Thursday, January 12, 2012

Lingering Items--Shakespeare Edition

Apparently the NFL has run out of head coach candidates. How else to explain the Kansas City Chiefs hiring Romeo Crennel as its next head coach?

Before answering that question, it’s probably worth asking why it’s even necessary for anyone in this corner of the world to contemplate the question.

It’s not except out of abject curiosity considering Crennel’s tenure in Cleveland. Crennel had one good year here.

It was 2007 and the Browns won 10 games. In typical Browns fashion, they didn’t make the playoffs, one of the few 10-win teams ever to not make the playoffs. That 2007 season was transcendent nonetheless. The Browns were riding high from the draft after grabbing Joe Thomas as an anchor left tackle and then seeing Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn fall to them late in the first round due to a weird confluence of events. At the time, Charlie Frye was the team’s starter and Derek Anderson was the back up, albeit a very tentative back up. He had a big arm but little experience and was floundering in the Ravens organization until general manager Phil Savage grabbed him on his way out of Baltimore.

The season opened in rather typical fashion, with the Browns getting thumped by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Frye had a season opening debut that was such a disaster that he was benched before halftime. Crennel took responsibility for that, as if he could avoid it. A few days later Savage traded Frye to Seattle for a 6th round pick. It suddenly elevated Anderson to starter, a position most fans also thought was simply a placeholder until Quinn found his sea legs. Indeed, had Quinn reported to camp on time instead of stupidly holding out, he almost certainly would have been the starter instead of Anderson and both Quinn's and Anderson's trajectories may have been forever changed. But missteps like that have defined Quinn’s mostly inert career.

Then a funny thing happened. Anderson caught fire in a way that was in many ways far more unreal then anything either Tim Tebow or Cam Newton have done this past season. Tebow and Newton were well known commodities. Anderson could have walked through any mall in Cleveland at noon on a Sunday in December and no one would have noticed. The Browns under Anderson didn’t go on a specific tear. Their longest win streak was 3 games. But Anderson was terrific, putting together a season of historical significance. And while the Browns tied the Steelers for the division lead, they lost the tie breaker as the Steelers, not surprisingly, swept the season series. Then the Browns lost out on a wild card when the Indianapolis Colts tanked the last game of the season against the Tennessee Titans. It was a large measure of satisfaction when the Titans lost to San Diego in the first round of the playoffs and the Colts, coming off a 13-3 season and with great Super Bowl hopes, also lost to the Chargers.

Things looked so good for Crennel at the moment and for Savage, the general manager who stoutly stood behind Crennel when the wheels were falling off in 2006, that owner Randy Lerner gave both new contracts.1  

1 If you want to know why a hold out inevitably follows a player’s first break out season, it’s because of owners like Lerner. Neither Crennel’s nor Savage’s contract was up. But buoyed by one year of success and disregarding one year of failure, Lerner acted like he had just won the lottery and decided to blow all the winnings on a flying car, which would have been a much better investment then giving either Crennel or Savage new, more lucrative and longer term deals that neither had quite yet earned. Lerner had to swallow both contracts after a disastrous 2008 season, thus continuing the pattern of throwing good money after bad when he Butch Davis quit and later perfected when he bought Aston Villa. He may be an idiot with money but wouldn’t you like to be one of his kids? Better still, someone he likes enough to hire?

But the 2007 season ended up being far more smoke and mirrors then substance. Those passes Anderson completed in 2007 became overthrown interceptions the next and Braylon Edwards, off of his one good season, became an intolerable pain in the ass in the locker room that Crennel simply couldn’t control. As other players watched Edwards do what he wanted without consequence (remember the trip to the Ohio State/Michigan game that caused Edwards to miss a team meeting on the night before a game?), other players acted similarly. Each week you could literally watch parts fall off the car as it careened down the highway with no one at the steering wheel.

The season ended at 4-12, just like Crennel’s first season, with the 10-6 season sandwiched in between. What characterized Crennel’s tenure most, though, was his massive disorganization. A lifelong assistant suddenly thrust into the spotlight, Crennel was gentle in his demeanor and approach, treating the players like visiting grandkids and he the goodtime grandpa. The problem was that the grandkids were an unruly mess and there were no parents to send them back to at the end of the day. The inmates were running the asylum and tried to keep the status quo by constantly praising the warden as the greatest guy around.

I’m surprised Crennel has gotten a second chance though in context, maybe not so much. He worked with Scott Pioli, Kansas City’s general manager, in New England. But this won’t end up any better for Crennel then it did in Cleveland. Crennel may have learned some lessons in the last few years, but he’s never going to be a successful head coach. His niche is as an assistant, someone that the players can occasionally confide in when they feel they’re being picked on by the head coach. He’s simply too good natured to draw firm lines with the various malcontents that populate NFL locker rooms from time to time. Stil, I envy Crennel a bit. Securing the Kansas City job is like winning the lottery but not because he’s a head coach again. More so because it will give him a chance in the next year or two to retire quietly on the contract that the Kansas City owner will have to eat for having greenlighted this hire in the first place.

Although many in the media have been writing the obituary of the Pittsburgh Steelers for years, this time they may be right. When the playoff season closes after this season, the award for the worst performance will undoubtedly be handed to those Steelers.

First of all, the Denver Broncos aren’t a very good team irrespective of what miracles Tim Tebow and Jesus are able to accomplish this year. The Broncos play in the worst division in the NFL at the moment and basically by finishing 8-8 won it by default. (Fascinating, though, isn’t it, that three teams in the division finished 8-8 and the fourth 7-9?

That’s the kind of mediocre parity that would have given Paul Tagliabue a chubby.) The Steelers on the other hand looked to be on the upswing. They finished 12-4, which was tied them with the Ravens for the second best record in the conference. But if there is such a thing as a soft 12-4, these Steelers accomplished it.

This past Sunday they were exposed for the aging mess that they’ve been building toward for several seasons. All it took was a few key injuries to the several octogenarians on the team to underscore this fact. Ben Roethlisberger will recover from the gimpy ankle he suffered against the Browns but he’s not the biggest problem anyway. The Steelers are old on offense and old on defense. Their best players all are on the back sides of their careers.

The bigger problem though is that the Steelers, who for years seemed to always find the right replacements, may have made a major miscalculation by letting this group get old together. Where they had been deft in cutting ties to players at just the right moment, this time they let it ride for a few more years and lost the opportunity to do what they had done nearly better then any other—draft well and work those players in quickly.

No one who watched the Steelers’ wretched offensive line on Monday came away thinking that they are poised for a quick rebound. Indeed, four of the front seven on the offensive line, indeed half the offense, are at least 29 years old. In NFL dog years, that’s old. The situation is even worse on defense where 7 of the starters are at least 32 years old. It’s now clear why James Harrison resorts to thug-like antics such as the cheap shot on Tebow Sunday. He’s 33 years old and that’s the only way he can make his presence felt. I don’t see the Steelers taking any sort of Browns-like nose dive to the bottom of the conference, but neither do I see them being an elite team in the near-term either. The great year they just had, from a record standpoint, will just serve to delay their repairs as they suffer the purgatory that’s created when you limp into the playoffs and then end up with only a lousy draft position to show for the effort.

I wonder if Reggie McKenzie, the new general manager for the Oakland Raiders, learned something from how poorly Mike Holmgren handled the Eric Mangini situation.

Emboldened by the death of Barnabas-in-a-turtleneck Al Davis and being the first person to hold the GM title for the Raiders, McKenzie decided that head coach Hue Jackson wasn’t his type of coach and canned him after only a year at the helm. It is either that McKenzie didn’t think Jackson had the right stuff to be a head coach or that he felt Jackson had bungled key personnel decisions, like acquiring Carson Palmer for a first and second round draft pick. Either would have been enough. Both sins put him squarely in the Mangini camp.

Whereas Holmgren kept Mangini and wasted an entire season in the process, something Holmgren now reluctantly admits in the same way that I reluctantly admit I watch the Cavs, McKenzie decided that would be a ridiculous approach and sent Jackson off to contemplate his next coaching job.

The move isn’t going to make McKenzie popular with the fraternity that is NFL head coaches past and present but it is the right thing, if the Browns are any example. But ultimately it’s the right thing for the Raiders. By almost every measure imaginable, the Browns latest facelift was delayed at least 12 months, and actually longer when you factor in the impact of the lockout, by Holmgren’s incessant need to look like a good guy to his coaching brethren. That’s why the Browns find themselves, at best, stuck in the lowest ring of purgatory now and for probably another season or two, and the Raiders will find themselves much closer to the playoffs next year.

With the playoffs in full bloom and this weekend representing the single best weekend in professional football, this week’s question to ponder: Why is it so difficult for the NFL to simply guarantee each team one possession in overtime?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

you're right about OT