Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Rebranding the Browns

One of the truly great things about a desperate city is how it latches on to any good news. The Cleveland Browns won a game they weren’t favored to win and all of the sudden the fans in this town, so needy to believe in just one of their sports teams, quickly forgets the three games that preceded it.

All this is quite fine, actually. This town needs good news. It needs a team to believe in. The Indians on Sunday closed out another 90+ loss season without much hope for marked improvement next year. The Cavaliers have their first preseason game this week with a new head coach, a new general manager and a team full of George Harrisons and Ringo Starrs. The Browns are their best hope.

The Browns’ victory on Sunday was an outcome that wasn’t so much a sum of its parts as a turn of fate that finally went their way. Carson Palmer shredded the defense all day with a steady diet of Terrell Owens and yet couldn’t quite score enough touchdowns to pull out a victory. It’s about time that happened to someone else.

The Browns couldn’t much move the ball in fourth quarter and looked to be heading toward their fourth straight game without a fourth quarter first down until their running attack more or less took over. It literally clinched a game that was seriously in doubt. If it all seemed unexpected it’s only because the expected results in Cleveland usually have the fans crying in their coffee on Monday mornings.

The victory doesn’t necessarily make a talent-deprived team more talented. The victory didn’t come because the Browns finally eliminated mistakes. They still commit way too many penalties. The victory came because the Browns have begun to take on an identity that may finally get this fan base out of living in the mid 1980s.

Meet Peyton Hillis.

It’s not really clear why the Denver Broncos seemed so willing to part with Hillis. All he does is run the ball and play the game with the same passion that Chris Spielman played linebacker for so many years in the NFL. There’s no task too small to take on, no yard to unimportant to dig for. Hillis has the attitude that every coach wishes he could bottle.

It’s not as if any of that is really new. Hillis had that same reputation in college and even with the Broncos. It’s a trade Denver will come to regret if they don’t already.

What makes Hillis such a great story is that he’s not the most talented player in the game. That puts him in good company because it’s been several generations since the Browns were the most talented team in the league. He’s exactly the kind of player a town like this embraces and is the perfect complement, really, to someone like Josh Cribbs—overachievers in a town that’s usually counted out.

Hillis was a 7th round pick out of Arkansas. Cribbs was an undrafted free agent. When you enter the league in either of those slots, no one gives you much of a chance to carve out a career.

But Cribbs has an X factor that makes him so valuable—passion. It pushes him to work harder than the next guy so that he can get the most out of his somewhat limited talents. Hillis has that same X factor. He’s a few years behind Cribbs but it seemed apparent from his first carry in the preseason that this guy is a keeper and for all the same reasons as Cribbs.

The knock on Hillis out of Denver was that he couldn’t hold on to the ball. Hillis demonstrated some of that in preseason. That was the same knock on Mike Pruitt early in his career and that turned out pretty well.

Part of the reason Hillis, like Pruitt early in his career, fumbles has to do with the fact that he simply refuses to go down with the first hit. It almost always takes more than one defender to bring him down. As those several defenders congregate to stop the onrushing train, at least one of them also is trying to strip away the ball. Fumbles can happen.

But Hillis seems to have adjusted. He carries the ball with two hands and given his obvious physical strength, that’s going to make it a lot harder on other teams to pry the ball loose.

Terry Pluto, in his Plain Dealer column on Tuesday, took note of Hillis and other overachievers on this team, players like Matt Roth and Evan Moore. They were similarly discarded by their prior teams and watching them play makes you at least realize that it’s not just the Browns’ personnel office that can’t tell an apple from an orange.

Focusing on these overachievers is the right approach for this team for the next few years. It will take more than just one or two drafts to significantly upgrade the talent. In the meantime, for this team to be successful it will need to wring out as much as it can from players like Hillis, Cribbs, Roth and Moore.

At this point, Hillis and Cribbs make a nice duo when it comes to rebranding this football team. You don’t need superstars at many positions, though a few would be nice. The formula Bill Belichick has followed in New England is to surround a couple of real stars with passionate complementary players to do the dirty work that needs to get done in order to win games.

What this team doesn’t need is to have these rebranding efforts derailed through other means. At the same time that Hillis was cementing his reputation on Sunday, safety T.J. Ward was establishing his and it is not nearly as flattering. Ward, already carrying the reputation as a hard hitter, felt it necessary to reinforce the point with a late helmet-to-helmet charge into Bengals’ receiver Jordan Shipley that will probably sideline Shipley for a game or two. It could have been worse.

Head coach Eric Mangini strongly defended Ward, as you’d expect, but the hit Ward put on Shipley isn’t really defensible. Ward will be fined, as he should be, and he’ll be on heightened scrutiny by NFL officials for the rest of the season if not the rest of his career.

It isn’t going to help the Browns much to have a reputation as a safe haven for cheap hitters and while Ward is far from that at this point, he’s now got an uphill battle in proving that isn’t the care. Some fans may like it but it’s not a sustainable business model. So much of the Bengals’ shortcomings start and end with a roster full of low character players. It has an impact.

What is going to help the Browns, in the eyes of the vast majority of fans and in the standings, is to have a reputation of being a place that values and nurtures overachievers.

Not much has gone right in Mangini’s short tenure with the Browns and much of that is for self-inflicted reasons. But Mangini should be credited with grabbing both Roth and Moore and for giving Hillis and Cribbs as many opportunities as he can to make plays. And if Mangini can continue down that path, with major assistance from general manager Tom Heckert, job security won’t be an issue. A vastly improving won-loss record that follows will take care of that.

1 comment:

M. said...

Ah, the power of dreams. You're happy, Im happy. Hasta la vista, baby---I'll see you in my dreams. M.