Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Existentially Speaking

Let’s see. Last time we heard about an open quarterback competition with the Cleveland Browns, the head coach was so flummoxed by the logistics of it all that he had to flip a coin just to find a starter for a meaningless preseason game. Here’s hoping that, with the benefit of several months planning, the Browns’ new regime is a little better prepared.

Actually, the impression from new Browns general manager George Kokinis that the team plans on keeping both Brady Quinn and Derek Anderson is probably just Kokinis being Mangini, or is it the other way around? With obfuscation being the modus operandi for now and until another new regime enters the fray for the next phase of a Browns reclamation project with a completion date that rivals that of the atom smasher, it’s hard to know what Kokinis and head coach Eric Mangini really think.

As an aside here, it’s worth examining a little why Kogini (which is a far more polite and “G” rated way to refer to this two-headed hydra than “Mankok”) play so much “hide the sausage” with even the most basic of information. Ostensibly they do it to retain a competitive advantage, but against whom, exactly? At least since 1999, the Browns have been mostly a mess as a franchise to the point that they are often a punch line to a joke, usually one involving the Los Angeles Clippers and the movie “Heaven’s Gate.”

If there is even one team remotely interested in what the Browns might be up to that would be a surprise on the level of Adam Miller being the Indians’ opening day starter. Let me put it in an existential context: if Kogini were to stand up in the middle of the NFL’s spring meetings and detail each and every plan they have for the Browns and no one bothered to stick around and listen, would they really have said anything?

Kogini may see themselves as brilliant tacticians and crafty strategists, but if the rest of the league’s response to whatever they’re cooking up is merely to yawn, why then would they ever bother to guard the information like it’s the secret recipe of herbs and spices used in making Kentucky Fried Chicken?

Though the rest of the league is entirely agnostic about the Browns’ plans at any given moment, there is still a fan base with an almost unquenchable thirst for information about their team. To the extent that anyone cares it’s them and yet from all early indications, rebuilding credibility with that group doesn’t seem to be high on the priority list.

End of aside. Back to the main show.

If Kogini does stick with both Anderson and Quinn in the near term, it’s more or less where former general manager Phil Savage was with the whole thing as well. There is the allure of Anderson’s arm that makes them paper over his accuracy and mechanical blunders. There is the allure of Quinn’s presence and leadership that make them paper over his relative lack of arm strength. (Ok, another quick aside. Quinn doesn’t have a weak arm. Ken Dorsey has a weak arm. Miguel Dilone had a weak arm. Quinn’s arm is just fine. It’s just not as strong as Anderson’s.)

But as I hastened to remind, when last I visited this issue I noted that none of this much matters unless and until a credible receiving corps is being built. That’s really the point here. Don’t get lost in all the Anderson and Quinn talk while losing sight of the ugliness taking place with the receiving corps.

Kellen Winslow is gone. Joe Jurevicius is gone. Right now there is Braylon Edwards, recently signed David Patten (a “possession” receiver, which means he can catch, he just can’t run) and a bunch of others that might, just might, have a future if the Arena Football League ever actually restarts. (Ok, still another quick aside. During the season I get several emails from Al. I like Al. He always has something interesting to say. But Al is oddly enamored with Paul Hubbard for reasons that are unclear to me to this day. I don’t know why Savage traded a fifth round pick in this year’s draft to get Hubbard in the 6th round last season, only to put him on the practice squad and then re-sign him later in the season. That’s never been adequately explained and probably never could be. Nonetheless, I, too, remain fascinated with Hubbard, but solely because we share the same birth date, even if there are dozens of years difference in our ages.)

The rumors are swirling now that Edwards is being shopped, though Kogini deny it in the kind of specific way that seems like hedging. (“Did you say ‘shopped’? No, he’s not being ‘shopped.’ You didn’t ask if I’d listen to offers.”) Maybe that’s all just wishful thinking out there in the free-for-all no-accountability fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants wild west that is the internets. But I tend to think that there is something to it.

Edwards seems as connected to the Browns as Keith Hernandez was to the Indians. He carries himself like a germaphobe at a tattoo parlor. He’s a whiner whose every action says “how long before I’m a free agent?” But is that any reason to simply part ways, especially when there aren’t any viable alternatives? It depends on your perspective.

There are some (ok, many) that feel that cutting Edwards would be addition by subtraction. Consequently almost anything in return via trade is a bonus. There are also some (ok, few) who think that this is a misunderstood genius who, with a little help from the rest of his team, would be among the elite receivers in the league.

It’s a little of both, really. Edwards is certainly a Pro Bowl caliber receiver. He’s got good size and decent speed. In 2007 he had 80 catches for more than 1200 yards and 16 touchdowns. He’s also a truculent borderline malcontent with a huge entitlement need that can never be satisfied. At times he demonstrates the concentration level of a puppy and drops way too many passes to ever be considered a true number one receiver.

That’s the dilemma Kogini face. Which Edwards do they get and when? No one, I suspect, wants a repeat of 2008. Everyone, I believe, would like a return to 2007. But the abject inability to predict at any given moment which you’ll get is vexing. It makes it hard to plan or build a credible and sustainable offense. Indeed, the only reason he gets this level of consideration is his size and speed and the unfilled potential of his 2007 season. Take away just one of those elements and he’s Steve Holden.

If Kogini really are thinking of trading Edwards, it will end up being for the same reason that Mark Shapiro traded Bartolo Colon: it’s a team that’s rebuilding and Edwards monetized into draft choices is more valuable than Edwards dropping passes during the 2009 season. And that’s really how to approach this situation. Kogini haven’t said so, mainly because that would violate every precept by which they live their sneaky little lives, but they are rebuilding this team.

The free agent signings to this point are notable for two reasons: the number of ex-Jets and the age of the players signed. Kogini see the roster as lacking in established NFL-caliber veterans and are adding the ol’ “crafty veterans” by the carload as a stop gap measure. That’s not a bad plan as long as they aren’t silly enough to believe that these players, all with a shelf life of one or two more seasons, tops, can lead this team anywhere but back to a .500 record at best. But I do think that they believe that having them around for a few years will, at some level, obscure the rebuilding process taking place around them.

Frankly, I have no problem with any of this. A team that goes 4-12 should have few if any untouchables. It’s a team whose needs are vast and the best way to address it is to address it in the proper way.

But where I do have a problem is the lack of faith Kogini seem to have in the fans. By keeping the fans at arms length with their lack of candor, they place at risk everything they are trying to do. To put it in existential terms: If Kogini rebuild this team and no one cares, have they really done anything? If you think about it, it’s kind of how Bernie Madoff dealt with his investors. It worked, but only for awhile.