Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Price Of Failure

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

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Dysfunction Thy Name Is Cleveland

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

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Another December To Not Remember

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 15, 2014

Johnny Fizzle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Next Man Up, Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Stirring the Pot in Cleveland

With the Cleveland Browns, nothing breeds impatience than a pot that just won’t boil.  So turn up the heat and something will find its way to the surface.
Here they sit, improbably at 7-5 and still very much on the cusp of a potential playoff spot, and find themselves in the middle of a quarterback controversy.  Some teams stumble into controversy.  Others have it thrust upon them by outsiders.  The Browns have an advanced degree of concocting their own.
When head coach Mike Pettine named Brian Hoyer his starter way back in the ancient days of training camp, most assumed it was only temporary anyway.  Hoyer always seemed to be one bad throw from having to give dad back the keys to the Pontiac.  Pettine claimed then that Hoyer had no cause to look over his shoulder and that seemed to be mostly true during the various peaks and valleys that is the arc of a true back up’s career.
But was it ever really true?  For the last month anyway Hoyer has been clinging to the fraying strands of his grip on the starter’s job with the only thing seeming to keep those strands from breaking was Pettine’s dogged determination not to have to deal with his hot mess of a backup, Johnny Manziel. If Hoyer didn’t see Pettine looking over his shoulder then he should get his peripheral vision checked.
Pettine’s comment after the win against Atlanta was the most telling.  He said that Hoyer had kept both teams in that game.  Indeed has a Cleveland coach in any sport offered such succinct and spot on assessment of one of its assets?  Still and despite what his eyes and heart and mind were telling him he couldn’t pull the plug on Hoyer heading into the Buffalo game.  The team was 7-4 and playing on the road against a team that played a previous “home” game several hundred miles away on a Monday night.  From that perch 8-4 looked like a fairly good bet and Hoyer despite everything still struck everyone as the better option.
What Pettine did do was what he could do.  When it became the only option left on the table Sunday as Hoyer looked as if he was an apparition sent to replay the performance from the previous week, step by exact step, Pettine turned to Manziel.
It worked, sort of, at least for a series.  But the crippling injuries on a team, indeed a franchise, known for its astounding lack of depth, were far harder to overcome than the equally mediocre Buffalo Bills and the Browns went down, losing in a way so reminiscent of past performances that it made you wonder what the odds in Vegas are right now on them finishing 7-9.
The decision to put in the mercurial Manziel was always fraught with the exact consequences currently playing out in Berea and about town.  Ostensibly it’s about which quarterback gives the team the best chance to win this week.  In reality it’s a far more complex question.
If, for example, general manager Ray Farmer, along with Pettine, more or less reasonably conclude that the chances of this team making the playoffs is small, sticking with Manziel is the more useful option.  Hoyer has a contract coming due at season’s end and as of right now he wants to be paid like the starter he was.  If Manziel succeeds as the starter than the Browns will have their answer on whether to try and re-sign Hoyer.  If Manziel fails, the hometown Hoyer remains a viable option, albeit an option with a little leverage he’d be wise to exercise.  If that’s what’s in Farmer’s and Pettine’s heads then it’s probably worth that gamble either way.
Even if Farmer and Pettine believe the playoffs are potentially in reach I’m not sure the calculus much changes.  Hoyer looks to be playing on whatever borrowed time a backup gets once the lightning in the bottle starts to dissipate.  More probably, defensive coordinators around the league are simply earning their pay and have snuffed out every last tendency of Hoyer’s and have instructed their charges accordingly.  That being the case, it’s also been just as clear that Hoyer right now doesn’t seem to have another gear or another trick.  So for Farmer and Pettine, going with Manziel now for much the same reasons as if the team isn’t playoff contenders still stands.
Yet there’s the cynical me, born of one spiritless and demoralizing season after another that feels there’s a much broader more sinister question that Farmer and Pettine are really trying to answer and that’s whether their growing concerns about Manziel are justified.
 If Manziel isn’t ready, with whom does such fault lie?  I know how Pettine and Farmer would answer the question if shot up first with sodium pentothal.  They put it squarely on the party-hearty Manziel’s rather narrow shoulders.  Manziel at the moment seems to have the work ethic of the typical 10th grader.  He may go through the reps and sit through the meetings but you always sense he has one eye on the clock, waiting for the bell to ring.  If he’s doing his homework that isn’t evident.
Travis Benjamin, talking almost recklessly to the media on Monday, let it out that Manziel sometimes has trouble with the terminology used to call the team’s plays and that the receivers have to correct him in the huddle.  Then there was the recent incident.  Forget every particular save one.  It occurred at 2:30 a.m. on a Saturday, about 34 ½ hours before kickoff.  It isn’t just that nothing good ever happens at 2:30 a.m. on a weekend night.  It’s also that nothing good ever happens at 2:30 a.m. on a weekend night before a game for a player with aspirations to be the team’s leader.
I’m not saying that Manziel should have been back in his apartment studying the playbook, whatever merit that has for a guy that can’t remember the terminology.  I am saying that at the very least he should be home sleeping or at least home.  It does matter what people think, including Manziel’s teammates and right now, this late in the season, Manziel hasn’t seemed to learn a god damn thing about perception, reality and responsibility after the 28 missteps he’s taken just since signing with the Browns.
My real sense is that while Farmer and Pettine do want to see exactly what they have in Manziel because of the impact on whether to sign Hoyer, it has less to do with whether to re-sign Hoyer than it does with whetherr to move Manziel in the offseason. But the process to figuring that out is very public and what the Browns see will be seen by every other team that might otherwise be willing to part with draft picks to grab Manziel.
The risk then, the most likely reason really why Farmer and Pettine haven’t already named Manziel their starter for this week at least is that they are plussing and minusing the risk that Manziel will blow it and the ramifications that flow from that.  In other words, it would surprise exactly no one if Farmer in particular and perhaps Pettine are starting to get a more intimate understanding of why Manziel’s draft status dropped so precipitously in the first place.  That being the case, it makes some perverse sense to keep alive the mystique of Johnny Football than reveal that wannabe king is wearing no jock.
While I find this all so intriguing and fun, I’m more fascinated by the simple twists and turns of a franchise that treats success as the worst thing to happen since failure. 
By many measures this season has already been a success. Even if the team doesn’t win another game it still will have more victories than in all but 3 of the last 15 seasons.  They seem to have found a serviceable head coach in Pettine.  His mistakes tend to be of the rookie coach variety but his approach seems sound.  They have a top notch receiver and some nice complements around him.  Heck, Hoyer has played well in more games than almost any other Cleveland quarterback in the last 15 years.  The offensive line, at least with Alex Mack, was playing well.  The linebackers are having a good year.  In short, there’s reason for real down the road optimism, save perhaps for the long term prospects of Hoyer.
But this wouldn’t be Cleveland and it wouldn’t be the Browns if in the midst of it all some controversy didn’t develop.  In that sense the Johnny vs. Brian storyline in the midst of a playoff run is a healthy return to the team’s ignominious roots. It’s just that for all the progress made why does it still seem like the team is standing still?

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Wrestling With Our Paranoia

If you’re not secretly fearing that the Cleveland Browns will find a way to turn a 6-3 record into a 6-10 record by season’s end, then you’re not a real Browns fan.
And if you’re not secretly fearing that Brian Hoyer will break an ankle, that Josh Gordon was flunk his return to work drug screen or that Jordan Cameron will find retirement a better option than another concussion, then you’re not a real Browns fan.
Nothing breeds paranoia in the hearts and minds of real Cleveland Browns fans like unexpected success.  So today, entering a weekend where the Browns have already played and won handily on the road against the team leading the division at the time, unexpected success is exactly the conundrum real Browns are wrestling with.
It’s all the big questions now because when your team sits at 6-3 and most of the rest of the games on the schedule look reasonably winnable, that’s all that’s left to ponder.  So let’s just go ahead and wonder whether this Browns team, the one with the least impressive set of “skill” players at its disposal, is playoff worthy.  It’s no longer too early to consider it let alone too early to say it out loud.  No longer do you look like a member of the Tin Foil Hat Society for even considering it.
But let’s also keep perspective before we start extrapolating what this team can still accomplish based on what it’s done so far without Gordon or Cameron in the lineup.  The last time this team won 10 games in a season, a number which at this point tilts more toward realistic than delusional, it didn’t make the playoffs.  That’s actually a difficult task to accomplish in the NFL, winning 10 games and still sitting at home in January.  But accomplish that task the Browns did and that naturally is the antecedent to the deep-seated paranoia that is so understandable.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the big winner in all this of course is Jimmy Haslam, the team’s owner.  One or two more wins and the NFL will allow him to send out playoff ticket information to season ticket holders.  It’s an owner-friendly policy that allows the team to charge each season ticket holder an exorbitant price for each potential home playoff game.  If the games don’t materialize, the money is held by the team, for its account and probably in some sort of short term high yield investment fund, and credited to the season ticket holders’ accounts for next season.  The NFL is like Hyman Roth.  It knows how to make money for its partners.
This really has been an improbable season thus far for the Browns with Thursday’s win, not so much the result but the how, being the most prominent example.  The Browns hadn’t won on the road in the division since before Bill Clinton met Paula Jones. The Browns had just come off a 3-game stretch against opponents who had a combined 1 win between them and managed two wins in somewhat unspectacular fashion.  Their running game had stalled out the last several weeks, their best receiver, indeed one of the league’s top receivers, was still sitting out a drug suspension, their second best receiver was trying to recover from his third concussion in three years, and their third best receiver was inactive with a leg injury.  And the defense, as usual, was showing itself to be far less than the sum of its parts.
The Bengals were leading the division.  Their victories were achieved with a bit more dominance and their quarterback looked to be perhaps finally taking that long step from a good regular season quarterback to a good playoff quarterback. 
In other words, while the game didn’t stack up as a mismatch neither did it appear to be much reason to believe that on this particular night the Browns would shed the shackles of seasons’ worth of struggles to establish relevance.
But perhaps what made it all so improbable was the rather simple fact that it was November and the Browns were on national television in a game of relevance.  All systems, all planets were seemingly aligned for a bitter reminder of why the attention of most Browns fans by this point is on Ohio State.
Nothing ever goes as planned, does it?  Andy Dalton was not just bad, he was historically bad.  The Browns’ defense, rightfully maligned and whose poster child for all its holes was the lightly talented Buster Skrine, played like the 1985 Chicago Bears.  Dalton was hurried.  He was harassed.  A.J. Green couldn’t permanently shake loose of Joe Haden and Skrine had two interceptions.  The defense didn’t merely walk through a looking glass.  It played as if it were living and working in Bizarro Cincinnati.
Meanwhile Brian Hoyer has turned into the second coming of Brian Sipe.  There’s nothing particularly pretty about how he goes about his business.  And yet far more often than not in his Cleveland rebirth the results have been good enough.  At the same time and perhaps not coincidentally the running game returned.  Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan hasn’t been able to land on a primary back to this point so he keeps running out all 3, Ben Tate, Terrence West and Isaiah Crowell, and like just about everything else this season it improbably works.
And what to make of the available receivers on the roster?  Show of hands for all of you who had tight end Gary Barnidge on your fantasy team this week.  Barnidge had two catches for 46 yards and the ancient Miles Austin had 5 catches for 48 yards.  Usually when those are a team’s leading receivers for the evening the team is looking at the business end of a 30-point loss.  But because the running game was effective, because the defense was creating turnovers, Hoyer didn’t need to throw the ball around like he has the past few weeks.
As for Bengals players, coaches, front office staff, ticket takers and ushers, they likely are all questioning their parentage and relevance.  The ass-whipping they experienced was that complete.  Dalton ended the evening with a historically bad quarterback rating of 2.0 and that’s not a typo.  What keeps it from being the statistically worst game in history is, naturally, the performance of a former member of the Browns, Jeff Garcia, who while toiling for Butch Davis’ version, compiled a 0.0 rating in a September, 2004 game against Dallas.   Ah, good times.
The best part of all this?  The Browns and their fans get to savor it a few extra days.
A few weeks ago I wrote that the Browns had turned a corner and indeed they have.  Even if they lose out, which they’ve done for several seasons anyway, they’ll still end up with 50% more victories than usual and in context that qualifies as an abject success.  It probably qualifies head coach Mike Pettine for a raise.  But if past is prologue and Haslam has a proportional reaction akin to what he had last season with Rob Chudzinski, then Pettine won’t just get a raise but an extension which, also true to form, Haslam will end up having to eat a few years down the road.
The reality of this season is still in the early stages.  The remaining schedule isn’t as unfavorable as the weather likely will be, but this is still a young team whose progress is upward but uneven.  That means zags when zigs are required, losses where victories seemed assured.  I guess what I’m saying is that for all the reasons that might exist to get one’s hopes up, that’s never the right course in Cleveland.  But I really didn’t need to tell you that, did I?