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?

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

No Such Thing As a Bad Win



Sports in general and professional sports in particular are the ultimate bottom line businesses.  Success is measured week by week and chronicled daily in a million or so outlets.  While it is definitely true that a team that consistently wins more than it loses can be considered a success in the same way that a team that consistently loses more than it wins can be considered a failure, on a micro basis there are truths to be learned in both the wins and losses irrespective of a team’s record.
This past weekend, both the Cleveland Browns and the Ohio State Buckeyes walked away with wins. And while that should be good enough to all the bottom liners, of course it was not because the wins were not impressive in their crafting against ostensibly lesser competition.
In the case of the Buckeyes, I guess what this means is that unless 50 or more points are scored and 500 or more yards are compiled on offense, the win might as well have been a loss.  In the case of the Browns, I’m not even sure what it means.  Given the Browns rather consistent pattern of losing at least twice as many games as it wins, season after season and that just the previous week it actually lost to a winless team, the Oakland Raiders came into the game winless and left the same way and that is somehow unsatisfactory. 
I understand the frustration of Buckeye fans.  The preseason seemed to hold realistic hope of the team getting to the first ever national championship playoffs. But the injury to Braxton Miller, coupled with very inexperienced back up, altered both the perceptions and the reality.  Couple that with a home loss to what is, at best, a very average Virginia Tech, and this season seemed like it wouldn’t take any flight.
But since that game the Buckeyes have completely turned the season on its head.  Quarterback J.T. Barrett, playing for the first time in two years, seemed to have the light go on immediately and suddenly, against weak competition, the Buckeyes’ offense turned into a juggernaut.
Well, that juggernaut got slowed on Saturday night against Penn State, a supposedly vastly inferior team and that got everyone all upset.  Rather than acknowledge the growing pains of a team that has been far better than most imagined when Miller first went down, fans and most of the media instead chastised the Buckeyes for apparently not destroying Penn State at their home field at night in front of the national media and a drunk and crazed fan base making it almost impossible to call out any signals.

There was plenty to critique in the Buckeyes’ win, but let’s keep that critique in perspective and acknowledge what is likely to be one of the more important wins this team will have in the next few seasons.

Probably the biggest issue in the entire game was the play calling.  This isn’t the first time, just the most recent, when Urban Meyer went ultra conservative in a big game.  Meyer has a fascination with letting his quarterbacks carry the entire running load even when his running backs have more than proven capable.  Michigan State last year late in the Big Ten championship game was another prime example.  Meyer seems to lose faith mostly in himself.  Stated differently, he goes into small ball protection mode too quickly at the first sign of trouble.
But let’s also remember that the Buckeyes mostly dominated Penn State even if the score didn’t reflect it.  The only Penn State touchdown in regulation came on a very well thrown pass into very tight coverage.  Sometimes the other team is going to win a battle.  It happens.
The far larger point though was the manner in which the Buckeyes reversed a huge momentum swing and found a way to win.  In thinking about the Ohio State win on Saturday and fan and media reaction to it, it was best to recall the words of LeBron James last week when talking about what it takes sometimes to build a team, according to the Plain Dealer:
 “You got to go through something in order to create a bond, and that means for the worse. You've got to lose ball games that we think we should have won. We got to get in an argument here and there every now and then just to test each other out. It has to happen. It's going to happen. I know it's going to happen. A lot of guys don't see it but I see it. That's the only way we're going to be able to grow.”
That’s exactly what Saturday night’s victory ended up being, an opportunity for this team to get tested, to bond, to grow.  If this is a team with big aspirations, whether by a confluence of events this year or a more defined approach next season, this Penn State victory will be the fulcrum on which those aspirations pivoted.  We’ll see soon enough as the Buckeyes go into hostile territory in a few weeks against Michigan State.
As for the Browns, it simply is a case of confusing progress with success.  The two concepts can intersect and sometimes they can be almost the same thing.  But for now, for this Browns team, they are at best 2nd or 3rd cousins.
What most of the dissection of the Browns’ win has been is to highlight the team’s faults without acknowledging some emerging strengths.  The Raiders, easily one of the worst if not the worst team in the league, is horrible in every phase of the game, including stopping the run.  Yet the Browns couldn’t find a way to run the ball because, again, Alex Mack is apparently the most important player on this team.
And yet, despite the numerous 3-and-outs, the bad passes, the lousy routes, the blown blocking assignments, this team found a way to pull together late and overcome whatever adversity it faced, much of which was arguably self-inflicted.
For all that went wrong on Sunday, plenty went right, starting with the defense.  Joe Haden, of whom I’ve been a frequent critic, played one of the best games of his entire career.  Sure he was in the right place at the right moment to field an oddly errant mid-air fumble, but his coverage was at an elite status the entire game.  Late in the game on a sideline route deep with a receiver seeming to have a step on him, Haden close fast and made a textbook deflection.  It was the kind of play that coaches from other teams at all levels will use to demonstrate proper technique.
Let’s also mention Paul Krueger who is fulfilling this year much of what was expected of him last year.  Maybe it’s head coach Mike Pettine’s defensive schemes that appeal more to Krueger’s sensibilities or it’s a case of just being more in sync with this coaching staff.  Whatever it is, Krueger played well Sunday as he has this whole season.  Even poor Justin Gilbert, who has mostly appeared overmatched since the first preseason game, looked better. 
There is still plenty of improvement this team needs.  Buster Skrine is still, well, Buster Skrine and the Browns might be the worst team I’ve ever seen at any level fielding and returning punts.  But this team is already at four wins for the season and it’s a season that’s only 7 games old!
Just as with the Buckeyes, the Browns have gone through the kind of adversity now that tends to bond teams together.  Indeed, the little battles it fought in other games is largely responsible for the team’s ability to respond late this past Sunday.  In almost every other year in the last 12 other Browns teams have crumbled under like circumstances.  The fact that this team didn’t and the fact this it won should be celebrated for what it was, not the Super Bowl, but a gritty win.
I’ve been part of the fabric of this town’s crappy sports teams for more than 50 years now so I understand the manner in which all performance gets filtered.  But that doesn’t make it any less irritating for the same tired narrative of pulling defeat from the jaws of victory every time it doesn’t go to some ill-informed predetermined script.
Winning games at any level, be it Division I college football or the NFL, is hard enough.  Let’s not make it harder on ourselves by constructing impossibly high standards just so we can satisfy our inner insecurities that our teams will never be good enough to win something meaningful. And if that task is too hard then keep it simple and just remember that while you often can make the case for a good loss, you can never make the case for a bad win.

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.