Monday, December 11, 2006

The see-saw battle

All great coaches seem to have something in common: They all find the middle ground.

Somewhere between Lake Placid and Mount St. Helens lies the ideal coach. Patient enough to not rush to snap judgments, but impatient enough to not accept a plan that isn't working. Controlling enough to discipline, yet hands-off enough to let players think for themselves.

Knowledgeable enough to be a teacher, yet humble enough to realize he doesn't know everything.

Coaches like that do exist. Gregg Popovich, Jeff Fisher and, in his prime, Joe Gibbs, are perfect examples.

So why are some teams stuck on the perpetual see-saw between extremes?

The Browns have been teetering back and forth since they re-entered the league nearly eight years ago.

Chris Palmer wasn't a strong leader. He threw in the towel on his second (and last) season as coach, calling it a "runaway train." Injuries mounted, he lost his ability to inspire his players, and he was gone after posting a 5-27 record with an expansion team.

The tandem approach of Palmer and GM Dwight Clark didn't create a strong enough potion, so the Browns thought big, figuring they needed an all-knowing football guru to be the man in charge of everything. Enter Butch Davis.

Davis had some success, leading the Browns to a 7-9 record in his first season, and a 9-7 record and playoff berth in his second season. But then he started to go berserk. He systematically got rid of just about every player, coach and staffer that wasn't his find. He started to perceive others in the organization as threats, and got rid of them. Morale slipped. Discipline waned. Players got arrested. The organization spiraled out of control.

Davis was forced out, and with the bad taste of a megalomaniac still in their mouths, the Browns swayed back to the low-key side of things, getting a couple of decent, humble guys to run the show in Phil Savage and Romeo Crennel.

Not surprisingly, many of the same problems that plagued Palmer and Clark are also starting to encroach on Crennel and Savage.

Leadership is non-existent in the organization. Change is slow, if it occurs at all. No one wants to be the one to make the tough decision. There is a palpable feeling that many on the team are simply accepting their league doormat standing instead of trying to change it.

The only real difference between this regime and the Clark-Palmer days is that, unlike Clark, Savage is a good judge of talent. That will likely save his job for a while.

But while Savage has a scouting schedule to keep and planes to catch, Crennel gets to sit back here on the homefront and feel the fire under his feet intensify. He is being fingered, rightly or wrongly, as the primary reason why yet another Browns season has run aground.

The Plain Dealer's Bill Livingston wrote Monday that next weekend's game against the Ravens might be the watershed for Crennel. If the Browns put up a fight for 60 minutes, he might be able to buy himself another year. If the Browns are laughed out of Baltimore like they were laughed out of Pittsburgh, Crennel's job probably won't survive past January.

In retrospect, Crennel might have been a bad choice from the get-go. More and more, it seems like he was hired because he was the anti-Butch in personality. You won't catch Crennel polarizing the locker room or the organization on many occasions.

Unfortunately, his personality is so far in the other direction, he can't seem to inspire anything in his players, good, bad or otherwise. His unwillingness to take a stand on tough issues doesn't help.

But if Crennel goes, the Browns front office has a choice to make. They can't simply go out and hire another head coach based on the qualities the previous coach didn't have. Going out and hiring a fire-spewing, vein-popping, table thrower because he's the anti-Crennel is simply going to perpetuate the see-saw this team has been on since the hiring of Palmer.

If Crennel goes, Savage, Randy Lerner and any other relevant figures in the Browns organization have to sit down and analyze, in great detail, what this team needs in a coach. What they need strategically, what they need motivationally and what they need in terms of discipline. Then, the team leaders have to go out and find a person who matches that description as closely as possible.

It won't be easy. But maybe it would be good if the Browns didn't hire their next coach a month before the Super Bowl, as Crennel was hired nearly two years ago.

Take some time. The next coaching hire, whenever it happens, has to count for something big, or this organization is really in trouble.


Zach said...

I thought the Livingston column was a joke. Eight days after the Browns come back from a 14-point deficit, he cites the Steelers' game as evidence the team has quit.
Of the five games played this season on Thursdays (excluding week one because it was the first game of the season) home teams are 4-1. Home teams have a big advantage.
This is the truth in this city: We expect bad seasons because of talent, then when we get what we expect, the coach gets blamed.
Did anyone really think Romeo would turn it around in two years?
And how do you judge progress with six games against playoff caliber teams, and several more, when your team is clearly not at that level. The Browns have played three games against teams with losing records this year. And the Steelers are not a losing team--rather, a playoff team with a losing record.
I know I want Crennel to succeed badly, and because of that, will give him all sorts of leeway. But at the end of the day, can the Browns woes be attributed to him, even in the slightest way?
Maybe. But does that warrant a firing? I don't think so.
What happens when a new coach comes in nest year and goes 8-8. Is that fantastic progress? No. If Crennel is canned, I will give the new guy no leeway, nor will I give the team any. They have pressed the reset button so many times, I have been driven to near indifference.
More chaos is not an answer.

Anonymous said...

I was down in Columbus this weekend, hanging out with a buddy who is a Lions fan. I mentioned how the Browns fan may press for Smith and that Romeo might get canned.

He was shocked that we'd bail on both Frye and Crennel so soon.

Part of me wonders if we're over reacting and aren't staying patient enough.

Of course, part of me wonders if I'm fooling myself and these guys just aren't working.

Erik said...

Zach: I think one of Livingston's points (and it is a good one) is that Crennel's record against divisional teams is abysmal. He is 1-10 with a good chance of going 1-11 after Sunday. Staying competitive in your division is NFL 101. If you can't do that, your job will be short-lived.

Not only that, but many of the division losses have been blowouts.

Some people want us to give Crennel a break. But when Eric Wedge's teams struggle in the division, the call for his head is immediate. That's a blatant pro-Browns double standard that makes no sense. Any coach with the division record of Crennel deserves to be on the hot seat.

Ben: I'm shocked myself that we'd be getting rid of Crennel and Frye so soon. I think Frye will be back next year in some role, be it starter or backup.

But since your friend is a Lions fan, I have to add: That's what the Browns should be trying to not become. A team that employs a GM like Matt Millen for half a decade and counting.

Anonymous said...

Yeah Ben. I was thinking your friend's last name is Ford. He is probably a really patient guy if he still admits he's a Lions fan and would probably keep Matt Millen around for awhile longer. Do you think the Houston Texans are happy they stuck with David Carr this week or maybe they should have taken VY? Note to self: Never listen to a Lions fan when they talk about football, unless you are patting them on the back to make them feel better (like "Put the gun down, it's not that bad.").

Anonymous said...

Oh no no no, he hates Matt Millen and has for awhile. My point wasn't about his opinion as a Lion fan, just of a football fan who isn't a Browns fan (who has no rooting interest in Browns and isn't a Steeler or Bengal fan).

I guess my point is that I don't want to be too reactionary. Palmer/Clark and Davis left the Browns in a real mess. No depth, no foundation. Nothing.

It's gonna take time for this team to get up on it's feet. It's not just the QB, it's not just the coach, it's not just the secondary- it's everything. They haven't been able to stop the run or really pressure the QB since they've returned. They haven't been able to run or protect the QB either.

Like Zach said, are we really surprised that Romeo hasn't turned it around yet?

Finally, are Browns fans really allowed to rip on Lions fans? I know the Lions blow, but are they that much worse than what we've watched over the past 8 years?