Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Very Thin Herd

There’s no need for the fans to bury the Cleveland Indians before the season starts. Its management already has done the job for them.

With the announcement on Monday of the opening day roster, team president Mark Shapiro and general manager Chris Antonetti have all but scrawled it across the sky that this isn’t going to be a year where fans ought to be thinking playoffs come next fall.

But it’s not like the fans had unreasonably outsized expectations of this team anyway.
In Cleveland, the fans always seem to get the team they expected. No one is much to used to pleasant surprises in these parts. Surprises, to the extent they come at all, are generally bad ones.

It’s possible, of course, that the Indians can tick off more wins than a season ago and hence point to “progress” as the theme of its “Year in Review” retrospective come next October. But a few wins either way aren’t going to be the best way to judge the progress of this franchise anyway. No, that will come when there is no longer a need to field a team fresh out of spring training with players whose resumes as thin as the ones on this team.

Let’s start with one of the more startling revelations. When the roster was announced on Monday it had 4, count ‘em, 4 non-roster invitees making the big league club. That was the first red flag. That was followed closely by another group of players that aren’t quite in the same category, but that’s only a function of the labels we choose to place on them. And that’s all before we get to the prospects on this team, players short on major league experience but counted on to lead this team in the years ahead.

In the final analysis, this Indians roster is one of the most loosely constructed and shaky rosters in the major leagues. It may not be the worst, but neither is it competitive with the upper tiers.

Spring training non-roster invitees generally are of two varieties: prospects with their hands on the bottom wrung but reaching upward, brought in for some experience and big league coaching during spring training and aging veterans hanging on to the bottom rung for dear life and on their way out. In other words, putting the latter group into the same category as the former is a mere technicality because they both occupy the same space at a given moment. The latter category, though, is really just one of those great tags that general managers like to use to place on the players who essentially walked on to the team.

An occasional walk-on making a big league club can happen to any team, particularly those clubs looking to field a team on the cheap like the Indians. But if 4 making a team is not unprecedented, then at the very least it’s unusual.

Call it the confluence of a small budget and the inability to develop your own players as the reason that the Indians have devoted nearly 20% of its opening day roster to guys that were one step into forced retirement before the Indians came begging.

As Terry Pluto detailed last week in the Plain Dealer (and as mentioned in my last column), the Indians have been awful at drafting, so bad that they have but one player on their opening day roster this year from the 2004-07 draft classes. In large part, that explains why holes are getting filled in with walk ons. There is nobody else.

Not included in this group of walk ons are at least two players, Chad Durbin and Orlando Cabrera, who for the most part fall into this same category, if not by label then by age. You cold also lump in Austin Kearnes in this category as well and it wouldn’t be unfair.

All three will probably help out the Indians but then that seems so much related to the simple fact that the roster is so thin in the first place. It’s not as if the Indians were competing with any of the league’s contenders for their services.

Then there two more relievers, Frank Hermann and Vinnie Pestano, who, because of the thinness of their resumes and lack of accomplishments at the major league level, sport the same kind of split contracts as non-roster invitees. Whether either is able to make it at the major league level for a sustained period of time is unknown but the odds aren’t in their favor at the moment.

To put the Indians’ roster in a bit more perspective, of the five actual infielders to make the club (Travis Hafner is listed on the roster as an infielder in the same way that Britney Spears is listed on her albums as a singer), two—Jack Hannahan and Adam Everett—are walk ons and one, Orlando Cabrera, is basically just that. Similarly, 4 of the 7 relievers are of a similar status, Justin Germano, Durbin, Hermann and Pestano.

It’s not so much that any of this should set off alarm bells because, well, the expectations on this club are so slight. But it does illustrate exactly why those expectations are where they need to be and why progress for this franchise won’t be measured in wins but in the ability to eliminate these kinds of players for consideration from your roster in the future.

But there is some positive news on the roster. At least 20% of it is filled with players that Shapiro obtained via the trades of Cliff Lee, CC Sabathia and Victor Martinez.

In the Lee trade, Carlos Carrasco and Lou Marson will be in the dugout at Progressive Field on opening day. Jason Donald starts the season on the disabled list.

From the trade of Sabathia, both Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley are on the 25-man roster. From the Martinez trade, Justin Masterson is on the opening day roster.
While that in some sense offsets the holes on the roster created by poor drafting, of that entire group the only one anyone is getting particularly excited about at the moment is Carrasco and then just barely.

That doesn’t mean some of the others won’t develop, they can and should. There is still plenty of time for LaPorta and Brantley in particular. But Marson is a light hitting back up who doesn’t appear to have a future as a starter and Masterson is merely serviceable, though there is still time for both of them as well.

What this says is that when the Indians’ management had talent to trade it showed that it was a little better at making trades than in drafting young players. Unfortunately, if you had to be good at one or the other you’d probably want it to be the other way around, particularly for a team like the Indians.

The Indians under the ownership of the Dolans and the leadership of Shapiro have turned this franchise into one that will never buy its way into competitiveness but instead will get there, if ever, by being savvy in the draft, shrewd with the trades, and precise with its free agent dollars.

To this point, that formula hasn’t worked all that well with the current roster, the last really for which you could fully make Shapiro responsible, being the best evidence of it. Antonetti, the protégé turned dealmaker, has a huge task ahead of him to turn this around. It won’t come if all he’s doing is listening to the man that got the team into this predicament in the first place.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Lingering Items--Meaningless Edition

It seems that the rich really are different than the rest of us.

When life gives them lemons instead of roses they don’t make lemonade. They sue. Everybody. Such is the case with Ken Lanci, a self-described self-made millionaire with an abiding need to be loved or at least noticed.

Maybe you read the story, certainly Lanci hopes you did. You see Lanci, the holder of 10 personal seat licenses at Cleveland Browns Stadium (which alone is cause to commit him against his will), filed a lawsuit against the Cleveland Browns and the entire NFL because he believes their labor troubles will deprive him of what he bargained for, mainly to have games to watch.

There's a principle in the law called “laches” which means, essentially, that a person has sat on his legal rights so long, it's unfair to sue the supposedly offending party. That seems an appropriate way as any to dismiss Lanci's looney lawsuit. In the entire time Lanci has owned his PSLs the Browns have barely if at all filled their bargain to him and every other fan. If anything, it was a lawsuit he should have filed years ago.

Sure, games have been played at the Stadium, but that’s a mere technicality. The Browns haven’t given their fans anything more than a few brief moments of competitiveness in over a decade. If Lanci is worried that he won’t have NFL football to watch at the Stadium come the fall, I’d argue that he hasn’t had NFL football to watch the 10 previous falls, either.

So why now? Why indeed and why do you think?

Lanci's an opportunist with an acute need to be noticed who apparently isn't getting enough love from his family. So he decided to essentially light a few dollars on fire by paying a local lawyer who apparently has no other clients to file a ridiculous lawsuit designed not to advance a valid claim but only to bring attention to Lanci as some sort of champion of the little guy. If Lanci is trying to position himself as the voice and face of the fan, it may be time for the rest of us to switch sports.

Let me be crystal clear, though, about this point: Lanci’s lawsuit doesn’t have a chance of succeeding on any plausible legal theory whatsoever and it wouldn’t surprise me if in the process of it being tossed out the lawyers involved aren’t subject to sanctions. They should be.

Lanci bought his PSLs subject to the conditions under which the NFL operates. One of those conditions is that both the players and the owners have certain rights and obligations under the National Labor Relations Act. That the exercise of these rights could result in a strike or a lockout is hardly a novel concept or even unexpected.

But of course that's just stating the obvious which is what the local judge burdened with this dreck will quickly conclude well before Lanci and the inevitable local television station camera crew can get past security at the Justice Center downtown.

If Lanci is just a frustrated fan with a few extra dollars, that’s one thing. But his money would have been better spent on the charity of his choice rather than on the hack lawyers he hired to advance his ego. But of course where’s the publicity value in quietly donating to charity? By being loud and outrageous, Lanci gets his 15 minutes of fame, proving once again that it doesn't matter what they say about you as long as they spell your name right.


There was a column earlier this week by the Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto who detailed exactly why the Indians are a failing franchise. As Pluto rightly noted, the sorry state of this team at the moment isn’t so much due less to its place among other small market clubs than it is to the simple fact that it's been poorly run for years.

As Pluto noted, the Indians have pitched nearly a shutout in viable draft prospects from the years 2004-07, with pitcher Josh Tomlin, a 19th round pick, the only potential player to make the Indians this year that was drafted during those years.

The mystery in all this is not just how team president and former team general manager Mark Shapiro has managed to keep his job with that kind of track record. It’s also in how Chris Antonetti gets promoted to general manager with this same kind of track record.

To put this in perspective, the Browns have had 3 different general managers and 3 different head coaches since 2004 in large measure due to an incredibly poor track record in the draft. Bad decisions in the draft and bad decision in the free agent market have doomed this franchise in every way imaginable.

Indeed the fans are so conditioned to the team’s status as a league doormat that they’ve taken to celebrating the smallest of accomplishments as a way of charting any sort of progress. It's why there was a mini-backlash over the firing of Eric Mangini.

As for the Indians, the fans understand that the Indians are in sad shape but Shapiro first and now Antonetti have done a somewhat masterful job of placing the blame on economics—the league’s and the city’s. It's why no one much cares that the Indians hired Manny Acta as their manager. They know it doesn't matter.

While the sell job from Shapiro has worked in terms of deflecting blame for the underlying problems, it hasn’t helped the gate. Wins still matter. The Indians are no longer much of a draw because in a sport where there are 81 homes games, no one much sees a need to see more than one or two a year when they know that there is maybe a 42% chance of seeing a win.

Arguably, though, the Indians’ situation is far worse than the Browns, which is what is far scarier to contemplate. Assuming the NFL and its players solve their problems, there will be a salary cap of some sort in place and by design it puts teams on equal footing. Players can bid up their services, but there is no New York Yankees in the NFL, a team that can consistently overpay in order to get the best talent. The difference maker is talent evaluation and if the Browns suddenly get good at it, the results will show up sooner rather than later.

The Indians, on the other hand, play in a league where the financial deck is stacked in favor of a handful of teams and the rest of the owners don't seem to much care. The Yankees don’t worry about the draft because they can buy their way to competitiveness each and every season. For teams like the Indians, they only real chance they have (and it isn’t much of one) is to consistently make good choices in the draft and hope that the talent develops. And because talent develops slowly and unevenly, it can take years to show results at the major league level.

And perhaps the most sobering thought of all is that while the Browns at least continue to try and find a system that works, all the Indians have done is go about promoting those most responsible for the mess thus assuring that the systemic problems that exist have little chance of ever getting better.

But sure, let's blame the economy.


This is the place in one of these columns where I’d try to find some sort of Cavs item to offer but the Groundhog Day nature of their season and their situation means that pretty much everything that can be said about them has been said.

Ok, not everything. The Cavaliers beat the Detroit Pistons on Friday night and thereby closed the gap to three games between themselves and the Washington Wizards and the Minnesota Timberwolves for the league's worst record.

What the Cavs need most right now are the most ping pong balls in the NBA's draft lottery. This may be a somewhat down year for college talent, but one truism in the NBA draft each and every year is that the drop off between having the first pick and even the fifth pick is usually dramatic. The Cavs simply can't afford to lessen their chances at the top pick by winning meaningless games this late in the season.

I'm not advocating that the Cavs lose purposely because, heck, they don't need that kind of push. But with a mere handful of games left in the regular season, it would be nice if teams like the Detroit Pistons took the end of the season with a little more pride than they did Friday night by laying down for the Cavs.

If the Cavs do blow this golden opportunity for the first pick, and statistically that would be difficult but not impossible, there is at least one positive. They will have increased the likelihood of getting the most amount of ping pong balls in next year's draft as well.

With opening day in baseball a mere week away, this week's question to ponder: how many players on the Indians' opening day roster will be on it when the season ends?

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lingering Items--Clueless Edition

It’s hard to know exactly what to call the NFL “situation” at the moment. The players and their union walked away from the bargaining table last Friday at 4 p.m. so that their lawyers could decertify the NFLPA as a union and then a handful of players could turn around and sue their employers for anti-trust violations. On the heels of those activities came the NFL owners’ move to then lock them out, although since there is no union it’s really unclear what a lockout could actually mean in practical terms.

Nonetheless, this hasn’t and won’t stop the inevitable public relations war over the hearts and minds of the fans, as if swaying the fans one way or the other will help determine the outcome of this dispute.

To the owners’ credit, they aren’t much acting like the fans view of this matters all that much. In that they’re just being honest. To the owners, this is a high stakes game that will in large part determine the value of the multi-million dollar investment they call a football franchise. Sure the revenues getting split up are provided directly and indirectly by the fans, but they know that alienating the customer base in an industry like this isn’t all that relevant of a concern. The fans will return when football resumes. They always do.

The players, on the other hand, seem to think that influencing fans will make a difference. If you’re a fan of Twitter and have any inclination whatsoever to follow the literally hundreds of pro football players with Twitter accounts, you’ll see an amazing consistency in their recent messages: “fans, we feel your pain.”

There is almost no scenario where the players will ever feel the fans’ pain. The disconnect between those who play our professional sports and the people that watch them has never been greater than it is now. It’s not just the money players make, though that’s a big part of it. It’s also the way players conduct their lives. Everything about what most of them do away from the field is designed to keep the barrier between them and the public impenetrable.

But to further the myth anyway, there was Drew Brees, a nice guy, a good quarterback but a clueless businessman, taking an unfortunate and ill-informed shot at the owners’ last offer. He claimed it was all for show, whatever that means.

In truth, the owners presented a very comprehensive, very serious offer to the players. Maybe it wasn’t acceptable because it still involved givebacks on revenues, but to essentially call it meaningless isn’t helpful, particularly when the union hasn’t yet produced for public consumption any of the proposals they’ve made.

There’s actually a reason for this. The union hasn’t made a single serious proposal throughout the negotiations. All they’ve done is respond to what the owners have proposed with a loud and resounding “no” each and every time. They’ve shown little interest in solving the problems presented but great interest in sounding like they are being abused in the process.

What’s really stopping these two sides from solving their problems is that they can’t even agree there’s a problem to solve. The players only want the gravy train to continue unabated. The owners, who actually are the businessmen in the room, see a future where the train has a little less gravy. Until the union accepts the fact that the owners believe there is a problem to solve, the standoff will continue and no amount of quips or tweets or ill-informed opinions by players like Brees is going to change that.

It may be that the owners were spoiling for a lockout all along. But the way the union negotiated with them, it’s pretty clear that they also got what they wanted, a chance to litigate in what is surely a dead-end strategy.


There was a letter to the editor in Wednesday’s Akron Beacon Journal that essentially called Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel the “shame of Ohio.” Well, if his misdeeds are the worst shame visited upon Ohio, then we’re in pretty good shape. But I’ve taken a look at the budget deficit in Ohio and the proposed method of solving it and I’m pretty sure that’s not the case.

On the day that letter appeared also came the story that the Indiana Department of Labor had concluded their investigation into the death of Notre Dame student Declan Sullivan, who was sent atop a hydraulic lift in winds gusting up to 60 miles per hour last October by Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly to film practice, only to have that lift tumble over and crush him.

The Indiana Department of Labor concluded that “the evidence overwhelming demonstrated that the university made a decision to utilize its scissor lifts in known adverse weather conditions.” For that Notre Dame was given a “knowing” citation and fined a mere $77,500, or about $172,500 less than Ohio State fined Tressel for not being forthcoming about a couple of emails.

What’s most telling about the Notre Dame situation is that this knowing violation didn’t just occur on Kelly’s watch, it occurred with his direct involvement. Kelly knew the weather was bad. Kelly allowed the student to ascend on that lift anyway and Kelly didn’t order him back down, despite the worsening weather.

In fact, the weather that particular day last October was severe over a very wide swath, including Columbus, Ohio. Tressel, the so-called shame of Ohio, confronted that same situation on that same day. Responding generally to a question about the severe weather (and before anyone knew of Sullivan’s death) Tressel told the media that he purposely didn’t ask his student videographers to use the hydraulic lift that day because it was far too windy. Indeed, he talked about how he worried about their safety. Shameful, I know.

Declan Sullivan lost his life because Kelly didn’t harbor those same concerns. And for that, no one, but no one, is calling for Kelly’s dismissal or calling him the shame of Indiana or South Bend or even just Notre Dame.

The point, I think, is not so much that Kelly is a bad guy because he isn’t. He’s a decent and honorable man, like Tressel. But the consequence of his inaction on that day cost a student his life. The consequence of Tressel’s inaction, at best, was the delay in an investigation over whether a couple of star players traded body art for pieces of memorabilia that they owned.

See, this is what happens when we knee-jerk our reactions to situations that are more complicated than can fit into the scroll at the bottom of ESPN. Perspective is lost and easy answers are demanded. But the easy answers aren’t always the right answers. I’m not suggesting that Notre Dame should fire Kelly but if there’s a coach that should be, he sure would be a more viable candidate than Tressel.


Speaking of items in the local newspaper, you had to really admire Cleveland Cavaliers head coach Byron Scott’s public trashing of his team following practice on Tuesday. Essentially Scott questioned their commitment and their heart. The story didn’t get much play because Scott has been saying the same things all season.

The fascinating angle to all of this is not Scott’s candor but the fact that Scott sees nothing wrong with essentially admitting that his players have all but tuned him out.

Generally speaking when the players stop listening to the coach it’s time to fire the coach. It’s a little too early in Scott’s tenure to run down that rabbit hole, but it’s not too early to suggest that the problem lies more with Scott than the ragged group of players that the Cavs currently have on the roster.

Scott’s right that professional basketball players need to take their jobs seriously. They need to come to work every day prepared to give their best efforts and they need to approach each game with a winner’s attitude. But if the players on this team are lacking any of those qualities at the moment it’s not because they never had them. It’s because they see the situation as hopeless.

Part of that is the lousy roster. Part of that is the lousy coach.

Scott can continue to try and berate his charges into compliance but there’s no reason to think that saying these same things in the same way is going to have any different effect. Getting better players will help, but even then questions about Scott’s own leadership need to be answered.

I know that fans like a passionate coach, someone willing to get in the face of a player and tell him when he’s screwing up. Fans like that because they see that in the movies and it seems to work when someone is writing the script.

But truthfully it doesn’t work any better on the basketball court then it does in any other workplace. Employees don’t appreciate being berated in private let alone in public. It has everything to do with knowing that the coach doesn’t have their backs. Say what you will about former Indians manager Eric Wedge or former Browns head coaches Romeo Crennel or Eric Mangini, but one thing none of them ever did was call out a player or the team like that publicly. Not once.

This is a lesson that Scott hasn’t yet learned, despite all his travels. Indeed, maybe that’s why he’s had so many travels in the first place and why Cleveland will likely just be another quick stop on his long journey to nowhere.


With the NCAA tournament starting this week, does it make you nervous, karma-wise, that LeBron James picked Ohio State to win the national championship?

Saturday, March 12, 2011

NFL Labor Wars: A Primer

Good luck trying to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the NFL and its labor problems with the trade association formerly known as the NFL Players Association. But there is one fact that no one is much focusing on but is perhaps the most crucial for even the casual fan to understand: no matter how much litigation is pursued by the players it will not and cannot result in a new labor contract between the parties.

The best that a court, the NLRB or even some neutral mediator or arbitrator can do is tell the parties to work out the problems themselves, something that the players abandoned yesterday when they walked away from the bargaining table, pulled the pin on the grenade and began pursuing a strategy that isn't in anyone's best interest, including the players they supposedly represent.

Let me break this down as simply as possible. The NFL is an affiliated group of competitors. Though each club is run separately from a business standpoint they do get together as a group to handle the big things like television rights negotiations and collective bargaining with the players' union.

What's crucial to that previous sentence though is that there must be a players' union for the owners to be able to lawfully engage in this activity. Otherwise almost any of this collective action becomes an antitrust violation. The NFL owners can no more get together and set economic terms for the players then, say, Acme can get together with Giant Eagle and agree on wages for their employees absent a certified labor union representing those employees.

When the negotiations between the NFL and the former union didn't produce an agreement by Friday, the union decertified as a union and then had individual players file a lawsuit alleging collusive behavior against the owners not because they thought it would lead to a labor contract but because they think it will put economic pressure on the NFL owners. Antitrust violations, when proven, can be extremely expensive to the perpetrators.

But it's not even about the damages the owners could be forced to pay if they lost such a lawsuit. The real key to this strategy for the players and their former union is to try and get the courts to grant them an injunction against the owners, preventing them from locking out the players. If that's achieved, two things happen, at least under the union's goofy view of the world.

First, they believe this would essentially force NFL owners to stay open for business, though even the union isn't quite sure under what terms that would be. Second, forced to stay open with an injunction hanging over them beings a doomsday scenario that the players believe the owners simply couldn't tolerate. Given that, the union thinks it could then re-certify at any point, return to the bargaining table comfortable in the knowledge that unless they get the deal they want they'll continue this same Groundhog Day strategy of decertification until the owners eventually throw their collective hands up in surrender.

At least I think that's what the former union's strategy is. It's hard to tell because they have an abject neophyte in DeMaurice Smith as their chief negotiator. Smith may look the part of a smart person, someone to go toe-to-toe with sophisticated owners, but Smith has absolutely no background whatsoever in labor relations or collective bargaining. The players might as well have hired Samuel L. Jackson to act the part of a tough guy at the bargaining table, it wouldn't have been any less effective.

In actuality, Smith is a mere puppet for the behind-the-scenes manipulations of union lawyers like Jeffrey Kessler whose goal has never been to reach an agreement but simply keep the owners in court as long as possible, almost out of sport. Kessler and his group led the union down this path. Smith was a bystander to a strategy I'm fairly certain he and the players that are following him don't completely understand and certainly don't know where it could possibly lead.

But irrespective of whether Smith and the players that filed the lawsuit actually understand the intention, what they don't understand is that their strategy is hardly foolproof let alone the key to success.

Let's deal with their first point. In order to keep the owners under the injunction, the union can never re-certify. That means that if football gets played there would essentially be no economic rules in place. The owners couldn't hold a draft because that's an unlawful restraint of trade absent an agreement with a certified union. Teams couldn't place “franchise” tags on players to retain any rights to them. Free agents could sign anywhere for any amount of money because there would be no salary cap. Indeed teams couldn't be constrained to limit their rosters. If the Browns wanted to sign 100 players, they could, though I'm sure they'd still finish 5-11. If the Bengals wanted to put 25 players on their roster they could do that. In short, any attempt by the owners to work together on anything, including collective negotiations with television networks, would be prohibited and thus whatever competitive balance currently exists in the NFL would be abandoned for so-called free market principles.

But the straw that stirs the drink in the NFL, like all professional sports, is television revenues. A key reason the NFL is perhaps the richest sports league in the world is because it has such good competitive balance. Fans in every city (except, perhaps, Cleveland) feel like in any given season their team could go to the Super Bowl. They buy tickets to games, buy jerseys and other team-branded tchotchkes. More importantly, they watch games on television until their eyes pop out of their sockets and they get brainwashed into buying copious amounts of Bud Light and the latest Buick Enclave. Networks like that sort of thing because they earn lots of money from sponsors willing to pay for that sort of audience.

But if the NFL turns into the Wild West it will eventually lose its appeal to the sponsors and thus the networks. Not all at once but over time. The money eventually will dry up. In short, played out to its logical extreme, the players' strategy undermines the health of the sport that they themselves need in order to ply their trade.

On their second point, that the leverage in future negotiations shifts to the players, this is a fallacy. In truth, there will be no negotiations. The minute the union re-certifies the owners get the right to act collectively and then would turn around and lock the players out so fast that their collective heads wouldn't stop spinning for a month. The union simply never gets the chance to exercise the leverage they think they'd gain.

So what this really comes down to is an edge-of-the-cliff gambit that the union believes the owners won't want to go down. The problem of course is that if the owners go over the cliff, they take the players with them. It's a mutual self-destruction strategy and why anyone except a bunch of lawyers looking to get rich off all the litigation thinks that makes sense for anyone actually impacted by all of this is really hard to say.

For now and for probably months to come, NFL football, at least in the form fans have come to know and love, won't exist. Courts will make decisions that the other side will appeal and the lawyers will get rich. Eventually though the hundreds of other players who don't have million dollar bank accounts to fall back on, which is the vast majority of players, will get itchy to go back to work to the only job they know that will pay them the kind of money they desire. When that happens, the pressure on the trade association formerly known as the NFL players union will become immense and if Smith has even an ounce of self-preservation instinct in his bones, he'll recognize his own livelihood and reputation will be jeopardized unless he can solve their problems. At that point the lawyers will be told to work out a deal and one will get struck.

Until all that comes to pass, fans can only wait out the ride. Pack heavy. It's going to be a long one.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Follow Up to the Fallout

This past Wednesday may have been one of the more difficult days that Ohio State head football coach Jim Tressel ever had to endure, but as the eye of the storm moves on to the next big story there is no doubt that Tressel has done tremendous damage to his reputation. How long that lasts is anyone’s guess but the road to redemption begins now and extends for as far as he wants to take it.

It’s just that there are many people who don’t want to see him on that road in the first place.

Nothing about the reaction thus far to the scandal that Tressel visited upon himself and his university has been unexpected. There are those who offer sympathy being drowned out by those that thinks he should have been immediately fired. Then there is the vast middle that doesn’t quite know what to think.

No one knows better than Tressel what he needs to do to put this situation behind him. The penalties will be served of course and as they are that will only serve to stir the pot once more. But the real work in all this begins with the soul searching Tressel is undoubtedly undergoing as he tries to gain perspective over the ramifications of his own misconduct.

I have little doubt Tressel will overcome and I’m glad he’s getting the chance. It’s too bad, I think, that too many don’t want to see him get that chance if the emails I received from my initial column on this matter and the columns I’ve read from others about this are any indication.

There used to be a time where we at least gave credit to someone who stepped in it deep but then stood and faced the cameras and took his medicine. And while there is a segment out there still willing to offer up that bit of a respect, the tide has certainly turned.

As I said in my initial column on this matter, as a society we simply don’t value apologies. That in part is the reason that some of the reaction to this scandal has been so vicious, but not so unexpected.

Of the hundreds of columns I’ve written for this site, the one I offered up on Tressel easily generated the most email. Most of them were well considered, even the ones that disagreed with me. A few, naturally, were just vicious signaling to me that their authors still have some unresolved anger to worth through. Good luck with that.

On a pure numbers basis, a slight majority of the emails were supportive of the column and supportive of Tressel. But a strong minority of the messages, including ones I received from close friends and substantial Buckeyes fans, felt that Tressel should have been immediately fired, case closed.

But it’s not just a numbers game in that sense. What was more striking was the consistency of themes in these messages the most common of which centered around the image Tressel supposedly cultivated and its impact on how they felt about the situation overall.

Those who felt like Tressel should have been immediately fired are from the camp that Tressel held himself out as “Mr. Clean” or “St. Tressel” and because of that he should now be punished that much more severely. Even those that didn’t go that far said that this scandal has taken away any right Tressel may have ever had to claim that mantle as someone to be admired.

No one likes to see their heroes tarnished, including me. It’s why the reaction to the knife LeBron James stuck in the back of his team and his town has been so unrelenting. That’s the kind of territory Tressel finds himself in at the moment, a traitor to his reputation. So in that sense, I understand the rather emotional point they make.

Yet in the case of Tressel (but not so much James) what bothers me most about this theme is the underlying assumption that a person can’t simultaneously stand for the right things and make a mistake. The two principles are not mutually exclusive nor does one automatically become a hypocrite from failing, even spectacularly. The entire Christian world is built on the principle that no man is perfect but every man is worthy of salvation. But when it comes to someone like Tressel the expectation was that he was perfect and now having fallen he should not be allowed to get back up.

I don’t recall Tressel ever claiming he was perfect. I do recall him saying that he lived a principle-based life. That’s a far, far different concept. Even the most principled among us make mistakes and if our tolerance level is such that we cannot countenance mistakes in others, then the society we get will never be the society we want.

The irony of course is in the converse. If Tressel hadn’t tried to publicly live so virtuously, people would be more forgiving. Lane Kiffin, now at USC, left a bunch of NCAA violations in the wake of his one year tenure at the University of Tennessee, not to mention the underhanded way he left Tennessee in the first place, and it generates a shrug because, well, no one expects much different from Kiffin.

But Tressel handles a situation poorly and all of the sudden people act as if the man should forever lose the opportunity to engage in his chosen line of work, something he’s very good at, by the way. If that’s the case, then the coarsening of our society is nearly complete. Far better to be Kiffin than Tressel, at least in the court of public opinion.

The other key theme being advanced, not only in the emails I’ve received, but in numerous columns in the wireless world, is the supposition that Tressel did what he did out of self-interest. These writers then turn this supposition into fact and react to it accordingly by trying to hold Tressel accountable for it forgetting completely that there are no real facts to support what they’re even saying.

I don’t want to pick on our own Dan Wismer because I have tremendous respect for him. But his column on the subject is typical. Dan, like so many others, wrote that he’s bothered by the fact that Tressel’s hasn’t yet owned up to that self-interest, never mind the fact that there isn’t a shred of evidence that self-interest underlies anything of what took place.

It’s fine if you want to speculate as to motivation, but let’s not turn it into fact. And while we’re at it, let’s ponder for a moment why it is that we have to dig so deeply into the motives, why it is that we can never take someone at their word but instead assume they are shading the truth. Why, in this case do we so casually dismiss a more obvious explanation and the one advanced, that Tressel handled a complicated situation, one that he probably never before faced, poorly?

For me, I’m comfortable in the notion that sometimes things are just as they seem. I look at the situation and imagine myself in Tressel’s shoes, having the shit storm that was dropped into his lap dropped into mine instead and trying to figure out what I’d do in response. It’s a question I can’t honestly answer. None of us can.

The head slap moments we all have in our life only visit us in retrospect. Things that seem so obvious now weren’t always that obvious then, especially when there is no big book titled “How to Handle Every Situation Ever Imaginable” sitting on our bookshelf. We like to think someone in Tressel’s position is smarter than the rest of us but really what’s the basis for that anyway?

If we allow ourselves the luxury to handle something wrong, and we all do, why can’t Tressel be similarly afflicted? Anyone, and I do mean anyone, who can tell you definitively that they would have handled this situation the right way from the outset is a liar.

Any Buckeyes fan is disappointed that their team has been dragged through this. Any fan of Tressel is similarly disappointed at his failure here. But yet as I let the hours continue to roll by, processing everything about this situation, I can’t help but shake the feeling of how hard the point has been driven home through the reactions of so many to the failures of a good and decent man that we really are a society of cynics that holds itself out as wanting the best in everyone but secretly relishes when we get the worst.

Maybe the real problem for most is that we just don’t want to admit that someone like Tressel represents the best of what we see in ourselves and when that image doesn’t quite measure up, we feel a little less about ourselves.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

The Benefit of the Doubt

How you feel about the sanctions Ohio State self-imposed on head football coach Jim Tressel says a lot about how you feel about giving someone the benefit of the doubt and the context in which that benefit of doubt is earned.

We live in a world of cynicism so profound and widespread that at this point there is no transgression too large or too small that doesn't deserve the most sever of punishments, unless of course it was a transgression committed by Charlie Sheen, then we just laugh and follow him on Twitter.

That's what makes it hard anymore to bring perspective to any situation as nuanced as most really are. It's far easier and fits more perfectly in the 24/7 news cycle to examine issues from the vantage point of black or white, find the easy conclusion and then move on to the next great scandal. And believe me, there will be a next scandal. There always is.

But if we actually want to pause for a moment and consider Tressel's situation, we might then find out a little about ourselves.

Tressel admitted in his statement and the OSU press conference that what he did was wrong. He didn't hide behind a carefully crafted press release by the university's communication's department. He walked up to the podium, sribbled notes in hand, and proceeded to speak from his heart. He apologized for his behavior. He didn't ask for or seek pity. He talked about his own need to grow from a teachable moment.

That apology is never going to be good enough for a whole host of people, from the professional cynics to the the Buckeye haters. Part of the reason resides in their own cynicism and parochialism but part of it resides in the fact that as a people, we don't much care for apologies. Despite how rarely people are actually willing to apologize for anything we nevertheless treat actual apologies like Enron stock—worthless.

So we move on to the next step and listen to the why to satisfy our curiosity on our way to dishing out the severe punishment that makes us feel better about ourselves. Tressel said that sometime in April he received a couple of emails from an attorney who identified two current players as possibly being implicated in an on-going federal investigation into drug trafficking. The author of those emails asked for confidentiality, apparently so that the investigation wouldn't be compromised. Tressel decided to honor that request. In a nutshell, that was the mistake from which everything else flows.

Now the professional cynics and Buckeye haters among us will see that not so much as an explanation but as an excuse, a poor one at that, one designed to preserve an upcoming run at another Big 10 title and possible national championship. Frankly a lot of people who don't fall into either category will probably feel the same way.

To too many there really is no difference between an explanation and an excuse anymore, which is why we fail to see the gray that exists in almost every situation. It is far more convenient and certainly more expedient to take an explanation and equate it to an excuse because it creates still another opportunity to punish the wrongdoer and make us feel even that much better and that much more superior.

And that's the real issue here, the proper punishment. If there is one thing you can count on in this whole mess is that everyone will have an opinion on whether or not the sanctions OSU imposed are good enough. Well, are they?

This takes us right back where we started. How you really feel about the penalty imposed depends mightily on whether or not you believe Tressel and, by extension, anyone else, ever deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Tressel does deserve the benefit of the doubt and not just because of what he's accomplished on the field, although honestly that's part of it. Mostly it's because of every other aspect of the way the man conducts his life. He's not a habitual offender at anything except, perhaps, corniness. He is a man of passion and integrity who has done everything anyone could possibly ask of someone in his position. And yes, people of integrity do make mistakes. Let us never forget that most salient of points.

Let's be clear, though, that giving Tressel the benefit of the doubt is not the same thing as disregarding his misconduct. It's importance is in assessing the proper punishment, finding that right blend of sanction and rehabilitation.

It's easy sure to look back at this whole matter and cynically suggest that Tressel wasn't driven by a quest to do the right thing but a quest to achieve greatness on the football field. But that cynical suggestion belies the facts that make up the whole of Tressel's life. It's easy to think that no one these days is pure of motive and most certainly no head coach of a major college football program could ever be so pure. Tressel? He's just like the rest of them, a greedy, win-obsessed coach who recruits on the fringes and cuts every corner.

Yea, that sounds exactly like the Tressel Ohio has known for the last 30 years.

But of course none of that will stop the professional cynics and haters among us who won't be satisfied with any penalty short of permanent banishment and the forfeiture of every win over the last 10 years, especially that game against Miami that Ohio State didn't deserve to win anyway.

I'm disappointed that Tressel got himself in this position. He owed it to everyone, from his players to the university administration and to the fans, to fall back on the vast resources at his disposal and ask some questions about what course of conduct he should have taken.

That said, I have no pause in standing firmly with Tressel on this matter. I take him at his word because, frankly, I have no reason to doubt it. He made a mistake, a serious mistake. But he didn't commit a capital crime and shouldn't be punished like a capital criminal. He's not perfect and never claimed to be. Me either.

This isn't a proud moment for Tressel or the university, but to throw him out with the bathwater would be tantamount to completely dismissing all of the proud moments and great accomplishments, both on and off the field, that Tressel has brought this university and its community.

Tressel will learn from this situation. And, hopefully, so will the rest of us.

At the Height of Uncertainty

If there is one thing you can read into the extension of the current collective bargaining agreement by the NFL Players Association and the NFL owners it’s that as tough as each talks, they’re both afraid of what comes next if they don’t get a deal done.

The union, under the guidance of a way-in-over-his-head new executive director, DeMaurice Smith, has vowed as usual to decertify as a union and then file a lawsuit against the owners should they be locked out if no deal is reached when the contract does expire.

The owners, under the guidance of a far savvier dealmaker, Commissioner Roger Goodell, nonetheless know that when it comes to litigation, particularly before Judge David Doty, their success rate is actually worse than the Cleveland Browns’ third down conversion rate, pick a year.

Which means, of course, that in the course of these negotiations, this week represents the last best chance for the parties to strike a deal before a whole host of consequences, intended and otherwise, are released.

Negotiations are far more art than science certainly but there is one thing that is true in negotiations of any sort. The two sides to the dispute, be they the NFLPA and the owners arguing over splitting over $9 billion in revenues, or a husband and wife arguing over whether or not it’s really necessary to visit her mother again next weekend, are most amenable to resolution when uncertainty is highest.

That would be now.

Two weeks ago, the NFL owners were dealt another setback by Judge Doty (who retains continuing jurisdiction over the two parties by virtue of a previous settlement years ago) with respect to whether or not the owners maximized television revenues in their last negotiations with the various networks that have broadcasting rights.

What led to that dispute was the fact that the owners were able to get access to a huge pile of cash from the networks even if next season is cancelled. Essentially the owners traded off more cash down the road and additional games and scheduling flexibility for the networks in exchange for broadcast payments continuing even in the event of a work stoppage.

From a business standpoint, it sounds like a good tradeoff for both sides. The NFLPA disagreed because they felt that the owners took less money, and hence have less money available to share with the union, in exchange for being able to sustain their operations through a work stoppage. In other words, they felt like the owners left revenue on the table just so that they could have a decent war chest and wait out a lengthy lockout or strike.

A special master felt that the owners had the right to make that deal and that it represented sound business judgment. Judge Doty, on the other hand, who heard the appeal from the special master, disagreed and found that the owners had basically violated their obligations under the collective bargaining agreement by not maximizing the revenues or, at least, taking less money in exchange for payments during the expected lockout.

While that decision will get appealed, the basic point here is that it served as another reminder to the owners that Judge Doty has a very jaundiced view of how they operate their businesses and that their chances in future litigation with the union isn’t likely to be any more successful.

That decision frankly was a game changer for these negotiations. It certainly heightened the uncertainty for the owners and has basically forced them to stay at the bargaining table. It makes them more amenable now to a deal than at any point in the last two years.

All of that doesn’t mean that the union feels that it has all the leverage, because they don’t. While they have enjoyed great success in litigation, not one of those victories has come easily, cheaply or, more importantly, timely. Moreover, one of the great truisms in litigation, as in investing, is that prior results should not be counted on to predict future performance.

The union’s litigation strategy this time around is fraught with its own difficulty. The basis of a potential lawsuit by the players is that it is an antitrust violation for a group of separately owned businesses, like NFL teams, to constrain the market through collective action when dealing with matters such as setting wages and working conditions for the employees. But if there is a National Labor Relations Board-certified bargaining representative of those employees, like the NFLPA is for the players, then there is no antitrust violation even if the owners lock them out.

Success for the players thus hinges on their ability to successfully convince the NLRB that the decertification they’ll be seeking is legitimate and that the NFLPA fully intends to relinquish its rights to act as the exclusive bargaining representative for the players.

When the union went the decertification route 20 years ago, it was under far different circumstances and even then the NLRB raised doubts about whether or not it was a legitimate decertification. As it played out in the years since, it obviously was not. This time around, there is a much more likely that the NLRB will have a better view of what is taking place and find that the decertification isn’t legitimate. If that’s the case, then the entire underpinnings of the players’ potential lawsuit against the owners would be lost.

In other words, for all of the bragging that Smith has done for the players about decertifying as the way to force a settlement, even Smith knows that it is hardly a sure bet, meaning that the union and the players are having their own bouts with uncertainty at the moment.

But if heightened uncertainty makes parties most likely to settle, it hardly means they will. The owners have a group of hard liners that want nothing more than to have the players knuckle under again to their collective will. And why not? It’s worked in the past.

The players, for their part, are hyper-competitive types who feel that there is no obstacle they can’t overcome, even their own hubris. That’s what makes them professional athletes in the first place.

Still, I tend to believe in the better angels and think the parties will use this heightened uncertainty on both sides to actually come up with a framework for a deal before the contract is allowed to expire. As much as the owners want to reign supreme over their serfs, they value more the flow of cash that’s needed to sustain their operations. And as much as the players want to finally beat the owners at this game, they know that the litigation route, if allowed to go the full distance, is going to end a lot of careers and for what, better access to owners’ financial records or to tell the grandkids that your career ended prematurely over a labor dispute?

There is an adage that says that no amount of money is too small to fight about when it’s mine and because of that it will keep the parties going at each other hammer and tong this week. But as both sides play out the doomsday scenarios in their minds they’ll realize that what’s worse than fighting over every penny is not having any pennies to fight about at all.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

Candidate Mike

The item went mostly unnoticed because it probably wasn't really news to anyone. Cleveland Browns president Mike Holmgren gave a radio interview in Seattle recently and said that he seriously considered hiring himself as the team's head coach once he disposed of former head coach Eric Mangini.

On the surface this may seem to conflict with what Holmgren said publicly at the time but that's probably only because Holmgren had already made the decision that he wasn't going to be adding that job to his duties with the Browns.

Still the revelation of sorts about the consideration he gave to taking the job makes for great theater if you approach it from a fly-on-the-wall perspective as President Holmgren interviewed Candidate Holmgren:

“Tell me, Mike, what if we name you the new head coach, what changes would you immediately make, what changes do you think could wait, and what would you like to see stay the same?”

“That's a great question, Mike, and I've thought a lot about exactly how I would approach it. Initially I'd say that I'd have to go back to what's worked for me in the past. I had a good run in both Green Bay and Seattle so I think I have a feel of what needs to be done to produce a winner.”

“Indeed you do, tell me more.”

“Well, if we're talking about things that need to stay the same, I'd say the uniforms and the colors. As for what needs to change immediately, I'd say just about every thing else.”

“That's kind of a bold statement, don't you think?”

“Maybe, but let's face it. This team has won 10 games in two years and that more or less represents a high water mark. I'm sure some of the diehards out there who want to believe anything think this team was headed to greener pastures under Eric, but I think you made a brilliant decision in letting him go. He was never going to get this team to a Super Bowl, like I have with two different teams.”

“That was kind of my feeling as well, Mike. Let me hear about how you'd turn it around.”

“Well, I like that kid Tom Heckert that you hired. That's a good start. I think he will be good in the draft room and in upgrading the roster. I think, too, that your input as president will be very valuable. This franchise hasn't drafted well, except last season, and it has a roster filled with mostly role players.”

“That's how I see it as well, Mike. So where do you think the team has to go next?”

“If I get here, I'm going to push you to give me the time to take a longer look at Colt McCoy. I thought that whoever is responsible for drafting him in the third round did a good job. He showed real poise when thrust into that situation last year and I think he can be a winner. I wouldn't go after a number one quarterback in the off season, but take a wait and see attitude.”

“I like where you're going with this, Mike.”

“Thanks, Mike. If you wouldn't mind, let me continue and give you some other things to think about as you talk to other candidates for this head coaching position.”

“Great, go ahead.”

“Ok, let's take a little closer look at the roster. Again, I think the McCoy kid should stick around, but that said I'd take a long look at trying to get Seneca Wallace under a bit of a longer-term contract. I had him in Seattle and he knows how to run the West Coast Offense, which is one of my specialties, by the way. In this league you need two quarterbacks who can actually play. Wallace is a great back up and he looks good in spot duty.”

“That's a good idea. I like Wallace as well, but I haven't yet committed to the West Coast Offense, Mike.”

“I don't mean to get ahead of myself in this interview, Mike, but I did have a chance to watch your team a lot last year. It was pretty clear that you weren't pleased with the offensive jambalaya that this team had last year. It had no identity. It wasn't vertical, it wasn't lateral, it wasn't much of anything other than a collection of interesting plays that occasionally worked. I know that you'll be going into your second full season as team president and I'm sure you'll want to see a West Coast Offense. It only makes sense.”

“You've read my mind, Mike. That's exactly where I want to take this offense. You're a very sharp candidate.”

“As I've said, I've been around a few years. You begin to understand things,you know what I mean?”

“I do, I do.”

“So tell me, do you think we can make the West Coast Offense successful in Cleveland?”

“I think so. That running back, Peyton Hillis, is a good kid though I think Eric was pushing him too hard last season. I'll never understood why he let Jerome Harrison go, but that's water over the dam. You'll need some depth and hopefully Montario Hardesty, a great draft choice by the way, will be healthy for next season. I think the receivers you have on the roster—and I know you inherited them from Eric—aren't great but they are far more suited to the West Coast Offense. They are more possession-type receivers, except Chansi Stuckey. You should just let him go. I like most of the offensive line as well, except a couple of the lugs Eric brought in. You should get rid of them, too. By and large, though, I think there are enough building blocks there to make for a relatively smooth transtion.”

“Good insight, Mike. What about the defense? What would you do there if you were the new head coach?”

“Let's start with Rex Ryan. I know the fans like him, he's a colorful guy like his brother. But there's a reason no one seriously considers him when they have an opening for a head coach. He's reckless. He likes to design a variety of looks and blitzes, which are fine, but you have to have the players to execute it, you know what I mean?”

“I sure do.”

“For example, that Baltimore game last year. How many times did Ryan have to see Anquan Boldin catching pass after pass when he was one-on-one with Eric Wright before he changed the scheme?”

“Apparently a hundred because he never did change the scheme.”

“Exactly. Reckless. Therefore, as much as the casual fans might like him, Ryan has to go.”

“Who would you put in that role instead?”

“I have a lot of good contacts in this league. My first call would be to someone like Dick Jauron. He's well known, a good defensive mind, calm under pressure, and runs a 4-3, which I think is better for this defense.”

“I've been thinking the same thing as well.”

“That's good to hear. It sounds like you and me are on the same page already. Let me give you a few more thoughts, on some of the personnel.”

“Great. I always like to pick a great football mind like yours, even if it's in the context of a job interview.”

“Ok, thanks. Back to the defense. I think Wright has some talent but I think Ryan damn near ruined him. If you hire me, I'm likely going to recommend you keep Wright around for another year. I know he'll be a restricted free agent, but give him something like a second-round tender. Nobody will give up a second round pick for him and that will give the new coach, which I hope is me, a chance to clear that kid's head and get him back on the trajectory he was on.”

“Interesting, interesting. Anything else?”

“Yea, a few more things. Try to re-sign D'Qwell Jackson.. I like his game, too. Far better suited to the 4-3 defense. And one final thing. Again, no disrespect to Eric, but why the hell was he playing games with Phil Dawson? I don't think he understands how difficult it is to kick in Cleveland with the winds that come off that lake. Dawson has been about as solid of a player this team has ever had and has done it for a decade. Most games in this league are won or loss by the margin of a field goal. You need a good kicker. If it were me and you bring me aboard as head coach, I'm going to be in your office on Day 1 pushing you to put the franchise tag on Dawson. He's that valuable.”

“Mike, that's a terrific idea. We do like Phil. I don't understand why Eric had such a negative view of him or kickers generally. Probably a Belichick thing.”

“I have to say, Mike, I'm very impressed with you as a candidate for our head coaching position. Care to give me some thoughts on who you think we should be drafting with the 6th pick?”

“I do, actually, but I'd rather not share them right now. If you don't end up hiring me and I land somewhere else, then you may have a competitive advantage on my new team because you'll understand our draft plans.”

“I certainly understand, Mike. This has been a brilliant interview, just brilliant. I'm going to give this some very serious consideration. You'll be hearing from me soon.”

“Thanks, Mike. I really appreciate the opportunity and know you'll be successful. Let me just leave you with one final thought. If you decide I'm not the right guy, take a look at that kid Pat Shurmur from St. Louis. You and I both know his uncle, Fritz, and we had great respect for him, God rest his soul. Pat's an up and comer, learned at Fritz's knee, and I think if you decide to go in that direction instead of me, you'll still be on the right track.”

“Good thought there as well, Mike.”

“Sorry, one more thing. I mean it this time. If you do hire Shurmur. Let him call his own plays. He'll do just fine.”

“Excellent idea. Thanks again for all the insight. This interview has been invaluable to our team's future.”

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

The Three-Cone Shuffle

For any sports fan looking to be vexed, this would be the time. For unless you are an abject college hoops bracketologist (which, by the way, is one of the dumbest made up words ever) there is so little to inform or entertain you at the moment in the world of sports. The NFL, of course, knows this and that’s why the Combine, wrapping up Tuesday, seems like such big news.

I hate the NFL Combine because it’s a mostly worthless endeavor that’s taken more seriously these days than pediatric AIDS. The NFL, of course, is at the center of this farce by staging it in a way that heightens its importance while hiding its irrelevance. This annual festival devoted to all manner of poking, prodding, measuring and ciphering is the kind of fraud that in another context might get someone arrested.

Many of these participating players, mostly students in name only, are put through a battery of mental and physical challenges as a kind of hazing ritual designed to test whether or not they are NFL worthy. Most of them aren’t, at least for the long term. Statistics back it up. At most, only a handful are staring a potentially long-term NFL careers, just don’t tell them that.

When the Combine was a sleepy little endeavor of general managers and scouts and a few bored sports writers, it was harmless and easily ignored, like Dancing with the Stars. But now it’s an Event, a carryover of sorts from the Super Bowl, with 24/7 coverage by the NFL Network. I’ve never been so glad to be a Time Warner customer because they wisely haven’t succumbed to the outsized demands of the NFL noodniks pricing their cable-only product. As a result, I’m never even tempted to flip over to see Group 3 of the offensive linemen do bench presses followed by the vertical jump.

The other problem with the Combine is that makes every Bill from Brunswick think they are draft expert, although in fairness to every Bill from Brunswick, Mel Kiper, Jr. used to be you. The reason this is frustrating has everything to do with altering a person’s expectations when it comes to the draft.

Suddenly they become experts on who the Browns should draft in the third round because they saw this player or that run a 4.2 40-yard dash on the telly-vision. Then when that player isn’t drafted, all manner of disappointment ensues.

And yet these folks aren’t even the worst offenders. That’s reserved for the local media types that trek to Indianapolis in search of The Truth. No particular offense to Tony Grossi of the Plain Dealer, but about the only thing he and his ilk know about any of these college players is what they’ve read in a magazine, heard on ESPN and gleaned from the Combine.

If these sports writers are doing their jobs properly, then they wouldn’t have had time until recently to even begin to contemplate the college game. The odds that any of them have followed college football closely enough to offer an informed impression on the differences between Nick Fairly vs. Marcell Dareus are slight.

Yet from the Grossis of the world we are offered any number of iterations of their mock drafts based on nothing more their casual fan’s knowledge of the college game and its players.

What’s even more amusing is their use of the empirical to back up what are essentially curbside opinions. Grossi offered up the results of various drills that defensive linemen ran at the Combine on Monday. It says, for example, that Fairley finished 14th in the 3-cone drill with a time of 7.14 seconds. I assume that says something about Fairley’s agility in the same way it says something about a dog’s agility when he runs through a line of pylons at a show. But until they put 3 cones on a football field and award points for who runs around them the fastest, it offers virtually nothing for the average fan to suggest why Fairley would be the right choice for the Browns with the 6th pick in the draft.

I’ll take it as a given that the annual meat market that is the Combine is something that NFL scouts and general managers find useful come draft day, though at this point it’s a premise worth challenging. For starters, it’s not an open cattle call. Players are invited based on their reputations. Even then some players don’t fully work out on the advice of their agents, preferring to work out for teams privately under better controlled conditions. Then of course there are those players nursing injuries that can’t perform fully at the moment. As a result, even the comparisons that come out of the Combine are essentially meaningless.

When you put that all together, it’s hard to see how useful the Combine really is in the overall player picking exercise. At this point it’s almost as if it’s conducted not because it’s meaningful but because it keeps the NFL brand in front of fans during a lengthy off-season. And because we have a compliant local and national media starved for any NFL-based news, we’re socialized to the notion that what happens at the Combine is directly related to whether or not a team has a successful draft.

Let’s return to the real world for a moment. If any team is using it as anything more than supplemental material to the more useful information gathered from watching a player perform on the field, then that team is probably failing at the draft. I’m looking at you, Cleveland Browns.

The Browns have made any number of draft mistakes in the last 10 years. By almost any measure, they aren’t very good at it. Perhaps some of that may have been caused by an overreliance of what took place at the Combine, but I suspect it’s more related to the simple fact that they have had a series of boobs making personnel judgments.

Who in their right mind would draft both Brian Robiskie and Mohamed Massaquoi in the second round? Whatever contributions those two have made thus far and whatever else they may make down the road, nothing will obscure the fact that neither was worthy of a second round pick. There are receivers on the roster that Mangini mostly buried who likely could have contributed at about the same level (which isn’t much) just as there are probably at least a dozen others, from undrafted free agents to relatively accomplished veterans looking to hang on for another season or two, that also could have accomplished the same thing.

But let’s not pick on Mangini exclusively. Phil Savage, his predecessor in the personnel picking business, was almost just as bad. Savage traded for and then squandered a first round pick by drafting Brady Quinn. Then virtually every player he drafted in the second round was a bust. And let’s not pick on just Mangini and Savage either. Starting with Dwight Clark and continuing through Mangini, the Browns have been notable for what amounts to the stock market equivalent of buying high and selling low.

Yet I’m more optimistic about the current regime’s ability to pick players and that’s because of Colt McCoy. He’s exactly the kind of player that creates a bunch of negativity at the Combine and causes teams to take a pass. But Mike Holmgren and Tom Heckert looked beyond that exercise in misinformation and saw a player who, you know, actually performed incredibly well over a long college career with a big-time program. Indeed, it’s a measure of their ability as evaluators that they could actually commit to McCoy as their starter next season and no one is much questioning the wisdom of that decision.

If you’re bored and the Combine scratches some sort of itch, then fine. But what’s happening there won’t make any difference to whether or not the Browns get better. The only way they get better is finding players who can actually perform on the field and not just in the 3-cone drill.