Monday, April 27, 2009

Still Searching for a Theme

To those who think the Cleveland Browns overreached by picking University of California center Alex Mack with their first pick on Saturday, you’re right. To those who think that for once the Browns were deliberately conservative, focused on actually rebuilding their crumbling franchise by loading up on quantity, you’re right, too. And for those who think that the NLF draft is more flash than substance and that there is no way to judge the wisdom of what any team did this weekend, you’re also right.

While there may be some basic truths about the draft, with some teams seemingly always drafting better than others, there is far less science involved in the process than anyone officially associated with the NFL would care to admit. Teams prepare reams of data on player after player and yet still make far more hiring mistakes than the shift manager of a local McDonald’s. You would think with the stakes so high teams would set their own bars higher. As it is they seem thrilled when their batting average on draftees is north of Asdrubal Cabrera even if south of Victor Martinez.

That makes it a bit dangerous to jump into this abyss without a life preserver. Still, there is a consensus emerging about the Browns’ draft in the way that a consensus emerges anytime you get like thinking people together in the same room. Everyone just confirms for each other what they were thinking all along. And what were they thinking? That’s pretty obvious. The Browns would be wise to load up on draft picks. Give the Browns draft a “B.” Why? Why not?

What isn’t being asked enough, though, is exactly what the Browns really set out to do in the draft. Without a clear understanding of the underlying game plan, it’s hard to judge whether or not there was success. When this draft was all over, I still don’t know what this team or the new Browns regime stands for. That problem has plagued this franchise since it re-emerged 10 years ago and plagues it to this day.

There is no theme. There are no core beliefs. If you want to know what this draft was about, your guess is as good as anyone else’s. It may be, for example, that the Browns really did want to load up on draft picks, even at the expense of some veteran players if necessary. It also may be that the deal with the Jets, as well as the other two first round deals, fell into their laps at the last minute and pushed them to go in an altogether different direction.

If you think either general manager George Kokinis or head coach Eric Mangini is going to reveal what they were thinking, then you just aren’t paying attention to either’s latent paranoia. The only people they trust less than the media is everyone else.

Right now they are constructing this franchise like a new owner rehabs a vacant store. They’ve put brown paper over the windows and every so often an occasional tear appears allowing you to look inside and see that something’s going on even if you’re not quite sure what.

It’s entirely conceivable, as the Plain Dealer’s Tony Grossi essentially theorizes, that the Browns floated out the trial balloons on both Braylon Edwards and Brady Quinn to in order to gauge fan reaction. If that’s the case, how exactly did the fans react to those rumors?

For some, it caused a reassessment of Edwards that focused on his possibilities while downplaying his performance. Others simply want him off the team. Quinn was a bit easier. Most fans figure the Browns owe it to themselves, at the very least, to understand his upside before pouring more resources into still another rookie quarterback. I’d be surprised, however, if any of this made any difference to either Kokinis or Mangini. They don’t strike me as the kind of guys that would run a franchise by fan acclimation.

What’s far more likely, though again we’ll never know for sure, is that Kokinis and Mangini took the measure of the team they inherited and weighed it against the draft and decided, “hey, this team needs better players.” If that’s the case then that’s the place to begin your analysis of this draft. Still, it’s only a guess.

Assuming quantity with a dash of quality was the game plan, the Browns’ draft was clearly a rip-roaring success. They picked up two potential veteran starters in Kenyon Coleman and Abram Elam, a likely starter on the offensive line in the form of Mack, and probably two starting receivers in Brian Robiski and Mohamed Massaquoi. Even defensive end/lineman David Veikune is likely to start.

The real challenge will be to turn what appear to be some temporarily-applied band-aids into more permanent repairs. Maybe Mangini knows something about both Coleman and Elam that the rest of the league currently is missing or else he got suckered into a three-card monte game with the Jets by taking them. Time will certainly tell. But in the interim, if Coleman and Elam end up being only slight upgrades then the defensive line and secondary are still awaiting the long term fixes both need.

If, on the other hand, you are more in the camp of wanting to see quality first, then the Browns are right up there (or right down there, depending on your perspective) with the Oakland Raiders. The Raiders keep drafting players as if they are picking names out of hat while virtually every other team at least appears to be trying something a little more fact-based. With all the draft picks the Browns acquired the manner in which they went about turning those picks into players is bound to strike more than a few of us as a little Raidersesque.

If you’re taking a completely unvarnished look at this team, then you just know that it has more holes than Firestone Country Club. The roster Mangini inherited from Savage is far more reflective of the team that won 4 games last year than the team that won 11 the season before. This is a team that needs players at almost every position which means that drafting for need should have been secondary, except in a few instances, such as quarterback.

Frankly, that’s the best context in which to even begin the analysis of the Browns’ draft. That’s not to knock Mack or any of the players the Browns drafted. But it is more than just a suggestion that the Browns could have and should have done better.

In the first instance, the Jets today are rightly crowing about the fact that they were able to move up 12 spots in the first round without having to surrender next year’s first round pick. All it really cost them were three players that they viewed as relatively expendable anyway. That’s a steal in anyone’s book. The only thing that makes that trade seem less ridiculous is the fact that the Browns saved huge money by moving so far down in the draft. It’s money they can waste elsewhere. It’s the same rationale Bill Belichick utilized when he traded Matt Cassel to Kansas City for “only” a second round pick and then through in Mike Vrabel for kicks and giggles. In some sense, the Browns got taken in that trade, even if it turned into more picks in later rounds.

More important than all of that is the simple fact that Kokinis and Mangini seemed to eschew any pretense of drafting the best player available. Make whatever arguments you want, but at the end of it all can anyone be convinced that Mack was the best player available at number 17 in the draft? Similarly, given the holes on the team, was there any reason not to draft the best player available regardless of position?

If you assume that picking up Coleman, the defensive end and Elam, a safety, allowed the Browns to temporarily check off those boxes on areas of need, then with all that still lay before them, was Mack really the best choice? There were receivers and linebackers galore available as well as a certain running back from Ohio State, any one of which had to be more highly rated than Mack and any one of which also would have conveniently filled an area of need on this team. Does anyone honestly believe that a lineman who wasn’t even projected by most as a first rounder was the best available player? Good luck selling that to the fan base.

Fans will never get the straight story on this draft. Instead, they’ll be left to sort through it over the next few years as they watch several of the players the Browns bypassed to get Mack go on to accomplish great things. Maybe we’ll eventually learn that the Browns were best served by going safe. The real question is what more will transpire in the interim?

If this draft ends up being even a short-term disaster, the fans will become rightfully impatient and owner Randy Lerner may end up finding still another regime in whom to vest his unquestionable trust. At that point this draft will be essentially rendered irrelevant except as a jumping off point to figure out what direction in which Brian Schottenheimer or whoever is running this franchise next will go.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Lingering Items--Draft Edition

The first casualty in the run-up to the NFL’s annual draft is the truth. With so many media outlets gunning for a competitive edge over each other, it’s no wonder that rumors float out from unnamed sources at about the same frequency as an Indians’ batter strikes out.

Whether or not any of these so-called rumors are true is almost beside the point. What’s far more fascinating is to watch amateur propagandists exploit gullible reporters to the point where the Plain Dealer, for example, simultaneously reported that the Browns were ready to get hitched to Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree and that they were so turned off by his diva attitude that they were looking elsewhere for receivers. Go figure.

The shadowy team officials that are often cited as the basis for these rumors are simply following a well-worn script by this point. Knowing the voracious appetite reporters have for easy information, these so-called team officials, which probably run the gamut from the kid cataloguing video tapes to the guy emptying the trash, are part of each team’s plan to float out enough misinformation to make sure no one knows their plans.

It has two purposes. First, it keeps other teams from finalizing their plans. If a team drafting below Cleveland really wants Crabtree, it might consider either trading with Cleveland or someone above them to ensure they get their man. When that happens, the desperate team usually overpays. If you’re the Browns in that scenario, that’s a good thing. Don’t get your hopes up.

But the second reason this happens, and a reason that is as least as important as the first, is that it provides the kind of cover these team officials need to keep them from offending whoever it is they do end up drafting. “Clifford Charlton? He was always number one on our draft board.” These are the kinds of things you usually hear from teams like the Browns after they just polished off another disastrous draft.

While not giving into the very tempting proposition to analyze each and every rumor concerning the Browns, the one that still makes me scratch my head is the one putting Mark Sanchez squarely in the cross hairs. Under this scenario, the Browns would move Brady Quinn to make room for Sanchez and in the process gain additional draft picks.

As I’ve said previously, of the two quarterbacks on the Browns’ roster, Quinn has the most trade value. But the underlying premise of the rumors is that Sanchez is already a better quarterback than Quinn. To which I then ask: based on what? Both Quinn and Sanchez sport the right pedigree. Quinn has seen limited action in the NFL but there is enough to know that he belongs. Sanchez is still a leap in that regard, even if it isn’t a tremendous leap.

But more broadly, what exactly is the fascination with Sanchez, at least as compared to Quinn? Is it just a matter of a new regime putting its own stamp on the franchise by ushering out the previous administration’s signature acquisition? I suppose we’ll know the rehearsed answer to all of that if this does indeed take place. Right now, I’m not convinced.

**

The other significant rumor about the Browns, and maybe it’s related, is the possible trade of receiver Braylon Edwards to the New York Giants. To a certain extent, the genesis of this rumor simply stems from the fact that the Giants have a spot open for a new prima donna. The last one they had, Plaxico Burress, not only shot off his mouth one too many times but also nearly shot his own leg off.

Right now, that deal is supposedly dead, or alive, depending on whether you want to monitor the ramblings of Fox Sports or ESPN. Whether this, too, is mostly smoke and mirrors probably doesn’t matter. When it comes to Edwards, if he’s not gone sooner he will be later.

If you think Jay Cutler got his panties twisted up in a knot about being the subject of trade rumors, wait until an Edwards trade doesn’t happen. He’ll make Cutler seem positively statesmanlike by comparison. If the Browns come out of the draft and Edwards is still on the team, they’ll be facing a far bigger issue than they did with Kellen Winslow.

With Winslow, the issue was always money. Edwards, of course, will say it’s about respect or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Rule #1 in pro sports: the word “respect” is pronounced “muhn-ee.” However characterized, Edwards will be a problem and that will be long before he drops his first pass of the season somewhere around the 14:22 mark of the first quarter of the team’s first game, assuming the Browns win the coin toss.

Frankly, I just don’t see how Edwards can survive with the Browns another year, a conclusion that new head coach Eric Mangini probably has reached as well. Whether he’s moved on draft day or not, he’ll be moved. It’s just a question of when.

**

With all the rumors about Edwards bouncing about like another dropped pass, it was somewhat amusing to listen to ESPN’s Colin Cowherd extol the virtues of Edwards and question the Browns’ sanity. Cowherd is a contrarian to begin with so the fact that he is zagging when everyone else is zigging is mostly expected. It’s just that his arguments were so ridiculous it made me long for the days when I used to argue with my daughter when she was 6 years old.

Basically, Cowherd said that Edwards’ dropped passes were no big deal. I guess that’s an easy conclusion to make from the comfort of a hermitically sealed studio in Bristol, Connecticut. If you were, say, Derek Anderson, a shoulder shrug and a “stuff happens” pat on the back to Edwards gets a little harder to do after the fifth drop in a third straight game.

There was more. Cowherd likened Edwards’ drops to Kobe Bryant only hitting 50% of his shots, suggesting that nobody in their right mind would get rid of Bryant under those circumstances. Take your time and mull that around a bit. Ready to shoot the fish in the barrel?

First of all, if Edwards were actually dropping 50% of his passes, no one would need worry about the trade market. He’d be out of the league, if he ever got there in the first place, and trying his hand at broadcasting, settling for doing color commentary for a local junior college. Second, if Bryant only took 6 shots a game and missed 3, no one would even know his name. He wouldn’t be in the NBA. He’d be playing in some church league on Sunday nights. Bryant actually averaged a little more than 20 shots a game and made around 10. That’s a significant difference. Moreover his presence on the court, his ability to get rebounds, dish out assists and play defense makes his contributions far more than the sum of his missed shots.

Edwards, on the other hand, does little else. He is an extremely mediocre blocker (and there I’m being generous) and that’s when there’s a play in his direction. When the play is away from him he does virtually nothing but run a meaningless pattern. Obviously he doesn’t play defense. Thus, the sum of his contributions is two-fold, his presence as an offensive threat and his ability to actually make plays. When he can’t catch the ball, he ceases to be effective in either department. Thus where Bryant can and does contribute every second he’s on the floor, Edwards does not.

The broader point to all of this, though, is that comparing Edwards to Bryant on any level is ridiculous. Bryant is one of the top two basketball players on the planet. Edwards is one of the football players on the planet. The other main point Cowherd misses is Edwards’ attitude and presence. If Mangini and company were indeed put off by Crabtree and his diva like attitude, wait until Edwards starts hanging around the Berea complex on a regular basis after the draft. A receiver, like a cornerback, needs to have a certain swagger. Sooner or later, though, he is going to have to back it up. Edwards takes that concept and turns it on its ear. His attitude is accomplishments notwithstanding

On nearly a daily basis for the last 10 years, fans have had reason to question the sanity of Browns management. Trading Edwards, no matter what it yields, will never be one of them.

**

As you watch this week’s NFL draft, the question to ponder is, which phrase scares you more, “with the 5th pick the Cleveland Browns take…” or “We have a trade, the Cleveland Browns have sent…”?

Monday, April 20, 2009

One for the Books

The worst kept secret about Cleveland sports fans is that they trudge through daily life with an inferiority complex weighting them down like a 60-pound stone. Their existence in large measure plays out like a Springsteen song where they play out the part of the dreamers caught up in the grind of their daily circumstances. But every so often, they get to the place where they really wanted to go and they walk in the sun.

Saturday was just that day.

If you think it doesn’t get better than watching the Cavaliers drub the Detroit Pistons in Game 1 of the first round of the NBA Finals while the Indians simultaneously are taking apart the Yankees like a golden retriever taking apart a throw pillow, it actually does. Try watching both games in front of TV screens side to side, each the size of a billboard, while in New York City. A more confused lot of New York fans would have been harder to find.

I was in New York this past weekend with my oldest daughter helping her get situated for an internship she has this summer in the city. After a day of walking around the Calcutta that is Battery Park and then heading to Columbus Circle and then toward Times Square for all manner of shopping for the next several hours, we finally found ourselves perched on two bar stools on the second floor of the ESPN Zone on Times Square.

Staring us in the face was the aforementioned TV screens and a couple hundred or so New Yorkers (and tourists of other stripes, I suppose). The setting was perfect. It was now late in the second quarter, the Cavs were up by plenty and the Indians were just getting warmed up in the second inning.

It was around this time that Shin-Soo Choo hit what turned out to be a relatively harmless 3-run homer to give the Indians a 3-2 lead, erasing the memory of another struggle by Indians’ starter Fausto Carmona. (Here’s an aside: I was heading home yesterday via the traveling ‘70s vintage Winnebago that makes up AirTran’s “fleet” of planes when I heard two women conversing about the Indians’ game on Saturday. For some reason, one woman kept on insisting that Carmona hit a grand slam in the game and the other, oddly, completely agreed. Now I did have a couple of Bud Lights during the game but certainly not enough to ever confuse Carmona with, say, Asdrubal Cabrera. The former is the one that throws the 55 foot breaking balls, the latter is the one that swings at them too often. I thought of correcting them but then I thought it was better to just leave some urban legends alone.)

Back to Choo. It was just after he hit that homer that LeBron James sank a nearly half-court shot just as the buzzer sounded at halftime. The Cavs had just let the Pistons close to within 9 points with 2.2 seconds left in the half. Inexplicably, Tayshaun Prince more or less let James get the inbound pass and dribble quickly to the half-court line while he half-heartedly gave James a slight shove with his elbow. Of course we know that James sank the shot, but all I kept thinking was “doesn’t Prince watch ’60 Minutes?’” James sank one of those shots underhanded, on camera, first take. The only disappointing aspect about the James basket was the fact that Prince did foul him and it should have been a 4-point play.

It was at that point that the New York fans were fixated on the Cavs game. Meanwhile, the Indians kept hitting the ball as if it was being pitched by Ed from Brunswick. I was pretty sure that even I could get around on one of Chien-Ming Wang’s fastballs and take it out over that short porch in right field. (Here’s another aside: Every time there’s a technological advance in golf, they lengthen the holes and shave the areas around the greens and grow the rough. It’s why even the best players struggle to get to par during the U.S. Open. Why doesn’t baseball follow suit? The dimensions of today’s ballparks, starting with that goofy short porch in new Yankee stadium, would have trouble containing Duane Kuiper. Today’s players are bigger and stronger than their counterparts of even 20 years ago [insert obligatory steroid joke here]. They throw harder and hit the ball further than ever before [insert second obligatory steroids joke here]. Yet major league baseball officials act as if this is still the dead ball era and the players sell insurance in the off-season instead of training.)

When the Cavs came back out at halftime, the Indians were still batting in the 2nd inning. The inning didn’t end until that third quarter was almost half over. By this point, Yankee fans had long since stopped watching the drubbing in favor of seeing James dominate a playoff game like few players can. And by watching James, I mean that they were watching like a teenage boy watches late-night Cinemax and fantasizes.

James is clearly the object of desire to New York fans and while this seems to scare Cleveland fans I see it as the crowning achievement of local civic pride. It’s one thing to lose CC Sabathia to the Yankees. It was inevitable. There were only a few teams that could really afford him and baseball operates on the same kind of business model as Enron used to.

But James is not just another star athlete biding his time in Cleveland, he’s homegrown. He grew up in the four corners of Akron and every accomplishment he’s had since the first time he dunked a basketball on a regulation hoop (which was probably in first grade but since it was pre-YouTube we lack the video verification) has been done either within a 35-mile radius of Cleveland or on behalf of a team in this area. This may be his sixth season in the NBA, but the locals have known him far longer than that.

With the Knicks again not a part of the NBA playoffs, New York fans were again relegated to adopting a team to follow in the same vein that Browns fans have been forced to adopt a team every year since the Super Bowl started. The Cavs are clearly their team. Unlike the disappointment they were loudly expressing at anyone in a pinstripe jersey on Saturday, New York fans were just as loudly voicing their support for the Cavs in general and James in particular. (Here’s still another aside: I use the term “voicing” because of its generic character, recognizing that I’m probably not doing much justice to what was taking place. In actuality, there was all manner of high-fives being issued, shrieks of delight were ever present, as if the New York fans had suddenly turned into teenage girls and were at a Jonas Brothers concert, and more than a few f-bombs were being dropped, but in that way where the f-bombs are expressing appreciation, not derision, like “that was a f—ing good pass. It sure the f--- was.”)

If you’re a Cleveland sports fans, ask yourself when was the first, last or anytime in between that you were the envy of New York fans? You have something they want in the person of James and a team like the Cavs. And it’s not a money issue. In fact, the Cavs hold all the cards if money is the issue when it comes to James.

Indeed, the only way James ends up in New York is if he thinks that presents him with the best opportunity to win multiple championships. Right now and by the time James has to finalize that decision it’s hard to see how the Knicks could get themselves into that position, at least relative to the Cavs.

Stranger things have happened. It’s what keeps the Cleveland fans fretting. It’s in the genes. While you have to have a healthy respect for all that’s happened to Cleveland sports fans, still they just have to know that right now they not only get to cheer on the world’s best player but they do so knowing that every connection he has to that world is in this area, not New York and in the Cavaliers, from Dan Gilbert on down, is a functional organization that has more than proven their ability to put together a championship-caliber team. All the Knicks under owner James Dolan have done is proven that the Browns can never win an award for the worst run franchise.

Even as they were delighting at James and drooling at the notion that he’ll be in a Knicks uniform soon enough because, hey, it’s New York, they occasionally were forced to witness the carnage of that second inning at the expense of their beloved Yankees, mainly because of the media timeouts during the basketball game. The Shoo homer didn’t do in the Yankee fans. That would have been the Cabrera grand slam. But even before that 14th run was recorded, Yankee fans were predictably bitching about George Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman. The few Mets fans in attendance had double-wide smiles and the few Red Sox fans at the bar had by now pulled out their hats that they were keeping tucked in their pockets initially.

It’s fascinating that this Indians team, of all the Indians teams in the last 15 years, owns a few all-time records against such a storied franchise. When some kid living in the Bronx whose not even born yet turns 12 and is looking at a digital baseball record book that he accesses on his mind-controlled iPod and sees that the 2009 Indians hold the all-time record for most hits and runs in an inning against the Yankees and the most runs scored in the second inning of any baseball game ever, he’ll be as amazed as I was when I learned that the Monkees didn’t play their own instruments.

Even as the Indians dropped Sunday’s game after the bullpen again collapsed and even if the Cavs don’t sweep the Pistons or, God forbid, not win the NBA Championship, at least we’ll always have Saturday. As my daughter said to me as we exited the ESPN Sportszone to venture out to Sephora and a little “her” time, “this is a great day for Cleveland sports.” It certainly was.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Lingering Items--Loser Edition

As the early season losses pile up for the Cleveland Indians like iTunes charges on your credit card, manager Eric Wedge is sounding more and more like former Cleveland Browns’ head coach Romeo Crennel. As he watches one leak after another spring in the good ship Tribe, Wedge is starting to take on the demeanor of someone who knows not every leak can be patched but he’s baling as fast as he can anyway. Kind of like Crennel.

Wedge doesn’t skirt the fact that his team is losing and finding new ways to do it each game. But the silver linings he sees are the same Crennel saw even as Crennel was losing his grip on the only head coaching job he ever had, kind of like Wedge.

“Our effort is good, our attitude is good, our energy level is good, but we just have to start performing,” Wedge told the media after Monday night’s loss. It sounded like a Crennel press conference on Monday morning after a Pittsburgh beatdown. And just like a Crennel quote, it would be easy to break down Wedge’s assessment and say, somewhat snidely but nevertheless truthfully, “well, they did just come out of spring training, didn’t they? If the attitude and effort aren’t there now, when would they be?”

Maybe this is just what happens when a team with lofty expectations can’t live up to them. You look for the little bit of sunlight in the storm clouds. But despite how much Wedge is sounding and acting like Crennel, there are major differences.

Wedge is the kind of coach the Browns should have looked for instead of hiring Crennel. Wedge was a young up and comer, clearly in tune with the changing nature of the game and was brought in specifically to grow with the team. That he did. Crennel was the lifetime assistant whom no other team but the Browns ever envisioned as a head coach. They were right.

Where Crennel never seemed to have a firm handle on any aspect of his job, Wedge is supremely confident and clearly in charge. The kinds of players he has to coach have far less character issues than what former general manager Phil Savage gave Crennel, but Wedge has nonetheless kept the lid on any insurrections. Discipline, except at the plate of course, doesn’t seem to be an issue with the Tribe.

While both men clearly command the respect of the players, Crennel’s team could never quite translate that respect into performance. With Wedge, the jury is still out. There have been times when Wedge seems to have wrung every last bit of potential out of some of his players. At other times, the converse seems to be the case. That may be due to the subtle nature of the game and the very thin line between success and failure, but there also is a sense that at times the players simply tune Wedge out, content to follow their own path.

Some have suggested that last season was Wedge’s real test as a manager. He managed to make a little chicken salad out of the chicken droppings he had to work with. There is some truth in that and that will buy him plenty of goodwill with the front office for now. But if the early season is any indication then this season is really shaping up as a true test. The team isn’t wracked with injuries, just top to bottom ineffectiveness. The season isn’t close to getting away from them yet, but any time would be a good time for this team to start finding its groove. On a team with no real leaders, it’s going to be up to Wedge to be the big toe. His ability to avoid stubbing it is going to be directly related to his ability to keep his job.

**

Here’s how I know there is too much sports programming on television. On Tuesday night ESPN devoted two full hours to revealing the 2009-2010 NFL schedules. Outside of someone who is bedridden in front of a television that only gets one channel, there should be no one alive who claims he watched that entire broadcast.

To a certain extent, and then just barely, I can understand making the NFL draft a broadcast event. But the NFL has been taking its so-called branding to an extreme under the misguided assumption that the fans’ appetites for anything NFL is insatiable. It’s the reason, for example, the NFL continues to cling to the theory that some day enough fans will storm the offices of Time Warner or Comcast demanding that the NFL Network be on basic cable. It hasn’t happened yet and it isn’t going to happen ever. Until the NFL gets a bit more realistic on the relative lack of value of its in-house network and/or provides more than late season meaningless games as its showcase programming, most fans will continue to live rich and full lives not having to contemplate that there actually is a channel out there in the ether broadcasting another NFL roundtable on a Thursday night where the relative merits of the three-point stance are debated for two hours.

The Browns got their final verdict on their schedule Wednesday and the one thing that stands out most is that the league seems intent on embarrassing the Browns for its misplaced faith in them last season. By granting the team two prime time appearances, one each against the Ravens and the Steelers, the NFL picked the two teams on the Browns’ schedule most likely to publicly take them to the woodshed. For good measure, the NFL made sure they were late season games, knowing that by then the Browns will have their usual 20 or so players on injured reserve while both the Ravens and Steelers buckle down for the final push toward their battle for the AFC North title.

If you see a scheduling perk in the fact that the Browns finish the season with two home games, good for you. I hope you’re enjoying that perk at a half-filled stadium freezing under a blanket while a steady 20 MPH wind, gusting to 45 MPH, whips across your cheeks like a worn razor blade.

There are some other interesting side notes to the schedule. Three times during the season the Browns have consecutive away games and each time the second of those two games is against a divisional rival. The bye week comes exactly in the middle of the schedule. There is a two-week stretch where the Browns play the Lions and the Bengals, although both on the road. That’s a real chance to build a modest win streak as it follows the Monday night home game against the Ravens. Finally, there was a time when playing in January meant your team was heading to the playoffs. Now it just means that the regular season is too long as the Browns will again play in January irrespective of their actual record. The regular season doesn’t end until January 3rd.

**

There are a number of cautionary tales in the world of sports. The death of Anaheim Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart was senseless and sad. The legal problems facing Donte Stallworth are crushing and tragic. But for a truly pathetic story, consider Travis Henry.

Earlier this week Henry signed a plea agreement admitting to one count of conspiracy to distribute cocaine in exchange for other charges being dropped. It’s a plea agreement that should put Henry, the former running back for the Denver Broncos, behind bars for a minimum of 10 years.

But in some ways, prison, no matter how harsh the terms, may be a vacation of sorts from Henry’s main problems. According to a story that appeared last month in the New York Times, Henry is financially destitute, crushed by the weight of having to support 9 children by 9 different mothers. Henry makes Shawn Kemp look positively responsible by comparison.

Henry’s seed-spreading ways began in high school when he fathered his first child. He impregnated two more women while at the University of Tennessee and another six while a professional, one apparently for each full season he spent in the league. Not surprisingly, Henry played the victim card with respect to at least four of the pregnancies, saying, in essence that he was duped by evil women.

All told, Henry is responsible for around $170,000 a year in child support payments. In context, that doesn’t strike me as all that much, especially considering the millions he received and apparently completely squandered. In 2007 he signed a $25 million, 5-year contract. It wasn’t all guaranteed, certainly, but the multi-million dollar signing bonus he did get is long gone. Henry says he’s now broke.

Adding to the financial straits, of course, is the recent plea deal which will indebt him to the federal government for another $4 million. The chance that anyone Henry owes will see another dime is nil.

The innocent victims in all this are the 9 children, of course. In living large and acting small, Henry perpetuated enough stereotypes to keep sociologists up to their ears in spiral notebooks for many years to come. But what this mostly reveals is why having players with character and integrity is so critical to one’s team.

Henry had more talent than most. He ran for 1,200 yards in three separate seasons. But he’s broke, out of the league and on his way to prison because there is no content to his character. In turn, the Broncos and the teammates that relied on him, not to mention the fans that buy the season tickets, end up having to deal with a problem they didn’t create. Poor Mike Shanahan. No wonder he lost his job.

**

I come back to these character issues from time to time because it reminds me that the challenge for teams like the Browns is that the need to win can seem so overwhelming at times that taking short cuts to accomplish the goal seem necessary.

When talking about character, receiver Braylon Edwards naturally gets implicated. He’s certainly not a criminal like Henry. Far from it, in fact. His legal troubles have been minimal. On the other hand, he’s been active in the community and has donated large sums of money to those in need, both here and in Michigan. On that level, the league needs more people like Edwards, not less.

But where Edwards lacks character is in his approach to football. He displays all the drive and initiative that deadbeat kid you went to high school with who still hangs out at the CVS. The difference, though, is that Edward’s lackadaisical approach is the polar end opposite of his expectations. By virtue of his God-given speed and occasional flash of brilliance, Edwards possesses an outsized entitlement attitude that doesn’t come close to matching what he’s either accomplished or deserves. On that level, if the Browns were to part with Edwards it would be the ultimate “great trade, who’d we get?” transaction.

If the Browns do trade Edwards, and rumors have him heading to the New York Giants for former University of Akron star Domenick Hixon and some draft choices, undoubtedly the Giants will sell it to their fans with the disclaimer that all Edwards needs is a change of scenery. Hardly. All he needs is a healthy dose of professionalism, something a trade isn’t going to create. They’d have a far easier time selling their fans on Anquan Boldin.

That’s the real challenge head coach Eric Mangini has when it comes to Edwards. Can he and his coaching staff (by the way, Mangini has yet to hire a wide receivers coach, so there is that) find a way to reach Edwards when those before him have not? Crennel certainly failed but so too did a boat load of veterans who reached out to Edwards and tried to school him to no avail. Maybe Mangini and company can, but with all the other problems on their plate is this one they want to take on, especially since Edwards is in the last season of his contract anyway and probably wouldn’t resign under any circumstances? The question basically answers itself. Look for the trade to happen sooner rather than later. Who’d we get? Does it matter?

**

With the Indians stumbling their way through such heavyweights as Texas, Toronto and Kansas City, this week’s question to ponder: How much would you have wagered that the Indians would have had a worse record after 8 games than the 2008 Browns?

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Sentimental Journey

Who knew that Manny Ramirez was such a sentimental fool? Or Jim Thome, for that matter? But fools they are just the same.

According to a report in Monday’s USA Today, Ramirez and Thome were talking recently and were getting positively misty-eyed about the possibility of eventually making their final curtain call as ballplayers with the team that nurtured them through thick and thin, like Broadway Danny Rose, only to see them eventually turn their backs on them when the light shined the brightest.

Ramirez and Thome were two key players most responsible for the resurgence of the Indians in the mid-1990s. What made them both so beloved is that they grew up in the Indians’ farm system and went on to establish their reputations with the Indians. Playing together from 1993-2000, collectively the two had 441 home runs and 1485 RBI. During that stretch, the Indians were 703-525 and were in the playoffs 6 times, going to two World Series. An impressive run even if it didn’t pay off in the ultimate prize.

But if the Cleveland fans benefited from this golden age, it’s not as if the two players didn’t realize there was something in it for them. While each professed their great appreciation for Cleveland, and still do, it was hardly enough to convince them to give Cleveland a hometown discount of sorts in order to ensure that each would be here for the remainder of their careers.

Maybe it’s awfully na├»ve anyway to think that a hometown discount was coming from either player or even that it should. What the average fan doesn’t appreciate is the enormous pressure that each player (and those similarly situated) is under from both their colleagues and the players union to get that last dollar, the hell with loyalty. It’s the essence of free agency and the Marvin Miller Doctrine: the high tide raises all ships.

If players like Thome or Ramirez turn down precedent setting deals then, the theory goes, the rest of the players suffer from depressed salaries as well. As an economic theory, it has some merit. Setting salaries is at its core an exercise of comparisons and the lower the top, the lower the middle and the lower the bottom.

But it’s just these kinds of economic theories that are the reason the sport is in such financial and competitive straits in the first place. I don’t need to rehash the same rant, but the truth is that only certain teams can afford to pay top dollar and Cleveland isn’t one of them. And when only certain teams can sustain certain payrolls, the health of the league suffers.

Ah, but the health of the league has never once been a concern for the players union, which is why that never factored into their coercion of Ramirez, Thome and others. It can be argued that when Miller was in charge, the league owners needed to be reigned in. Miller fought against the reserve clause because it basically treated players like indentured servants. In that sense, Miller’s moves were for the benefit of the league overall. Free agency, in and of itself, is probably better for a sports league than not.

But the overall good of the sport was hardly Miller’s chief concern. As he said on many occasions, he represented the players, not the league and not the fans. If in making things better for his clients it had the unintended consequence of also making things better for the sport and its fans that was just a happy coincidence. Miller could have cared less.

Donald Fehr and the rest of the power brokers at the players union are worthy heirs to Miller’s legacy. The next time they do something for the good of the league, let alone the fans, will be the first time. Thus, the fact that they pushed players like Ramirez and Thome to turn their backs on a mid-market team like Cleveland for the benefit of the players overall plays into this dynamic.

But that doesn’t mean that Ramirez and Thome had to act like lemmings at the behest of the union. There was a middle ground in each case that would have greatly enriched each of them millions of times over without having to turn their back on the Cleveland fans. It just doesn’t happen to be a route either chose. It’s understandable, certainly, and personally I don’t hold any animosity to either for choosing the path they did.

Having chosen that path, now’s not the time to express regrets, mild though they may be. Both seem to be looking back at their Cleveland years with the kind of twinkle of some Grandpa Jones rocking on the front porch telling stories about when he was young. If it doesn’t strike you as more of a backhanded compliment than anything else, your ability to be offended has been blunted by the years of abuse that comes with being an Indians fan.

What’s really happening in both cases is that Ramirez and Thome, like Ken Griffey, Jr., are nearing the end of stellar careers. With that they know the days of multi-year contracts at $15-20 million per season are a thing of the past. Ramirez, for all his accomplishments last season, struggled to get just a two-year deal out of the Dodgers. In doing so, he took less pay than he wanted but did get an opt-out clause after this year. More importantly, the Dodgers were the only bidders. That might be due to a massive miscalculation on the part of his agents, but it’s also due in no small part to his age, 37, and the state of the economy. Thome is in his final year of his contract that took him from Cleveland to Philadelphia and then to the White Sox. He may come across as a combination of Woody Boyd and Lil Abner, but even Thome can see what’s happened to Ramirez and the free agent market when it comes to aging veterans.

The sentimentality that makes them wistful for Cleveland will no doubt get some fans anxious for a return to those glory years. Who wouldn’t want to see Ramirez and that sweet swing back in Cleveland? Well, for one, me. I’ve long since come to grips with the reality that in order to maintain your sanity when it comes to sport, love the game not the players. Both will break your heart, but the players will do it deliberately. That’s the difference.

The other thing to remember in all of this is that the reason both can now talk openly about coming to Cleveland is that the union doesn’t much care about them anymore. With their prime earning years behind them, the union’s interest in maintaining salary integrity (a nice euphuism for pushing for exorbitant salaries) is significantly less. It’s a nice bit of freedom for Ramirez and Thome but it’s also a freedom that comes too late to really benefit Cleveland fans. I wanted Ramirez and Thome during their primes, not the ones playing out the string.

If you want to get sentimental about a player, what about Omar Vizquel? He left Cleveland because he was forced to. General manager Mark Shapiro had no interest in signing him to a 3-year deal like the San Francisco Giants did. Shapiro was thinking about the development of Peralta and his upside. It was an understandable business decision.

But Vizquel had two good years in San Francisco and a third when he was hurt. It’s what happens when you get older. But Vizquel is still viable in some role, which is why the Texas Rangers signed him to be a bench player and part time sensi to the younger players on the roster.

It’s interesting that only the Texas Rangers bothered to sign this future hall of famer. Maybe he doesn’t fit in with the Indians are currently constructed, but it’s hard for me to imagine the downside of him doing for Cleveland what he’s doing for Texas. Jhonny Peralta and Asdrubal Cabrera and a host of others at the major and minor league levels can do for a little Vizquel in their lives. Vizquel, come back anytime. Stay as long as you’d like.

As Thome said to the USA Today, baseball is a funny sport and anything can happen. Indeed, it’s as likely as not that either or both of Ramirez and Thome will make a final stand in Cleveland. And if they do, they’ll probably be warmly embraced, like a favorite son returning home. That may be a nice coda to their careers, but then again every Cleveland fan has a bit of battered spouse syndrome coursing in their veins. Just once it would be nice for the Cleveland fans to realize that they always deserved better than having to be constantly reminded of why their good players left in the first place.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Is It Still Early?

There’s nothing like a 5-game losing streak at the start of the season to get the blood flowing early. With the Cleveland Indians threatening to drop to 0-6 and thus record the worst start since, I think, the New York Nine’s abysmal showing against the their cross-town rivals, the New York Knickerbockers in 1846, the Eric Wedge haters have gotten an unexpected early boost to their prospects. Generally, it’s not until mid-May when the Wedge haters hit their stride.

Wedge’s sins to date apparently range from not shaving enough on a consistent basis to leaving Cliff Lee in longer than he deserved in the season’s opening game. If someone could find a link between Wedge and Kenny Perry, I’m sure Wedge would get blamed for Perry’s meltdown on the 71st and 72nd holes Sunday at the Masters. Give them time.

In trying to gauge fan animosity toward Wedge, a usual barometer is the predictable launching of Fire[Name of Coach here].com website. There is a FireEricWedge website, but it’s not up and running as of yet. It’s owned not by a Clevelander but by some guy sitting in Atlanta hoping to eventually capitalize on the $11.99 he pays GoDaddy.com to register the website name each year. Good luck.

The evidence that Wedge is somehow responsible for what’s taken place to this point is minimal, except in a larger sense. But let’s talk about the details, first.

Lee has looked lousy in his first two starts. He’s locating his pitches like he did in 2007 and getting exactly the same results as he did then. It may be a game of inches, but these are very important inches when your success relies far more on location than speed.

As for Fausto Carmona, he’s got what the scouts like to say “nasty stuff.” The problem is that Carmona can’t yet get full command of his stuff. His ball dances like a really hard knuckler, but he’s not getting ahead of enough batters just yet to make it work for him. When pitching from behind, like almost any other pitcher, he has to rely on a more pedestrian repertoire and hope that the batter isn’t hitting it where the players ain’t.

Scott Lewis is, I guess, injured. But far more than whatever minor soreness is ailing him at the moment, he’s simply got to learn how to keep the ball in the park. Even when he’s winning it’s been a problem. It’s a growth process, certainly, and Indians fans apparently are going to have to be satisfied living with the occasional pains that a growing process brings. The only fans smiling about Carl Pavano are those living in New York and watching Yankees games. Now I know why.

Then there’s the bullpen. The Rafael brothers, Perez and Bentancort, have made a smooth transition from 2008 into this season, much to everyone’s dismay. Meanwhile, there just haven’t been enough opportunities for Kerry Wood to showcase the reason for the substantial offseason investment.

To paraphrase, “it’s the pitching, stupid.” In that sense, unless Wedge can suddenly become Professor Vernon K. Simpson in “It Happens Every Spring” and doctor the ball with a secret elixir that repels wood, it’s hard to know exactly why Wedge is to blame, as least when you look at the fine print.

Indeed, if you want to blame someone, blame general manager Mark Shapiro. He’s the one that constructed the starting rotation. But even blaming Shapiro at this point is awfully premature. Sure, the trends are disturbing, but there’s a big difference in a 10-game trend and a 50-game trend. If it’s early June and Lee and Pavano are still essentially throwing batting practice to the opposition and Carmona has twice as many walks as strike outs and still no fifth starter has emerged, then the criticism of Shapiro should start.

The details notwithstanding, however, the one thing that fans can point to is how slow Wedge teams start each season, other than 2007. To that there is some truth and there is some trend. Through Sunday’s victory against the Toronto Blue Jays, the Indians are a collective 66-87 in April under Wedge. That’s nearly an entire season of games.

While the 2007 stands as the lone exception, when the Indians ran out to a 14-8 record, it’s undeniable that Wedge’s teams start slowly. It is an issue.

It’s easy to look at each tree when you want to come to Wedge’s defense. But yet if we’re always pointing at every tree without realizing the forest we’re in, then that’s just as big a mistake in the other direction. Put another way, if it’s fair to criticize former Browns head coach Romeo Crennel for his team’s lack of preparation going into last season (or any season, for that matter), and it was, then why shouldn’t Wedge face the same scrutiny?

Despite the apples and pineapples differences between spring training and the regular season, it hasn’t gone unnoticed that the Indians are playing just as lousy now as they did then, except that Carmona is worse. In fact, only two teams in the entire major leagues had a worse spring, Arizona and San Diego. That’s not necessarily a marker for anything but when it continues into the regular season, then it’s time to start figuring out exactly if there is a problem to be rooted out or an aberration to ignore.

When the Browns went into the tank early and often last season, much of the blame was directly related to Crennel’s country club approach to the preseason. By not pushing the players more forcefully and relying on the players to police themselves for discipline and professionalism issues, Crennel ended up with a team with only slightly more unity than one consisting of Shiites and Sunnis.

It showed in the little things. Throws usually made were missed. Balls usually caught were dropped. Penalties of omission, like false starts, proliferated. Assignments were routinely missed. Sure, it was easy in each case to lay the blame on the players, but at some point didn’t the buck stop with Crennel? Of course.

In the same sense, Wedge has to shoulder that same responsibility. Wedge, like Crennel, is a stand up guy and would always point the finger at himself first. At some point, though, it becomes an empty gesture if it doesn’t eventually lead to tangible change in results.

Wedge isn’t directly to blame for Lee’s control problems, Shin-Soo Choo losing a ball in the sun, or Victor Martinez striking out with the bases loaded. But if he hasn’t created an atmosphere in the first instance that places a premium on preparation, where every pitch and every at bat counts, then he’s as much to blame as if he threw the fat pitch or missed connecting on a hanging curve himself.

The question, though, is whether Wedge’s teams are unprepared. In this regard, baseball is far more subtle than football, making those conclusions harder to draw. Far more often than not, football’s preseason is a series of practices with an occasional game thrown in for good measure. Baseball is mostly about games with an occasional off day. Practice confined mostly to the first 10 days. Players end up mostly being judged on their performance in these games and less on what they may be doing behind the scenes. In football, it’s the exact opposite.

But the measure of success or failure is the same for both sports, the regular season. In this instance, the Indians have played about 4 percent of their schedule. That isn’t going to tell you much. In football terms, 4 percent of the season gets you to early third quarter of the first game, which seems like an apt comparison for how little can possibly be known thus far. But before I get a spate of emails about this, I do realize that the Browns had done enough bad by the third quarter of their 2008 season opener against the Dallas Cowboys to make some conclusions, but that’s only in hindsight. There’s a lot of baseball between now and then before a similar claim can be made with respect to the Indians.

But if what fans are seeing now continues for any real length of time, then Shapiro is going to start questioning Wedge’s stewardship of the team he built. And in the same way Phil Savage eventually threw his handpicked head coach under the bus, Shapiro will end up doing the same. And since the book on Wedge, both good and bad, is fairly well established at this point, just like Crennel, no one is going to criticize Shapiro too much for that, either.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Lingering Items--Stupid Is as Stupid Does Edition

It’s not hard to figure out why the Cleveland Browns have been lousy for the last 10 years. Dysfunction starts at the top and has run through the organization like a plate of bad clams through the digestive system. But while the Browns have been busy spending the last decade chasing their tales, the one positive is that at least they aren’t the Cincinnati Bengals.

In case it escaped your notice while fitfully watching the onset of a new baseball season, the Bengals signed defensive lineman Tank Johnson to a free agent contract. Apparently the relative lack of criminal element on the Dallas Cowboys (!) wouldn’t allow Johnson to perform at a high enough level and thus the search for a team with an atmosphere that was more to his liking.

Johnson fits right in with the Bengals and that has nothing to do with whatever ability he brings to their pass rush. As a convicted criminal who has served time in jail and been suspended by the league, signing Johnson allowed the Bengals to apparently check off every criteria they have on the job spec they keep for prospective free agents. Repeated arrests? Check. Jail time? Check. Illegal guns? Check. Traffic infractions? Check. League suspension? Check. Said he’s really, really sorry this time, I’m not kidding, I mean it? Check. With this signing the Bengals solidified their line-up, assuming their intention was to play and win a game against the guards at the Marion Correctional Institution in a third remake of “The Longest Yard.” Now all they need to do is sign Todd Marinovich and they’ll have their version of Paul Crew.

If the Bengals aren’t working on a remake of “The Longest Yard” then maybe what sealed the Johnson signing it was the fact that receiver Chris Henry has managed to string together almost 12 consecutive months without another arrest. As most may remember (and if you don’t, feel free to re-read my rant on that signing) the Bengals had publicly parted ways with Henry after his fifth arrest only to re-sign him to a two-year agreement months later when they needed more receivers. I suppose when they initially cut him following that arrest the had their fingers crossed behind their backs. Besides, what’s a token gesture about taking a stand against employing recidivists if it’s not truly token?

This latest signing, coupled with the arrest on Wednesday of Bengals’ starting cornerback Leon Hall for drunk driving, more than solidifies the Bengals as the last outpost for all of the league’s reprobates and miscreants. But in every dark cloud a silver lining of sorts does emerge. By comparison the Browns look positively well run, no matter who’s in charge.

**

Kellen Winslow is now at least $20 million richer, which either makes the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the second dumbest or the second most desperate team in the NFL (as to the leader in both categories, see the first item).

Winslow has his issues, certainly, but that’s not what makes his new 6-year contract so bizarre. Simply, it’s his injury history. He’s been hurt more than he’s been healthy and he’s now going on his sixth season in the NFL. The contract’s length, no doubt, is a function of amortizing the guaranteed money over a longer period of time to cushion the impact on the Baccaneers’ salary cap. But still, is there a person anywhere that thinks Winslow will last six more years in the NFL? The over and under in Vegas is probably three seasons and even then smart money says to take the under.

I’ve always felt in the minority in supporting Winslow. But it’s always struck me that most fan animosity toward him was the result of his abject stupidity when it came to motorcycles. His foray into stunt riding didn’t just basically cost him his career, it almost cost him his life. That understood, he took his lumps from the media and from Phil Savage who squeezed him into a more club-friendly contract. And he did work hard to get himself back into shape. He always played hard, when he played. The problem is that his body is so beat up that it prevents him from playing his best football. If that beat up body is the result of self-inflicted wounds, so be it. At least he gave the Browns a good effort while he was here.

None of that explains though why the Buccaneers would make Winslow the highest paid tight end in NFL history. It’s not a distinction Winslow’s earned yet by any measure and probably never will. He’s an excellent receiver but a lousy and half-hearted blocker. Signing Winslow wasn’t something Tampa Bay needed to do right now, either. Winslow was still under contract. What’s wrong with waiting to see whether he can even approach something resembling that level of confidence?

The contract extension does in large measure justify the Browns trading Winslow. He clearly wasn’t going to get that kind of reward here and it’s also pretty clear that he was ready to be disruptive, in the form of holding out if necessary, in order to make that happen. In that sense, Winslow was a problem the Browns didn’t need.

**

Maybe it’s because the Cavs are having a magical season or maybe it’s because baseball season just started (someone tell the Indians), but the NFL draft is only a few weeks away and it’s barely making more noise than the ground floor of a campus library on a Friday night.

The lack of enthusiasm to this point is just more evidence that a good portion of fans have drifted from anger to indifference. It’s what happens when a team isn’t successful and has just embarked on another rebuild.

The draft is filled with enough intriguing prospects that the 5th pick this year should be a layup. Of course, the Browns have blown their share of layups, including the consecutive years in which Mike Junkin and Clifford Charlton were there first round picks. Feel free to pick your favorites. The question is whether a new regime, still trying to get the fresh paint of Berea out of their slacks, can find a way to make this year’s draft a real foundation of this team. That’s always the promise, isn’t it?

I’ve never been a huge fan of the NFL draft. It’s got every bit the feel of a Civil War era slave auction and the appeal of a one hour episode of Facts of Life. The day grinds on endlessly while Chris Berman, Tom Jackson, Mel Kuiper, and a gaggle of others strive to find something, anything to say to fill the interminably long period between picks. Let’s look at more film, shall we?

With limited exceptions, there’s very little drama involved unless your idea of fun is to watch Brady Quinn twist in the wind. The Browns have so many holes at the moment it doesn’t really matter whether they take a receiver (always a mistake in the first round), a linebacker (a better idea) or a defensive lineman (the best idea). The only thing that does matter is that the Browns actually do use the draft to build a foundation for this team. They need players that will be around and contribute now and for the next several years. They don’t need any more projects. I’m still trying to figure out Beau Bell, Martin Rucker, Ahtyba Rubin and Paul Hubbard. My guess is that general manager George Kokinis and head coach Eric Mangini are doing the same thing.

**

The NFL will release its team by team schedule this week and with it will come the inevitable discussions about how easy or difficult it will be. At this juncture, there is no way to tell. Teams that you think will be good won’t be and vice versa. Moreover, the order in which you play teams is critical. Catching a good team on a short week is far better than catching it after a bye week.

Though the NFL makes much of its schedule being released, what they really are doing is releasing the order of the games. The schedule, in terms of which teams the Browns will play, has been known for months.

In addition to the usual two games against each divisional team, the Browns play Oakland, San Diego, Jacksonville, Green Bay and Minnesota at home and Denver, Kansas City, Buffalo, Chicago and Detroit on the road. When the NFL’s only prime time games were on Monday night, you could pretty much bank on a 4-12 season as an automatic disqualification from the league’s marquee game. But now the NFL plays prime time games on Thursday, some Saturdays, Sunday night and Monday night. If they could, they’d find a way to schedule games on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, too. That means the Browns are probably going to find themselves featured at least once.

If the league is smart, they’ll make the Browns’ feature game Thanksgiving Day against Detroit. With the Lions losing their grip on their traditional Thanksgiving Day spot, a competitive game this year is a must for them. Who better to fit their needs than the Browns?

But don’t’ make your Thanksgiving plans just yet. More likely, we’ll see the Browns on the NFL Network some Thursday night late in the season, meaning that outside of Cleveland, the only folks that will see the game are those who subscribe to satellite or to some mom-and-pop cable outfit that the NFL bullied into carrying their sub par programming. At this point, it serves as a form of punishment and the NFL brass may be in the mood to punish a team they foolishly featured 5 times last season.

Personally, I’m glad the Browns will not see their share of prime time games this season for two reasons, one of which is completely selfish. In the grand scheme, the Browns need to stay off the radar screen for awhile. They are rebuilding and they need to focus on the task at hand and not worry about the added pressure of performing in front of a national audience. Selfishly, I’m sick of losing sleep during the week. But it wasn’t all lost. Without that game against Buffalo how would we have known that Savage was such a whiz with email?

**

Since I haven’t touched on the Indians, and there is plenty there to touch on, we’ll just use them as the launching pad for this week’s question to ponder: Simply, now what?

Monday, April 06, 2009

The Land of Hopes and Dreams

To those of you that still read newspapers, you’ve no doubt noticed two things and they’re both related: advertising is down and hence so are the number of pages. The good news for advertisers is that it becomes increasingly more likely their ad will get noticed. The bad news though is that it becomes increasingly more likely that their ad will get noticed.

On Monday, Major League Baseball dipped into its dwindling reserves and bought a full page ad at the cost of at least $178,000 to announce its new season. A charming little ad, it featured a baseball as a metaphor for a rising sun with the nostalgic sentiment that opening day is special because it’s about hope, faith and unbridled optimism. If that sounds like a synopsis for Rochelle, Rochelle¸ The Musical, it’s probably just coincidental.

Even if opening day does represent the high watermark of fan optimism, the underlying question I have is whether what baseball is still selling in that regard is true. I used to believe it was; now I’m not so sure.

On the same day USA Today ran the ad, it also published the salary of every player on a major league roster along with a story that nearly half of the teams have cut back their payroll this season from last, 10 of them by at least $10 million. As Jerry Reinsdorf, the chairman of the Chicago White Sox rightly pointed out, this reduction isn’t just about the economy in general but about the number of owners who can no longer afford to have their side businesses, which also are suffering, subsidize their baseball teams.

Undoubtedly this newfound payroll discipline is being driven in some places by the larger economy. But even as you take note of that remember that two of those teams that cut back are the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. The Yankees’ payroll is still over $200 million and the Red Sox are at $121 million. Those are still pretty big numbers, particularly when compared to the San Diego Padres or the Pittsburgh Pirates, teams with payrolls of $48 million and $43 million, respectively.

Still the contraction of the world’s economy is doing more for bringing payroll parity to baseball than anything that Commissioner Bud Selig could ever have found the spine to accomplish. Whether that will be short-lived or whether it represents the beginning of some real fiscal discipline in a sport desperate for some has a direct bearing on whether opening day will still carry the same promise to all for the next generation of fans.

For too many years now the only optimism that opening day carried for fans in most cities was the chance to lead the league in something, if only for one day. But as the Yankees, Red Sox, Mets and Cubs, and a smattering of others, have continued their personal game of Risk at the expense of the rest of the league, the chance that any other team can compete for a championship on a consistent basis becomes more and more illusory.

In some ways, the Indians are the embodiment of the false promises that the major leagues have become. After an amazing run in the mid 1990s, the Indians have been inconsistent since. Because their business model is based on a mid-market budget, they simply can’t compete for front level talent on the free agency market. Their success or failure is far more organic and hence iffier.

CC Sabathia is a nice example. For many years, the Indians were able to retain Sabathia as they nurtured him from raw rookie to one of the game’s premier pitcher. In that time, they watched helplessly as his continued success made it all the more likely that his future would be in New York.

The presence of Sabathia on the roster, particularly in the last few years, made it easier to build a pitching staff. Like second string quarterbacks and middling starters in the NFL, the major leagues are filled with players that can be a fourth or fifth starter. Finding that front-line number one starter is every bit as difficult and usually as expensive as finding a top line starting quarterback.

With Sabathia gone, the Indians suddenly find themselves struggling to build a staff. Cliff Lee may not quite have the emotional makeup to be the number one starter and Fausto Carmona is still far too raw. That leaves the entire starting pitching unsettled, to say the least. Unless the bullpen is terrific, and the presence of reliever Kerry Wood makes that more likely than a year ago, the rest of the team will struggle.

There’s no reason to rehash why Sabathia is gone or even whether he should be. But whatever your view of the Dolans’ financial wherewithal, there is no question that the Indians cannot compete economically with New York, Chicago or Boston. Thus they say goodbye to Sabathia and have to find another way to bring promise to a city that hasn’t since a World Series title in over 50 years. It isn’t easy.

It’s a story that’s been repeated all over the league, from Oakland to Pittsburgh and a host of cities in between. And as it plays out year after agonizing year, opening day becomes nothing more than a reason for the average fan to call in sick.

It’s hard to know just yet what fortunes or failures are in store for this year’s Indians but it’s recent past more than tell the story of what it’s like for a team that has to play the numbers game each year. You really never do know what you’re going to get. And the Indians are a team with a good front office. There are fans in many other cities that don’t even have it that good.

The point though is that as the economic disparities between clubs have widened the expectations that fans dreamed of having have contracted proportionately. It’s just not true that every team starts opening day with unbridled optimism.

Maybe, on the other hand, that’s always been the case. The Indians of my youth, which is to say the vintage of somewhere from around the mid 1960s to the mid 1980s were never going to win and that was well known before the vans left for Tucson each winter. For those fans, and I’m one of them, opening day was akin to a holiday, something to be celebrated for a discrete moment for what it was and not what it promised to bring.

But at that time, the differences between teams related more to abject incompetence than payrolls run amok. The Indians had severe financial challenges, but mostly they were bad because they had bad owners, played in a lousy ballpark, and had a front office that never met a trade it didn’t like.

These days, teams no longer simply compete for talent on the basis of shrewdness. When it is superstar talent that is in issue, money talks. Meanwhile the rest of the league looks for other ways to build a roster by promoting young players that may not be quite ready and trying to wring out one more year of production from an aging veteran just trying to hang on.

Baseball has always been the quintessential metaphor for life and maybe that’s the way to view its current state. As the economy forces everyone to re-examine their own overhead in a vain attempt to cut expenses until things improve, baseball ends up being forced to do the same thing. But where most believe that life still holds promise for those willing to work hard to achieve, baseball is still falling short.

But if the one outcome of this latest economic mess is to further bundle teams around similar payrolls, then baseball has a real chance to live up to the promise of its 2009 ad. Let’s just hope that it isn’t 2020 before that promise actually gets delivered.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Lingering Items--Balance Sheet Edition

One of the easier things for a professional sports fan to do is complain about an owner not spending enough money. Most fans still think of professional sports as a hobby for rich owners rather than the multi-billion dollar business it really is.

And like any business of its size, it faces its challenges even in the best of times. And like any business of any size, when the broader economy tanks, a whole new set of challenges develops.

Fans are seeing the fringes of this with both the Browns and the Indians. If things don’t improve dramatically, they’ll see more than just the fringes. The Cavs, with LeBron James, is nearly economy-proof, but that’s far more the exception than the rule these days. It’s as much a reason as any why signing him to an extension remains the highest priority of owner Dan Gilbert.

The Indians have made some cutbacks in their operations but did so under the radar. The Browns, on the other hand, laid off several employees in a far more public way. It didn’t help their case in the court of public opinion that at around the same time they were paring themselves of public relations types and admins, the team also was redecorating its complex in Berea in order to meet the specific likes of their need head coach.

But the business structure of professional sports is more complex than just a few isolated layoffs that happen one day and are forgotten the next. They are the outward manifestation of business challenges lying just below the surface where most fans don’t bother to look.

Whatever else one might think of either the Indians or the Browns, it’s best to always remember that each is a business first. Like any business, they produce a product and have various revenue streams through which this product is sold. A team can be profitable while losing and unprofitable while winning. Like any business, though, there are certain fundamental metrics to which every professional sports team eventually must adhere.

One of those metrics is keeping the revenue streams flowing while opening up new ones. Some count more than others but every one is important. An interesting article in Friday’s Plain Dealer shed some light on a key revenue source that isn’t producing what it needs to for both the Indians and the Browns. If these streams don’t get opened back up it will most certainly impact operations in a significantly negative way. That source is the so-called luxury revenue, the real and substantial costs that corporations and well-funded individuals pay to entertain clients and impress friends.

The Indians’ situation is particularly precarious. There are 121 luxury suites at Progressive Field. The average annual lease costs is in the neighborhood of $150,000. If they are all sold, that brings in over $18 million, or the cost of a front line pitcher. That’s before food and beverage are factored in. Figure at least another $300 in food and drink per game and over an 81 game season that’s an additional $3 million, and that’s a conservative estimate. To an organization like the Indians with a mid-market budget, having access to that $21 or so million each and every year is critical.

Unfortunately for the Indians, only 78 of their suites are rented for the entire year. That’s $6 million in lost revenue upfront, just in lease payments. Lost food and beverage revenues, again using the conservative estimate of $300/game, is around $1 million. For a team like the Indians, that’s a substantial drop.

The Browns’ situation is a little harder to peg. There are 145 suites and prices can vary dramatically, depending on location. According to the Plain Dealer, most if not all of those suites were subject to initial 10-year leases commencing with when the Browns returned in 1999. That means all or at least a good portion is now up for renewal.

While the Browns aren’t giving specifics, they are acknowledging cancellations. Likely there will be more, presenting the real chance that some suites won’t be leased for the 2009 season.

The problem both teams face, in addition to a brutal economy that’s hitting areas like Cleveland even harder, is on-field performance. Here the Indians have a slight advantage owing to a more stable franchise where ownership and leadership have been in place for several years. It helps, too, that the team has enjoyed very recent success. For now, they are probably worth the benefit of the doubt.

The Browns, on the other hand, have been a mess for most of the last 10 years. Their success has been very modest, to say the least. They’ve also almost deliberately taken steps to alienate the fan base through a series of questionable front office and player moves. It’s an environment that makes anyone, particularly a corporation trying to determine where to allocate its dwindling client entertainment budget, pause for more than a few moments.

To say that winning cures all or that you have to spend money to make money only goes so far. There’s an underlying confidence that the consumer has to have and a leap of faith he has to make that his purchase won’t be wasted. Corporations using tickets and loges to entertain clients need to be convinced that those clients want to even bother with seeing either team. The Cavs right now have that value. The Indians are far more iffy and the Browns are almost at the complete other end of that spectrum. And for both teams, there isn’t a LeBron James equivalent to paper over all the other problems. This is the paradigm in which both teams are now living.

What this all means is that in the standings and at the box office, these really will be make or break seasons for both the Indians and the Browns. Winning championships may not be necessary, but progress will be. Neither team can afford further erosion of their corporate ticket base, for while winning may not cure all, losing can start a death spiral from which escape will take years.

**

The Worst Free Agent Signing Ever™ just got worse (if that’s even possible) this past week when Browns receiver Donte Stallworth was formally charged with vehicular manslaughter in the death of Mario Reyes last month.

Stallworth has apologized for his actions and no doubt is contrite. Only a sociopath couldn’t be. But the most troubling aspect of all of this centers around the circumstances that conspired to make Stallworth a member of the Browns in the first place. It was a similar set of circumstances that conspired to make Andre Rison a member of the Browns years ago, with similar results.

Then, it was Bill Belichick, fascinated as he could be sometimes, with the physical gifts of a player despite what some might call “reputational” issues. Rison, though, unlike Stallworth, was at least credentialed. By the time he came to the Browns, Rison had been averaging more than 1,000 reception yards per season for six years and nearly double digits in touchdown catches, missing only a handful of games in all those years.

Stallworth’s been in the league for seven years and has never had a 1,000 yard season. He’s never caught more than 8 touchdowns in a season. He’s averaged less than 10 starts per season.

True, Stallworth wasn’t signed to be the number one receiver for the Browns, but that’s only because he lacks that kind of talent. He is and always was a role player who the Browns nevertheless enriched far beyond what even his agent could have imagined and even though the league’s free agent bin is literally littered with such players each off season.

That’s bad enough. But with Stallworth already in a substance abuse program, Savage’s decision to sign him looks even dumber. It’s unlikely that Savage didn’t know about Stallworth’s prior troubles since they are in the public record. But then again Savage’s computer skills have always been questionable. More likely is that Savage was well aware of the problem but rationalized it away.

Ultimately, that’s where teams get into trouble. Red flags are like red lights. Keep ignoring them and eventually you’ll crash. When Belichick signed Rison, he rationalized away Rison’s chaotic off-field issues and in some sense it literally cost the city of Cleveland its franchise. When Savage signed Stallworth, he ignored about a dozen red flags and in some sense it literally cost Savage his job.

Now Stallworth becomes the worst kind of problem, an inherited one that can’t be extricated easily. The Miami county justice system, if not the league, will take care of some of the more immediately pressing issues such as whether or not he ever plays again. But the impact on the Browns’ roster and its payroll will take longer to sort through.

David Patten may have been a hedge signing, but it was under the assumption that Stallworth would still be contributing at his usual 7 games, 12 catches and 1 touchdown level. Without Stallworth, Patten will move up a slot where he’s probably ill-suited and force the Browns to make a move at that position they may not have been anticipating.

The sooner the book is closed on TWFASE™ the better. In the meantime count your blessings that Savage isn’t still here. Otherwise, it would only be a matter of time before Plaxico Burress would be trotted out in front of the media for a photo-op holding his new Browns’ jersey.

**

One of my more consistent emailers, “Old Chuck” presented a compelling set of possibilities following Denver’s trade of Jay Cutler to Chicago. Chuck’s theory, and it makes sense, is that the Cutler trade set a benchmark of sorts on what the Browns should be able to get for their strong-armed quarterback, Derek Anderson.

Chuck isn’t of the view, like some of my other, more vocal emailers, that Anderson should be able to bring two first rounders. But a first and a third rounder, that’s far more likely.

In terms of teams with quarterback needs that might be willing to part with those two picks for Anderson, Chuck lays out four possibilities: Detroit (using the second of its two first round picks), Tampa Bay (#19), San Francisco (#10) and Washington (#13). And, as Chuck notes, if Denver really is gunning for Mark Sanchez, who is unlikely to be available when Denver picks (#12), they can always trade with Cleveland for the 5th pick plus their 12th pick in the second round. In all, those two transactions would garner the Browns five picks on the draft’s first day and restore their third round pick. That’s intriguing.

Frankly, this isn’t nearly as unlikely a scenario as others that have been advanced. But despite the Pro Bowl season Anderson put together in 2007, there are two factors working against it: pedigree and performance and they’re both related. New England’s Tom Brady overcame being a 6th round pick but it didn’t happen overnight. It happened because once he got a hold of the reigns, he performed at a consistently high level, game after game and season after season.

Anderson has been far more inconsistent and isn’t yet close to overcoming his 6th round status. He doesn’t have to perform like Brady to warrant a first and third rounder in a trade, but he has to do more than he’s shown to this point. He can’t be fire one game and ice the next.

A much more likely candidate for the kind of trade Chuck posits is Brady Quinn. But to do that, head coach Eric Mangini needs to be convinced that Anderson is far more the player from 2007 than the one from 2008. Mangini doesn’t reveal much of what he’s thinking but it would be hard to imagine that he’s reached that conclusion. If he had the Browns might actually played the role of broker in the Cutler trade.

**

We’re running long and thus we’ll keep this week’s question to ponder short: If Indians’ pitchers were plagued by the dry air of Arizona, why weren’t the pitchers on the opposing teams likewise affected?

Thursday, April 02, 2009

I Love You, Man

Infatuation can be an alluring emotion. It can make you giddy. It can make you do stupid things, too. A case in point is the latest column, the second in two weeks, by the Plain Dealer’s Bud Shaw imploring the Browns to essentially move heaven and earth to get Jay Cutler on the roster. Now that Cutler’s off to Chicago, one can only imagine Bud’s next column.

Clearly Shaw has a case of man-love for Cutler. That’s all well and good. We all have our crushes. But this was is just puzzling.

Shaw makes his case by going straight for the jugular of Browns fans, invoking the one person who still is the object of more man-love from modern day Browns fans than any other player, Bernie Kosar. Shaw says that Cutler possesses the same swagger that made Kosar so successful. Not so fast, Bud.

Cutler is a nice player. But he’s a nice player like Derek Anderson is a nice player. The only difference between the two right now is that Cutler’s had two relatively decent years while Anderson has had one good year and one not so good year that ended prematurely with an injury.

Anderson and Cutler are the same age, although Anderson entered the league a year earlier than Cutler. Both quarterbacks have what the scouts like to call a “big arm.” Cutler was a 1st round pick of the Broncos in 2006 out of Vanderbilt and became somewhat of a “flavor of the month” to NFL scouts during the combine, akin to Joe Flacco last season. As a first round pick, Cutler brought with him all the usual pressures that come with it, including the desire of fans to rush him into action.

Anderson played for pass happy Oregon State, which seemed to cause scouts to discount his somewhat gaudy statistics. But it is noteworthy that Anderson was only the 6th person in the PAC-10 to throw for more than 10,000 yards in his career. Anderson also holds pretty much every Oregon State passing record.

But Anderson stayed under the radar screen throughout the combine. He ended up being drafted in the sixth round by Baltimore in the 2005 draft which means the Ravens’ investment in him was only slightly more than their investment in new water coolers. That status accorded him little pressure from the fans and little respect from the coaching staff. But when Anderson was cut by the Ravens in September, 2005, former Browns’ general manager, Phil Savage, grabbed him. Anderson spent the 2005 season watching Trent Dilfer and Charlie Frye.

While Anderson technically had a year of experience on Cutler, the first game action for each came during the 2006 season. Cutler started 5 games, Anderson 3. Both showed some promise, Cutler perhaps a bit more. In Cutler’s 5 starts, he through 9 touchdowns against interceptions. In Anderson’s 5 games, 3 of which were starts, he had 5 touchdowns against 8 interceptions.

Cutler was all but set to be the Broncos starter in 2006. Anderson was in a training camp battle with Charlie Frye that Frye ostensibly won. Frye’s victory lasted all of about one quarter in the team’s first game when all the traits that made fans wonder why Frye got the start were exposed against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Anderson quickly replaced Frye (who was traded the next day) and embarked on one of the most magical seasons of any quarterback in Cleveland Browns’ history.

Indeed, the 2007 season was the coming out party for both players. Cutler led his team to a 7-9 record. Cutler, though, had a breakout year. He completed over 63% of his passes, through 20 touchdowns to 14 interceptions, and ended the year with a rating of 88.1. He also averaged 7.5 yards per attempt. The one downside of Cutler’s year was the number of sacks, 27.

But Anderson was even better. After the disaster of the opening game, Anderson helped lead the team to a 10-6 record while throwing 29 touchdown passes against 19 interceptions. He ended the season with a 82.5 rating and his yards per attempt was similar to Cutler’s at 7.2. Anderson was sacked only 14 times, or less than once per game, and made the Pro Bowl.

Maybe it was the pressure of the previous season, maybe it was the inability to make adjustments after teams had made adjustments to him, or maybe it was a little of both, but Anderson had an awful 2008 season, by almost any measure. Anderson too often looked confused and too reliant on just flinging the ball deep, hoping something good would happen. It didn’t help Anderson either that Joe Jurevicius was out the whole season or that Braylon Edwards played like he was. The Browns’ running attack wasn’t particularly effective and the line, without Ryan Tucker, struggled far more than it did in 2007.

Cutler, by contrast, put up another good season personally and made the Pro Bowl even as he wasn’t able to move the needle much on the team’s overall performance. More damming though for Cutler was the fact that his team entered it’s final 3 games with a 8-5 record and really needed only to win one of them to make the playoffs. They lost all 3. The Broncos’ defense was awful last season and that accounts for a large part of it, but Cutler wasn’t exactly brilliant either. While he threw for over 300 yards in the last two games, that was more a function of the fact that he attempted nearly 50 passes in each game. What ever leadership he brought to the team generally wasn’t enough to help it get over the hump when it needed to most.

This isn’t to damn Cutler at the expense of Anderson. It’s just to underscore the reality that is Cutler. Like Anderson, he still hasn’t led a team to the playoffs. He’s put up some nice numbers in his first two seasons as a starter and probably will get better. If your team is lacking a quarterback, he’d be a decent pick up. But all that doesn’t make him the “sure thing” that Shaw seems to think.

In Shaw’s world, the Browns should do whatever it takes to get Cutler. I wonder if that means swinging a trade now with Chicago? Shaw doesn’t offer whether it should be at the expense of Anderson or Brady Quinn, but the clear implication is that it doesn’t really matter because Cutler would be a far better choice to lead this team.

It might be true that Cutler eventually becomes a sure thing and it might be true that he will have a better career than either Anderson or Quinn, but there aren’t enough facts on which to base those suppositions. The full depth of Anderson’s potential isn’t really known. About the only conclusion you can really draw is that he’s a fire or ice kind of player.

But putting Anderson aside, what’s the push to simply dump an unknown commodity in Quinn? Shaw never explains. Quinn had very little opportunity with an objectively poor team last season. That he would get injured given the scattered play of the line was almost a foregone conclusion. But in his relatively limited playing time covering the last few seasons all Quinn ever has done is show he belongs in the NFL. Exactly where, it’s hard to say. But he is a NFL quarterback.

The fact that head coach Eric Mangini is conducting open auditions for the starting quarterback as if he was casting the road show production of “A Chorus Line” shouldn’t be taken as confirmation that neither Quinn nor Anderson is a viable starter. Giving Mangini the full benefit of the doubt at this point, it simply means that he sees what everyone else does: the book on Anderson is only about 1/3 written and we’ve barely gotten past the preface in Quinn’s.

Even more to the point though, as I’ve been constantly preaching, it isn’t going to matter whether the Browns have Cutler, Quinn or Joe Montana in his prime. If there’s no one to throw to that can actually catch, Mangini would do just as well to dig up the corpse of George Plimpton.

The real barometer for whether or not the Browns should make a run at Cutler is whether by adding him, whatever the cost, the Browns are a better team. If the answer to that is “yes,” and I struggle to see how anyone could even make that conclusion, then you have to ask the next question, “is the value he adds worth the cost?”

Chicago paid a fairly hefty price, in the form of two first round picks and Kyle Orton, though they did get a third rounder back this year. Bravo to the Broncos for exploiting a desperate market and we’ll leave it to the discerning fans of Chicago to skewer their front office for giving into the frenzy by overpaying. But even if what Chicago paid is an accurate barometer of Cutler’s market value, it clearly would have cost them Anderson or Quinn. Thus, two first round picks and one of your quarterbacks for another quarterback that doesn’t appear to be much, if any, of an upgrade is simply too steep for a team that has numerous holes to plug.

But then again, infatuation can make a person do stupid things. Just be glad Shaw isn’t running the Browns these days. He’d have them filling a hole that no one’s sure yet is even cracked all the while missing the fact that the rest of the team is as bumpy and pockmarked as Euclid Avenue in March.