Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Broadening His Perspective

As Cleveland Browns’ owner Randy Lerner hopscotches around the eastern part of the United States in search of someone to run his beleaguered franchise, the thought occurred to me that somewhere a stepped was missed.

Shouldn’t Lerner at least ask himself the question of whether or not he’s even the best person to make these decisions? History suggests he’s not.

Lerner’s last significant hires since reluctantly taking control of the franchise his father wanted were John Collins, Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel. Collins was a smooth, polished public relations type from the NFL’s front office. What purpose he served in the role of club president was never clearly defined by Lerner but however described he was ill-suited for it. Lerner couldn’t tell until it was too late.

Savage was a work in progress but learning from someone accomplished, former Browns’ tight end Ozzie Newsome. It helped that Savage had ties with former coach Bill Belichick who, after flaming out in his first try as a head coach, has gone on to compile one of the most impressive resumes of any NFL coach ever. Crennel was a lifelong assistant for a variety of teams, including the Browns, and had some of the same contacts with Savage and Belichick, having actually worked for the latter as defensive coordinator in New England.

As it turned out, none of those hirings worked. Collins was the first to go, which was hardly a surprise. Insecure and without a clearly defined job, a clash sooner or later was inevitable. Crennel, frankly, should have been the next. It’s not that he wasn’t a good head coach this year. He was never a good head coach. The problems of this season were only magnified versions of what has characterized each and every team under Crennel, magnified because of the heightened expectations that this season brought.

Savage was more of a borderline call. He has a pretty good eye for talent, certainly not as good as he thinks, but good enough to keep him employed in the NFL. But with four years of training he still never could get comfortable behind a desk. That’s where Lerner needed him most. Again, Lerner couldn’t tell until it was too late.

Here it is, four years later and the Browns are in at least as big a mess as they were four years previously. And now we see Lerner essentially going back to the same well in hopes that different buckets of water will quench the thirst of a fan base that’s been parched for the last 10 years.

Perhaps a better tact for Lerner would be to find someone else altogether to make these decisions for him. Lerner already has demonstrated that he can’t put a franchise together, what makes him think he’ll be better at it this time and what makes him think that he’ll be better at it by turning over different rocks in the same garden?

In going about his search, Lerner seems oddly focused on finding someone with that increasingly more rare combination of Cleveland experience and success. It’s a very narrow focus indeed. That’s the problem.

There’s this perception Lerner is fostering that the new general manager and new head coach somehow have to “get it” when it comes to Cleveland, as if there’s some deep mystery to this town. What’s there to get? That the Browns have a passionate fan base? That Browns fans are demanding? Alert the local media, there’s breaking news in the making there.

We all like to think there’s something special about the Browns and their fans but that is just parochialism taken to an extreme. The passion that the fans have for this team and the loyalty they’ve shown it is only admirable because too often it’s a passion and loyalty that the caretakers of the team didn’t deserve. But it’s not as if Bears fans or Giants fans feel any less differently about their teams.

Still the perception exists that Cleveland requires some sort of special handling by someone well versed in the ways and means of this town. Maybe it started with Paul Brown, who stayed true to his Ohio roots and brought football fame and glory to various towns around this state. In more recent times, the back story of Bernie Kosar, a product of Boardman, Ohio, who manipulated the supplemental draft in order to play for his favorite team, fed this beast.. But a perception that glory can only be realized here through individuals with local ties ignores the reality that the Browns’ storied history was built on a far broader base.

The team’s greatest player and the greatest running back in NFL history, Jim Brown, was from St. Simon’s island off the coast of Georgia and went to prep school and college in western New York. Blanton Collier, one of the best and most underrated coaches ever, was from Kentucky. Gene Hickerson was born in Tennessee and played his college ball at Ole Miss. Leroy Kelly was born in Philadelphia and played for Morgan State in Baltimore. The core of those glorious teams of the ‘80s were from elsewhere. Brian Sipe and Clay Matthews grew up and played their college ball in Southern California. Hanford Dixon was born in Alabama and Frank Minnifield was born in Kentucky. I could go on but the point is made. Nearly every significant player or coach for this storied franchise came from somewhere else.

Yet here we find Lerner almost singularly focused on finding someone with Browns roots under the mistaken belief that that holds the key to the resurrection. In ways that are almost too scary to contemplate, Lerner’s narrow-mindedness is eerily similar to Al Davis’ narrow-mindedness in Oakland. Davis overhauls his franchise far more often than he overhauls his own wardrobe. And at its core is a belief that only those with Raiders roots can rekindle glory lost.

But Davis’ problem in Oakland is the same as Lerner’s problem in Cleveland. They’ve simply hired the wrong guys, repeatedly. Davis does so because, frankly, he’s nuts. He is so antiquated in his thinking that he no longer even understands the modern game. Lerner does so because he doesn’t know better. He sees something going right somewhere else and tries to replicate it without understanding why it’s going right somewhere else in the first place. He’s drawn simple conclusions from complex situations.

The fact that Belichick and his progeny have been successful in New England has nothing to do with the fact that they cut their teeth in Cleveland first. It could have easily been Denver or Detroit. It’s just a coincidence.

Scott Pioli and Eric Mangini or Josh McDaniels or any of the other various fruits from the Belichick tree may very well end up restoring order to this team. But it’s not as if they are the only ones qualified to do so or the only ones that should be considered.

But since Lerner really has no idea how to make these underlying decisions anyway, he’s doing what the unqualified usually do, head back to the familiar even if it hasn’t been successful. If that works this time, it will mostly be luck. If Lerner really wants to introduce the element of skill and reason in the equation, he should step back for a moment and either take himself out of the process completely or at least listen to a few more knowledgeable people first that will convince him to broaden his perspective.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Cleaning House--Part 2

The other shoe dropped, as expected, Monday as Cleveland Browns’ owner Randy Lerner fired head coach Romeo Crennel. It capped off a busy weekend by Lerner in which he began yet another extreme makeover for a franchise that doesn’t need a makeover but a total exorcism.

In typical Lerner fashion he delivered the news in his usual media-unfriendly way, without the benefit of a microphone or a camera. Perhaps he doesn’t see the irony in his explaining how his prior general manager lacked leadership skills even as he was avoiding any attempt at accountability himself in front of a media and a fan base that deserved better.

Reaching the decision to fire Crennel was probably as easy as it was difficult for Lerner. Crennel, reared under a military background, is a serious-minded individual with little tolerance for either giving or accepting excuses. He was a plain-talking straight-talking individual, almost the complete opposite of his full time predecessor, Butch Davis. But in the end, all of the admirable personal traits couldn’t translate into the one thing he was hired to do—win football games.

In that regard, Crennel was wildly unsuccessful. In four years, his teams went 24-40. Oddly, that’s at best only about a third of the story. Crennel took over a team that wasn’t very good to begin with. Former general manager Phil Savage helped change that for the positive in some respects over Crennel’s tenure but even under the best of circumstances the team that got embarrassed Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers is still several players away from being any sort of legitimate playoff threat. There was never enough polish Crennel or anyone could apply to this jalopy.

That being said, there still is no excuse for how Crennel’s teams performed over the years. Too many times his teams took the field unprepared and then proceeded to play that way, making one mental mistake after another. The number of false starts, delays of game, offensive interference penalties and the like reached near legendary status. Beyond the lack of mental focus also was the fact that Crennel’s players often seemed wildly out of position in every phase of the game.

Much of the problem in that regard stemmed from the simple fact that as a head coach Crennel was far too deferential to his assistant coaches. As a former lifelong assistant, Crennel knew almost better than anyone the inherent frustrations of those jobs and at times seemed more intent on satisfying the egos of his assistants than in making the hard decisions that a boss sometimes has to make. As a result, the team didn’t just lack an identity it lacked basic direction.

Crennel’s problem with managing the intricacies of a game was taking on legendary status itself. Hardly a week went by, particularly this season, when Crennel didn’t make at least one highly questionable decision, usually on when to kick a field goal. But there were others, like the infamous coin flip to figure out a starting preseason quarterback. Like so many players with ability that can never make it in the NFL, the game simply never slowed down for Crennel.

Adding to the mix was the fact that Crennel also was stubborn to a fault. He acted decisive when reasoned judgment based on changed circumstances was called for. No more was this exemplified by Crennel’s decision to hang on to former offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon well past the time it was obvious to everyone else that Carthon was overmatched for the job and not respected by the players. It was Savage in fact who had to step in and force Crennel to part with Carthon. But there are litanies of other examples that illustrate the point just as well, the begrudging decision to switch from Derek Anderson to Brady Quinn comes most immediately to mind.

But of all the various issues that marked the Crennel era in Cleveland, the biggest mystery of all still remains why the players simply didn’t play better for him. As the Crennel watch began in earnest several weeks ago, it seemed almost sport for the lazy mainstream media to chat up this player or that and ask him how he felt about Crennel. To a man they professed their undying love and gratitude. As a group they shouldered the blame for the season’s outcome while singing the praises of Crennel as a head coach.

Why, then, didn’t they simply channel those words into action on the field? It was almost laughable to hear Braylon Edwards talk about Crennel as a father figure and mentor. It was Edwards, after all, who ignored Crennel’s “advice” not to attend the Ohio State-Michigan game two seasons ago. It was Edwards, after all, who lived large and played small even though Crennel was telling him that he had that equation backwards.
But Edwards, for all his misdeeds, was hardly the only player who danced to his own beat under Crennel. The list of players who translated their respect for Crennel into passion and professionalism on the field starts and ends with Josh Cribbs and Jamal Lewis. The rest of the team may not have mailed it in from week to week but they certainly did from time to time.

That this day would eventually come is hardly a revelation. But it is striking to consider why Lerner didn’t see this coming from the outset. It wasn’t that circumstances doomed Crennel to failure, it’s that he had little chance of succeeding in the first place.

There is a reason why a Ken Dorsey gets drafted in the 7th round and there is a reason a guy who’s been in the league for 24 years was never hired as a head coach. Yet Lerner, Savage and former team president John Collins essentially felt they found gold where others saw pyrite when they hired Crennel. It was the same kind of hiring the team had tried years ago when Bud Carson was named head coach. It had even worse results.

There is little doubt that Crennel will return to the assistant coaching ranks if or when he decides to coach again. It’s a far more natural fit for a man who simply was ill-equipped to do what a head coach must, keep all of the plates spinning at the same time.

The question now on every fan’s mind is whose turn is next in the barrel. In his sort of press conference Lerner said that former Pittsburgh Steelers’ head coach Bill Cowher told him personally on Saturday night that he didn’t anticipate coaching in 2009. Whoever else is on the list, one thing is certain Lerner won’t lack for opinions from others.

What it comes down to, ultimately, is not whether the person hired has NFL head coaching experience but whether that person has NFL head coaching ability. Crennel didn’t fail for lack of experience. Likewise, Tony Sparano isn’t succeeding in Miami because of experience. Surprisingly, Lerner sounded at least interested in Eric Mangini, a former Browns’ employee, who was fired by the New York Jets earlier today. Maybe it’s that Wade Phillips isn’t available.

It appears though that Lerner will first try to secure a new general manager, by whatever title, before tackling the issue of who might be the next Browns’ head coach. It’s the right order. In that regard Lerner did reveal that he has asked for and received permission from the Patriots to interview Scott Pioli for an as yet undefined but certainly senior front office job. If Pioli turns him down there are others available, like Floyd Reese, Charley Casserley and Tom Donahoe. Even Bill Parcells is a remote possibility.

But whatever direction this turns, it would be nice to think that Lerner will actually develop a credible plan before buying the furniture. History suggests otherwise.

In the meantime it’s probably worth giving the Browns and Lerner credit for one thing. Whoever is running their web site is on top of it. No sooner had Crennel been fired then his name and profile were removed from the team’s web site. Thanks, Romeo, it was nice to know you.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Cleaning House--Part 1

In the end, it was probably the email.

Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner likely won’t discuss the details publicly, but the fact that he fired former general manager Phil Savage before Sunday’s debacle against the Pittsburgh Steelers speaks volumes about how he currently feels about one of his most trusted advisors. Apparently fed up with one Savage almost deliberately sabotaging the team from the inside, from the internal squabbling to the profane email to a fan, Lerner apparently had enough and lowered the boom on Savage even before the world could take one last gander of Savage’s handiwork on display at Heinz Field Sunday.

According to reports, Lerner was unhappy with Savage’s communication and leadership skills. By that Lerner obviously meant that he was unhappy with Savage’s lack of communication and leadership skills. It’s not as if this was a new problem. It’s just that it took this season of great discontent to flesh it out.

That Savage was fired before head coach Romeo Crennel also is telling in terms of where Lerner is placing the blame for a season that fell apart before it ever really got started. Crennel’s fate will come quickly enough, but the fact that Lerner is dropping the axe in this order is an indication of the greater respect he holds for Crennel than Savage at the moment.

Savage’s departure brings to an end an experiment that was risky from the outset and dangerous by the end. He was plucked from the Baltimore Ravens front office, reportedly after Ravens’ general manager and former Browns tight end Ozzie Newsome rebuffed Lerner’s efforts to join his old franchise. Savage had had never run a franchise before but it was hoped at the time that he had learned enough at the feet of Newsome to himself become an effective general manager and return the Browns franchise to some semblance of order after the Carmen Policy/Dwight Clark years left the team in disarray.

It’s funny how time and distance hasn’t changed anything in that regard. Four years and 40 losses later, the franchise doesn’t look any more stable than it did before Savage arrived, though I’m certain Savage has a bevy of statistics he’d cite to the contrary.

That’s the problem with Savage. He was always far more comfortable with stats than people. Given almost complete power to run the franchise as he saw fit, Savage was never comfortable in a front office role, almost from the outset. At various times throughout his tenure with the Browns, Lerner had to remind Savage that he was no longer the team’s chief scout and that his presence was needed in the office. Savage either never fully appreciated the counsel or ignored it in an effort to forge his own way, spending at least as much time on the road personally scouting players as he did filling out forms and playing with the pencils in Berea. In the end, this inability to assimilate into the full responsibilities of his job, particularly after winning a power struggle at the end of his first year with then Browns president John Collins, is what cost Savage his job.

This season, when a steady, mature hand was needed most, Savage was at his worst. He needlessly fought with tight end Kellen Winslow over a medical matter and then had to rescind a suspension that was never warranted in the first place. Savage’s handling of the matter, both before and after, made him look small. The national perception that the franchise had turned into a bad version of the Bronx Zoo was then cemented when Savage was outed for sending an abusive, profane email to a fan who had the temerity to suggest what was obvious to everyone but Savage—that the team was terrible. Both times, Lerner had to step in and remind Savage of who the adults in the room were supposed to be and both times Savage begrudgingly accepted the upbraiding by offering nothing more than hollow apologies without ever accepting responsibility.

An owner, particularly an absentee one like Lerner can tolerate much, but only so much. Savage sped past all lines of acceptable behavior without ever looking back.

That isn’t to say that Savage didn’t undertake several efforts to move the franchise forward through the draft and through free agency. But too often, it was as if Savage was doing so to bolster his Madden 2009 team instead of serving the underlying purpose of establishing a real team with a real identity. Knowing that his hand picked head coach ran a 3-4 defense, Savage continued to ignore the critical role of the linebackers and also left the team with a depleted, undermanned and overmatched secondary. Despite the acquisition of defensive linemen Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams, the defense continued in its inability to stop any team’s running attack, irrespective of how slight it may have been.

On offense, Savage took over responsibility for hiring the assistant coaches after Crennel stayed too long with Maurice Carthon. It was probably the right move as was the hiring of offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski. Savage then went about rebuilding the offensive line, spending millions of Lerner’s money in the process. It was a mixed bag. LeCharles Bentley suffered an unfortunate career-ending injury on the first play of training camp. On the other hand, the acquisition of Eric Steinbach and the drafting of Joe Thomas worked well. But when Ryan Tucker was injured in the offseason, Savage never found a credible replacement and a strength of the team heading into the season was suddenly turned into just another weakness.

Savage then badly over played his hand regarding Derek Anderson. Savage grabbed Anderson from the Ravens’ practice squad and gave him his first real opportunity to start. Anderson, with a rifle arm but a fragile psyche, started strong last season and faded late. The signs were mixed. But instead of parlaying Anderson’s one good season into additional draft picks in this year’s draft, Savage instead kept him and Brady Quinn, whom Savage had acquired in another draft day deal. As a result, another chance to build some depth was lost, a point more than underscored this season as the injuries started to pile up. To top it off, Savage rounded out his last draft with a number of “projects” most of whom never found their way into any meaningful playing time as Crennel eschewed rookies in favor of mediocre veterans in order to help save his own job.

While the drafting of Thomas and Quinn two years ago are likely to be remembered most when Savage is discussed, his signature move probably was the signing of receiver Donte Stallworth this last off season, this year’s version of Andre Rison. Stallworth is a NFL vagabound who holds great promises then generally fails to deliver. He sat out the first four games of the season with a quadriceps injury suffered in pre-game warm ups and then was ineffective when he did return. It would be hard to recall a bigger bust.

The issue now facing Lerner is where he goes from here. It appears as though New England Patriots vice president Scott Pioli is the first target in Lerner’s sights. The conventional wisdom is that Pioli is ready to move on and certainly if the issue is money then Lerner is in the ball game. But Pioli, as much as anyone, is responsible for helping build and maintain one of the NFL’s elite franchises and it isn’t likely that Patriots’ owner Robert Kraft or Patriots’ head coach Bill Belichick will let him go easily.

If Pioli isn’t available then it’s a crapshoot. There also is the little issue of a head coach that needs to be hired. Will Lerner hire a general manager first and allow him to hire a head coach or will he instead try to find a package deal? Hard to say, but what isn’t is that Lerner has already made up his mind on several things as evidenced by the fact that he couldn’t even wait for the season to officially end. Now it’s just a matter of waiting for the news and the rumors to dribble out. Despite another year without the playoffs, the next few weeks will be anything but quiet for the Browns and their fans.

Rock Bottom

When two NFL teams with nothing to play for match up on one final meaningless Sunday in December, it can look an awful lot like one final meaningless preseason game in early September. But two things that weren’t meaningless in the Cleveland Browns’ 31-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday were the injury to Steelers’ quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and the NFL record the Browns established. They now own the longest streak for not scoring an offensive touchdown, which they tied by halftime and owned for good when the third quarter expired. And to add a little icing on top of that, they are now the first team in Browns’ history to be shut out in consecutive games. Well done.

With the loss, the Browns close out one of the worst seasons in franchise history in the most embarrassing fashion possible, a one-sided blowout against a now former rival. It was a season that started with expectations and degenerated almost from the outset as the result of bad coaching, bad playing and a lack of professionalism and pride by too many players who acted as if just showing up was enough.

It was fitting, though, that the two Browns’ players with the most pride, Jamal Lewis and Josh Cribbs, at least had one last chance to distinguish themselves. Cribbs did so through nothing more than his usual returning kicks, making tackles on special teams, running the ball on offense and occasionally passing the ball. He even completed one. Lewis, who said this has been the worst season he’s ever experienced, at least ended the season with more than 1,000 yards rushing thanks to his 94 yards on 23 carries.

The Browns thus ended the season 4-12, won only one division game, and generally showed the rest of the NFL that last season’s 10-6 team was an abject fraud. The only way the Browns see a primetime game next season is if the league passes a rule that every team must play at least one Thursday, Sunday or Monday night game. Otherwise, get ready for a steady diet of Sundays at 1:00 p.m. or 4:00 p.m. next season with an alternating announcing crew of Kevin Harland and Rich Gannon or Gus Johnson and Steve Tasker. It’s what the NFL and the networks conspire to do when a team makes them look foolish.

The small matter of Sunday’s game for the Browns was mostly just a matter of taking one final beating and heading back to Cleveland to await the fates of head coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Phil Savage and an announcement of a new regime. For the Steelers, it was more a matter of winning in whatever fashion and getting through unscathed.

While the Browns, as usual, met expectations, the Steelers did not and as a result their playoff chances may be in serious jeopardy. With 1:48 left in the first half Roethlisberger went down hard and stayed down with an apparent concussion. With Steelers players and fans alike looking almost in disbelief, Roethlisberger had to be strapped to a board and carted off, giving a thumbs up in the process. But as he made his way in the tunnel, he may have taken with him the rest of the Steelers’ season. After all, it’s not as if they get to play the Browns in the playoffs.

The Browns quarterback du jour, their fourth of the season, was Bruce Gradkowksi, a high school legend in Cleveland and a legend of sorts with the Toledo Rockets. At least he was an upgrade from his predecessor, Ken Dorsey, which is like saying that Paul Hubbard is an upgrade from Syndric Steptoe. But in the end, he could do no more than Dorsey, he just looked better doing it.

On the Browns’ first possession Gradkowski’s completed his first pass to Donte Stallworth, making Gradkowski the first Cleveland quarterback to actually find Stallworth open early in a game. His second pass, on the run, went to Braylon Edwards.

But like so many before him, Gradkowski wasn’t able to sustain a drive that had started with some promise forcing the Browns to attempt a 53-yard field goal on 4th and 3 from the Pittsburgh 36-yard line. Phil Dawson, the first Browns’ kicker to have 30 field goals in a season, was wide left. If this game had meant something, it might be worth asking head coach Romeo Crennel why he didn’t try for the first down instead. But it is far too late in this season to even care about another poor strategic decision.

The Steelers, on the other hand, for all their professed desire to beat the Browns, looked like a team early on that was simply going through the motions. Their first drive ended with a punt and their second drive ended when Roethlisberger threw an interception to safety Sean Jones from the Browns’ 20-yard line.

On their third drive, the Steelers looked to have capitalized on a key third down pass interference call on cornerback Eric Wright when Roethlisberger found Nate Washington two plays later for a 41-yard touchdown, but their third holding call of the game nullified that score and pushed the Steelers into a 3rd-and 21 that they couldn’t convert. Still the Steelers hardly seemed panicked. Head coach Mike Tomlin looked like he may have been balancing his checkbook on the sidelines.

After the Browns put together their eleventy-hundreth straight non-descript drive that ended in a punt the Steelers finally did break through with a little over 4 minutes remaining in the half and in a way that was familiar to Browns’ fans, a long run by an opposing running back. This time it was Willie Parker easing his way through a porous Cleveland defense on his way to a 34-yard touchdown run that helped give the Steelers a 7-0 lead.

With what time remained in the half, it would then be up to the Steelers defense, the unit rated number one in the league, to send the Browns into the record books. They were more than up to the task, although the Browns helped them out with a holding call that effectively assured them of their place in the Dubious Achievements Hall of Fame.

It is worth noting that on that “drive” the Browns actually caught a break. A clear catch and fumble by tight end Martin Rucker, which was returned by the Steelers for a touchdown, was ruled incomplete. Tomlin, still trying to figure out who in his family wrote a check for $34.95 to Best Buy, didn’t look up from balancing his checkbook long enough to challenge the call. It’s what passes for professional courtesy in the coaching fraternity.

But Tomlin’s indifference ended a few minutes later with the Roethlisberger injury. Byron Leftwitch took over and was able to finish the drive Roethlisberger had started and helped push the lead to 14-0 halftime lead with a 12-yard scramble.

It would have been nice to write that absolutely nothing of note transpired the rest of the game and for awhile that looked to be true. But then Gradkowski threw the obligatory Cleveland backup quarterback interception from deep in his own territory that for a moment looked like it would be returned for a touchdown.. But his luck was only momentarily better than Dorsey’s. The throw, intended for Jerome Harrison apparently, instead went to safety Tyrone Carter who was tackled at the Cleveland 18-yard line. Leftwich couldn’t convert from there and instead the Steelers had to settle for a Jeff Reed 27-yard field goal that pushed the lead to 17-0.

By this point, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski had all but abandoned any hope of scoring and instead continued to focus on two things: finding a way to let Josh Cribbs throw the ball and helping running back Jamal Lewis get to 1,000 yards rushing for the season. He was successful on both counts. With 4:12 left in the third quarter, Cribbs hit Rucker on an 8-yard pass. Lewis, who had entered the game with 908 yards, had close to 70 more by the end of the third quarter and would need another 22 or so with slightly more than a quarter to play. It would be a nail biter.

Meanwhile the Steelers were busy putting the final touches on their dominating win. First they put together an 88-yard drive capped off by a 3-yard run by Gary Russell for the touchdown that led to a 24-0 Steelers lead. Moments later, the ghost of Dorsey rose up and bit Gradkowski on the arm as Carter had his second interception of the game, this time returning it 32 yards for a touchdown that ran the score to 31-0. It was a pass that Lewis should have caught but instead deflected right into Carter’s hands for the easy touchdown.

Back to Lewis. Sandwiched into between the two Steelers touchdowns was a 12-yard run by Lewis that gave him 81 yards for the game. There was still nearly 9 minutes to play and plenty of time to get over 1,000 yards for the season. When the Browns found themselves at 4th down and 4 from their own 27-yard line with just over two minutes remaining, Crennel showed some real decency by eschewing a meaningless punt and giving Lewis one more attempt at cracking the 1,000 yard mark. Lewis came through, got the first down and ended the game with 94 yards and 1,002 on the season. Lewis was then removed for precautionary reasons. Best move of the day.

The question now being asked, of course, is where the Browns go from here. In one sense, the answer is easy. Nearly anything would be an improvement. In a grander sense, the answer is far more difficult and one which owner Randy Lerner hasn’t ever been able to solve. There’s no reason to really believe that will change.

But one thing is for certain, even as the carnage of this past season is tallied up. No matter who is hired, Browns fans will return to Berea next summer, like the buzzards to Hinckley, armed with hope and outsized expectations. It’s a far better scenario than either Lerner or Savage, if he remains, deserves.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Lingering Items--Bengals Edition

Listening to Kevin Harlan and Rich Gannon broadcast last week’s Cleveland Browns-Cincinnati Bengals game, you would have thought that the story of the Browns dismal season is wrapped up in merely a series of unfortunate injuries. If only that were the case.

The Browns do have 11 players on injured reserve at the moment, which is plenty. But on closer look, it’s hard for anyone to conclude that this is the reason the team regressed so dramatically from the year before.

There are 3 quarterbacks on injured reserve, but the season was long gone before the first one, Derek Anderson, found his way there. When Brady Quinn ended up there all it did was cut short the time he had to demonstrate that he should have been the starter all along. Ken Dorsey was placed on injured reserve just a few days ago.

Similar stories abound with the rest of the players. Indeed, of all the players on the list, the one that stands out as having the most impact is Ryan Tucker. Tucker, for all practical purposes, missed the entire season. He was out early, came back for a few quarters and was gone again. His absence disrupted the chemistry of a line that played nearly as well as any team’s line in 2007. This season, without Tucker, the offensive line is struggling to be average.

With Tucker out, the Browns were forced to play Rex Hadnot. All he did was underscore that the Browns have a new area of need—right guard. Hadnot is far more suited as a back up, nothing more. Tucker is a 12-year veteran and while he has vowed to return, counting on him doing so and then playing at a high level would be foolish. Age and injuries take their toll on everyone, no more so than linemen. If the Browns end up going into next season with Hadnot as the starter, don’t look for any significant improvement on the offensive line.

Some may argue that losing defensive lineman Robaire Smith early in the season hurt the team as well, particularly the running game. That could be, but Shaun Rogers and Corey Williams, the two players counted on to stop the run, played most of the season. Each suffered his share of bumps and bruises that at time limited their playing time and effectiveness. Having Smith around would have helped the depth.

But Smith’s injury wasn’t the reason the run defense fell apart. Simply, it was the fact that the Browns don’t have a credible complement of linebackers and that was before Antwan Peek landed on injured reserve. If the point of the 3-4 is to give the linebackers more freedom to make plays, then the counterpoint is that without linebackers plays won’t get made until opposing runners make it to the defensive backfield. It’s no coincidence that 5 of the top 8 players with the most tackles on this team are in the defensive backfield.

The overall point, though, is that injuries happen to every team. Teams built with some depth find a way to overcome them. Teams without depth underscore the injuries as a way of diverting attention from the far broader problems.

**

Speaking of a lack of depth, it’s hard to fault a team for not being three deep at quarterback, but it’s still worth asking how Ken Dorsey has remained in the league since 2003.

Dorsey is the perfect example of why the position of general manager can be so trying at times.

On paper, Dorsey would seem to have everything it takes to be a star quarterback in the league. He had the pedigree of a major college program and nearly unparalleled success at that level. As every announcer has told us since Dorsey took over for an injured Brady Quinn, Dorsey compiled a 38-2 record as a starter with the Hurricanes. In short, he would seem to be a general manager’s dream pick, or at least the dream pick of every fan playing general manager in his own mind.

The real general managers in the league had Dorsey pegged as a late round choice, which is what he was. The San Francisco 49ers may have thought they had lucked into a gem in Dorsey when they picked him in the 7th round in 2003 but as it turns out, whoever had Dorsey being drafted at all was being overly optimistic.

Despite possessing a good football mind and the physical skills to compete at the NFL level, Dorsey lacks the one attribute that is absolutely critical, arm strength. He can’t throw very far down field and he can’t throw very hard across it either. More than anything else over the last three weeks, Dorsey proved that he doesn’t belong in the league, unless it’s on the sidelines in dress pants and wearing a head set.
It’s still rather stunning when you think about it that Dorsey was completely unable to lead this team to a touchdown while serving as its starter. In fact, he never really came all that close to getting the ball in the end zone. Had Dorsey been able to suit up this week, there’s little doubt that another shut out was inevitable. There simply is nothing about his game that an opposing defense needs to respect.

**

Speaking of respect, it’s possible that the Pittsburgh Steelers and their head coach, Mike Tomlin, will take it easy on the Browns this week, but don’t count on it. With nothing to play for, it would be hard to believe that the Steelers would still take the Browns lightly, for at least two reasons.

First, the chance to add on to a 10-game winning streak against the Browns is awful enticing, even for professional athletes. Second, even without that motivation the Steelers still well remember how they were the afterthought in the preseason while the Browns were the sexy choice to win the AFC North. The Steelers didn’t take well to that talk then and while they have more than answered the critics since there’s nothing wrong with rubbing it in, either.

The real problem with the Browns’ losing streak against the Steelers is that it has basically eviscerated a once great rivalry. Browns fans may still hate the Steelers but it has nothing to do with anything that’s happened recently. It’s simply tradition at this point with its genesis fading into distant memories.

Indeed, outside of maybe Hines Ward and Ben Roethlisberger, most Browns fans don’t even bother to get to know the names of their former rival anymore. My guess is that hard core Browns fans can name more Steelers from the 1970s than they can on this year’s team. At this point the Steelers are just another team that regularly uses the Browns to pad their own stats twice a year.

In many ways, what’s happened with the Cleveland-Pittsburgh rivalry is the same thing that’s happened with the Ohio State-Michigan rivalry. At any point in which one team becomes dominant in the series, it ceases to be a rivalry until the other team is able to mount a credible comeback.

The Browns-Steelers rivalry is not going to be resurrected by a Browns win every couple of years. It’s only going to be resurrected once the Browns become a credible franchise and the games between the two teams take on some legitimate meaning.

When the schedule makers put together this season’s slate they probably thought that a season ending Browns-Steelers game could very well be for the AFC North crown. As it turns out, it’s just another chance to remind Browns’ fans how long it’s been since the match up meant anything.

**

Given that the Browns’ offense is plumbing the depths of history at this point with their scoreless streak, this week’s question to ponder was going to be some variation of how badly do you think the Browns would lose to the winless Detroit Lions? But that question already is getting a healthy debate on the various message boards and, personally, I think the score would be at least 21-0 in favor of the Lions.

Thus, we’ll turn our attention to all the holes that have been revealed on this team and simply ask: If you were the Browns’ new general manager, what would be your first priority?

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Making His Case

The “news” that Cleveland Browns head coach Romeo Crennel plans to make his case for staying on to owner Randy Lerner shortly after the season ends reminds me of the old adage that a person who represents himself has a fool for a client. But it’s not as if Crennel hasn’t done some foolish things in his tenure in Cleveland so there’s no reason for him to not have at it.

The biggest problem Crennel is going to have in defending his tenure is that Sunday’s loss stands as the latest Exhibit A for all the reasons Crennel won’t be around to see the next year here in Cleveland. In most ways that are important to evaluating a head coach, Sunday’s loss to the Bengals encapsulated all that’s been wrong under Crennel. A team composed of guys who constantly profess their public love and respect for Crennel matched words into inaction by putting on one of the most pathetic performances in Cleveland Browns history.

It wasn’t just that the Browns lost to a team allegedly more woeful than them, the Cincinnati Bengals. It’s more how they lost. Playing out the string just to get through a meaningless game is one thing. But doing so with such little pride and professionalism is ultimately the reason coaches get fired in the first place. Outside of Josh Cribbs, who even played hard?

The team was ill prepared and even less focused, which has been a near constant for the last four years. As they’ve done far too often under Crennel, the team was committing one ridiculous penalty after another. False starts. Delays of game. Offensive pass interference.

Beyond that, the Bengals are one of the worst rushing teams in the league, even behind the Browns. But they torched a ragged defense anchored by a supposedly Pro Bowl defensive tackle for 191 yards, led by Cedric Benson who had 171 all by himself. It’s not that the defense missed tackles. It’s more like they only tackled when absolutely convenient. They weren’t just avoiding injuries; they were avoiding contact of any nature as if they had a photo shoot later. If Crennel’s strong suit is defense, why couldn’t he figure out how to get his team in a position to stop a team that had no intention on throwing in the first place?

None of this was related to injuries, either. Indeed, the defense was mostly in tact.

And let’s not forget that none of this even gets to the discussion about the offense that has to be at least as uncomfortable for Crennel. Injuries go only so far in explaining how a team hasn’t scored an offensive touchdown in 21 quarters. Dorsey may have no business putting on a NFL uniform, but at some point, even if by accident, a team has to score a touchdown with him in a game.

The last Browns’ touchdown was Jerome Harrison’s 72-yard run on the first play of the fourth quarter of the Buffalo game. Wouldn’t you think it’s possible that at some point in the half dozen or so times Dorsey has had his team inside the opposing team’s 50-yard line since then that someone might have broken off another decent run or Dorsey could have found an open receiver?

In other words, just on its merits alone, Crennel is in the fight of his life in making his case. But like anyone else in our society he deserves his day in court. And if Crennel’s going to take advantage of it, he can’t play defense, which is obvious on so many levels. He’s going to have to go on offense.

To do that, Crennel will have to do something he’s been reluctant to do so far, at least publicly. He’s going to have to throw someone else under the bus. If he’s going to save his job, an all but impossible task, he’s going to have to go on the attack.

Since that’s not been Crennel’s style, here’s a little advice, not that he asked. First, start with a little humility by acknowledging your own shortcomings. You’re simply going to have to accept the blame for the ill conceived training camps, the poor in-season practices, the failed game plans and the strange in game decisions. But tell Lerner that’s not the end of the story. Pick yourself up off the ground and point out in the next breath that you don’t have to take the fall for everything. You had copious amounts of help from the chief architect of this mess, general manager Phil Savage.

To do this, you need to set up the argument. Lerner has shown that his football knowledge and acumen runs the gamut from A to B so be patient. Explain to him that more often than not the results on Sunday are a reflection of all that goes on during the week and that you’re not just talking about practice. Even Lerner, who seems to have avoided any real work in his life, has to see the outcomes are a reflection of the inputs.

After setting the table, tell Lerner how much more helpful it would have been for you to get the results that everyone wants if you didn’t have a general manager constantly working at cross purposes with you. Tell him that while you were trying to maintain order, like Kevin Bacon at the end of “Animal House,” it was Savage’s decision to constantly disrupt the homecoming parade by throwing marbles in the street and crashing floats into buildings. Start by telling him how poorly Savage handled the unceremonious dumping of local favorite LeCharles Bentley, even if it was the right decision, and go from there.

Tell him how it was all Savage’s idea to start a whisper campaign about Kellen Winslow’s “real” injury and then act callously while Winslow complained about still another staph infection that found it’s way in to Berea. Let Lerner know how classless it was for Savage to make you apologize for Savage’s misconduct, including the vulgar email to the fan, while Savage stayed in the background acting as if these weren’t distractions. Tell him how all this brought chaos and discredit to a once proud franchise and forced the players to answer questions about the general manager when they would have been far better off studying their playbooks.

Let Lerner know, too, that is was Savage, not you, that repeatedly couldn’t control a public relations department that reported to him. Tell him how this only added to the growing list of “other duties as assigned” that Savage kept dumping on you. If he doesn’t know then let Lerner also know how Savage conveniently absents himself from Berea during the week where he’s needed most to instead go scout meaningless games like the Louisville-Rutgers game a few weeks ago.

Now that your blood is really flowing, hit Lerner hard with your final argument. Let Lerner know, if he doesn’t already, that Savage is the man behind the curtain pulling the strings. It was Savage, not you, that fought for and demanded the right to choose the final roster. Tell Lerner exactly how Savage went about exercising that authority with some truly awful decisions, particularly on defense, that cost this team dearly. Tell him it was Savage’s decision not to find linebackers that could actually play in the defensive philosophy espoused by his hand-picked head coach.

Emphasize that it was Savage’s decision not to get some veteran help in the secondary when Daven Holley went down and Savage traded Leigh Bodden. Let him know, too, that it was Savage’s decision not to turn Derek Anderson’s career year into needed draft picks lost when he was busy acquiring, for example, Brady Quinn. Let him know that it wasn’t your idea to shower an overrated receiver like Donte Stallworth with riches that he didn’t deserve in the first place. Finally, let Lerner know that injuries did cost this team a handful of starters, but as importantly the depth Savage has failed to build over the years made this a bigger problem than it had to be. And if you want to get in one final lick, tell Lerner that that it was Savage, not you, that picked this coaching staff. Sure, it was you that stood behind Maurice Carthon way too long and forced this issue, but tell Lerner that in the end having no real authority over the coaching staff makes it awfully hard to rein them in.

None of this, of course, is probably going to be successful in saving your job and hopefully you understand that. But since you’re on your way out the door anyway why not take your shot? Besides, it has the very real chance of actually making the case why Savage needs to join you, which was really the point all along.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Wake Us When It's Over

Ohio is one of the most talent rich spots in the nation for football talent and this is all they have to show for it on the professional level? The Cleveland Browns and the Cincinnati Bengals entered Sunday’s game with a combined win total of six and an assurance that about the only two things that would be certain once it ended was that the combined win total would be seven and it would still be lower than that of the Miami Dolphins. Both are now officially true.

For the record, the Bengals beat the Browns 14-0 in front of a small, windy, cold Cleveland crowd that can now take to their graves the fact that they if they were able to stay awake throughout they saw Romeo Crennel’s last appearance in Cleveland as a head coach. It was the Browns 5th straight loss and 7th loss in their last 9 games against the Bengals, as much a reason as any that Crennel won’t get to continue his head coaching career in Cleveland next year.

If the game was about pride, it was hard to tell. From this vantage point it looked more like one of those early season baseball games when both teams are swinging at the first pitch just hoping to get it over in two hours or less. Though not even the final score would matter, there was the little issue to resolve as to whether the Browns’ offense could find the end zone for the first time since Saturday Night Live used to be funny. They didn’t. It’s now been nearly 21 quarters and counting.

Ken Dorsey started for the third straight game for the Browns, subbing for an injured Brady Quinn. Dorsey was hoping to improve on that 0 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 44% completion, 34.rating body of work he’s put together to date. He didn’t. He was 10-17 for 68 yards and three interceptions.

Meanwhile, for the Bengals Ryan Fitzpartick was starting his 11th straight game for the injured Carson Palmer. In that time Fitzpatrick’s compiled a comparatively impressive 69 rating on the strength of a mere 3 touchdown passes against only 4 interceptions. It’s the kind of stats that scream “we’re afraid to put him in a position to make a play.” If only the Browns were that cautious with Dorsey.

For all practical purposes this game was over early, very early. On the Browns’ first possession, and after moving the ball effectively on the ground, offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski once again thought being a contrarian would catch a team off guard. It didn’t. He sent Dorsey back for an ill-advised pass, ill-advised not only because it was windy, but ill-advised because it was Dorsey. And of course in a season where everything is bound to go wrong, cornerback Leon Hall stepped right in front of the pass and took it back 50 yards to help give the Bengals a quick 7-0 lead.

It would be hard to call a one touchdown lead by the Bengals with less than half the first quarter gone insurmountable but it sure seemed like it. When Braylon Edwards put the Browns in an all but impossible third and long with another interference penalty on the very next drive, the point seemed even more obvious.

As a measure of how truly awful the Browns’ rushing defense really is, the Bengals had no intention of throwing the ball unless absolutely necessary, and that was before Chad Johnson was put on the inactive list for the game because of a hamstring injury and even before that 7-0 lead. Yet the Browns’ defense was essentially helpless to stop a Bengals’ ground game that was 29th in the league coming into the game. In the first half alone, Benson had well over 100 yards rushing.

Benson was running mostly unmolested from the Bengals’ first series on. But that steady diet ended up yielding only 7 points for a Bengals’ offense that is nearly as pitiful as the Browns at this point.

The Bengals’ second series was a measure of futility in its own right. Benson was 46 yards into a run and seemingly on his way to the end zone when cornerback Eric Wright knocked the ball loose. Wright returned it 15 yards before eventually fumbling himself. However, on a challenge Wright was ruled down by contact, giving the Browns the ball at their own 26-yard line. It was the Browns 30th takeaway on the season, a league high.

But taking advantage of turnovers is not a core competency of this team and so it wasn’t on this day either, so it shouldn’t have much worried even the Bengals. After a couple of first downs, Dave Zastudil, bum knee and all, was able to pin the Bengals deep in their own territory. It didn’t last. As opportunistic as the Browns’ defense has been all season, their downfall too often has been the combined inability to stop the run and to hold a team on third down. The Bengals’ ensuing drive, their only decent drive of the day, featured both and ended up putting the game well out of reach.

Even as Benson was chewing up yardage, the Browns’ defense still was able to put the Bengals in third-and-long five different times. Each time though the Bengals were able to convert, including a run by Fitzpatrick after he dropped the snap while in the shotgun. The final blow came on a 3rd and 7 from the Browns’ 20 yard line. Fitzpatrick found Chris Henry sprinting down the right side and past Wright for an easy touchdown that helped push the Bengals lead to 14-0.

It was at this point that it was worth asking why Crennel kept marching Dorsey back out on the field. When it’s impossible for things to get worse, why not take a chance, however slight, that things might get better? Put in Bruce Gradkowski. Line Josh Cribbs up behind center every play. Anything. Give the fans a reason, any reason, to keep watching.

But Crennel is stubborn if nothing else and the fans don’t get a vote so Dorsey was still in the game, handing the ball off to Jamal Lewis and displaying all the body language of someone who himself knew he had no more business being in the game than owner Randy Lerner. Which is pretty much how Dorsey then played, throwing one ball deliberately, apparently, at the feet of Jerome Harrison on a screen pass and causing a delay of game on another. Three plays later Zastudil was back in punting. A perfunctory challenge by Crennel as to whether returner T.J. Houshmandzadeh touched the ball before Cleveland recovered was unsuccessful. If you’re looking for metaphors, that’s as good as any other.

The Bengals were not necessarily doing anything special and weren’t playing substantially better, which is why the game had all the excitement of your kid’s Christmas concert. It’s just that the Browns couldn’t stop Benson as he ran through tackle after tackle. But on the Bengals’ last drive before the half, the Browns’ defense were eventually able to hold Benson long enough to force a field goal attempt, which missed spectacularly. Taking over with just over a minute left, the Browns were at least able to do something they hadn’t done all game, run a play in Cincinnati territory. But it too was for naught when Dorsey was sacked and time ran out.

Starting the second half, the Browns decided that maybe they ought to try using Lewis like the Bengals were using Benson. As a strategy it was more successful than anything else the Browns had tried to that point. But unlike the Bengals, when the Browns were forced into 3rd and long, they couldn’t convert. Fortunately and for reasons only defensive tackle Jonathan Fanene’s agent can answer for other teams in the offseason, his client roughed Dorsey giving the Browns a first down at the Bengals’ 28-yard line. But it was a mistake forgotten one play later when Dorsey threw his second interception to Hall killing their best drive of the game.

It’s not that the interception ultimately cost the Browns anything other than a decent chance to get a touchdown on offense for the first time in almost 20 quarters. But it was notable for two reasons—the poor decision Dorsey made that was set up by the poor route Edwards ran. Edwards couldn’t be more wrong. He is completely appreciated. Ask Dorsey.

The Browns did cross the 50-yard line on their next series as well but to much the same effect. A few plays forward, a penalty and a sack back and next thing you know it was 3rd and 25 from the Bengals (!) 48-yard line. You would have thought with nothing to lose and even less to play for the Browns might try something on 4th and 16. They did, a Zastudil punt that he kicked into the end zone.

As if it really matters at this point, halfway through the fourth quarter Chudzinski played the contrarian card again and to the same effect as earlier. Dorsey, summoning all of his arm strength, heaved the ball well downfield and sort of in the direction of Edwards. We now know that Edwards can run faster than Dorsey can throw it.

Hall, who else, stepped in front of the dying duck of a pass for his third interception of the game. Either Chudzinski was calling the play out of some sort of cruel joke on the Browns’ front office on his way out of town or he’s just nuts. Hall returned it 27 yards to the Cleveland 40-yard line. But finally the Browns caught on that the Bengals would be giving the ball to Benson and stacked the box accordingly. The Bengals were forced to punt. It mattered little. The fourth quarter was half over, the Browns had the ball on their 18-yard line and were down two touchdowns and hadn’t scored in a month.

And of course it didn’t matter, except that Chudzinski kept having Dorsey pass and eventually it cost the team its third quarterback when Dorsey went down with an injury. Gradkowski came in with 3:38 left in the game and overshot Edwards on his first pass. He hit Donte Stallworth on his second and then Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers with his next. As auditions go, it was as auspicious as anything else this season. The Bengals then tried to do everyone a favor and ran out the clock, but Crennel, fighting to the end, kept calling time outs. Apparently he wanted to see more of Gradkowski, which he could have if he had simply put him in earlier, say after Dorsey’s first interception. Eventually, though, and without much fanfare a game that didn’t matter much when it started mattered even less when it finally finished.

With the loss the Browns closed out the home piece of their schedule at 1-7, a complete reversal from last season. It was well deserved, accomplished through an admixture of bad coaching, bad playing, enough penalties to last two seasons and four different quarterbacks. The Browns now close out the away part of their schedule next week against the Pittsburgh Steelers, who already have secured a playoff game at home, despite their loss to the Tennessee Titans.

Even with a Steelers’ team playing for nothing more than to avoid injury it doesn’t look to be a good day for the Browns. If this offense couldn’t score against the Bengals’ defense, it’s hard to imagine that even Vegas would give odds on the Browns’ offense scoring against the Steelers.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Lingering Items--Eagles Edition

The selection of Cleveland Browns offensive lineman Joe Thomas and defensive lineman Shaun Rogers to the Pro Bowl is a validation of sorts for general manager Phil Savage. It was Savage that made the hard decision to beef up the line by selecting Thomas third overall in the 2007 draft. Savage then made the hard decision to strengthen the defensive line at the expense of depth in the defensive backfield by trading for Rogers in the last off season.

But no decision is without consequence.

Thomas was always a safe, if aggressive pick at number three. Given the make up of most offenses, left tackle is often the key position on the line. The main job is to protect the quarterback’s blind side. That’s why left tackles are also the most highly paid positions on the line. But in choosing Thomas, Savage had to resist the siren call of the so-called “skill” players, including one Brady Quinn who landed in Cleveland anyway.

The far bigger gamble was Rogers. Despite two previous Pro Bowl seasons with the Detroit Lions, Rogers had basically worn out his welcome for a variety of reasons. The Lions have been underachieving for years and Rogers, with his tendency to gain weight and lose interest as the season wore on, often was a frequent target of fan wrath, as if he was what ailed that franchise.

But whether the rap on Rogers coming into the season was fair or not, it hasn’t been an issue yet for the Browns. Rogers has played hurt and at a high level all season against an AFC that hadn’t seen much of him until this season. Obviously they were impressed.

The fact that both players have worked out to this point at least as well as expected is a credit to Savage’s abilities as a talent evaluator. But it isn’t necessarily complete validation either. There is another side to the story.

If you are one of the fans wondering whether Thomas made the Pro Bowl this season on reputation, you aren’t alone. I’m hard pressed, for example, to find a specific positive play from Thomas that made me shake my head and say “that’s why he’s an All Pro.” I can point you to any number of plays where he was bull rushed aside by lighter and more mobile defensive tackles on their way to the quarterback. Think Indianapolis game. Think Tennessee game. In fact, the one play that I’ll remember most was watching Thomas get shoved unceremoniously to the ground over while pursuing Asante Samuel after his interception in last week’s game..

In some respects, the case for Rogers is far easier. There were plenty of plays where it was easy to tell how big of an upgrade he’s been to the 2007 defensive line. That may have been a fairly easy hurdle to jump, but he cleared that bar by plenty. Rogers does disrupt an opposing team’s offensive line. He’s often double teamed. He doesn’t give up on any play as evidence by the number of blocked passes he’s had.

The real problem with both selections is that they came in a year when the units they both anchored are far worse than the year before by almost any measure. It’s a nice accolade to be recognized by your peers and perhaps it puts a little bonus money in the pockets, but the truth is that those performances had virtually no impact on the overall success of the team. Isn’t that really the standard the matters most?

That doesn’t mean that Rogers and Thomas played poorly or even that their selections were a mistake. It’s just that from the fans’ perspective the fact that the two were voted to the Pro Bowl is pretty meaningless. The Browns have still only won 4 games. How much worse could it have gotten?

Perhaps the real reason neither had much of an impact (and by saying “perhaps” I’m just being cute) is that the talent around them not only didn’t measure up but actually negated whatever good they accomplished.. Where that shows up in particular is with respect to Rogers. Rogers can only do so much. The other defensive linemen around him are just average but even if they were better the far bigger problem is the linebackers. The Browns under head coach Romeo Crennel continue to insist on playing a defensive scheme that relies on having good linebackers in place. Yet the talent level at linebacker on this season is barely NFL caliber. Not a single linebacker on this team would start on any other team, save perhaps the Cincinnati Bengals and the Detroit Lions. It really is that simple. Toss in a defensive backfield that is not just young but raw and you can really begin to see why Rogers’ play has had no impact.

The same holds on the offensive side of the ball. That unit could not have been more mismanaged this season if Crennel had set out to deliberately sabotage it. Derek Anderson was not the same player that he was a year ago and that much was clear from the outset. Yet the move away from him came too late to make a difference. Braylon Edwards has had a disastrous season and injuries are clearly taking a toll on Kellen Winslow’s ability to perform. Donte Stallworth was a swing and a miss of epic proportions. Jamal Lewis, as much as we want to believe otherwise, has lost a step. Throw in the injury to Ryan Tucker and the significant drop off that is Rex Hadnot and the only conclusion left to draw is that it would have been impossible for Thomas to have made any impact, even if he had played better than any player in the history of the game.

It’s nice to see two Browns’ players, even in this most awful of seasons, honored. It’s a bit of confirmation that the team isn’t a complete disaster. Throw in the section of Josh Cribbs and Phil Dawson as alternates and overall there is some good news among the mostly bad that’s come from Berea this season. But this modest recognition does come at a price. It reminds us how deficient the rest of the roster really is. That’s why it’s only a validation of sorts and not a complete vindication for Savage.

**

In the category of “you had to see this injury coming,” it can’t be a shock to anyone that punter Dave Zastudil has some tendinitis in his knee and is questionable for Sunday’s game against the Bengals. His leg has been getting quite a work out, particularly the last few weeks.

With two games remaining, Zastudil has 65 punts, 12 of which have come in the last two weeks. Last season, the Browns had 62 punts total. For the stats freaks, that’s figures to an extra punt per game. By the time this season ends in a few weeks with whoever is quarterback, that could creep up to an extra 1.5 punts per game. That may not seem like much unless you’re the one that had to make those kicks.

**

In a year of dubious achievements cornerback Brandon McDonald’s game against the Eagles will certainly rank among the most dubious. It was nice to see McDonald score the team’s first touchdown in weeks, but the fact that he could take another interception back 97 or 98 yards (depending how far back in the end zone you estimate he was when the play began) and not score a touchdown had to make him the butt of a few jokes in the team’s film room this week. Probably the Bengals’ film room as well.

When McDonald made that interception there was no one in front of him and the path to the opposite end zone was clean and green. Yet the Eagles’ Brian Westbrook hunted him down and slowed him up enough to allow Hank Baskett, the player against whom he made the interception in the first place, make the tackle at the 7-yard line.

It’s debatable whether McDonald slowed up thinking he had the touchdown. What’s not debatable, though, is that neither Westbrook nor Baskett did. They knew full well that their team’s playoff chances were at stake and they couldn’t afford a loss to the Browns. The play they both made spoke volumes about their pride and desire.

Which leads us to this week’s question to ponder: If the situation had been reversed, would Braylon Edwards have put in that same effort?

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Playing the Victim

Never underestimate the ego of the modern professional athlete. Exhibit A, meet Cleveland Browns receiver Braylon Edwards.

When we last saw Edwards he was about the only player on the Browns’ team Monday night who could actually say he had a good game. He had five catches for 102 yards and no drops. So of course Edwards used the occasion of one decent performance scattered among the many lousy ones to sound off again on how misunderstood and underappreciated he really is in Cleveland.

In essentially swiping at the supposedly ignorant Browns fans that can’t see talent when it stands right in front of them and drops the ball on their feet, Edwards cited his status as a former Michigan Wolverine as the scarlet “M” he’s carried with him since he arrived. In Edwards’ world, all Browns fans are also all Ohio State fans so, naturally, they would never take to a guy from Michigan.

The only reason Edwards’ prior affiliation with the Wolverines is ever an issue is because he continues to make it one, not the fans. What Edwards fails to realize, either because it doesn’t fit his theory or, more likely, because as the center of his own universe he can’t see beyond those four corners, is that there have been plenty of Michigan players who have played for the Browns, 15 according to the Browns’ all time roster.

Among those players have been Thom Darden, Mark Campbell, Aaron Shea, Steve Everitt and Leroy Hoard. I don’t recall their status as former Wolverines ever being much of a concern for the fans. Indeed, each and every one of those players was, in fact, well liked by the fans. Everitt, in particular, was embraced.

But as with everything else Edwards, the facts are always the first victim with the truth running a close second.

The Edwards situation really is one of the more compelling dramas that have played out in Berea over the years. Coming out of college, Edwards had a reputation for dropping passes. It was a reputation that was earned. That was why some general managers had a somewhat negative view of him at draft time. On the other hand, Edwards also had a reputation for making big plays. It was a reputation that was earned as well. In the end, it was that reputation that won out and made him a high first round draft pick. Thus, simply as an opening premise, the fact that the Browns made him their number one pick is evidence that his talents are appreciated.

But as Edwards has said, his gripe isn’t with the team but the fans. Apparently, the fact that Savage recognized his talents should be good enough for everyone else. Performance in that scenario is almost irrelevant. In actuality, all his draft status does is buy him both a healthy dose of expectations and a near-term benefit of the doubt until fans can actually see some results. Teams may pay their players based on potential, but fans judge them by results.

For Edwards, the results have been a mixed bag and really are at the heart of the fans’ frustrations. To this point, everyone has seen enough to know that residing somewhere deep in the recesses of Edwards is a pretty gifted player just waiting to emerge. When that player emerges, which he has on occasion, the team is almost transformed. Edwards as a legitimate weapon opens up so many other possibilities with this offense.

Last season in many ways was a cause for celebration and Edwards was often at the center of it. He put together a legitimately great season that was recognized by everyone, including the fans and peers that voted him to the Pro Bowl.

But the yang to that yin is this season. Except for some infrequent visits, the good Edwards has been mostly absent. Maybe it was the preseason injury, minor though it was. Maybe it was simple immaturity on his behalf. But in the end it doesn’t really matter. Edwards’ performance in 2007 set a bar that he hasn’t come close to achieving this season frustrating the front office, his teammates and fans in equal measures.

Edwards has never much helped his cause either by his often illogical and ill-timed rants, the latest serving as just the most recent example. When Edwards was literally costing his team games this season by his inability to simply catch a ball thrown right to him, he stewed in the locker room and made himself unavailable to the media. The minute he has any sort of accomplishment, he seemingly can’t wait to open up.

All any of this does, though, is paint a somewhat incomplete portrait of a man who may be too complex for his own good.

Edwards may be egocentric and illogical in his thinking, but he is well spoken. He can be charitable to a fault, which is never a bad thing. But too often he also comes across as not merely brash but entitled. He’s not necessarily wrong when he essentially suggests that fans should take into account the entire measure of him and not his performance in any given day. But it’s incredibly na├»ve to believe that all things are created equal.

For the fans, particularly Cleveland fans, it comes down to two things. They want their players to want to be here and they want their players to perform well. Bernie Kosar, who came from Miami via Boardman, embodies exactly what it takes to win over this town. He made his intentions to play for the Browns clear in college and manipulated the system to make it happen. But all of that would have been for naught if he hadn’t performed on the field. He did.

Edwards, while not being the polar opposite of Kosar, is enough of a contrast to help set the parameters. He’s never come across as someone who particularly wants to be here. Conversely he’s never publicly criticized the city, either. Mostly he comes off as indifferent to his locale, that Cleveland just happens to be where he drops his passes because that’s the team that’s currently paying him. It could easily have been Denver or Tampa Bay for that matter.

Secondly, he hasn’t shown enough on the field in a consistent fashion, game to game and season to season, for the fans to ignore his locational indifference. It’s hard to really know if that would ever really be enough anyway, but in the end it would make a big difference.

If anything is certain, though, it’s that the path Edwards is on right now is never going to work. He simply can’t berate these fans into either embracing him or appreciating him. For that to occur it’s going to happen on the fans’ terms, not his. And the first step of many starts with understanding the distance between his perception and the reality. The second comes with spending less time defending his alma mater and more time catching the damn ball.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Keeping the Streaks Alive

Sure, there were streaks to consider. Could the Cleveland Browns be the first team to win three times on Monday night in one season? No. Would the Browns go another game without a touchdown? No, but only technically. Might head coach Romeo Crennel have double digit losses for the third time in four seasons? Yes. But for most of the nation about the only intrigue Monday night’s Browns game against the Philadelphia Eagles held was whether or not Eagles fans would boo Santa Claus. They didn’t.

As it turns out, Santa was a no show. His time obviously was better spent elsewhere. For those whose wasn’t, they saw the Browns lose for the sixth time in seven games, this time 30-10, to an Eagles team that made enough mistakes that a decent team would have exploited. But this Browns team is not all that or much else and thus could get no closer than the 20-point margin. It easily could have been far worse.

As games go, it wasn’t much of one. Sure, the Browns broke their touchdown-less streak with 9:12 remaining in the fourth quarter. That shot hear ‘round the world ended a 245 minutes and 48 seconds drought without any sort of touchdown, a franchise record. Of course the streak wasn’t broken by the offense. That dubious achievement is nearly 17 quarters strong. This touchdown came courtesy of Brandon McDonald, who returned a Kevin Kolb pass 24 yards for the score. Kolb was only in the game because Eagles’ head coach Andy Reid didn’t have the good sense to keep him on the bench where he belonged. Somewhere some gamblers are still complaining.

It was a rather interesting night for McDonald, actually. He almost had the Browns’ first touchdown in four games at the end of the first half. With just 9 seconds remaining and the ball sitting on the Cleveland 1-yard line, McNabb attempted a fade pass to receiver Hank Baskett. McDonald, however, got a great break on the pass and intercepted it four yards in the end zone. With virtually no one in front of him, McDonald sprinted down the sideline but was tracked down by Brian Westbrook. McDonald was able to escape Westbrook but was eventually hauled down by Baskett at the Eagles 7-yard line as time expired. Officially it was a 97-yard interception return with no happy ending. If you were thinking it had to be some sort of record, it is, at least for the regular season. And for the moment, given the abject futility of that moment, things looked like they couldn’t possibly get worse.

Those fireworks aside, no one expected the game to be competitive and it wasn’t at any particular point except early and that was only because it was, well, early. But that, too, ended soon enough. And despite the relatively close score, relatively being a relative word, it was only that close due to several Eagles missteps inside the Browns’ 10-yard line. As a result, a game that should have been a laugher was merely a huge guffaw instead.

Predictably, the Eagles scored a touchdown on their opening drive. They passed, they ran and 8 plays and 64 yards later they had a quick 7-0 lead thanks to a 14-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Donovan McNabb to receiver Kevin Curtis.

Predictably, the Browns didn’t score a touchdown on their opening drive. After all, doing so would have resulted in simultaneously breaking two of their more dubious streaks—20+ games without a first-drive touchdown and three+ games without a touchdown. As it turned out, when the drive died at the Eagles 19-yard line, the only time the offense penetrated inside the Eagles’ 20-yard line, and they settled for a 26-yard Phil Dawson field goal, they kept in tact a trifecta of sorts of futility, adding to it another red zone failure. Using that as a measure of success, the Browns were off to a good start.

Things got slightly better for the Browns on the Eagles’ second drive, but saying that is an acknowledgement that progress is measured in the least exactly standards possible. McNabb moved the Eagles down the field rather easily, again, but was stifled when his pass on third down from the Cleveland 6-yard line sailed over the head of tight end L.J. Smith, forcing the Eagles to settle for a 24-yard field goal from David Akers near the end of the first quarter. If the rout wasn’t quite yet on, it was undeniably germinating.

It would have been in full bloom on the Eagles next drive but for an ill-advised call by someone wearing an Eagles head set, likely Reid. After again methodically moving downfield and facing a 3rd-and-goal from the Browns’ 7-yard line, the Eagles decided a wrinkle was necessary because the other stuff was working too well apparently. Wide receiver DeSean Jackson lined up as the quarterback in the shotgun formation. With the option to pass apparently his, Jackson did just that, poorly, in the direction of Baskett. Safety Sean Jones made a nice grab in the end zone instead to end that drive.

As it turned out, the interception was only a minor bump in the road. Six plays later, Browns quarterback Ken Dorsey tossed his own interception, to cornerback Asante Samuel, at the 50-yard line. Samuel then proceeded to take it back for a touchdown. For good measure, an unidentified Eagles player blasted left tackle Joe Thomas during the run back sending him about five yards forward and to the ground. Now it was 17-3 order was restored and dignity officially stripped.

Just when it looked like the Eagles were going to put the game completely out of reach (although it already was, technically speaking) at the end of the first half, McDonald had his remarkable end zone interception and run back. But like everything else this season, it fell short.

Here’s what’s hard to figure, as if there wasn’t enough already. On the Browns’ opening drive in the second half, Dorsey had the Browns sitting at the Eagles’ 35-yard line. It was 3rd-and-9. As the play clock was ticking down, Dorsey called time out to avoid a delay penalty. Then when the third down pass fell short of its intended target by a good 5 yards or so as expected, the Browns were forced to punt. That left punter Dave Zastudil less room to place a punt inside the Eagles’ 10-yard line. Thinking quickly, the Browns tried to correct that error by deliberately taking a delay on 4th down. Of course, the Eagles declined the penalty. Zastudil’s punt, naturally, sailed in the end zone.

The Eagles then took over and for the fifth straight time took the ball deep into Cleveland territory. While the Eagles avoided a turnover this time, they couldn’t avoid their own brand of red zone futility and had to settle for a 34-yard field goal and a 20-3 lead. For the sake of everyone, the Eagles were at least gobbling up huge chunks of the game clock in the process thereby shortening the game considerably as a grateful nation applauded.

It was about at this point that Crennel took off his head set. What exactly was he going to hear that he couldn’t see? The Browns defense was offering token resistance to the Eagles offense and his own offense had just set a franchise record for not scoring a touchdown of any sort. Given how things looked at the moment, it was a total that looked to continue into next week’s game.

Before going on, stop and consider the enormity of that record, even just in recent terms. Since their return in 1999 the Browns have had some of the worst teams imaginable with some of the worst offensive coordinators and quarterbacks imaginable. And yet, it took this team this year to grab that record. No matter what comes next, it’s official. Things could get worse than the McDonald 97-yard interception return. This is worse.

Meanwhile, the Eagles looked to be running some sort of 7-on-7 drill and having fun doing it. They again drove deep into the Browns territory with virtually no resistance but again had to settle for a 34-yard Akers’ field goal that pushed the scored to a deceivingly respectable 23-3. Respectability, though, was thrown out the window shortly thereafter. Following Dorsey’s second interception of the game, this time to linebacker Stewart Bradley, McNabb found Greg Lewis in the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown two plays later and just as quickly the score was now 30-3. McDonald finished the scoring with his touchdown a few minutes later as the teams thereafter simply gave up playing and collectively watched the clock countdown to 0:0.

With no sarcasm intended, there actually was one bright spot for the Browns. Receiver Braylon Edwards had 5 catches for 102 yards and absolutely no drops. He is Mr. Monday Night. Unfortunately, given the Browns’ season Edwards isn’t likely to see any Monday night games for awhile, absent a trade. Other than Edwards, there was virtually nothing else of note. The Browns, averaging just over 200 yards offense more or less kept that streak in tact as well, endng the game with 196 total yards. Dorsey was 11-28 for 156 yards and 2 interceptions. That was good for a quarterback rating of 28.27. McNabb, meanwhile, had his way except in the red zone. Facing virtually no pass rush and only an occasional token blitz, he was 26-35 for 290 yards, two touchdowns and the McDonald interception. The Eagles had 136 yards rushing, with Correll Buckhalter getting 55 yards and Brian Westbrook adding 53.

As much as you’d like to think it’s over, the Browns do have two more games. Next week against Cincinnati, that promises to attract CBS’ 8th string announcing crew, and the finale against the Steelers. Even if the Steelers are resting their starters in that game, it still appears as though the Browns’ last best chance to score a touchdown on offense is next week. If not, then the Browns may truly own the football equivalent of Joe DiMaggio’s unbreakable 56-game hitting streak.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Lingering Items--Titans Edition

With Cleveland Browns’ head coach Romeo Crennel all but packed and ready to move on to his next station in life, an interesting question concerns the fate of the various assistants. The reluctance of owner Randy Lerner to make a regime change stems in part from the instability it invariably causes. Thus it would hardly surprise if Lerner and general manager Phil Savage, assuming he survives the axe, try to find a head coach willing to keep many of Crennel’s assistants around to aid the transition.

Any time a candidate like that emerges, of course, red flags get raised, Roman candles spontaneously go off and dogs start playing with cats. When Crennel was hired, it was under pretty tight restrictions. As he’s proven less able at various aspects of his position, he’s had even less room to maneuver.. Most of those restrictions stemmed from Savage’s inherent insecurities. But the more salient point is that Crennel accepted those restrictions, including Savage essentially choosing the various assistants, because Crennel was just happy to finally have a head coaching gig in the first place.

That may very well be the case with the next coach as well, even if Savage isn’t around to make that decision. And the one assistant that comes quickest to mind as someone that Lerner/Savage would probably want to retain for stability’s sake is offensive coordinator Rob Chudzinski.

Chudzinski was a fairly sought after commodity in San Diego where he served as tight ends coach. After Marty Schottenheimer was fired for only going 14-2, the Chargers lost in quick order their offensive coordinator, Cam Cameron, to Miami and their offensive coordinator in waiting, Chudzinski, to Cleveland. While the Chargers anticipated the loss of Cameron (they were more interested in hiring a head coach with head coaching experience; it’s how they ended up with Norv Turner and that’s worked out splendidly, but I digress), they were disappointed to lose Chudzinski.

Last season, the hiring of Chudzinski looked like one of Savage’s true master strokes. At the time the Browns were a moribund offense under a head coach lacking the ability to fix it. Chudzinski not only came in and fixed it (with no small help from Savage’s rebuilding of the offensive line), but he made it into one of the more diverse and potent attacks in the league. It helped, too, that the offense that Chudzinski’s philosophical leanings meshed perfectly, at least for awhile, with the skills of quarterback Derek Anderson. As a result Anderson put together one of the best seasons in Cleveland quarterback history.

Last season only showed an inkling of the mad scientist element to Chudzinski’s offense. This season has showed it in spades and last week’s game against the Tennessee Titans was the standard bearer. There were really two problems with Chudzinski’s game plan last week. It was poorly designed and then poorly executed. It seemed constructed off the theory that it would catch the Titans off guard, as if they are as poorly coached as the Browns. They were certainly fooled. The Browns have now gone three straight games without an offensive touchdown.

Why Chudzinski had third string quarterback Ken Dorsey throwing on four of his first five plays belies any logic. Why Chudznski had him thrown any time thereafter was pure mystery. Dorsey has almost no arm strength and that’s when he’s able to look straight downfield and throw. When flushed from the pocket and forced to throw on the run, it would be far more efficient for Dorsey to simply hand the ball to the referee and the play whistled dead.

Last week proved the exception to the rule of “Any Given Sunday.” There was no chance that the Browns could win that game. But that doesn’t mean that Chudzinski and Crennel shouldn’t have put in a better effort. By eschewing a run game in favor of having Dorsey throw, all they did was truncate their own drives and give the Titans much more time to control the ball, which is exactly how it played out.

Chudzinski did unveil a little more of the so-called “Flash” offense featuring Josh Cribbs. But Chudzinski mostly treated it as an extended gimmick instead of a legitimate offensive formation. Again, another example of Chudzinski outsmarting himself and costing the team in the process.

There is no question that Chudzinski possesses some talent as a coordinator. But if he’s ever going to be truly effective, he’s going to have to become far more adaptive to the personnel available than he has been. To this point he’s far more insistence on pounding square pegs into the round holes he had carved out for players like Anderson. Did I mention that it’s been three games since the Browns have scored a touchdown?

**

Maybe Crennel still honestly believes he can save his job by winning the last three games of the season or maybe he’s just extracting a little revenge against the general manager that threw him under the bus last week. Either way, it was intriguing to hear Crennel basically say that he wouldn’t give more playing time to rookies like tight end Martin Rucker and linebacker Beau Bell. The reason? They aren’t ready.

Consider for a moment the dual ramifications of that statement. On the one hand, Crennel is highlighting still another one of his shortcomings and that of his staff. Counting the preseason, this team has been actively together for five months. Factor in all the various camps and such and Crennel has had his hands on these rookies for the better part of seven or eight months now and they still aren’t ready to see extended NFL experience? According to Crennel, players like Bell and Rucker are still “picking up the system.” That doesn’t speak well for the abilities of Crennel and his staff, does it? But at this point, it’s almost impossible to level new criticism on Crennel anyway so the risk to him and his reputation in making those statements is rather minimal.

On the other hand, Crennel’s statement is also a not so subtle a swipe at Savage for obtaining players that were at least a year away from being NFL ready. In that regard, the players Crennel is talking about aren’t undrafted free agents that everyone expected to be projects but actual draft picks. Bell was a fourth round pick and Rucker was a fifth rounder. While you’re at it, throw in Ahtyba Rubin (which is now officially the second time I’ve typed his name this season) drafted in the sixth round and seventh rounder Paul Hubbard who is on the practice squad and all of the sudden you have a compelling case that maybe Savage isn’t the genius he thinks he is.

The Plain Dealer’s Tony Grossi did a nice analysis Friday contrasting Savage’s draft misses this season to the productivity many top teams (the Pittsburgh Steelers excluded) are getting out of their rookies. When you see it in black and white, it becomes more evident that Crennel was indeed poking at Savage, even if just a little.

When the story of this season is written, most of it will be center around whether this was a legitimately talented team that couldn’t handle high expectations or whether this was never a legitimately talented team in the first place. The truth lies somewhere in between. But the more it begins to dawn on you that the 2009 draft was a complete bust, that Savage never brought in seasoned reinforcements for the defensive backfield and that his other great acquisitions are looking like one-hit wonders, the realization sets in that the problems on this team are trending toward the systemic, not isolated.

**

While we’re picking on Savage, it seems worth wondering why Savage spent the Thursday before the Titans game not at the team’s headquarters, which is always awash these days in controversy, but instead scouting a meaningless Lousiville vs. Rutgers match up.

I’ll take it as a given that either or both of Louisville and Rutgers have a player or two on their rosters that will be playing in the NFL next season. But since Savage is the team’s general manager and not it’s chief scout, wouldn’t the task of watching a meaningless late-season game in Newark, New Jersey tend to fall, perhaps, to an intern in the scouting department?

**

If whoever is running this team next season wants to motivate his players, the best thing he could do is make them watch the game films of last week’s Titans games, but not for the reasons you might think. Forget about all the mistakes the Browns made in all phases of last week’s game. What was far more instructive was how Titans’ head coach Jeff Fisher has created one of the top teams in the league despite having at best mid-level talent.

Quarterback Kerry Collins isn’t scaring anybody these days, assuming he ever did. Chris Johnson and LenDale White are nice running backs, but not great. Jevon Kearse and Albert Haynesworth are legitimate big time talents, but that’s two. The team’s most notable player is someone who isn’t playing, Vince Young.

There is nothing fancy or gimmicky about the Titans’ approach on either side of the ball. What they do well, indeed do almost better than anyone, is execute. Fisher and his staff have done an almost unbelievable job of putting each player in the right place to make the right play at the right time.

The Titans were hardly at their best against an overmatched Browns team. But they were more than good enough. In methodically picking apart what’s left of the heart and spirit of this team, the Titans displayed what a team with average or slightly above average talent can do when well coached. In contrast, the entire Browns’ season has been a lesson in what can happen when a team with average to below average talent is poorly coached.

If Lerner couldn’t see this contrast, then he, too, must have stopped watching. Perhaps he can convince the BBC to show more than the weekly highlights.
**
With the Browns playing the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday night, this week’s question to ponder: how much space does a NFL game take up on a Tivo?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Stuck in Limbo

Listening to Cleveland Browns head coach Romeo Crennel on Monday answer questions for what seemed like the 13th straight week about his imminent firing, I was reminded of Charlie Manuel, the former Cleveland Indians’ manager who recently won a World Series with the Philadelphia Phillies.

It’s not that I think that once fired Crennel, like Manuel, will go on to great head coaching success somewhere else. That’s unlikely. More likely is that Crennel will either retire or fade back into a role that suits him far better—defensive coordinator. Instead, listening to Crennel talking about getting out of bed each day and coming to work to do the best job he can made me think about how Manuel handled a similar situation and in the process probably did more to enhance his credibility than anything he could have done as Indians’ manager.

The Indians 2002 season started with promise but quickly turned into a rebuilding. It was general manager Mark Shapiro’s second year in that role and one of his charges was to try and maintain the perennial winner that he and John Hart had built but at a far cheaper price. The Indians got off to an 11-1 start and all seemed well enough but it was more fool’s gold than anything else. By the end of the first month they were 13-11. Things continued to plummet from there and by the All Star break, their record stood at 39-47 and they had traded their ace pitcher in exchange for a handful of prospects.

This was also Manuel’s third season as the manager. Manuel, like Crennel, was a long-time veteran who had waited patiently for his chance to ascend to the top job at the top level. A folksy type, Manuel was often underestimated by those paid to know better. Thus, as the Indians were busy transitioning to a much younger team, the theme developed that Manuel may not be the best person to take on that kind of task. Though highly thought of generally, it was felt within the Indians organization that a younger manager could better relate to the kind of roster Shapiro was busy compiling. Helping stoke those rumors was the fact that Manuel’s contract was set to expire at the end of 2002.

Matters more or less came to a head at the All Star break that year. Though it didn’t appear that Shapiro had any plans to fire Manuel during the season, Shapiro also didn’t have any plans on committing to Manuel beyond the season either. In Manuel’s view, he was caught in limbo, knowing that if the Indians weren’t going to be bringing him back next year it wasn’t all that likely that he’d resonate much with the players on the roster in the interim.

Rather than sit back and let matters unfold, like Crennel is doing now, Manuel took his concerns directly to Shapiro and asked for a commitment beyond the season. Shapiro, far more entrenched that Browns’ general manager Phil Savage, was honest with Manuel, telling him that he hadn’t yet decided if he wanted him back the following year. Shapiro did promise Manuel however that if he wasn’t hired as manager he’d still have a job in the organization.

That wasn’t nearly good enough for Manuel. Having raised the issue in the first place, he now was forced to do something with the information. He told Shapiro that if he wasn’t going to be the manager in 2003, he had no intention of staying with the organization, so he left. Officially, Manuel was fired, but that was done as a favor to him so that he could be paid through the end of the season.

The Browns’ latest rebuilding effort (and irrespective of what Savage says that’s what it will be) isn’t the result of the end of one cycle and the beginning of another as it was with the Indians. But for these purposes and how it impacts on the man in charge it is the same. Crennel knows he won’t be back. The players know he won’t be back. The only thing left is to make it official.

As Manuel was then, Crennel is now in limbo. The only person that matters less in an organization than a lame duck coach is an interim one. It does tend to beg the question, then, as to why Crennel doesn’t simply force the issue now and leave with his dignity in tact. Distancing himself from a dysfunctional organization would hardly be a black mark on his career.

The reasons Crennel has chosen this course are probably several but come down to two simple concepts. First, forcing the issue with Savage is practically useless. Savage may have already thrown Crennel under the bus in the last few weeks, but Savage’s status too hangs just as much in the balance. Savage simply is in no position to make any promises to anyone about anything that extends beyond 4:05 p.m. on the season’s last day.

Second, Crennel isn’t a quitter. When people talk about Crennel, they mostly note the respect he commands even if that doesn’t translate to performance on the field. Coming from a military upbringing, Crennel well understands the credo of duty, honor, commitment. Crennel likely sees demanding clarity from Savage, who can’t give it, or Lerner, who can’t define it, as the last dishonorable act of a quitter. Fair enough.

Meanwhile, in honoring an increasingly unnecessary commitment to the Browns, Crennel has put himself in the uncomfortable role of bearing witness to rampant speculation about his successor. If he finds it personally galling that one of the fan’s favorites happens to be Marty Schottenheimer, a person who is four years older, he doesn’t let on.

But if he did, Crennel might be more than justified in asking why the fascination with Schottenheimer. It’s a question I keep asking as well. For those who think that Schottenheimer is the answer, maybe it’s because they aren’t quite sure the right question to ask.

Schottenheimer meets that mythical criterion of having extensive head coaching experience. In that, he’s been successful. His teams have won 61% of their games over his 21-year career. But for a variety of reasons Schottenheimer has always been someone appreciated more in retrospect than contemporaneously. Perhaps that’s as it should be.

But if an old coach out of football for two years who was something once with this franchise is the only criterion, then let’s dig up the bodies of either Paul Brown or Blanton Collier and wheel them out there each Sunday. The fact is that Crennel’s failures don’t emanate from the fact that he wasn’t a head coach previously. His failures result from a lack of skill in weaving in and juggling all of the elements of what makes up the head coach’s job.

Meanwhile, the list of teams that have been successful with a young, first time head coach that possesses those skills is long and compelling. This franchise needs to build for the long term, not the next few years. If Schottenheimer is hired, where would that leave the Browns in just five years when he’s 70?

The same more or less goes for Bill Cowher. He’s a better prospect than Schottenheimer but what the Browns really needs is the next Bill Cowher, not Cowher himself. They need to find the right person around whom they can build an identity for the long haul, not a person who could only help paper over a few of this franchise’s many holes for a couple of years.

When Manuel forced Shapiro’s hand, it really let Shapiro do what his instincts told him was the right thing to do: find a young up and comer that could grow along with the roster. Eric Wedge may not be the best manager in baseball, but he’s more than proven his value. To pull that team out of the abyss and get it back to .500 last season was a monumental accomplishment.

The Browns have far more dire needs, but the same truths preside. Pulling themselves out of this abyss is never a one or two year process; it’s a long term, long range strategy being executed by the right person with the right vision and the time to see it through to conclusion. That’s where Crennel and Schottenheimer do have one thing in common: neither is that right person.