations put him down a path of progressive discipline with the next violation resulting in a season long suspension.  There was no dispute that Gordon had dope in his system.  Case over.  The only real mystery is why the arbitrator waited so long to issue the opinion.  Perhaps he was on vacation.
I have no sympathy for Gordon and neither should anyone else, at least in the context of the punishment meted out.  My sympathy for Gordon extends to him personally with the hope that he gets help for the problems that he clearly has.  But if he never plays another game for the Browns or in professional football, it won’t impact anyone’s life but his own and those for whom he’s supporting.
The next step is his.  What would make this story better is if Gordon really uses his time away to make positive changes in his life.  Everyone likes a resurrection story.  With Gordon, though, there’s reason to worry.  He’s still in hard denial about his actions this time and he didn’t learn any lesson from the previous five (at least) positive drug tests.  There’s no reason to think he’ll learn anything meaningful from the sixth.