Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Prince

Anyone who thought that Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini was going to break stride and make some sort of announcement on his starting quarterback after Saturday night’s win against the Tennessee Titans is probably wringing his hands today in frustration.

The rest of us know better. No announcement was ever coming and no announcement may ever come. If Mangini names a starting quarterback, ever, that might actually be news.

Mangini occupies the Browns’ head spot from a comfortable perch. Owner Randy Lerner, after nearly running the franchise into the ground in large measure because of his own indifference, has put his faith in a coach whose resume has the kind of upward mobility anyone would envy. Mangini, once the ball boy, is now the Prince. And like the subject of Machiavelli’s political treatise, Mangini’s approach is to manipulate as necessary to protect the city-state from the invaders.

That’s why Mangini isn’t going to do anything on anyone’s timetable but his own. If you’re Lerner and your interests lie across the pond with a different form of football, you might be lulled into thinking that Mangini has already been a rousing success. From the ashes of a torched 2008 season, Mangini has been able to nonetheless stoke new flames of fan interest. At least that’s how Lerner must see it.

It’s partially true. From a purely public relations standpoint, Mangini turning his first season’s training camp into a quarterback version of American Idol has the fans talking about the team. With Brady Quinn playing the role of Kris Allen while Derek Anderson takes on the persona of Adam Lambert, Mangini has the fans debating which of these two millionaires should lead the team on his next tour through the American Football Conference. It’s caused a certain buzz.

Even if Mangini isn’t a coaching genius, give him credit for understanding how the local media works. Like soldiers on a hundred mile hike, he’s led them down a path where they’re grateful for even a sip of water. Every nod of Mangini’s head, every monotone syllable uttered is discerned for hidden meaning. “He said Quinn looked sharp while he said that Anderson only looked good. He must be leaning toward Quinn.”

Treating the beat reporters like the suckers they’ve became, they are unwittingly playing the part the local Fox station does during American Idol by fanning fan interest through mindless reports on a competition that seems far more important than it is.

Harsh? Hardly. It’s all the reporters can write about. If you looked at the local newspapers following Saturday night’s game, about half think that Quinn did enough to win the prize while the other half think it’s too close to call. The only thing missing is a hundred or so web sites dedicated to the competition.

If this whole thing were being orchestrated by Mangini in just this fashion, it might be considered a stroke of genius. The problem is that while Mangini may be that calculating, it’s for far different reasons. This is simply about control. He has it, you don’t.

Mangini isn’t going to name his starting quarterback any time soon because he doesn’t have to. There’s no league rule mandating that he be straight with the fans and Lerner isn’t about to push that button. Mangini is far more convinced that the longer he withholds this information, the tougher it will be for opposing teams to plan for the Browns. The Prince wouldn’t do otherwise.

But the quarterback position is hardly the only area where Mangini is flexing his power muscles. There are a number of players, relatively important players like Shaun Rogers and Ryan Tucker for example, that haven’t been seen in several days and yet Mangini acts as if there’s no story there.

Perhaps he’s right. Rogers may be hurt, perhaps seriously, but it’s also every bit as likely that his absence from practice and preseason games was part of some off-season pact Mangini made with Rogers to lighten his load and keep him fresh for the regular season. Whichever theory is correct or whether it’s something in the middle, Mangini ought to say, which is precisely why he’s not. Never show your vulnerabilities.

As for Tucker and even Brodney Pool, who knows? Both may be contemplating retirement at the moment or both may be taking a less strenuous route to preparing for the season. When/if either or both reappears, like Rogers, Mangini is certain to act as if nothing was askew in the first place.

Right now, this is causing the fans to gnash their teeth. But if the Browns find a way to pull out a few victories, particularly early in the season, the heat will be off Mangini. Fans are very Machiavellian about their teams which is why teams tend to be run by Machiavelli wannabes. And if ever this team has been run by a Machiavelli wannabe, it’s the Browns.

Like Machiavelli’s Prince, Mangini is running on the notion that if you can’t be both loved and feared, it’s better to be feared. Through the aura of power he was granted by the far away king, Mangini now has his troops and a compliant media walking blindly lock step to his rhythm. And if Cleveland’s Prince is ultimately successful, they’ll continue walking in whatever direction he dictates.

So far, it’s working. During that part of Saturday’s game against the Titans that mattered, the Browns did find a way to win when they deserved to lose. The Titans pretty much dominated the game offensively and yet repeatedly couldn’t make that final 8-foot putt. It kept an opportunistic Browns team in the game long enough to turn the tide in their favor.

Quinn certainly did nothing to hurt his status and Anderson didn’t do much to hurt his, in each case whatever that means. Playing, as usual, without much of a running game, Quinn first and then Anderson, still kept the offensive moving mostly in the right direction.

As for that running game, it’s easy to dismiss its failure as more the result of a good Titans’ defensive line than poor execution on the Browns’ part. That would be a mistake. If nothing else was clear, it’s that Jamal Lewis has lost at least one step, probably more. As strong as he remains physically, he simply doesn’t hit the hole quick enough to make players miss. James Davis, who may or may not be a star in the making, demonstrated at the very least what a pair of much younger legs can accomplish. Davis consistently attacks the line much more quickly. His inability to get more yardage seemed more attributable to a lack of veteran savvy than ability. Jerome Harrison should be worried.

The defense, on the other hand, can’t rely on good teams consistently imploding like the Titans did on Saturday night. Those long drives eventually will turn into tired bodies, increased injuries and insurmountable opposing team leads. If Mangini really is undecided about his quarterbacks, maybe it really is because he’s preoccupied with the defense at the moment. He should be.

The Browns’ personal city-state is far from fortified and the Prince knows it. It thus remains vulnerable. But as Machiavelli pointed out, a Prince’s ultimate goal is to gain honor by performing great feats. In Cleveland at the moment, their Prince will gain great honor if he can just put together the great feat of an 8-8 record.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Lingering Items--Touchy Feely Edition

Reading about how Cleveland Browns head coach Eric Mangini had rearranged the deck chairs inside the titantic-like Browns’ facility in Berea reminded me of another coach with a Cleveland past. And this coach’s name is not, surprisingly, Bill Belichick.

The kind of camaraderie that Mangini is trying to build on this, the 40th anniversary of peace, love and sewage that was Woodstock, reminds me of the insane genius that used to run the Cincinnati Bengals, one Sam Wyche.

As awful as the Bengals’ franchise has been, generally, they have still been in two Super Bowls, which is two more than the much more storied Browns’ franchise. In fact, but for some Joe Montana heroics, the Bengals might actually own two Super Bowl trophies.

The Bengals’ last appearance was in 1989 when they lost 20-16 to the San Francisco 49ers at Miami’s Joe Robbie Stadium. The Bengals essentially haven’t recovered and, with the Browns, constitute a major reason why Pittsburgh and Baltimore have had their way in the AFC North for oh so many years.

But the Bengals’ 1988 season was glorious. They went 12-4, won the AFC and found their way to that Super Bowl. The point is not to praise the Bengals. In what universe would that be a good idea? Rather it’s to recall the story that Wyche has told saying, essentially, that the seeds of that season were sown in training camp the previous August.

The Bengals were coming off of a 4-11 season (strike season). The NFL itself was still in a bit of a mess because of the strike in 1987 that broke the backs of the unions when the owners used replacement players. To help bring his team together, Wyche re-arranged not just the lockers; he also “forced” players to room with each other during camp. In doing so, he often had black players rooming with whites, defensive players with offensive players, and the like. He claimed and probably still does that the forced familiarity this bred led to a far closer team.

I suspect that’s exactly what Mangini has in mind with his little bit of maneuvering. In addition to moving players around the locker room, mixing offensive and defensive players, veterans and rookies, he’s also taken to actually quizzing the players on what they know about their colleagues. Will this have any impact on the won/loss record? It’s hard to know because there is never a straight line between these kinds of “soft touches” and productivity.

One thing we do know is that if the team doesn’t improve, some will accuse Mangini of focusing on the wrong things. If you doubt that, consider how many times members of the media along with some fans complained that the Browns’ players during the Carmen Policy years were too soft because their every need was attended to?

My sense is that all of this kind of thing can only be helpful. What this team has lacked for too long is a culture and a purpose. If Mangini can create an actual team out of the parts he’s been left with, that in itself is an accomplishment. If nothing else, it’s the first baby step on the road to recovery.

But all this touchy-feely stuff would probably have never appeared on my radar if not for receiver Braylon Edwards unintentionally lifting curtain a bit on what makes him such a lousy member of the Browns. In discussing how the team is buying into Mangini’s concepts, Edwards let on that all of these adjustments, including having to move his locker, have been a bit of annoying but necessary. Now, he said, he even knows the name of his teammates.

I suppose making sure one of the most self-absorbed athletes to wear a Browns uniform become a bit more aware of his surroundings is a good thing. It’s a little disturbing to think, though, that Edwards wouldn’t bother to learn a teammate’s name unless he had to. I suspect, though, that the converse wasn’t true. Given how many passes Edwards has dropped over the years, his past teammates were well aware of his name.


Since I took the trouble to mention one rival city, Cincinnati, it seemed only natural to mention another, Pittsburgh.

Not the Steelers. Does anyone really need to rehash the current state of affairs whereby the Browns serve as their ceremonial punching bags twice a season? Nope, this time I’m thinking of the Pirates, baseball’s equivalent to the Bengals.

The Pirates are in the midst of their 17th consecutive losing. Entering this season the Pirates had no real chance of being competitive and didn’t actually pretend they did. Teams occupying that space at least pretend they are building for the future. Not the Pirates.

Instead of using this season to hopefully establish a core, they ended up trading away whatever slight talent remained and brought in another group of youngsters to chart a new course. So what, you say? Who cares about the Pirates?

Well, no one much cares about the Pirates outside of Pittsburgh but the Cleveland angle to all of this is that Neal Huntington, a Mark Shapiro protégé, is the architect of this all. What Huntington has undertaken in Pittsburgh reeks of familiarity with how Shapiro went about torching this franchise the last few years. According to an article in Thursday’s USA Today, in nearly every trade Huntington has acquired multiple young players in return. He calls it his “quantity of quality” master plan.

If there was ever a doubt about whether Shapiro was actually a tree that could cast off its seed elsewhere, it’s now been dispelled. Huntington even comes with his own special bag of meaningless bromides. What makes this just a tad delicious is that Pirates fans are suffering in much the same way as Indians fans and for much the same reason. Both franchises are being run by general managers more focused on turning a phrase than a win.


Speaking of rivals, or at least rivals past, what’s taking place in Denver at the moment provides an interesting contrast with the Browns’ camp on at least two fronts.

When Broncos owner Pat Bowlen fired Mike Shanahan as head coach, it was as controversial as the Browns’ firing of Romeo Crennel was not. New Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels was certainly a candidate here in Cleveland but as we know now, owner Randy Lerner swept in and grabbed Mangini before fully vetting other candidates.

McDaniels may prove to be the better long-term coaching prospect, but his start in Denver has been as rough as Mangini’s has been easy. For reasons that still aren’t abundantly clear to anyone east of the Rocky Mountains, McDaniels picked a fight with starting quarterback Jay Cutler and ended up trading him for Kyle Orton. Now that’s a quarterback controversy of a different order.

But the fight McDaniels is now having with wide receiver Brandon Marshall provides a stark contrast with what’s going on with the Browns, Mangini and Josh Cribbs. Marshall is as petulant of a receiver as there is in the game. He’s had the nickname “Baby T.O.” and not for good reasons. Marshall’s been stewing for a new contract and it came to a head on Friday when he got suspended for, well, acting like a midget leaguer whose dad makes him go to practice even though he’d rather be collecting soil samples to view under his toy microscope.

That Marshall acted like a spoiled child by sucking his thumb during practice as a way of wangling a new contract says plenty about Marshall. But it also says something about McDaniels and his control of the team. Bluntly, Marshall is challenging his rookie coach because he can. McDaniels has the title but not the full respect of the team at the moment.

In Cleveland, Cribbs talks about possibly sitting out the regular season in order to get his new contract. In the meantime, all Cribbs has done in the preseason is put his head down, work hard and produce. By a large margin, he’s been the most impressive player in preseason.

Cribbs didn’t come in the league with the pedigree of Marshall, but he’s become a very valuable player in his own right with a far more professional approach. Rather than pout and challenge his new head coach, he’s gone about earnestly trying to demonstrate why he should have anew contract.

But it also says something about how Mangini has control of this team that Cribbs, or Shaun Rogers for that matter, hasn’t bothered to challenge him publicly. It’s a fight he’d probably lose anyway. Mangini’s tolerance for difficult personalities runs the gamut from A to B.

Though it’s very early in each coach’s tenure, Mangini is ahead at the quarter post.

The news that Mangini’s old team, the Jets, have recently named Mark Sanchez their starting quarterback didn’t make me long for an end to the Browns’ so-called quarterback competition as much as the incessant pondering by a local media given virtually nothing else to talk about by Mangini. What Sanchez being named starting quarterback did make me wonder is whether it not it made Mangini chuckle or wince.

If he’s chuckling, it’s because he believes he knows something the Jets don’t, such as that their quarterback situation heading into camp was so bad that they had no choice but to start a rookie, a rookie possibly not as good as advertised. Mangini had the opportunity to draft Sanchez and passed on it in order to bounce around the first round and gain a few more draft picks. If Mangini didn’t think
Sanchez had a bigger upside then either one of the quarterbacks he can’t make a decision over, then the fact that he thinks he may have fleeced his old team with the trade, and the pickup of Brett Ratliff, is probably making him laugh at the moment.

But don’t discount the notion that maybe he’s wincing just a bit. The fact that Mangini is stuck in neutral on two quarterbacks means he still doesn’t have one starter. His old team, left with only Kellen Clemens on the shelf, found Sanchez due in large part to Mangini’s abject desire to emulate Bill Belichick and continue picking up draft picks. Given the quicker trajectory of rookie quarterbacks into starting roles these days, perhaps Mangini is kicking himself just a bit.

More likely, though, is that if Mangini was still in New York and had taken Sanchez in the draft, he never would have named him the starter at this point. The Browns’ quarterback battle is not so much a battle as it is a training-camp long act of deception Mangini is trying to perpetrate on the rest of the league, as if they’re even paying attention.

Mangini believes the mystery he’s created will give him a competitive advantage. Certainly the Browns need all they can get. But before the Browns start playing these kinds of games with the rest of the league, other teams have to be paying attention. And though no team takes any other too lightly, let’s just say that the Browns game isn’t circled on any other team’s schedule at the moment.

With the Indians never completely out of one’s mind, this week’s question to ponder is: “Is Eric Wedge playing a clearly injured Grady Sizemore in a desperate attempt to save his own job?”

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Late Season Distractions

It may not go down as one of the great questions of the universe and the answer may not actually matter all that much, but why is it that the Cleveland Indians can win late in the season with lesser players and not earlier when it matters more?

That’s a question on every Indians’ fan mind, or at least the mind of every Indians’ fan that hasn’t forgotten that the team is still playing. It also has to be near the top of the list of questions that Indians’ owners Larry and Paul Doland and Indians general manager Mark Shapiro have to be asking themselves as well.

For the Dolans and Shapiro, the question isn’t academic. Getting to the heart of this conundrum will, as much as anything else, determine whether manager Eric Wedge needs to find a different coaching gig over the winter.

If you were Wedge’s agent, you’d certainly use the team’s 20-15 record since the All Star break as reason number 1 why Wedge needs to be retained. That argument is easily crafted. Wedge has taken a lineup that’s been almost completely overhauled during the middle of the season and found a way to make a little chicken salad with it. The team as it exists today will be close to the team that steps on the field next spring and thus, the logic goes, there’s no reason to think that Wedge can’t get the same results then that he’s getting now.

Actually, there is a reason to think otherwise. But let’s not get hung up in the weeds.

All the Indians’ mini post-All Star surge has proven at best is that Wedge can’t manage a team with lofty ambitions. It’s not particularly relevant that the national media anointed the Indians as a contender going into the season as much as it’s relevant that Wedge’s bosses felt the same way. In response, Wedge ran another in a series of lousy spring trainings that did little to prepare the team for what was to come. Entering the season ill-prepared, Wedge’s incessant tinkering and inability to set a lineup only contributed to the problem. As Wedge fiddled, the team began to collapse around itself as the losses mounted. It was only after the pressure and burden of expectations was lifted did the team finally relax. It doesn’t sound like something you’d want to put on your resume.

That’s the overview. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though. There are a number of fingers in this pie, some of which are those of the people asking the questions about Wedge in the first place.

Let’s start with the Dolans. Dispensing with the argument about whether or not they’ve properly funded this team, it’s enough to admit for these purposes that they sufficiently funded it for this season. The Indians entered the season with a payroll of around $81 million, according to the USA Today salary database. That put them in the top half of the league, although behind, well behind, both Detroit and Chicago.

Although the correlation between spending and success in baseball is undeniable, the Indians, at least this season, were in that comfortable middle ground where this season, at least for them, wouldn’t be decided by a relative lack of funds.

Where the Dolans need to be held more accountable is in their abject faith in Shapiro. Certainly not publicly and unlikely privately, the Dolans haven’t much questioned Shapiro and his approach until very recently. This has been unfortunate.

Shapiro isn’t the sum total of all that ails but his history over the last several years has been dotted with enough mistakes and missed opportunities, if not outright red flags, that it’s surprising he’s not been held more accountable. This team has drafted poorly. Its free agent signings have been very spotty. Its connection with the fans has been at its convenience. Budget constraints are a factor, certainly, but other teams have done more with less. The Florida Marlin and Tampa Bay Rays come immediately to mind.

Shapiro also has acted as the mother-protector for Wedge even when the circumstances didn’t warrant it. It’s not as if Wedge’s main flaws developed suddenly and unexpectedly. He’s never been able to settle on a lineup and he’s never run a particularly efficient spring training camp. His in-game decisions are often questionable. Yet it’s apparent that these weren’t of sufficient concern to Shapiro. If they had been perhaps those problems would have been fixed long ago.

Shapiro may have deserved the support of the Dolans and may still, but if the Dolans are going to be successful running this franchise on the cheap, they are going to have to do a better job of holding Shapiro accountable for the team’s shortcomings. Blame Wedge as much as you want, and we’ll get to him in a moment, but the days of blind faith in how this franchise is run on a day to day basis is the first step on the road to whatever recovery there may be.

Similarly, the days have long since passed for Shapiro to still consider himself joined at the hip with Wedge. For too long, Shapiro has treated Wedge like a long lost brother from another mother. When Shapiro had his last contract extended he in turn gave a similar extension to Wedge. It’s as if they were still little boys on a camp out, cutting their index fingers, swearing allegiance to each other; blood brothers.

This symbiotic relationship, somewhat the reverse of the relationship between Browns’ head coach Eric Mangini and general manager George Kokinis, looks like one of those great ideas until it isn’t. Unquestionably it’s better for the manager and the general manager to be on the same page. But there’s a world of difference between being on the same page and being of the same mind.

The problem with the Shapiro/Wedge dynamic is that it’s all just yin and yin. Neither seems to challenge the other and no one is the better for it. The only thing harder to fathom right now than an Indians World Series victory is Shapiro and Wedge going toe to toe over anything.

Does anyone seriously think that Wedge, for example, ever went into Shapiro’s office and said “we’ve got to do something about Jhonny Peralta” or Shapiro ever demanded Wedge in his office to find out why Grady Sizemore’s plate discipline has declined each year instead of improved?

Instead, each does the other’s bidding in an effort to keep the boat steady. Meanwhile neither noticed how much water the boat was taking on, at least until it was nearly too late.

As the Dolans have with Shapiro, it may be that Wedge deserves the support he’s gotten from Shapiro. Maybe he deserves it still. But if he does it has to be under a much different paradigm. Wedge’s shortcomings are too many and too obvious for Shapiro to continue to ignore.

The lesson of this season is that more than anything else it was an institutional failure. The Indians didn’t suddenly get bad because Shapiro had an off year finding cheap talent. They didn’t fail because Wedge suddenly got complacent. It’s the little acts of negligence that occurred and went unnoticed for too long that ultimately did this team in.

That’s why if this team is ever going to get out of its interminable purgatory it has to look far beyond the fool’s gold of a late season surge that still has left it one of the worst teams in the league. The road to recovery is long. It’s impossible to navigate if you won’t admit you’re lost in the first place.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Grabbing the Wheel

When you’re a team that’s been down as long as the Cleveland Browns have, almost any small victory is welcome. On Saturday night against as woeful of a team as exists in professional football, the Detroit Lions, the Browns finally gave their fans something more than just a measly small victory; they went out and won the game. In doing so the Browns proved that as bad as things are, this isn’t Detroit, and that’s not just a statement on the economy.

Surely this wasn’t a classic in any sense of the work. But on the pecking order that is the NFL, the Browns did more than enough to demonstrate that they may be near the bottom but it’s still a long drop down from there to the Lions. Dominating the Lions in about every way you can dominate a bad team, the Browns gave their fans and the Browns’ front office enough hope to think that at least they won’t struggle to sell out next week’s game against the Tennessee Titans.

To most observers, Browns’ quarterback Derek Anderson has played himself back into a quarterback competition that he was supposedly losing to Brady Quinn. While Anderson was mostly sharp, his play all but confirmed why it’s nearly impossible to commit to him full time.

Looking sharp initially, as he tends to when he plays at home, Anderson came out and led the team to its first touchdown in 9 months. Both Anderson and the drive he led were so efficient and effortless it almost made you forget how much this team has struggled just to get first downs. Anderson hit on his first pass, a 24-yarder to Mohamed Massequoi. Three plays later he hit Josh Cribbs for another 20 yards followed up by 14-yard pass to Michael Furrey. In between and to finish it off, Jamal Lewis ran for 15 yards, the last four for the touchdown.

If Anderson’s game would have ended there, the so-called quarterback competition would have had a new front runner. But at the end of the first half, the dark side of Anderson was on full display. Following a Detroit fumble with about 50 seconds remaining, Anderson and the Browns took over at their own 28 yard line. With three time outs remaining it was more than enough time to get the team into field goal range.

But all that ended very quickly as Anderson floated a 10-yard pass over the head of running back James Davis that was easily intercepted. It lead to a last second field goal for the Lions and was their only bright spot of the half.

For as well as Anderson played otherwise, he looked flummoxed running the hurry-up offense. In fairness, he had been removed earlier in the quarter in favor of Quinn, but it also wasn’t as if he had been sitting around for hours. Still, it wasn’t rustiness that caused the interception; it was Anderson’s puzzling lack of touch on short passes. Earlier in the quarter he had missed receiver Braylon Edwards on a simple out, firing the ball from just a few yards away when the situation called for a less aggressive pass.

It is this kind of unevenness in Anderson’s game that makes it difficult to commit to him. Arguably a player like Brett Favre has the same kind of inconsistency, especially late in his career. But he is Brett Favre. Anderson, on the other hand, doesn’t have the resume to constantly get away with the same kind of bad passes and bad decisions.
This is probably Quinn’s single-biggest selling point.

A coach like Eric Mangini is never going to be considered a gambler. Philosophically he is about managing the game and the circumstances. He’s far more comfortable playing ball control and shortening a game than taking unnecessary chances that can help a game spiral out of control. In that sense, he’s not unlike Jim Tressel at Ohio State.

That’s Mangini on his best days. Given what is obvious about this year’s team, if it is going to have even a modicum of success it will need to play nearly perfect every game. The team doesn’t have enough talent to overcome its own missteps. This is where Quinn better fits the Mangini profile. He takes far less risks with the ball and he can consistently hit the intermediate passes that Anderson cannot.

The long pass may be what fans like to see, but the bread and butter play for any quarterback, including Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger, to name just a few, is the shorter routes. Football, particularly the NFL brand, places a premium on field position. Coaches know that they aren’t going to be successful having to constantly go 80 yards to score. If a drive is going to sputter, better it be done at your own 42 yard line than your own 26. A punt pins the opposing team back and if your defense can hold, your next drive will be shorter and hence its chance of resulting in points enhanced.

That’s why Anderson is going to struggle, under Mangini or nearly any other coach. His personal bread and butter is the long pass. His touch on short passes is as suspect as any quarterback you’re likely to see. Too many times he kills drives with interceptions and incompletions simply because he cannot hit that little pass. As good as Anderson looked overall on Saturday, he did nothing to alleviate the concerns about this part of his game.

At the halfway point of the preseason, there’s simply no way of knowing who this team’s starting quarterback will be on September 13th against the Minnesota Vikings. It’s understandable even if detrimental.

Anderson is a tease of major proportions. He’s like a rogue husband. You never know if he’s on his way home from the office or is about to call and say he’s running late, again. There goes another dinner ruined. Quinn, on the other hand, is the reliable steady. He is where he says he’ll be, home for dinner and not out carousing.

The problem with this team is that it needs both kinds of personalities at the moment. There is very little swagger to it, understandably, but a little wouldn’t hurt. There also isn’t enough consistency and reliability. It really is that box of chocolates.

Heading into the Vikings game, the focus is going to be on a quarterback, but it won’t be either Anderson or Quinn. It will be on Favre, facing his first real test since his latest grandstanding, it’s all about me un-retirement. All that does is present the perfect time for either Quinn or Anderson to step forward and steal the spotlight and with it, the starting job on this team. Locked in a battle that neither is clearly leading, eventually someone has to grab the steering wheel and drive.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Lingering Items--Make or Break Edition

If it’s possible to be both introspective and clueless, then that’s at least one skill Cleveland Browns wide receiver Braylon Edwards has mastered. Unfortunately, it’s not exactly the skill for which he’s currently be overpaid by the Browns.

It wasn’t that the touchdown pass that Edwards dropped last Saturday night against the Green Bay Packers was particularly important. Edwards has dropped far more meaningful passes. It’s that he’s now taken to essentially explaining away his incompetency on the petard of perfection. We all want to be perfect, but hey, who is?

At this point, no one expects anything close to perfection out of Edwards. He came prepackaged with several imperfections. Fans don’t even seem to much care anymore if he can just be good. On the scale of downward expectations, fans now are willing to settle for competent. Next year, they won’t have to settle. He’ll likely be some other team’s problem.

When Edwards was unsuccessfully shopped by new head coach Eric Mangini prior to this year’s draft, Edwards didn’t seem particularly miffed. As clueless as ever, he took it as a sign that the Browns thought so highly of him to demand so much. He should have realized that it wasn’t a case of the Browns demanding too much but other teams willing to part with so little. It was a referendum from the league’s general managers on what they actually think of Edwards.

Edwards, along with an ever dwindling group of others, still thinks of himself as an elite receiver based on two things, the fact that he was the third pick in the draft and the fact that he had a good 2007 season. At this point in his career, Edwards’ draft status is irrelevant. Teams are still willing to consider potential, but it’s not longer based on what you did in college. You’ve had enough time to perform in the NFL, so get on with it already. On that score, Edwards’ potential and his performance have driven themselves to the fault line. One good season, not duplicated, no longer constitutes potential but an anomaly. As much as anything else, this is Edwards’ make or break season.

In golf terms, Edwards is like the player who has won one major title. It’s a good accomplishment. It gets you noticed. But if you keep missing cuts, it begins to look more and more like a blip. When is the last time anyone used the words “elite golfer” to describe Ian Baker Finch?

To put Edwards’ one good season into perspective, the 1289 yards he gained that year helped boost his career yards per catch average to 61.3, which places him a very respectable 38th on the all-time receivers list. Not quite elite, but borderline. It also boosted his yards per reception average to a slightly less respectable but still decent 15.6. Again, not elite but relatively close. But if 2007 never happens or he had performed at roughly the same level as his other three years in the league, his status becomes far more pedestrian with his yards per catch average dropping to 15.3 (Antonio Bryant territory) and his yards per game average dropping to 54.02 (Derrick Mason territory). In other words, he’s a useful piece on a NFL team, not the focus.

Edwards is a guy to whom excuses come far easier than catches. He can no longer talk about jumping too early in the end zone for a pass or bemoaning how the rotation of the ball coming out of the hands of Derek Anderson vs. Brady Quinn. He just has to start catching the ball. If he isn’t able to put up a 1,000 yards receiving this season, he’ll be a middling free agent next season. And in Browns’ terms, he’ll just be another swing and miss from a front office that connects about as often as the Indians’ front office.

Speaking of one-season wonders, the reason a quarterback controversy competition even exists on the Browns right now is solely the result of Derek Anderson’s 2007 season. Under virtually any other scenario, Quinn, a first round draft pick like Edwards, would be the presumed starter.

On the other hand, maybe the real reason a quarterback controversy exists is because of Anderson’s 2008 season. If you follow the logic the Browns’ organization uses to keep Edwards’ the presumptive starter, it seems like Anderson’s wondrous, record-breaking 2007 season would be enough to keep him entrenched until his contract runs out.

Thus the question, why is Edwards still riding the coattails of 2007 but Anderson is not? Every assumption that has been made about the starters on this team, whether by fans or management, is that Edwards is the team’s number 1 receiver. Everyone else it seems is competing for numbers 2, 3 and 4.

Yet Anderson, whose 2008 wasn’t much further down the misery index than Edwards’, is in a fight for his career. It wouldn’t surprise anyone that if Anderson lost out to Quinn that he’d find himself traded, if not sooner than soon anyway. If Anderson gets the nod, then the Browns are forced into essentially admitting that they wasted a draft pick on Quinn.

Maybe this is the real reason behind why Mangini is taking so much time, and hindering the team’s development in the process, to make this decision. It’s the first big one of his tenure and he can’t afford to get it wrong.

What Mangini doesn’t much appreciate, though, is that the chances of him getting the decision right are virtually nil. This has nothing to do with Mangini’s decision-making skills, although the jury is out on those as well. It has really more to do with inevitability. Ask yourself this: when was the last time anyone associated with the Browns got a major decision correct?

In all seriousness, the outcome of Mangini’s quarterback decision will set the tone for his regime and will determine, really, if he’ll be here for the long-haul or if there is another makeover coming a few years down the road.

If you’re not of the mind to think that Mangini is taking his time in order to ensure he gets it right, then the far simpler explanation is that he’s hoping it’s a decision he won’t have to make. If only one would clearly outplay the other, the decision makes itself and everyone will come to the same conclusion.

It’s frustrating to fans, certainly, and probably to Mangini that neither quarterback has fully taken the reins. Don’t blame the quarterbacks. The politics of training camp and the incessant juggling Mangini is doing actually is more responsible for the situation than anything either quarterback has done or not done. Browns fans saw more of the Richard Bartel and Brett Ratliff than they saw of either Anderson or Quinn last week. Fearful of injury, Mangini doesn’t seem of the mind to give either of them enough time in a preseason game to really establish their footing.

Mangini may think he’s constructed a fair fight but all it’s done is retard the development of the team and place himself at point blank range of a decision that will set the tone of the franchise for the next several years. Hopefully Mangini lives for that kind of pressure because if he can’t he only has himself to blame.

There is a theory going around that the reason the Browns’ offense looked so horrible against the Packers last Saturday is that they didn’t want to reveal much to a future regular season opponent. Mangini, typically, isn’t commenting.

I doubt that’s the case. This team simply isn’t good enough at the moment to play hide the salami with future opponents in the preseason. For once, four games don’t seem nearly enough. The Browns are in such fundamental transition that they need every second of the time they have to try and straighten out the mess left by the last caretakers.

It’s almost amusing, actually, to think that a team that now hasn’t scored an offensive touchdown in its last 7 games may be purposely hiding their scary-good offensive schemes from the league during the preseason. If that’s really the case, the joke will be on them.

It’s fair to note that the offensive ineptitude at the end of last season probably had more to do with injuries than abject incompetence. But fundamentally the reason this team’s offense looks so vanilla is a near-complete lack of a running game. Take away that ability from any team and it will struggle to score.
Far beyond just the inability to establish a quarterback is the fact that its running game poses no threat. Jamal Lewis may be a warrior in football terms, but he’s finished as a running back. He works hard, which any coach appreciates, but to expect him to carry the load is a stretch.

The impact that the lack of a viable running game has on the rest of the offense is obvious. Opposing teams need only worry about covering a middling group of receivers running 7-10 yard routes. Opposing teams also know that if Anderson’s in the backfield, the chance that he’ll hit these receivers, even if left completely uncovered, is only around 50%. On short passes, he has no touch, like a 7-footer who can’t put the ball in the hoop from 3-feet out. Opposing teams know that if it’s Quinn, they only need to play tight coverage on these short routes. Quinn’s far more accurate on short routes but also far less likely to throw long.

Even if Brian Robiski and/or Muhammad Massaquoi establish themselves as receiving threats this year, the offense is still going to look turgid unless there is enough of a running threat to keep defenses honest. Right now that’s hard to imagine when Lewis is your starter, Jerome Harrison your back up and with only Noah Herron and James Davis waiting in the wings.

All of this adds up to exactly where the Browns now stand, a team that will need the defense to shorten the game to give the team any chance at winning. And doesn’t that sound familiar? Mangini is looking more like Bill Belichick than he probably ever imagined.


I’m sure Channel 3 in Cleveland saw it as a matter of economics, but there is a far larger message in the Browns’ inability to sell out this Saturday’s preseason game against the Detroit Lions on their own. The Browns were selling tickets at 50% off and still couldn’t get enough takers. That’s where Channel 3 stepped in, bought the rest, and assured themselves and their advertisers that the game would be on local television.

For the Browns and owner Randy Lerner, this should be a wake up call; a moment of shear embarrassment that is letting them know that at even half the price there aren’t enough people in this town that see value in this team. While Art Modell may be the devil, he at least understood how to throw a preseason party. Add a concert, throw in some world-class fireworks. Make the show bigger than the game itself.

Instead, what fans have to look forward to is a miserable game in hot weather between one team that went winless last year and another that didn’t score an offensive touchdown in their last six games. And the beer will be $8 for a large. Party on, Wayne. Party on, Garth.


Thinking about the Browns’ lack of talent leads to this week’s question to ponder: What happened to George Kokinis?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Warmed Over

Assuming Cleveland Browns’ owner Randy Lerner even has a mind’s eye, this can’t be what it envisioned. By changing almost everything about the Browns, from the personnel to the painting on the walls at Berea, Lerner pulled off the nearly impossible by still managing to keep things exactly the same.

Meanwhile, new head coach Eric Mangini probably was wishing that he could have been anonymous, returning to the ranks of ball boy rather than admit to have presiding over another mess spilled about on the grass of the anything-but-frozen tundra of Lambeau Field. Losing 17-0 to the Green Bay Packers, the Browns looked every bit as tantalizing as left over lasagna. They were as lazy and lethargic as both the weather and last season’s edition of a team that didn’t score an offensive touchdown in its last 7 games.

The loss was harmless mostly because it was preseason. In a perverse way, though, it actually was productive. The Browns showed their fans that things can’t get any worse. Things may not be getting better, either, but at least they aren’t getting worse.

Saturday night’s game featured everything familiar with what alienated most fans from this team by early last December. There was quarterback Derek Anderson demonstrating again that for however strong his arm is his leadership abilities are that weak. There was Brady Quinn looking like an actual NFL starter, but as always it’s hard to tell exactly what that means because it’s being compared to Anderson. There was the defensive line giving up run after run after run after run and yard after yard after yard after yard. And for good measure, it once again treated another opposing quarterback, this time in the person of Aaron Rodgers, as if he was wearing a red practice jersey. And of course, of course, there was receiver Braylon Edwards dropping a critical pass. Oh yea, Josh Cribbs played well.

With all that out of the way, was there really anything to take away from Saturday’s game except that this team has miles to go before it sleeps? Actually, there was. First, the Browns absolutely need to pick a quarterback and dump the other one. Quinn gets the job, essentially by default, but the job should be his. No more vacillating. No more trying to balance practice reps. It’s neck and neck as to which happens first, the team scores a touchdown or Congress passes health care reform. The offense won’t build any consistency by essentially ensuring that neither quarterback is fully ready for the season.

Quinn is a legitimate NFL starter. He’s not Tom Brady but he’s far from Ken Dorsey. Quinn has a presence and swagger that a quarterback needs and Anderson simply lacks. For however well Anderson may play in practice, he is tentative and indecisive (if you can be both) in games. It’s time to put that issue to bed and move on to something more fundamental, like practicing the beejeezus out of the first team offensive unit until it proves it can put points on the board.

Second, the Browns need to settle their defensive line. Shaun Rogers may not have played Saturday night, but it’s hard to see how much good he could have done. The Packers chewed up 230 yards on the ground. That’s actually why the score was a relatively close as it was. The Packers were doing their level best to shorten the game by toying with the overmatched defensive line.

This has to change, immediately. If the Browns can’t stop the run, they’ll never be able to rush the passer. As if this point needed to be proven yet again, the line made sure it did exactly that Saturday night, putting virtually no pressure when the starters for both teams were in the game.

And let’s not forget the good folks at linebacker. Faces change but not the result. D’Qwell Jackson keeps getting singled out in practice as someone who really is taking a step forward. But like a golfer whose great on the range but not on the course, if Jackson really is going to be a force he’s going to have to prove it when it counts and for these purposes, preseason counts.

The defense, like the offense, is suffering from a lack of leadership. On offense it comes down to the unsettled nature of the quarterback position. On defense, it comes down to that lack of a stud player with an ego. If you look at the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, you think about James Harrison and Troy Polamalu. The Browns are as far away as they’ve ever been from having that kind of talent on defense, but more to the point they are too far away from having those kinds of personalities.

Third, and more fundamentally, Mangini needs to find a way to eliminate the stench that currently has gripped every aspect of the franchise. Since running laps isn’t helping much maybe an exorcism will. While Mangini is trying everything in his power to change the course of human events Saturday just proved that the toxic mold that has attached itself to this franchise isn’t just on the surface. It’s inside the walls and nothing short of tearing it completely down and rebuilding it is ever going to eliminate it.

In truth there really is no reason to get all animated about one preseason loss, particularly with this team. In fact, the losses are expected. What fans want to see is progress and that’s why Saturday’s game was such a head-scratcher. There was nothing about any phase of the game that would suggest that any progress has been made. If the team comes out and lays still another egg this coming Saturday night, it might be years before fans will get to see a home game on local TV.

But let’s focus for just a moment on the one positive, Cribbs. Showing once again why he remains the team’s only consummate professional, Cribbs is making a strong pitch to become the team’s number 2 receiver. That should help his contract status. Another thing that should help it is the mere fact that on this team he is far and away the most valuable player.

The only thing really hurting Cribbs’ chances for a new contract anytime soon is that it is abundantly clear that the team has far more immediate concerns to address. And given how significant and several those concerns are, it looks like Mangini and the rest of the staff will be completely preoccupied for weeks to come.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Lingering Items--Long Walk Home Edition

Being the worst free agent signing in the history of a franchise doesn’t automatically make one a bad person. Killing a man while you’re under the influence of alcohol pretty gets one a lot closer.

Cleveland Browns receiver Donte Stallworth has been given his notice by Commissioner Roger Goddell that he’ll remain under suspension for the 2009 NFL season. After that, he’s free to re-apply for re-admission to the fraternity. While appearing quite contrite and saying all the right things, at least through his lawyer, Stallworth still has miles to go before the stain of his offenses start to fade. To some, they probably hope that never happens.

Considering the gravity of Stallworth’s criminal behavior, the truth is that the only reason Stallworth isn’t still in jail is the result of the convergence of a moneyed ballplayer, a lenient prosecutor and an overburden edjustice system in Miami’s Dade County. Those presented the exact right recipe to allow Stallworth to escape the harsher punishment he otherwise deserved by throwing around enough millions to escape the kind of justice that has ensnared many others.

Sure, he’s forever barred from driving a motor vehicle (the over and under on how long it will take him to break that restriction once he thinks no one is looking currently stands at 23 days according to Las Vegas oddsmakers). He has a healthy amount of community service to perform, although until I see a picture of him wearing a yellow vest and picking up garbage on the side of I-75 in the middle of the August heat for 8 hours a day that punishment is mostly irrelevant. And he probably surrendered a healthy amount of the millions Randy Lerner was foolishly talked into paying him by deposed general manager Phil Savage. All that did was buy off a desperate family from pushing the case further. It couldn’t and didn’t bring back a life.

But the notion that none of this makes Stallworth a bad guy, as he said recently, is laughable. If anything, it’s the exact definition of what a bad guy is, that is if you think a bad guy is someone who abuses the privileges he’s been given and it ends up in tragedy for someone else.

Let’s put Stallworth in some contemporary context. Is Stallworth’s actions worse than, say, Michael Vick’s? Depends on who you ask, I suppose, but from a pure law and order standpoint Vick spent much more time in jail and much more time in Goodell’s dog house, so to speak. Maybe that says something about how fondly this society thinks of its animals vs. its citizens, but doesn’t it also say something about how this society values the actions of a drunk driver?

Where are the protests? Where is MADD threatening to show up at every Browns game as long as Stallworth is a member of the team? This isn’t about trying to place dots on a sliding scale in order to put a value on the seriousness of one’s offenses, but ask yourself, is Vick really worse than Stallworth?

Terry Pluto, writing in the Plain Dealer, thinks Goodell got it right by suspending Stallworth for a year. Maybe he did, but frankly, if Goodell threw him out of the league permanently I’d be fine with that as well.

I’m less concerned, though, with Goodell at the moment and more concerned with the lack of response from the Browns. Out of the parochial concerns of a salary cap hit that will have absolutely no actual impact on them this season, Stallworth technically remains an employee of the club; albeit an employee in unpaid status.

Allowing Stallworth to maintain any sort of status with this storied franchise is the kind of thing that Savage would have done. He always favored optionality over common senses. But from everything we’ve been led to believe about new head coach Eric Mangini, he’s tolerant like Vladmir Putin is tolerant. Some messages are worth sending to your constituents, in this case the fans and this is one of those times.

Consider for a moment how many deserved public relations hits Lerner has taken in the last year. Unquestionably, he’s the least liked of the owners of the town’s three major professional teams. While standing up publicly for ethics and morals by cutting Stallworth isn’t going to repair Lerner’s image immediately, it would certainly be a good start.

It makes me think of the verse in the Bruce Springsteen song “Long Walk Home.” The song’s voice, remembering a walk through town with his dad, says:

My father said "Son, we're lucky in this town
It's a beautiful place to be born
It just wraps its arms around you
Nobody crowds you, nobody goes it alone.
That flag flying over the courthouse
Means certain things are set in stone
Who we are, what we'll do and what we won't."

Well, that Cleveland Browns flag is flying over the Stadium at the moment, but for each day the Browns continue to hold on to Stallworth over such trivial concerns as this year’s salary cap tells everyone that with this team, nothing is set in stone. They don’t know who they are, have no clue what to do and have no limit to what they won’t do, including keeping a person on the roster who killed an innocent man who, himself, was just taking his own long walk home.


Although Mangini has been tongue-tied in how to address the Stallworth situation, other than the ubiquitous “it’s something we continue to evaluate” or some similar nonsense, he was far more verbose, in deed if not word, in dumping serial loudmouth Shaun Smith last week.

This wasn’t about creating a roster spot to sign another lineman to replace Rex Hadnot. It was about much more. On just the surface, Mangini wanted to make Smith an example in order to establish his own sea legs with the team. It’s one thing to talk tough, it’s another thing to be tough. If it’s true that Smith’s Romeo Crennel-like approach to training camp had worn thin after just a few sessions, then cutting him now before Smith can further pollute the atmosphere makes sense.

But you also can’t discount the Brady Quinn factor and in that sense, cutting Smith may be a bit of a signal on where Mangini is on that issue. Smith isn’t just a loudmouth of the first order, he’s a pain in the ass player whose contributions will always be measured against the distractions he brings. If he was on a short leash, it’s only because he deserved to be.

When Smith punched Quinn in the face last season, it undoubtedly had a subtle but definite impact on the rest of the locker room. While I’m sure it’s happened somewhere else, I can’t remember a time where a player on any team physically assaulted one of the team’s marquee players and was around long enough to brag about it. The only thing that probably saved Smith last year was Crennel’s grandfatherly approach to discipline, which is to say that at most Smith got a stern lecture followed by a big bear hug.

With Mangini, it was always going to be a different story. Mangini might claim that the players come with a clean slate, but that’s more public relations hooey than reality. Smith has a history. But more to the point, Smith has a history with Quinn. If Quinn is going to be this team’s starting quarterback, it doesn’t help to have someone like Smith around the rest of the team given both her verbosity and his obvious dislike for Quinn.

Mangini hasn’t done much to tip his hand about which quarterback he prefers, which is why you have to read the tea leaves. This is one tea leaf that I think is worth reading. Mangini may not be locked in on Quinn yet but let’s just say he probably thinks the kid has a bright future.

Someone explain to me again why a rules official put Tiger Woods and Padraig Harrington on the clock with three holes to play in last week’s Bridgestone-WGC event at Firestone Country Club. Maybe they were lingering a bit too long, but it’s not like this was a hack foursome backing up the course at Manakiki on a Saturday morning.

For too long, golf has looked for a worthy adversary for Woods and may have one in Harrington. They were engaging in what looked to be an epic battle. And just when the match is reaching its emotional apex, along comes a rules official and tells them to hurry up because, gosh, you don’t want the event to bleed into the Sunday 6 o’clock news where some dimwitted new reader is waiting to breathlessly tell us about either a fire on the east side or a Walk-A-Thon of some sort.

The argument for putting them on the clock is that they should have to live within the same time constraints as every other golfer. On the surface, that makes sense. The reality is that on the Sunday of a PGA tournament, there is no such thing as a time constraints. Three-quarters of the remaining field know they have no chance of winning and play as quickly as they can so they can get the heck out of there and on to the next event. In other words, they’ll play fast, very fast. That leaves essentially a wide open course for the other quarter of the field that has a reasonable shot at a high finish. If in the end that results in an extra 10 minutes, how is that a big deal? Golf was never meant to be a timed event. Besides, just move up the tee times if you’re worried about the finish.

The other argument is that this goofy rule was voted in by the players and so every player should live with it. Again, on the surface that makes sense. But the rule wasn’t so much voted on as dictated. It’s sold to the players as necessary in order to meet the demands of the networks that pay millions to broadcast the events. Yet those same constraints don’t apply to, say, football or baseball where the broadcast fee rights are even higher. Football often does go into overtime and baseball, as George Carlin would say, might go on and on and we don’t know when it will even end. The next time Fox moves a playoff game that’s running long to FX because it’s time for local news will be the first.

Sure, Harrington cracked under that extra pressure and all Woods did was hit an 8-iron 178 yards to within a foot. That means Woods probably wins anyway. But without the pressure to rush his next shot, who’s to say that Harrington doesn’t sink that chip? Harrington is a pretty fair golf in his own right, so he had more of a chance than, say, you or me.

So much of golf’s history revolves around great matches. Woods made history with another victory in Akron but a more lasting impression of that day was lost because of an anal-retentive rules official with a stop watch.


The Indians are in Minnesota this weekend, or maybe it’s Kansas City, hard to remember. What isn’t is this week’s question to ponder: Does the summer move slower or faster when the Indians are out of it by June?

Monday, August 10, 2009

They Don't Keep Anybody

If anyone associated with the Cleveland Indians at the moment is a little irritated with fan reaction to their relatively decent play of late, he should know that the team has only itself to blame.

Indians fans, or at least a healthy majority of them, at this moment are so disillusioned with the leadership and direction of the franchise that nothing short of major, dramatic changes is going to change their indifference.

They’ve heard Indians president and co-owner Paul Dolan candidly admit that the best this team can ever hope for is to be in the playoffs rarely and be competitive occasionally. They’ve seen player after player after player after player bump up against a contract expiration date only to be traded as a result. They’ve seen a general manager spin and wring dry every available cliché about the young, cheap talent he’s acquired, knowing full well that not one of these players will reach his prime in Cleveland unless he’s abjectly mediocre.

The reasons to be cynical are as compelling as they are overwhelming. The reasons to be optimistic are as few as they are underwhelming. So what if the Indians take two of three from the White Sox? They still remain one of the worst teams in the league.

In truth, the fate of the Indians is gut wrenching to the true fan, and by true fan I mean anyone that’s been following the team closely at least since Cory Snyder was a rookie. They don’t want to see their team fail. It’s far more fun when every pitch thrown in September or October has meaning. Give these fans even the sliver of a reason to believe and they’ll excuse the years of mistreatment faster than Red Sox fans are forgiving David Ortiz.

Right now, however, the Indians represent the death of hope. And lest you see this as the misguided thoughts of a bitter writer consider no better source than Indians shortstop, third baseman, designated hitter Jhonny Peralta.

Peralta has had a modest second-half resurgence that in large measure reflects the modest second-half resurgence of the team. There’s probably a connection there worth exploring but for now let’s let that pass. Instead, focus solely on what Peralta told the media. No, not the “I’m not going to change my approach results notwithstanding” stubbornness but his discussion about his contract status.

Peralta is signed through 2010 with a club option that will never get picked up in 2011 unless Peralta continues to undermine his monetary value with his David Delluci-like consistency. Acknowledging that the players can see exactly the same things as fans, Peralta said, as reported by Paul Hoynes in the Plain Dealer, “I don’t know what’s going to happen next year. I don’t know if I’m going to be next or not. I have an option for 2011, but they don’t keep anybody. You never know.”

Though Peralta spent the most critical part of his season locked inside his man-cave in sweet slumber, blissfully ignorant of his responsibilities, at least he was awake long enough to understand full well the Indians’ business model and his place in it. “They don’t keep anybody” can now take its rightful place alongside of “building for a tomorrow that never comes” as the team’s recurring theme/mission statement. By the way, since the Dolans haven’t yet taken up my office for a royalty-free license for those statements, I hereby put the world on notice of my copyright. If the Indians don’t need the money, I do.

All this does is underscore what ultimately has the potential to lead to this franchise’s demise: the lack of an identity. Baseball fans, like those of any sport really, certainly appreciate the game itself. But the reason fans purchase the product associated with it is because they identify with it in a meaningful way. It’s why fans won’t go out of their way to buy tickets to a Chris Perez bobblehead day but might for a Grady Sizemore.

As Shapiro continues to respond to the economic forces that envelop him by tearing down the foundation of what he’s built even before he finishes furnishing it, he strips away from their fans their day-to-day reason to care about the team. Right now fans are about as emotionally invested in this team as someone watching a network TV show that’s about to be cancelled.

It’s certainly nice that the Indians can play better baseball late in a lost season, but nothing about Sunday’s win against the White Sox was particularly meaningful mainly because the front office long ago told them there was nothing particularly meaningful about any win. Ok, let me refine that. It’s meaningful for manager Eric Wedge. He can once again make the case that Shapiro’s already bought that he’s good with younger talent.

More damming though is the fact that the “they don’t keep anybody” approach works as a disincentive for any fan to find meaning in the team. If you were prone to be a Peralta fan (and if you are, let’s discuss off line as I have a phone number to a crisis center to send you), you’re actually far better off rooting for his failures than his successes. If he plays great, he will fulfill Shapiro’s prophecy. If he fails just enough, he’ll be around for years to come, kind of a baseball version of Dick Cheney.

The same holds true for Grady Sizemore. Why bother getting all wrapped up in his career when its success will only hasten his departure? Indeed, what Shapiro really has accomplished, perhaps without intending to, is to make the concept of core players irrelevant to not just the ardent but also the average fans.

Once upon a time a general manager had a goofy notion that good young players should be used as building blocks not trade bait. He had a dream that these building blocks would sustain a mid-market franchise for years to come. And he was right. The Indians of the 1990s were his signature and that general manager’s name was Moe Green. Sorry, I mean, John Hart. Now there’s not even a statute to commemorate his dream.

Shapiro, his protégé, tried to follow that pattern but could never quite replicate it. At this point it’s been all but abandoned in favor of a system whereby the Indians act as the feeder pool for the league’s sharks. Maybe once in awhile that feeder pool will have enough teeth to scare the sharks for a bit, but never for long.

Of course what Shapiro can’t admit is that the previous approach wasn’t nearly as flawed as his own execution of it was. If you put your trust and money in the wrong core it’s going to come back and bite hard, which is really what this season has proven.

It could be, I suppose, that Shapiro has become convinced that the risk-reward approach of the Hart philosophy is too much of a gamble with a franchise so financially fragile. If so, that’s worthy of a healthy debate. Hart wasn’t a genius but only a man with a plan that happened to work. That doesn’t mean another approach can’t. The problem is that when Shapiro deliberately lit the platform the team was standing on, he did so without another, less risky one to jump to that has the similar chance of paying off.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Lingering Items--Water Over the Dam Edition

There isn’t much utility or fun in continuing to turn over the same shovel of dirt. But when it comes to the Cleveland Indians sometimes they just beg you to make the effort.

Indians’ co-owner Paul Dolan met with the media the other day to essentially lay out his case for the team’s recent upheaval. While not exactly contradicting general manager Mark Shapiro on the very fine points, he let it be known that without the changes the Indians were on track to lose millions; many, many millions. As it is, even with the recent strip-mining, the team is on track to lose $16 million.

Ok, so Shapiro wasn’t under a specific edict to dump salary. He was just told that the owners were on track to lose multi-millions and weren’t going to be all that pleased with it. And in case Shapiro was being particularly dense, they told him that if he maintained the status quo ante under the misguided notion that the team could compete next year, the chance that there would be any money to play with in the next five or so years under these circumstances were about the same as the team trading for CC Sabathia.

I’m not suggesting that the Dolans should take losing any amount of money, let alone double-digit millions, lightly. I get cranky over far less money. But this is the business they chose and no one promised it would be all rainbows and gum drops.

What’s telling and what portends for things to come is how Dolan said the losses would be covered—through loans and an infusion of family cash. That’s a red flag. While presumably the cash infused from the Dolans is more in the nature of a gift, a loan has to be paid back or at least they used to under the old economy. And if you remember from your Business Administration 101 class, any service on a loan adds to the operating costs of a franchise that already is struggling. The direct impact from a fan’s perspective is two-fold: increased prices to and lowered payroll costs. Presumably most fans would rather embrace the exact opposite scenario.

Dolan was emphatic that his family has no intention on selling the club but then again Art Modell had no intention of selling the Browns. As losses mount, the dynamics change. This, ultimately, will determine Shapiro’s fate with the team. Before the Dolans let the team drive them into personal bankruptcy, they will try everything short of a sale first. If Shapiro can’t deliver a team that can make money, or at least not lose multi-millions, they will find someone different. That’s collateral you can take to a bank.

In that context, Shapiro’s maneuvers are completely understandable, but only in the larger sense. Payroll had to be trimmed. The trick is in trimming the right payroll. Shapiro may have had no choice in dumping Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez, but that’s only because less valuable assets but far bigger drags on the team’s budget, like Travis Hafner and Jake Westbrook, were untradeable.

Defaulting to the most available targets is not at all the same thing as choosing the right targets. For example, the Indians 0f 2010 could still have Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez and still be $10 million ahead if they could have dumped Hafner and Westbrook instead. Of course the Indians wouldn’t have the gaggle of Single A prospects they got in return, but something has to be sacrificed.

The reason this makes a difference is that a team with Lee and Martinez and an extra $10 million of payroll has a better chance of being successful in 2010 than a team without them but with Hafner and Westbrook. If it had success that would translate into higher attendance or at least reverse the loss of attendance and with that the financial losses, if any, to the Dolans are minimized. Suddenly the future doesn’t look so iffy.

But of course Shapiro couldn’t trade a fading Hafner and an injured Westbrook. But by getting caught in the box where such large contracts crippled this team and forced him into making far more dangerous trades of more effective players, Shapiro set the franchise back years if not decades. That may be water over the dam but it’s water that’s leaving the fans soaked for years to come.


Dolan couldn’t have made a better case for a salary cap in baseball than this quote: “If every four or five years we can have a shot at the World Series and contend for the playoffs at other times, that’s as good as it gets for a team in this type of market.”

The fact that his assessment is so dead-on accurate is a crushing reality for the fans. One wonders, then, why doesn’t the problem get fixed?

Dolan went on to illustrate how the reality of baseball’s fundamental economic model impacts a team’s entire operations in ways most fans might not even realize. By example he noted that large-market clubs aren’t just getting all the prime free agents, but they are using their money to manipulate the amateur draft as well to ensure the best young talent.

Without delving into too much detail on this, and my colleague Tony Lastoria is a far better resource than me, but the byzantine-like system the major leagues use in the draft is directly responsible for this happening. Basically, large-market teams can assure that the top prospects they draft get signed instead of going to college by throwing more money at them. The world-wide amateur free agent market is like a supermarket where they are the only ones that can get through the doors.

Teams like the Indians, on the other hand, often compromise on draft picks and amateur free agents because signability is a huge factor in the decision-making process. If the Indians know that the player is represented by, for example, Scott Boras, an agent that demands top dollar, they’ll likely take a pass and gravitate toward a lesser skilled but more signable player. Meanwhile, the better prospect eventually drifts to a large market team that will meet his demands.

The concept of small and mid-size markets basically doesn’t exist in either the NBA or the NFL and the common denominator is a salary cap. Out of either foresight or desperation both sports embraced the concept of having all of its partners on a level playing field. Baseball on the other hand doesn’t even see it as a worthy goal.

Likewise, in the NFL teams typically don’t avoid players on the basis that they are un-signable. Occasionally you’ll see a team with a high first round draft pick go in a slightly different direction because it feels it can get the player under contract more quickly, but that is the exception. In the NBA, the concept doesn’t exist. A rookie salary scale, more liberal free agent rules and a salary cap that favors the incumbent team all work to keep the playing field the most level in all of professional sports.

The Indians’ problems are baseball problems and don’t look for any substantive resolution of the former until there are fundamental resolutions to the latter.


Moving over to the Browns and their own odyssey toward respectability, receiver Braylon Edwards finally returned to practice and we now know, but not through the team, that he was sitting out because of an ankle injury. And we now know, but not through the team, that Edwards was absolutely brilliant during his first practice. We know it because the local media, without absolutely anything better to do, have taken to literally following training camp on a pass-by-pass basis.

Maybe it’s due to the restrictions the team has placed on the media or the general distrust that head coach Eric Mangini has toward it, but this season’s coverage of training camp by our friends at the Plain Dealer, the News-Herald, the Canton Repository and the Akron Beacon Journal is so mind-numbingly mundane it makes the directions for applying Chap Stick seem positively riveting by comparison.

If case you didn’t know, there is a quarterback competition taking place between Derek Anderson and Brady Quinn. In honor of it, readers of our faithful printed newspapers are given the intimate details of just how many passes were completed in the 7-on-7 drills and to whom. If you think this at all matters, well, that’s where you’d be wrong.

Mangini says something interesting or insightful publicly only by accident. But yet I actually think that when he told the media that it is not so much a day-by-day analysis as much as it is an overall assessment, he was telling the truth. The fact is that if Mangini is so random as to base the outcome of the starting quarterback decision on who went 5-6 on Thursday morning nd who went 4-7, then he is abjectly unqualified to be anything more than the ball boy he used to be.

Maybe it is important how Quinn looked on Tuesday and how Anderson looked on Wednesday morning. Maybe, but I doubt it. Ken Dorsey can look good in a scrimmage. Quarterbacks are made or broken on the actual playing field, which is why this Sunday’s scrimmage, more than anything that’s happened so far, will go a long way toward determining each quarterback’s fate.


The Indians have certainly put me in an existential mood. Thus this week’s question to ponder: If the Indians trade Carl Pavano to the Minnesota Twins and no one cares, did the trade really happen?

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Low-Hanging Fruit

Somewhere around the third or fourth lap Cleveland Browns rookie Alex Mack had to take for missing a snap count or blocking assignment at training camp, it occurred to me how good head coach Eric Mangini has it. In an economy that seems to shed jobs by the dozens on a daily basis, Mangini was on the job market only a few days before being snatched up by owner Randy Lerner to be the latest resuscitator for a franchise that seems to perpetually have had the wind knocked out of it.

Getting another job so quickly was just the first stroke of good fortune for Mangini. Dumb luck or not, he was the beneficiary of a unique confluence of sudden opportunity and Cleveland paranoia, the latter of which suggests that when things go wrong the only answer is to do the exact opposite. It’s not that Romeo Crennel was a poor head coach; the team was done in by his lack of experience as a head coach. Uh huh.

The second and more significant stroke of good fortune is that he gets to take over a situation in which the road to improvement is paved with low expectations and so much low hanging fruit that the only person who probably couldn’t succeed at some level with such advantages was the aforementioned Crennel.

Consider just the circumstance that is getting the most ink from the strained-neck local media, the imposition of actual discipline at camp. Crennel embraced a far different perspective on pre-season preparation than does Mangini. Where Crennel felt it would keep his troops fresh later in the season to limit contact early on, Mangini essentially responds “hogwash.”

At about this point I could make a cheap joke about the inability of Crennel’s supposedly fresh team to score a touchdown in what seemed like 80% of its games last season, but it isn’t a joke that Crennel’s methodology was seriously flawed. Time will tell whether Mangini’s approach is better. We do know though that under Crennel, the Browns were in an endless loop of key player injured, surgery, staph infection. That doesn’t mean that Crennel’s method of easing off on the physical aspects of the game led to injuries or that the two things are even related.. It’s just that they appear to be.

But beyond just the shear number of injuries was the fact that the watermark of Crennel’s teams was their almost complete lack of preparation. Players constantly jumping offsides or getting motion penalties, players seemingly always in the wrong position or utilizing the wrong technique when in position, all were rampant under Crennel. Maybe more reps where players have to hit each other doesn’t get a player any more ready for being hit in games, but given the results of the previous regime a convincing argument can be made to the contrary.

It seems a little Dillon Pantherish to have grown men making hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars running laps for missing a snap count, but maybe it won’t seem so silly if the Browns stop being one of the least disciplined teams in the league and become one of the most. That in and of itself would have been good for a few more victories under Crennel and it likely will be under Mangini.

In other words, just getting the players to all run in the same direction is likely to make Mangini instantly look successful. That’s really low hanging fruit. The better question is, will he be able to build on that? Can Mangini find a way to get at the fruit actually ripening on the tree? That verdict won’t be known for some time but despite the low expectations for this season, there will be clues.

The Brady Quinn/Derek Anderson melodrama will result in a winner and loser but the decision Mangini makes and how he goes about making it will tell us something about his style and whether it will make him successful. Too often so-called training camp competitions turn into exercises in self-fulfillment. A coach already has a belief in which player is better and then rigs the so-called competition so that it’s more about confirming the coach’s initial instinct than it is about giving each player an equal opportunity.

Camp is still young by any measure but it does appear on the surface at least that Mangini is actually having Quinn and Anderson go head to head. The reps appear to be equal and, more importantly, each is getting a chance with different groupings. We’ll get a better view once the preseason games start on whether or not this is a fair fight but at this stage, at least, it’s a positive sign.

Similarly, free agent cornerback Rod Hood told the Plain Dealer’s Mary Kay Cabot on Tuesday that Mangini promised him that he could compete for a starting job and, to this point, Mangini has lived up to his word. That is critical for establishing a coach’s footing. In Denver, new head coach Josh McDaniels is off to a very rocky start not because he’s fighting the media over access but because he’s fighting some key players over credibility. Whatever the business, if the leader doesn’t have credibility, the business will fail.

The other aspect of Mangini’s early tenure that will be a marker for longer term success is the performance of the players he drafted. The Browns’ letterhead may say that George Kokinis is the general manager but at this juncture he’s only slightly more visible than Lerner. These are Mangini’s players.

Where former general manager Phil Savage really hurt this team was not necessarily in his first round drafts or even his free agent singings but in his mid to late round picks. There were simply far too many misses which left gaping holes that were filled by far too many undrafted free agents.

What’s particularly stunning about these missteps is that Savage had such a wide margin for error. The one thing the Browns haven’t had since their return is an overabundance of talent. It shouldn’t have been too hard for any decent draft pick to make this team. But with a hit rate so low, someone who didn’t know better might conclude that the team was simply too talented for a rookie to make. Unfortunately, the opposite was true and yet Savage could never find a way to bring any depth to this team.

A final attribute to be on the hunt for when it comes to Mangini and his prospects for long-term success will be his willingness to apply lessons learned. This is an acquired skill that most people naturally fight. For Mangini, this won’t be confined to adjustments within a game or from game to game. In a larger sense, his ultimate success will come down to his ability to understand why he failed in New York.

Mangini doesn’t reveal much about himself, at least to the media, so it’s hard to know if he’s an introspective sort. Maybe he’s already done a deep dive into his personal psyche over it and not simply rationalize it away as a mistake by Jets’ ownership. He has to own up to his role in it, whatever that might have been. Fans will know whether he does or not. The results will speak for themselves. New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick to this day isn’t exactly a media darling either but after solidly establishing himself as one of the game’s greatest coaches, it’s pretty clear that he learned from his failure in Cleveland.

Mangini doesn’t have to become the next Belichick. Cleveland fans are hardly that demanding. It will suffice if Mangini just understands why he failed in New York and finds a way to ensure that he doesn’t repeat those mistakes. Belichick learned from his Cleveland experience. Will Mangini learn from his time in New York? An affirmative answer to that may very well bring for Lerner the kind of stability he claims to covet for the team he reluctantly inherited.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Lingering Items--Tomorrow Never Comes Edition

When I was a kid, I used to buy my baseball cards at a store called Don’s Beverage. Don was a cranky but mostly patient sort with the kids in the neighborhood who’d redeem Coke bottles for 3 cents each in order to buy another pack of cards. Don used to have a sign over the candy section that read “Everything half off, tomorrow.” When you’re a grade schooler it takes you a few days to catch on to the ruse. Tomorrow never came.

That’s pretty much how I feel about the Indians at this point. It’s taken awhile to catch on, of course, but I attribute that more to the sophistication of Indians’ general manager Mark Shapiro and my continuing naiveté that the team was about winning for not realizing it until now, but the Indians aren’t about winning, they’re about staying afloat as if that is a goal to be lauded.

The trades of Cliff Lee and Victor Martinez and Ryan Garko and Rafael Betancourt and Mark DeRosa are only important if you think a professional baseball team should be about winning. When it finally does dawn on you that this is an organization that’s building for a tomorrow that never comes, those trades become far more irrelevant. Aside to the Dolans: as a sign of good faith and in recognition of these economic times, I hereby grant to you an unlimited, free and worldwide license to use the phrase “Building For a Tomorrow That Never Comes” as your new mission statement. Feel free to plaster on anything you want. Look for it next week on a t-shirt at an Indians gift shop near you.

Reading and listening to Shapiro’s explanation of his dumping of anything with a viable pulse made me seem positively prescient the other day when I predicted, nearly word for word, what he’d say, particularly about the Lee trade. Frankly, it’s not that I’m all that great at predictions; Shapiro is just that predictable.

Just as I wrote he would do Shapiro did claim that the value they received now for Lee is better than they could get next year as if there is any way to challenge him on that point. But, again, all that misses the larger point. In the words of Bill Murray’s Tripper Harrison in the semi-classic movie, Meatballs, it just doesn’t matter. Even if the skies parted, monkeys flew, the heavens rained gold coins, cats started playing with dogs and Bill Livingston began writing something interesting, whether or not the Indians trade an All Star or a Cy Young winner just doesn’t matter because all the best players will still end up with the rich teams in the league.

The Indians’ problem is baseball’s problem. If the league owners can’t see how these yearly salary dumps by teams with no real shot at winning are ruining the game for a large portion of their fan base, then they should be the next to go. Without fundamental economic change that gives every team a realistic chance to actually be competitive each and every year, baseball is a rock heading for its own windshield.

This isn’t to let Shapiro off the hook. He’s gone off his own little deep end, so convinced is he in his own abilities that he can’t even acknowledge the crumbling mess around him. He offers his earnest sounding rationales without any sense of irony or context. If he really made the trades because he doesn’t see the Indians as competitive next year either, then whose fault is that? He put this miserable team together and as far as I can tell is the architect for next year’s as well.

You can go up and down the current roster, last year’s roster or whatever projects to next year’s roster and it is literally riddled with either bad decisions made by Shapiro or risky decisions that just didn’t work out. However styled, there is absolutely nothing approaching certainty that any move Shapiro just made or will make will result in anything more than what passes for this team today.

Shapiro took a chance on offering Travis Hafner and Jake Westbrook long-term contracts and those didn’t work out. Their injuries aren’t his fault, certainly, but it underscores the precise point that nothing is nearly as predetermined as Shapiro would like the fans to believe including the ridiculous notion that this team is being built to compete 3-5 years out. Why wasn’t the team being built 3-5 years ago for this season? Because, say it with me, tomorrow never comes.

There is no reason to think that the decisions Shapiro is making now will translate into that mythical competitive team in 3-5 years. Shapiro’s track record isn’t that good. More to the point, though, there are just too many variables for anyone to successfully juggle. Injuries do happen. Players don’t develop in straight lines. Managers can’t manage.

Beyond all that, what’s galling is how Indians fans are constantly being sold a vision of a baseball team that’s like a start-up enterprise, selling its assets and hence its soul to venture capitalists on the if-come. The problem, though, is that the Indians have been around for 100 or so years and long ago should have escaped the clutches of that mentality.

But Shapiro has once again performed his magic act and, it seems the majority of fans are buying it. That doesn’t mean they’re happy with the trades or the state of the team, but as long as they are debating the merits of the latest round of Class A players acquired, Shapiro has won the battle for their hearts and minds. He knows that’s an argument that can’t be resolved but that does work to distract from the truth of the ugliness that’s enveloped this franchise and is working to undermine its very foundation.

Given the state of the Indians, the only other person that may be smiling at this point is Cleveland Browns owner Randy Lerner. As much of a mess that he’s made of his team, the Browns look positively well run in comparison to the Indians. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a sentence I thought I’d never write.


Speaking of the Browns, the fact that they have every one of their draft choices under contract before training camp really starts in earnest is a refreshing change from the previous regime. For reasons large and small, former general manager Phil Savage and cap master/lead negotiator Tripp McCraken never could master that most basic of tasks.

In life there are people that can get things done and there are people that watch others get things done. Under Savage, the Browns and their front office clearly fell in the latter category. It was always one thing or the other. The Browns couldn’t sign this draft pick or that because they were waiting for other draft choices on other teams to sign. Browns fans knew the drill and all it ended up resulting in is a team that was never fully prepared to enter into the season.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some semi-dark clouds rolling into the blue skies over Berea at the moment. Kick returner Josh Cribbs vows to not train but not play unless some serious inroads are made on a contract renegotiation. Kicker Phil Dawson isn’t happy with his contract situation and either are a few others. But at least they are all under contract. That in and of itself is a major upgrade.


Speaking of those semi-dark clouds, there also is the little issue of another season of As the Braylon Turns. Faithful reader Al Cook wrote me and asked about the ramifications of the Browns placing receiver Braylon Edwards on the reserved/non-football injury list. The short answer is, not much, but that’s just part of the story.

The non-football injury list isn’t like the injured reserve list. It serves as a parking area from which players can essentially be activated at any time. But because the injury is not related to football, the player doesn’t get paid. Thus, technically, Edwards is in an unpaid status, except for the fact that his contract really hasn’t called for any paychecks at the moment. Players get a stipend during training camp but their pay is pro-rated over the season. Placing Edwards on the non-football injury list was merely a way to tweak him, which at least this administration is willing to do.

Consider last season when Edwards hurt his ankle goofing off with Donte Stallworth after practice. A good case could have been made that the injury wasn’t football related because it wasn’t. Former head coach Romeo Crennel could have used it to smack Edwards back into reality by, too, placing him on the reserved/non-football injury list and would have gotten away with it long enough to make an impression on Edwards. He didn’t. It wouldn’t have made any difference financially but it would have at least told Edwards that the team was tired of his crap and perhaps that would have snapped him back into reality. As it was, Edwards had an Indians-like season instead.

But the rest of the story is that camp has now started and Edwards isn’t participating and no one knows exactly why. Fans sometime scoff at the media’s bitching about Mangini and his near abject refusal to say anything substantive about any aspect of the team’s operations, including what flavor Gatorade is in the cooler, but the mystery surrounding Edwards only underscores why Mangini, and hence Lerner, owe a larger duty to the fans.

Given the untested nature of the receiving corps, Edwards is being counted on, for among other things, leadership. Why exactly is a good question, but one I’ll defer for now. Instead just focus on the fact that Edwards is injured and fans don’t even know when he did it let alone how or what body part is involved. Mangini may see this as giving him a competitive advantage but it is at the expense of a fan base the team needs to bring closer not push away. Given Edwards’ supposedly minor ankle problem last year, these actually are meaningful questions that Mangini should answer but won’t.

This isn’t about making the jobs of Tony Grossi or Marla Ridenour any easier. It’s about rebuilding the basic trust that’s been lost over the years. Sadly, on that score, the Browns are now closer than the Indians. When does Cavs season start?


Given all that’s taken place with the Indians lately, this week’s question to ponder is simple: How did it feel the very moment when you realized that Cleveland no longer had a major league baseball franchise?