Friday, November 30, 2007

The Cleveland Collection

Last week, Sports Illustrated released a commemorative issue chronicling the history of Cleveland sports and celebrating the loyalty of this nation's longest-suffering fans.

(Sorry, Philadelphia fans, Cubs fans, Celtics fans -- you might complain louder, but subject of which fans have suffered the longest is not up for debate.)

Anyway, if you should happen to obtain a copy of "The Cleveland Collection," do me a little favor and open up to the contents page. Look all the way down at the bottom in the magazine credits, over to the far right, next to Frank Deford.

Yep. That "Erik Cassano" is this Erik Cassano.

Rich Swerbinsky, editor-in-chief of, was tabbed by SI to work as a consultant through the issue. Through him, I had a chance to write some content for this special Cleveland issue. I didn't get a byline, but for a young writer such as myself to be listed in the credits of an issue of Sports-freaking-Illustrated -- particularly a Sports-freaking-Illustrated that fans around this area will keep in their collections for years -- is quite enough.

It's a line on the ol' resume if nothing else.

So, I fully encourage anyone and everyone to go to their local bookstore or go online and buy a copy. Even if you couldn't care less that my name is in the credits, it's still a fascinating look at Cleveland sports history.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

That's one valuable finger

The most important, most analyzed, most scrutinized and most worried-about left index finger in the world currently resides adjacent to the palm of LeBron James.

LeBron injured the finger during the second quarter of Wednesday night's blowout loss to the Pistons when Detroit center Nazr Mohammed went for the ball and got a fistful of LeBron's hand instead.

LeBron played the remainder of the quarter, but returned to the bench in the second half wearing street clothes, his index finger buddy-taped to his middle finger. X-rays were negative, but that didn't stop a tidal wave of consternation from washing over Cleveland.

The worrying started with the Cavs' postgame shows on radio and TV, and continued this morning with a rare overreaction by The Plain Dealer's usual voice of reason, Terry Pluto, who previewed the apocalypse of the Cavs without LeBron in a way that would have made Nostradamus proud.

Yes, the prospect of an extended period without LeBron is terrifying to any Cavs fan, and with good reason. LeBron is the only person standing between the Cavs and the draft lottery. More than that, LeBron is the difference between a Cavs team that is a serious conference championship threat and a Cavs team destined for ping-pong balls in May.

The big-market pimps in the national media can make their cases for Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett in the MVP race, but there isn't much of a debate about which superstar is the most integral to his team's success. LeBron legitimately represents a 25-game swing in record for the Cavs over the course of a season. With LeBron, the Cavs are a 50-win team. Without him, likely a 25-to-30 win team. No other star can make that claim.

But, having said that, can I please ask the good folks in Cavstown to come to their senses for a second?

LeBron sprained the index finger on his left hand. It's not an injury that affects his shooting hand. It's not an injury that involves a weight-bearing joint. The Cavs themselves listed the injury as day-to-day, according to the Akron Beacon Journal's Brian Windhorst.

This isn't fragile Larry Hughes we're talking about. LeBron has played through a broken nose, numerous ankle sprains and maybe even a concussion or two. And you think a sprained finger is going to vanquish him, taking the Cavs' season right along with him?

Even if subsequent tests had revealed a hairline fracture, there is no reason to believe the Cavs season was going to be flushed into the NBA sewer.

LeBron knows what he means to this team. He'll get out there and play if it's at all possible, even with two fingers taped. It might affect his ability to go to his left. It might even affect his rebounding. But I find it hard to believe that anything short of a clean bone break that requires surgery would sideline LeBron for more than a few games. Based on a report Thursday, it doesn't look like his injured finger comes anywhere close to that level of damage.

Hasn't watching LeBron for the last four years taught you anything about resiliency? This is a guy who takes shots to the face, chips teeth, and still gets back up to play some more.

I know, as Cleveland fans, we all have an image of LeBron crumpled on the floor, writhing in pain, holding his shredded knee to his chest, stored somewhere in the dark recesses of our minds. But this isn't one of those times.

LeBron will be fine, based on everything that has been written and said as of Thursday afternoon. Even if he has to miss a few games, it will be an opportunity for the rest of the Cavs roster to (once again) prove that they aren't a band of mannequins filling the open space around LeBron.

The Cavs are 9-3 over the past four years when LeBron has had to sit. It's not good to have to make a habit of playing without your superstar, but sometimes the atrophied limbs on a team need to learn to stand on their own. Hopefully, should LeBron have to miss time, when he returns, the team will be stronger for having endured some time without him.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Real life

Two stories broke Monday, one local, one national.

The local story was kind of troubling. Anderson Varejao doesn't want to play for the Cavs anymore. He thinks Danny Ferry hasn't acted in good faith during the way-too-long negotiating process that probably reached an impasse at about the time Ferry tried to perform an end-around and negotiate with Varejao directly during a trip to Brazil last month.

Worse yet, according to NBA writer and noted Cavs skeptic Chad Ford, LeBron James views this as a step backward. Consider the source -- Ford's was an unnamed person "close to LeBron," and it sometimes seems like the ESPN trio of Ford, Marc Stein and Ric Bucher go out of their way to paint the Cavs in a negative light -- but when the scuttlebutt is that your superstar is growing increasingly unhappy with the lack of improvement in the roster around him, it's something worth paying attention to.

Anyone who read that story before going to bed on Monday, as I did, could be excused for wondering if 2008 was going to be 12 months of payback for what has been a pretty darn good 2007 for Cleveland sports.

Then we got up, checked the e-mail, turned on the TV, whatever it is you do while the a.m. coffee is brewing, and the public pout-fest of Varejao, the breach of protocol by Ferry, even the gathering impatience of LeBron, all took a back seat. More than that -- anyone with a heart and soul should have felt like a first-rate dope for spending one second worrying about fallout from the Varejao contract saga.

Redskins safety Sean Taylor had died. At some point while you were snug in your bed overnight, resting up for just another routine weekday, a 24-year-old man with magnificent athletic talent, an 18-month-old daughter, a future wife and every reason in the world to live expired. He bled to death because a bullet from an intruder's gun hit him in the femoral artery.

Taylor hung on for a little more than 24 hours after the now-murderer entered his house and shot him in the leg. But the loss of blood was too much for even his well-conditioned body to overcome.

Taylor's death should shed light on an aspect of professional sports that has become almost an accepted fact of life. Young athletes too often can't or won't sever the ties to past lifestyles once they reach the money-laden pinnacle of their profession. Instead of fame and fortune creating distance between a professional athlete and trouble, in many ways it compounds problems.

Professional sports teams and leagues put their young players through the paces with rookie symposiums, classes and mentoring programs. They try to tell guys like Taylor that they will be targeted for their fame and wealth, that if they hang out at nightclubs festooned with gold and diamonds, beautiful girls hanging on their arms, driving an expensive SUV, trouble will find them. If they go around brandishing guns to settle disputes, as Taylor allegedly did two years ago, trouble will find them.

But once the classes end, it's up to the player to stay out of trouble. They're grown men, after all, and are responsible for their own welfare. Some apparently just don't fully realize what that means.

It means if you fancied yourself a gun-toting thug in college, you have to abandon that lifestyle because your employer has invested millions of dollars in your ability to keep yourself safe. If you fancy yourself a motorcycle daredevil, like Kellen Winslow and Ben Roethlisberger did, you have to give up a potentially-dangerous hobby because if you crash and kill yourself, you could set your team back years on the field.

By all accounts, Taylor had come to the realization that he needed to change his ways. Some attribute it to the birth of his daughter. Some attribute it to a reality check Taylor received during his 2006 armed assault trial, stemming from a 2005 incident in which Taylor allegedly brandished a firearm at a person over two reportedly-stolen all-terrain vehicles. Whatever the reason, interviews with Clinton Portis and other Redskin teammates since his death painted a picture of a new, less volatile Taylor with a newfound commitment to being a family man.

Unfortunately, even if you're ready to let go of a self-destructive lifestyle, sometimes the lifestyle isn't ready to let go of you.

About a week before Taylor was murdered, an intruder reportedly broke into his house, rifled through his belongings and left a strategically-placed kitchen knife on his bed pillow. Authorities haven't said as much yet, but one would have to strongly consider the possibility that the incident is tied to Taylor's death.

Taylor apparently knew he was in danger. News reports said that when he heard his soon-to-be murderer enter the house, he grabbed a machete that he kept near the bed for protection and closed the door to the room where he, girlfriend Jackie Garcia and their daughter were sleeping. After Garcia had taken the baby and hid herself under the covers of the bed, the intruder reportedly broke down the door to the room and shot Taylor.

In other words: This almost certainly wasn't a random burglary. If that story, as relayed to authorities by Garcia, is true, the person who broke into Taylor's house did what they came to do -- injure or kill him. Burglars interested in material loot generally try to stay away from people when committing a crime.

Taylor is now a statistic, a cautionary tale about the dangers of extreme wealth combined with a volatile lifestyle. It's a lesson too few professional athletes learn, and a lesson some learn too late.

In a world where money reigns supreme and contract squabbles burn bridges, everybody in professional sports can learn a lesson from Taylor, both in life and in death. It's not just about the money, it's about how you handle yourself once you have money. Once you get drawn in to a volatile, sometimes-violent lifestyle, stepping out of that lifestyle can be anywhere from excruciatingly difficult to nearly impossible.

As with any untimely death, the real tragedy here isn't necessarily the loss of Sean Taylor. His mortal suffering is over. It's the life he left behind, the daughter who will never know her father, the family that will never be.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Upon further review

The thought is probably still rattling around in your head somewhere.

"The refs could have gotten in wrong. They could have blown the call. The Browns could have lost Sunday's game, and all we would have been left with is a 10-second video clip showing undeniable evidence that the hand of fate smacked the Browns once again."

Why? That 10-second clip of Phil Dawson's game-tying, double-bounce field goal is irrelevant to the game's outcome in the NFL's eyes.

You probably know by now that the NFL places field goal attempts on a list of plays that can't be reviewed via replay. Their rationale appears to be that if they review one field goal attempt, they'll need to review them all. Coaches and players would come up with all sorts of cockamamie reasons to throw the red challenge flag, thereby disrupting the brisk pace of NFL game action (this brought to you by the league that also brought you the "commercial break-kickoff-commercial break" format.)

There are two basic flaws in the league's rationale, however. One, teams are penalized with spent timeouts for failed challenges in the first 28 minutes of halves, so there is a built-in incentive to not challenge everything under the Sun. Two, field goals are basically cut-and-dried 99.9 percent of the time. If the ball passes between the uprights and over the crossbar, it's good. If it fails to do either or both, it's no good. That's why they make goal posts tall and bright yellow, to contrast the brown football.

For all but a relative sliver of field goal attempts, the naked eye is enough to determine whether or not to stick the three points on the scoreboard.

But for that sliver, the ball that passes over the upright, the ball that knuckles just inside the upright, or the occasional 51-yarder that clangs off the left post, hits the curved extension behind the crossbar and caroms back onto the field of play, a game or a season could be on the line.

The way the NFL currently has it set up, that game or season is riding on the shoulders of two men in striped shirts stationed below the goal post. It's all about what they saw, nothing more. If they huddle up with their crewmates and still can't come to the correct conclusion, then the correct conclusion isn't reached.

Sunday, the two officials who had the closest view of Dawson's field goal couldn't agree on what had happened. When the ball hit the turf and 75,000 held their collective breath, the officials looked at each other. One nodded, the other slowly turned toward the field and made the horizontal "no good" wave.

An NFL executive told ESPN that the game, by all rights, should have ended there. Right or wrong, the call was made and, not being reviewable, should have stood.

It took lobbying from Browns players and the argument of the goal official who had nodded to convince head referee Peter Morelli that the ball did, in fact, pass over the crossbar and hit the extension before falling back onto the field.

The Baltimore faithful, led by Ravens coach Brian Billick, might argue that Morelli received advice from the replay official in the booth, amounting to an illegal review, but the fact remains that Morelli never stepped into the booth and saw the replay with his own eyes. No one on the field did.

Whether the playoff hopes of the Browns and Ravens were inflated or seriously damaged hinged on what amounted to an impromptu trial without evidence; a "he-said, he-said" in which the person who made the more convincing argument won -- not necessarily the person who was right.

In this case, the correct person made the more convincing argument and the Browns didn't get shortchanged out of the chance to win that they rightfully deserved. But it could have easily gone the other way.

Instant replay is geared toward helping to eliminate human error from the process of officiating games, particularly key plays. NFL officials should be able to differentiate between using it and abusing it and make judgments on reviewable plays accordingly. But the NFL is so hung up on making sure instant replay isn't abused by teams and officials, they've taken away a legitimate use -- perhaps its essential use: making sure games that are decided on last-second field goals are decided correctly.

What does it say about the league that a pass play that leads to a game-deciding field goal can be reviewed, but the field goal itself can't? When the league's big thinkers sit down together after the season, they might want to meditate on that a bit.

Luckily for those of us in Cleveland, replay wasn't necessary to come to the right conclusion. But at some point -- maybe in a playoff game -- it might.

A 51-yarder off the foot of Phil Dawson to decide a regular season game might not be so big in the grand scheme of things. But if that ball is coming off the foot of Adam Vinatieri to decide the AFC Championship, with camera angles galore, the officials might want to have the option of going to the replay. The league's front office should oblige, for everyone's sake.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Hot dog heaven

CLEVELAND -- In one of the more bizarre career twists in sports history, it has been reported that competitive eating superstar Takeru Kobayashi has decided to give up a life of fame and fortune downing water-soaked hot dogs to take up baseball.

The man with the iron stomach and surprisingly well-developed abdominal muscles has reportedly agreed to a two-year deal with the Cleveland Indians, where he is expected to be employed as a relief pitcher.

Kobayashi was not immediately available for comment, adding fuel to the firestorm of speculation as to what, exactly, possessed him to switch vocations so suddenly and drastically. The speed of Kobayashi's fastball has never been documented, and it's highly doubtful that he possesses adequate command of a curveball or another off-speed pitch, considered essential for success as a professional pitcher.

However, Indians GM Mark Shapiro apparently sees something in the former Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest champ that others in baseball haven't seen.

“The signing of Kobayashi marks the first contract ever signed by a Japanese professional baseball player into the Cleveland Indians franchise and, more importantly, accomplishes one of our primary off-season goals of adding depth to the back-end of our bullpen,” Shapiro said in a statement Tuesday.
Reaction was swift and varied around the world of competitive eating on Tuesday.

Reigning Nathan's contest champ Joey Chestnut lamented the loss of his rival to baseball.

"Bird and Magic. Connors and McEnroe. Ali and Frazier. Domino's and Pizza Hut. That could have been us. We would have ruled competitive eating for the next 15 years. It's sad to see him go."

"We're all mystified," said Tim Janus, known professionally as "Eater X." "When I heard he was leaving for baseball, my first thought was 'stomach ulcer.' It happens to the best of them. But then, I thought, man, he's like Tiger Woods. If Woods walked away from golf to, I don't know, open a hair salon or something, who could talk? What would he have left to prove? He could give the entire golf establishment the finger and just walk away tomorrow if he wanted. Maybe that's what just happened. Kobayashi gave us all the finger and just walked away."

"He's a legend, man," said Eric "Badlands" Booker, a hip-hop artist and competitive eater. "Legends do what legends want to do."

Baseball executives also chimed in on the move by the Indians, who were looking for bullpen help after failing to hold a 3-1 series lead against the Red Sox in last months American League Championship Series.

"The Indians actually back-doored us," said Yankees owner George Steinbrenner. "We were set to offer Kobayashi at least $50 million, but apparently, my GM was too busy mashing Dunkin Donuts into his pie hole in the break room to be bothered with making a simple phone call. Like hammering out a new contract with A-Rod is so damn time-consuming. What am I paying him for again? Oh well, we all know a trained chimp could get this team to the playoffs with a $225 million payroll. Kobayashi will turn 30 in March, so he would have been a perfect fit for our aging, decrepit pitching staff. It's a shame, really. I need to go fire someone. Maybe I'll start small, like an intern."

"Kobayashi's cool. Check it out, I learned a new guitar riff!" said Red Sox GM Theo Epstein.

It is unknown if Kobayashi will attempt to apply some of his much-celebrated eating techniques to his new career, including the famous "Kobayashi Shake," in which he uses his esophagus muscles to force food into his stomach at a faster rate than normal.

It is believed he might be able to use such a motion to generate more power in his pitching delivery, which will be extremely important, given that Kobayashi stands a mere 5'-8" and is barely 110 pounds, hardly an ideal size for a major-league right-handed pitcher.

Kobayashi has about three months to get into baseball shape. Pitchers and catchers report for spring training in mid-February.

Correction: Sources have informed us that the person signed by the Cleveland Indians on Tuesday is not, in fact, competitive eating champion Takeru Kobayashi, but veteran Japanese relief pitcher Masahide Kobayashi. We apologize for any inconvenience this might have caused, and hope you will not take the failure to verify this one, small fact as an overall reflection on the journalistic integrity/competence of this news gathering organization. But still, having a relief pitcher who could eat 63 hot dogs in 12 minutes would have been pretty cool.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Cy for C.C.

Today was another first in the lifetime of any Cleveland fan younger than 35.

For the first time since 1972, the American League Cy Young Award is coming to the shores of Lake Erie.

C.C. Sabathia, come on down. You've earned it. Just be glad that the voting ended before the playoffs began.

Unlike Cleveland's last Cy Young winner, Gaylord Perry, C.C. probably didn't dabble in the dark art of ball doctoring. When you have a 95-m.p.h. fastball and a mid-80s slider, you don't need to hide a dab of petroleum jelly under the sweat band of your cap, or whatever Perry allegedly applied to grease the ball.

C.C.'s 2007 season will unfortunately be remembered for his three unspectacular postseason starts, but from April through September, you would have been hard-pressed to find a better pitcher in the game.

C.C.'s 19 wins tied with John Lackey, Chien-Ming Wang and Fausto Carmona for second among AL pitchers, and he likely would have won 22 or more if not for the offense's six-week vacation in July and August. His ERA of 3.21 wasn't Pedro Martinez in his prime, but rock-solid nontheless, good enough for fifth place in the AL.

He finished the season ranked fifth in the AL in strikeouts (209), fifth in innings pitched (241) and tops in strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.65).

Second-place finisher Josh Beckett had more wins, third-place finisher Lackey had a lower ERA, but neither of them had better across-the-board stats than C.C., who landed on top despite having his two main challengers play for the much higher-profile Red Sox and Angels, and the threat of teammate Carmona taking votes away.

For the record, Carmona received seven Cy Young votes, placing fourth. It was the first time since the award's inception in 1956 that two Cleveland pitchers finished in the top four.

Already, some fans are wondering aloud if this will affect the forthcoming contract negotiations between C.C. and the Indians. The answer is probably "no."

C.C. is almost certainly going to make $20 million per year or more starting in 2009. Cy Young Awards and postseason struggles aren't going to affect his earning potential all that much, certainly not enough to mean the difference between a near-record payout and chump change. No matter what hardware he does or does not win, he's still a left-handed ace who hasn't yet hit the age of 30, and someone is going to pay him as such.

Mark Shapiro will pull out all the stops he can to ink C.C. to an extension. But something tells me that if the Indians are going to get something done, it will happen between now and the start of next season. By the time April rolls around, offseason matters will be placed on the back burner, and by the all-star break -- during which the Indians have had some recent success in getting extensions finalized -- C.C. will almost certainly be looking ahead to testing the market during the following winter.

Unfortunately, this is the ticking clock that haunts every midmarket and small market team. The Indians have one more guaranteed season with two of the top five starters in the American League under contract. Shapiro has to win now, but he can't sacrifice the future to do so.

C.C.'s newly-minted Cy Young Award doesn't guarantee much for the future, except that the Indians will receive no hometown discount when they sit down at the bargaining table.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The big letdown

The Browns should have won Sunday's game. They absolutely should have.

The fact that I'm sitting here writing about a ninth straight loss to the Steelers has a lot more to do with the Browns than anything the Steelers did to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

The record will show Ben Roethlisberger carried his team to a win with 278 yards passing and a several momentum-swinging third down scrambles. The talking heads on TV will wax poetic about Big Ben's poise under pressure, his toughness and his big-play arm.

I'm here to tell you that anything Roethlisberger did to beat the Browns takes a backseat to the things the Browns did to beat themselves.

Cleveland's descent from a 21-6 second-quarter lead to a loss can be attributed to four main areas in my book: the second-half play of Derek Anderson, the failure of Jamal Lewis to show up as a feature back, the cushy-soft interior of the Browns defense and one famously-bad replay challenge sequence that cost the Browns two time outs. Here are some takes on each of them:

1. Preseason Derek Anderson came out of the locker room after halftime.

Maybe Anderson had time to meditate on the fact that he held a 21-9 halftime lead, on the road, against a hated division rival his team had not defeated in four years. Whatever happened between the first half and second, Anderson played extremely tight in the second half, and looked every bit as bad as he ever looked while losing the starting quarterback's job to Charlie Frye in the preseason.

Anderson's 16-for-35 and 123 yards looks unimpressive enough, but when combined with the fact that he was never sacked and rarely touched by a Steeler pass rusher, it looks downright pathetic.

Again, I'm sure a lot of credit will go to the Steelers for making the necessary halftime adjustments, but the bottom line is that Anderson's throws in the second half were terrible. The short-pass touch he had worked so hard to master since becoming the starting QB two months ago was completely gone, replaced by the adrenaline-intoxicated version of Anderson who forces passes into triple coverage and throws toe-high lawn darts at his receivers.

All in all, Anderson reminded me of C.C. Sabathia and Fausto Carmona in the ALCS. All three were inexperienced youngsters who suddenly found themselves on the big stage, and tossed their proverbial cookies when the spotlight was the brightest.

2. Jamal Lewis played like the guy the Ravens thought they were tossing aside last spring.

Thirty-five yards on 16 carries, two fumbles, one lost. An afternoon spent chugging futily for one and two-yard gains against the brunt of the Pittsburgh defense.

If anyone knows about playing the Steelers, it's Jamal Lewis. Like Trot Nixon coming up with a clutch hit during a playoff game at Fenway Park, Lewis might be past his prime, but should still have the knowhow to make things happen against an opponent with which he is all-too-familiar.

Instead, the Steelers seemed to read Lewis like a book. By the second half, the running back who helped energize the Browns during their come-from-behind win against the Seahawks the week previous looked like he was on retirement's doorstep. Lewis lacked any explosiveness as he hit the line, and his north-south, pile-driver rushing style looked to be taking a toll on both his arms and legs.

Pittsburgh's plan to stop Lewis seemed to consist of boxing him in and letting him tire himself out by forcing him to keep his legs moving. It worked way too well, and now we all get to concern ourselves with the possibility that Lewis is going to end the year with an exhausted thud.

3. Todd Grantham might be coaching his way out of job.

If you want to pin the Browns' defensive woes this season on a lack of speed and talent on the defensive line, you need to take a step back and view the bigger picture.

The Browns actually had a pass rush Sunday. The defensive front neutralized the often-celebrated Steeler offensive line, reached the backfield regularly and paved the way for four sacks of Roethlisberger. That's right, four sacks.

The problem was, if the suddenly-effective defensive line got into the backfield, it tended to leave a massive, crater-sized hole in the coverage, which led to Roethlisberger's Elway-esque scrambles to keep drives alive.

Usually, the huge soft spots occurred because defensive coordinator Grantham eschewed any form of blitzing in favor of deep coverages (the so-called "prevent defense") in the second half.

I hate the prevent defense. Let's get that out of the way up front. You force mistakes at the front end of the play by harassing the quarterback, not by choking off the receivers at the back end. Even though at least one sack of Roethlisberger could be attributed to good coverage, when you're facing a big, mobile QB like Roethlisberger, you always give him the option of scrambling when he sidesteps a minimal pass rush and finds no defenders in front of him for 20 yards.

It appeared that Grantham and Romeo Crennel seemed content to try and sit on a 21-9 halftime lead, which is a bad idea. You're not going to kill the clock for 30 minutes. In the fourth quarter, Pittsburgh caught on and began running no-huddle sets aimed at keeping the Browns' linebackers and secondary huffing and puffing around their coverage zones. For some reason, constant backpedaling seems to take more out of a defense than trying to blast into the backfield.

All in all, it reeked of the 2002 playoff loss in Pittsburgh, when Butch Davis called off the Dawgs after halftime, resulting in a similar collapse.

4. Run that by me again ... you burned a timeout to figure out whether or not you should burn a timeout?

Romeo Crennel has done a lot in a short time to douse any brush fires concerning his job security. About the only thing that would kick the flames back up would be a massive tank job over a stretch run that features a squishy schedule. Unless Crennel figures out a way to take the Browns from 5-4 to 6-10, there should be no doubt he will be this team's coach in 2008.

But that doesn't mean there aren't still some serious questions about the way he handles game-day activities from the sideline. They're the kind of issues that don't matter so much when your team is below .500 and developing players is the priority. But when you're contending for a playoff spot, they're the kind of issues that can decide the fate of a season.

Chief among the knocks on Crennel is his ability to make sure everybody on the field and in the booth are on the same page.

In the first half, an obviously-agitated Crennel almost failed to throw the red challenge flag on the field before the Browns lined up for a field goal attempt. The subsequent review that almost never was reversed a call and gave a touchdown to Braylon Edwards. The nearly-fatal delay in throwing the flag suggested either a case of indecision or a clogged communication pipeline existed between Crennel and the people he consults on such matters.

That sequence foreshadowed what would happen in the fourth quarter, when Roethlisberger found tight end Heath Miller in the end zone for what would prove to be the winning touchdown.

Maybe it was an act of desperation brought about by watching the game slip away, but according to The Plain Dealer, Crennel conferred with personnel director T.J. McCreight, who advises the coach on whether to challenge plays. After talking it over, the two decided that Miller's bobble of the ball as he hit the ground was significant enough to warrant risking a timeout to challenge the on-field ruling of a touchdown.

The trouble is, someone (unknown to Crennel according to his postgame comments) had already called a timeout, during which Crennel and McCreight discussed whether to put another timeout on the line with a challenge.

Video replays of Miller's catch didn't show a clean, bear-trap grab. Miller did bobble the ball a bit, but maintained control. The replay rule is supposed to give teams an opportunity to challenge calls where there is irrefutable evidence that the officials made a mistake, as in the Edwards touchdown pass, when replays clearly showed Edwards' toes dragging in the end zone grass as he fell out of bounds.

If there isn't irrefutable evidence, you aren't supposed to challenge the call. That's why teams lose a timeout for an overruled challenge. In the case of Miller's catch, with an absence of definite proof that he lost control of the ball on the way down, and with a timeout already having been spent moments before, the wise move would have been to regroup and concentrate on putting together a last-ditch drive to tie or win the game, which is what it came down to anyway.

Instead, Crennel and McCreight used the challenge as the coaching equivalent of a Hail Mary pass, a desperate shot-in-the-dark that helped complicate matters in a game that was already slipping away.

If there is any air of desperation to be had, it's the fact that Crennel desperately needs to sand and polish his approach to in-game management, and weed out any people who might be giving him bad advice.

These situations will present themselves again, particularly if the Browns find themselves playing meaningful games in December and January. If game mismanagement costs the Browns a shot at the playoffs -- or worse yet, a playoff game -- that might be the quickest route back to the coordinator ranks for a coach who has worked way too long and way too hard to blow this opportunity.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The best chance

This can't go on forever, right?

Sooner or later, the Browns have to beat the Steelers.

Heck, it appears that even the Steelers are getting a little annoyed by the non-competitive state of what was once one of the NFL's marquee rivalries.

The Browns-Steelers rivalry deserves much better than what the Browns have been able to bring to the table since 1999. Since returning to the league, the Browns are 3-14 against the Steelers, 3-15 if you count the playoff loss in December 2002. They haven't beaten the Steelers since a 33-13 fluke of a game in October 2003, losing eight straight times since.

The Steelers' wins have included three shutouts, none of them close: a 43-0 clubbing in the nationally-televised return of the Browns in '99, a 22-0 blanking that wrapped up the Three Rivers Stadium era in 2000 and a 41-0 whitewashing on Christmas Eve in 2005. The past two meetings, a 27-7 Pittsburgh win last December and a 34-7 trouncing in this year's opener, were lopsided enough to qualify as shutouts if not for a couple of irrelevant Cleveland touchdowns.

In other words, John Cooper can gather together the tattered shreds of his record versus Michigan, and still look with disdain upon what the Browns have been able to accomplish against the Steelers the past eight years.

Things need to change on Sunday. And things can change because this is one of the rare times that a Browns team can actually do it. This Browns team possesses the capability to beat the Steelers.

The past four years have been a procession of inept coaching, devastating injuries to key players, and above all, an endless stream of mind-numbingly bad play from the quarterback position.

For the first time since Marty Schottenheimer famously denounced playcalling as overrated, the Browns offense actually has its stuff together. The line is blocking, the rushers are rushing and Derek Anderson is zipping laser beams to a group of talented receivers who make big plays.

No more do 21-6 deficits look like Mount Everest. No more does this team collapse like a house of cards at the first sign of trouble. No more are the Browns psychologically defeated the instant they run out of the tunnel.

It's time to take advantage of that fact. The Browns need to beat the Steelers this Sunday.

Don't hit me with nickel-and-dime negativity, like the reports that Eric Steinbach and Seth McKinney might have to sit this one out. Don't burden me with statistics about how our defense has the viscosity of warm Cheez Whiz. That shouldn't matter to a team that believes it can win. And this team does. Or it should.

The Browns have clawed their way through the wilderness of Gary Baxter and LeCharles Bentley, of Kellen Winslow's motorcycle crash and various other woeful twists of fate that would make even the staunchest optimist begin to believe that maybe there is something to the whole Cleveland Curse thing. They somehow emerged in 2007, after the most recent thumping at the hands of the Steelers, to field a good football team seemingly by accident.

But whether by accident, design or divine intervention, the Browns are 5-3 and can tie Pittsburgh for the AFC North lead with a win on Sunday.

Cleveland's football team finally has a reason (many reasons, actually) to approach Sunday's contest without the usual heaping tablespoon of utter dread. They owe the fans, the city, and the history of this rivalry at least that.

One win wouldn't erase eight years of misery on Browns-Steelers Sundays. But in a region where rivals routinely get the better of our teams, it would help reduce the swelling in our bruised collective pride.

I wouldn't be asking if I didn't think this Browns team was capable of it. But they are. And now, as they have done all season, they have to go out and prove it.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Browns vs. Seahawks wrap

Go here to get my thoughts on Sunday's win over the Seahawks, and what it means for the Browns.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Misunderstanding the Cavs

A recent caller to a WTAM sports talk show let his feelings toward this town's sports teams be known, loud and clear:

"Go Browns, go Indians and screw LeBron."

Mike Trivisonno has called LeBron James an idiot on the air. Esquire writer Scott Raab, a native Clevelander, has gone so far as to call him "worthless scum."

How far the mighty have fallen. A year ago, the entire region of Northeast Ohio might have donated their paychecks if it meant keeping LeBron in Cleveland. Now, after the unforgivable sin of wearing a Yankees cap to an Indians-Yankees playoff game, LeBron can apparently just pack his bags for New York right now. There are some in Cleveland that want no part of him anymore.

The fact that LeBron is the best thing that has ever happened to Cleveland basketball has taken a backseat to the fact that he roots for the wrong baseball team. If ever there was a red-flag indicator of where the Cavs stand in the pecking order of Cleveland sports, that was it. Lift the Cavs to the Finals, great. But side against the Browns or Indians, you're no friend of ours.

If that was worst criticism facing the Cavs, it would be bad enough. But the Cavs as an organization are getting similar negative treatment just about everywhere they turn.

The national media views their conference title as the mother of all flukes, a product of a weak conference, favorable playoff seeding and a Pistons team that was caught napping. On top of that, they've raked the Cavs over the coals for not making any moves of note this offseason, and failing to come to terms with Anderson Varejao and, until recently, Sasha Pavlovic.

It wouldn't be such a bitter pill to swallow if the national media wasn't stumbling over themselves to proclaim the revamped Celtics of Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen the new top dog in the East before they even played a dribble of basketball together. But the situation is made even worse by the fact that many Cavs fans are also dragging the name of their own team through the mud.

The Cavs are possibly the most negatively-perceived defending conference champion in NBA history. No one thinks they deserved to go as far as they did last year. No one outside of Cleveland wants to see them go that far again this year, and no one in Cleveland seems to think they have much of a shot.

For the national yakkers and scribes, maybe it has something to do with not wanting to spend June (or any other month of the year, for that matter) in Cleveland again. Cleveland is a rust-belt wasteland to East Cost elitists. I've accepted that. But when local fans and media members, or people who profess to being long-suffering Cleveland fans, start doing things like openly rooting for LeBron to take his Yankees cap and get out of here, I find it troubling.

Despite the fact that LeBron has helped set a franchise record with four playoff series wins in the span of two years, despite the fact that Danny Ferry has cut-and-pasted together a conference championship club out of a team that has had no draft picks in 2005 and '07, and a long history of draft failure before that, despite the fact that Mike Brown took an average team and made them borderline-great with a defense-first philosophy that was utterly foreign when he took over, all we hear are harrumphs over what the team's trio of leaders hasn't been able to do.

There is always friction when the financial realities of professional sports teams meet the championship expectations of their fans. All Cavs fans see is that Boston added two star players, Detroit and Chicago fortified their rosters through the draft and the Bulls have been connected to Kobe Bryant through trade rumors. The Cavs, meanwhile, have been as silent as a mausoleum all summer and still don't have their best bench player in the fold.

Ferry has been verbally shredded by local fans in much the same way Indians GM Mark Shapiro was as the Indians slogged through their rebuilding phase. The common feeling seems to be that Ferry is asleep at the switch, or is obliviously standing by, watching the rest of the East teams improve themselves in much the same way Nero supposedly played a fiddle as Rome burned.

The argument that Ferry backed himself into his own corner with his underproductive free agent class of '05 holds some validity. You can grill Ferry for spending owner Dan Gilbert's money in such a stupid fashion if you want, but what it really underscores is that free agency is a bad way to build a team. The way the NBA's collective bargaining agreement is set up, teams almost always have to overpay to get a veteran free agent to switch teams. The lone few execptions occur when a proven winning team can get an aging veteran to sign on for well below his market value in exchange for a shot at a title.

In the summer of '05, the Cavs had no draft picks thanks to Jim Paxson signing away the rights to the team's first-round pick as a condition of disastrous Jiri Welsch deal -- which actually cost the Cavs two first-rounders in the end. They were coming off a March and April collapse that ended with a narrow playoff miss. Ferry needed to improve the team, re-affirm LeBron's faith in the organization, and the $22 million in cap space he had to work with was the only way he could do it.

This summer, possibly with the lessons of '05 learned, Ferry made up his mind that he wouldn't overpay for role players again, resulting in a frustrating offseason for fans that wanted to see the team improve upon itself after making the NBA Finals for the first time ever.

Not having draft picks is the real killer, however. Even with the Cavs' frequent draft misfires (Shannon Brown is apparently the latest), the only way for an NBA team to add to its roster yearly and still maintain long-term financial flexibility is through the draft. The Cavs are finally out from under all their trade obligations, and starting next summer, they'll once again have two draft picks. Ferry would also be smart to add picks whenever possible.

On the coaching front, Mike Brown is once again being chastised for his seemingly-lacking offensive game plan. Obviously, offense isn't his strong suit, but if you're calling for Brown to be fired, you haven't been paying attention to how NBA teams make it to June.

Why have the Spurs and Pistons won titles, while the Suns, Mavericks and Warriors haven't? The former two teams play defense at a high level. It is a law of nature every spring once the playoffs start: teams with superior defense beat teams with inferior defense.

The Cavs made the NBA Finals last spring for two reasons: LeBron James and Mike Brown's constant harping on defense. No other reason. No other individual performances, outside of Daniel Gibson's uprising in Game 6 against Detroit, contributed to the Cavs' conference title run in a standout way.

It shows that a flawed roster can, to borrow a used phrase, "rise up" when taught the right things. Brown, for all of his questionable offensive moves, did the right things to get this team to the Finals. By any measure, he did a good job as this team's coach last year.

The Cavs definitely have a ways to go before they are capable of making consistent runs deep into May and into June, but no one seems to want to give them the credit for the ground they've already covered. This is a good basketball organization controlled by guys who have the right idea. But things don't always turn out picture-perfect at first.

Living in Cleveland, you should know that bumps in the road are part of the terrain. If your resident basketball superstar's biggest sin is wearing a Yankees hat to a Yankees-Indians playoff game, count your blessings, not the days until he's a free agent.