Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Lingering Items--Striking Out Edition

The Cleveland Indians may be in extreme cost-cutting mode, which is about the only explanation out there for how they found a doctor to medically clear Russell Branyan. Perhaps their medical staff is made up of equal parts Dr. Vinnie Boombatz, Dr. Bombay and Dr. Demento.

Branyan has yet to sniff an at bat in the preseason as he supposedly rehabilitates the bad back that kept him out of the last month of the season. With almost no competition for his services given both his incredibly mediocre major league career and his physical condition, the Indians got medical clearance and couldn’t wait to throw $2 million of its shrinking revenue pool at him. Now Branyan looks destined to start the season on injured reserve.

To which I can only say, really? It’s exactly this kinds of bizarre moves that gets fans so frustrated with general manager Mark Shapiro. There is nothing about Branyan’s history that suggests the Indians should have signed him even if he was completely healthy. He’s a hack in the field and a hack at the plate. He can occasionally hit the long ball but all the stuff he does in between those pokes isn’t worth the effort.

But Branyan isn’t healthy, which makes this signing even worse. Supposedly Branyan is at least participating in some spring training activities but the fear is that Branyan’s back won’t physically let him swing and miss too often against actual pitching. Here’s the thing, I think Branyan would strike out just as often if he was hitting off a tee. He doesn’t need 50 spring training at bats to polish his batting eye, he needs a new set of eyes.

Branyan claims he really only needs a week of spring training to get ready for the season and for once I can’t disagree. Branyan has been kicking around professional baseball since the mid 1990s. In that time he’s shown remarkable consistency in his ability to strike out, whether it’s against the American League, the National League or the minor leagues. That’s not a skill that takes much practice to master. You could literally pull a man off the street, give him a uniform and a week of practice, and accomplish the same thing. And I’m guess that would have cost Shapiro far less than $2 million.

At some point, which means when Branyan actually goes on the disabled list, Shapiro will switch into “it was worth the gamble” mode when it comes to justifying the Branyan signing. As Branyan’s back persistently refuses to respond favorably to rehabilitation Shapiro will then switch to “this now gives us a chance to look at the prospects” mode.

Meanwhile as the season turns from one fitful month to the next and Shapiro starts entertaining offers for any assets left of value, we can then begin to calculate the real impact of this little $2 million mistakes. As they like to say in government, $2 million here, $2 million there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.


The National Football league has changed its overtime rules for playoff games to hopefully lessen the impact that winning the coin flip can have on the outcome of the game and this is hailed as progress.

For professional sports’ most tightly wound league, I guess it is.

Now, if the team that wins the coin flip kicks a field goal, the opposing team gets a chance. If that team kicks a field goal then play continues. If that team scores a touchdown or fails to score at all, the game is over.

As innovations go it’s a step in the right direction. The NFL has been reluctant to embrace the college overtime rules because how long it can extend a game and hence increase the chance of injury. That’s fine. But what isn’t quite fine are the reasons the NFL has given for not putting its new overtime rule in effect for the regular season.

The first reason is that the outcome of a playoff game is far more important than a single regular season game. That’s not completely true. Teams miss the playoffs by a single game every year and it’s not hard to imagine a 9-7 record being 10-6 but for the want of a chance in overtime. This is even more true in the last few weeks of the season when there are few if any games remaining to overcome that loss.

Moreover, the sheer number of opportunities for overtime games in the regular season vs. the playoffs strongly suggests that keeping the current overtime rules for the regular season will have a far greater chance of negatively impacting the playoffs than keeping the old rules in effect for the playoffs have had.

And while all that’s a fine debate, it’s not the primary reason the NFL isn’t implementing the new rule for the regular season anyway It all has to do with the length of games and the impact on the networks’ schedules.

Everything about the NFL is regimented, from how much of a sock must show on a player’s leg to the starting and finishing times of games. When a 1 p.m. game runs long because of overtime, it bleeds into the 4 p.m. game. When the 4 p.m. game runs long, it bleeds into the network’s prime time lineup and when a Sunday or Monday night game runs long it bleeds into a network executive’s sleep time.

I’m not one of those who will rail against the influence of the networks when it comes to sports because, frankly, without them most people wouldn’t get to see any sports. They bring the games to the masses and pay hundreds of millions each year to do just that. So if their needs can be accommodated, they should.

Where I think the line gets drawn, though, is when the networks’ influence goes from accommodation to actually impacting the outcome of a particular game. The networks invest a lot of money into their primetime lineups but preserving them by enhancing the predictability of when regular season games end is a step in the wrong direction.

The NFL’s overtime rules have never been particularly fair in the first place but they were equally unfair to all teams and that’s a paradigm relatively acceptable. But as the NFL tinkers with the unfairness, it should address it not just for certain games but for all games. It’s as if major league baseball were to suddenly decide that regular season ties after, say 10 innings, are decided by rock/paper/scissors, best two out of three, while post season ties are decided by as many extra innings as it takes to get a winner on the field.


The Plain Dealer’s Tony Grossi recent article about Holmgren and his philosophy for drafting quarterbacks was interesting both for its candor and it’s message.

As things stand now, according to Holmgren the Browns don’t intend to try and get one of the nameplate quarterbacks early in the draft. That may be a reflection of the Browns’ gaping needs at every position or a reflection of the relative quality of those nameplates such as Sam Bradford and Jimmy Clausen. It’s probably a little of both. And wasn’t it refreshing to hear Holmgren admit on the record that he doesn’t much like Clausen?

Certainly the Browns could course correct and head coach Eric Mangini alluded to as much in his recent comments about how the Browns plan to use all the draft choices they’ve collected like Beanie Babies. But I doubt it, based on Holmgren’s history.

Holmgren has an excellent perspective on drafting players, particularly quarterbacks: keep replenishing the stock. If one doesn’t work out, cut the ties and move on to the next.

Most of the time NFL teams spend years trying to paper over their draft mistakes instead of making the hard decisions early on. Drafting is an inexact science, at best, so it’s not a surprise that it goes awry occasionally (or in the Browns’ case, often). Holmgren’s approach appears to be to treat them as lessons learned and move on.

But Holmgren’s approach, as noted, also is not to pick quarterbacks in early rounds possibly to avoid exactly that trap of trying for years to pound a square peg into a round hole in order to justify the initial drafting decision of a player that doesn’t work out. Think Brady Quinn.

I wonder, though, how this approach really plays out in reality. According to the Grossi story, Holmgren has basically drafted 10 quarterbacks in his years in both Green Bay and Seattle and of those 10 only 3 have been relatively long-term starters: Ty Detmer, Mark Brunell and Matt Hasselback.

On the surface, it’s not a very good percentage and belies, to a certain extent, Holmgren’s reputation with quarterbacks. There are various factors you could attribute to the success rate including, as Holmgren notes, the relative late picks he had when he was in Green Bay.

But the other factor simply is the fact that Holmgren doesn’t seem to like to spend 1st or 2nd round draft picks on quarterbacks. That alone will decrease the chances of success. It’s bound to.

In some ways it’s similar to Ernie Accorsi’s philosophy in Cleveland (and probably elsewhere) when it came to drafting linemen. He felt NFL linemen were made not drafted and thus anything other than a late round pick or an undrafted free agent was all it was worth spending on them.

Eventually that came back to haunt the Browns, just ask Bernie Kosar.

The problem sometimes with successfully converting a late round pick into a valuable skill player (Hasselback was a 6th round pick) is that you begin to think you can replicate it again and again.

The Browns’ quarterback situation may not be on life support but the patient isn’t doing too well either. Jake Delhomme is a question mark and Seneca Wallace isn’t exactly an established star. If Holmgren’s goals with this team are realized, meaning it’s successful, then this may be one of the last chances for the Browns to parlay a relatively good draft status and a bevy of picks into a frontline quarterback. I’d hate to think that instead of taking advantage of it the Browns begin a decade long pursuit of picking a bunch of Spergon Wynns in the hopes of finding the next Matt Hasselback. We’ll see.


You can start with Butch Davis, travel through Phil Savage and end with Eric Mangini and still have only part of the reason why Browns’ owner Randy Lerner finally determined that he needed a serious, credible leader for his franchise.

The rest of the picture is the money. What these various folks brought to Lerner’s franchise didn’t just raise the ire of the average fan who sits at home watching one torturous decision and game after another it raised the ire of those who Lerner really counts on to fund his lifestyle: season ticket holders.

It’s no secret that once the novelty of the Browns return wore off and the reality of massive mismanagement blossomed like dandelions on a spring lawn revenues started going in the wrong direction. Corporations stopped renewing loges, season ticket holders dwindled.

Mangini didn’t do Lerner any favors last season as he seemed to openly work in ways to alienate the fans that remained. Lerner didn’t do himself any favors either as he stayed in the background and remained silent while Berea burned.

Proving that irrespective of your economic status money still talks, Lerner behind the scenes had to see what was taking place and was forced to act. It was time to bring in real grownups to run the franchise. Hence the hiring of Holmgren.

While Holmgren’s hiring was a huge step in the right direction, it didn’t fix everything overnight. Now comes the hard part of wooing back the alienated in order to get the revenue item of the budget back in line. As a first step, the Browns have quietly been trying to re-engage former season ticket holders by offering them a chance to get back into the tent without paying a for a new personal seat license so long as they jumped ship within the last 3 years.

The way to think about this is to think of season ticket holders like disenfranchised members of a country club. Having once paid the initiation fee in the form of a PSL only to find the experience miserable and not worth the money, the likelihood of them returning for more punishment is greatly diminished particularly if they have to endure the indignity of once again paying an initiation fee in the form of another PSL. Waiving the initiation fee or, in this case, the PSL, might get a few back though.

I suspect that the Browns may be able mildly successful with this move but I also suspect that before it’s wildly successful the Browns are going to have to show some tangible and sustainable improvements on the field.

So far this offseason it’s mostly been confusion, but at least it’s the good kind of confusion. Still, having been burned with one of life’s all time worst investments, does any season ticket holder or loge owner suddenly freed of paying for games they aren’t likely to attend ready to immediately jump back in? Probably not. Good try, though.


The Browns’ signing of free agent linebacker Scott Fujita may not have moved the needle all that much in the fans’ eyes, but here’s a reason to like Fujita: brutal honesty.

Fujita is an executive committee member of the players’ union. Talking with the USA Today about the possibility of the owners locking out the players in 2011, Fujita said, among other things: “Why would you want to lock us out and ruin what is such a good thing right now? When 40 to 50 million people are turning in to watch the NFL draft? It’s one of the most boring things on television. So why mess that up with a lockout?”

Good point. But for clarification’s sake, it’s not the most boring thing on television or even the most boring thing the NFL does. That would any preseason game.


Since I’ve given short shrift to the Cavs in this column, here’s a question to ponder: When Zydrunas Ilgauskas decided not to sign with the Cavs for next season as well, do you think he knows something we don’t about who might

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