Thursday, August 28, 2008

The End of the Beginning

The Cleveland Browns, in need of a good showing at a minimum, looked to take advantage Thursday night of the fact that the Chicago Bears are not the New York Giants or even the Detroit Lions but couldn’t and ended a bizarre and disappointing preseason with a 16-10 loss. It’s now back to the think tank to ponder what happened and prepare for the opener against Dallas in what is now 10 increasingly shorter days away.

The loss resulted in only the third winless preseason in Browns history, the last coming sometime around the Truman administration. Actually, the last time the Browns finished winless in the preseason was 1972. Proving the ultimate point that the preseason is meaningless, the 1972 team finished 10-4 and nearly spoiled the Miami Dolphins perfect season in the playoffs. Still, when you consider that the ensuring 36 years between those winless preseasons covered an awful lot of bad football, including every team since the Browns returned in 1999, it does give pause to consider the ramifications for this season in which so much is otherwise expected.

But just because the Browns on Thursday ended up losing one of the most boring games in the history of organized sports doesn’t mean it’s immediately time to turn your attention to the Cavs. Quarterback Brady Quinn, subbing for starter Derek Anderson, led a mostly crisp attack on the opening drive but couldn’t finish it off, missing a wide open Kellen Winslow in the end zone on third down from the Bears’ eight-yard line. It was a theme. All totaled, it was one of three certain but missed touchdowns that turned what should have been a win into a loss.

Defensively, a Brandon McDonald interception on the Bears’ opening drive saved what was otherwise turning into a typical Browns defensive stand, meaning bend, bend, bend and hopefully hold to at least a field goal. After one quick first down, the Bears stalled on the strength of their own incompetence, committing two straight false start penalties and leaving themselves in a 3rd-17 hole. Indeed, they seemed to concede the punt by running a simple screen that the defense immediately turned into another first down.

The McDonald interception thereafter was thus timely and put the ball at the Browns 28-yard line. Based mostly on a strong running attack anchored by Jason Wright, Quinn marched the team 72 yards in 10 plays for the 10-0 lead just before the first quarter ended. The drive was capped on a nifty fake to fullback Lawrence Vickers at the 1-yard line and a lateral to Wright who went into the end zone mostly untouched. Quinn and the starters’ work was through. The Browns wouldn’t score again.

After quickly falling behind 10-0, the Bears’ starters seemed to lose whatever slight interest they brought to town and were looking for the safety of the bench. Bears quarterback Kyle Orton lived up to the burden of being Kyle Orton, missing receivers with the kind of frequency that suggested he’d have trouble beating out Ken Dorsey for the third string job in Cleveland. He was unable to move the Bears to a score against a defense that’s been accommodating to virtually everyone else. That had to thrill Bears fans, but that’s their problem. Cleveland has its own set of issues.

After seeing enough of Quinn in two series head coach Romeo Crennel sent in Dorsey to manage the rest of the game with nearly three quarters left to play. Surely the instruction was to manage the game to a quick and efficient end and Dorsey mostly complied, eschewing the spectacular for the average. But to be fair, Dorsey had two near certain touchdown passes dropped, one by Travis Wilson, the other by rookie Paul Hubbard.

Orton, who really could use the playing time, nonetheless gave way to Rex Grossman, last year’s starter, at the same time as Quinn. It was hard to tell the difference, save for that throwback ‘70s porn-star moustache Orton sported. Grossman handed off a lot and found enough open receivers to put together a 13-play 95-yard drive to close the gap to 10-7 with about three minutes left in the first half.

The drive itself wasn’t as noteworthy or interesting as the fact that Grossman was quickly yanked right after in favor of Caleb Hanie, a rookie from Colarado State. Either head coach Lovie Smith was deliberately sabotaging Grossman’s chance to be the starter or he had already concluded that Grossman and Orton were interchangeable and thus didn’t want to risk an injury to either.

For his part Hanie showed the kind of poise that seems to have eluded both Grossman and Orton throughout their careers. Indeed, he looked like Brady Quinn during last year’s preseason. He did enough to lead the Bears to three field goals, the last coming soon after a Dorsey interception late in the fourth quarter, that was the margin of difference.

Hanie, too, was victimized. In the midst of putting together what looked to be an 80-yard touchdown drive with less than two minutes left in the half, Hanie was done in by two Bears penalties, the most crucial of which was an iffy but fortuitous holding call on former Buckeye Kirk Barton on a Hanie-to-Mark Bradley touchdown pass.

It’s actually hard to figure out why the second half was played other than out of contractual obligations. With injuries piling up, it likely wouldn’t have taken much to convince either Crennel or Smith to head into the locker room early and catch the rest of the Democratic National Convention. But play on they did and Hanie took the most advantage of the opportunity and in the process gave Bears fans enough reason to think that their quarterback situation isn’t nearly as desperate as, say, the Baltimore Ravens. Meanwhile Dorsey solidified his status as an active roster mentor to Anderson and Quinn.

Still, to the extent that it’s either necessary or desirable to glean any information from teams clearly trying to hurry through to the post-game meal, it’s this: the Browns’ second string defensive line looks and plays a lot like last season’s starting defensive line. Huge running lanes seemed to open at will. Receivers ran unmolested throughout the secondary. Tackles were missed Third downs were converted. The drives were long. It was a stark and painful reminder of the lack of depth this team possesses. It’s a problem that will linger.

Speaking of problems that will linger, much angst and worry has rightly been directed at the defensive backfield. But another problem area quickly emerging is at wide receiver. Braylon Edwards was out again but that seemed to be purely precautionary. Donte Stallworth, too, was a similar no-show. Winslow played, but sparingly. It gave Crennel and offensive coordinator Rod Chudzinski the chance to evaluate the rest of the contenders for that third and fourth receiver spots. Charitably, it was a mixed bag.

Syndric Steptoe, who has had some good moments this preseason, went out early with a shoulder injury suffered while making a tackle on special teams. Travis Wilson demonstrated why he’s the Andy Marte of the Browns. He seems to have skills, he just doesn’t make a habit of displaying them often enough. Unless he does something spectacular and soon, the most lasting image of Wilson will be of his dropping a perfect pass in stride from Dorsey that at a minimum would have been a long gain to keep a drive alive and likely would have been a touchdown. It was the kind of drop that all but assured that if he’s thrown to again, it will only be because there isn’t another option.

Hubbard, like Wilson fighting for a roster spot, might not be so lucky. He dropped a critical third and two pass from the Chicago two-yard line that could have won the game. The best he can probably hope for at this point is a spot on the practice squad.

As for the defensive secondary, its bright spot was the two interceptions, the one by McDonald and another by the newly acquired Travis Key, who also had a sack on a blitz. The only problem is that each of those plays came against the Bears’ reserves. It was hardly enough to give anyone any real comfort that Crennel and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker were any closer to finding a way to adequately paper over a definite lack of talent.

With a whimper, the 2008 preseason has ended. The Browns now have 10 days before the regular season opener against Dallas to find the consistency that has been missing all preseason. It’s not an impossible task, certainly. It’s just that there are enough injuries and question marks lingering to make one think that it’s going to take far longer than 10 days before this team will click.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Lingering Items--Lions Preseason Edition

If you had a sinking feeling about the Cleveland Browns lately, it’s not just the recurring aftertaste of a Cleveland Indians’ season gone horribly wrong. It’s because “concern” is now an officially accepted state of mind in Berea.

According to head coach Romeo Crennel, this week he became concerned after the team lost its first preseason game. He grew more concerned with the second and is now apparently really concerned after the third. In the kind of circular statement he could have learned only from his mentor, Bill Belichick, Crennel told the media “every time we lose, I’m concerned, because if you’re losing, you’re generally not playing the way you need to play to win the game, so we haven’t done that.”

Of course, this was the same Crennel who after the New York Jets game went to some length to say he really wasn’t concerned after that first loss in general and with the two long bombs off the able arm of third-stringer Brett Ratliff in particular. Crennel admitted only that he’d be concerned if it happened again. It did, the very next game.

Though the Browns didn’t give up any similar plays on Saturday night against the Lions, that’s just parsing. On the Lions’ very first series, the defense gave up a 29-yard pass from Jon Kitna to Roy Williams on a 3rd and 8 play. On the next 3rd and 8 play, they gave up 11 yards on another Kitna pass. On the Lions’ second possession, Kitna connected with Williams again for 28 yards, this time on a 2nd and 15 play. Dan Orlovsky then got in on the fun. He connected with tight end Michael Gaines for 21 yards and to Shaun McDonald for 19 yards on back-to-back plays. In the third quarter, Orlovsky completed consecutive passes of 20 and 17 yards.

True, none of these were completions were of the 70-yard variety like the previous two weeks. But every one of them was part of a longer scoring drive. Because it’s now official policy to be concerned, the most positive thing out of all of this is that Crennel isn’t in denial. As a head coach he may not have shown much growth, but he is a realist.

The real question now is whether the Browns and Crennel will turn this concern into full fledged panic come Thursday’s final preseason game against the Chicago Bears. Typically, the starters make but a token appearance. And since the Browns are a little shy of starters these days, under normal circumstances this would be quarterback Ken Dorsey’s last chance for significant game action before being relegated to permanent clipboard duty for the rest of the season.

Whether Crennel will look for something positive to take into the regular season or just play the game to expected norms is about the only reason to even watch Thursday’s game. The length of time in which he decides to risk further injuries to his starting lineup will be a fair measure of his level of true panic. The guess though is that Crennel will again see another short week of preparation, injuries that have piled up and could only get worse and stay the course, meaning some Brady Quinn, plenty Dorsey.


It’s been a relatively quiet training camp for receiver Braylon Edwards, mainly because he’s only been on the field for a handful of plays during the preseason. But his mouth is in regular season form. According to a story filed by Jeff Schudel of the News Herald, Edwards called out both Jamal Lewis and Eric Wright for their play against the Giants and even took a little swipe at offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.

Last week Edwards gave an interview to former Giants’ linebacker Carl Banks on Sirius Radio. Mistake number one. Banks, acting more as a big brother than an interviewer, basically scolded Edwards and the Browns for relying too much on talent and not enough on attention to detail in their preseason game against the Giants. Banks, referring to the Jamal Lewis fumble, told Edwards, “those are the little things — I’m saying that to you (Edwards) as a player and young leader on your team. When you start to look at the intangibles that takes teams from playoffs to Super Bowls or playoffs to conference champions, it will be little things like that that will prevent you from being everything your team can be. You guys are a young talented team, and you’re going to win your share of games with talent, but you would hate to have the little things come back to haunt you and then sit back and say, ‘Dang it. I could have been in that Super Bowl had we not done this or not done that.’”

Taking the bait rather than the advice, which was mistake number two, Edwards said of the fumble “you have a veteran, 1,300 yards last year, fumbling on the two-yard line — that can’t happen.” That may be true, but given that Edwards wasn’t even available for the game because he wasn’t wearing spikes while running in practice, Edwards isn’t in the best position to level criticism at those who actually were able to suit up. And it’s not as if Lewis is Jerome Harrison either. Lewis is a player of some accomplishment that hardly needs to be reminded about taking care of business from someone like Edwards. It was Edwards, most will recall, who was late to a Saturday night meeting and disobeyed his head coach in the process when he put his own interests ahead of the team by attending the Ohio State/Michigan game a few years ago.

Then, referring to how the team let Giants second string receiver Domenik Hixon run wild, Edwards said “you can’t go three and out (on offense) and blow coverage assignments as a starting (defensive) unit. You have a guy in [Domenik] Hixon who is not going to be the poster boy for receivers in anybody’s fantasy football pool, but here he is with two touchdowns as well as a punt return for a touchdown. These are self-inflicted negatives. These are things we can’t do. If we do do (them), we won’t be what everybody expects us to be this year.” It’s actually hard to fault Edwards here, even if he, too, makes his living off the blown coverage assignments of opposing defenses. But it’s still rather curious to hear anyone on offense criticize anyone on defense, even in preseason. But again there’s precedent when it comes to Edwards. Again, as most will recall, it was Edwards who was so quick to defend Chad Johnson of the Cincinnati Bengals because of the supposedly cheap shots he took from the Browns’ secondary a few years back.

As for Chudzinski, Edwards said “Chud calls them sins — Self-Inflicted Negatives. There’s a long list. I think the list might be a little too long, but he does have a couple quality points. One is you can’t beat yourself. That was our problem last year. We had too many situations where we beat ourselves.” It’s nice of Edwards to acknowledge that the coach most responsible for unleashing him may have a few quality pieces of advice to share. Apparently, though, there’s only so much advice Edwards’ brain can handle at one time. No surprise there.

When Edwards goes off like this, it makes one really appreciate the difference between a mere loudmouth and a true leader. Edwards may think he’s merely engaged in thoughtful analysis, but he comes off more as someone impressed with the sound of his own voice. Contrast, for example, Edwards’ mini-rant with that of LeBron James at the end of the last Cavs season. James, without taking on anyone personally, was nonetheless pointed and vocal in what the team needs to get better. He sent a message in the way it needed to be sent and not at the expense of anyone else. A few months later the Cavs end up with Mo Williams. That’s how leadership works. Set the vision and push others to meet it. All Edwards does is give his teammates another reason not to invite him to dinner.

A question to ponder as the Browns enter into the final preseason game with a secondary this bad: What’s more painful to watch, short drives that end with long touchdown passes or long drives that end in touchdowns made possible by giving up several 10-yard passes on 3rd and 8?

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Struggling in Detroit

If the third preseason game is supposed to be a dress rehearsal for all that’s to come in the regular season then this much is certain: the Cleveland Browns aren’t ready. They are really, really not ready. Struggling on offense and being over accommodating on third down on defense, the Browns’ were again outplayed on both sides of the ball on their way to losing their third preseason game, this time a 26-6 hobbling at the hands of the Detroit Lions. Aesthetically, the only significant difference between this game and the disaster five days earlier against the New York Giants is that the Lions aren’t a Super Bowl caliber team. Not even close.

The game was the much hyped debut of Browns’ backup quarterback Brady Quinn. If there ends up being a quarterback controversy on this team, it won’t be as a result of this game. Quinn struggled in the same way that Derek Anderson usually struggles on the road. At least Quinn showed some poise. Most of the rest of the team couldn’t even make that claim, outside of perhaps defensive lineman Shaun Rogers who was making his first trip back to Detroit since being acquired by the Browns in the off season and kicker Phil Dawson.

To a certain extent the struggles were hardly unexpected. The Browns were playing their second game in five days and were missing not only Anderson, but also starting running back Jamal Lewis, starting receiver Braylon Edwards and kick returner Josh Cribbs and that was just on offense. Brodney Pool, Sean Jones and Antwan Peek (who has missed all of preseason) weren’t available to the defense either.

Given all that was missing, and given the whooping the starters took earlier in the week, it seemed that all the elements would coalesce to create something much closer to a controlled scrimmage than an actual game. It wasn’t even that entertaining. Pity the poor Lions fans that decided to waste their Saturday afternoon inside Ford Field.

If Lions’ quarterback Jon Kitna had watched any film on the Browns first two preseason games, he had to be drooling at the prospect of padding his own stats against a porous Browns defensive secondary. And that was before Pool and Jones were declared out for the game. Maybe that’s why Kitna and the Lions came out throwing, eschewing a huddle and forcing the Browns to play them straight up.

Though the defense was essentially up to its old trick of bending far into the other team’s territory, it was doing it in a mostly atypical way, at least in contrast to previous years. The defensive line, anchored by Shaun Rogers, played as advertised. Unfortunately, though, so did the defensive backfield, at least for as long as the Lions kept in their key offensive starters, which was all of two series. But that was plenty for the Lions, who were able to run up two quick Dave Rayner field goals.

The Lions’ defense was hardly as accommodating to Quinn. In three straight series, the Browns were three and out. In all, they gained 19 yards in nine plays covering just over one quarter of play. You did have to admire the moxie of Browns offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski though. He unleashed Quinn on his very first play as a starter, calling for a long pass at former Browns’ defensive back Leigh Bodden. The pass to Donte Stallworth was incomplete, due mostly to a defensive holding penalty on former Akron Zips player Dwight Smith. Still, the thought was good. The execution was lacking, which was really the predominant theme throughout.

Quinn’s third possession was particularly frustrating because the Browns started inside Lions territory. He hit tight end Kellen Winslow on a quick hitter on first down, but a Jerome Harrison run went nowhere. On third down Quinn was under pressure and couldn’t connect. All told, in slightly more than one quarter of play, the Browns ran nine offensive plays for 19 yards.

The Lions had no such struggles. Not only did Kitna have his way, mostly, with the Browns’ starters, so did backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky. All he did in his second possession was move the Lions 80 yards in five plays. For good measure, Orlovsky made the key block on the final play of that drive, a 35-yard run by Kevin Smith, taking out three Browns’ players in the process.

By the time the score stood 13-0, Browns’ starters were once again in the now familiar position of hanging their heads. Fortunately, the fact that the Lions aren’t the Giants is what kept the game relatively close. Quinn eventually was able to find some semblance of rhythm just not enough. After finding their way to first and goal at the Lions’ eight-yard line, the offense just as suddenly found itself third and goal from the Lions’ 21 as a result of a Winslow holding penalty on a pass to Stallworth, and two incomplete passes. It led to a Phil Dawson 39-yard field goal.

On their next possession, the Browns moved the score to within a touchdown thanks to a 53-yard field goal by Dawson. The problem was that settling for a 53-yard field goal when you start the drive inside the other team’s territory isn’t much of an accomplishment. The Lions meanwhile ran a mostly effective two-minute drill to close out the half and pushed the score back to 10 on another Rayner field goal.

Quinn’s only possession of the second half was essentially a rerun of the two possessions that preceded it—a little promise a little frustration. Quinn looked sharp initially but couldn’t connect on two short passes, one to Stalloworth and the other to Harrison on fourth and two that ultimately doomed the opening drive of the half. The Browns were forced to punt.

The Lions, again, didn’t feel so constrained. Orlovsky, again moving the ball mostly at will, had the chance to effectively put the game out of reach had Lions offensive coordinator Jim Colletto felt so inclined. Instead, with the ball resting at the Browns’ 17-yard line, Colletto called for three straight run plays. The Lions had to settle for Rayner’s fourth field goal and a 13-point lead. It effectively put the game out of reach anyway. For good measure, Orlovsky made sure it was the case by following that up with a five-play 69-yard touchdown drive for the Lions’ final score.

When Quinn’s game ended, the box score will show that he went 14-24 for 106 yards and no interceptions, though the Lions were close on at least two occasions. It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t sponge-worthy either. He also didn’t have any touchdowns and never really came close on that either. If nothing else Quinn’s performance demonstrated the underlying importance of both Lewis and Edwards to the offense. Without those two key playmakers, the Browns were forced to rely far too much on the inexperienced Quinn. It showed.

As for the defense, it was hard to say that it suffered as much the impact of losing two of its starters. With or without Pool and Jones, the defensive backfield proved quite capable of giving up huge chunks of yardage to quarterbacks, both good and mediocre. This week’s perpetrator was Orlovsky, a career backup playing not so much for his job but because the Lions are so thin at the position. In all, the Lions had 257 yards through the air and, with their starters in, seemed to complete every third down they really needed. Certain trends, apparently, are harder to break than others.

The Browns now find themselves winless in the preseason, which, frankly, is the least of the problems. Success in the preseason is as overrated as failure. The larger issue is what this preseason has revealed thus far about the defense and how far it needs to go to be credible. As expected, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker tried a variety of blitzes early on to disrupt both Kitna’s and Orlovsky’s rhythm. It didn’t work often enough to be effective. It’s downright scary to think how it might fare against Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys. Heck, it’s scary to think how they might fare against Jessica Simpson and the Dallas Cowboys.

Thankfully the preseason ends this Thursday at home against Chicago. It will give the Browns the nine days they’ll need to both heal and figure out exactly how to stop anyone on third down. They better use the time effectively.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Lingering Items--Giants Preseason Edition

Lingering Items—Giants Preseason Edition

By Gary Benz

It was nice to see the Cleveland Browns head coach Romeo Crennel took responsibility for not having his team prepared for Monday night’s preseason game against the New York Giants. By my count, that’s about the eleventy hundredth time Crennel has fallen on that sword. Maybe one of these days he’ll really mean it.

I’m not one to get al apoplectic about a preseason game. Just the same, there is no question that the Giants’ starters were sending a message to the Browns’ starters in that first quarter. The message was simple: chirp all you want about playoff aspirations. Just win something first. The question worth asking is whether that message was actually received.

In fairness to Crennel, his first priority is to get his team ready for the regular season. Preseason really is about evaluation. I’ve watched young head coaches place way too much emphasis on the preseason only to get their comeuppance once the regular season starts. My bigger concern here is that the Browns walked onto that field Monday night with a strut that wasn’t earned. While they weren’t being deliberately disrespectful (save for cornerback Eric Wright’s high step into the end zone after an interception of Anthony Wright!), the vibe was clear. Just as clear was the slap down they suffered as a result.

In essence, the Browns acted as if they have bought into the hype being perpetuated by a mostly no-nothing national media instead of actually working hard to fulfill the expectations placed upon them. They aren’t a good team until they actually prove they are a good team.

Crennel had the best perspective after last season when he downplayed the 10-win season by pointing out that all the team has proven is that it can win 10 games and not make the playoffs. Unfortunately, Crennel’s ability to articulate the appropriate approach and then make it resonate with his charges is two totally different matters. If he’s going to be successful as a head coach, that simply can’t be the case.


In just two preseason games, the Browns rather mediocre defensive backfield has been burned four times for long touchdown passes. And for the second straight week, general manager Phil Savage has brought in a reinforcement, this time in the person of Travis Daniels, formerly of the Miami Dolphins. Unlike last week’s Travis, former Minnesota Vikings defensive back Travis Key, this week’s Travis comes via a trade, the value of which is not yet known.

Daniels has played mostly as a nickel back to this point, so any immediate upgrade in the defensive backfield isn’t likely to be realized. In fact, much more likely is that Savage will keep parading in mostly interchangeable names in an attempt to shore up what is looking to be the kind of weakness that could keep this team out of the hunt.

Still, it’s hard to lay any blame on Savage, though many are doing just that. Leading is always about priorities and Savage rightly surmised that if a defense has to have a weakness, far better for it to be in the backfield then at the line.

Unquestionably, the Browns had one of the worst defensive lines in football last year. It was imperative that it be addressed in a bold way. It cost the Browns a second round pick in the trade for Corey Williams and it cost them depth in the backfield in the trade for Shaun Rogers. In the NFL, like any other league, you can’t get something for nothing. Rogers may have overstayed his welcome in Detroit, but that doesn’t mean he’s not without ability. Indeed, his absence was noticeable on Monday night.

Leigh Bodden did nothing to hasten his exit from Cleveland, save perhaps that “do you know who I am” moment at Hopkins Airport, but sacrificing him was the price to be paid. As many will recall, the Cincinnati Bengals were trying to cut their own deal to obtain Rogers. But because they are, well, the Bengals, they couldn’t make it happen. Nonetheless, under any circumstances Rogers, like Williams, was going to cost the Browns more than the “undisclosed future considerations” that they paid Miami for Daniels.

Even if the trade for either Williams or Rogers doesn’t work out, never fault the effort. Indians’ fans have been constantly subjected to a general manager more comfortable with talking himself out of deals than in making the final move or two to put the team over the top. Mark Shapiro seems so enamored with the talent he’s assembled he acts as if making the something-for-something trade is akin to trading his first born. Thus, he relegates himself to picking at the discarded scraps of others. It’s a method, just not a particularly successful one.

Savage has done his fair share of that, certainly, including his attempt to fill the gaping holes in the defensive backfield. But he’s also been incredibly proactive on both the free agent and trade fronts. Disagree all you want with the judgments he’s made, but at least recognize that he’s not leaving many stones unturned in actually trying to improve this franchise.


Something that seems to have changed drastically in pro football is punt coverage. A perfect example was the Giants’ punt with about two minutes left in the first quarter on Monday. Brandon McDonald, subbing for Josh Cribbs, called for a fair catch and then fielded Jeff Feagles’ 47-yard punt at the Browns’ own eight yard line.

There was a time not all that long ago where a returner would have been criticized for fielding a ball inside the 10-yard line. In fact, a returner’s only job in that situation was to try and distract the kicking team by faking a catch. It worked about as often as a team trying to draw a defense offside on a fourth and short play.

But because punters have gotten so good at putting air under every punt and because players can get downfield so much faster, returners are now forced to actually field a ball inside the 10. If they don’t, the likely outcome will be a kick downed inside the two yard line. The NFL game is mostly a chess match that is won or lost based on field position. The ability to consistently pin a team well inside its own 10-yard line often spells success n the box score.

Thus where McDonald’s fielding of the Feagles punt may have drawn much criticism in the past, now it’s considered a good play. That extra six yards, as the Browns proved later in the game, is very meaningful. If nothing else, it means the difference between punting the ball away from the goal line vs. punting it from the back of the end zone.

Here’s a question to ponder as the Browns head into Detroit on Saturday night: If Leigh Bodden intercepts Brady Quinn, what’s the over and under on the number of minutes it will take for someone to post a message board entry criticizing Savage for the Rogers trade? Personally, I think it’s 45 seconds. That’s probably conservative.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Stench from Bengals' Camp

Here is why the Cincinnati Bengals will never be successful under current ownership and leadership: they lack any content to their character. Owner Mike Brown, after publicly parting ways with one of the NFL’s true miscreants, disgraced receiver Chris Henry, welcomed him back on Tuesday anyway with a new two-year contract. Head coach Marvin Lewis, who just as publicly said Henry was through as a Bengal, played the ever compliant head coach just trying to hang on to a job not worth hanging on to.

For both Brown and Lewis, there isn’t enough Lava soap in existence to wash away the stink of this decision.

Henry had been the poster child for all of the problems that had plagued the Bengals off the field. He’s been arrested five separate times, the most recent of which was just last March when he punched a college kid and then broke the kid’s car window with a beer bottle. The charges were dropped, but it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. It was that incident that finally caused both Brown and Lewis to sever ties with Henry, though there was plenty of justification well before then.

But of course that was March and no football games are played in March. It was an easy decision to make. Training camp was still four months away. The college draft hadn’t yet taken place. There was still plenty of time to juggle the roster and find a way to replace a semi-talented receiver whose only real accomplishment to date has been the record pace at which he seems to find criminal trouble.

Then August beckoned. Chad Johnson, who ultimately reported to camp after threatening not to (he should have listened to his incredibly verbose inner monologue), injured his shoulder in a preseason game against Detroit. T.J. Houshmandzah, the Bengals’ other go-to receiver, has missed both of the Bengals’ preseason games with a sore hamstring. That’s left the Bengals a little thin at receiver, which is kind of a problem in an offense that is based predominately on the throwing arm of quarterback Carson Palmer.

Thus did Brown, after much soul-searching no doubt, place a call to Henry. It wasn’t as if Henry needed call waiting on his cell phone to make sure Brown could get through. Henry has been unemployed since March. Not a single NFL team was even interested. That may be due in part to the fact that Henry has been suspended for the first four regular season games this season. Naturally, Brown felt that with that kind of competition for Henry’s services a two-year deal made sense.

Though he went along with the Henry signing, it was also pretty clear that Lewis wasn’t particularly pleased with this latest turn of events. Perhaps it’s too romantic of a notion to think that Lewis would have taken a stand for doing the right thing instead of the convenient thing, but it’s not as if Lewis is sitting in the catbird seat of the NFL’s best head coaching gig either. If anything, Lewis resigning in protest would have done more for furthering his career than another wasted season in Cincinnati babysitting a roster full of whiners, loudmouths and troublemakers.

Lewis knows full well that what’s been plaguing the Bengals most the last few seasons is the collection of reprobates that Brown has allowed on the roster. With the number of off-the-field incidents permeating this team in the past, the focus has been everywhere but on the game. It gets a little irritating, not to mention distracting, for decent teammates to be constantly asked whether another teammate’s arrest is distracting. That’s why Lewis was so adamant in parting with Henry in the first place. It was Henry above anyone else that represented the Bengals of old. Lewis thought he was finally entering a season fresh.

But Brown, as poor of an example to a father’s legacy as one can imagine, felt he knew better. Fascinated with the past and completely unable to imagine a decent future, Brown, in one sublime move, emasculated his head coach, reintroduced a cancer into the locker room, and ensured another season of jokes directed at a franchise that’s known far more for its buffoonery than its accomplishments.

Perhaps recognizing that he had just been thrown under a bus driven by his owner, Lewis did try to put the best face on it he could, telling reporters on Tuesday that in conversations Henry claims to have been humbled by the time off and the lack of interest in his rather modest services. Henry, too, tried his best to sound contrite while oozing smarm and instead came off as a textbook thug being given the fifth chance he doesn’t deserve.

In one unintentionally telling comment, Henry said that this was “pretty much” his last chance to prove himself. In player-speak, what Henry really meant that as long as he can show that he hasn’t lost a step or two in his stride and/or the ability to hold onto a ball once thrown, there will always be guys like Brown waiting to shower him with the kind of money he’s hardly earned, even if he happens to run into another college kid who just won’t listen.

Leave it to an offensive lineman, though, in this case Bengal Willie Anderson, to actually find the proper perspective to this whole, sad mess. In a story in the Cincinnati Enquirer, Anderson said that Henry owes a number of people, such as the Bengals’ beleaguered public relations direction, a huge thank you for, basically, having to suffer the fallout from Henry’s antics. “Those people busted their tails beyond duty helping him out,” Anderson said. “He has found the end of the rainbow three or four times.” This won’t be Henry’s last rainbow.

For his part, Brown will likely spend today as he does any other day, in abject denial about the state of his franchise. When he decides to emerge from the rat hole in which he’s living these days instead of dodging the press, he’ll undoubtedly express empathy with the fans who are frustrated by this decision, all while defending his intent to simply bring a winner to the great city of Cincinnati. He’ll also claim to have really done his homework on Henry, perhaps even channeling a little George W. Bush in the process, by claiming to have looked into the soul of Henry to determine that there really is goodness wanting to be set free.

But when this spirals out of control again, which it will, perhaps Brown can petition the North Carolina Department of Corrections. If the Bengals can’t find a third receiver, maybe Brown can get Rae Carruth out of prison before his scheduled release in October, 2018.

Monday, August 18, 2008

A Giant Reality Trip

Well, at least the new uniform pants looked good and the final score was close.

Other than that, it would be hard to find much positive about the Cleveland Browns national debut on Monday night against the New York Giants. Good thing it was preseason, though, otherwise the Giants would played their starters far later into the game and the final score would have been much worse. Instead, after the domination was secured late in the second quarter, the Giants rested. The final score may have been 37-34, but anyone who thinks it was that close was clearly watching the Olympics or The Closer. Either would have been a better choice, actually.

Demonstrating why they are the Super Bowl champs and the Browns are merely wannabes, the Giants’ starters were pretty much able to do most anything they wanted at almost anytime they wanted. The Browns’ starters on the other hand, though missing a few key pieces, weren’t able to do much of anything except cause themselves a healthy dose of embarrassment in about every way a team can be embarrassed outside of the regular season.

With less than a minute gone in the second quarter, the Browns’ starters were down 30-3 due to a combination of penalties, mistakes and simply bad play. That 27-point differential is far more representative of what really took place than the final score.

The story of this game occurred from about the middle of the first quarter until quarterback Derek Anderson was sacked and left the game with a potential concussion with 13:17 left in the second quarter. In that brief time, the Browns put together some of the worst football you’re likely to see. Consider the evidence:

• At 8:47, Giants quarterback Eli Manning connected with the University of Akron product Domenik Hixon for the first of two touchdown passes. Manning’s pass came at the expense of Eric Wright. But to be fair to Wright, Manning was working on a short field. Of course that was due to a 53-yard pass interference penalty on Wright three plays earlier, but why pick nits?

• After the touchdown, the Browns immediately went three and out. Adams, not wanting to be upstaged by Wright, interfered with the returner leading to another penalty. On the plus side, it was only a 15-yard penalty.

• The Wright penalty though did lead to Manning’s second touchdown pass to Hixon, this one for 24 yards. But at least it wasn’t at the expense of Wright. This time Hixon beat cornerback Mike Adams by a mere five or so yards on the play. Of course it could have been more but for an entertaining interlude on the play proceeding the touchdown. Linebacker Andre Davis took a swing at an unidentified Giants player and missed. For that effort, he cost his team 15 yards, which only would have given Hixon even more room to run by Adams. Had Davis connected on his ill-advised swing, he undoubtedly would have had an earlier exit. Maybe that was his intent.

• The Browns responded well to this second touchdown by throwing another three-and-out at the Giants, though they did gain three yards.

• The Giants, perhaps showing mercy or perhaps wanting to now work on their running game, gained only one first down in its next possession. It was a tease because then things got interesting…

• Anderson hit fullback Charles Ali on a short pass. Tight end Kellen Winslow nullified it with an offensive pass interference penalty. A Jamal Lewis run for -2 yards and two incomplete passes later, the Browns were forced to punt from their own end zone. Officially, Reuben Droughns was credited with the inevitable blocked punt. In actuality, it was blocked by Browns rookie Travis Thomas, whom Droughns merely pushed into punter Dave Zastudil. Fortunately the ball took a favorable bounce for the Browns and the Giants only got the safety.

• On the ensuing free kick, Zastudil kicked it to, guess who?, Hixon, who immediately returned it virtually untouched for an 82-yard touchdown. Then things got even more interesting…

• On the kickoff, and with Josh Cribbs in the locker room, Syndric Steptoe took the ball to the Giants 9-yard line. Anderson passed to Ali who took it down to the three-yard line. It was Anderson’s high water mark. On the next play, Anderson and Lewis couldn’t execute a simple handoff. Safety James Butler picked up the ball at the 5-yard line and went almost untouched for a 95-yard return. Game, set and match.

Eventually, though, things settled down once Anderson got hurt, though it wasn’t necessarily because he got hurt. Mostly it was because the Giants, thankfully, had seen enough of most of its starters by the time Brady Quinn went in for the injured Anderson. The Browns, on the other hand, were mostly playing their starters, if only to provide an added measure of confidence. It seemed to work, to a degree.

Quinn was able to move the team in his second possession and close the gap to 30-10 with two minutes left. Then on the Giants next possession, and with perennial back up Anthony Wright at quarterback, the previously malinged Adams and Wright combined to close the gap to a mere 13 points at the half. Adams, on a corner blitz, forced Wright to launch a duck that fell ever so gingerly into the hands of Wright. Wright proceeded to high-step into the end zone for a 15-yard touchdown return. Why Wright was hotdogging it is anyone’s guess.

Most of the rest of the game went pretty much as expected, meaning it when it wasn’t outright painful to watch it was otherwise boring, and vice versa. Rookies and undrafted free agents littered the field like discarded hot dog wrappers, moving about and committing all manner of mistakes. Quinn, for example, was credited with a 44-yard touchdown pass to Steptoe that brought the Browns to within six at 30-24, but it the ball was underthrown. Giants’ cornerback Kevin Dockery actually had the interception for a moment then bobbled it back into Steptoe’s arms as he was entering the end zone.

Quinn, for his part, didn’t embarrass himself, though which is a good thing. He was 7-12 for 124 yards, but it was mostly against the opposing team’s second and third string players, as usual. Ken Dorsey made Bernie Kosar proud by leading the Browns to their final touchdown, an 8-yard pass to fellow Hurricane Lance Leggett, a play that the ESPN crew didn’t seem to realize had taken place until the Browns kicked off. The Giants were able to run out the clock afterward, officially drawing the curtain on a game for which the real curtains had been drawn far earlier.

To the extent there is anything meaningful to be gleaned from this entire mess, it came when both teams played its starters early on. And the most salient of all points is that the Giants are quite comfortable in the limelight. The Browns? Not so much.

The lure of trying to minimize the destruction by focusing on the final score is tempting. There are now injuries to wrestle with, including those to Anderson as well as Josh Cribbs and Brodney Pool, though the extent are not yet known. But for however meaningless the game might otherwise be, the fact that the Browns starters were pushed around like college kids by the physically superior Giants is going to linger, especially when these two teams meet again in mid October. That will be the real coaching challenge for head coach Romeo Crennel. His team knows that the butt whooping it took wasn’t the result of coming out flat. His young team with high expectations will be looking to him for answers and a way to rebuild some of the confidence it had surgically removed on Monday night. If Crennel can’t find those answers, it will be a long season, just not the kind originally envisioned.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Rarified Air

t’s one thing for the local fans to have high hopes for a Cleveland sports team. They always do, even as they are expecting the worst. But when the expectations extend beyond state borders, the team is entering truly rarified air.

On the strength, I suppose, of a 10-win season that could have either been better or worse, depending on the prism in which you tend to view life, the Cleveland Browns will be entering into a season where, frankly, the only thing they can do is disappoint. Win and make the playoffs, that’s expected. Lose and/or miss the playoffs again, fans will be looking for some throats to choke.

Certainly, the NFL and its various broadcast partners expect this team to be a contender. On Monday night, the Browns face the New York Giants in a nationally-broadcast preseason game on ESPN. Meaningless preseason games in which the starters play but a series or two is apparently what passes as counterprogramming to the Olympics for the self-proclaimed worldwide leader in sports. Still, ESPN could have opted for, say the Detroit-Cincinnati yawnfest, so it’s something.

But beyond preseason, the Browns are nationally featured in each of their first three games covering each of the three major networks. That’s some serious credibility for a franchise that’s been down a few quarts of it for most of the last 10 years. Having lived through a mostly impotent resurrection of a once proud franchise, Browns fans can be excused for being highly skeptical of late-coming outsiders with an endless supply of irrational exuberance even as they engage in their own brand of exuberance.

If the Browns are to prove at all worthy of their national darling status, they’ll have to avoid injuries first and foremost. In the NFL, as in pretty much any sport, injuries more than anything else tend to determine the outcome of the season. The NFL is by far the most violent domestic sport, though it may not have much on Australian rules football or Irish hurling. Still, world class athletes playing at high speeds in bodies not particularly designed to bend they way they are often bent causes a whole variety of problems, the best efforts of the medical staff notwithstanding. If you need proof, Gary Baxter blew out two knees on a play that was noteworthy only because of its ordinariness. He’ll probably never play again.

There is no question that general manager Phil Savage has upgraded the talent on the Browns in several areas, particularly over the last two years. Still, despite his best efforts, it is a team not nearly deep enough overall to sustain a spate of injuries. Arguably, no team in the league really can. The way that teams manage the cap causes them to fill out the bottom thirds of their rosters with young and/or fringe players who aren’t usually in a position to step right in without a drop off in production. When everything shakes out, close to a third of the Browns’ active roster will be made up of players with three or less years of experience.

The teams that can minimize the number of games missed by its starters will be the teams likely to be there at the end of the season with a chance to win it all. On that score, the Browns have as good a chance as any, even with this defensive backfield. It will all depend, again, on injuries. That’s where the trade of Leigh Bodden will linger most.

In strengthening its defensive line, the Browns got thinner in the defensive backfield. That’s not necessarily a bad tradeoff, assuming tradeoffs like that have to be made, but the situation became almost dire when Daven Holley went out for the year with a knee injury suffered in off-season drills. Safeties Sean Jones and Brodney Pool are credible fairly established players, but it’s hard to yet be sold on Eric Wright or Brandon McDonald at cornerback. Put it this way, when a nearly ancient Terry Cousin is fighting Mike Adams to be the nickel back, depth is a problem.

Beyond Davis and Cousin are players of even lesser stature, if that’s possible. Nick Sorenson? A.J. Davis? Mil’von James? Brandon Mitchell? Travis Key? Just in case any in that group are getting significant playing time this season, fans better pull out the rosary beads now and pray for the sustained health of Shaun Rogers (who already may have some sort of knee problem) and Corey Williams. Don’t forget a few hosannas for Kamerion Wimbley either.

In short, when you consider how quickly things could deteriorate this season with a just a few injuries, it’s clear that beyond the simple on the field performance of the various players the real keys to this season lie with the performance of both head coach Romeo Crennel and new defensive coordinator Mel Tucker.

Crennel is a very likeable sort. He’s straightforward and commands respect. He’s not a phony. He’s old school in the right way. That doesn’t necessarily make him the right fit as a head coach. Despite his best intentions, time and again his Browns’ teams make far too many mental mistakes. It’s a nagging trend that must stop. The line between success and failure is so microscopic that mental mistakes and not talent often decide most games.

Crennel’s also not the best judge of talent. If Crennel had it his way, Maurice Carthon would probably still be offensive coordinator. All evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, Crennel stood by Carthon far beyond his expiration code. It took Savage stepping to bring that farce to its inevitable conclusion. It also took Savage forcing Rob Chudzinski on Crennel before the offensive got a legitimate coordinator.

On the defensive side, where Crennel has had much more of a free hand given his background, the results have been mixed. Savage is in charge of talent acquisition and arguably has failed Crennel in that regard in the past. But Crennel didn’t do himself much good either by selecting Todd Grantham as defensive coordinator or by forcing a defensive scheme on a team without the talent to implement it. Crennel, by all accounts, made the move to oust Grantham and put in Mel Tucker as the defensive coordinator. Second only to the acquisition of both Rogers and Williams, it’s the off-season decision that may have the most impact on whether this team fulfills its expectations.

Tucker has worked with the defensive backfield and, above anyone else, knows its limitations. The performance of his defense will depend mightily on his ability to devise schemes to cover up those shortcomings. The guess is that Tucker will take some chances with this defensive and try plenty of blitzes in order to hurry the quarterback and disrupt the rhythm, something that the Pittsburgh Steelers always do so well. That seems to be his only choice. If the Browns’ defense is forced to play teams straight up, they are going to have trouble getting off the field—again.

At this juncture, the Browns have enough starting talent to be competitive with any team in the league. But if you want to give your expectations a real reality check, ask yourself the far harder question of whether the Browns have the depth and the coaching talent to sustain that competiveness. As the season wears on, the answer to that question will reveal itself and be the far more important determiner of whether or not this team is playing meaningful football come Christmas.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Lingering Items--Jets Preseason Edition

It you’re going to write a game story during the NFL preseason, good luck. The problem with most preseason games is that they lack one and sometimes both critical elements: a game and a story. If you stuck around for the bitter end of the Cleveland Browns’ “game” against the New York Jets on Thursday night, you understand perfectly my point.

There’s really no reason to get into the whole “isn’t the NFL ripping off its fans by charging them full price for preseason games?” rant. The answer is a resounding “of course.” For season ticket holders, just amortize the additional price you pay for the two extra “games” over the cost of the other eight, meaning that the face value of each of your season tickets really is understated by about 25%. Think of it as a hidden tax, the kind politicians who like to take “no new taxes pledges” tend to impose. For the casual fan who actually buys a preseason ticket just to witness the excitement in person, he or she hardly in the best position to complain about the price afterward.

Moving beyond the cost issue, the bigger problem with preseason games is that they are a misnomer. Sure, there are time clocks, referees, kick offs, and punt returns. The vendors sell beer, too. But these are just false positives. Any resemblance between the preseason and a regular season game is mostly imagined.

Thursday’s game against the Jets was instructive mostly to prove that overall point. Quarterback Derek Anderson played one series. Kellen Winslow, Jr., sat out the game as he probably will most of the preseason. The same pretty much goes for nearly all of the starters. For their part, the Jets started a quarterback who, the minute Brett Favre passed his conditioning test, immediately was relegated to back-up, again.

Look around the NFL and the same thing played out in virtually every other preseason “game”. The starters played token minutes in a modest nod of sorts to the saps who attended in person. New England Patriots’ head coach, Bill Belichick, the ultimate fan coach, doesn’t even bother to nod. Tom Brady might as well be in the witness protection program during the preseason. Belichick, like every other NFL head coach, including the Browns’ Romeo Crennel, uses these preseason walk-throughs for the time-honored task of evaluating the group of marginal talents fighting for the last 10 or 12 spots on the rosters, under so-called game conditions. It’s the only reason, I think, they even bother with a clock.

But a clock does not a game make. The first person who saw anything approaching game conditions after the first 10 minutes on Thursday during the Browns/Jets “game” is either the widest-eyed optimist on the planet or the most delusional. It’s a fine line. What you did see is each team’s second and third strings taking on the other team’s second and third strings. This may tell Crennel something about the depth of his team relative to that of the 4-12 Jets, but it wildly undershoots the intended goal, except maybe when it comes to the Browns’ secondary.

Going into this season, there isn’t a fan around who doesn’t already know that the secondary on this team is thinner than the ice John Edwards is skating on these days. The first of many expected cracks in that ice came Thursday night when quarterback Brett Ratliff, the Jets’ presumptive third-string quarterback, completed touchdowns of 70 and 71 yards.
Crennel, offered maybe some unintentional foreshadowing when he said on Saturday, “giving up two plays of 70 yards is never acceptable, But it was just two plays, and you can't make a general assumption based on two plays. Now, if it happens again, then it will cause for concern.” Apparently general manager Phil Savage was even less impressed or already fraught with concern having witnessed the sight of his defensive backfield being burned by David Clowney, a second-year receiver of such little note that the only entry on his New York Jets biography page under “career highlights” is “inactive for three games.” I kid you not. On Sunday, Savage signed two more defensive backs, former Buckeye Brandon Mitchell and former Minnesota Viking Travis Key. What, you were expecting Champ Bailey?
Mitchell and Key are just stop gap measures. Undoubtedly Savage is trying to work some kind of trade or at least hoping that an upgrade awaits him on the scrap heap of other team’s cuts. In the meantime, look for more big plays being given up on defense this preseason as the starting defensive backfield gets plenty of rest this preseason. Crennel may not be concerned just yet, but he probably understands that the health of those starters is far more important to this team’s chances of getting to the playoffs than Anderson’s.
Early the next morning after the Browns/Jets game (which came much earlier than I would have liked as a result of the weather delay during the first quarter), I flew to New York for the weekend. If you think Brett Favre being traded to the Jets was big news in the big city last Wednesday, it was nothing compared to what transpired the minute the Jets returned home on Friday.
The media was far more obsessed with every move Favre made than such pedestrian matters as, say, the Olympics. There was Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for example, treating Favre like visiting royalty at City Hall. Jets’ owner Woody Johnson understating it just a tad likened the attention to an Elvis sighting. It was all great fun and surely helped the team sell some Favre jerseys.
At some point, though, the Jets will have to wake up to the notion that the key to their season rests not so much Favre as it is does on the hope that the rest of the team that general manager Mike Tannebaum rebuilt after last season’s disaster comes through. If Favre looks good this season, it will owe mostly to what is most likely to be a greatly improved offensive line highlighted by the signing of former Pittsburgh Steelers’ mainstay, Alan Faneca.
As Browns’ fans can readily attest to, nothing changes the character of a moribund offense like a vastly improved offensive line. As much as things have changed about football, the basics are still the same. The team that controls the line of scrimmage controls the game. The Browns’ Anderson may have been the NFL’s breakout player of the year last year, but he would not have come close to having that kind of season without the additions of first round pick Joe Thomas and free agent Eric Steinbach. The Jets need a similar story this year. Put it this way: given the state of the Jets last season, if Anderson had been their quarterback, Tannebaum still would have traded for Favre.
An amusing debate making the rounds right now is whether quarterback Brady Quinn has turned into a dinker and a dunker, afraid of throwing downfield. Thursday’s performance helped fuel that debate. What makes it amusing is not its underlying accuracy but the fact that the debate is taking place at all. Quinn is, after all, a second string quarterback with limited opportunities to impress. If taking advantage of those limited opportunities is the goal, far better, I think, to actually move the team with a more efficient attack than to constantly throw downfield to second and third string receivers on a team that’s thin at the receiver position in the first place.
The real subtext of the discussion is that a supposedly new-found fondness for short passes is the reason Quinn isn’t starting ahead of Anderson. If that helps someone come to some sort of personal resolution over their otherwise mixed feelings on Anderson, so be it. But the reality is that Quinn isn’t starting because Anderson had one of the great seasons of any Browns quarterback and deserves to enter camp without a single question mark hanging over him. It’s a status that isn’t going to change until Anderson is either hurt or demonstrates unquestionably that last season was a fluke. That’s not a bad thing.

Here’s the first question you might want to ponder as you wait several more days until the next preseason farce: if Syndric Steptoe had been playing for the Jets on Thursday instead of David Clowney, would Savage have found it necessary to sign Brandon Mitchell or Travis Key?

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Misplaced Emphasis

Considering the mess the Cleveland Indians’ bullpen made again on Wednesday afternoon, this time against the Tampa Bay Rays, it’s an easy conclusion to draw that the bullpen is this team’s weakest link. But as hard of a premise as it is to accept, it may very well be that the real problem with the Indians’ bullpen has far less to do with who is in it than it does how it’s utilized. In other words, the Indians, like virtually every team these days, consistently mismanage its bullpen in a way that’s probably costing them games.

The theory isn’t mine nor is it necessarily new, but a recent column by Jim Caple of, put the debate in an entirely different and historic context. His conclusion? The position of “closer” is the most overrated in sports. He may be right.

The basis for Caple’s conclusion is a research paper by David Smith of The purpose of Smith’s research was to try and determine, among other things, how important it is to get an early lead and whether good teams come from behind more often than poor teams. In doing so, Smith also uncovered some rather amazing evidence from which it is easy to conclude that the emphasis on having a “closer” isn’t justified historically and, actually, may be counterproductive.

Reviewing virtually every major league game played since 1944 through 2003 as well as several season prior to 1944 for which information was available, Smith demonstrates that the winning percentage when teams have leads after 1, 4 and 8 innings is virtually unchanged since 1901. Even more to the point, in what are now considered classic save situations, meaning teams having a one, two or three run leads after 8 innings, the winning percentages have likewise been maintained. Thus, a team in 1944, just like a team in 2003, won roughly 85 percent of the games in which it had a one-run lead entering the 9th inning, 94 percent of the games in which it had a two-run lead, and 96 percent of the games in which it had a three-run lead.

In that context, the fact that the Indians bullpen blew a three-run lead on Wednesday is interesting but actually unusual, even considering who is in that bullpen. Over the course of a season, or more likely over the course of several seasons, that kind of loss isn’t going to happen very often irrespective of who is in the bullpen. Far more important is whether or not the team has the lead.

That’s the first point, really. Considering that Smith reviewed nearly 123,000 games covering over 2.2 million innings and found no statistically significant difference in the winning percentages, the ability of a pitcher, be it a starter or a reliever, to hold a lead early in the game is far more determinative of that team’s success than whether or not it has a shut-down closer throwing 101 miles per hour fastballs in the ninth inning with a three-run lead.

Caple, in his column, does a fine job of dissecting the issue even more finely, using the case of Seattle reliever J.J. Putz to make the most salient of points. It’s a point that works just as well with virtually any team, including the Indians.

Unquestionably, Putz was Seattle’s best pitcher last season. He had 40 saves and a 1.38 ERA. Most of that handiwork came before a serious nosedive that started in late August. As a result of its losing streak, Putz was mostly unused because save situations were few and far between. Had manager John McLaren, who took over for Mike Hargrove, then not managed so much by the book, he might have thrown Putz into a game much earlier to keep it under control or even protect an early lead when his starter was otherwise struggling. Unquestionably Hargrove would have managed similarly, given that managing by the book is his calling card. As a result, the Mariners ended up using inferior pitchers time and again who either gave up leads or couldn’t keep a game close, nullifying any need to use Putz late in the game. And time and again, Seattle ended up losing games with its best pitcher glued to the bullpen bench.

Indians’ manager Eric Wedge manages similarly. Indeed most managers do. It has everything to do with how bullpens are constructed these days. Relief pitchers carry one of three labels: long relief, short relief and mop up. Within each slot is a subspecialty, particularly for the short relievers. To most managers, there is a major difference between a seventh inning pitcher, an eighth inning pitcher and a closer. Once slotted, managers are reticent to vary.

Oakland As’ general manager Billy Beane told Caple that this is as much a result of media-drive expectations as anything else, because it’s certainly not statistically based. As Beane correctly recalled, when the Boston Red Sox announced a few years ago that it would utilize a “closer by committee” concept (much as the Indians have done since they jettisoned Joe Borowski), it was tantamount to an admission that they didn’t have a closer. Egads. For sake of more media inquiries, they quickly abandoned the concept, at least publicly.

Entering this season, Indians general manager Mark Shapiro constructed the bullpen based on Rafael Perez pitching the seventh inning, Rafael Betancort pitching the eighth inning and Borowski closing in the ninth. It’s the classic formula and one that seemingly worked last season. But in retrospect, its success may have been overstated. The Indians had good starting pitching, decent middle relief pitching coupled with enough offense to take leads into the late innings. This isn’t to diminish the contributions of Betancort, Perez and Borowski. Holding a lead is important. But getting it is far more important.

What this all really gets back to for the Indians this season is not what happened against the Tampa Bay on Wednesday, but what happened when Shapiro decided that the team had plenty of offense going into this season.

Entering Wednesday’s game, the Indians were 49-63. Of those 49 wins, 46 occurred because they entered the ninth inning with the lead, 44 of them occurred because they had the lead in the eighth inning. Statistically, the Indians are 46-2 this season when entering the ninth inning with the lead and 44-4 when entering the eighth inning with a lead. In each case, and with a bullpen that most would paint a disaster, the Indians are matching historical averages anyway. In fact, irrespective of the inning, if the Indians enter it with the lead, they are winning more games than not, especially late, consistent with historical averages.

The problem, which should be obvious, is that they simply aren’t generating enough offense to get the lead very often. They most certainly aren’t carrying very many leads into the late innings of games. And a team that can’t score enough runs to get a lead isn’t going to come from behind very often either.

On that score, the Indians’ rather woeful offense is turning every other team’s bullpen into virtually unhittable machines. Fifty-one times the Indians have entered the ninth inning trailing and they’ve won only once. That means opposing teams, irrespective of who their closers might be, are shutting down the Indians 98 percent of the time in those situations, which is relatively far above historical averages. That same pattern holds from the seventh inning on. In fact, the Indians have won only seven times when trailing entering either the seventh, eighth or ninth innings.

If there is any good news in this, it’s that the Indians bullpen isn’t nearly as awful as it seems even as it’s mismanaged. At the same time, it reinforces how poorly the offense has otherwise performed. Ultimately, it provides an important lesson that a statistical wonk like Shapiro should already know but if he does, he hasn’t put it into practice: real success isn’t going to follow until he quits sacrificing the offense for the sake of the bullpen.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

More Than Just Manny Being Manny

It’s worth asking, even if the answer seems obvious: at what point will Manny Ramirez realize he finally stepped over the line? Undoubtedly there is considerable sentiment that Ramirez, like most other pampered and spoiled professional athletes, doesn’t even possess the gene necessary to express regret. And that may be true. But you have to think at some point on his trip across country to hook up with Casey Blake and the rest of the L.A. Dodgers that it had to flash at least momentarily in his mind that he may have pushed his clown act a tad to far.

Teams, particularly contending teams and particularly the defending World Series champs, don’t trade a current superstar and lock Hall of Famer in the middle of a pennant race without an awfully good reason. Yet it certainly seemed like the Boston Red Sox had good reason and more to send Ramirez as far away as geographically possible. Now he’s left with the realization, whether he owns up to it or not, that he carries a tarnished image to a city where image is everything.

Ramirez will always be seen as a somewhat beloved overgrown kid to Cleveland Indians fans. Like C.C. Sabathia, Ramirez grew up with the Indians. At every step of his development from the low minors to his pro debut to his last at bat with the Indians, Ramirez possessed one of the sweeter swings ever. He still does. As a neophyte major leaguer, his mostly harmless goofiness gave him the appeal of a Golden Retriever. The stories about a young Ramirez traipsing around like someone’s kid brother, absentmindedly leaving five-figure uncashed checks laying around in his car, bumming rides off of the clubhouse attendants, grabbing just about any bat in the rack at any moment, only made him endearing.

When Ramirez left Cleveland, he wasn’t excoriated by the fans the way Jim Thome was, even though he made the same unabashed money grab. Sure, there has been the occasional derogatory reference to him as Manny Dinero, but his returns to Cleveland have generated mostly a “wish he was still here” reaction whereas with Thome fans still boo him and consider him to be a traitor.

All of that may be due to the fact that Thome was far more forthcoming and articulate with the media, which ended up costing him dearly with the public. His claims of wanting to remain in Cleveland ultimately rang hollow. Ramirez in contrast never said much of anything to anyone. At the time, he simply let his agent, Jeff Moorad, manipulate the local media as he angled for the best deal for his client. It probably wasn’t a calculated move on Ramirez’s part so much as it was just another example of his seemingly casual indifference toward his career which to most seemed to consist of the beautiful simplicity of “see ball, hit ball, occasionally cash a check.”

To this day, any fan who says he really knows much about Ramirez is basing it more on hearsay than firsthand experience. At least until recently.

One of the strangest interviews that Ramirez has ever given (and he rarely gives them) was to earlier this week. In that interview he uttered his famous “the Red Sox don’t deserve a player like me” line, a quote that will certainly redefine him going forward at least as much as his “aw shucks” persona has defined him in the past. In full measure, the bomb he dropped was audacious in its scope: “During my years here, I've seen how they [the Red Sox] have mistreated other great players when they didn't want them to try to turn the fans against them. The Red Sox did the same with guys like Nomar Garciaparra and Pedro Martinez, and now they do the same with me. Their goal is to paint me as the bad guy. I love Boston fans, but the Red Sox don't deserve me. I'm not talking about money. Mental peace has no price, and I don't have peace here.”
It would easy to pick nits with Ramirez’s revisionist history. No question, though, that the Red Sox have an ignominious history when it comes to the way they’ve treated certain superstars, dating back to Babe Ruth. Still, it will be fascinating to see where Ramirez finds his “mental peace” next season and at what price. Having spectacularly eliminated a club with one of the highest payrolls in the league from the mix, this latest episode won’t help Ramirez maximize his value no matter how the rest of the season turns out.

The Red Sox may be employing the old “addition by subtraction” spin to this mess, but there really are no winners in this situation. The Red Sox can talk about the new calm and the “team first” attitude that has re-emerged in the clubhouse. And certainly Jason Bay is a decent consolation prize. But the Red Sox are not a better team today than they were with Ramirez no matter how it’s spun. Ramirez may feel like he pushed the Red Sox around pretty good and let them know that he won’t be trifled with, but it comes at a permanent cost to his reputation. The ESPNdeportes quote and his tired antics—the mysterious refusals to play, the half-hearted runs to first base—will linger. The Dodgers, too, aren’t going to come out of this unscathed. Ramirez brings baggage and unneeded attention for a team just trying to get in the playoffs. And the scruffy, unkempt Ramirez will, at some point, clash with Joe Torre, as old school of a manager as there is in the game.

The Ramirez situation provides some interesting parallels with the melodrama playing out in Green Bay with Brett Favre and the Packers. On the surface, there are similarities given the players involved. But one of the key differences is that Favre is unquestionably at the end of his career, Ramirez is not. However the Favre situation resolves, it won’t last more than another season or so. Ramirez is going to be around for awhile. Though 36, Ramirez has plenty left in the tank. And as long as the American League keeps the designated hitter, with that swing Ramirez can probably hit .280 and drive in 80-90 runs a game until he’s 50.

But whether he gets that chance depends on whether Ramirez returns to his more carefree ways or becomes permanently enamored with his new-found verbosity. Most any team can tolerate the old Manny being Manny. It’s the new Manny being Manny that will wear thin long before his considerable skills finally abandon him.