Saturday, September 30, 2006

Life at the end of the road

Few things in the sports world leave a fan with an emptier feeling than the end of a non-contending baseball season.

It's not just the sparse crowds, the losing or the apathy laid on heavier than an Autumn cloud deck. It's the fact that it's all reinforced on a daily basis. Every day, your team shows up to play games that mean nothing. They are forced to show up every day and play meaningless games until the schedule runs out.

For the Indians, they lost the marathon in Mile 9. The have been forced to run the remaining 17.2 miles because that's what they're paid to do. It's been nothing more than a forced march since the beginning of summer.

Sunday, the schedule finally runs out and we can put this season to bed. The Indians can win no more than 78 games, a 15-game backslide from a year ago. They will finish the season with the fewest saves in the majors.

You might be glad that this is the end of the road. But I can't think of this season's end being anything more than a melancholy event. It's not just the losing. It's the fact that we are happy that baseball is over for the year.

All winter, we wait for this. All winter, we want spring to come. We want baseball to start, to rescue us from snowstorms and wet socks and cars splattered with dry salt brine and let us look forward to summer.

After Sunday, we'll be back in winter mode. Jacobs Field will go silent for yet another long, cold, dark spell, the hibernating neighbor we'll pass by on our way to Cavaliers games at The Q. Soon, our disgust with the season will be melted by longing for the days when we can once again enjoy a night out at the ballpark.

At some point, somewhere, you will be whisked back to the days when you rediscovered baseball in Cleveland. You'll remember the drama, the comeback victories, the playoff games, the park as a vortex of noise. And you'll want those days back. And you'll be sorry that you ever wished baseball away for the year.

That's the real heartbreak that surrounds a dead season like this, a season where bitterness outpaces a love for the game. A season where a fan base grows sick of baseball, sick of the team, sick of the losing, and just wants it to all go away.

At some point, you'll regret the way you felt. Not about the team, but about the game. At some point, you'll miss it again. But you'll have to wait.

You'll have to go through the long, harsh death and rebirth of winter to be reunited with the game you can't stand right now, to apologize and renew your vows.

This game, she might frustrate you. But she'll make you want her again. You might be able to live without her, but you'll have a void inside you. And that void lasts all winter.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Old guards

When Phil Savage took control of the Browns roster, we expected that we were getting an architect whose work would be rooted in research, analysis and logic. It was to be far more stable than the govern-by-edict style of Pope Butch I.

To a greater or lesser extent, Savage has given the Browns that. No more are they trading a first- and second-rounder to move up one spot in the draft, as Butch Davis did to nab Kellen Winslow Jr. in 2004.

But something still doesn't add up about the way the Browns roster is constructed. And, guess what? It's the offensive line. The omnipresent problem that was never tackled by Dwight Clark or Davis, and still appears to be an albatross hovering over Savage.

Funny we should mention tackling. That's all opposing defenses have been doing against Cleveland's O-line. Charlie Frye has been getting sacked and knocked down at such an alarming rate, it appears a forgone conclusion that he's going to wind up on a gurney a la Chris Simms at some point this season.

The only thing more shocking that Simms' ruptured spleen last Sunday was the fact that it didn't happen to Frye first.

Then there's the little problem of Cleveland's lack of a running game. Reuben Droughns, the Browns' 1,200-yard man of a year ago, might be lucky to crack 700 yards at his current pace. Behind him are a pair of undersized rookies in Jason Wright and Jerome Harrison.

We know just about all fingers can point to the offensive line. But why? Seven years ago, when Jim Pyne was starting, we could point to a lack of talent. But that's not the case now.

The Browns have among the most accomplished groups of offensive linemen in the league. All five of the Browns current starting offensive linemen have played for other teams -- good teams at that. Four -- Hank Fraley, Joe Andruzzi, Cosey Coleman and Ryan Tucker -- started in at least one Super Bowl. The fifth, Kevin Shaffer, protected Michael Vick on a respectable Falcons team.

This group of lineman have a long history of success in the league. And maybe that's part of the problem.

Not one of the Browns' current offensive line starters is younger than 26. Tucker and Andruzzi are the graybeards at 31, Fraley is 29, Coleman 28 and Shaffer is the baby of the bunch at 26.
If he were healthy, LeCharles Bentley would only tie Shaffer as the youngest.

Now, you might be thinking, "So? Isn't experience supposed to be a good thing? Isn't that what the Browns have been missing?" Well, experience is a good thing from the neck up. From the neck down, however, "experience" becomes "mileage."

That's the problem. The freakishly long careers of Lou Groza and Bruce Matthews aside, offensive linemen generally don't have long shelf lives. Once you've been in the trenches, having your 300-pound body hit, twisted, pulled, punched, kicked and scraped for the better part of 10 years, 30 seems more like 40, maybe 50 if you're talking about your knees.

The Browns' offensive linemen are a well-worn bunch, each with a long rap sheet of injuries that just about every lineman will accumulate. The injuries take their toll, the spring in your step gradually fades, and before you know it, Julius Peppers is blowing past your flank three downs in a row to make mincemeat of your quarterback.

That's the danger of building your offensive line from veterans. Along with the experience, you are also absorbing the years of wear when you decide to commit money to an offensive lineman with some years in the league.

Even more prevalent than the danger of losing a step is the danger of constant injuries. Outside of the center position, the Browns have been relatively lucky so far this year. But the odds say more Browns linemen will miss time with injuries this year, robbing the line of valuable snaps together. Playing together is the only way to build a cohesive five-man unit, and a lack of cohesion is a large factor in why the Browns line has looked so bad to this point.

The only cure to having your young quarterback and running backs sent running for their lives by an aging, deteriorating offensive line is to draft linemen, draft them high, and draft them every year until you build the depth to withstand some injuries. It's a concept no Browns personnel man has seemed to grasp yet.

If this decorated group of Super Bowl linemen continues to look like an old, sorry bunch as the season wears on, here's hoping the light goes on in Savage's head, and he starts thinking about offensive linemen in preparation for next April's draft.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Revenge? Not exactly

Monday night was a shot of sweet revenge for the Indians. The Indians were able to crush the last vestiges of hope within the White Sox's clubhouse, eliminating them from the postseason, ensuring that there will be no repeats on Chicago's South Side this year.

During Monday's 14-1 romp, Cleveland fans delighted in returning White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen's famous choke sign given them during Chicago's final-nail victory over the Indians on the last day of the 2005 season.

Glorious payback, wasn't it?

Believe that if you want. I don't.

Cleveland's elimination of Chicago this year and Chicago's elimination of Cleveland a year ago are two completely different stories, and reflect a great deal on each team's manager.

Last year, Guillen's club knocked the Indians out when the two teams were jostling for a postseason berth. This year, Eric Wedge's club merely completed a formality when neither team was going anywhere.

Guillen won when it counted. Wedge, as has been the case for most of his tenure, is counting his biggest victories when the pressure is off.

It's at the heart of why, when you need to win a big game, you want someone like Guillen managing, and you want just about anybody besides Wedge.

All last season, Guillen agitated, annoyed and insulted while Wedge kept everything vanilla. The White Sox jumped out to a 15-game lead that served them well come September, when the Indians made up 14 of those games but couldn't get over the hump. The White Sox faded a bit in the second half, but had built up such a large lead in the standings, they were able to outlast the Indians' charge.

Granted, there are other reasons why the Indians missed the playoffs and the White Sox went on to win their first championship in 88 years, among them a large payroll discrepancy. But even as it was happening, I could sense that Guillen was getting more out of his team than Wedge was getting out of his team.

Guillen is outspoken and abrasive. The same qualities that lead him to say stupid things that get printed in the paper are the same qualities that keep his players on their toes.
Wedge is the kind of guy who'd rather be tinkering with the stove than cooking the stew. He's an organizational-innards kind of guy. The same qualities that make him a good manager for nuturing young talent make him a bad manager for winning.

By the time Wedge and the Indians got out of bed last year, stretched, read the paper and had some coffee, it was June. By then, the White Sox were already at the office closing deals. Guillen had his team sharp from the get-go, while the Indians approached the season like they do every season: sluggishly. That, to me, is a direct cause-and-effect of Guillen versus Wedge.

This year, same story. The Indians stumbled out of the gate and never really recovered. The White Sox played competitive baseball for four months before fading.

Pin the fade on Guillen if it satisfies you. But at least the White Sox were competitive, which is more than you can say for your 2006 Indians.

You can laugh all you want at loudmouth Ozzie and his merry band of underachievers. You can gloat at the fact that the Indians played a direct role in making sure that Chicago won't be able to defend their championship next month. You can return Guillen's famous choke sign en masse for the rest of the week.

But I know this much: Guillen will have his team ready to play again next spring. Will Wedge? History says no.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

The Morning After: Baltimore

Ravens 15, Browns 14
Record: 0-3
Divisional record: 0-2

Now, THESE are the Browns I've come to know and love. These are the Browns of my youth.

Heart-pounding razor-close games. Critical mistakes at the worst possible times. The opposing team driving an 80-yard stake into your heart. Waiting for the inevitable score that would lose the game.

These are my Browns. I feel so at home now.

In a game most people (including myself) thought the Browns had zero chance of competing in, let alone winning, the Browns' offense and defense suddenly sprang to life in a glorious stretch that last most of the second and third quarters.

Charlie Frye found Braylon Edwards for a 58-yard touchdown pass to put the Browns up 7-3. The offense used the two-minute drill to near-perfection to put up a convincing 14-3 halftime lead.

For the first time all season, the Browns actually looked like they had their shit together. The defense provided fairly consistent pressure on Steve McNair for most of the game. The run defense stepped way up from Weeks 1 and 2, stifling Jamal Lewis.

But as has been the case pretty much since the Browns re-entered the league, they lost the experience battle, and it cost them the game.

After an uprising in the second quarter, the offense went dormant again in the second half. Baltimore, loaded with veterans, knew that if they could chip away at the lead, they had a chance to win. The Browns, who needed nary more than a field goal to seal the game, couldn't even muster that.

You could hear Baltimore's footsteps growing louder as late afternoon turned to dusk. A touchdown to pull to within 14-9. D'Qwell Jackson made a great play to avert a two-point conversion.

But the Ravens kept chipping away. A fourth-quarter field goal put them right on Cleveland's doorstep at 14-12.

Then came the play that decided the game. Second and goal, inside of four minutes to play. Browns youth versus Ravens experience. Cleveland, which had managed to stay in the driver's seat most of the game, were finally overmatched when it mattered most.

Charlie Frye, going for the gusto, forced a pass up top to Braylon Edwards six yards deep in the end zone. If Edwards catches it, the game is essentially over. But he didn't. He didn't have a chance.

Instead, savvy cornerback Chris McAllister gambled, committing to the ball. It paid off. McAllister plucked the ball away from Edwards, setting up the Ravens drive that would result in Matt Stover's game-winning field goal.

All throughout the second half, the Ravens' veteran poise was the story. McNair keeping drives alive with clutch third-down completions. Matt Stover calmly nailing a pair of fourth quarter field goals like he's been doing for more than 15 years. McAllister's well-timed gamble in the end zone.

They kept chipping, chipping, chipping, like miners looking for a vein of gold. It wasn't pretty, but they found it and escaped from Cleveland with the win that kept them tied with Cincinnati atop the AFC North.

Anyone who wants to place this loss solely at the feet of Frye is missing the point. Much like Bill Buckner's immortal fielding gaffe, it was simply the last domino to fall in a series. Truth be told, the Ravens won this game, in a geological sense, over the past 10 years, amassing a cache of impressive veteran talent, making draft picks that panned out, building a roster that has needed very little turnover.

Those teams are the teams that tend to win the close games. Those are the teams that can take the pinhole of an end-zone interception and turn it into the daylight of a win.

That's the type of team we can only hope the Browns are going to have in five years.

Up next: at Oakland, Sunday, 4 p.m.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Getting short with Peralta

It's hard to tell what's gotten into Jhonny Peralta this year.

The Peralta who was driven to succeed a year ago has been replaced with a character who plays lax defense at baseball's most important defensive position, and is hitting nowhere near enough to offset the shaky glovework.

All in all, it looks like his competitive fire went out and he has no idea how to restoke it. Or he doesn't really care about restoking it.

Peralta's limp season is not lost on Tribe manager Eric Wedge, who is making his shortstop a favorite lightning rod for public criticism. After Thursday's series-losing loss in Oakland, Wedge laid Peralta open in the media again.

"The way he's playing shortstop right now is just not getting it done," Wedge told The Plain Dealer.

Wedge took particular umbrage to a Marco Scutaro infield single, which Wedge said Peralta should have been able to make a play on. The single helped ignite an Oakland rally that eventually put the Athletics up 4-1.

"Yeah, he should have made that play," Wedge told reporters. "I'm tired of talking about the guy. We've challenged him ... He has to make that play. We've challenged his pregame preparation, his first-step quickness ... He's going to have to do better to be the defensive shortstop we want him to be."

If Wedge is at his wit's end with Peralta, It means the Indians' front office is as well. So unless Peralta suddenly turns on the juice these last 10 games of the season, it is highly likely that Peralta will either not be a member of the Indians by next spring, or will be playing a different position at the very least.

A lot of preseason prognosticators fingered Peralta for a slide this year after an impressive full-season debut, but I don't think anyone though he would fall this hard. His spacy play at shortstop looks like it might even be infecting Andy Marte, a third baseman with Gold Glove potential who has also shown an aversion to exerting himself at times.

So how did it get this bad for Peralta? We can only hypothesize about what's going on in his head, but it's probably a combination of several factors:

1. He bought his own hype
After hitting .292 a year ago and setting an Indians franchise record for home runs by a shortstop with 24, Peralta appeared to be a rising star. Sure, he didn't have the range of Omar, but he was competent in the field after a shaky start and his offense made everyone believe he was going to follow in the lineage of Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada and other shortstops who developed into heart of the order hitters.

Peralta swallowed the accolades hook, line and sinker, and much like the departed Brandon Phillips, started believing he was better than he actually was. Maybe he started thinking he had this baseball thing down pat, which is a sure recipe for humble pie for a young player.

2. He signed a fat contract extension
It's amazing how different players react with stark contrast to newfound financial security. Grady Sizemore signed a six-year contract extension and took it as a vote of confidence from the Indians organization. It seems to have made him try even harder to be a great player. Peralta signed a five-year contract extension and is acting like a person who hit the lottery and never has to worry about money again. The drive to prove himself seems to have evaporated.

3. He is no longer viewed as Omar's replacement
Peralta had a huge mountain to scale at the start of last season. He was the guy who had to prove he was worthy to tread the same infield soil where Omar Vizquel worked his magic. Every time a ball was hit to him, Peralta knew he would be incessantly compared to his predecessor. Every error, every late throw, every miscalculation would be met with eye rolls, scoffs and "Omar would have made that play." Peralta knew it, and it kept him on his toes last year.

This season, we are in the year 2 A.O. (After Omar), and Peralta, based on his performance a year ago, was allowed to stand on his own merits without the relentless comparisons to Vizquel. It caused him to relax, maybe too much.

Peralta seems to be one of those players who needs constant prodding to realize his potential. Wedge -- hardly a master motivator -- is having a hard time doing that. It is possible that Peralta might need to play for a different manager who can find a way to light a fire under him again.

But I'm not about to lay the bulk of the blame at the feet of Eric Wedge for not motivating Peralta. In the end, the player is the one who has to take the field and find a way to make the plays and get the hits. This season, Peralta isn't doing that.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The wrong move again

Those Indians, they just can't do anything right.
Last winter, they couldn't lure B.J Ryan or Trevor Hoffman to town, so they had to settle for grossly overpaying Bob Wickman to the tune of $5.4 million for another year of his services.
Even coming off a career high 45 saves in 2005, the move was largely panned for a variety of reasons, but mostly because Wickman isn't Jose Mesa from 1995, he of the three-up, three-down save variety.
All we ever heard from Joe Blow on the street was how Wickman was not to be trusted, how watching a Wickman save required one to chug antacid, how the Indians were never going to win anything with Wickman as a closer.
Then Wickman was traded to Atlanta for a Class A catcher and a bag of peanuts, we were subjected to the likes of Fausto Carmona, Jason Davis and Tom Mastny in the closer's role, and suddenly Wickman didn't look so bad.
Then, Wednesday, Wickman signed a one-year, $6.5 million extension with the Braves, and the Indians instantly became idiots for dumping Wickman under the auspices that he was certain to retire at season's end. Even if the Indians didn't believe that, it became Cleveland's own "weapons of mass destruction" rumor, based on faulty intelligence gathered by an inept network of spies.
Yeah, those dumb Indians. What kind of GM is Mark Shapiro anyway, shipping off an experienced closer for jack-diddly-squat? The Braves are going to get a lot of mileage out of Wickman, and we're going to be left with nothing.
It's so easy to be a backseat commentator, isn't it?
If the Indians kept Wickman and inked him to a one-year extension worth nearly $7 million, what would we all be saying?
"Does Wickman have compromising photos of Larry Dolan?"
"What are Dolan and Shapiro smoking?"
"Do the Indians want me to have a coronary, subjecting me to another year of Wickman?"
I think, at this stage, being critical of Indians management is such a reflexive action among the fan base that no matter what the Indians do, it will be met with criticism.
The Indians do deserve a fair amount of criticism for creating a domino effect that began last winter and will end with the team's fourth losing season in five years. But to call the Wickman trade a bad move in retrospect is purely a knee-jerk response without a lot of thought to back it up. If they had kept him, that would have been a bad move, too.
Criticism of the Wickman trade says a lot more about the fans and local media than it does about the team.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

The Browns need Urban Meyer

It finally occurred to me last night: I know what the Browns need to turn their fortunes around. And they don't have to look any further than Gainesville, Fla.
The Browns need Urban Meyer as their head coach. And that's why, today, I am officially kicking off the "Bring Urban Back to Ohio" campaign.
For those of you scratching your heads, thinking that if the Browns should go after any college coach, it should be Jim Tressel, let me give you a short history lesson.
In 2001, I first met Meyer when he became the coach of my alma mater, Bowling Green. He wasn't a blowhard. He wasn't a cantankerous leatherhead. He was simply good.
I was the sports editor of the student newspaper that fall when I watched the Bowling Green football program undergo an amazing transformation with little fanfare. With quiet, effective steps, Meyer eliminated the sludge left behind by former coach Gary Blackney, who likely stayed around a few years too long, and installed a new, exciting brand of football that he truly believed in.
It wasn't the paint-by-numbers football that Browns coach Romeo Crennel and offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon lean on; it was adventuresome. It embraced the big play. And if the big play didn't work, Meyer didn't abandon it for screen passes. He kept calling for it.
Meyer's offense, kind of a hybrid between a spread and West Coast scheme, turned an undersized quarterback in Josh Harris into an NFL prospect. With it, the Falcons performed the biggest turnaround in college football that year, jumping from 2-9 in 2000 to 8-3 in 2001, including wins over BCS conference teams in Missouri and Northwestern.
In one season, Meyer turned around a stagnant football program with very little roster turnover. His team latched onto his passion, enthusiasm and willingness to stick his neck out.
When Meyer left for Utah after the 2002 season, we might have been disappointed in BG, but we knew this was a coach destined for big things. Sure enough, he led Utah to a BCS bowl game and managed to get starting quarterback Alex Smith picked first overall in the NFL draft.
Then he was on to Florida and the real big-time of college football.
Meyer probably isn't ready to leave Florida just yet. But give him a few years to make the Gators back into a national powerhouse. Then he might be ready for the next challenge. By then, the only place he will not have conquered will be the NFL.
In a sit-down interview with me shortly after he was hired in BG, Meyer said he had no desire to go to the NFL.
"I have had opportunities to go to the NFL, but I love the college game," he said.
That might still be true, but let's wait and see what happens when he's scaled the college mountain and starts thinking about a seven-figure payday in the pros.
Now, I know what you are thinking: college coaches have a long history of falling flat on their faces in the NFL. The mentality is much different. NFL coaches are dealing not with wide-eyed kids but with grizzled veterans made callous to authority by million-dollar paychecks and years in the game. They can't just step in and demand respect. It has to be earned.
But Meyer, I think, doesn't view himself as a cure-all football guru the way Steve Spurrier and Butch Davis did upon arriving in the NFL. What Meyer would need is a general manager savvy and knowedgeable about the ways and means of the NFL. A GM who knows the salary cap, free agency, the draft, contract negotiations and above all, has a talent eye similar to that of Meyer.
The GM would need to be good enough to let Meyer do what Meyer does best: be an inventive, creative coach.
The Browns have the personnel to fit a Meyer system. Braylon Edwards is a playmaker. Kellen Winslow Jr. is a tough possession receiver who specializes in yards after the catch. Dennis Northcutt is a deep threat. Joe Jurevicius is a middle-route possession receiver.
Charlie Frye is a mobile quarterback, kind of a bigger, more athletic version of Harris and Smith. Reuben Droughns and Jerome Harrison could give Meyer all types of different looks out of the backfield.
I don't think it would take long for Meyer to put the right pieces in the right places, at least on offense.
Meyer is an Ashtabula native who played football at the University of Cincinnati. He knows what a rabid football area this is. Passionate fans are something he demands when he takes over a football program.
When the time is right, the Browns would provide a suitable project for him.
He is one of the few coaches who I think could return exciting football to the shores of Lake Erie.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Mount St. Kellens finally erupts

I was waiting for this. The Brown with the biggest mouth and hottest competitive fire of them all has finally reached the point where he couldn't keep it inside any longer.
Kellen Winslow Jr., for the first time since his motorcycle accident last year, has reverted back to the Kellen Winslow we know and love, the "I'm a soldier" Kellen, not the Kellen in search of peace, balance and harmony we were sold in the aftermath of the motorcycle crash.
Mount St. Kellens has once again erupted in front of the cameras. This time he took out two small villages, a geological survey crew and the entire Browns coaching staff.
"Some of the coaches might be holding us back a bit," Winslow told reporters yesterday.
Winslow said he is unhappy with repeatedly being taken out on third down and thinks the play calling is too conservative.
"I don't mean to try to go behind (the coaches') backs or whatever, but let's go, let's air it out, let's run the ball, let's make plays, let's be exciting," he said.
When you are coming off two straight embarrassing losses to start the season, it's hard not to like someone who wants to rock the boat a bit. Winslow's off-the-field antics are not to be emulated, but his white-hot fire in the belly is something more Browns players should have between the lines.
Fans from Sandusky to Willowick will applaud Winslow's desire to give this team a swift kick in the pants and get them going. But you have to wonder if it will have the opposite effect.
In my experience, most coaches don't like to be questioned about their methods. Most coaches detest players who dissent. And most coaches would just as soon shave with a rusty lawnmower than have a player call them out in the media.
Jeff Garcia (who, admittedly, seems to make enemies wherever he goes) found that out the hard way with Butch Davis. Garcia publicly complained that he wasn't getting enough reps to familiarize himself with the offensive schemes during the 2004 preseason. Davis' response was to spite both Garcia and the team by benching his starting quarterback for the vast majority of all four preseason games, giving him virtually no chance at learning the schemes.
As a rookie, Winslow sort of found that out, too. After a lengthy and contentious holdout, he was almost entirely relegated to special teams dutyuntil his season ended with a broken leg in Week 2.
The moral of the story: many coaches aren't above hindering their own team just to prove a player wrong. It's a ego thing.
After Winslow's spout-off to the cameras Monday, coach Romeo Crennel bristled when asked for a response during his weekly press conference.
"He's not a wide receiver, first of all, so when you go three wides, he's not there," Crennel told reporters. "I think you need to look at those plays that were run when we had that personnel group in the game and see if his presence would have made a difference on the plays that were called or not - before we jump to conclusions about whether he should be on the field or not."
In other words, Crennel's not about to have his playbook questioned by one of his players. He is right not to stand for Winslow's public display of discontent. But what matters is what Crennel does when the reporters aren't there and Winslow isn't on his soapbox.
Are he and offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon going to sit down and look at refining the offensive playbook to get the most out of their players? Or is Crennel going to pull a Butch Davis, dismiss Winslow's words and sit him on every third-down play for the rest of the season as a means of passive-aggressive punishment?
Because, while Winslow's public airing of dirty locker-room laundry can be questioned, his beef is legitimate.
The Browns are a work in progress. And the progress has been very slow to come. Crennel owes it to his team, and the fans who keep buying tickets to watch it lose week after week, to put all the ideas on the table and consider them.
Winslow can be a beast on the field. You need only watch highlights of the Miami-Tennessee game that preceded his "soldier" rant -- a game in which he blocked two Volunteer players at one time -- to know he has a rare combination of fire and talent. He wants to be the one to make things happen on the field. On a team in desperate need of direction and leadership, to have a player who wants to do that, and is able to do that, is extremely valuable.
Crennel needs to look past Winslow's public display of insubordination to the validity of his argument. In order to keep drives going, the best players need to be out there on third down. And Winslow might just be the best offensive player the Browns have.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Morning After: Cincinnati

Bengals 34, Browns 17
Record: 0-2
Divisional record: 0-1

Here is the true essence of the Cleveland Browns, pretty much since they returned to the league:
It doesn't matter how talented the players are, how well-prepared the coaching staff is or how sharp the front office is. Because no matter how good one player or coach or front-office suit is, something else is always there to compromise their performance.
The Browns have some players with Pro Bowl potential. Romeo Crennel has the pedigree of a winning coach, and Phil Savage has proven for years that he can evaluate talent.
Football is the ultimate team game. A player or coach is only as good as who he is surrounded with. A great individual can quickly be lost in the shuffle of a bad team performance.
That's where the Browns have been since 1999, and that's why no matter who they draft, who they sign, who the coach is, who the GM is, they never appear to be building toward anything.
It doesn't matter that Kellen Winslow Jr. could change a game on one catch, because Charlie Frye can't get him the ball. It doesn't matter if Frye has what it takes to be a solid NFL quarterback because the offensive line can't protect him and his receivers keep dropping the ball.
It doesn't matter if Reuben Droughns can be a dominant rusher because the line can't run-block for him.
Winslow and Droughns can be the horses that carry the offense, but Crennel and offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon have sat them on key third-down situations repeatedly these first two weeks of the season.
It doesn't matter if Kamerion Wimbley can become a sack machine, because the run defense is so porous, quarterback sacks are rendered irrelevant. The Browns sacked Bengals QB Carson Palmer four times Sunday, and Cincinnati still cruised to a 17-point win.
Even if Wimbley finds the quarterback, the play in the secondary is so weak, chances are the opposing quarterback is going to be able to find an open receiver before anyone can close on him.
It's something that happened repeatedly Sunday as Palmer toyed with the Browns coverage schemes.
The Browns can put up respectable individual numbers game after game, but it won't lead to wins because those performances will be nixed by something else.
We are quick to lay a lot of the blame at the feet of Carthon, and he hasn't exactly shined in his role to this point. But something tells me he wouldn't look nearly as bad if the offensive line would open holes for Droughns and protect Frye, and if Dennis Northcutt and Braylon Edwards would do what they are paid to do and hold onto the dang ball.
I could sit here and dissect what went wrong Sunday, but it's not worth it. More or less, it would be a carbon copy of what has gone wrong in every Browns loss for the last four years.
This week's strengths are next week's weaknesses. A solid performance from Player A is cancelled out because Player B didn't block, Player C didn't catch, and coach D didn't run the right play.
And Players E, F and G were all called for holding, sucking the life out of three separate drives.
This is why the Browns are spinning their wheels. This is what I mean when I say the Browns are a bad football organization. It's not an indictment of Crennel or Savage or Frye. It's not a condemnation of the players on the offensive or defensive lines. Indeed, there are capable players and leaders throughout this organization. But when you try to put it all together, it's a mess.
It's been that way for seven years, and it looks like it will continue to be that way for a while.

Up next: Baltimore, Sunday, 4 p.m.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Your upset special

Browns 23, Bengals 20, OT

Yep. You read it here first. We know the Browns always lose the games we think they're going to win, then turn around and win the games we think they have no shot of winning.
Here is how I see today's game playing out:
After a shameful performance in Week 1, the offensive line comes out determined in the first quarter, providing enought blocking to allow Charlie Frye to lead them to an opening touchdown drive and a 7-0 lead.
The Bengals counter with a first-quarter drive that nets a field goal to cut the lead to 7-3.
Early in the second quarter, D'Qwell Jackson, through pure dumb luck, reaches into the air and finds a Carson Palmer pass. He picks it off and races into Bengal territory.
With the shortened field, Frye is able to dink and dunk his way down to the Cincinnati 15. Reuben Droughns finds some daylight on a second-and-10 run and gets down to the Bengal four to set up an first-and-goal. After Droughns is stuffed on first down and a pass falls incomplete on second down, Frye rolls right on another pass attempt. His protection fails, the play breaks down and Frye is forced to run for it. He flings himself toward the goal line, cracking helmets with a Cincy defender. The ball barely grazes the goal line. The refs signal touchdown. Marvin Lewis challenges, but after seven minutes of review, the call stands and the Browns go up 10-3.
The bad news: Frye suffers a concussion. He is sent to the locker room with an unknown status.
On the ensuing kickoff, the Bengals get a great return to the Cleveland 45. Cincy sets up their two-minute drill with time winding down in the first half. On a second-down pass from the Cleveland 18, Palmer finds Chad Johnson in the corner of the end zone despite the best efforts of Leigh Bodden, who had been doing his usual solid effort on Johnson.
To celebrate the touchdown, Johnson puts a wig on the football, calls a minister out of the stands, and performs a mock wedding ceremony on the goal line. The Bengals are penalized 15 yards on the ensuing kickoff, but the Browns take a knee, content to go into the locker room with a 10-10 tie.
Ken Dorsey, subbing for the injured Frye, takes the Browns first possession of the second half and thanks in large part to a 35-yard scapmer by Jerome Harrison, is able to drive the Browns into field goal range. Phil Dawson connects on a 40-yarder for a 13-10 Cleveland lead.
But then it starts to fall apart.
On the Browns' next possession, Dorsey looks like, well ... Dorsey. After a dropped pass by Braylon Edwards and badly overshooting Kellen Winslow Jr., Dorsey tries to force another pass into double coverage and it's picked off and returned deep into Browns territory.
Rudi Johnson deposits the ball in the end zone two plays later for the Bengals' first lead, 17-13.
After another three-and-out for the Browns, the Bengals start the fourth quarter by driving into the red zone, but the Browns' defense digs its collective heels in and forces a field goal to make it 20-13. It turns out to be a pivotal moment in the game.
After a Bengals punt with a little over five minutes to play, Charlie Frye comes trotting back onto the field. Inspired, the Browns buckle down. Winslow nabs a pair of key third-down passes and Droughns grinds out some tough yards. The Browns get down to the Cincy five as the two-minute warning arrives. The Bengals stuff the Browns on three straight plays. It's fourth-and-goal from the four with a little over a minute to play. Once again, the Browns have Frye roll right. Just like in the second quarter, the play breaks down, nothing is there and Frye is forced to run for it. He cuts back, lunges toward the goal line, and this time, makes it over with ease. The game is tied 20-20.
Palmer frantically tries to drive down the field, but can't get into decent field goal range. He heaves a hail mary pass as time expires, but it's batted down on the Cleveland five.
Cincinnati wins the coin toss to start overtime. Cincy drives for what looks like the game winner. Four minutes in to overtime, they set up kicker Shayne Graham for what looks like the winning 44-yarder, but the snap is bobbled and Graham pushes the ball wide right.
The Browns take over, Frye hits Winslow for a key 17-yard completion, and the Browns are able to drive well within Dawson's field goal range. With a little over eight minutes to play in overtime, Dawson nails a 37-yarder for the 23-20 win, and a huge weight is lifted off the Browns' shoulders.
That's my story and I'm sticking to it. If any part of this is wrong, may the egg on my face come in the form of a Sausage McMuffin.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Great arms confuse the Tribe

If this Indians season has taught us anything, it's that you can't give the team's management too many options. If you do, they're going to have a hard time making up their minds, and players are going to suffer in the process.
As The Plain Dealer's Bill Livingston said Friday, you can use Jeremy Sowers and Fausto Carmona as case studies. Sowers is a soft-tossing lefty who really can't do much besides start. As such, the Indians have put Sowers on a definite path. They used him exclusively as a starter throughout the minors, they brought him up in June and placed him straight into the starting rotation, gave him the ball every fifth day and closely monitored his workload.
Tuesday was his final start of the season after 185 innings between the minors and majors. The numbers speak to the structure and support the Indians have given Sowers: 7-4 with a 3.57 ERA that is second only to C.C. Sabathia's 3.24 among Cleveland starters.
Sowers is widely considered a rising star among AL starting pitchers and should open next season in the middle of the Indians' rotation.
Compare that to Carmona, a righty blessed with a 97-mph fastball. His talent is vast. He has the potential to help a team in so many ways. Like a college student taking The Winking Lizard's Beers of the World tour, the Indians mouths started watering. They didn't know where to start.
With an expanded arsenal of pitches, Carmona could be a really good starter. That's the tack the Indians took in the minors. That's the role in which they brought Carmona to the majors. He pitched respectably in his first major-league start against the Tigers earlier this year.
But the Indians had to ask themselves, are they selling Carmona short? Sure, he could be an excellent starting pitcher, but imagine if they trimmed down his repertoire and put him in the bullpen. That explosive fastball with a filthy slider, he could be untouchable as late-inning reliever.
So they moved Carmona to the bullpen. They gave him the ball in the eighth inning, and he performed well. The Indians' brass must have begun high-fiving each other under the table. They were geniuses! This Carmona kid was going to be Jose Mesa circa 1995, except he was going to be Jose Mesa circa 1995 for the next 10 years!
Get Bob Wickman out of here ASAP! We've got to turn this Carmona kid loose in the closer's role!
Except the Indians' brain trust forgot a small detail. Closing begins with what your arm can do. It ends with what's going on between your ears. Carmona, a painfully young rookie who had never been a closer before, didn't know enough to fear and respect the role. He didn't know what went into the role from a mental approach, and the Indians' leaders didn't do much to prepare him.
All they were listening to is the defiant words coming from Carmona, that he wasn't afraid of closing, that he wasn't afraid of any role.
He didn't know enough to be afraid. That would change, quickly and violently.
In the span of two road series in Boston and Detroit, Carmona coughed up four game-losing hits, two on home runs. His mood changed from confident to fearful to incredulous right before our very eyes. The Indians quickly rushed him out of the closer's role and back to setup, but he was psychologically battered. He struggled there, too, and was sent back down to the minors.
Now, in what has become an ultimate slinking-back-home-with-tail-between-legs image, the Indians have returned Carmona to starting, where he still hasn't been that effective.
Friday, he has the unenviable task of facing Minnesota's Johan Santana. At first blush, it looks like Carmona is in for another dose of humility.
It might take weekly appointments with a sports psychologist this winter to straighten Carmona out. Right now, he's pitching as if every ball that leaves his hand is going to be crushed. He won't blame Indians' management for that, so I will.
And it's not as if Carmona is an isolated case. Ever since Mark Shapiro and Eric Wedge took the reigns of the organization, it seems that potential-laden power arms cause them to waffle like they are covered in syrup.
Jason Davis has been in much the same boat, though that is due in large part to his own inability to seize a starting job and keep it. Now, Davis is in the bullpen for the foreseeable future, and has been every bit the talent tease he was as a starter. All potential, few results. But the bouncing around probably didn't help his confidence.
Danys Baez was the first guinea pig the Indians ping-ponged between the rotation and bullpen. Unlike Carmona, he had some success as a closer. Like Carmona, his arm was good enough that every time he was placed in a role, it didn't take long for the Tribe's decision makers to wonder if he was better-suited for another role.
He eventually ended up in Tampa Bay, where he became the closer, and has been a reliever ever since.
It's hard enough for a young pitcher to adjust to major-league hitting without the added stress of wondering what role they are going to fill on a week-to-week basis. A young player needs to know that the decision-makers are going to make definitive, properly-researched choices and not treat their burgeoning careers like a game of pin the tail on the donkey.
If the Indians had treated Carmona's head with the same care they treated Sowers' arm, maybe Carmona wouldn't be in the mess he's in. But Carmona has the misfortune of having a versatile arm that forced the Indians to make a decision and stick to it, which they appear incapable of doing.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Winslow's fearless prediction

Kellen Winslow Jr. has never shied from the microphone.* He says what's on his mind no matter what anyone else thinks.
That's why I'm so proud of Kellen sticking his neck and raising the bar for his team with a fearless prediction, dictated to The Plain Dealer:
"We will win [this season]. I guarantee that."
I'm glad he's guaranteeing a win this season. Because after Sunday's loss to the Saints, I was beginning to think 0-16 wasn't out of the question.
Which game should we be eyeing for that breakout win, Kellen? The Raiders game in two weeks? The Houston game at the end of the season? There aren't a lot of candidates.
We're all still waiting for that game when Winslow and his teammates outplay, outcoach and outmaneuver an opponent in decisive fashion, proving that there is a requisite amount of gray matter to back up all that muscle and hot air teamwide.
I'm guessing that's not going to happen against Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Baltimore or Carolina.
Baby steps, Kellen. I know you desperately want to throw down the gauntlet and guarantee a win against a specific team. Try Oakland for starters. That's picking on someone your own size. If the Raiders beat you, maybe aim for the Jets. They're pretty bad.
If you beat the Jets, you earn the right to guarantee a win against, say, Kansas City. If you make good on beating the Chiefs, you are probably a playoff team at that point.
Just remember, Kellen. When you are good, it's being brash. When you are bad, it's being stupid. And I know you are past the stupid phase. Right, Kellen?

*Unless Channel 19 is camping out in the hospital lobby. Then he clams right up. (Can you blame him?)

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

J.J.'s ribs are intact

Enough bizarre twists have gone bad for the Browns this year. It's about time a bizarre twist went their way.
ESPN is reporting that Joe Jurevicius does not, in fact, have broken ribs. He is still out for Sunday's game at Cincinnati, but it appears that four-to-six week timeline for his return can be truncated a bit.
My question is, how on Earth did it take doctors four days to find out that he didn't have broken ribs? Before you say it, I know the first answer you're going to give: It took doctors two weeks to find out Travis Hafner broke a bone in his hand.
But that's a hairline fracture they discovered in Hafner's hand. This was anywhere between two and four broken ribs Jurevicius was supposed to have.
I'm happy, but do we honestly need this kind of stress? It's like someone telling you your best friend was struck by lightning, only to find out that he actually just shocked his finger on a doorknob.
Oops. Sorry for the misinformation.
If it wasn't the Browns, I'd give the doctors a free pass. But this is the Browns, where I'm convinced a team official couldn't shake pepper on his scrambled eggs without something going horribly wrong.
Even when the diagnosis is bad, it still isn't right. Just another day for the brown and orange.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Give the Cavs a break

I'll say it like I've said it dozens of times before: I'll never understand the forgiveness of Cleveland sports fans.
The Browns jump off a high bridge every fall, and we are right there with an air cushion and supportive pat on the back.
The Indians and Cavaliers scrimp and save with the best of intentions, and might even put the semblance of a competitive team on the playing surface, and the instant they do something short of landing a superstar, we are right there to chastise them and mock their management.
This year is no exception.
While the Browns prepare to bend over and take it hard in the posterior once again, the Cavaliers have quietly pieced together a solid offseason that should make this team noticeably improved over last year.
The Cavs reward? To have a myriad of journalists, bloggers and barroom pulpit bangers carry on about what a disaster their backcourt is.
Excuse me, what team was it that made it to the second round of the playoffs a year ago? I don't remember it being the Browns.
But the Cavs, just like their Gateway complex-mates, always have their shortcomings magnified and their successes contorted as questionable moves at best, outright failures at worst.
All this while the orange and brown clown car down on the lakefront is constantly genuflected toward like some great symbol of Cleveland sports.
The same people who deride David Wesley as too old, Eric Snow as old and untalented, Damon Jones as a catch-and-shoot stiff, Shannon Brown as too young, Larry Hughes as too fragile, Drew Gooden as too airheaded, Zydrunas Ilgauskas as a big, white Euro-stiff and Anderson Varejao as all hair, no game are the same people who honestly, in their heart of hearts, believed that the signings of Joe Jurevicius, LeCharles Bentley and the drafting of Charlie Frye were going to signal a new era of Browns dominance.
My message to all Cleveland sports fans: get your heads out of your orange and brown butts and realize where your bread is buttered.
The Browns are nowheresville. They aren't going up the standings anytime soon. They have no star players. They have a coaching staff with very shaky game-planning skills. They have a roster of players who can't stay healthy. If you keep expecting them to win, you will go to bed most Sundays with a throbbing headache and wake up Monday morning with a hangover. That's a fact of life. You'd better start repeating it until you believe it.
The Cavs are the team with the superstar. The Cavs are the team that won a playoff series. The Cavs are the team that got their superstar inked to a contract extension this summer. The Cavs are the team that got their starting power forward wrapped up below market value last month. If any team in this town makes a move, the Cavs are the team that deserves to be lauded, not needled.
The Cavs have faults, sure. They don't have the perfect backcourt. But having a glut of guards is not a signal that Danny Ferry doesn't know what he's doing. On the contrary, with the contracts of Wesley, Sasha Pavlovic, Eddie Basden and Stephen Graham set to partially or totally expire within the next year, it's a sign Ferry is indeed doing things right.
Signing declining players like Jurevicius and Ted Washington to multiyear deals, now that's what deserves to be greeted with folded arms and a stern glare.

Monday, September 11, 2006

On that day...

I must confess something. Five years have passed, and I haven't written a single thing about Sept. 11, 2001 since right after it happened.
Others have written volumes of poetry, prose, fiction and nonfiction about what happened on that day, trying to digest it, trying to mold it all into some form they could get their minds around.
I haven't. I didn't think I could do it justice.
The scope, the magnitude, the fallout. It was all so beyond the scope of me. I could parrot back the feelings of sorrow, the horror, the grief, the overwhelming sense of confusion-slash-dread-slash-anger everyone else was feeling.
But I couldn't do it. I couldn't take this enormous event and synthesize it into a literary form. The notion of it was exhausting just to think about. Living through it was exhausting enough.
I can excuse the 22-year-old version of myself for feeling that way. I was a college student, I was beginning a breakneck-pace semester at Bowling Green featuring 18 credit hours of classes and the sports editorship of the student newspaper. I was taking on more than I realistically could handle to begin with, and trying to delve into the dark, frightening underbelly of that day was too much.
But now, five years later, long since graduated and into the world of work, I think it's time for the 27-year-old me to look back at what the 22-year-old me was feeling, sitting in a college apartment 500 miles away from places where the world was being violently reshaped, and our sense of what it means to be American was being redefined.

It was clear that day. That's the first thing I remember. How blue the sky was, how bright the morning Sun, how warm it felt as it climbed in the eastern sky. And how still the air was. Barely a breeze.
My roommate Casper, who is now in the Army ironically, had gotten up before me and was watching the news on the TV in his room. I woke up around 9:15 and trudged into the living room. I was tired and I had class in a little more than two hours, so I was probably a little cranky.
Casper came into the living room as I deliberated over what I wanted for breakfast.
"You have to turn on the TV," he said. "The World Trade Center is on fire."
I came back to his room and watched for a few minutes on his TV. My first impression was probably the impression a lot of people had: "Who was the moron who did this, and how drunk was he?"
An accident. Surely. Both towers were burning, so I figured a plane had slammed into one tower an debris had ricocheted away and hit the other tower.
I remember reading about a large plane that had slammed into the Empire State Building in 1945. But that was in a thick fog. I failed to see the flaw in my comparison until later.
My second impression: How on Earth are they going to put out fires that high up? Obviously no ladder truck can get that high, and certainly no water cannon can project nearly a quarter-mile straight up.
I wasn't yet thinking of the people trapped above the impact zones of both towers. I certainly wasn't yet thinking terrorist act.
That changed as soon as I retreated to the living room and saw footage of Flight 175 tear a fiery gash into the side of 2 World Trade Center. Then I heard the voice on the news. Two planes, two buildings, clear day. This was intentional.
The gravity of the situation took hold, but the full scope of America being under attack didn't hit me just then.
About 20 minutes passed. My other roommates started to get up and were quickly briefed by Casper and I.
Then we were hit with another bullet of grainy, raw news footage and stammering anchor voices. The Pentagon.
They couldn't be sure, but ... the Pentagon ... there had been an explosion of some sort at the Pentagon.
In an instant, the terror took hold. This wasn't an accident. This wasn't a single attack on a single site. The East Coast of the United States was under attack. What else was going to fall? Where was this going? Chicago? Washington? Los Angeles?
The grainy news footage kept pouring in. Flight 93 crashed in rural Pennsylvania. Later, I would find out that the hijackers might have used a visual cue in Lorain County to swing the aircraft back toward Washington D.C. It apparently was supposed to hit the White House or Capitol. But the passengers fought back and the jumbo jet crashed less than 200 miles from its intended target.
The disjointed commentary and speculation was interrupted twice to watch the south World Trade Center tower collapse, and shortly thereafter, the north.
The first plane hit 1 World Trade Center at 8:46 a.m., the first event in the timeline of destruction. The same building collapsed at 10:28 a.m., bringing the destruction to an end.
In the span of 102 minutes, the entire world was turned upside down. And in a college apartment in Bowling Green, Ohio, me and four roommates were wondering what to do with ourselves.
The stark reality hit me, for the first time in my life. The safe cocoon had been stripped away, which might have been one of the terrorists' intentions.
It's not just that we were capable of being attacked in America. Long ago we should have abandoned the notion that two oceans were enough to protect us in an era of worldwide plane travel.
It was fears far more basic that were laid bare: There were people out there that want to kill me because I am an American. Not because of who I am or what I do, but because of what I represent. They don't care to know my name, they don't care what I do in this world, good or bad. They want me dead because I am an American. They would kill all 270-odd million of us if they could.
At first, It scared me. As the months passed, I realized it is part of the human condition. For as long as there have been human beings, there have been human beings killing other human beings because they feared them, or loathed them, or felt them a threat.
And it will keep happening, as long as there are human beings. The world is just twisted like that.
I try not to dwell on that too much. It's too depressing. That's another reason why I've hardly written about Sept. 11.
But I can't just ignore it. I have to acknowledge it in some meaningful way. And that's why I'm writing this. The fear, anger and confusion born that day won't ever totally subside. Terrorist groups will try to get us, and we'll try to get them. Along the way, many more people are going to die.
Civilization is a thin veneer. Kindness is a personal act. On a large scale, when you don't have to look someone in the face and wonder what they're thinking, humans are far more savage to each other.
Father, Allah, Yahweh. No matter what you call Him, God has to look down on us with great pity sometimes.

The Morning After: New Orleans

Saints 19, Browns 14
Record: 0-1

OK, deep breath.
The Browns just had a bad day. We all have bad days, right?
The Saints just happened to catch the Browns napping on a lazy late-summer Sunday. The Browns laid their egg, got the brain fart out of their systems, and can move on to the methodical improvements they were supposed to make this season. It won't happen again. Right?
Right. So long as they do pretty much everything differently for the rest of the season.
When the New Orleans Saints come in to your house, they don't beat you. You beat you. And, boy, did the Browns ever beat themselves.
It started with the usual suspects that have plagued this team since re-entering the league: penalties and mistakes.
The first play from scrimmage was a microcosm of everything Browns. A beautiful 70-yard touchdown strike from Charlie Frye to Braylon Edwards nixed by a holding penalty.
The en vogue penalty of the day was holding. It damaged several Browns drives in the first half and ultimately ensured that the offense started out in the same funk that has afflicted it since the exhibition game in Buffalo.
The initial scoring drive of the Buffalo game is the last time the Browns' first-team offense has looked average, let alone good. That was three weeks ago.
All in all, the Browns looked utterly unprepared for Sunday's game, which is mind-boggling, considering the coaching staff and players had nine days to formulate a game plan.
The offense didn't even look like it had a game plan. It looked like head coach Romeo Crennel and offensive coordinator Maurice Carthon were flying by the seats of their pants, tossing ideas against the wall to see what stuck. Little did.
The feature back and power rusher, Reuben Droughns, was eschewed on third down twice in favor of sweeps by slow-footed fullback Lawrence Vickers. Neither worked.
Maybe Crennel and Carthon didn't have a lot of confidence in the offensive line. Can you blame them?
A great point was brought up by radio color commentator Doug Dieken after the game. The Saints run fast on defense. They move well laterally, and the Browns simply don't have the blocking personnel to match it.
The injury to LeCharles Bentley and arrival of Hank Fraley gives the Browns a mature offensive line, to be euphemistic. That could be a problem as the season wears on, even if they all manage to stay relatively healthy.
Fraley, Joe Andruzzi, Cosey Coleman and Ryan Tucker are all on the downhill sides of their careers. They have bodies that have been ravaged by years of earning a living in the NFL trenches. They aren't as quick as they used to be, and probably can't hold blocks as long as they once did. That was evident Sunday, when the only time Frye seemed to be able to make something happen was when he was running for his life.
But cohesion is more than half the battle with an offensive line, so we can only hope that their performance improves as the season goes on. That is, if the line manages to stay mostly healthy, which has seldom happened.
In speaking of injuries, another member of the highly-touted free agent class of 2006 was lost Sunday. Joe Jurevicius could be lost until November with cracked ribs.
That in of itself wasn't that surprising. What was surprising was the way historically-underachieving center Jeff Faine played Ted Washington to a draw. Washington, brought in to stifle the other team's running game at the line of scrimmage, was virtually neutralized all afternoon by the plucky play of Faine, who was cast aside by the Browns this spring. The result was something just short of a romp in the grass for Saints running backs Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush.
I might add that Washington will face far better centers than Faine for most of the season.
With the New Orleans running game effective, it allowed quarterback Drew Brees to gain control of the game. Only one of five New Orleans scoring drives found the end zone, but the point is Brees repeatedly led his team to the scoreboard, and that's how games are won.
The Browns stumbled over themselves all afternoon, but still had a chance to pull the game out late in the fourth quarter. But the game ended the way it began: with a flub involving a pass to Edwards (who, for those with short memories, was known for having the dropsies at Michigan.)
This time Frye and Edwards timeshare the blame, as an off-center Frye pass clanged off the hard hands of Edwards and into the waiting arms of a Saints defender with less than two minutes left. Game over.
It's amazing how the optimism of a fresh start can be squashed flat in the span of three hours. But maybe it's not so amazing.
The Browns, until they prove otherwise, are a team deserving of nothing more than relentless skepticism. Just about nothing has gone right for this team since it returned.
I'm not convinced that Romeo Crennel is much more than glorified coordinator who can't handle the heat of being an NFL head coach. I'm not convinced Maurice Carthon is even an adequate offensive coordinator. I'm not convinced Braylon Edwards is going to be a star. I'm not convinced Kellen Winslow Jr. (who scored his first NFL touchdown Sunday) is going to stay healthy. I'm not convinced Ted Washington isn't going to age into a has-been right before our very eyes.
I'm not convinced that any single player on this roster is capable of staying healthy for 16 games. I'm not convinced that dumb penalties won't continue to short-circuit drives.
I'm not convinced that Reuben Droughns isn't going to be exposed as a one-dimension snow plow of a running back who will suddenly be stuffed at the line of scrimmage on a regular basis this year.
And I am not convinced that Charlie Frye is talented enough to be an NFL starting quarterback. Blasphemy? Only if you place Bernie Kosar on a station of the cross.
I am not convinced the Browns are doing anything right. Why? They haven't given me a reason to believe they are. When they stop beating themselves with dumb play, bad coaching and figure out a way to defeat the injury bug, maybe we'll talk. Until then, the Browns are, at their heart, a bad football organization.
No matter how much it wounds your pride, fellow Clevelanders, your beloved Brownies have turned into the Detroit Lions. They have been losing for quite some time, and it appears they will continue to lose into the foreseeable future.

Up next: at Cincinnati, Sunday, 1 p.m.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Buckeyes better where it counted

There are tons of complicated ways to break down Ohio State's 24-7 win over Texas Saturday night. There are many ways to compare it to last year's Texas win in Columbus.
But before you break out the slide rule and summon the panel of pundits, focus on the simple.
Last year, the Longhorns came in to Columbus with the advantage at quarterback. This year, Ohio State came in to Austin with the advantage at quarterback.
In a nutshell, that's how the road team goes 2-0 in this series.
Last year, Vince Young was the hard-throwing, quick-scrambling key to a Texas title. This year, he's counting down the days until Titans coach Jeff Fisher inserts him into the starting lineup.
Last year, Troy Smith was embattled with off-the-field problems and Justin Zwick was unimpressive, leaving coach Jim Tressel with some half-baked version of John Cooper's Stanley Jackson-Joe Jermaine tag team from the mid-90s.
This year, Smith is becoming one of the best stories in college football. He is a rare example of a problem player who not only took control of his career, he is becoming a self-made superstar who just might find himself going in the first round of next spring's NFL draft.
Smith's reputation as the man you want under center in the big game was forged in large part by last November's come-from-behind thriller in Ann Arbor. It was further solidified in the Fiesta Bowl win over Notre Dame.
With Saturday's win in Austin, Smith's name now has widespread connection to Heisman Trophy candidacy.
He was every bit as poised, maybe even moreso, than Young was a year ago in Columbus. He spread the ball to three primary targets -- Ted Ginn Jr., Anthony Gonzalez and Brian Robiskie, and exhibitied a feel for the passing game unimaginable 12 months ago, when he tried to solve most problems with his feet instead of his arm and head.
Smith's first-half touchdown pass to Gonzalez was a fastball with mustard that arrived a split-second ahead of the defender in the corner of the end zone. His second-half score to Ginn was a touch pass, lobbed over defenders to Ginn's waiting arms in the end zone.
That's not to say Smith's performance was without flaw. He overshot Robiskie at least once and still has a tendency to scramble when the heat is on. But at least when he scrambles now, he is still looking downfield for a target.
But Smith poise and experience well overshadowed any mistakes he made. Texas starter Colt McCoy, by contrast, was noticeably behind the curve.
It's not that freshman McCoy was wilting under the spotlight of the biggest nonconference game of the year. He actually did a very good job keeping it together in front of 80,000 fans and millions more on national television. But in the end, his hide wasn't tanned enough to overcome the mistakes of both him and his teammates.
Texas receiver Billy Pittman short-circuited a first-half drive when he fumbled a McCoy pass at the two yard line. In the second half, McCoy overlooked Buckeye linebacker James Laurinaitis on a mid-range pass. Laurinaitis intercepted, setting up the field goal that made it a 10-point game.
McCoy managed a second-quarter touchdown pass to Pittman, but only because of a questionable roughing the passer call on Jay Richardson for helmet-to-helmet contact that set up a first-and-goal situation for Texas. If not for that call, Texas might have been held out of the end zone.
As it is, this is the first time ever that a No. 1 team has held a No. 2 team to less than 10 points on the No. 2 team's home turf.
Last year, Texas' win in Columbus gave them momentum that they never surrendered en route to a national championship. We'll see if this year's measure of revenge does the same for Ohio State.
We know this much: Troy Smith is this year's Vince Young. The quarterback you want out there to win the big game.

Friday, September 08, 2006

You're on notice

The Cleveland sports "On Notice" board, as presented by Stephen Colbert during the pilot episode of his new series, "The Colbert Report and Nightly Cleveland Sports Punditry Hour." Once contractual obligations are ironed out, the show will air weeknights on cable access channel 732, right after "Poodles with Hula Hoops."

(An assist goes to Ben Cox for discovering this way cool On Notice board generator.)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

2006 NFL preview: NFC West

The eighth and final installment of my previews takes us to a foreign land of enigmatic teams with unknown quantities. Well, sort of. I can guess without too much brain squeezing that the Seahawks will likely win this division.

1. Seattle Seahawks (12-4)
It's hard to find any weaknesses on the offensive side of the ball. QB Matt Hasselbeck is solid. WRs Darrell Jackson and Nate Burleson are pretty good. Starting RB Shaun Alexander ... yeah, I guess you can get by with him, too.
The defense doesn't offer a lot of star power, but coach Mike Holmgren has gotten out of them what he has needed. I see no reason why the Seahawks won't be there contending for the Super Bowl again this year.
The x-factor: injuries. As with Carolina, it's about the only thing standing between them and contention.

2. St. Louis Rams (8-8)
Marshall Faulk's career is officially a ghost. Steven Jackson must carry the torch of the "Greatest Show on Turf" for future generations. Unfortunately, that torch isn't burning so bright at the moment. Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce are still around for Marc Bulger to throw to. Kevin Curtis provides a nice addition to the receiver mix that helped carry the Rams to two Super Bowls. But this is a team starting to short out.
The defense ... let's not even go there. Jason Fisk is their backup nose tackle. Yep, that Jason Fisk from last year's Browns.
The x-factor: Jackson. He is the only guy who can come close to carrying this team.

3. Arizona Cardinals (6-10)
What does it say that we know Matt Leinart dated Paris Hilton and got an ex-girlfriend pregnant, but we know next to nothing about what kind of NFL quarterback he'll be?
Call it the Katie Couric syndrome. Everybody wants to know what she's wearing, nobody wants to know the news she's reporting.
Meanwhile, the rest of the team got somewhat better, but not enough to draw a Richter scale reading in '06. Edgerrin James is the Ben Wallace of NFL free agent signings. Great in the short term, probably burdensome in the long term as he ages.
When Leinart has bored himself chasing beaver tail, he has Anquan Boldin to throw to. I think he'll score some touchdowns if you get the ball to him.
The offense has some weapons, but the defense needs serious help before the Cardinals can come close to contending. Die-hard Cardinal fans would probably have trouble naming all 11 starters.
The x-factor: James. With Leinart still sowing wild oats like Johnny Appleseed, somebody needs to lend a stabilizing veteran hand to the roster.

4. San Francisco 49ers (2-14)
It's sad to see what has become of the 49ers. Less than 10 years ago, this was a proud franchise. Now, they are limping along with system QB Alex Smith under center and mercurial Antonio Bryant as their best receiver.
Frank Gore offers a small ray of light as the feature back, but who is going to spring him for yards?
Outside of a select few players, you aren't going to know a lot of 49ers to look at their names. Bay Area fans feel the same way, I'd think. It probably makes them sick to pay attention too closely.
The x-factor: the first overall pick in 2007. That's all the Niners have to play for this year.

2006 NFL preview: NFC South

If the AFC North isn't the best division in football, this sure as heck is. Like the AFC North, the NFC South has three legit playoff teams in Carolina, Atlanta and Tampa Bay. Like Cleveland in the AFC North, New Orleans is the worst team in the division and still isn't all that bad.
Carolina is hands down the top dog here, but don't underestimate the bite of the Falcons and Buccaneers if they stay healthy and motivated.

1. Carolina Panthers (13-3)
The operative word here is "balanced." The Panthers are deep at running back, which is good considering the injury history of DeShaun Foster. They are stacked at wide receiver with Steve Smith and Keyshawn Johnson. They have a cagey veteran quarterback in Jake Delhomme. And that's just the offense.
The defense is anchored by scary pass rusher Julius Peppers. Mike Rucker and Maake Kemoeatu help round out the league's best defensive front.
I could go on, but I'll spare my fingers the typing. The Panthers are the deepest team in the league.
The x-factor: health. If the Panthers stay relatively healthy, there is no reason why they shouldn't be hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy this winter.

2. Atlanta Falcons (10-6)
Michael Vick was supposed to be a can't-miss prospect when he came out of Virginia Tech in 2001. He has certainly helped lead the Falcons to respectability, but he can never seem to put it together.
This year, Atlanta needs Vick to step up and be a leader, not just an athletic specimen. The offense is somewhat depleted with the losses of T.J. Duckett (trade) and Brian Finneran (season-ending knee injury). Michael Jenkins will likely be the team's top receiver, and the undersized Warrick Dunn will continue to have to churn out difficult yards against the likes of Carolina and Tampa Bay.
Georgia Tech product LB Keith Brooking continues to anchor the defense, but with nine years under his belt, he's no longer young.
The x-factor: Vick. Obviously, he has the talent to lead the Falcons to great things. But "lead" is the operative word.

3. Tampa bay Buccaneers (9-7)
Who knew that four years after defense carried the Bucs to a Super Bowl win, the team would re-emerge as a playoff threat with offense as the main course?
Maybe it didn't happen by design, but the Bucs have amassed some real talent on offense. All that's waiting is for QB Chris Simms to prove he's capable of leading it.
The receiver corps includes Michael Clayton, Ike Hilliard and Joey Galloway. Michael Pittman has performed admirably as the feature back, and even the old bruiser, Mike Alstott, is still hanging around.
The Bucs are some missing pieces away from reclaiming their glory days, but they are on the right track.
The x-factor: Simms. He could make the whole offense come together.

4. New Orleans Saints (7-9)
With Drew Brees, the Saints have the most stability they've had at the quarterback position since Bobby Hebert in the early '90s. The question is, who will he be able to throw to? Joe Horn, 34, is still the team's best receiver.
The meat and potatoes of the offense is the two-headed monster of Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush. If the offensive line can give those two any room to wiggle, the possibilities are mouth-watering.
The x-factor: Bush. If the Saints do right by him (read: protect him), he has a few rushing titles in his future.

Up next: the NFC West

2006 NFL preview: NFC East

Terrell Owens left the Eagles, but stayed in the division with the Cowboys, everyone's bitter rival. The league's most egotistical receiver will now be governed by the league's most egotistical coach, Bill Parcells, who is governed by the league's most egotistical owner, Jerry Jones. We wouldn't have it any other way.
The Cowboys should be the most entertaining 9-7 team you've ever seen.

1. Philadelphia Eagles (10-6)
I'd like to chalk this up to something more than a roll of the dice, but I can't. The Eagles and Cowboys are equals, but I'll give the edge to Philly based on the past postseason galvanizing of Donovan McNabb and coach Andy Reid.
The loss of T.O. throws the options around McNabb into a state of flux. Donte Stallworth was acquired, and might be the team's number one receiver. Brian Westbrook provides a solid option as a feature back when he's healthy, which is seldom.
Brodrick Bunkley arrives to help shore up a defensive line that still includes Jevon Kearse. The Eagles are starting to erode from their Super Bowl height of two years ago, but they are still a dangerous team in the weaker NFC.
The x-factor: McNabb. He has to stay healthy for the Eagles to realize any of their potential.

2. Dallas Cowboys (9-7)
I don't know if this team is a legitimate playoff threat hiding behind a circus freak show, or just a circus freak show, period. What I do know is this team is a potent mix of idiosyncratic talents that could either blow up in the standings or blow up in the locker room.
Terrell Owens is already making sure all eyes are focused on him and whatever injury is ailing him at the moment. If he had a hangnail, he'd find a way to get it on ESPN. That's just the way he is. If you're going to try to comprehend the enigma that is T.O., you have to get past the shenanigans.
Lucky for the Cowboys, they have one of the few coaches in the league who can match Owens ego-to-ego.
While we were busy harping on T.O., we forgot that the Cowboys still need a running game and a quarterback. Drew Bledsoe is the starter, but Tony Romo is there the instant he slips. I smell a quarterback controversy brewing.
Feature back Julius Jones has to rebound from a so-so 2005 if the Cowboys are to have a running game.
The x-factor: team chemistry. Owens and Parcells are so good, yet so volatile.

3. New York Giants (8-8)
This team seems like bunch of talented, yet loose, pieces threaded together, which is why I am convinced of their mediocrity. QB Eli Manning needs to show more than his up-down 2005. The offense is a jumble of veterans (Tiki Barber, Jeremy Shockey, Plaxico Burress) and youngsters (Sinorice Moss, Manning).
Michael Strahan is still plugging away on the defensive line in his 14th season. He'll be joined by Redskins transplant LaVar Arrington.
The x-factor: Manning. He wanted the lights of New York. He got the lights of New York. Let's see him perform when the pressure is on.

4. Washington Redskins (6-10)
I think ESPN's Mr. Chuckles, Bill Simmons, put it best: the Redskins sink all this money into the offense, acquire Brandon Lloyd, T.J. Duckett and Antwaan Randle El, and then glue it all together with the creaky, 36-year-old arm of Mark Brunell? What am I missing here?
Oh, yeah. Dan Snyder owns the team. Nevermind.
The x-factor: bionic technology. What else is going to keep Brunell's body together?

Up next: the NFC South

2006 NFL preview: NFC North

This used to be the man's man division. The blood-and-guts, black-and-blue, unshaven, hairy-chested, break-a-metrosexual-in-two-over-your-leg division.
Now, this is a division without a head. The Packers have eroded, the Vikings are terminally mediocre and the only dominant unit in the whole division is the Bears' defense. But "dominant" is stretching it even here. The Bears have a good D-unit, but the monsters of the midway they're not.
The winner of this division gets the "Mr. Irrelevant" award for the NFC playoffs. One and done.

1. Chicago Bears (10-6)
The defense is driven more by the proverbial whip of coach Lovie Smith than the raw talent of Brian Urlacher. Curiously, Urlacher is still hailed as the spiritual heir of Dick Butkus.
The offense isn't very good. Fortunately, all they have to do is not screw up too badly and the Bears should still win more than they lose. As it is, they can't find a quarterback out of the Three Stooges: Rex Grossman, Kyle Orton and Brian Griese, and they can't find a running back out of the other Three Stooges: Cedric Benson, Thomas Jones and Adrian Peterson (one year from now, he will be affectionately referred to as "the other Adrian Peterson.")
The x-factor: Orton and Benson. If those two step up at their respective positions, the Bears might have some semblance of an offense. I'm not holding my breath.

2. Minnesota Vikings (7-9)
Only two things are keeping the Vikings from a total collapse: Brad Johnson's head and Ryan Longwell's foot.
Between quarterback Johnson's veteran knowhow and PK Longwell's upper-tier kicking game, the Vikings should be able to put enough scoring drives together to remain respectable, even without Koren Robinson. It won't get them to the playoffs, but after having some very notable players implemented in the infamous sex-boat scandal less than a year ago, "respectability" is a relative term in the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
The x-factor: Lake Minnetonka. Keep any Vikings player at least 500 yards away from it. Get a restraining order if you have to.

3. Detroit Lions (6-10)
Head coach: inexperienced Rod Marinelli. Offensive coordinator: egotistical and abrasive former NFC champ Mike Martz. How long do you expect that setup to work? Until the Lions fall below .500? Me, too.
The good: Joey Harrington is no longer on the roster. The sorta good: Jon Kitna is on the roster. The possibly good: Mike and Roy Williams will be his primary targets. The bad: Kevin Jones is a one-man show in the backfield. The really bad: Unless you live in Southeast Michigan, can you name two Lions defensive starters? The unspeakable: Matt Millen is still running the show, and assistant coach Joe Cullen was arrested for allegedly driving in the nude.
The x-factor: Kitna. He lent stability to the Bengals in their formative years, and look at them now. If he can do the same for the perennially pitiful Lions, he should be canonized.

4. Green Bay Packers (4-12)
Brett Favre should have hung them up. He deserves better than to go out as a diminished star piloting a rust hulk that was once a gleaming machine he led to back-to-back Super Bowls.
The trouble is, who takes his place? Aaron Rodgers? Probably not ready. Ingle Martin? If you ever start a QB named Ingle, your GM should be fired immediately.
The presence of A.J. Hawk gives the Packers a defensive centerpiece, but building around him is another story.
The x-factor: Favre. He's the only think that inspires anything beyond a yawn about this team. and that's only because he's on what should be a farewell tour.

Up next: the NFC East

2006 NFL preview: AFC West

How the mighty have fallen. Remember when Priest Holmes was the uber-fantasy player? Bigger than LaDainian Tomlinson. Bigger than Peyton Manning. If you had Holmes, you were the envy of your league. That was 2003.
In 2006, Holmes isn't even fantasy-worthy. Pushed aside by the emergence of Larry Johnson in the Kansas City backfield last year, now injury-prone and washed-up, Holmes will start the season on the Chiefs' physically-unable-to-perform list. If he reclaims any part of his career, it will be as a bit player.
NFL running backs get a lot of glory if they're good. But it's not a position you get into for the job stability.

1. San Diego Chargers (11-5)
My surprise pick of the AFC. San Diego has the weapons on offense to take over a largely mediocre division. That includes Phillip Rivers, who is getting his long-awaited chance to prove himself after being the consolation prize when Eli Manning whined his way out of San Diego two years ago.
LaDainian Tomlinson and Antonio Gates are the best in the NFL at their respective positions. The receiver corps is a bit thin, but still has some punch.
I don't think the Chargers have the defense to do much once they get to the postseason, but get there they should.
The x-factor: Rivers. He can be better than Drew Brees. If he is, he has the weapons at his disposal to do big things.

2. Denver Broncos (9-7)
The Broncos seem to be a fashionable dark-horse selection to advance to the Super Bowl this season. With magic man Mike Shanahan as your coach, I suppose anything is possible. But I just got the feeling that the Broncos were a decent team that overachieved their way to the AFC Championship Game last year. I expect them to regress this year.
We've gone past the water-into-wine phase with Bronco running backs. With Mike and Tatum Bell, Shanahan is treading dangerously close to throwing stuff against the wall to see what sticks. Neither back staked his claim to the feature back position in training camp.
Jake Plummer had a good year last year. But I've never been a huge fan of The Snake. He takes the gunslinger mentality to the extreme. Too often, he's pass-first-think-later. It showed in the AFC title game loss to the Steelers.
The x-factor: the Bells. If Mike or Tatum emerges as a legit feature back, it will allow many more pieces to fall into place for Shanahan.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (7-9)
Coach Herm Edwards loves his running backs. This team is stacked in the backfield. Starter Larry Johnson can be spelled by Michael Bennett and Dee Brown. There's even the off chance that Priest Holmes might be able to contribute again at some point.
If only the rest of the roster were so deep.
QB Trent Green comes with my personal seal of approval. I drafted him in my fantasy league. His stable of targets, however, leaves something to be desired. WR Eddie Kennison and TE Tony Gonzalez are both well past their primes, and they're the best of the bunch.
The defense will rely heavily on LBs Derrick Johnson and Kendrell Bell to provide the leadership. CB Ty Law arrives low on gas and plagued by injuries.
The x-factor. the receiver corps. If they give Green reliable targets, this could be a playoff team.

4. Oakland Raiders (5-11)
I had to re-check the Raiders Web site to make sure that Art Shell had, in fact, been re-hired as the head coach. Who dredges up the failures of the past like that? It would be like the Browns suddenly deciding they wanted to give Jim Shofner a second look.
I chalk it up to another chapter in Al Davis' long, slow, painful descent into senility.
It's not all on Shell, however. The likely advent of another lousy season in the Black Hole will be more the product of Shell's roster.
LaMont Jordan is a decent enough running back. Too bad his rushing is going to be complimented (compromised?) by the throwing of Aaron Brooks and the catching of Jerry Porter. How long do you think it's going to be before Randy Moss spouts off because Brooks isn't finding him downfield? He might not just fake-moon the crowd the next time around.
On defense, the Raiders are anything but scary. Warren Sapp was a beast in Tampa Bay. Now, he's just fat, a postmodern Jerry Ball who can no longer get into the backfield.
The x-factor: Davis. The sooner he relinquishes control of the team, the better off the Raiders will be.

Up next: the NFC North

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

2006 NFL preview: AFC South

You know how fans get on rock bands for selling out? You know, the hardcore punk band that turns tail and puts out a whiny emo album because that's what the high school kids will buy? That's about where I'm at with Peyton Manning. I loved his game when he came out of Tennessee. But since then, all he seems interested in is promoting every single product that comes across the table, be it annoying Little Rascals parodies to sell Gatorade or an aside from faux-football action to plug DirecTV.
Yeah, I know it's capitalism at work. Yeah, I know we'd do the same thing if we were him. But there's something so friggin' irritating about watching an athlete turn into an athlete-pitchman. It's like he becomes known more for his commercial work than his work on the field. And in Manning's case, if he can't get the Colts to the Super Bowl really soon, it might be especially true.

1. Indianapolis Colts (13-3)
I'm going to go out on a limb. The Colts will earn the number one seed in the AFC playoffs, and still won't make the Super Bowl.
We know the weaponry Indy has on offense. Manning's arm, the mad skills of receivers Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne. If any team can absorb the loss of Edgerrin James, the Colts are it.
But it always seems to come down to a lack of defense. Tony Dungy is a supposed defensive guru, but the Colts' defense is always found lacking. Maybe it's just too easy to sit back and let Manning and the boys outscore the opposition.
But sports is littered with great offensive teams that were stopped cold in the playoffs by superior defense. The Cleveland Indians of the 1990s and the Dallas Mavericks of the 2000s come to mind.
The x-factor: the defense. Second-rate defense means a second-rate playoff showing, no matter how sexy your offensive numbers are.

2. Jacksonville Jaguars (9-7)
A classic example of good being the enemy of great. The Jags have some nice pieces. I still think Byron Leftwich will be a very good NFL quarterback. But ever since Tom Coughlin was shown the door, they have failed to put the pieces together.
The talent on this team is enough to make a playoff push. But the Jags are hopelessly a second-tier NFL team at their best.
The x-factor: the schedule. Say goodbye to playing teams like the Browns down the stretch this year. The '06 schedule brings Indianapolis, New England and Kansas City as late-season opponents.

3. Tennessee Titans (6-10)
How long do you think coach Jeff Fisher is going to be able to resist putting Vince Young in? About 45 seconds? Me, too. Kerry Collins, Billy Volek, whatever.
The only thing more knotted than the quarterback situation is the running back situation. Three candidates for the feature back, none of whom might be worthy. Chris Brown, Travis Henry and LenDale White form less of a three-headed monster and more of a mish-mash of part-timers.
The defense still has some talent leftover from the glory days, like LB Keith Bulluck, but it's a unit that has really lacked a centerpiece since Jevon Kearse left.
The x-factor: Young. The Titans have invested a lot in this guy. It would really help them if he developed into a stud sooner rather than later.

4. Houston Texans (3-13)
For the next 20 years, this is going to be the Team That Passed On Reggie Bush. Even if Mario Williams turns into Bruce Smith, this is still going to be the Team That Passed On Reggie Bush.
This is also the Team That Drafted David Carr, which explains why they are once again a favorite to have the first overall pick in the draft.
The x-factor: Williams. He damn well better turn into Bruce Smith, or everyone in the Texans front office is going to be searching for a job in the service sector.

Up next: the AFC West

2006 NFL preview: AFC East

Let's follow up the brutally strong AFC North with the relatively weak AFC East. You win this division by passing a drug test and providing proof of citizenship, which any NFL team -- with the possible exception of the Bengals -- should be able to do.

1. New England Patriots (10-6)
Somewhere along the line, Tom Brady learned to walk on water (in the Charles River, it's an easy feat since right under the surface, there's usually a discarded refrigerator or '79 Chrysler. But I digress.)
While His Bradiness is more omnipotent than ever, the team around him is woefully mortal and decaying. Corey Dillon, while still effective, is no longer an elite running back. The Deion Branch situation further weakened an already faltering receiver corps.
The defense will still benefit from the scheming of Holy Father Bill Belichick, but like the offense, it's not quite the force it used to be.
There's still enough gas left in New England's tank for a playoff run, but I'll call them the best team in a weak division.
The x-factor: Belichick. As much as it pains me to say, you won't find a better tactical coach out there. He doesn't need much help to put a winner on the field.

2. Miami Dolphins (9-7)
Where else can Daunte Culpepper resurface and have it considered an upgrade for that team? OK, maybe more places than Miami, but let's consider this a fairly significant roll of the dice by Dolphins' coach/GM/grand exalted pooba Nick Saban. Especially when you consider that Culpepper will have no one near the caliber of Randy Moss, or even Koren Robinson, to throw to in Miami.
The Dolphins will rely heavily on feature back Ronnie Brown, who allowed Miami fans enough breathing room to say "Ricky who?" last year. They are going to need a Ricky-Williams-in-his-prime type of season out of Brown this year.
The x-factor: Brown. The Dolphins passing game could devolve into a mine field very easily. They need Brown to become a rock of stability to have any chance.

3. Buffalo Bills (6-10)
Willis McGahee gets the early nod for the "Barry Sanders Award," given annually to the best NFL player on a hopelessly bad team.
New starting QB J.P. Losman will have a pair of decent receivers to throw to in Peerless Price and Josh Reed, but not much else. On defense, London Fletcher has ruined the second-best name in the league by hyphenating it to London Fletcher-Baker.
The best name in the league belongs to teammate and fellow linebacker Takeo Spikes. If I needed to walk through a dark alley at night, I'd want someone with a name like Takeo Spikes watching my back. He wouldn't even need to throw a punch if I were attacked. His name is so bad-ass, merely saying it should be enough to inflict a black eye.
The x-factor: McGahee. Simply by process of elimination. Outside of cool linebacker names, he's probably about the only exciting thing on the Bills' roster.

4. New York Jets (3-13)
I'm not piling on the Jets. My lowly prediction is to aid them in the long run. They don't have much to build around, so they'd better hope for a lousy '06 that gives them a top five draft pick.
Rookies D'Brickashaw Ferguson and Nick Mangold raise the talent level on the offensive line, but what on Earth are they protecting? Chad Pennington's ability to find Lavernues Coles for maybe three completions a game.
When your running game is highlighted by 49ers castoff Kevan Barlow, you know you're in for a long year.
The x-factor: Head Coach Eric Mangini. It's all about what he's building for the long run. His job this year is to begin laying the foundation.

Up next: the AFC South

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

2006 NFL preview: AFC North

This Thursday marks the start of the NFL season, and what better way to start my annual previews than with the division I'll be watching the closest?
The AFC North is largely considered one of the top two divisions in the league, due in large part to every team but the Browns. The Steelers, Bengals and Ravens are all threats to win the division, and the Bengals and Steelers are both legit Super Bowl contenders.
Three of the four teams in the have the potential to be good this year, but all have questions at the quarterback position, which is a great equalizer.

Teams listed in projected order of finish. Estimated record in parenthesis.

1. Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4)
Nobody would be questioning this team if not for the misadventures of Ben Roethlisberger. Nearly killed in a motorcycle accident this summer, he will now miss at least the opener recovering from an appendectomy.
If not for Roethlisberger stealing the spotlight for all the wrong reasons, the main question on this team would be running back. The retirement of Jerome Bettis creates a shuffle in the backfield. Duce Staley will leave the feature back role to take over Bettis' short-yardage role. Willie Parker takes over as the feature back fulltime, but he's undersized and quick, not the thickly-built power rusher that has traditionally flourished in the Steeler offense. It will be interesting to see how coach Bill Cowher employs Parker.
The x-factor: Roethlisberger. If he can finally return to health, the Steelers are a threat to repeat. If things keep happening to him, this could be a down year in Pittsburgh.

2. Cincinnati Bengals (11-5)
If the defense rises to match the weaponry on offense, the Bengals might become the class of the AFC. Carson Palmer continues to mend from a torn knee ligament, and while he might not be 100 percent this season, he will rebound enough to captain the offense effectively so long as the offensive line can compensate for his decreased mobility. As it is, Palmer has two of the top 10 receivers in the league (Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh) and one of the premier power backs (Rudi Johnson) at his disposal. Imagine if underachieving Chris Perry develops into a good change-of-pace back.
The x-factor: Palmer. When he finally returns to full health, the Bengals' offense can rival the Colts.

3. Baltimore Ravens (7-9)
Steve McNair would have been an awesome acquisition five years ago. Now, it's a roll of the dice at best.
There's no question he brings a list of accomplishments not seen out of a Ravens QB since Vinny Testaverde 10 years ago. But there is also no question that McNair is a nearly-flattened tube of toothpaste, and there's no telling how many more hits he has in him.
The entire Ravens offense is kind of in the same boat: old and injury-prone. Jamal Lewis has never totally recovered from the legal troubles of several years ago. Newly-acquired Mike Anderson is well past his prime. Todd Heap is arguably the team's best receiver, and his health is constantly questionable as well.
Even the vaunted Baltimore defense is getting kind of long in the tooth. Ray Lewis is entering his 11th season.
The Ravens still have the ability to be a playoff contender, but here's betting age and injuries put a crimp in their season.
The x-factor: McNair. With him, the offense stands a chance. Without him, it will be a purple nightmare.

4. Cleveland Browns (6-10)
The acquisition of Hank Fraley should help everyone in Cleveland get over the LeCharles Bentley injury. Once you get past the house of horrors at the center position, the Browns actually emerged from training camp in pretty good condition. Some pleasant surprises even revealed themselves as Jerome Harrison and Jason Wright impressed enough to allow the Browns to part ways with William Green and Lee Suggs.
I still don't know what the Browns think they're doing with the backup QB position. Neither Ken Dorsey nor Derek Anderson has looked adequate. The Browns remain a Charlie Frye injury away from total disaster.
The defense is being constructed as this team's bread-and-butter, and rookie Kamerion Wimbley is quickly asserting himself as the centerpiece. If early returns are true, he will be this team's first legit pass rusher since returning to the league.
Several national outlets have pegged Wimbley as the AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Just because of the difficulty of their schedule (six games against the AFC North, four against the NFC South), the Browns could go 6-10, finish in last place, and still be a markedly improved team from last year.
The x-factor: NT Ted Washington. His presence as a run stopper will allow the Browns' blitz packages to be more effective, and could pave the way for Wimbley to stake his claim as a rising star.

Up next: the AFC East