Saturday, September 06, 2008

In the Dark

Every new season, whether football, baseball or basketball, starts in a certain amount of darkness. Light is shed not all at once but over time. We’d all like to know how a team is going to perform. The only thing will end up knowing is how they did, which comes too late to be of any use.

But that doesn’t stop any of us from trying to reverse the course. Indeed, Las Vegas and countless Indian casinos have thrived on just that bet. Personally, I don’t like to be so precipitous with my money.

Thus we enter the upcoming Cleveland Browns’ season with an armful of questions, none of which can be fully answered, and a truckload of expectations. As part of TheClevelandFan.com’s season opening Browns’ roundtable, I’m on record as predicting a 8-8 record. Usually, I avoid making a prediction because, frankly, I’ve never been any good at it. But I’m also nothing if not a team player and thus felt obliged to participate.

That being said, don’t be fooled. If the Browns end up at 8-8, it won’t be the result of inspired genius. It’s just a guess. The Browns could go 11-5, 8-8 or 4-12. More likely, their record will be none of those.

The NFL does a nice job of legislating parity, the intent of which is to ensure a certain minimum level of talent. Some franchises try their best to defy those odds but sooner or later success tends to catch up with everyone. Thus, while nearly any team in the NFL in a given year probably has enough talent to make the playoffs, whether or not that comes to pass depends in large measure on two factors mostly out of their control: injuries and luck. Avoid the former and have some of the latter and the next thing you know you’re playing in the AFC Championship.

Applying this matrix to the Browns, unquestionably they have enough starting talent to make the playoffs. That doesn’t mean they will. What they lack is depth. As injuries start to creep in, the talent level on the field plunges dramatically meaning that in a particular game there is a pretty good chance they won’t have enough talent to win. Combine that with the three subparts of NFL luck: the timing of the injuries, which team is on the schedule that week and, where the game is being played and you start to see how easy a season can turn.

Right now, the Browns’ injury situation doesn’t look good, which is a continuing theme with this team. It started with defensive back Daven Holley blowing out his knee in the off-season. It continued on Thursday when linebacker Antwan Peek blew out his knee in practice. In between, there have been two concussions (quarterback Derek Anderson, safety Brodney Pool), an ankle injury (kick returner Josh Cribbs), sore knees (safety Sean Jones, linebacker Beau Bell, offensive lineman Rex Hadnot), a balky hamstring (running back Jamal Lewis) and a couple of offseason surgeries that haven’t yet healed (offensive lineman Ryan Tucker and receiver Joe Jurevicius).

In short, this is a team well banged up before even the first game is played. Whether or not the Browns really do have more injuries, year after year, than the typical NFL team is hard to say. What isn’t is that it certainly seems that way. Maybe it’s conditioning, poor technique or lousy instruction. Whatever it is, the Browns haven’t yet solved the injury problem and it once again threatens to hold them back because they don’t have nearly enough depth, except perhaps at quarterback, to make up for the talent lost when a starter is down.

Indeed, if the team was deep, the injuries wouldn’t get as much attention. But as was evident during the preseason, this team needs virtually every one of its starters on both sides of the ball. That won’t be the case on Sunday against Dallas and won’t be the case against Pittsburgh the following week.

About the only good news in that is that each of those games is at home. Play well, even in defeat, and there is a chance that both games could just be an interesting footnote in an otherwise entertaining, successful season. Play poorly, get embarrassed on national television and this season has a chance to be over before it gets fully started. That’s why it really is so difficult to predict how the season truly will shake out.

The key to holding this all together will be head coach Romeo Crennel. This is Crennel’s fourth season as head coach. General manager Phil Savage gave Crennel a contract extension in January of this year, meaning Crennel is signed through the 2011 season. By all accounts, it appears as though Crennel is firmly entrenched and shrouded with the kind of confidence from his boss that would seem to remove any pressure on him to win now.

Don’t believe it. Even with all that, it still feels like a make or break year for Crennel. Savage has systematically upgraded the talent both on the field and in the assistant coaching ranks in order to give Crennel the tools to succeed. The task now falls to Crennel to make it work. For him to succeed, he’s going to have to find a way to leverage his greatest strength while overcoming his greatest weakness.

Crennel’s greatest strength is that the players like and respect him. While that generally translates into a willingness by players to play hard for him, it hasn’t translated into what really matters—more victories. Far more of a difference maker has been Crennel’s consistent inability to have his team fully prepared for each and every game. You can go through any season in the Crennel era and find several games where a lack of preparation, which manifests in the form of mental mistakes, made the difference between a won or loss.

On the surface, it would seem like an easy problem to fix. But to this point, that hasn’t happened. For Crennel to achieve success as a head coach, he’s going to have to stop leaving the small details to chance. When things go wrong in a game, which they inevitably will, a team’s ability to anticipate and respond is critical. Unfortunately, Crennel’s teams too often just seem out of sorts.

To be certain, there is a learning curve even as a head coach. Crennel’s should be nearly complete. He can’t expect his players to step up their own games if Crennel himself doesn’t follow suit. Whether he can could be the most compelling story line of the season.

The Browns are not, by any measure, a perfectly built machine at this point. They lack depth. They are injury prone. They are trying to shake off a particularly resilient stench that has permeated the inner fibers of Berea since the team returned in 1999. They have a head coach with issues. But they aren’t without talent, either. Their luck can always turn. Injuries could heal. The schedule could be more of a plus than a minus. In other words, considering all the contingencies upon which this season, indeed any season, lies, it’s why I’m not so precipitous with my money. 8-8? Who knows?

1 comment:

m. said...

For sure--there is no such thing as a sure thing.I'm not tempted by casinos--indian or otherwise--gambling for its own sake is not a thrill for me.Frankly, I'm not lucky in that way. On the other hand, my record shows a clear propensity for gambling on the grander life themes.Beauty in art and other passions.Nothing is without risk--well, maybe nothingness. And some bets can be win-win situations.It's about the slant. Creative rewards rather than monetary. The giver can experience as much pleasure as the receiver.[I feel a fine line coming on].Getting out of bed in the morning is a gamble. Ask any player. So is coming face to face with one's dreams every night.Ask me. And, yes, tides do change without warning.Luck appears and runs out. Risky business, life.A crap shoot really.